John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

The Saga of Thorfinn


The so-called Saga of Thor  fine, fragmentary as it is, and at times almost incoherent, having been made up, probably, from several narratives, in its salient features is a continuation of the preceding relation. Its value consists in bridging a space in our history that would otherwise be left a blank, as it takes up the thread of the narrative soon after the return of Thorvald's men to Eireksfiord. Old Eirek was dead, and his third son, Thorstein, was married to Gudrid, the widow of Thorer the Norwegian, whom Leif the Lucky had taken from the rock in the sea.

When the men who had sailed with Thorvald arrived with tidings of his death, Thorstein was for setting off at once in search of his body, that it might be given a Christian burial. Animated by this fraternal sentiment, he raised a crew and departed, with his bride, for the promontory of Krossaness; but after sailing and drifting about all the summer, he was obliged to return without having accomplished his purpose. It was so late in the season that he could not even reach Eireksfiord, but was compelled to winter at the western settlement of Greenland, where he and many of his men died of a pestilence. The beautiful Gudrid, again left a widow, returned to Eireksfiord, where she found a home with the family of Leif the Lucky. But she did not long remain a widow, for that summer there came to the settlement a wealthy Norwegian, who fell in love with and quickly wedded her. Thorfinn Kalsefni was his name, and his marriage with the lovely Gudrid was celebrated at Brattahlid early in the winter of 1006-1007, nine hundred years ago.

The twice-widowed Gudrid retained a lively recollection of the voyages she had made with her previous husbands, and during the long winter nights the conversation quite naturally turned to the discovery of "Vinland the Good," to which, she thought, an expedition might be made, with fair prospect of gain. At length she so won upon Thorfinn that he and another Greenlander, named Snorri, began preparations for an expedition to Vinland in the spring. When finally fitted out it consisted of three ships, with their equipment of small boats, and one hundred and sixty souls, of whom, including Gudrid, seven were women. Among the company were Biarni Grimolf son, Thorhall Gamalson, and Thorvard the husband of Freydis, only daughter of the late Eirek the Red. They took with them a complete equipment for a colony, including some live-stock, as they designed to form a settlement.

Thorfinn asked Leif to give him the dwellings which he had erected in Vinland, and was told that he could make use of them as much as he liked. After sailing several days towards the south, land was seen which was probably Labrador, as the explorers found there vast flat stones, many of which were twelve ells in breadth, and, like those before them, they called it "Helluland. "They saw no human beings there, but a great number of foxes. Two days' sailing on a southerly course took them to "Markland, "the wooded country, where they found many wild animals new to them, and on an island lying off the coast southeasterly killed a bear.

Two or three days farther they sailed, still in a southward direction, and arrived at a mess, or promontory, where they found the keel of a ship—in all probability the one that Thorvald had left there, from which circumstance he had named the spot "Kialarness." But they called the shores "Furdustrandir," because the coasting along them seemed so tiresome. They afterwards came to a bay, into which they directed their boats, and landed.

King Olaf Tryggvason (it is said) had given to Leif the Lucky, when he was in Norway and became a Christian, two Scots—a man named Haki, and a woman named Hekia who were swifter of foot than many wild animals. These people Leif had loaned to Thorfinn, and they were then in his ship. When they landed in the bay, therefore, he put these Scots ashore, directing them to run over the country towards the southwest for three days, and then return. The ships lay to during their absence, and at the end of three days they returned, one of them bringing a bunch of grapes, and the other an ear of corn, or maize. They were lightly clad and were glad to get on board the ship.

Then the vessels proceeded on their course, until the land was intersected by another bay. Outward from this bay lay an island, which, as there was a very swift current on each side of it, they named "Straumey," or Isle of Currents. Here they found so many eider ducks, which bred there, that they could hardly walk without stepping on their eggs. Directing their course into this bay, which they called "Straumfiord," they disembarked and made preparations for remaining. They had taken with them several cattle, for which they found here abundant pasturage. The situation of this place was very pleasant and apparently well suited for a colony, so they erected huts and passed much time in exploring.

Here they passed the winter of 1007—1008 which was very severe, and as they had no great stores provided, provisions ran short, for they could neither hunt nor fish. So they passed over to an island, hoping there to find means of subsistence; but scarcely improved their condition, though their cattle were somewhat better off. Then they prayed to God that he would send them food; which prayer was not answered as soon as they desired. About this time Thorhall, the pagan and a hunter, was missing, and after a search lasting three days, was found lying on the top of a great rock. There he lay stretched out, with eyes wide open, blowing through his mouth and nose, and mumbling to himself. When they asked him why he had gone there, he answered that it was no business of theirs; that he was old enough to care for himself. When they requested him to return with them, he did so without protest, but would give them no explanation of his strange behavior.

A short time after a whale was cast ashore, and they all ran down eagerly to cut it up; but none knew what kind of a whale it was, not even Thorfinn, who was well acquainted with the denizens of the deep. The cooks dressed the whale and they all ate of it, but were taken ill immediately afterwards. Then said Thorhall: "Now you see that Thor is more ready to give aid than your Christ. This food is the reward of a hymn which I composed to Thor, my God, who has rarely forsaken me." When they heard this, none would eat any more, and so they threw away the remainder of the flesh from the rocks, commending themselves to God. After this the air became milder, and they were again able to go fishing. Nor from that time was there any lack of provisions, for there were abundance of wild animals to be hunted on the main-land, of eggs taken on the island, and of fish caught in the sea.

Thorhall was evidently in disfavor, as a pagan—perhaps the only one in the company; but hw did not seem to care, and one day, as he was carrying water to his ship, he sang, in a vein of bravado, the following verses:

"I left the shores of Eireksfiord

To seek, O cursed Vinland, thine;

Each warrior pledging there his word

That we should here quaff choicest wine.

Great Odin, Warrior God, see how

These water-pails I carry now;

No wine my lips have touched, but low

At humblest fountain I must bow."

Soon after they began to dispute where they should go next, for Thorhall the hunter wished to go north, while Thorfinn desired to coast the shore to the southwest, considering it probable that there would be a more extensive country the farther south they went. It was decided, therefore, that each should explore separately, and Thorhall made preparations on the island. His whole company consisted of nine only, all the others joining with Thorfinn; but still he was not cast down, and when all was ready and they were about to sail, he mockingly sang:

"Now home our joyful course we'll take,

Where friends untroubled winters lead;

Now let our vessel swiftly make

Her channel o'er the ocean's bed;

And let the battle-loving crew

Who here rejoice and praise the land—

Let them catch whales, and eat them, too,

And let them dwell in Furdustrand!"

Thorhall's party then sailed northward, round Furdustrandir and Kialarness; but when they desired to sail thence westward, they were met by an adverse tempest and driven off to the coast of Ireland, where they were beaten and made slaves. And there, as the merchants reported, died Thorhall the pagan.

Thorfinn, with Snorri Thorbrandson, Biarni Grimolfson, and all the rest of the company, sailed towards the southwest. They went on for some time until they came to a river which, flowing from the land, passed through a lake into the sea. They found sandy shoals there, so that they could not pass up the river except at high tide. Thorfinn and his company sailed up as far as the mouth of the river, and called the place Hop.

Having landed, they observed that where the land was low the corn grew wild, where it was higher vines were found, and there were self-sown fields of wheat [maize, or wild rice?]. Every river was full of fish. They dug pits in the sand where the tide rose highest, and at low tide there remained excellent fish in these pits. In the forest there were great numbers of wild beasts.

They passed half a month here carelessly, having brought their cattle with them. One morning, as they looked around, they saw a great number of canoes approaching, in which were poles, vibrating in the direction of the sun, and emitting a sound like reeds shaken by winds.

Then said Thorfinn, "What do you think this means?" Snorri Thorbrandson answered: "Perhaps it is a sign of peace; let us take a white shield and hold it out towards them." They did so, and then those in the canoes paddled towards them, seeming to wonder who they were, and landed. They were swarthy in complexion; short in stature, and savage in appearance, with coarse black hair, big eyes, and broad cheeks. When they had stayed for some time, after gazing at the strangers with astonishment, they departed peacefully, and retired beyond the promontory to the southwest.

Thorfinn and his companions erected dwellings at a little distance from the lake, and here they passed the winter comfortably, as no snow fell, and all their cattle lived unhoused. One morning in the following spring they saw again a great number of canoes approaching from beyond the promontory at the southwest. They were so numerous that the surface of the water looked as if sprinkled with cinders. As before, tall poles were suspended in the canoes. Thorfinn and his party held out shields, after which a barter of goods commenced between them. These people desired above all things to obtain some red cloth, in exchange for which they offered various kinds of skins. They were anxious also to purchase swords and spears; but this Thorfinn and Snorri forbade. For a narrow strip of red cloth they gave a whole skin, and tied the cloth about their heads. Thus they went on, bartering for some time. When the supply of cloth began to run short, Thorfinn's people cut it into pieces so small that they did not exceed a finger's breadth, and yet the Skraelings gave for them as much as, or even more than, before.

It happened that a bull, which Thorfinn had brought with him, came rushing from the woods, as this traffic was going on, and bellowed lustily. The Skraelings were terribly alarmed at this, and, running quickly down to their canoes, departed towards the southwest, whence they had come. They were not seen again for three weeks, but at the end of that time a vast number of their canoes came dancing over the water. They were filled with Skraelings, who howled fearfully, and all their poles were turned opposite to the sun. Thorfinn's party then raised the red war-shield; the Skraelings landed, and a fierce battle followed. There was a galling discharge of missile weapons, for the savages used slings, and suddenly they raised on a long pole a large globe, not unlike a sheep's belly, and almost of a blue color. They hurled this from the pole towards the party of Thorfinn, and as it fell it made a great noise. This excited great alarm among the followers of Thorfinn, so that they began immediately to fly along the course of the river, for they imagined themselves to be surrounded on all sides by the Skraelings. They did not halt until they reached some rocks, where they turned about and fought desperately.

At this time Freydis, daughter of Eirek, coming out of the dwellings and seeing the followers of Thorfinn flying, exclaimed: "Why do strong men like you run from such weak wretches, whom you ought to destroy like cattle? If I were armed, I believe I should fight more bravely than any of you!" They regarded not her words, but kept on running. Freydis endeavored to keep up with them, but was unable to do so, owing to the state of her health; yet she followed them as far as the neighboring wood, while the Skraelings pursued her. There she saw a man lying dead. This was Thorbrand, the son of Snorri, in whose head a sharp-edged stone was sticking. His sword lay naked at his side. This she seized and prepared to defend herself. As the Skraelings came up with her, she struck her breast with the naked sword, which so astonished the savages that they fled back to their canoes and rowed away as fast as possible. The followers of Thorfinn, returning to her, extolled her courage. Two of their company had fallen, together with a vast number of the Skraelings.

Then the followers of Thorfinn, having been so hard pressed by the mere number of the enemy, returned home and dressed their wounds. The Skraelings, in the course of the battle, found a dead man, and a battle-axe lying near him. One of them took up the axe and cut wood with it, then, one after the other, all did the same, thinking it an instrument of great value and very sharp. Presently one of them took it and struck it against a stone, so that the axe broke. Then, finding that it would not cut stone, they thought it useless and threw it away.

Thorfinn and his companions now considered it obvious that although the quality of the land was excellent, yet there would always be danger to be apprehended from the natives; they therefore prepared to depart and to return to their native country. They first sailed around the land to the northward, where they took captive near the shore five Skraelings, clothed in skins. They were sleeping, and had with them small boxes full of marrow mixed with blood. Thorfinn supposed them to have been exiled from their tribe, or country. He and his people killed them. They afterwards came to a promontory abounding in wild animals, as they judged from the foot-prints in the sand.

They then went to Straumfiord, where there were abundant supplies of all that they needed. Some say that Biarni and Gudrid remained here, with one hundred men, and that they never went any farther; that Thorfinn and Snorri went towards the southwest with forty men, and that they remained no longer at Hop than barely two months, returning the same summer. Afterwards Thorfinn went with one ship to seek Thorhall the hunter, the rest remaining behind. Sailing northward around Kialarness, they went westward after passing that promontory, the land lying to their left hand. There they saw extensive forests, and when they had sailed for some time they came to a place where a river flowed from southeast to northwest. Having entered its mouth, they cast anchor on its southwestern bank.

One morning they saw in an open place in the wood something at a distance which glittered. When they all shouted it moved. This thing was a uniped, who immediately betook himself to the bank of the river where the ship lay. Thorvald Eirekson was sitting near the helm, and the uniped shot an arrow at him. Thorvald, having extracted the arrow, said: "We have found a rich land, but shall enjoy it little." After a short time he died of the wound. The uniped subsequently retired, and Thorfinn's crew pursued him. They presently saw him run into a near creek, and returning to their ship they drew off towards the northward; for, imagining that this was the land of the unipeds, they were unwilling to expose themselves to danger any longer. They passed the winter in Straumfiord. Snorri Thorfinnson had been born during the first autumn, and was in his third year when they left Vinland.

Setting sail from Vinland [in the spring of the year Iwo], with a southerly wind, they touched at Markland, there finding five Skraelings, a grown man, two women, and two boys. Thorfinn's party seized the boys, the others escaping and hiding in caves. They took these two boys with them, taught them their language, and baptized them. The boys called their mother Vethilldi, and their father Uvaege. They said that several chiefs ruled over the Skraelings, of whom one was Avalldania, the other Valldida; that they had no houses, but lived in caverns and hollows of the rocks; that beyond their country was another, the inhabitants of which were clothed in white, and carried before them long poles with flags, and shouted with a loud voice. Thorfinn's party afterwards reached in safety Eireksfiord in Greenland.

The foregoing are the main features of the famous sagas  describing the colonizing of Greenland and the temporary settlement at Vinland. They bear internal evidence of being veracious chronicles, within the limitations of their writers, who belonged to a rude and unpolished age; though Iceland, at that time, was not without its literature. For example, the productions of the new country are given as they were found, and as they may be found to-day: the maize, wild grapes, the various animals, the fierce and uncouth Skraelings and their barbaric weapons. The Indian canoes were the same as those seen by later voyagers in historic times; the rude utensils and arms, the characteristic traits of the savages, are veraciously portrayed. What a touch of nature is that incident of the savages with their new discovery, the iron axe, which they imagined utterly worthless because it could not be made to cut through stone as well as wood and bone!

And that "large globe, not unlike a sheep's belly," borne on a pole, which was hurled at Thorfinn's party, falling in their midst with a tremendous noise, was the aboriginal ballista  a great round stone, wrapped in a hide, that shrank around it when dry, and which, attached to a pole and hurtled into a crowd of warriors, proved a most formidable projectile.

It must be remembered that the Northmen were scarcely better armed than the Skraelings. They had their sharp swords, to be sure, but, like the savages themselves, were unacquainted with the use of fire-arms. Hence the timidity of these Vikings and descendants of Vikings (whose very name had caused the world to tremble, in the East and in the West) when confronted with overwhelming numbers; hence the short-lived settlements of Vinland, surrounded as they were by savages, and the constant recurrence to Greenland, where the Skraelings had never been seen.

The Norse chroniclers were very temperate, it must be admitted, in their descriptions of adventures and of animals encountered by the Vikings of Vinland. They might have filled their pages with mythical yet ferocious dragons, with monsters of the deep and flying beasts of the air, such as even the fifteenth-century map-makers were prone, to depict when they had a gap in the globe to fill or a vast area of waters to span. But, so far as we know, the only approach to a mythical monster mentioned by the Norsemen was that solitary uniped, which attacked Thorfinn's party, and slew unfortunate Thorvald after he had been months in his grave! But the uniped, with its mixing up of the Thorvald and the Thorfinn expeditions, must be looked upon as an interpolation by some scribe, who probably considered the narrative too tame, and who inserted the incident without having informed himself as to preceding occurrences.

Ruins of Norse Church


The colonization of Greenland by the Northmen, in the tenth century, says a high authority, "is as well established as any event that occurred in the Middle Ages "; and, it might be added, so is the attempted settlement of Vinland, at the very beginning of the eleventh century. But, while no authentic vestige of Vinland has been discovered, the boreal colony battled with the arctic snows for centuries, and when it perished left behind, in fertile spots around the heads of fiords, the ruins not only of numerous farmsteads, but of churches and a cathedral. The Brattahlid of Eirek the Red and Leif the Lucky, of Thorvald, Freydis, and Gudrid, may be identified to-day by its ruins; but the same can hardly be said of "Wineland the Good," it is feared. Its site, indeed, is a matter of conjecture, and has been variously located, in every attractive bay between Newfoundland and the southern coast of Massachusetts.