Eric The Red was a Norwegian farmer in the 10th century. After finding himself incompatible with the rules of civilisation he sailed west looking for a new place to call home in the frigid wastes of Greenland.

Now, the ruins of a tiny stone church are the only reminder of his colony that had once tamed this harsh and unforgiving land... What happened to it?


  • Who was Erik The Red
    • An explorer who became the first European to settle Greenland.
  • How did Erik The Red die
    • Erik's death was due to either complications from a fall from a horse, or an epidemic in his Greenland colony.
  • What did Erik the Red discover
    • Erik was the first to settle Greenland, but he was not the first to discover it.

Additional Reading and Sources




It's the 16th of September, 1408. In a cramped and dimly lit stone church in southern Greenland,
Sigrid Bjønsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson tie the knot. This was not how the two newlyweds
had thought their wedding would go. They had originally planned to marry in Iceland with
their friends and family, but while sailing back from Norway, a storm had blown them off course,
and once it had subsided, the couple made for the nearest friendly settlement,
the place that Chief Erik the Red had named Greenland some 400 years ago.
Though colder and darker than either of their homes, the newlyweds were charmed by their
distant Norse cousins and decided to extend their stay in the exotic place. In fact,
they liked it so much that eventually they decided why not marry and settle down here.
As the sound of music, cheer and laughter filled the tiny church, no one could possibly know that
in just over 100 years later, almost every trace of civilization would vanish. It was as if the
Norse had never been there at all. What went wrong? What had happened? Well, to answer that,
we need to go back 426 years. In the year 982, Erik stood on the most northwest tip of Iceland,
staring out into the cold, dark abyss. The sea swell bashed violently against the docks.
It had been a rough winter and it was about to get rougher. The few friends that he had silently
loaded up his ship as he prepared for his three-year exile. Having already been exiled
from Norway as a child and now Iceland as an adult, there was very few places left for him to
go. Erik was not a violent man, well at least he didn't think so, but he hated thievery. He had
lent his enchanted wooden boards to his friend, Thorgest, some time ago. The boards were more
than just decorations, they were very old, from a time before Christianity had even reached Iceland
and they had been imbued with old magic from his patron god, Thor. It turned out Thorgest liked
them, just as much as Erik in fact, so much so that he refused to return them. Erik had made it
clear there would be violence if his old friend went down this path and as the old Norse saying
goes, one should listen when an old dog barks. A battle was fought between the two men and now
two of Thorgest's sons lay dead. Erik had been sentenced to exile, for three years he must leave
Iceland and not return under pain of death and so he and a few companions prepared to board his ship
and sail off into the great unknown in search of a mystical unnamed island that had been discovered
by accident a hundred years earlier. He had no map, no compass and with only a vague direction
of where to head, the venture had little chance of success, but he had always considered himself
lucky. It was time to see if Odin still smiled upon him. You're listening to Anthology of Heroes
and this is the story of Erik the Red and the lost colony of Greenland.
In today's society, looking back, we tend to think of the Norsemen as
marauders or plunderers. It's not hard to see why. The horned helmets, dark face tattoos and
hallucinogenic herbs make for great stories, but there was another aspect of northern culture that
always takes backseat, exploration. The Norsemen were prolific explorers. While their exploits
fighting for Roman emperors in the east, a fairly common knowledge, their expeditions west are often
skimmed over. Erik's story today comes to us from two primary sources known as sagas. Sagas were
oral stories told from one generation of Norse to the next, but they weren't static. They were
altered with each retelling. Details were added or removed depending on the audience. For example,
when Christianity was becoming all the rage, references to the Norsemen and the Norsemen
becoming all the rage, references to Norse gods may be replaced by references to God or Jesus.
So while we can get a good understanding of places and events, there is a degree of ambiguity that is
unavoidable in this story, so just try and bear that in mind. Erik was born in Rogaland around the
year 950 in a particularly scenic part of western Norway, just south of modern-day Bergen. His father
was a man named Thorvald Asvaldsson, and in Norse tradition your father's name plus the suffix
sun is your last name, so he became Erik Thorvaldsson. When Erik was about 10 he found
himself spirited away from the comparatively sunny Norway to dark and gloomy Iceland.
This wasn't a choice so to speak. Thorvald was sentenced to exile for what the sagas flippantly
refer to as, quote, some killings, and so Erik went with him. Erik and his father arrived and
settled in Hornstrandir in the most northern west part of Iceland. Like his home in Norway,
this part of Iceland is incredibly beautiful and rugged but not ideal farmland. In fact,
there wasn't really much of that left at all. Iceland had been settled around 75 years earlier
by Norse settlers and in that time they had been very busy indeed. The small island which
once had 40% of its landmass covered in forest had been completely stripped bare. Where mighty
birch trees once stretched as far as the eye could see, sheep and goats now grazed, further
damaging the soil. Around 1,500 farms covered the small arctic island. In a way Iceland was full.
Nevertheless, Erik took to his home well enough. His father died not too long after and he met a
wife, Todghild. I'm going to apologise in advance to any Scandinavians cringing at me trying to
pronounce your beautiful language with my guttural Australian tongue but anyway. Todghild's land was
better so Erik moved there and established a farm creatively named Erik's Home. Remnants of Erik's
Home still stand today and I'll be putting a picture up on our Instagram page, at anthology
of heroes or one word. Erik and Todghild got down to business quickly and the two had four children.
Freitas, a daughter, and three sons, Thorstein, Thorvald and Leif. It seemed that Erik was
settling in comfortably to life in Iceland and perhaps he would live out his days farming,
feasting and caring for his new family. But soon it became clear the fiery temper that had gotten
his father into trouble was something that Erik had inherited. In fact it's possible that this
is where his moniker, the Red, originates from. Either this or due to his striking red beard.
Erik, like most other landowners, had a group of slaves tilling his land, feeding the animals,
tending to the chores and so on. While doing their duties a few of his slaves started a small
landslide on a farm bordering Erik's homestead, likely an accident. The owner of the farm, a man
affectionately known as Eivulf the Foul, killed the slaves in anger. Erik in turn killed Eivulf
and one of his friends, half in the doula. As punishment a council banished Erik from his lands
for a predetermined period of time, probably about three years. So while counting down his exile,
Erik and his family lived on the islands of Brokney and Oksney, two desolate islands off
the west coast of Iceland. During his time on the islands Erik lent his wooden bench boards to a
friend, Thorgest. If you're unsure what bench boards are, don't worry, I was too. The translations
of the saga give slightly different meanings to what these were but they seem to have been a few
carved wooden boards that would have lined the inside of a house as a kind of decoration.
These particular boards were said to be enchanted and held special significance to Erik.
Perhaps they'd been family heirlooms. As Erik was currently serving exile for another murder,
you'd think Thorgest would realize he was not a man to be trifled with, but apparently not.
Once Erik's exile was up, he returned to his homestead and requested the bench boards returned.
Thorgest refused. The tension between the two men built. Many of their friends were forced to take
sides and two sort of posses formed, Erik leading one and Thorgest leading the other.
Eventually Erik got his boys together and marched over to take the bench boards back by force.
Thorgest and the lads blocked away and the two sides fought it out. By the end of the brawl,
two of Thorgest's sons lay dead and a few others. The fight was inconclusive and both sides kept
their men together waiting for a round two, but at the next council, known as a thing,
it was determined that the one to blame for the feud was Erik and his men. And for a second time,
he was sentenced to exile. The fate of the bench boards is a mystery to this day.
As Erik prepared for the third exile of his life, he must have felt a sense of shame. For the second
time now, he had to drag his family away from their home and their community all because he
couldn't control his temper. But this time, he wasn't going to be stuck on a tiny barren island
gawping at civilization from the coast. No, it was time to prove to Thorgest and his bunch of
cowards that he would make something of himself. Erik had decided that he would head west.
The huge frozen landmass we now know as Greenland had not escaped popular imagination in Icelandic
culture. The place was seen as an exotic and dangerous land which nothing was certain about.
It had been sighted for the first time about 50 years ago when a Norwegian man named Gunbjørn
Ulfsson had been blown off course on his way to Iceland from Norway. Then, around 20 or so years
after that, a more thorough expedition was led by another man, Snæbjørn Galti, who intended to
settle on the east coast. Though this expedition at least made landfall, it quickly turned into
disaster as many members of the group turned on each other in the cold dark green landic winter
and many, including Snæbjørn himself, were killed. Originally there was a saga detailing
this troubled expedition but like many others it's been lost to time. So, with only a vague set of
directions, Erik, a small group of his friends and his young family set off looking for the fabled
western landmass. The ship Erik would have taken was known as a Naar. The Naar differed from the
usual rating longship you might be picturing. It was shorter, sturdier and deeper. It was around 16
meters or 54 foot long by 4.6 meters or 15 foot wide and was powered primarily by woolen sail,
with oars only used if there was no wind. I'll be uploading a few pictures of some real excavated
Viking ships on our Instagram, including the impressive Oseberg ship which I saw in person
at the Viking Ship Museum in Norway. Erik's ship could hold an impressive 24 tons or so
of people, livestock and cargo, all of which lived completely exposed to the elements with no cabins
or rooms to sleep in. For that reason, the journey itself would had to be made in spring
and even then it was certainly no picnic. They were sailing across the body of water known as
the Denmark Strait. It was full of icebergs, choppy water and usually blanketed in fog.
In between the cargo, chickens, sheep and oars, 30 women, men and children braved the frigid rain
and strong winds in search of Erik's promised land. After a taxing journey of around a week or so,
glacial landfall was finally sighted, much to the relief of Erik's family I'm sure who would
probably spend the last seven days spooning a sheep with an oar pressed against their back as
they slept. Following the coastline around, they finally landed at a southern fjord of the continent
which Erik credibly named, wait for it, Erik's Fjord. Over the next few winters, he and his band
of settlers scouted out the coastline, looking out for the most choice land and naming them after
Erik. I'm not kidding, after Erik's fjord, they named an island Erik's Island. Another piece of
land literally was just called Erik's Land. At the end of three years, Erik and his family returned
home to Iceland. His exile was up and it was time to move on. He started a fight with Thorgest again.
Clearly not one to let sleeping dogs lie, Erik returned and immediately fought Thorgest again.
Those bench boards must have been pretty sweet indeed. Unfortunately for Erik, he was defeated
but was somewhat gracious in his loss as both men were willing to reconcile their differences.
There were no further disagreements between the men after this. Erik's return would have definitely
been the talk of the town. For the first time, someone had lived and seemingly thrived in this
exotic western land. Erik played this up, naming the country he had founded Greenland, reckoning
that a more fertile sounding name would help lure new settlers, particularly as Iceland had
experienced a difficult famine made worse by overpopulation. So with a catchy name, a bunch of
landmarks named after him and a vague idea of where to go, Erik convinced others to return with
him to the new settlements the very next summer. With a huge fleet of around 25 ships and around
500 people in total, the group set sail west for Greenland. But they wouldn't have the same luck
Erik had. Either due to tough weather or difficulty navigating, 11 ships turned around and headed back
to Iceland, some which never made it home and were not seen or heard from again. But Erik's trusty
vessel and 14 others did indeed make it safely to Erik's fjord on the southern tip. There wasn't
enough good farming land for the whole group, so they split in two. One stayed at Erik's fjord and
the other headed west to one of the lands Erik had scouted on his last trip, very near the modern
capital of Greenland, Nuuk. And so it was Erik the Red became Chief Erik the Red. But it wouldn't be
fair to call him the founder of Greenland. Across the other side of the island lay a handful of
settlements inhabited by what later Norsemen called Skrælings, what we used to call Eskimos
and what we now call Inuits. These Inuit groups were roughly split into the Thule and the Dorset,
both of which had been in the area far, far longer than Erik had, with some settlements dating back
to 2000 BC. I'll be uploading a few maps on our Instagram page to show where these settlements
were located around Greenland. It helps to give a bit of perspective. Erik and his family settled
into their new lifestyle. For the first time, there was probably a sense of comfort knowing
that they weren't going to be uprooted by the family patriarch after another run-in with Thorgist.
His children, though, were restless and wanted to live up to their father's reputation.
Over the next few years, they come and go, traveling to Norway and Iceland and back.
But one of the times when his son Leif returns, he's preaching the new trendy religion,
Christianity. Leif's new religion finds a good amount of new convents, but his father is not one
of them. Erik, stubborn as ever, refuses to convert, even after his wife says she will not
be sleeping with him until he does. Erik sticks to his pagan ways but reluctantly allows her to
build a small church on their farm. The church has since been reconstructed. We've got a picture of
it on our Instagram page. It's likely the first church to ever be constructed on the continent of
America. Over the next few years, Chief Erik hosts many events for his old friends when they come
visiting, including the preparation of a Yule feast, which is believed to be in honor of Odin,
the god of wisdom. His son Leif, who had now made his name as a bold explorer, convinces many
Greenlanders to head even further west in search of another landmass he had named Vinland. Like his
father, the young man lures settlers with a catchy name, with Vinland referring to either excess of
grapevines or excess of farming land. Erik, now in his 50s, is swayed by his son's tales of another
foreign land and is convinced to come along, but on the way to the docks he's thrown off his horse
and decides that this is fate's way of warning him not to take part. We'll be covering this
adventure on another episode, but Vinland was more than likely Canada, making Leif Erikson the first
European to set foot on American soil. Leif would return to Greenland later with all manner of
exciting stories but sadly Erik would not be there to welcome him. Sometime after his son's departure
he died from either complications due to the fall from his horse or a kind of epidemic like a plague
or famine within the colony. However his death came around, it shows that life was no picnic in
such a harsh and unfamiliar land, but Erik had always known that and it didn't matter. For him,
true freedom came from charting one's own course and dropping anchor wherever fate guided you.
Wait wait wait hang on, but what about the wedding at the start and the colony? What happened to it?
Erik's colony, known to history as the Eastern Settlement despite the fact that it was southern,
would continue to eke out an existence in this harsh and unforgiving land,
but sometime around the 1500s they vanished. Like something out of a horror movie,
Norse explorers arrived at the old location of chief Erik's colony and all they could find was
an old stone church. The very same one our newlyweds from the start of the episode were married in.
Looking around at the deserted arctic waste it was almost like no one had ever been there at all.
Remember this was a well-established colony that had existed for over 500 years,
trading regularly with both Iceland and Norway. What on earth happened? In 1257 on the other side
of the world a volcano erupted in Lombok, Indonesia. This was an eruption like no other,
at least not in the last 10,000 years or so. When scientists measure volcanic eruptions they use
what's called a VEI or Volcanic Eruption Index. For context, the 2019 New Zealand that killed 22
had a VEI of 2. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius that wiped out the Roman city of Pompeii had a
VEI of 5. But when this thing went off it had a VEI of 7. It belched out so much ash into the
atmosphere it actually cooled the climate all across the world, likely contributing to what's
now referred to as the Little Ice Age. All around the world crops failed as they were not able to
grow within the altered weather patterns. Famine followed soon after. For the Norsemen of Greenland
who were already living life on the edge there was no room for error. The crops and animals that had
managed to rear on the frozen frontier began to wither and die. We know this from the diet of the
settlers. Scientists studied them and found out that towards the twilight of the colony they began
to rely more and more on seal and walrus rather than the traditional foodstuff, crops and any
other mainland animals they'd bought with them. And crucially, unlike the Thule people who lived
up north, the Norse settlers never learned to use a harpoon so they were at a disadvantage when it
came to catching their new primary form of food. This wasn't as big of a deal when there were other
food sources but now if all you had to eat was walrus you'd want to be pretty good at catching
it. For the Thule use of harpoons and hunting dogs made them expert seal hunters so the Little
Ice Age didn't change much for them but for the Norsemen it changed everything. Their settlements
which were once capable of large-scale population simply withered away. They just couldn't feed
everyone anymore. With the larger colonies breaking away perhaps some smaller groups
managed to catch a ride back to civilization on Iceland or Norway. There's also a few unsubstantiated
stories of a final Thule raid on the last remaining Norse settlement. Can you imagine this?
A war in the dark arctic winter with bony and sick viking warriors pulling out their ancient and
precious iron swords against a native populace bent on removing them from their lands. Another
equally unreliable but interesting story tells of the Norse colony being raided by Europeans
and the survivors simply packing up and leaving. It seems that we'll never likely know for sure.
Whatever the reason, be it climate change, war, plague or a combination, the ruins of a
tiny stone church are now all that remains of the forgotten colony of Eric the Red.
Thanks again for tuning into Anthology of Heroes. If you're enjoying the show
join us on Instagram where I post regularly about upcoming episodes and historical curiosities.
Our handle is at anthology of heroes all one word. See you on the next one.