Leif Erikson Discovers America

Hans Dahl  Oil  Late 1800s

On October 9 we celebrate the journey of Leif Erikson from Greenland to North America, the first European to do so, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.  Actually, no we don’t.  Generally, Americans have no idea there even is a Leif Erikson Day, even though it has been a US holiday since 1964 (in Illinois since 1956).  And if you do know, you probably don’t know that date, although you may know “somewhere around Columbus Day.”

So why is it October 9?  That’s the date the Restauration arrived in New York in 1825.  It held the first emigrants from Norway to the US.  No, it holds no significance to Leif Erikson himself.

Leif Erikson is the son of Erik the Red (hence the “Erik-son” name).  His father settled Greenland after being exiled from Iceland.  Erik the Red took after his father, who settled Iceland after being exiled from Norway.  So you could say that Leif had exploration in his blood.  Luckily for him, he wasn’t exiled, just looking for adventure.

Around 1000 CE Leif Erikson set off from Greenland in search of land first seen by Norse explorer Bjarni Herjolfsson.  Although “explorer” is a bit of a stretch for a title.  Herjolfsson was sailing for Greenland and was blown off course.  He saw other land (probably Labrador and/or Newfoundland), but was in a hurry to get to Greenland, so didn’t even step ashore.  But his story inspired Leif, who a few years later went to check it out for himself.

According to the Norse Sagas, Leif went to Norway and became a companion to King Olaf.  Here he was converted to Christianity.  The king sent him out convert the people of Greenland and beyond to Christianity as well.

So Leif set out for a new world.  He landed first at a place he named Flat Rock Land or Slab Land, then went to a place he named Forest Land.  I guess he thought since his dad had named Greenland, those were exciting names.   But finally he came to Vinland (or Vineland) a place full of salmon and grapes.  The story goes that he and his crew stayed there for the winter and then returned to Greenland with a second boat full of grapes.

Notice that story is pretty uneventful.  Kicked around Canada a bit, did some fishing and wine making, built some huts, went home.  No slaughter of First Nations people.  No land grabbing or gold mining or spice stealing.  His brother and sister had different experiences when they returned, but that’s why they don’t have their own days.  Leif was the explorer, they were the exploiters.  He never made a return trip.

This oil painting is by Norwegian Romantic painter Hans Dahl, best know for his sweeping Norwegian landscapes, most often with a wind-swept figure facing away from the viewer.  In the late 19th century he was part of the Düsseldorf School, a group of highly talented and influential artists.  Unfortunately for him, by that time Romanticism had fallen out of favor for Modernism and his art was considered old-fashioned and not en vogue.

This painting, Leif Erikson Discovers America, is a bit of a break from Hans Dahl’s other works.  Although it does show hills in the distance and the wonderful breaking waves of the ocean, the focal point is on the hero and his crew.  The figures are arranged so your eye travels right down the line to the small bodies at the bottom and then out to the boat where the rest of the crew waits, then out to the water.

It really gives you the sense that he is the most important.  Everything else seems small behind him, even the large, blue sea.  He looks so grand, so majestic, like he derseves to have a national holiday named after him.

Happy Leif Erikson Day!

For more reading and cool paintings of Leif Erikson, check out this cool blog.  Leif Erikson

 

 

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