Fearsome fighters, successful traders, intrepid travellers…there wasn’t much the Vikings weren’t good at. Equipped with their advanced seafaring techniques, they exploded out of Scandinavia during the 8th century AD and successfully spread across the world. During the next three centuries, from America to the Far East, these adventurous people left their mark on the world around them.
We take a look at some of the greatest Viking explorers that ever lived.
In the early 800s, Norse Vikings began to settle the Faroe Islands. Hailing from Norway, a man named Naddodd hoped to make his way to the Islands but during his journey, his vessel was blown off course. Lost at sea, he eventually drifted to the east coast of Iceland, becoming the first person to discover it, albeit by accident.
After climbing a mountain and failing to find any sign of human activity, he returned to his boat as it began to snow. He decided to christen the newly discovered land ‘Snowland'. A Swede by the name of Garðar Svavarsson was blown off course on his way to the Hebrides and became the next Viking to arrive on Icelandic shores. He was the first person to circumnavigate Iceland, establishing the fact it was an island. Again, he didn’t hang around long but felt compelled enough that the new land should be called ‘Garðarshólmi’, after his own name.
After his return to Norway, Naddodd spread the news of his discovery and inspired a fellow Norwegian, Flóki Vilgerðarson, to become the first Norseman to intentionally set sail for the newly discovered Iceland. Flóki spent one winter there with his family and the sagas say he was the one who gave Iceland its current name after climbing a mountain and seeing a fjord full of icebergs.
In the early 870s, Ingólfr Arnarson became the first Norse settler of Iceland along with his wife and brother. According to tradition, they founded Reykjavík in 874 AD. It wasn’t long before the settlement had grown to some 20,000 people.
Erik the Red
One of Iceland’s most famous sons was a legendarily aggressive warrior named Erik the Red. Although initially from Norway, Erik's father uprooted the family early in Erik's life and migrated to Iceland. The reason? His father had been found guilty of some murders. Violence was clearly in Erik's blood and as a young man, he too found himself in temporary exile from Iceland after some killings.
However, Erik was also blessed with an adventurous spirit and used his time in exile well, discovering Greenland in around 982 AD. Although a Norwegian by the name of Gunnbjörn Ulfsson is often credited as the first person to spot Greenland, Erik the Red is acknowledged as founding its first settlement, after persuading 500 or so Icelanders to accompany him to establish a colony there. His naming of the newly discovered land as ‘Greenland’ was an attempt to make the island sound more appealing. In the end, his colony would last until the mid-15th century.
Although the Vikings used advanced navigational techniques whilst at sea, including a sun compass, they were still very much at the mercy of the winds. An Icelandic Norseman called Bjarni Herjólfsson found himself blown off course on his way from Iceland to Greenland and in the process ended up becoming the first known European to spot North America in 986 AD.
Upon finally reaching Greenland he spoke of his discovery of lands to the west. Some sixteen years later, Leif Erikson, the son of Erik the Red, hoped to retrace Herjólfsson’s steps and become the first European to set foot on the mysterious land of forests and mountains that he’d heard so much about.
Purchasing the same ship that Herjólfsson had been on when he’d seen North America, Leif gathered a crew and set sail. Historians believe that Leif landed on Baffin Island and Labrador before finally making camp on Newfoundland, setting foot on North American soil some 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The Vikings called it ‘Vinland’, due to the wild grapes that apparently grew there.
After wintering in Vinland exploring the surrounding area, Leif returned to Greenland to tell of his amazing discovery.
By any standards, Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir was a well-travelled person, which was reflected in her nickname the ‘far-traveller’. Born in Iceland in the late 900s AD, her life story is documented in two Old Norse sagas, ‘The Saga of Erik the Red’ and ‘The Saga of the Greenlanders’. Her story begins on a voyage with her father from Iceland to Greenland to join Erik the Red’s new colony that had been established there.
The tales differ in their accounts of what comes next but the gist of it saw her arrive safely in Greenland. She would spend the next couple of winters living in harsh conditions as famine and illness struck the fledgeling colony. She was said to marry Thorstein, the son of Erik the Red and younger brother of Leif Erikson. Their marriage was short-lived as Thorstein died of illness not long after they were wed.
Her next marriage was to an Icelandic merchant called Thorfinn Karlsefni. She persuaded Thorfinn to voyage with her to Vinland. Along with around sixty men, five women and various livestock, the pair led an attempt to settle the newly discovered lands.
Whilst in Vinland, Gudrid gave birth to a son called Snorri who became the first known European to be born in North America. It’s believed Gudrid lived in Vinland for three years before returning to Iceland and in her later years she even travelled to Rome; an intrepid explorer to the very end.
Vikings in the East
As well as being adventurous travellers, the Vikings were also excellent traders, trading all over Europe, North Africa and as far east as Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), which was the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, the eastern wing of the old Roman Empire. Some Norsemen made it further to Baghdad in Iraq, returning home with ships laden with silks, spices and silver. In return, the Vikings sold items such as amber, fur, wool and leather.
In Eastern Europe they settled on coastal areas along the Baltic Sea and their presence was felt in what is now modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The Norse settlers of these regions became known as the Rus’ people, providing the name for the future country of Russia. The Rus’ would supply the first members of the Varangian Guard, an elite fighting force sworn to protect the Byzantine Emperor. Amongst its established ranks would be the last great Viking ruler, Harald Hardrada, who joined the Guard as a young man and forged his reputation as a mighty warrior there.
For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.