Do you know why the land and ice in the surroundings of the North Pole are called Greenland—in French, Groenland? You might think that the name comes from an old inuk word, but Erik the Red supposedly named the island when he founded a Viking colony there in 984 A.D. Some historians claim that Erik the Red invented the term green land to entice his kinsmen to that desolate land. This is perhaps not really true, because even if Greenland seems today to be a huge white expanse, along certain fjords one can still see green fields where animals are raised. Between 984 and the fifteenth century this was “the most distant fore-posts of European civilization.” “Scandinavians 1,500 miles from Norway built a cathedral and churches, wrote in Latin and Old Norse, wielded iron tools, herded farm animals, followed the latest European fashions in clothing—and finally vanished.”1 The stone church in Hvalsey endured; the Vikings of Greenland, who numbered five thousand in 1000, disappeared, while their neighbors the Inuits barely survived.
Around the year 800 Scandinavia was warming up, but the cultivatable lands in its mountainous regions and along its rocky coasts were too few to feed the large Viking population. On their fast-sailing ships that were capable of long voyages, the Vikings set off in search of more abundant lands. Some eventually settled under the Sicilian sun, but in the North Atlantic they founded several colonies: in the Orcades, the Shetland Islands, the Feroe Islands, in Iceland, and in Greenland. From there, the descendants of Erik the Red even tried to settle in a land they called Vinland, which today would include the coasts of Canada south of Labrador as well as Newfoundland, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and part of the coast of New England. But their attempts quickly failed, it seems, owing to a lack of means and men to fight the Indians. Those intrepid adventurers thus returned home to the shores of Greenland, which were more peaceful though less hospitable. Four hundred years after Erik the Red landed, only the ruins of farms where his countrymen attempted a life remained.