Taissumani: Sept. 16, 1408 – Wedding at Hvalsey Church
One thousand years ago, Greenland was inhabited, not by Inuit, but by white men from Iceland and Norway. For almost 500 years Norsemen lived in south-western Greenland, in colonies that dated from the time of Eric the Red in the year 985. The Norse were farmers and herdsmen, and they found a land lush with vegetation, mild in the winter. Potatoes and other vegetables grew in the warm summers and cattle, sheep, goats and horses thrived. It had been the Norsemen’s good fortune to discover Greenland during a mild climatic period.
At its peak, the Norse population probably reached four or five thousand. In the “Eastern Settlement,” actually in southern Greenland near present-day Qaqortoq, there were about 190 dwellings, and in the “Western Settlement,” 500 kilometres farther north near present-day Nuuk, were another 90.
The Norse hunted too. They traveled north along the coast as far as Upernavik in search of polar bear, walrus and narwhal. They traded bear skins and ivory tusks to Europe. The narwhal tusk, in particular, was highly prized; it was thought to be the horn of the legendary unicorn, and was worth its weight in gold.
About the year 1250, the ancestors of the present-day Greenlanders entered Greenland by way of Ellesmere Island. These were Inuit of the Thule Culture. They migrated rapidly southwards along the coast. The Norse first encountered them on their hunting trips to the north. They called them “Skraellings.”
Within a hundred years of their arrival in Greenland they had reached the Western Settlement. In fact, by the mid-fourteenth century no Norse were to be found in that settlement. A relief expedition from the Eastern Settlement reported in the 1350s: “Now the Skraellings have the entire Western Settlement; though there are plenty of horses, goats, oxen and sheep, all wild, but no people, Christian or heathen.”
During the 1400s, contact between Europe and the Norse in Greenland ceased. In 1721 Hans Egede, a Norwegian missionary, arrived in Greenland in quest of the remnants of the Norse colony. He assumed that they had survived and his intention was to reconvert them to Christianity. But he found only Inuit in the country.
Egede’s son, Niels, who learned well the language of the Greenlandic Inuit, heard from a shaman about attacks on the Norse colonies by European pirates. After one attack, Niels Egede wrote:
“The surviving Norsemen loaded their vessels with what was left and set sail to the south of the country, leaving some behind, whom the Greenlanders [Inuit] promised to assist if something bad should happen. A year later, the evil pirates returned and, when the Greenlanders saw them, they took flight, taking along some of the Norse women and children, to the fjord, leaving the others in the lurch. When the Greenlanders returned in the fall… they saw to their horror that everything had been pillaged, houses and farms set ablaze and destroyed. Upon this sight, the Greenlanders took the Norse women and children with them, fleeing far into the fjord. And there they remained in peace for many years, taking the Norse women into marriage.”
These reports tell of three causes of the disappearance of the Norse from Greenland. Undoubtedly there were instances of friction between the Norse and the Inuit, and Inuit legends tell of battles between the two sides. There were also attacks by European pirates. No doubt some of the Norse left the country and returned to Europe, or tried to. Others may have tried to escape to North America, their fabled Vinland.
But other causes of their disappearance must also be accepted. Bubonic plague had ravaged Europe in the mid-1300s, ruining its economy. Demand for Greenlandic products declined. The climate had also worsened. A period of severe climate called the Little Ice Age had begun, and the land was no longer conducive to agriculture. The Norse failed to adapt their life style to the deteriorating conditions — they did not learn from their Inuit neighbours how to make their living from the sea. Those who did not leave or were not killed in battle died or intermarried with the Inuit.
The last dated reference to the Norse in Greenland is an account of a wedding at Hvalsey Church near Qaqortoq, in the Eastern Settlement. The marriage of Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Torstein Olavsson took place on September 16, 1408, officiated by two priests who had read the banns on three consecutive Sundays. By this time the colony was in decline. Sporadic references to the Norse in Greenland continued to appear in Europe from time to time until eventually the colony was forgotten.