[Originally published in Reader's Digest]
In ships like these, each with one great sail and 16 oars to a side, the Norsemen crossed the Atlantic Ocean. They made their trip 500 years before Columbus's first voyage to America.
Although they are only a little larger than today's fishing boats, the Viking ships are masterpieces. The keel, body and sides of the ships are of oak. The boards are thinned down perfectly. The calking is of twisted animal hair. Each boat has floorboards of pine. The single mast is made of spruce. The oars are set into oarlocks that could be closed in stormy weather.
The sail of a Viking ship was usually red and yellow. The prow was a dragon's head, and the stern was a dragon's tail. The shields of the fighting sailors were black or yellow, and lay over each other along the sides of the ship like a dragon's scales.
The Vikings had no maps or compasses. They found their direction by the North Star and figured how far north or south they were by other stars. By watching birds in flight, they could tell where land lay and how far away it was.
With a single sail, the Vikings could move a ship about freely only if the wind blew from behind them. Yet they worked their way through fields of icebergs. They were the greatest sailors who ever risked their lives and ships on the wide Atlantic.
The Vikings were the boldest pirates, too. They swept down on every coast of Europe. They overpowred the people of the Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands and Foroes, and then settled on these islands. They established themselves on the coast of France, where their descendants, the Normans, live today. They swept into England and taught the British to be sailors. The Vikings descendants there are the tall men and fair-haired girls of England.
The bold men of the north gave the English language much of its sailor talk: mast, keel, sail, iceberg and many more words. They raided Saxony for strong men and Ireland for beautiful girls. In the year 874, these Viking pirates went to Iceland and in 930 established a government whose parliament has lasted from that day to this. It is the oldest parliament in the world.
The Viking who settled in Iceland believed in the ancient Norse gods, Thor and Odin, and they also believed in freedom and law. a wife had equality with her husband and could own land, cattle and slaves.
Hospitality and courtesy were duties. Music and poetry were heard in the great halls. The world's literature was made richer by the Norse sagas-tales of heroes which were told to guests at feasts.
The Vilings had little of what we would call comfort, but they did have an abundance of gold and silver jewelry, beautifully woven cloth and wonderfully carved furniture. For the very rich, there were also silks and fine wines from far countries.
But riches were not the measure of a man. The perfect Viking hero was one who could jump as high as his head while wearing all his heavy fighting equipment. He could use his spear or sword with either his left hand or his right. He was a fighter who went into battle berserk. To the Norsemen berserk meant "filled with fighting fury".
Such a man was Eric the Red. He got his name from the color of his beard, which was as red as fire. He was like fire in other ways, too. He fought so wildly with other Norse families that the courts of law made him leave Iceland.
A Big Island
In 982 he sailed west into the unknown ocean, for he had heard that land had been sighted there by voyagers blown off their course. At last he, too, found a great island, which he named Greenland. He believed that such a name would bring settlers after him, and indeed it did.
This story comes down to us as The Saga of Eric the Red. It is written on ancient pages of leather in the Icelandic language.
The book was put together in 1320 by a man named Hauk. He simply wrote down the exciting story that had been told for hundreds of years. From the story we learn that Leif, a man of courage and courtesy, sailed to Norway, where he was well received by King Olaf in the year 1000.
The Christian religion was then sweeping into Scandinavia. The King's talk of the new religion inspired Leif and his sailors to become Christians. And the King commanded Leif to carry Christianity to Greenland.
[to be continued...]