Shouldn't Leifr Eiríksson ('Leif the Lucky') really be viewed as a Greenlander with family roots in Iceland and Norway?

Asked By

Már Goldingay


About the life and deeds of Leifr Eiríksson we have few sources and all of them comparatively late for a man who is supposed to have been living around the year 1000. Our main sources are Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Erik the Red), the oldest manuscript of which (Hauksbók) was written shortly after 1300, and Grænlendinga saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders), whose oldest manuscript is no earlier than around 1380 (Flateyjarbók). However, Grænlendinga saga is thought to be not much younger than Eiríks saga since its author shows no sign of having been familiar with it. A shared feature of the two sagas is that neither names or introduces Leifr until he is a full-grown man, living in Greenland. They agree in describing Leifr as having travelled to Norway and spent time with King Ólafr Tryggvason, and that he adopted Christianity there and went on to convert the Greenlanders. Leifr's missionary work and his discovery of Vínland are also mentioned in Kristni saga (The Saga of Christianity), but this can hardly be considered an independent source since the oldest version of it is found in the same manuscript as the oldest version of Eiríks saga (i.e. Hauksbók).

Leifr is also mentioned in Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), the original version of which was probably compiled early in the 12th century. The oldest extant versions are from the latter half of the 13th century or a little later (Sturlubók, Hauksbók and Melabók). One of these manuscripts, Hauksbók, is also the oldest manuscript of Kristni saga and Eiríks saga rauða, in both of which Leifr is also mentioned. It is known that the compiler of Hauksbók, Haukr Erlendsson, used material from Sturlubók and a now lost version of Landnámabók called Styrmisbók, written by Styrmir the Wise, d. 1245. Some scholars believe that Melabók was also based on Styrmisbók, while others think it was based on an older version of Landnámabók.

We may suppose that where Sturlubók and Melabók agree they are both based on a common older version of Landnámabók. However, the comparison between them is not a simple matter in view of Melabók's poor state of preservation. But it is notable that Melabók describes Leifr's maternal ancestry as follows:
Jörundr was Úlfr's second son. He married Thorbjörg Knarrarbringa. Their daughter was Thjóðhildr, who was married to Eiríkr the Red, who settled Greenland.
while according to Sturlubók:
Úlfr the Cross-Eyed's son was called Jörundr. He married Thorbjörg Knarrarbringa. Their daughter was Thjóðhildr, who was married to Eiríkr the Red. Their son was Leifr the Lucky of Greenland.
Here extra information about Leifr appears to have been added in a younger version of Landnámabók (Sturlubók) that was not in the original.

The details given about Eiríkr the Red in Sturlubók (and later in Hauksbók) are identical to those in Eiríks saga, indicating a written connection between the two:
There was a man called Thorvaldr. He was the son of Ásvaldr, son of Úlfr, son of Oxen-Thórir. His son was called Eiríkr. Father and son moved from Jæderen [in SW Norway] to Iceland because of some killings and settled on Hornstrandir [NW Iceland] and lived at Drangar. Here Thorvaldr died, and Eiríkr then married Thjóðhildr, the daughter of Jörundr Atlason and Thorbjörg Knarrarbringa.
Based on this, Eiríkr was born in Norway but his wife, Thjóðhildr, was Icelandic, and consequently Leifr could not have been born until after Eiríkr moved to Iceland. According to this account Eiríkr is supposed to have set up home in Haukadalur, which is where Thjóðhildr's stepfather, a man named Thorbjörn, lived. It is nowhere stated directly whether Leifr was born there or after Eiríkr moved on to Greenland. But if we can trust the saga chronology established on the basis of the writings of the historian Ari the Learned, Leifr cannot have been born in Greenland as this mean he was no older than 12 at the time he went to Norway and met King Ólafr. These sources are all, of course, rather late, but they are simply the only ones we have.

So, on the evidence of the sagas, it is possible to state with some assurance that Leifr was born after his father left Norway but before he moved on to Greenland. He was thus born in Iceland, somewhere around the shores of Breiðifjörður in the west, and probably in Haukadalur. If the same sagas are to be trusted, he was however Norwegian on one side, since his father had no family connections with Iceland. His mother, on the other hand, was supposedly descended from one of the original settlers of Iceland and thus as Icelandic as it was possible to get. So Leifr not only had Icelandic ancestry, he was born in Iceland.

Does this mean we have the right to call Leifr an Icelander? Plainly so, by modern standards anyway. But it is much more open to doubt whether Leifr would have called himself an Icelander. Once again we can only base any answer we give on the material that has come down to us from the medieval times, allowing for the fact that these are by no means contemporary records.

Neither Eiríks saga nor Grænlendinga saga reveal any great interest in specifying the nationalities of the people who went on the expeditions to Vínland. In Grænlendinga saga it is stated that among Leifr's companions on the voyage there was 'a certain southerner' (i.e. a German), and Eiríks saga mentions a pair of people from Scotland, but otherwise Leifr's crew members are not categorised according to nationality. Both 'southerners' and Scotsmen stand out for their origins among the Scandinavians who made up the majority on these journeys. These latter are never classified. In Eiríks saga, while they are grappling with the native skrælingjar, the people that travelled with Thorfinnr Karlsefni to Vínland are never called anything other than 'Karlsefni and his men', with no mention of Norwegians or Icelanders or Greenlanders.

It is also worth noting that the first person to give any details about Leifr and his kin, the historian Ari the Learned, does not specify whether Eiríkr the Red was considered to be a Norwegian or an Icelander: he simply calls him a 'breiðfirðingr', i.e. a man from Breiðifjörður. It was possibly felt to be of greater significance to specify where in Iceland a person was from rather than whether they were Norwegian or Icelandic. At any rate, in the account in Landnámabók and other sources based on it, the people who went to Greenland with Eiríkr are said to have come from Breiðifjörður and Borgarfjörður (also in the west of Iceland). In Eiríks saga, among those who journeyed with Thorfinnr Karlsefni from Iceland to Greenland are 'Bjarni Grímólfsson, whose family were from Breiðifjörður, and another called Thórhallr Gamlason, from the Eastfjords of Iceland'.

In Grænlendinga saga, the brothers Helgi and Finnbogi, who incur the malice of Freydís Eiríksdóttir in Vínland, are said to be 'Icelandic by extraction and from the Eastfjords'. In the same saga, Leifr's brother, Thorsteinn Eiríksson, is made to say to his wife, Guðríðr Thorbjarnardóttir, that 'you will be married to an Icelandic man', by which is meant that she will later marry Karlsefni. Perhaps it is possible to interpret Thorsteinn's words as an indication that he considered himself to be a Greenlander rather than an Icelander. Perhaps, too, the emphasis on Helgi and Finnbogi's Icelandic origins is supposed to suggest that Freydís and her men regarded themselves as Greenlanders as opposed to Icelanders.

So it may be possible to read out from Grænlendinga saga vague indications that its author identified Eiríkr and his family by where they lived, i.e. as Greenlanders. What is perfectly clear is that people at the time did not treat it as a matter of such vital importance as some appear to do nowadays to pigeonhole Leifr as an Icelander, a Greenlander or a Norwegian, a man from Breiðifjörður or a missionary, or anything else along these lines.

Translated by Nicholas Jones.

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Answers in English


Sverrir Jakobsson. „Shouldn't Leifr Eiríksson ('Leif the Lucky') really be viewed as a Greenlander with family roots in Iceland and Norway?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 25.11.2005. (Skoðað 25.6.2024).


Sverrir Jakobssonprófessor í miðaldasögu við HÍ


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