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Thirteenth-century Viking Legend in Canada? January 10, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

hudson bay strait

Did the Vikings believe that mythical outlaws dwelt on Canada’s Baffin Island, perhaps parallel to the outlaws of the Icelandic interior that we have looked at before on this blog? It seems unlikely given that Greenlanders – the closest ‘Vikings’ to Baffin – are not supposed by some to have visited North American after about 1000. And yet the evidence is there in a thirteenth-century saga. Beach now hands over to a reader, Leif, who has practically written this post in an email. The saga referred to is normally dated to the thirteenth century. It goes without saying: thanks without end to  Leif!

Your ‘Europeans in Pre-Columbian Baffin Island’ post reminded me of something I read years ago– a saga reference to an outlaw in the Hudson Bay strait. Finding the reference has become something of an obsession during the past few days (Google is not as straightforward as one might think). The reference comes from Örvar Oddr’s saga, chapter 21. This saga is a legend, populated with trolls, giants, and monsters. Nevertheless, what if there’s a grain of truth to it? The Iliad is legendary, but Troy existed. Did Viking outlaws hide out on Baffin Island sometime before the 13th century? In chapter 21, Oddr and his son Vignir, a giant, seek revenge on Ögmundr. Ögmundr is an outlaw and, as we would say these days, the baddest of the bad.

Leif now gives his own translation from the saga, a translation that he put together from various sources. As Leif would be the first to admit it would be good to get a direct and straightforward translation of the Old Norse here: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

In the morning they got ready to sail. Then Vignir asked what Oddr wanted. He said he wanted to look for Ögmundr Eyþjófsbana.

‘You won’t get much good from him, if you find him,’ said Vignir. ‘He’s the biggest troll and worst giant that is to be found in the northern part of the world.’

‘Is it not true that you dare not see or find Ögmundr Flóka,’ said Oddr. ‘You who are the greatest in size and strength of my men?’

‘In the end, you won’t be able to say that I am afraid.’ said Vignir. ‘But I’ll say these words just once, so that you’ll listen better. I will tell you where Ögmundr is. He has come into a fjord that is called Shadow. He is in the deserts of Helluland, him and his gang. He has gone there so he doesn’t have to worry about meeting you. You can look for him if you want and find out how it goes.’

Oddr said it would happen.

Then they sailed until they came to the Greenland sea, then they turned south and west along the coast. Then Vignir: ‘Now I shall lead the ship today, but you’ll follow after.’

Oddr accepted his advice. Vignir was ship’s helmsman.

After a few days, they saw two cliffs come out of the sea. Odd thought this was quite strange. They sailed from between the cliffs. As the day wore on, they saw a huge island. Odd said they should land there. Vignir asked, ‘What’s the good in that?’ Odd asked five men to land and seek water. Vignir said there was no need, and asked that none of his men go along. But when Odd’s men came to the island, and they had been there a little while, the island sank and drowned them all. Heather covered the island’s heights. They did not see the island again. When they looked in the direction of the cliffs, they were gone.

Oddr was astonished and asked Vignir what happened.

Vignir said, ‘You’ve learned from experience. Now I will tell you that there are two sea-monsters. One is called the Hafgufa (sea-mist), another Lyngbakr (heather-back). Whales are the biggest of everything in the world, but the Hafgufa is the greatest monster occurring in the water. It is its nature that it swallows both men and ships and whales and everything that it can reach. It is submerged both by day and night together, and when it strikes up its head and nose above the surface, then it stays at least until the turn of the tide. Now, that sound we sailed through? We sailed between its jaws, and its nose and lower jaw were those rocks that appeared to you in the ocean, while the Lyngbakr was the island we saw sinking down. However, Ögmundr Flóka has sent these creatures to you by means of his secret arts for to cause the death of you and all your men. He thought that more men should have gone the same way as those that had already drowned, and he expected that the Hafgufa would have swallowed us all. Today I sailed through its mouth because I knew that it had recently surfaced.’

‘We’ll continue at our own risk’, said Odd.

Leif now goes on to try and situate this episode. He starts by noting that Helluland, the land of flat rocks, is the Old Norse name for Baffin Island. This is almost universally accepted.

In The voyages of the Norsemen to AmericaWilliam Hovgaard observes that is seems ‘…probable that the tale refers to some point on the coasts of Hudson Strait, where the tidal range reaches some forty feet.’ Disappearing islands could easily account for Hafgufa and Lyngbakr. Significantly, Vignir knew he would be safe until the turn of the tide. Sailing the Hudson Strait would be daunting for the crew of a small, medieval ship, which would explain why Vignir– who is familiar with the area– takes the helm. Norse Greenlanders might wisely choose to avoid these waters. But outlaws might just choose to hide, literally, in desperate straits– so there’s an off chance that someday, someone will find Ögmundr’s hideout. [Hovgaard, William. The voyages of the Norsemen to AmericaNew York: The American-Scandinavian foundation.1914.]

A couple of other thoughts. We have looked before at two bits of evidence for European visits to pre-Columbian Baffin Island: a statuette and archaeological finds. However, there is also the evidence in the Inventio Fortunata for a visit further to the south and a famous reference in an Icelandic chronicle for a fourteenth-century Greenlander trip to Markland (tree land), presumably Labrador. In that last reference (another post another day) Markland is mentioned without any explanation, which suggests that Icelanders had it on their mental map, as they presumably had Helluland. There are, however, also some late saga references to Vinland that suggest that Vinland had become entirely mythical by the fourteenth century. The question is in which category should we place Helluland in this saga. Is it a setting for a mythical tale or is it mythical setting for a tale? Note that in the medieval European tradition physical locations are sometimes given mythical connotations: e.g. Ireland among the British Celts. Just because it is mythical does not mean that it is non-existent or unvisited.

Again kudos to Leif!