Greenland saga

Summer on the Greenland coast circa year 1000
by Carl Rasmussen

The Grœnlendinga saga ( listen ) (spelled Grænlendinga saga in modern Icelandic and translated into English as the Saga of the Greenlanders) is one of the sagas of Icelanders. Along with Saga of Erik the Red, it is one of the two main literary sources of information for the Norse exploration of North America. It relates the colonization of Greenland by Erik the Red and his followers. It then describes several expeditions further west led by Erik's children and Þorfinnr "Karlsefni" Þórðarson.

The saga is preserved in the late 14th century Flateyjarbók manuscript and is believed to have been first committed to writing sometime in the 13th century[1] while the events it relates take place around 970 to 1030. Parts of the saga are fanciful but it is believed to be based on historical truth.


Colonization of Greenland[2]

An interpretation of the sailing routes to Greenland, Vinland, Helluland and Markland travelled by different characters in the Icelandic Sagas, mainly Saga of Eric the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders.

Erik the Red (Old Norse: Eiríkr rauði) migrates from Norway to Iceland with his father, Þorvaldr Ásvaldsson, because of some killings. In Iceland, Erik finds a wife, Thjodhild (ON: Þjóðhildr). He again becomes a part of a dispute and is proclaimed an outlaw at a local assembly. He resolves to go west and seek a land spotted by a man named Gunnbjorn (ON: Gunnbjörn) who had gone astray.

Erik sets sail from near Snæfellsjökull and reaches the coast of a glacial land. He travels south along the coast searching for a habitable area. After two years of exploring the country, he returns to Iceland and tells of his discoveries. He names the land which he had explored Greenland (ON: Grœnland) because he said people would be attracted to go there if the land had a good name.[3][4]

After spending one winter in Iceland, Erik sets sail again intending to colonize Greenland. His expedition has 30 ships but only 14 reach their destination. Erik founds a colony in Brattahlid (ON: Brattahlíð) in south-west Greenland. He becomes a respected leader. With Thjodhild he has the sons Leif (ON: Leifr), Thorvald (ON: Þorvaldr) and Thorstein (ON: Þorsteinn) as well as the daughter Freydis (ON: Freydís).[5]

Bjarni's voyage

A man named Bjarni Herjolfsson (ON: Bjarni Herjólfsson) has the custom of spending alternate winters in Norway and in Iceland with his father. When he arrives one summer in Iceland he finds that his father has emigrated to Greenland. He resolves to follow him there though he realizes that it is a dangerous proposition since neither he nor any of his crew has been in Greenland waters.

After sailing for three days from Iceland, Bjarni receives unfavorable weather, north winds and fog and loses his bearing. After several days of bad weather the sun shines again and Bjarni reaches a wooded land. Realizing that it isn't Greenland, Bjarni decides not to go ashore and sets sail away. Bjarni finds two more lands but neither of them matches the descriptions he had heard of Greenland so he does not go ashore despite the curiosity of his sailors. Eventually the ship does reach Greenland and Bjarni settles in Herjolfsnes.

The description of Bjarni's voyage is unique to Grœnlendinga saga. Bjarni is not mentioned at all in Eiríks saga rauða which gives Leif the credit for the discoveries.

Leif's expedition

Das Haus des Glockenspiels in Bremen's Böttcherstraße displays this Leif and Karlsefni panel of 10 from Bernhard Hoetger's 1934 "ocean-crossing" set

Leif Eriksson becomes interested in Bjarni's discoveries and buys a ship from him. He hires a crew of 35 people and asks Erik to lead an expedition to the west. Erik is reluctant and says he is too old but is eventually persuaded. As he rides to the ship, his horse stumbles and Erik falls to the ground and hurts his foot. Considering this an ill omen, he says: "It is not ordained that I should discover more countries than that which we now inhabit." Leif, instead, leads the expedition.

Setting sail from Brattahlid, Leif and his crew find the same lands Bjarni had discovered earlier but in the reverse order. First they come upon an icy land. They step ashore and find it to be of little interest. Leif names the country Helluland meaning Stone-slab land. They sail further and find a forested land with white shores. Leif names it Markland meaning Wood land and again sets sail.

Now Leif sails for two days with a north-easterly wind and comes upon a new land which appears very inviting. They decide to stay there for the winter.

The nature of the country was, as they thought, so good that cattle would not require house feeding in winter, for there came no frost in winter, and little did the grass wither there. Day and night were more equal than in Greenland or Iceland.
— Beamish (1864), p.64[6][7]

As Leif and his crew explore the land, they discover grapes. There has been much speculation on the grapes of Vinland. It seems unlikely that the Norsemen travelled far enough south to find wild grapes in large quantities. On the other hand, even Adam of Bremen, writing in the 11th century, speaks of grapes in Vinland so that if the grape idea is a fantasy it is a very early one. The Norsemen were probably unfamiliar with grapes at one point the saga speaks of "chopping vines" and it is possible that they mistook another type of fruit, perhaps gooseberry, for grapes. (ON: vínber; meaning wine-berries) and Leif names the country Vinland (ON: Vínland meaning Wine land). In the spring the expedition sets sail back to Greenland with a ship loaded with wood and grapes. In the voyage home they come upon and rescue a group of ship-wrecked Norsemen. After this Leif is called Leif the Lucky (ON: Leifr heppni).

Thorvald's expedition

Leif's voyage is discussed extensively in Brattahlid. Thorvald, Leif's brother, thinks that Vinland was not explored enough. Leif offers him his ship for a new voyage there and he accepts. Setting sail with a crew of 30, Thorvald arrives in Vinland where Leif had previously made camp. They stay there for the winter and survive by fishing.

In the spring Thorvald goes exploring and sails to the west. They find no signs of human habitation except for one corn-shed. They return to their camp for the winter. The next summer Thorvald explores to the east and north of their camp. At one point the explorers disembark in a pleasant forested area.

[Thorvald] then said: "Here it is beautiful, and here would I like to raise my dwelling." Then went they to the ship, and saw upon the sands within the promontory three elevations, and went thither, and saw there three skin boats (canoes), and three men under each. Then divided they their people, and caught them all, except one, who got away with his boat. They killed the other eight, and then went back to the cape, and looked round them, and saw some heights inside of the firth, and supposed that these were dwellings. — Beamish (1864), p.71[8][9]

The natives, called Skraelings (ON: Skrælingar) by the Norsemen, return with a larger force and attack Thorvald and his men. The Skraelings fire missiles at them for a while and then retreat. Thorvald receives a fatal wound and is buried in Vinland. His crew returns to Greenland.


Thorstein Eriksson resolves to go to Vinland for the body of his brother. The same ship is prepared yet again and Thorstein sets sail with a crew of 25 and his wife Gudrid (ON: Guðríðr). The expedition never reaches Vinland and after sailing the whole summer, the ship ends up back at the coast of Greenland. During the winter, Thorstein falls ill and dies but speaks out of his dead body and tells the fortune of his wife Gudrid. He predicts that Gudrid will marry an Icelander and have a long line of “promising, bright and fine, sweet and well-scented” descendants. Thorstein also predicts that she will leave Greenland for Norway and from there she will set out for Iceland. She will, however, live so long that she outlives her husband. Once her husband passes, Thorstein foresaw that she will travel abroad once again, going south on a pilgrimage and then return to her farm in Iceland. When she returns, a church will be built. From the time it is built until she dies, she will remain there and take holy orders.

Karlsefni's expedition

A ship arrives in Greenland from Norway commanded by Thorfinn Karlsefni (ON: Þorfinnr karlsefni), a man of means. He stays with Leif Erikkson for the winter and falls in love with Gudrid. They marry later that same winter. Karlsefni is encouraged by his wife and other people to lead an expedition to Vinland. He agrees to go and hires a crew of 60 men and 5 women. The expedition arrives in Leif's and Thorvald's old camp and stays there for the winter in good conditions.

The next summer a group of Skraelings come visiting, carrying skins for trade. The Skraelings want weapons in return but Karlsefni forbids his men to trade weapons. Instead he offers the Skraelings dairy products and the trade is successful.

Near the beginning of their second winter the Skraelings come again to trade. This time one of Karlsefni's men kills a Skraeling as he reaches for Norse weapons. The Skraelings run off. Karlsefni fears the natives will return, hostile and in larger numbers. He forms a plan for the coming battle. The Skraelings do come again and the Norsemen manage to fight them off. Karlsefni stays there for the remainder of the winter and returns to Greenland next spring. During their stay in Vinland, Karlsefni and Gudrid had the son Snorri.

Freydis's expedition

Freydis Eiriksottir, the daughter of Erik, proposed a voyage with the brothers Helgi and Finnbogi to travel to Vinland together and share the profits fifty-fifty. After the brothers agreed to the proposal, Freydis turned to her brother Leif because she wished to have the housing he built in Vinland. Leif said she may borrow them, but she could not have them for herself.

The agreement between Freydis and Helgi and Finnbogi was that each could have no more than 30 men on board and then women as well. This agreement was made to ensure that neither side had an unfair advantage against the other, but Freydis quickly double crossed her partners and brought along 5 extra men.

Upon arrival at Vinland, the brothers arrived slightly earlier and unloaded their belongings into Leif's house. When Freydis realized what they had done she immediately made them remove their things and so the brothers built their own longhouse. After a winter of small disputes, Freydis arose early one morning to go speak with the brothers. Finnbogi was the only one awake and he stepped out to hear what Freydis had to say.

Finnbogi explained his dislike for the ill feelings between their two parties and hoped to clear the air with Freydis. She agreed and offered a trade. The brothers wanted to stay in Vinland, but Freydis was ready to go back home; she suggested they trade ships since the brothers had a much larger one than she did and it would be of better use bringing back her people and her half of the profits. Finnbogi agreed to this and the two parted.

Once Freydis returned home, her cold, wet feet awoke her husband, Thorvard. He asks where she has been and she spins a tale much different from the actual events that took place. She says she offered to buy the brother's ship but they became angry and struck her. Freydis then continued to manipulate her husband till he agreed to avenge her. If he hadn't she threatened divorce.

Thorvard took his men and began tying up all the men from the other camp in a sneak attack while they were still sleeping. Freydis had each man killed on the spot if they belonged to Finnbogi and Helgi's crew. Soon only the 5 women were left alive, but no man would dare kill them. In response Freydis says, "Hand me an axe." She made quick work of slaying the women and she became very pleased with how well her morning had gone. She told all involved that anyone who speaks a word of the events would be killed. The plan was to say that the brothers chose to stay behind in Vinland while Freydis returned to Greenland.

Once back home, Freydis returned to the farm and was sure that her crew was well rewarded for the trip to Vinland in order to keep them quiet about her dastardly deeds. Eventually though, Leif caught wind of what had happened and he was furious. He predicted, "that their descendants will not get on well in this world."[10][11]

End of the saga

Karlsefni made a good profit of his journeys west. He later settled in Iceland with his wife and son and their descendants included some of the earliest Icelandic bishops. The saga ends with what seems to be an attempt to establish its credibility:

Karlsefni has accurately related to all men the occurrences on all these voyages, of which somewhat is now recited here. — Beamish (1864), p.112[12][13][14]



  1. The Sagas of Icelanders (Penguin Books. Örnólfur Thorsson, ed. 2001, p. 626.)
  2. The first chapter is taken from Landnámabók and is probably not originally a part of the saga. It is often omitted from editions and translations.
  3. Reeves 1895, p. 61, The Wineland History of the Flatey Book
  4. Reeves, Beamish & Anderson 1906, p. 32, Norse Discovery of America
  5. According to Eiríks saga rauða, Freydis is an illegitimate child but this is not mentioned in Grœnlendinga saga.
  6. Beamish 1841, p. 64
  7. Reeves, Beamish & Anderson 1906, p. 207, Norse Discovery of America
  8. Beamish 1841, p. 71
  9. Reeves, Beamish & Anderson 1906, p. 207, Norse Discovery of America
  10. Kunz, Keneva, trans. "The Saga of the Greenlanders." The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. London: Penguin, 2001. 648-52. Print.
  11. Bertonneau, Thomas F. "The Vinland Voyages, The Market, And Morality: The Greenlanders' Saga and Eirik's Saga In Context | The Brussels Journal." The Vinland Voyages, The Market, And Morality: The Greenlanders' Saga and Eirik's Saga In Context | The Brussels Journal. Society for the Advancement of Freedom in Europe, 25 Sept. 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <>
  12. Beamish 1841, p. 112
  13. Reeves, Beamish & Anderson 1906, p. 236, Norse Discovery of America
  14. Reeves 1895, p. 78, The Wineland History of the Flatey Book, tr. gives: "Karlsefni has given the most exact accounts of all these voyages, of which something has now been recounted."



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