Vikings in Vancouver

Photo courtesy of the Scandinavian Cultural Society

Leif Erikson’s legendary voyage from Iceland to North America around the year 1000 was arguably the first time a European set foot on North American shores. This trip, and the subsequent history of Vikings in North America, is shrouded in myth, say Judith Anderson and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young.

There’s no doubt that [Leif Erikson] existed and that he went over to Vinland,” says Winthrop-Young, the head of the Department of Central, Eastern, and Northern European Studies at the University of British Columbia. “But if you look at the cultural construction of Vikings, it has changed considerably.”

Anderson, a long-time member of Vancouver’s Scandinavian Cultural Society, agrees. “We know that the Norse were here. We just don’t have a lot of evidence.”

Erikson’s voyage and its impact will be explored at the upcoming Leif Erikson Day festival, which takes place on October 13 at the Scandinavian Community Centre in Burnaby.

Horns and history

Leif Erikson was the son of Erik the Red, the founder of Greenland, say Winthrop-Young and Anderson. “Greenland” was a misnomer, “one of the biggest marketing gimmicks in history,” Winthrop-Young clarifies.

Judith Anderson (middle, playing the fiddle) is a member of the Scandinavian Cultural Society. | Photo courtesy of the Scandinavian Cultural Society

In reality, the country wasn’t green at all, but cold and snowy.

Erikson went exploring along the Newfoundland coast, the site of the famous L’Anse aux Meadows settlement, which he called “Vinland” for the grapes he claimed to have found. But although Erikson may or may not have told his own lies, there’s no doubt that legends followed him and his Vikings.

“It’s a fascinating topic in that you can see an agenda behind it, from many immigrant groups. It was done to prove who was here first, leaving aside the fact that there were thousands of people who were here earlier,” says Winthrop-Young, pointing out that many ideas about the Viking can be traced to such agendas.

“Vikings, with the clear rise of Northern racism, became the symbols of vigour, [and] manliness,” he continues. “[The helmet] is a 19th century invention which goes back to Wagner’s operas. People wore helmets on stage because it made them look taller.”

Passing the mead

Leif Erikson Day commemorates more than that inaugural Viking voyage.

“Norwegians landed in North America on October 9, 1825, [starting] a flood of immigrants from Scandinavia. That’s why that date October 9th was later chosen for Leif Erikson Day,” says Anderson.

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young teaches a course about Leif Erikson and Viking myths at UBC. | Photo by Alex Chitnev

As such, the Scandinavian Community Centre’s Leif Erikson Day festival is designed to honour Scandinavian influences in Canada.

“There’s 1.2 million people in Canada who claim Scandinavian heritage, [and] most of them are in Western Canada. The people who came to North America brought enormous skills. They knew how to farm in cold places; they were great boat-builders; they started fishing industries,” Anderson says.

The festival also showcases many Scandinavian customs.

“Our choral group, Nordic Bleu, has four traditional songs. One is a very dramatic song, about driving a herd of sheep across the black volcanic sand in Iceland. The [narrator] needs to get across the sand before the evil elves and the trolls catch him,” adds Anderson.

Another song is longer and can be accompanied by a medieval dance step, used by Icelanders to walk from farm to farm.

“Because they were trying to travel with [the step], you have to move along. People join in a tight arm hold that keeps their hands up high, near their mouths. They would have been passing glasses of mead,” says Anderson, laughing. “It’s a walking step, bouncy enough to get you to the next farm while you sing a verse from a ballad that has 100 verses. This is a living tradition on the Faroe Islands. We think it’s really fun.”

The Leif Erikson Day Festival will feature Icelandic songs, stories, and a lecture about Viking heritage presented by Donald Gislason, retired UBC musicologist and humourist: Viking heritage: Promises and Problems.

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