I was watching a documentary this afternoon that suggested the Christianization of Norway and its dependencies pushed worshipers of the Old Gods to Greenland and later Vínland. Looking for verification of this led me down a rather interesting rabbit hole.
The Icelander Leif Eríksson is credited with naming the Norse settlement Vínland nearly five hundred years before the Italian Cristoforo Colombo is said to have discovered the New World (and unlike the better-known explorer and colonizer Leif actually set foot on the North American continent.)
According to Adam of Bremen’s Descriptio insularum Aquilonis published in 1075 e.v.:
In that ocean there is an island which is called Winland, for the reason that grapevines grow there by themselves, producing the best wine.
This etymology is repeated in the 13th-century Grœnlendinga saga, after relating the miraculous discovery of wheat and vínber (“wine-berries” either grapes or currants which could be fermented into an alcoholic beverage) by the hungry settlers. Some scholars contest this, suggesting that instead of Old Norse vín (cognate with Latin vinum and Old Saxon or Old High German wīn, “wine”) the name comes from Old Norse vin (derivative of Proto-Norse winju) with the meaning of “meadow, pasture.” These people are wrong, however. It’s clearly Vínland because America is Óðr’s own country.
This is evident because Leif Eríksson wasn’t actually the first European to visit America – that honor actually belongs to a fellow by the name of Bjarni Herjólfsson who in 986 e.v. was blown off course while attempting to visit his parents Herjólfr and Thorgerdr in Greenland, as Wikipedia relates:
Bjarni is believed to have been the first European to see North America. The Grœnlendinga saga (Greenlanders Saga) tells that one year he sailed to Iceland to visit his parents as usual, only to find that his father had gone with Erik the Red to Greenland. So he took his crew and set off to find him. But in that summer of 986, Bjarni, who had no map or compass, was blown off course by a storm. He saw a piece of land that was not Greenland. It was covered with trees and mountains and although his crew begged him to, he refused to stop and look around. Eventually arriving in Greenland, he decided to settle with his father in Herjolfsnes. He remains there for the rest of his father’s life and does not return to Norway until about 1000 CE. There, he tells his overlord (the Earl, also named Eric) about the new land and is criticised for his long delay in reporting. On his return to Greenland he tells the story and inspires Leif Ericsson to organise an expedition, which retraces in reverse the route Bjarni had followed, past a land of flat stones (Helluland) and a land of forests (Markland). After sailing another two days across open sea, the expedition finds a headland with an island just offshore; nearby is a pool accessible to ships at high tide in an area where the sea is shallow with sandbanks. Here the explorers land and establish a base which can plausibly be matched to L’Anse aux Meadows, except that the winter is described as mild, not freezing. One day an old family servant, Tyrker, goes missing and is found mumbling to himself; he eventually explains that he has found grapes. In spring, Leif returns to Greenland with a shipload of timber towing a boatload of grapes.
Bjarni’s name happened to catch my eye, as it means “the Bear.” Nor is this the only instance where the influence of Óðr may be discerned.
According to Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Erik the Red) after Leif returns to Greenland his sister Freydís is eager to lead her own expedition to Vínland and eventually convinces her brother to let her use the homes and stables that he has built there. Along with a large contingent of men she brings livestock and other supplies. One night a war-party of natives (called Skrælingjar by the Norse) creeps up on the settlement with the intention of massacring them, only to be frightened by one of the Greenlanders’ bulls who had gotten free of his pen and chases them back into the forest. They return the following day, eager to establish peaceful relations with their new neighbors, and the two parties become trading partners.
Despite the wealth of goods they received from them the winter is harsh, and their supplies begin running short leading to another instance of divine intervention:
The winter months are harsh, and food is in short supply. One day an old family servant, Thorhall the Hunter (who has not become Christian), goes missing and is found mumbling to himself; shortly afterwards, a beached whale is found which Thorhall claims has been provided in answer to his praise of the pagan gods. (ibid)
Freydís (as one may surmise with such a name) like Thorhall the Hunter had remained faithful to her ancestral Gods and Spirits, despite the fact that her brother Leif Eríksson was not only an apostate but given a mission by the Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason to forcefully convert any Heathens who had fled to Greenland.
This likely was behind her dispute with the Icelandic brothers Helgi and Finnbogi and the contingent who had come with them to help settle Vínland as part of a joint enterprise with Freydís and her husband Thorvard. The situation became so strained that the Christians relocate to a settlement some distance from Freydís and her crew. After waiting a suitable amount of time Freydís goes to visit Helgi and Finnbogi to see how they are faring. They confess that it has been a hardship for them, but they are more grieved by the ill-will that has grown up between them and would prefer to find a peaceful solution.
When Freydís returns to her husband she claims that the parlay went horribly, and that Helgi and Finnbogi actually beat her. Questioning his manhood and calling him a worthless coward, Freydís demands to know what Thorvard intends to do about it. In fact she goes so far as to threaten divorce if he will not enact vengeance on her behalf. So he gathers his men and goes to the settlement, killing Helgi and Finnbogi as well as all of their men while they’re sleeping. When Thorvard refuses to kill the five remaining women in the camp Freydis herself picks up an axe and finishes them off.
In another instance Freydís’ settlement is attacked by more Skrælingjar:
The natives stealthily attacked the expedition’s camp at night and shoot at the warriors using what are believed to be catapults. Many of the Nordic invaders panicked, having never seen such weaponry. As men fled during the confusion, Freydís, who was eight-months pregnant, admonished them saying, “Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Give me a weapon! I know I could fight better than any of you.” Ignored, Freydís then picks up the sword of the fallen Snorri Thorbrandsson and engages the attacking natives. She undoes her garment exposing one breast and beating the sword’s hilt on her chest gave a furious battle cry. With this, the natives retreated to their boats and fled.
Eventually Freydís returns to Greenland to acquire more supplies and settlers, but word had reached them concerning the matter of Helgi and Finnbogi. When Leif inquired about the brothers Freydís explained that they had simply decided to stay behind in Vínland. Leif had Freydís’ companions tortured to get the full truth from them, however he couldn’t bring himself to harm his beloved sister, even if she deserved it just for being a Heathen. He forbade her to return to Vínland and proclaimed that the shame of her deeds would pass down to her descendants.
Final fun fact: although general consensus is that Vínland, Helluland and Markland were located in Canada (specifically Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as far as northeastern New Brunswick, bolstered by the discovery of a Norse long house at L’Anse aux Meadows) Erik Wahlgren argues in his book The Vikings and America that L’Anse aux Meadows cannot be Vínland, as the location described in the sagas has both salmon in the rivers and vínber (a type of grape which had to be recognizable to the explorers) growing freely. Charting the overlap of the limits of wild vine and wild salmon habitats, Wahlgren suggests that the location was actually somewhere near New York.
Which makes the fact that the Starry Bear tradition is being brought through in the Hudson Valley pretty nifty.