Home » Conference Papers » “Viking” North America: The North American Public’s Understanding of Its Norse Heritage (presented at ICMS K’Zoo 2011)

“Viking” North America: The North American Public’s Understanding of Its Norse Heritage (presented at ICMS K’Zoo 2011)

I presented this paper, “Viking” North America: The North American Public’s Understanding of its Norse Heritage at Session 528, 8:30 Sunday Morning in Fetzer 2020 at Western Michigan University for the 2011 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo for the Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages panel. The conference was, for me, a great success. As I mention in the paper a lot of these ideas I developed in part while working on the article for Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier at the University of Western Ontario, and some I developed while interning at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. In this reproduction all the footnotes are left out, so if you are looking for references please look to the paper I did for Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier. I have, however, included my bibliography and all my visual aids. Also, check out my personal blog at meganarnott.blogspot.com.


“Viking” North America: The North American Public’s Understanding of Its Norse Heritage

Slide 1
(slide 1)

I would like to start off with a clip. During the 2010 Winter Olympics this ad ran in the province of Ontario nearly once a commercial break. It was part of a larger campaign for Newfoundland and Labrador tourism, though this was the ad they chose to run most frequently. While you watch, take note of the way that North America’s Norse heritage is being presented.

And once again:
And so they came,
five centuries before Columbus,
fearless warriors out to discover a New World,
the Vikings.
While they left behind their mark, they have long since gone …
… so far as we can tell.
Newfoundland and Labrador.

This summer, as part of my internship for my public history degree, I worked at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site.


(slide 2: images from summer 2010)

What I can identify as public knowledge about North America’s Norse heritage comes from informal discussions with tourists, from the study of the way that promoters of heritage frame the Norse-North American connection in order to appeal to the public and finally from cursorily studying the historiography. From my research and my experiences I can tell you that this advertising campaign was widely successful. Through talking with people I discovered that a great many of them (I would be so bold to say as one out of three people) had seen the advertisement and had decided to visit L’Anse aux Meadows because of it. For many it was a case of “well we always wanted to come and then we saw that advertisement, you know, with the children.” It was so successful amongst North American audiences that tourism numbers, I can say unofficially, were the highest they had ever been, despite the drop off in American tourism that resulted from the closing gap between the two dollars.

The success of the ad campaign is in part from its stunning images of Newfoundland landscape. However, what brought people up to the northernmost parts of Newfoundland was not just the landscape, since this is stunning, but not remarkably more stunning than other, perhaps more easily accessed, parts of the province. The draw was this emphasis on a medieval European past that genuinely belonged to North Americans. If we listen to the words of this advertisement, in it the province is appealing to everything that makes the ‘Vikings’ popular amongst North American audiences. The advertisement is emphasizing and then reasserting exactly what North Americans think about their own Norse heritage.

Slide 3
(slide three)

I argue that the North American public understands their Norse heritage as part of their origins mythology as a settler/invader nation. This is seen through the continuous coupling of Norse explorers such as Leifr Eiríksson with late medieval European explorers, specifically Christopher Columbus. I would also argue that the North American public’s understanding of the Norse culture can be summed up in everything that is meant by the word Viking and, as in the advertisement, is epitomized by the phrase ‘fearless warriors out to discover a new world.’


(slide 4: image of Christopher Columbus)

Nobody thinks that Christopher Columbus was the first European in North America. Granted, if we are talking about the knowledge of tourists who have made their way to L’Anse aux Meadows, likely if they have made it that far off the beaten path they probably already have an inkling as to why that site is important. However, it has been my experience amongst my friends, family, general adult education classes and pretty much everyone I talk to, that no one still thinks that Christopher Columbus was the first. But he persists as the poster boy for European exploration and colonization in North America and he is the common reference point for the discussion about European arrival to this continent.

Slide 5
(slide 5: images of the manuscripts that contain the Vinland Sagas)

The presence of Vikings, or Norse, in North America was speculated about long before any of the archaeological evidence at either L’Anse aux Meadows or Skraeling Island (just off of Ellesmere Island) was found. The two Icelandic sagas, Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða, have been dubbed the Vinland sagas because of their descriptions of voyages to Helluland, Markland and finally Vinland by the likes of Leifr Eiríksson and Thorfinnr Karlsefni, amongst others. The presence of a real Vinland is corroborated by other textual references.

The level of descriptors in the sagas has caused scholars to find the places mentioned in the sagas in North American localities since the first translations into Latin, and then Danish in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much scholarship since the nineteenth century has been characterized by this desire to find the real places of the sagas, to find the ‘true’ discoverers of America. This is done by locating the ‘real’ Vinland. Some of these attempts have been more nationalistic than others.

One way that the Norse have been used is to indigenize Europeans to the North American landscape, by at the very least giving the Europeans a longer history on the continent, and by at the most appropriating native arts, culture, or artefacts, and attributing them to the Norse instead of to Native cultures. For example, in 1883 Rasmus B. Anderson wrote a new prologue to his book America Not Discovered by Columbus, in which he said of the creation of the “runes” on the Dighton Rock that had been found in the Taunton River:

Slide 6
(slide 6)

I think they were iron implements, and that they were in the hands of a skilled mechanic—a Norseman worthy of the name. I do not know that my opinion on this question is of any consequence, still I have seen work undoubtedly performed by an aboriginal American with flint and stone tools, but the characters were not nicely edged, as these are. I cannot believe they were made by the lazy Indian of Schoolcraft.

Starting in 1940, Reider T. Sherwin wrote eight volumes on The Viking and the Red Man; The Old Norse Origin of the Algonquin Language. In them he went through the Algonquin vocabulary and showed how each word had an Old Norse origin.

In the search for the ‘true’ first Europeans it is typical to view the Vikings and Columbus as foils for each other, and to show that only one can be the real ‘first.’ Take for example, as an extreme, Mary B. Shipley, who, in 1877, wrote one of the more overtly nationalistic works concerning the Norse landings in North America. Her book was entitled The Icelandic Discoverers of America, or, Honor to Whom Honor is Due. In it she stated that the founding of America was one of the greatest achievements in all of world history, and if North America ceased to acknowledge Columbus, but instead acknowledged the Vikings, all the corruption of Catholicism and its most devout followers, the Spanish, would disappear from American culture. In short everything that was good, including the self-determinism and self-government espoused by the Norse, would again be emphasized. That is an extreme, though looking at Vikings in America by Graeme Davis, published in 2009, Davis also saw the “marginalization” of the knowledge of the Icelanders as a plot by Columbus, the papacy, and the Spanish monarchy, and persisted in construing the Norse voyages in terms of the American ideal. He stated that “in the Vikings, America finds its first European settlers. Most fittingly these first European Settlers in America were people searching for what we know today as the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Slide 7
(slide 7: Top left corner; 1840s lecture describing Norsemen as first. Bottom right corner; Mary B. Shipley’s book. Centre; Publication accompanying 1992 exhibit at the Canadian museum of Civilization. Bottom left; W.A. Munn. Top right; Helge Ingstad.)

Before the discovery of the archaeological evidence there was a scholarly reaction against taking the sagas as proof of any real place, but that didn’t stop the popular and perhaps amateurish wave of interest in locating the real Vinland. This desire to find the places of the sagas is what lead people like W.A. Munn in 1914, and eventually Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, to the Straits of Belle Isle to look for evidence of the Norse past. By the end of the 1960s it was agreed that the Norse had been to North America, though we will never all agree as to the locations in the sagas, despite the sometimes fine arguments that are made, because while there are many specific details about geography in the sagas there are too many variables and interpretations possible for those details. Halldór Hermansson’s 1909 Vinland bibliography was ninety pages in length and contained 750 entries. By 1997 Robert Bergersen’s Vinland bibliography, Writings Relating to the Norse in Greenland and America, was 400 closely printed pages. And that was thirteen years ago. I think as well the sheer number of treatises and papers written about this subject, and particularly about the geography of Vinland problematizes this division between scholarly and the public, because I think numbers like this indicate that this subject, possibly because of the traditionally nationalistic overtones, has a wide appeal. In the last thirty years many scholars who work on the Vinland Sagas, and even those who work both with the sagas and with the archaeology, have tried to distance themselves from such nationalistic discussions. In fact many scholars don’t care what personage was first, and see the arrival of these individuals as marking larger trends in technology and in European expansion and colonialism movements from different times. However, if one refers to the corpus of recent publications on Vinland it is evident that about as many analyses were published in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus, as there were in 2000, the supposed 1000th anniversary of Leifr’s settlement. Because scholars approach it from this direction, this nationalistic discourse frames our understanding of the Norse voyages to North America.

And its place in our national mythologies is going to ensure that scholars and the public alike are going to continue to be interested in this particular piece of medieval and North American history.

Slide 8
(slide 8: Leif Eiríksson statue erected in 1887 in Boston)

The knowledge about the Viking arrival, “five centuries before Columbus,” as it states in the advertisement, may have trickled in from scholarly (or less than scholarly) work into the general education. However, this Columbus/Leifr Eiriksson debate has occasionally, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, become very public. With the erection of any new public history site, from the Leifr Eiríksson statue erected in Boston 1887 to the recognition of L’Anse aux Meadows as a Norse site in 1960.


(slide 9: Vinland Map, Yale University)

The Vinland map, discovered in the Yale library in 1965, was unveiled a few days before Columbus day and was viewed by some as unseating Columbus once and for all. The map was supposedly from the year 1470, twenty-two years before Columbus’s first voyage. The last time I delivered some of these ideas, someone told me afterwards that one of the people who was really upset by this was Frank Sinatra, who was among those who viewed this as an attack on Italian/American heritage. The map is know largely regarded as a fake, but regardless the existence of a physical map shouldn’t be that different from the oral map that exists in the sagas, though this is a more modern opinion and perhaps a more scholarly one. Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir talks about how the juxtaposition of Leifr and Columbus is politically charged because of the importance of both to the chronology of the North American founding myth, and also because of the importance of having a symbol of unity representative of the Anglo-Saxon race and not of Catholic origin. Leifr Eiriksson day is October 9th. This date was chosen because the ship the Restauration arrived on October 9th, 1825, bringing the first Scandinavian immigrants to the New York harbour from Stavanger, Norway. What is interesting is that Leifr Eiríksson day pre-empts Columbus Day, on 12 October, by three days. The choice of dates is legitimate but also political.

Slide 10
(slide 10: Top left; Runestone museum in Alexandria. Bottom left; Yarmouth Runestone, Nova Scotia. Bottom right; Recreation group at Norstead in L’Anse aux Meadows. Top right; L’Anse aux Meadows.)

So the public understands this Columbus/Viking dichotomy. We can look then at the way that heritage/tourism industries appeal to this sense of ‘who was first.’
There are several locations in North America that celebrate North America’s Norse heritage. L’Anse aux Meadows has the most legitimacy because of the presence of the archaeological site. The arctic sites are important to heritage, but the lack of the tourist gaze in that area of the world has resulted in very little commemoration. Therefore, in that area no one is concerned about marketing the area’s medieval heritage in terms of the public’s interests and understanding. Some heritage/tourism sites gain a form of legitimacy by claiming to be an interpretation of what could have been or are museums to the culture as opposed to any specific events, like Norstead, the living history museum across from the official site at L’Anse aux Meadows. Some institutions house artefacts that could be Norse, and might not be, like the runestone at the Yarmouth museum, and allow visitors to make up their own mind. What is really interesting is that the meagre set of evidence has resulted in the proliferation of interpretation sites all the way from Minnesota and Ohio to the edge of Newfoundland. This helps to represent the place that this history holds in the minds of the public, in that there is an audience for this wide range of sites.

Slide 11
(slide 11: sign erected by tourism association on road into St. Anthony/ L’Anse aux Meadows)

One interesting thing I came across during my time at L’Anse aux Meadows was this sign, which has been placed by the Northern Peninsula tourism association along the road into St. Anthony and L’Anse aux Meadows. The interesting story that I heard, as it was told to me, is that the consultant had suggested putting a sign there that said ‘Is this Vinland?’ Instead, the tourism association were the ones who decided that now was no longer the time to question. The sixties is when they questioned, now was when they marketed this very real and very tangible connection to the medieval.

Slide 12
(slide 12: signs marking the major route, the Viking trail, through the northern peninsula)

The whole landscape of the Northern Peninsula now reflects this rebranding and this reinterpreting in terms of the connection to the medieval, because this is a part of history that continues to resonate with people.

Whether Norse or Viking is a more appropriate term to describe the culture of culture of 750-1100 CE Scandinavia is an ongoing debate. Viking is a word that conjures up images of brutal raiders and pirates, as well it should as the Old Norse word vikingr and the Anglo Saxon wicingas refers to basically pirates. Viking is a reflection of Victorian imaginations of romantic brutality. This is not to deny the brutal aspect of the culture, but it is only one aspect of this largely agrarian and mercantile society. Here a division between scholars and public is a bit more defined, as scholars like the word Norse better. The public has never heard this word. L’Anse aux Meadows archaeologist Birgitta Wallace has this to say about the continuing debate between the use of the two words.

Slide 13
(slide 13)


Historians have substituted the words “Viking” and “Vikings” with Norse, which is a more comprehensive term, corresponding to the Scandinavian norroen, and referring to all Scandinavians of the Viking and Medieval periods. Historians have tended to insist on this more correct term, but references to “Vikings” and “Viking Age” has [sic] become so successful in the promotion of heritage and tourism that most historians now accept these terms.

Like many nineteenth century romantic medievalisms, the term Viking and all that it evokes has proved so durable a concept, that it is counter productive to disregard this word as a term for that culture. Without it we discard the basic building block for the public’s understanding of this culture. The word Viking carries basic images with it. Likewise, the use of certain symbols in pop culture, for better or worse, can stand in for a description of Vikings. One has only to give a character a horned helmet for the audience to understand that he is meant to be a Viking.

Slide 14
(slide 14: Top; How to Train your Dragon. Bottom left; Hagar the Horrible. Bottom right; Commercial for Capital One. Bottom centre; Commercial for Volkswagen minis.)

I would say that films, like How to Train your Dragon, and popular culture, credit card commercials, continue to use this image not because they are ignorant and because they don’t know any better per se, but because they can skip a lot of exposition about who one is trying to depict by just giving them the helmet. So much is implied by these images because it is assumed that the public understands and has seen these images before. They draw on the public understanding and continue to foster it, misconceptions and all.

Slide 15
(slide 15: images from L’anse aux meadows summer 2010)

Telling visitors that there was no evidence of horned helmets, and that the concept had come instead from Wagnerian opera, was one of the most interesting interpretation tools at the disposal of the L’Anse aux Meadows staff, because in some ways it is challenging the one thing that most of the public believes they know about the Vikings.

Slide 16
(slide 16)

In conclusion, the North American public understands this not as Norse, but as Viking heritage. The culture is known for its violence and its raiding; for being one of ‘fearless warriors.’ And yet, it also gives it a place of primacy in the history of North America. It will continue to be a favourite subject amongst people who write popular histories, because of the emotional and romantic place accorded to these events and to the arrival of these so-called ‘first’ Europeans. Talking with tourists I was able to confirm that the way that the Norse heritage in North America is marketed by institutions like Newfoundland and Labrador tourism both reflects and in turn is further constructing the way the heritage is understood by the North American public.

Slide 17
(slide 17: images from the Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier project)

Many of these ideas are versions of ones that I put forth in my paper “Putting the Vikings on the Canadian Map,” which was published as part of the UWO project and exhibition Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier. A copy of this version of my paper I am going to put up on my blog, but for a more in depth discussion look to this original paper, published by Museum London.

Thank you

Slide 18
(slide 18)

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2 Comments

  1. Graeme Davis says:

    There are human values which endure. The Vikings in America indeed sought life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So did the Vikings in Greenland and in Iceland who fled the tyranny of Norwegian kings, or the Vikings who adventures down the rivers of Russia to Copenhagen and into the Mediterranean. The same values were sought by the Greeks who fought the Persian despots at Salamis and Marathon, and by the Israelites led by Moses out of Egypt. The American dream is a part of these enduring human values. It is not unique to America; rather it is the common aspiration of all humanity. In an American context it can be expressed with an American idiom; in a Greek or Jewish context – or any other context – with an idiom appropriate to those cultures. Yet fundamentally it is not American or Greek or Jewish or unique to any cultural group but something common to us all. The real power of the story of the Vikings in America is that it speaks to everyone.

    Graeme Davis, author “Vikings in America”.

  2. Megan Arnott says:

    Absolutely, I agree with you. There are some enduring, perhaps universal, truths which we have to understand through our own idiom. Things that strike a chord with us become cliches because they strike a chord with many people.

    And I know we will continue to express the Viking/Norse presence in North America using North American idioms from the North American origin mythology. It interests me that nationalism, tied in with this origin mythology, persists as the framework which all scholars must deal with when approaching this topic, due to its predominance in the historiography. What is more interesting is how this framework will also be, frankly, what keeps students interested in this topic for years to come. This forms an important bridge, in fact, between the public and the academic. For all academic talk about knowing our biases, or acknowledging them, and all the griping we do about nationalism or romanticism in our topics, we have to remember that that is usually why we ourselves chose them. I myself picked Vikings/Norse because it overlapped with Canadian history, and because I thought they were ‘cool/fascinating.’ And for all our cringing at things like the Olympics, and mottoes like ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ these things clearly have popular resonance that we need to find better ways to come to terms with as a supposedly critical (academic) crowd.

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