Iceland home to Viking great




By Mike Keenan, The Standard

Friday, November 7, 2014 7:46:55 EST PM

In Reykjavik, Iceland, it’s an odd juxtaposition — a statue of Viking warrior Leif Ericson (donated by the U.S)., in front of Hallgrímskirkja, the impressive Lutheran Church, lofty at 73 metres, the largest church in Iceland.

Strange because in the first recorded attack in England, Lindisfarne’s Christian monks were hacked to death or drowned by Leif’s pagan raiders.

Savage fighters with seafaring skills and speedy ships, the Vikings wreaked havoc from 790 until the Norman conquest in 1066. Under Leif Ericson, heir to Erik the Red, they reached North America 500 years before Columbus, settling in L’Anse aux Meadows, N.L., 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, exiled to Iceland and accompanied by young Erik. When Erik was banished (a family trait), he travelled west to Greenland, establishing its first permanent settlement in 986. In Norway, Leif later converted to Christianity.

I discover precisely how the Vikings were so 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 Guðmundur Jónsson.

I 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 high bow featured the figurehead, visible from afar, and a shield from waves. The ship consists of 18 tons of wood and 5,000 nails. 22.5 m long, the beam 5.3 m, draft 1.7 m, it boasted an average speed of 7 mph with top speed of 18 mph.

Retired naval officer August Ragaarsson, my guide and project manager for Icelander’s commemorative trip to America, advised that: “The long steering plate is curved on the outside because the water flows faster there and with speed, air bubbles flow under the keel and lifts the ship, providing more speed, like ball bearings.” He added, “A square sail followed the waves, therefore didn’t take in much water.”

August reasons that they could sail from Iceland to Norway and back in five days. “Speed, surprise, fitness and advanced weaponry — axes and double edged swords made them formidable foes.” A ship with 30 men arrived without warning, and as quickly, slipped away before victims could mount a defence. The largest vessels carried 100 men and several horses.

The Icelander was built by shipwright Gunnar Marel Eggertsson, charting it to America in 2000 to commemorate Leif Ericson’s journey to the New World a thousand years earlier, a 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 and protected rowers from bad weather. The deck is open, rowers sat 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 throughout Europe, Asia, and the North Atlantic islands from the late eight to the mid-11th centuries. For two centuries, they sailed the North Sea, rounded Spain to the Mediterranean, and navigated eastern Europe’s inland rivers to the Black Sea and the Middle East.

Leif’s North America journey 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 was located at Cape Cod), followed by others in Milwaukee, Chicago, Newport News, Minot, Cleveland, St. Paul and Seattle.

Currently, there is an exhibit at the famed British Museum. In 2013, the TV series Vikings depicted the exploits of the Norsemen, but us older sports fans remember Vikings as the tough Minnesota-based NFL team. The opening game, Sept. 17, 1961, featured rookie quarterback Fran Tarkento who threw four touchdown passes, ran for another and beat the Chicago Bears 37-13. In 1986, 25 years later, Tarkenton was the first Vikings 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 CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers to glory. The Vikings won 11 division titles in 13 seasons. Unlike 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 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 here in front of Hallgrímskirkja.

Contact Mike Keenan at