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Why The Vikings Chose The Misleading Name ‘Greenland’

Why The Vikings Chose The Misleading Name ‘Greenland’

greenland, ice, name, vikings, mislead, iceland, green

We all know the story of Columbus mistakingly naming the native inhabitants of the America’s ‘Indians’. It still is fascinating that this error was never rectified. But how about the name Greenland for a big piece of ice and snow? Where did that come from? Is there another amusing story behind this misfit?

Unlike Iceland, which can actually be very green, Greenland’s surface is for 80 percent covered with ice. True, the ice takes a blue/greenish color during the winter. Only in summertime, when the ice starts melting and therefore incorporates air in it’s upper layer, it turns white. But still, to call an icecap ‘Greenland’ is a bit misleading.

Was that the intention of the Vikings? The story goes that these wild Nordics actually mixed up the names of Iceland and Greenland on purpose, to fool their rivals in case they were planning to take over one of these lands. They would surely pick Greenland over Iceland to try and settle onto. It’s a nice story and sounds like a clever plan, but the theory doesn’t really hold up in scientific research.

Scientific research here is historical research. This is a bit problematic. There is almost no chance of ever being sure of how the name for Greenland was made up, since this probably happened somewhere in the tenth century. That is when the Vikings settled on the icy landscape, while Eskimos (dorset inuit) had already been living on Greenland for eight centuries.

The discovery of Greenland by the Scandinavians is described in so called Saga’s. One of them, Erik the Red’s saga, is probably written in the twelfth century. In this epic story Erik the Red is the man that discovers Greenland and decides to give it an attractive name because it would motivate people to start living there. He found a habitable area and actually aimed to attract more settlers.

Another saga proposes a totally different explanation of Greenlands name. According to ecclesiastical historian Adam of Bremen, who wrote his saga fifty years earlier than the one about Erik the Red, the land was called after the skincolor of the inhabitants. These eskimos were living close to the seawater for such a long time that they showed a greenish tinge on their bodies.

Jonathan Grove of the University of Cambridge studied both the saga’s and can’t say which theory is more plausible. The author of Erik the Red’s Saga, Ari Porgilson, had better access to information, yet he had a less neutral standpoint than Adam of Bremen, he explains in his paper. But overall he states that the saga’s ‘do not constitute primary sources for the history of Greenland’, anyway.

So that’s it. We are left with different stories and it is up to you to decide which you like best. But I personally have never seen people turn green by living next to the sea…



“Eirik the Red’s Saga”. Gutenberg.org. 8 March 2006. Retrieved 6 September 2010

Grove, J. (2009). The Place of Greenland in Medieval Icelandic Saga Narrative Journal of the North Atlantic, 2 (sp2), 30-51 DOI: 10.3721/037.002.s206

greenland, ice, name, vikings, mislead, iceland, green

This post was written by Katja Keuchenius:
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