Of Vikings, Greenland and Disappearing Ice-Sheets
Have you heard of a place called Nuuk?
To me it sounded like a place in the craggy mountains where seabirds nest. When I looked it up on the internet, it turned out to be a colourful, modern town — the capital of Greenland.
A year has gone by when the only travel anyone did was on YouTube. Like everyone else, I have only frustrated myself with an ever-expanding wishlist of places to explore when the world returns to normal. And of the places on that list, the one that captured my imagination the most was Greenland. An island that is an ice-sheet, 3 kilometres thick and a few million years old. Where the coasts are surrounded by an ocean drift that brings in an asteroid belt of ice and walls of icebergs stand around it like imposing mountains. I could not find any way to get there (unless I declared an emergency that needed me to be in Greenland) so I watched documentaries and read about its fascinating history.
The story of human settlement In Greenland begins in the snowy slopes and steamy vents of a volcanic country called Iceland. Till 874 CE, Iceland was an empty landscape, inhabited only by few species like the Arctic Fox and seabirds. But then the Vikings arrived from Norway, in wooden ships that were marvels of medieval engineering. A distance of 1500 kilometers, the Norsemen came looking for uninhabited land that they could settle in because Norway’s farmlands were populated to the limit by then. And within sixty years of their landing on the Icelandic shore, the Vikings had built about 1500 farms and the population had soared.
Seafarers that the Vikings were, tales of distant islands in the west covered in blue ice and mist often drifted into the folklore of the Norse sailors and poetry and songs were composed and sung in mead halls and feasts, describing journeys into the icy unknown.
The Hofudlausen is a piece of Viking poetry. Part of the great Icelandic Sagas, these are stories of Viking adventurers and heroes. Originally recited orally, these were later written down. The words evoke images of drift ice, longships and people who were spurred on by the call of the wild.
West over the sea I fared
And the mind-shore I bear
Of Vidrir across the sea
So that it might recall great deeds
The wave-oak I have drawn
With the ice breaking on
And loaded praises part
In the mind ship’s bark
Amongst the settlers who came to Iceland was a Viking outlaw called Thorvald. He had killed a man in a quarrel and as Viking honour required revenge, Thorvald had to flee Norway with his family. Iceland, then the newest settlement of Norway was his obvious destination. Thorvald was accompanied by his ten-year old son, Erik, who would later become one of the original Norse settlers of Greenland.
Erik grew up on his family estate in the Arctic tundra of Iceland. Here, the locals believed that they lived on the edge of the earth. Yet, stories of sailors being swept off course and landing on mysterious lands continued to pepper the grapevine.
After Thorvald’s death, Erik inherited the farm. And one day, almost following his father’s footsteps, he got into a bloody fight with his neighbour — Eyjolf the Foul. Erik won, killing Eyjolf only to realize that he had started another cycle of revenge. He was banished for three years. It seems unbelievable that twice in a family, there would be murder and flight across the seas. But that was the only available option for Erik. As he took off on his boat, he decided to sail west, probably thinking of the mystical lands on the other side of the ocean.
Crossing the bleak, forbidding sea, many a prayer may have been muttered. I found one such, a sailor’s prayer.
God the Sinless I pray
Save my voyage from danger
Lord of heaven on high
Guard my ways
A distance of another 1500 kilometres from Iceland, Erik would have arrived at Greenland after battling Atlantic storms and rivers of floating ice. Here he found a strip of land that was not covered in tundra — junipers and dwarf birch grew in a strip of green– a geography that promised potential to the Norse. For three years he explored and took notes and eventually returned to Iceland with the resolve to come back with his country folk to settle there. He did return, setting sail from Iceland with 25 Viking ships with men, women, children, livestock and essentials.
The Sagas (in this case Erik the Red’s Saga of the Icelanders) describes how he convinced a whole lot of people to board ships and sail for an unknown, possibly dangerous land.
“In the summer, Erik left to settle in the country he had found, which he called Greenland, as he said people would be attracted there if it had a favorable name.” And apparently that is how an icy island got its unlikely name.
But the treacherous route took its toll. Only 14 ships reached Greenland, the rest were lost at sea. Storms, waves, icebergs routinely battered the slender wooden ships — hydrodynamically efficient but grossly under protected from the elements. I had walked on the viewing bridge that overlooked the Gokstad ship at a museum in Oslo and had marvelled how anyone could have survived long sea-voyages in those ships. Slender and beautifully built to navigate the waters, passengers would have sat huddled on board as the boat cleaved through storms. Its hardly a wonder that casualties were so high.
Erik’s entourage that made it to journey’s end settled in the southern tip of Greenland — the Eastern Settlement. In the harsh Arctic climate where summer temperatures ranged from -30 degrees Celcius to 10 degrees in the day, the Viking families adapted with their intense ability to extract the maximum potential from the most difficult terrain. The women improved the soil with manure as the men hunted. The settlers thrived with livestock, dairy and hunting. And then there were the walruses of Greenland. Walrus tusk was a source of ivory that was prized in medieval Europe. And soon boatloads of walrus ivory started arriving in Norway and other parts of northern Europe, hunted in Greenland by Erik the Red’s family and descendants.
The Vikings were not alone on the island though. They soon discovered that Greenland had another group of settlers — the forefathers of the Inuit tribes — the indigenous people who had travelled across from North America. As has happened many times in history, the relationship between them was fraught with conflict. In Inuit folktales, the Vikings were referred to as the “enemy” and Norse explorers described the Inuit people as “threatening” and barbaric. Stories abound in folklore of Inuit folk surprising the Norsemen with javelins that were flung to kill and settlements of either side being attacked. But over time the two groups fell into rhythm with each other, sometimes occupying opposite shores of the same fjord and opening trade with each other.
However, mysteriously, by the mid 15th century the Viking settlers of Greenland had disappeared. Europeans returned to Greenland much later in the early 18th century. They found remains of the settlements but no trace of the people. The fate of Greenland’s Vikings — who never numbered more than 2,500 — “has intrigued and confounded generations of archaeologists” says the Smithsonian Magazine. How did these tough seafarers, who had settled for centuries in the spartan landscape of Greenland, had built mansions and churches, carried on trade with Europe, just disappear from the island?
There are theories galore to explain this disappearance and much archaeological work continues to determine the causes. But consensus points at a possible combination of factors — a pandemic of Black Death that swept through Norway cutting economic ties with Greenland, a volcanic eruption in Lombok, Indonesia that had a global impact including famine and a cooling of the climate and the most surprising — trade between Europe and Africa that brought elephant ivory into the market, slowly crushing the market for walrus tusks. Being a small community, they possibly could not face the brunt of so many reasons. Its possible that a few migrated back to Iceland and maybe some were lost at sea as they sailed. Maybe some assimilated with the Inuits and took on seal skin as clothing. There are few or no documents to prove any of this. But one tiny clue points at possible immigration. Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson were married at the Hvalsey Church in Greenland and were later recorded as living in Iceland in the 15thcentury.
“Maybe it’s the usual human story. People move to where there are resources. And they move away when something doesn’t work for them.” Says Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen. And so, the Vikings left the ice sheets of this Arctic island till a few centuries later, modern Europe found it again.
In the last few years, we have seen each of those reasons that drove the Vikings away from Greenland reappear at a global scale — the ice shelves are melting in chunks the size of countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has left no one untouched and the global economy is in a struggle, asphyxiated by political agenda and cartels. The Vikings who left Greenland possibly boarded their ships to find less hostile conditions but as a collective group — humanity really has no route of escape.
“If Greenland’s ice losses continue on their current trajectory, an extra 25 million people could be flooded each year by the end of this century,” said Prof Andy Shepherd from Leeds University. And will Greenland itself survive this? Has it crossed a point of no return and will we manage to melt the million year old ice sheets into the depths of the Arctic in a few years? Is Greenland’s fate a mirror to what awaits the rest of us?
I see myself landing in Nuuk not so far in the future. Maybe walking on those ice sheets in snowshoes. And while I do that, I will recite a prayer from the Saga of the Greenlanders, not just to keep the icebergs from melting, but for a planet from disappearing.