Erik the Red | Hot-Headed Vikingr Explorer

When you think of famous Vikings, one name that might come to mind is Erik the Red, Old Norse “Eirikr …

When you think of famous Vikings, one name that might come to mind is Erik the Red, Old Norse “Eirikr hinn rauði“. He also is the father of another well-known Viking named Leif Erikson, the first European to explore North America. The focus is on Erik because Leif wouldn’t exist without him.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into Erik the Red; one of the most well-known Vikings and the reason Greenland was settled. Well, successfully settled, but you’ll learn more about that later on. The story of Erik is really also a story of how the ships of the viking age allowed them to explore all across the North Atlantic, and even as far away as the coast of Africa, all the way to the Byzantium Empire.

Not So Humble Beginnings

Erik the Red was born Erik Thorvaldson in Rogaland, Norway, whose name isn’t a hard mystery to solve. He was called this during his youth because of his red hair and perhaps his hot temper.

He spent the first decade of his life living here until facing exile because of the actions of his father, Thorvald Asvaldsson. Even back in rougher times, manslaughter was not looked upon positively. But for Thorvald, it was the best and only form of conflict resolution he would engage in.

With the Thorvaldson family banished from the lands of Norway, they needed a new home and they found this in Drangar, Iceland. It is here Erik the Red would grow from a volatile young boy to a volatile young man with a temper to match his father’s. 

Family of Erik the Red

He found love with a woman named Thjodhild whom he married and eventually had children with. One of those children, as mentioned previously, was Leif Erikson. His two other sons were named Thorvald and Thorstein. Erik the Red also had a daughter named Freydis Eiriksdottir. However, it’s suspected his daughter Freydis resulted from a tryst with another woman.

Once his father died, Erik made the move from Drangar to farther south. Life was good for the family until around the year 980, when Erik mimicked some behavior his father had engaged in when he was a young boy resulting in not one, but two exiles. 

One of them pushed Erik to leave Iceland for good and look for greener or Greenland pastures. 

Like Father, Like Son

The first of Erik the Red’s exiles took place around 980 CE (though the exact year is unknown). His servants caused a landslide that crushed his neighbor’s house. It wasn’t done purposefully but Valthjof, whose home was destroyed because of the mistake, saw red (nearly as red as Erik the Red’s hair).

A kinsman of Valthjof, called Eyiolf the Foul, took his rage out on some of Erik’s servants, killing them for their foolish mistake. Erik, like his father, was not one to let this stand. Two kinsmen of Valthjof were killed in retaliation for the death of his servants. An eye for an eye so to speak, something Erik seems to believe in with his heart and soul.

There were instant calls from the community for his banishment. Erik and his family packed up, moving to a small island in Iceland. But Erik would not find peace here and would face yet a second exile.

Erik’s second exile

Only a few years after the first incident, a second occurred. Erik faced a dispute with one of his neighbors and, as is the Viking way, committed manslaughter, resulting in more than one death.

The court found Erik guilty of manslaughter and his resulting punishment was being banished from Iceland entirely for three years. Not one to stay where he wasn’t wanted, Erik took his family and sailed somewhere new.

There were rumors of a large landmass to the west of Iceland. It was previously accidentally discovered by a Norwegian sailor Gunnbjörn Ulfsson a few decades earlier. He only spotted the land but did not explore it further.

Contrary to popular belief, Erik the Red was not the first to intentionally navigate to Greenland and settle there. This honor belonged to a Viking named Snæbjörn galti Hólmsteinsson. The journey was not a success, and after a few years; the settlers returned to Iceland.

Exploration and Discovery of Greenland

Erik the Red was determined to succeed where Snæbjörn galti Hólmsteinsson failed. It was not a pleasure cruise. Several hundred nautical miles separated Iceland and Greenland. Sailing out in the open ocean was always a risk, but Erik was not to be deterred from this journey.

After some time on the sea, he made it to what is now known as Tunulliarfik. For the next few years, Erik explored the land. Many of the names he gave the locations discovered were derived from his name. (Examples include: Eriksey and Eriksfjord). It was by the Eriksfjord he settled, building a farm he named Brattahlid, Old Norse Brattahlíð.

Perhaps Erik lacked creativity or had a tremendous sense of self in naming these locations after himself. Unfortunately, we will never know.

After exploring the land, Erik named the country Greenland. His thoughts were that a name such as Greenland would attract settlers to this newly discovered land.

Most of his exile was spent travelling up and down Greenland, so he kept himself very busy during the years of his banishment. Eventually, Erik returned to the place where it all started; Iceland. The country where he spent more than half his life after his banishment from Norway because of his father’s actions.

He would not return permanently to Iceland, but wanted to bring more people back to Greenland to make a proper settlement.

Iceland to Greenland Trip

Map showing Greenland and Iceland, with the mountains Mt Rigny and Snofellajokull marked.
Image credit Uwe Dedering CC BY-SA3.0

From the map above you both get a sense of the enormous size of Greenland, but also its relative proximity to Iceland. As a matter of fact, on a clear day, sailing across the strait, you can see both the top of the Snæfellsjökull on Iceland (4744 ft) and Mt. Rigny on Greenland (8970 ft). Mount Rigny is recognized as the mountain refered to by the old Norse as Blaserkr.

Return to Iceland

Three years after, he was fairly exiled (depending on who you ask. Erik did not see the banishment as fair. Erik and his people returned to Iceland. It was there that he informed his former neighbors and people that he intended to settle for good in Greenland. Iceland was no longer his home, as far as he was concerned.

Erik didn’t just go back to Iceland to simply tell them this. He wanted to extend an invitation for people to join him. The sounds of the lush green lands of Greenland intrigued many people. So many several dozen ships left with him to go back to Greenland.

For Erik, it was returning to his new home while the others were likely full of fear and anticipation at what awaited them there.

The journey was once again difficult and no one who survived would describe it as a pleasure cruise. Several ships simply didn’t survive the trip, while others were forced to travel back to Iceland for weather-related reasons.

However, not all the ships were successful. Erik’s ship, including at least a dozen others, could officially make it back to Greenland safe and sound, ready to start their brand new life in Greenland.

Back to Greenland and Later Life

Once Erik, his family, and people were back in Greenland, they established two colonies each with several settlements. While Erik lived in Greenland for the rest of his life, he was treated like a lord. Understandable because without him, Greenland may remain an obscure land mass, they could only dream of settling on.

The colonies grew to an extent. It never grew beyond 2000 to 5000 residents, but considering they traveled from another land, this is nothing to laugh at. In time the entire settlement died out completely, but for many centuries it flourished, a reminder that Erik the Red made a new home despite two exiles.

But as far as Erik was concerned, his settlements would never die out and would live forever.

He died around the year 1000. The exact date Erik died and his age at are the time is unknown. What is known is that Erik was an old man by this point, having been able to live much of his life.

Erik’s manner of death is also unknown, but some rumors say he died from complications after falling from a horse. The true cause of his death will forever remain a mystery. What is not a mystery are his many exploits that saw him go from a young boy to a man, with a temper that never quite could be well… tempered!

Perhaps therefore, even after death, Erik remains one of the most well-known Vikings out there.

He Lives On…

Erik the Red’s tale lives on in two sagas of Icelanders. The first is the Saga of Erik the Red, which, surprisingly, focuses on the life and expedition of a Viking named Thorfinn Karlsefni throughout its 14 chapters. 

It does detail parts of Erik’s life (such as his exile) as well as his son Leif Erikson, who brought Christianity to Greenland and discovered Vinland. But its focus is Thorfinn and his wife Gudrid.

The Saga of the Greenlanders is the other Icelandic saga that features Erik the Red. It starts with the tale of Erik the Red, detailing his and his father’s exile from Norway, his twice exile from Iceland, and most importantly, his colonization of Greenland.

From there, the saga tells the tale of six other Vikings who led expeditions to North America. But without Erik, the tale would have never gotten off the ground.

With the help of these sagas, the brazen and volatile Erik the Red will forever be known as the first Viking to successfully settle on Greenland.

Photo of author

Desiree Delong

Desiree Delong lives is a lifelong New Yorker with a penchant for writing retellings of myths, legends, folktales, etc. She currently works as a freelance writer and ghostwriter, allowing her to explore all sorts of topics… including Norse mythology!

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