Thanksgiving Special: The Saga of Eirik the Red
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Happy Thanksgiving to all our North American friends who choose to celebrate! We apparantly had quite a lot to say about this saga, since we made it a three-episode special. Episodes six, seven, and eight are all about he first Europeans to visit North America and make it back to tell the tale.
We chose to cover the Saga of Eirik the Red as an acknowledgement that there was a thriving culture in North America before any Europeans set up camp on the east coast, and this saga highlights the earliest interactions between the Icelanders and the Native Americans whom they encountered.
As all good Icelandic sagas begin, this saga starts with a genealogy. If you find yourself confused about who's who, consult the genealogical chart that Mac had designed just for this occasion! As the saga begins, Aud the Deep-Minded sails for Iceland following her husband and son's deaths and gains a great deal of land and power on the island. Shortly after, as Eirik is making a name for himself, several of his thralls cause a landslide which destroys a nearby farm. Whether this landslide was purposeful, by tool, or by magic is unspecified. Eyjolf the Foul kills the thralls, and, in turn, Eirik kills him. Eirik also creates a feud with Thorgest, and at the local Thing, Eirik and his kin are outlawed from Iceland. He sails to Greenland, and finding it apparently habitable, returns to Iceland to make peace with Thorgest and encourage others to sail west with him again. Notably, he explicitly calls the land he found "Green-land" so that more folk would be tempted to inhabit it. The Iceland-Greenland conspiracy you've held onto since grade school is true, after all.
Once in Greenland, Thorbjorn sets up his household and has a daughter who is soon the talk of the town. As the Greenlanders settle, a völva prophetess visits Iceland and gives several prophecies; her presence is especially interesting since many of the settlers were very Christian, such as Aud the Deep-minded, and some inter-faith tension permeated her visit. The prophetess foretells that Gudrid will have two marriages; the first will be short, but the second will be long and profitable. As Eirik sails along the coast of Greenland, naming things after himself, another merchant visits Thorbjorn. This man, Einarr, instantly falls in love with Gudrid after seeing her in a doorway, but the marriage is not suitable to her father. She eventually marries Thorstein Eirikson, who presumably was not aware of the prophecy.
Eirik soon returns with reports of a good land of maple, wheat, and vines, and suggests another sail to the new land. His son, Leif the Lucky, finds a few shipwrecked folk along the coast and returns them to Greenland while preaching Christianity. When Eirik returns, he buries his wealth- a trope of a grumpy old codger in Icelandic sagas. Shortly after, an unpopular settler, Garth, catches the plague and spreads it around the settlement. Like most Viking plagues, this one is a zombie plague. Sigrid and Thorstein (a different Thorstein) both fall ill and see several revenants. Thorstein soon dies, but pops up for one final chat with his wife. Sigrid dies soon after, but rises as well to try and slip into bed with Thorstein Eirikson. In a touching moment, Thorstein Eirikson takes her by the hands before driving a pole-axe into her. The plague continues, which is unsurprising when the dead keep trying to slip into beds and not graves. Eirikson dies, but returns once more to speak with Gudrid. He outlines how he'd like to be buried and ensures that Garth not have a place in the church cemetery, since he started the whole plague to begin with. Soon after, Thorfinn Karlsefni arrives in Greenland for Yule. He helps Eirik host the celebrations and asks Gudrid for her hand in marriage. Both Eirik and Gudrid agree, remembering the prophecy.
After the celebrations, Thorfinn sets out for Vinland once more. Half the party goes north, while Karlsefni and his men go south. Those that went north did not fare so well, and struggled to finf good food. One of the men, Thorhall, finds a promontory and sings a prayer-verse to Thor, who provides them soon after with a whale. On the southern expedition, Karlsefni finds a land full of wheat, fish, and animals which he calls Hop. As they travel, they encounter "Skraelings." These are the local indigenous population, most likely the Beothuk people. They arrive in canoes and hold flails which create strange shrieking noises. The Greenlanders and Beothuk trade; the Beothuk are interested in the red fabric the Greenlanders have, most likely because they used red ochre in their rites. On a following trade encounter, the Beothuk are startled by one of the Greendlanders' bulls, and hostilities commence. As the Greenlanders flee, one of the women on the trip, Freydis, stands her ground, though she is heavily pregnant. She shames her kinsmen for their cowardice and runs into the woods. Finding the sword of a slain Viking, she tears her shirt open and beats the blade against her chest, scaring the attacking Beothuk away.
Concluding that the land would be far too contentious to settle calmly, the Greenlanders decide to return. On their trip back, they see a monopod- a one-footed creature who dwells at the end of the world. The monopod shoots Thorvald, who remarks as he dies that the land they'd found is 'fat around the paunch.' As they return home, Karlsefni forcibly adopts two Beothuk children after a botched negotiation wherein their parents fled. Snorri, Thorfinn's son, is also born on their return trip home. Unfortunately, one of the boats begins to sink, having been eaten through by worms. They draw lots to see who goes where, and after some scuffling, most of the settlers return to stay on Greenland.
There's a lot to unpack in this tale, and a great many diversions to discuss. Let's break down some of the big ideas.
Icelandic Genealogy & Names: In medieval Icelandic society, one's lineage was extraordinarily important. In a small society with honor-based law codes, one's family status also dictated who you would be. Knowing who your family is tells you who you are; if you came from worthy stock, you inherited that same importance and would need to uphold it. Names and epithets also established who you are and what your character is, hence the many interesting names throughout this saga such as Aud the Deep-Minded, or Bjarni Butter-Box. Thorfinn's epithet, "Karlsefni," is another clear example. His nickname meant "the makings of a man" or, in essence, "a man's man." Karlsefni not only had the lineage of a hero, but also established his own heroism through his expeditions and matchmaking.
Icelandic Law Codes: The Icelandic law codes were (and still are) some of the most detailed and well thought-out legal works in the world. In order to prevent multi-generational feuds and killings, the law codes set up several systems to ensure justice for all parties involved. Most issues were taken up at the local "Thing;" the Thing was a local parliamentary session and district court. Issues that were not solved locally could be brought up at the larger, annual Althing.
One system for pursuing justice was the weregild. Literally a "man-price," the weregild established a penal fine for killing another individual. The weregild paid differed based on the dead individual's social standing, age, and gender. For instance, if a pregnant woman had been killed, the weregild paid was for that of a woman and half a man.
If a crime was extraordinarily severe, the weregild was unpaid, or killings continued, outlawry was another option to exact justice. Outlawry could be short-term or long-term, and local or national. For smaller crimes, an individual might be outlawed from a particular area. Other times, as in Eirik's case, the individual would be outlawed from the entire island or nation. Similarly, some terms of outlawry were for shorter periods, such as a few months or a set number of years. Alternately, one could be outlawed for life. Anyone who was seen or found within the area they were banned from could be killed on sight without penalty or weregild- it was always 'open season' on outlawed individuals.
Hospitality Culture: Found in many different societies, hospitality culture was especially prevalent in Iceland. Landed, wealthy individuals would often play host to other successful merchants and vikings. Geniality was expected on both sides, and these meetings would often lead to kinship and fostering relationships. Fosterage was common, and was akin to a modern "study-abroad" program. A father might send his son to live with a family friend or a local lord in order to learn how to be a man and see the world. Utilizing existing kinship bonds was common for marriage as well; a young man might ask his foster-father to vouch for him in attaining a suitable match if he was not well acquainted with the lady's family.
Courtship was often part of hospitality culture, and the Icelandic sagas take great care in establishing that the approval of both the woman and her family (usually her father or foster-father) were sought for a good marriage. Marriages that lacked the approval of either party often led to conflict in the sagas, demonstrating that Icelandic women did have a certain degree of agency that their continental counterparts lacked, while also reenforcing the importance of familial bonds and kinship culture.
Zombie Plagues: What's with all the zombies in Icelandic sagas? How did they deal with the dead, anyway? The Sagas are extraordinarily well known for their plethora of Otherworldly creatures, including the walking dead. These creatures are referred to by a variety of names, including revenants, draugr, ghosts, fetches, and even huldra. It can be difficult to properly define what any given creature is in a saga, since the tale itself does not usually specify the type of creature that haunts an area. Consecrated ground is sure to keep any of these creatures off your property, and when buried in holy ground, the dead will not rise.
Generally speaking, any sort of risen creature can be called a revenant or draugr. These individuals return from the grave to send a message or complete some sort of unfinished business. In the sagas, most revenants are not violent, and can be ushered from the house by a priest or through the law code. Yes, the Icelanders would sue the walking dead. Other times, as we see in these sagas, a simple conversation will solve the issue. When that fails, a pole-axe to the face will also do the trick. Violence against the dead is very often the last resort in the sagas.
There are a few other creatures that aren't quite revenants but sometimes still haunt the Icelanders. Ghosts and incorporeal spirits are best dealt with in the same way as revenants. Fetches are ghostly doppelgängers of living individual. They are usually portents of that individual's death. While ill, Thorstein sees a fetch of himself shortly before he dies. The huldra is another Otherworldly creature who sometimes appears in the sagas. Usually appearing as a beautiful woman with a hollow-back, like a carved out tree, and an ox-tail, the huldra is generally associated with the fae. Sometimes, she may carry a message, while other times she may trick an individual to his doom. It is always best to approach any of these creatures with caution, and use violence as a last resort.
The Scottish Kjafal: This strange piece of clothing is described a bit like a hooded poncho. With a hood on top and holes cut for sleeves, this strange tunic also had a button which fastened between the legs. While we aren't sure exactly what this piece of clothing was, it has etymological roots to the Irish word for hood and seems to be Celtic in origin. If you are curious about the linguistic roots of this loanword, check out Andrew Breeze's brief article on the word here.
Finally, check out Mac's fantastic genealogical chart so you can keep track of who's who throughout the saga.
Happy Thanksgiving from us at the Maniculum Podcast, and even if you don't celebrate, take some time this week as the holiday season begins to consider what you are grateful for. We sure are grateful that COVID hasn't turned into a zombie plague yet, but if it does, now you know how to deal with it the medieval way!
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. If you like what we do, consider giving us a rating and review on iTunes. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Breeze, Andrew. "An Irish Etymology for kjafal 'hooded cloak' in Thorfinn's Saga." Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi, 1998. Link.
Grove, Jonathan. "The Place of Greenland in Medieval Icelandic Saga Narrative." Journal of the North Atlantic. Eagle Hill Institute, 2009. pp. 30-51. Link.
Koszowski, Maciej. "Medieval Iceland: The Influence of Culture and Tradition on Law." Scandinavian Studies, vol. 86, no. 3. University of Illinois Press, 2014. pp. 333-351. Link.
Leonard, Stephen Pax. "Social Structures and Identity in Early Iceland." Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, vol. 6. Brepolis, 2010. pp. 147-159. Link.
Salonen, Jukka. "Law and Honor: Reputation in medieval Scandinavia." Medieval Warfare, vol. 5, no. 6, Feb 2016. pp. 42-44. Link.
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