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Wednesday, July 30th, 2014
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Fri, Oct 11th, 2002
Posted in Columnists
Posted in Columnists
Over 1000 years ago, on a cold, windy day (all days are cold and windy on the North Atlantic) a lone wooden ship landed on the coast of North America, probably somewhere on Newfoundland. The men who disembarked were expert sailors and explorers led by a man named Leif Ericsson. Leif the Lucky, as he was also known, was the first reliably documented explorer to reach North America. In his homeland of Norway and the United States, October 9 is celebrated as Leif Ericsson Day in recognition of his achievement. As many people in SE Minnesota have Scandinavian, British, or Irish blood, and as I am half Norwegian myself, I chose to write this first column about a subject of interest to us all: the many good achievements of our Viking ancestors.
First of all, the Vikings were not just bloodthirsty warriors in horned hats who pillaged monasteries and small, defenseless towns. The horned hats are just a fiction created by Hollywood, and while the Vikings did loot and pillage many monasteries and towns, they had another side. The Vikings, or Norsemen as they often were called, were the penultimate explorers and traders of their day. During the Viking heyday, from the 790’s to the early 1000’s, Norse longships carried trade goods all across Europe. From Denmark, Vikings traded with the French, English, and Irish, and turned the North Sea into a highway. They raided France and the British Isles, and controlled most of England for many years. Because of this, it is likely that anyone who has Irish or English ancestors also has at least one Viking somewhere in the family tree. The Vikings also sailed throughout the Mediterranean Sea and traded in Spain, along France’s southern coast, and in North Africa. From Norway, Viking explorers discovered and settled Iceland. Eric the Red, after being banished from Iceland, led the first colonists to Greenland, which he named “Green Land” in order to encourage more settlers. His son Leif then used Greenland as the starting point for his expeditions to North America. From Sweden, the Vikings sailed across the Baltic to Russia. From there they went up the rivers, hauling their long, narrow, and shallow ships from one river to another, eventually reaching the Black Sea and Constantinople. The impressive trading influence of the Vikings did not last. By AD 1070, the Norsemen were no longer a major force in European affairs. However, their brief period of power has had a great impact on the modern world. In Ireland, the port of Dublin was founded by Norsemen as a trading center which quickly grew to be Ireland’s first true city. Swedish Vikings, called ‘Rus’ by the tribes of Finland and the Baltic coast, established several trading settlements in Eastern Europe, including the modern city of Novgorod, and the area they controlled came to be known as Russia. In the ninth century these ‘Rus’ took control of the city of Kiev and its surrounding countryside. The modern nation of Russia is descended from that first, Norse-ruled city-state. Back in Western Europe the Vikings had gained control of part of northern France, which became known as Normandy. In 1066 AD, William, Duke of Normandy, led an invasion which conquered England. Many of the rulers and nobles of England have been descendents of the Norsemen. Even our language shows the impact of the Norse. Several English words come from Norse, including berserk, which today means wild or crazy. That word originated with Viking Berserkers, or “Bear-Shirts”, unarmored warriors who drove themselves into a mad frenzy before combat. Four days of the week are named after Norse gods, namely Tyr (Tuesday), Woden or Odin (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday), and either Frey or Freya (Friday). The Vikings, both the peaceful merchants and the violent raiders, had an immense effect on the world. Several nations owe their existence, as we know it, to the Norse. Those of us with Viking blood, whether from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, Ireland, or elsewhere, should be proud of our heritage. Next October 9, remember to celebrate Leif Ericsson Day in honor of the true discoverer of America. Matt Ruen is a student at Lanesboro High School. The Journal Writing Project focuses on the writing of area young people.