Skræling (Old Norse and Icelandic: skrælingi, plural skrælingjar) is the name the Norse Greenlanders used for the indigenous peoples they encountered in North America and Greenland. In surviving sources, it is first applied to the Thule people, the proto-Inuit group with whom the Norse coexisted in Greenland after about the 13th century. In the sagas, it is also used for the peoples of the region known as Vinland whom the Norse encountered during their expeditions there in the early 11th century.
The term is thought to have first been used by Ari Þorgilsson in his work Íslendingabók, also called The Book of the Icelanders, written well after the period in which Norse explorers made their first contacts with indigenous Americans. By the time these sources were recorded, skræling was the common term Norse Greenlanders used for the Thule people, the ancestors to the modern Inuit. The Thule first arrived in Greenland from the North American mainland in the 13th century and were thereafter in contact with the Greenlanders. The Greenlanders' Saga and the Saga of Erik the Red, which were written in the 13th century, use this same term for the people of the area known as Vinland whom the Norse met in the early 11th century. The word subsequently became well known, and has been used in the English language since the 18th century.
The word skræling is the only word surviving from the Old Norse dialect spoken by the mediæval Norse Greenlanders. In modern Icelandic, skrælingi means a barbarian or foreigner. The origin of the word is not certain. William Thalbitzer (1932: 14) speculates that skræling might have been derived from the Norse verb skråla, meaning "bawl, shout, or yell". An etymology by Michael Fortescue et al. (1994) proposes that the Icelandic word skrælingi (savage) may be related to the word "skrá", meaning "dried skin", in reference to the animal pelts worn by the Inuit.
Some scholars have speculated that skrælingi came from the Scandinavian word skral or the Icelandic word skrælna. The word skral connotes "thin" or "scrawny". In the Scandinavian languages, it is often used as a synonym for feeling sick or weak, but this speculation is probably a case of folk etymology or linguistic "false friend"; the word skral does not exist in medieval Norse texts (for example the Icelandic sagas) nor in modern Icelandic. It is a 17th-century loanword from Low German into the Scandinavian languages: Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. Skræling or skrælling means weakling in modern Norwegian and Danish. Skrælna refers to shrinking or drying (plants for example). The term is moderately pejorative in Erik the Red's Saga as it is first used after a negative description of Native Newfoundlanders encountered in Vinland. First Nations people in Canada consider it offensive.
Another explanation for the etymology of the word skræling is proposed by Kirsten Seaver in her work "'Pygmies' of the Far North." The pygmy belongs to a vein of mythological races that was ubiquitous throughout Ancient and medieval lore dating as far back as Homer's Iliad. Scottish writer Alexander Ross wrote of the phenomena of the Pygmy
|“||that there have been Pigmies in the world, that is, people of a cubit or two high. . . . I say there have been such, I make no question, when I consider the multitude of eminent Authours who have writ on them, and that no reason was ever yet alledged to deny them.||”|
The ubiquity of the term pygmy throughout many different cultures and places in the known world lends to the validity of their mythical existence. Other monster races referred to by Norse writers were based on the monster races created by Pliny the Elder in his work Natural History (Pliny), including the infamous Monopod which made an appearance in the Saga of Erik the Red:
|“||True it was that our men tracked a one-legged creature down to the shore. The uncanny fellow fled in a flash, though rough was his way, hear us Karlsefni!||”|
The Pygmy was a known idea to privileged Norse explorers like Leif Eriksson and as North America was a foreign and inhospitable land on the edges of the world known to the Norse, they were quick to label these new people Pygmies, since they would have been smaller in stature than the Norse explorers. Kirsten Seaver contends that the word skræling was a direct Old Norse translation of the Latin word Pygmaei, and referred to this newly discovered and misinterpreted monster race indigenous to North America.
Viking use of the word skræling was predicated upon their view of the geographic world around them. Scandinavian peoples would have believed in a spherical world as opposed to the popular modern view of medieval societies and the Myth of the Flat Earth. In fact, the idea that medieval societies believed the world to be flat is one of the great errors in modern historical teaching, and there were hardly any medieval scholars who did not acknowledge the Earth's roundness. Kirsten A. Seaver conveys traditional medieval thinking: "Some medieval cosmographers fitted the three known continents into a tidy circular frame for illustration purposes, and others allowed for a fourth, unknown continent, but most believed that on the spherical earth they took for granted, Asia, Africa, and Europe interconnected and accounted for the world's landmass in such a way that only the Mare Oceanum separated westernmost Europe from the conjoined east coasts of Asia and Africa."
Explorers from this time would not have been scared of "falling off the edge of the world", as they believed that by sailing west, one would eventually find more land: Asia to be specific. With Norway as the Viking explorers' northwestern extreme, these intrepid explorers headed due west to cross the open sea to reach the Eurasian continent's eastern edge fully expecting to encounter one of the legendary monster races face to face. The oldest accounts of the Norse exploration of Greenland and North America come from the writings of Adam of Bremen who wrote the History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Adam of Bremen confidently stated that the world is round, and briefly described what they would have believed to be the Eastern coast of Asia. He wrote thus on Vinland:
|“||It is called Vinland because vines producing excellent wine grow wild there. That unsown crops also abound on that island we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relation of the Danes.||”|
The explorations of the New World were broadcast across the Scandinavian world, but were not seen as great discoveries such as the Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Because the explorers were unable to establish long-lasting colonies like Iceland, they were viewed as failures on the other side of the Eurasian continent.
Norse exploration of the New World
Norse exploration of the New World began with the initial sighting of North America by an Icelander named Bjarni Herjólfsson who spotted land after drifting off course on a journey to Greenland in 985 or 986.
|“||They speculated among themselves as to what land this would be, for Bjarni said he suspected this was not Greenland.||”|
His voyage piqued the interest of later explorers including Leif Eriksson who would explore and name the areas of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. He built some large houses on Vinland on his voyage and was said to inhabit the area for one year after, and this site is believed to be the archaeological site L'Anse aux Meadows discovered by Helge Ingstad.
At the site of L'Anse aux Meadows, Eriksson laid the groundwork for later colonizing efforts in the generations to come by establishing a foothold on Vinland, when he constructed some "large houses." Upon his return to Greenland,
|“||There was great discussion of Leif's Vinland voyage and his brother Thorvald felt they had not explored enough of the land. Leif then said to Thorvald, 'You go to Vinland, brother, and take my ship if you wish, but before you do so I want the ship to make a trip to the skerry to fetch the wood that Thorir had there'||”|
Thorvald has the first contact with the native population which would come to be known as the skrælings. After capturing and killing eight of the natives, they were attacked at their beached ships, which they defended:
|“||'I have been wounded under my arm,' he said. 'An arrow flew between the edge of the ship and the shield into my armpit. Here is the arrow, and this wound will cause my death.'||”|
Thorfinn Karlsefni was the first Norse explorer to attempt to truly colonize the newly discovered land of Vinland on the same site as his predecessors Thorvald and Leif Eriksson. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, he set sail with three ships and 140 men.
Upon reaching Vinland, their intended destination, they found the now famous grapes and self-sown wheat which the land was named for. They spent a very hard winter at this site, where they barely survived by fishing, hunting game inland, and gathering eggs on the island. The following summer they sailed to the island of Hop where they had the first peaceful interactions with the native people, whom they traded with. Karlsefni forbade his men to trade their swords and spears, so they mainly exchanged their red cloth for pelts. Afterwards they were able to properly describe the aboriginal inhabitants, saying:
|“||They were short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. Their eyes were large and their cheeks broad.||”|
Shortly thereafter the Norsemen were attacked by natives who had been frightened by a bull that broke loose from their encampment. They were forced to retreat to an easily defensible location and engage their attackers; at the end of the battle two of his men had been slain, while "many of the natives" were killed. As with anywhere in this foreign land, Karlsefni and his men realized that
|“||despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants.||”|
After this adventure they returned to Greenland—their three-year excursion would be the longest-lasting known European colony in the New World until Columbus' voyages nearly 500 years later initiated full-scale colonization.
Inuit folktales of the Norse
There are even indigenous accounts from the Inuit peoples which tell of the Norse travels to their land, and describe their interactions with them:
|“||soon the kayaker sent out his spear in good earnest, and killed him on the spot...When winter came, it was a general belief that the Kavdlunait would come and avenge the death of their countrymen||”|
Kavdlunait was the Inuit word for foreigner or European. As with Norse accounts, the interactions between the peoples was still steeped in violence and revenge, thus hindering peaceful cohabitation and successful colonization by the Norse explorers.
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