‘Black Men and Malignant-Looking’: The Place of the Indigenous Peoples of North America in the Icelandic World View
By Sverrir Jakobsson
Approaches to Vínland. A Conference on the Written and Archaeological Sources for the Norse Settlements in the North Atlantic Region and Exploration of America. The Nordic House, Reykjavík 9-11 August 1999. Proceedings (Sigurður Nordal Institute Studies, 4), eds. Andrew Wawn and Þórunn Sigurðardóttir (Reykjavík, 2001)
Introduction: Sometime after 13780 Flateyarbok, a large compilation of Norwegian kings’ sagas was written down. Its contents include the oldest extant version of Grœnlendinga saga. The context of this saga involves two brothers, Leifr and Þorvaldr Eiriksson, setting from Greenland in search of those new lands in the west which Bjarni Herjolfsson had chanced upon but not explored during his earlier voyage. Leifr found grapes in a land south of Greenland, and fittingly named the place Vinland. His brother Þorvaldr made another discovery on his arrival in the new land:
After they secured their ship in a sheltered cove and put out gangways to the land [Þorvaldr] and all his companions went ashore. Then he spoke: “This is an attractive spot, and here I would like to build my farm.” As they headed back to the ship they saw three hillocks on the beach inland from the cape. Upon coming closer they saw there were three hide-covered boats, with three men under each of them.
Thus Grœnlendinga saga tells of the first encounter between Norsemen a people that made use of skin boats. The other main narrative which deals the Vinland discoveries, Eiriks saga rauða, also tells of the first meeting between Norsemen and the inhabitants of the land which they had discovered in the west. According to this source it was Þorfinr and to Þorvaldr Eiriksson who followed in Leifr[s footsteps. It was he who performs the role assigned to Leifr in Grœnlendinga saga, that of naming Helluland and Markland. Finally he reach Vinland the Good: “One morning, as spring advanced, they noticed a large number of hide-covered boats.”
These are, of course, the same people as mentioned in Grœnlendinga saga, but they are given no name. In both sagas, however, the artistic sleight of hand is soon abandoned, and the unknown people are suddenly termed Skrœnlingjar, or “Skrælings’. In all probability the audience of these sagas knew them from the start who these people were. The purpose of not naming them straightaway might thus be to recreate the experience of the explorers as they came face to face with a completely unfamiliar race. Eiriks saga rauða reiterates that Karlsefni and his men were astonished by the natives. In the view of those who put the sagas into writing, many centuries after that first encounter, the astonishment of the Norsemen must have arisen out of being confronted with representatives of a race whose existence was unknown. No foreign sources and no geographical writings accessible to the Nordic people make mention of ‘Skrælings’.