The Christian Discovery and Settlement of Greenland (A.D. 982f)

by Francis Nigel Lee

Contrary to popular belief, there were no Eskimos (Inuit) or any other Non-White peoples at all in Greenland, at the time Europeans first settled there in A.D. 982f. Also contrary to popular belief—Greenland has been Christian from the time of its first human settlement onward.

Greenland is, after Iceland, the second country on Earth which was first inhabited by Christians. For also Greenland had no pagan past to replace.

Such heathen practices as did take root there, came in with the later arrival of then-unchristianized Eskimos—subsequently to that of the earlier Norsemen (or rather the Celto-Norse Christians from Iceland). Thus, Christianity was Greenland’s first religion; and Europeans were its first human residents.

Geography and History in C.M. Boland’s book on Greenland

According to C.M. Boland’s book Iceland and Greenland,1 the most northerly tip of Greenland lies only four hundred miles from the North Pole. From that furthermost tip, it is 1660 miles to its southernmost point. The latter is Cape Farewell, which thrusts itself into the Atlantic Ocean.

To the southeast, Iceland is about two hundred miles away. To the west, also two hundred miles away, is the Cumberland Peninsula of Canada’s huge territory called Baffin Island.

The coastal areas of southwestern Greenland are fertile and tillable—a green fringe around the edge of a vast glacier. The summers can be surprisingly hot.

Iceland was first colonized by Christian Celts from about A.D. 575 onward. The whole country accepted Christianity as its national religion from A.D. 970f. Only thereafter did some of those christianized Icelanders colonize the then-uninhabited Greenland.

According to Boland, the three most important dates in Greenland’s history are: A.D. 981, 985, and 1000f. In 981, Eric the Red arrived from Iceland. In 985, fourteen shiploads of colonists from Iceland settled on the coast of Greenland. Then, around 1000f, there were visits to America and colonizations there by Icelanders either living in Greenland or otherwise passing over from Iceland via Greenland to the New World.

Boland further states2 that although Greenland can be sighted from certain mountaintops in Iceland—a distance of about two hundred miles—it was apparently first seen, from a ship, by a Norseman named Gunnbjorn. That was some time in the tenth century.

It was only in 981 A.D. that Eric the Red arrived in Greenland. He spent three years exploring the grass-green fringes of that huge island.

He found the place uninhabited. There were no Eskimos. On returning to Iceland, Eric gave glowing descriptions of the green pastures in his new land—to any who would listen. Thus, he called it Greenland. Consequently, twenty-five shiploads of colonists went back with him. Only fourteen of these ships arrived, in 985. The rest perished or disappeared.

Despite early setbacks, Eric’s colony thrived for several hundred years. At its height, the colony may have had as many as nine thousand people.

It built sixteen churches, a monastery, and a nunnery. These were all institutions of the clan-based and family-grouped Culdee Church from Iceland—and not of the Romish Church from Italy, with its celibate clergy.

Greenland in Paul Herrmann’s book Conquest by Man

In his important book Conquest by Man, Paul Herrmann explains3 that at the birth of Eric the Red (the son of Thorvald Asvaldsson from Norway), no one foresaw that he would one day go to his rest in Greenland. Thorvald Asvalddson’s arrival in Iceland from Scandinavia is related at length in the A.D. 1120f Landnamabok.

Thorvald and his son Eric settled at Hornstrand, in Icelandic Drangerland. There, the father died. Eric the Red took over the farm; got married; and thereby became related to one of the most respected families in Iceland.

However, Eric then got involved in quarrels. So the Al-Thing (alias the Icelandic National Parliament) at Thorness, early in 982, punished him and his people with three years’ banishment from Iceland.

The Landnamabok concludes its account with the words: “Eric fitted out a ship…He said he wished to seek for the land which Gunnbjoern, the son of Ulf Krake, espied when he was drifting on the sea west of Iceland”—namely earlier in that same tenth century.

The Gunnbjoern skerries (or rocky reefs) were the not very palpable incentive to the discovery of Greenland. Eric the Red landed not on the east of Greenland (which is barred by pack-ice and bleakly inhospitable), but in the southwest, beyond Cape Farewell. That is, climatically, the most favourable area of the country.

Eric the Red did not stay long in Iceland after his return from his three-year exile in Greenland. He soon again set sail for Greenland—the very next summer, in A.D. 985. This time, he would settle there permanently.

This enterprise too is faithfully recorded in the Landnamabok. It is also described in detail in the Heimskringla (or Lives of the Norse Kings). That latter work is about the rulers of Iceland at the turn of the twelfth to the thirteenth century.

Herrmann further explains4 that when the link with Europe broke, the Norsemen were marooned on Greenland. To begin with, they had recourse to timber from America, and especially from Markland. The name means Forest Land. The Greenland Vikings discovered it round about A.D. 1000.

Ships plied regularly between Greenland, Iceland and Markland in North America—right down until the mid-fourteenth century. This is shown by an entry for the year 1347 in the Icelandic Annals of Gisle Oddson the Bishop of Skalholt (in Iceland).

Wrote the Bishop: “There came a ship from Greenland, even smaller than the little ones faring for Iceland. It sailed into the outer Straumfjord…It bore seventeen men who had sailed to Markland.”

From the south of Iceland to Cape Farewell in southwestern Greenland, according to the old chronicles the first to sail directly was Leif Eriksen (the son of Eric the Red). Indeed, Christianity was introduced into Greenland around A.D. 1000 by Eric’s son Leif.

Even today, one may see the ruins of the church at Havalsey (alias Qaqortog) near Julianehaab in Greenland. It was obviously an imposing two-storey building—erected in 1100. It even had glass windows.

Herrmann also notes5 that, from 1349 to 1368, the very pious King Magnus Erikson of Norway regarded the propagation of Christianity as his life’s work. Thanks to him, Greenland Vikings survived the difficult times in the middle of the fourteenth century.

The priest Ivar Bardsen had come to Greenland in 1341. Knutsson, a member of the Royal Bodyguard, put to sea in 1355.

Magnus Erikson’s edict ordering this expedition is still extant. It states: “Magnus, by the grace of God, King of Norway…sends to all men who see or hear this letter, good health and happiness in God…We ask that you accept this our command…for the sake of our soul and our predecessors who have introduced Christianity in Greenland and maintained it to this day…

“We will not let it perish in our days! Let it be known that whoever breaks this, our command, shall feel our displeasure and pay us in full for the offence!”

The dwindling away of Iceland’s flourishing colony in Greenland

However,6 the worsening of climatic conditions in the North Atlantic zone during the Middle Ages, was apparently accompanied by a change in the vegetation. Cattle-breeding was the basis of the Greenlandic Celto-Norsemen’s economic existence. But now, once it became impossible to keep animals, the Celto-Norse Greenlanders were faced with the alternative of either adopting the Skraeling (or Eskimo) way of life and living like them on fish and blubber—or emigrating.

The Vestribyggd Vikings appear to have chosen the latter solution. In the Icelandic Annals of Gisle Oddson the Bishop of Skalholt, one finds the following very significant entry for the year 1342: “The inhabitants of Greenland…turned to the peoples of America.”

For Greenland had neither wood nor metal. It could not support the Norsemen, and they had to leave. Where were they to go?

Their route led from Greenland straight across the Arctic Ocean to America with its inexhaustible supplies of both timber and metal. The way was clear to the Greenland Vikings—as soon as they found Markland; the vast forest area of Nova Scotia; New Brunswick; and Maine.

Indeed, it looks as though—with Vinland as their starting-point—they penetrated still further to the west. For it would seem they reached even as far as the metalliferous regions around the Great Lakes.7

So Greenland’s well-established colony of Christian Norsemen had strangely evaporated by the 1400s. Whether through return to Scandinavia; or through emigration to America; or through unendurably-cold mediaeval climatic changes in the Arctic; or through sudden expulsion by unexpected Eskimo invaders—in the fifteen century, the settlement mysteriously vanished.

Thereafter, Greenland’s former colony of European Christians left only stone ruins to document its previous existence. Pagan Eskimos then moved there, in their place.

Modern Greenland, explains Boland,8 dates its history from the year 1705. For it was then that the Missionary Hans Egede arrived there from Norway—to look for the Norse Colony, and to ascertain whether it still held to its Christian principles.

He discovered to his dismay that the colony he sought, had vanished. Undaunted, he settled at Godthaab—and took upon himself the task of christianizing the Eskimos he found there.

Archeological evidence of Greenland’s Ancient Christian Church

As Herrmann points out,9 great farms had stood here once; a two-storeyed granary had been erected; a dignified church built. But the Missionary Hans Egede found nothing.

Yet it was all within reach of his hand! For right nearby, were: the ruins of the old monasteries; the huge walls of the See of the Bishop of Greenland at Gardar, near the modern Julianehaab; the vast cemeteries in whose icy graves the dead were waiting patiently for one of their own people to come; the blossoming gardens of the Vikings still bright with many European plants foreign to the soil of Greenland.

But Hans Egede passed it all by. It was not his destiny to be an Excavator or an Archaeologist. However, he instead indeed became Christ’s apostle to the Eskimos.

Just two hundred years after Hans Egede’s voyage to Greenland, in the hot summer of 1921, another expedition from Norway landed there—with the specific aim of searching for its ancient Norsemen. What Hans Egede missed, this expedition found—the remains of their own Norwegian kinfolk.

They had been dead for four centuries. Their farms were destroyed; their churches in ruins; their fields and gardens smothered by weeds and horsehair oats. But down below, in the graves, in the depths of the eternally frozen soil—time had stood still.

There lay the Vikings, as they had once been put to rest. The Norwegian archaeologists found Bishop Jon Smyril—nick-named the Sparrowhawk—together with his episcopal ring and crosier. The latter had been beautifully carved from a walrus tusk by the Pastor’s wife Margret.

In the grave of the good woman Gudveig, there lay nothing but a rune rod. On this rod can be read the words: “This woman, who was called Gudveig, was lowered into the Greenland sea.”

There were also children’s graves. The little ones lay peacefully with folded hands, a cross between their still fingers. Thus Paul Herrmann.

Archeological evidence that Greenland’s Ancient Church was Culdee (Proto-Protestant)

It is significant that the Pre-Reformation Greenland Ministers were married men, with children. This reflects the Irish Culdee influences upon the Greenlanders’ ancestors in Iceland. The question remains, however, as to how long those Greenlanders who had emigrated to America until the fourteenth century—maintained their Christianity in the New World.

Crosses have been discovered among the Amerindians of the northeastern coast of that Continent, together with a superior kind of worship among them. Many Norse and some Celtic words have also been found in their Amerindian languages. 10

These things indicate that those early emigrants from Greenland to America, indeed gave a Christian witness to the native inhabitants they there encountered. For the Culdee Christian Celts and the Celto-Icelanders—via Greenland—were determined to press on with their comprehensive Great Commission—even to the very ends of the Earth.

1) Boland, Doubleday, Garden City N.Y., 1964, 35 & 64.
2) Boland, 43f.
3) Herrmann, Harper, New York, 1954, pp. 246f.
4) Herrmann, 253f.
5) Herrmann., 259f.
6) Herrmann, 262f.
7) Herrmann, 240f.
8) Boland, 44f.
9) Boland, 241f.
10) Historians’ History of the World, The Times, London, 1908, XXII p. 41.

© 2012
Used by Permission

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