- Born: Abt 980
- Marriage: Thorgunn
Leifur Eiríksson (old Norse: Leifr Eiríksson) was a Norwegian-Icelandic explorer and the first European to discover North America - more specifically, the region that would become Newfoundland and, by later extension, Canada. It is believed that Leifur was born around 980 and was the second son of Eric the Red (Eiríkur Rauði), a Norwegian outlaw, who was the son of another Norwegian outlaw, Þorvaldur Ásvaldsson. His mother was Þjoðhildur. His father had started two Norse colonies, the Western Settlement and the Eastern Settlement, in Greenland, which he had named.
During a stay in Norway, Leifur was converted to Christianity (like many Norse around that time). He also went to Norway to serve King Olaf Tryggvason. When he returned to Greenland, he bought the boat of Bjarni Herjólfsson and set out to explore the land that Bjarni had found which today we know as North America.
One of the sagas, The saga of the Greenlanders, tells that Leifur set out about 1000 to follow Bjarni's route in the opposite direction. The first land he met was covered with flat rock slabs (Old Norse: hellr). He therefore called it Helluland (land of the flat stones), which is probably the present day Baffin Island. Next he came to a land that was flat and wooded, with white sandy beaches, which he called Markland (woodland), which is assumed to have been Labrador. When they found land again, Leifur and his men landed and built some houses. They found the land pleasant: there were plenty of salmon in the river and the climate was mild, with little frost in the winter and green grass year-round. They remained at the place over the winter. The sagas mention that one of Leifur's men, Tyrkir, a German warrior, found grapes, and Leifur named the country Vínland after it. In reality the name "Vinland" has nothing whatsoever to do with grapes or wine of any kind; the word "vinja" in Old Norse means "meadow" or "grazing area".
On the return voyage, Leifur rescued an Icelandic castaway named Þórir and his crew which earned him the nickname 'Leifur the Lucky' (Old Norse "Leifr hinn heppni").
Another saga, The Saga of Eric the Red, tells that it was actually Leifur who discovered the American mainland while returning from Norway to Greenland in 1000 or thereabouts, but the saga does not state an attempt of his to settle there. However, the saga of the Greenlanders is nowadays considered to be the more reliable of the two.
As far as it is known, Leifur Eiríksson had two brothers, Þorvald and Þorsteinn, and one sister, Freydís. He married Þórgunnur and had one son, Þorkell Leifsson.
At the end of the tenth century ce the Scandinavians dominated the North Sea, Baltic Sea, and the northern Atlantic Ocean. As 'Vikings' they had raided the shores and, sailing the rivers, sites far inland. As 'Norsemen' they had settled in conquered areas. The Swedes had built up a trade network along the Eastern European waterways and were locally known as the Rus - the 'Rowers'. Many Danes had settled in England (the region of the Danelag or Danelaw) and in Northern France, where it's still called 'Normandy'. Meanwhile, the Norwegians had colonized the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, the Shetlands, the Faroese, Iceland, and Greenland. The American continent was the logical next step. Leif Ericsson (*970-†1020 ce, in Old Norse 'Leifr Eiríksson') was a born explorer, for his father - Eric the Red ('Eiríkr raudi') - had founded the Greenland colony. About the year 1000 ce Leif Ericsson and his shipmates set sail and left Greenland to search the land that, according to rumours, could be found even further to the west. He found Helluland (= 'Flat-stone-land', now Baffin Island), Markland (= 'Forrest-land', now Labrador), and sailed to Vinland (= 'Meadow-land', now Newfoundland), where he stayed for the winter. Leif Ericsson was the first European on American soil, but at the time that wasn't the reason to name him 'Leif the Lucky' ('Leifr hinn heppni'). He obtained this nickname only after rescuing some shipwrecked people on the journey back to Greenland. After a few years the settlement on Vinland was abandoned, under pressure of indigenous Skrælingjar (= 'Ugly People' - at least according to the Norsemen; possibly Inuit or Beothuk) and worsening climate.
How should we picture the appearance of Leif Ericsson? The most reliable record on the story of Leif Ericsson is the Greenlanders' Saga, but in regard to his looks it doesn't mention anything other than that he was an impressive man. It's nevertheless apparent that he was a sailor rather than a warrior, a 'Norseman' rather than a 'Viking'. The two types were depicted together on both the Norman Bayeux Tapestry from the eleventh century ce and on the Hylestad Portal, a Norwegian wood carving from the twelfth century ce. The warrior wore a conic helmet with nose guard, a sword, a long shield, and sometimes a coat of mail. The dress of the unarmed Norseman - sailor, craftsman, or farmer - was limited to a long shirt that was tight at the top but wide below the waist, with long sleeves, a girdle, long, narrow trousers, short shoes, and occasionally a cloak. While the combatants generally had their hair short-cropped and their face smoothly shaved, the other men sometimes wore longer hair, with a well-kempt beard or moustache.
Which style was generally accepted in the time of Leif Ericsson? The art of the Norsemen is especially recognizable by the decorations with winding plants and twisted loops. The Danish Great Jelling Stone from the tenth century ce is a nice example thereof. Humans are also represented elegantly, sometimes with naively deformed limbs. The images are flat and they contain no depth. Though overlaps and cut-offs do occur, like on the Bayeux Tapestry, most depicted objects and scenes were put next to one another or they were 'stacked'. Some figures seem to float in space. The images on the early Swedish Picture Stone from Tängelgårda simply consist of light silhouettes in profile against a dark background. The embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry consists of lines and fields in the colours dark green, mint green, red-brown, ochre, and black, on a light surface. The colours were applied purely: they don't blend into one another. Whether these sombre colours are the original ones, or they have faded in time, isn't clear.
The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. Leif Ericsson wears a beard and long hair. Individuals with this hairstyle can be found on the Bayeux Tapestry and the Hylestad Portal. His hair is somewhat reddish, because his father (Eric 'the Red') had red hair. The clothing is simple and the folds were drawn from the examples on the Bayeux Tapestry. The reproduction of the body (with the face and legs in profile) is similar to the silhouettes on the Picture Stone from Tängelgårda. The ship - not one of the well known drakar (battleships) but a knorr (a cargo ship) - is a mix of the ships on the Bayeux Tapestry and the ship on the Picture Stone from Tängelgårda. The border decoration was inspired by the Great Jelling Stone. Leif Ericsson signals direction with his hand, but not necessarily towards the west. The exploration of a certain point of the compass was less important than finding new land - wherever.
Leif married Thorgunn. (Thorgunn was born about 985 in Laxardal, Iceland.)