Why was Leifr Eiríksson called ‘Lucky’?
By Gunnar Karlsson
Saga-Book, Vol. 41 (2017)
Introduction: According to the Icelandic sagas, the first man of European origin to discover and explore the mainland of North America was Leifr Eiríksson. He was born in the late tenth century, probably in Iceland, but emigrated to Greenland with his parents, Eiríkr rauði and his wife Þjóðhildr, the first European settlers in Greenland. At the time of his discoveries Leifr was a resident of Greenland. Cognomens were common among Norse people at this time, according to the sagas, and Leifr’s cognomen is said to be ‘lucky’ in English—a translation of heppinn (inn heppni in the weak form) in the original texts, an adjective obviously related to the English word happy. In modern Icelandic the word heppinn still exists and has approximately the same meaning as the English word ‘lucky’. This is why Leifr Eiríksson has been called Leif the Lucky in English.
Although it might be said that the discovery of a whole continent was a sufficient justification for such an appellation, the sources do not indicate that Leifr earned his cognomen through discoveries or exploration. As far as we know his discoveries did not bring him any luck either, since he did not settle in the land which he named Vínland (‘Vineland’), on the fruitful plains of North America, but succeeded his father as a farmer at Brattahlíð, Greenland, and probably as a leader of the Norse settlement in the country. Thus the question why Leifr was given this cognomen is something of a riddle. This article is an attempt to solve that riddle.
Top Image: Leif Erikson statue in Iceland. – photo by AwOiSoAk KaOsIoWa / Wikimedia Commons