In this article, we explore the life of one of history’s most famous vikings, Erik the Red. Sometimes spelled Erick or Eric the Red, this intrepid adventurer is best known for founding the first European settlement in Greenland. He was also the father of legendary Icelandic adventurer Leif Eriksson.
It’s worth noting that the details of the Erik the Red saga might never have been known had it not been for the Saga of the Greenlanders. This was a collection of stories written about the great Norse families that lived between the 9th and 11th centuries. Despite being written in the 13th century, many hundreds of years after the events occurred, they are considered some of the most reliable accounts of their kind. Nevertheless, as one would expect of such non-contemporaneous writings, the accounts do vary at times.
Eirik the Red - The Early Years
Erik Thorvaldsson was born in western Norway in around 950 AD. The son of Thorvald Asvaldsson, Erik’s great-great-grandfather Oxen-Thorir was himself a celebrated explorer, credited with discovering Iceland.
When Erik was 10, his father was banished to Iceland for killing a man. Thus, they settled there in a place called Drangar on the country’s northwestern tip.
After his father died, Erik married Thjodhild Jörundsdóttir and they had four children: one daughter, Freydis, and three sons, Leif, Thorvald and Thorstein. They also moved some 140 miles south from Drangar to Haukadalur, where he established a homestead he named Eiríksstaðir, or Erikstead.
Why was he called Erik the Red?
By all accounts Erik Thorvaldsson had long, flowing red hair and a thick red beard. This might have been sufficient as an origin story for his byname of Erik the Red, but appearance may not have been the sole reason. It also believed that he was hot tempered with a fiery and unpredictable personality; a notion certainly present in stories about his life.
Erik in Exile - Like Father, Like Son
For a time, it appears life was quiet for Erik Thorvaldsson and his family. However, this all changed in approximately 982 AD.
Erik had several serfs or slaves, known as thralls. It is said that several of Erik’s thralls triggered a landslide on a neighbouring farm belonging to a man named Valthjof. Valthjof’s house was demolished.
Despite claims that it was an accident, this event led to a series of vengeful acts. First, Valthjof’s friend, Eyjolf the Foul, is said to have avenged him by killing the thralls responsible. Incensed, Erick the Red is believed to have killed Eyjolf and another man. Sentenced to three years in exile for the killings, Erick settled his family on Öxney, a tiny island in the far west of Iceland.
There, Erick had another deadly altercation in which Erik killed a fellow settler, his sons and, according to the Erik the Red saga ‘a few other men’. Thus he was exiled again for a further three years.
That’s when he decided to go exploring.
Erik the Red in Greenland
While it is claimed that Eric the Red was the first to discover Greenland, it seems this isn’t strictly true. It’s generally believed that a man called Gunnbjörn Ulfsson was the first European to sight Greenland in around 880 AD, a full century before Erik Thorvaldsson. Furthermore, in 978 AD, Snæbjörn galti Hólmsteinsson attempted to colonise Greenland’s east coast but was unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, Erik the Red has a legitimate claim as Greenland’s first permanent European settler. After rounding the southern tip and sailing up the west coast, Eirik the Red discovered a section of the coast now known as Tunulliarfik Fjord. It was free of ice with similar conditions and temperatures to that of Iceland. According to the 13th century ‘Eiríks saga rauða’, or Erik the Red saga, he spent the next three years exploring this unknown place.
When his exile had expired, he returned to Iceland, taking back stories of the exciting new land he had discovered. He called it Greenland, apparently a branding exercise to entice would-be settlers. And indeed, when he left Iceland to return there, it was with 25 ships and 400 people.
Of these, only 14 ships completed the journey, with some lost at sea and others turning back due to inclement weather. The pilgrims who arrived established two settlements; one in the east known as Eystribyggð and one in the west called Vestribyggð. Eventually, somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000 people settled in Greenland with Erik the Red and his family. These colonies would survive until the 15th century.
The End of Erik - Death and Legacy
There are two competing stories about the demise of Eric the Red. The first is that he died from complications after falling from a horse. The second, which is the more widely accepted story, was that in 1002, immigrants arrived on Greenland carrying with them an epidemic that killed much of the colony including Erik the Red himself.
Whatever the manner of his end, Erik Thorvaldsson is remembered as an intrepid explorer who settled a new land. His son, Leif Eriksson, would continue the tradition, and is believed to have been among the first Europeans to arrive in America.