REYKAVIK, ICELAND: It's an odd juxtaposition - a statue of Viking warrior, Leif Ericson (donated by the US), in front of Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran Church, quite tall at 73 m (244 ft), the largest church in Iceland. Strange - because in the first attack recorded in England, Christian monks at Lindisfarne were hacked to death or drowned by Leif's pagan raiders.
Savage fighters with advanced seafaring skills and speedy ships, the Vikings recorded attacks as early as 790 up until the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Under Leif Ericson, heir to Erik the Red, they reached North America 500 years before Columbus, with settlements in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, awarded UNESCO World Heritage site status in 1978.
Born in Iceland in 970, Leif was the son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild, the grandson of Thorvaldr Ásvaldsson. Thorvald was banished from Norway for manslaughter and exiled in Iceland accompanied by young Erik. When Erik was banished (a family trait) from Iceland, he travelled west to Greenland, establishing its first permanent settlement in 986. Later in Norway, Leif converted to Christianity.
I discover how the Vikings were successful in conquest and exploration at Vikingaheimar, Viking World, a museum opened in 2009 near the seaside town of Reykjanesbær, an easy 14-minute drive from Reykjavik with a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean. Viking World features the Viking ship, Icelander (Íslendingur) designed by architect Guómundur Jónsson.
I view it from all sides and underneath, climb on board and stand at the tiller on its Spartan deck. The fast, stable, ocean-going vessel employed 70 fit crew members, allowing a double shift of rowers for the 32 oars. In the middle of the ship, a sandpit supported an open fire, and young livestock such as lamb provided fresh meals for the long voyages.
The ship is made of pine and oak, carefully selected in Norway and Sweden, the sail from Denmark. The bow's height was employed for the figurehead, visible from afar, and a shield from waves. It's made of 18 tons of wood and 5,000 nails, 22.5 m (75 feet) long, the beam 5.3 m (17.3 feet), draft 1.7 m (5.6 feet) an average speed of 7 mph with top speed of 18 mph.
My guide and the project manager for the Viking ship Icelander's commemorative trip to America, August Ragaarsson, a retired naval officer, advised that, "The long steering plate is curved on the outside because the water flows faster on the outside and with some speed, air bubbles flow under the keel and lift the ship a bit and provide more speed like ball bearings." He added, "A square sail was used, therefore it didn't take in much water but followed the waves."
August suggests that they could sail from Iceland to Norway in five days. "Speed, surprise, fitness and advanced weaponry - axes and double edged swords made them formidable foes."
The Icelander was built by shipwright Gunnar Marel Eggertsson who sailed it to America in 2000 to commemorate Leif Ericson's journey to the New World a thousand years earlier. It's an exact replica of the Gokstad ship, (A.D. 870), excavated from an ancient burial mound in Norway in 1882.
It stopped at Greenland and various ports in the United States and Canada, arriving on July 28 in L'anse aux Meadows, the only authenticated Viking site in North America.
Shields affixed on the sides of the ship were made with 8 mm thick pine boards for protection in battle but also protecting the rowers from bad weather. The deck is open, rowers sitting on chests containing their sparse belongings. I shiver, imagining how cold and wet it was in the middle of the ocean.
Vikings raided, traded, explored, and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia, and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th centuries. For two centuries, Vikings sailed the North Sea, rounded Spain to the Mediterranean, and navigated eastern Europe's inland rivers to the Black Sea and the Middle East.
An average-sized ship with thirty men arrived without warning, advanced onto the beach, wreaked havoc, and slipped away before victims could mount a defense. The largest vessels carried 100 men and several horses.
Leif's journey to North America produced a profound effect on Nordic Americans and immigrants to the United States. Statues of Ericson abound, the first erected in Boston in 1887 (many believed that Vinland could have been located at Cape Cod), followed by others in Milwaukee, Chicago, Newport News, Minot, Cleveland, St. Paul and Seattle.
In 2013, the American TV series, "Vikings" depicted the exploits of the Norsemen, but many of us older sports fans remember "Vikings" as the Minnesota-based NFL team. The opening game, September 17, 1961, featured rookie quarterback, Fran Tarkenton. He threw four touchdown passes, ran for another and beat the Chicago Bears 37-13. In 1986, 25 years later, Tarkenton was the first Viking inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Canadian connection is that in 1967, the Vikings hired head coach, Bud Grant, a Minnesotan who had led the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers to glory. The Vikings then won 11 division titles in 13 seasons. However, unlike Bud Grant's Vikings, those under explorer Leif Ericson did not wear horns atop their helmets.
A US 6-cent stamp (issued October 9, 1968), celebrates Leif Erikson Day in the United States. Leif, helmet on, carries a long sword and a shield, standing tall upon a rock, the identical posture depicted by the 1930 statue sculpted by A. Sterling Calder and presented by the United States Government to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland's Althing, the world's oldest parliament. It's the statue I see erected in front of Hallgrímskirkja.
The Vikings Ships Documentary
Viking ships, Oseberg and Gokstad ships
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune, Niagara Falls Review and Seniors Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.