Before Cabot

For many years, the history of European exploration of Newfoundland was assumed to begin only with the voyage of John Cabot and the Matthew in 1497. The suggestion that the Norse had voyaged to Newfoundland 500 years earlier was dismissed as the stuff of fantasy and legends. Part of the problem was that the only available evidence for such voyages was what was written in the sagas. These were written down long after the alleged voyages, and were filled with all sorts of fantastic stories based more on imagination than the real world. Moreover, the sagas were quite vague on details, and often one saga contradicted another. And since the alleged Norse discoveries failed to result in a permanent European foothold in the New World, it seemed inconceivable that they could actually have occurred. Consequently, it was far easier for historians to conclude that Vinland simply never existed at all, except in the minds of storytellers.

The Saga of Eirik the Red
The Saga of Eirik the Red
Section of the early 14th century manuscript (Hauksbók) which details how Eirik discovered Greenland and his son, Leif the Lucky, found Vinland. For many years, scholars dismissed the existence of Vinland as a fabrication of storytellers. However, these sagas contain information concerning actual voyages, discoveries and geographical knowledge. The translation of this part of the saga reads:

One day the king [Olaf Tryggvason] spoke to Leif, saying, 'Do you mean to go out to Greenland this summer?'
'That I do,' said Leif, 'if it be your will.'
The king answers, 'I believe it will be well, and you shall go thither on my errand and announce the Christian faith there.'
Leif said it should be as he would, but this seemed to him a hard errand to carry out in Greenland.
The king said that he saw no man better suited to the task than he - 'and luck will go with you.'
'Only if I have yours,' says Leif. Leif puts out to sea and is long voyaging, and he made landfall where he had never before expected to find land; there was self-sown wheat there, and vines; there were trees of the kind called Maple - and all of these they brought some tokens; some timbers so large that they were used for house-building.
Leif found men on a wreck and brought them home with him. In this he showed the greatest nobility and manliness, as in much else, when he brought the Christian faith to the land, and was ever since called Leif the Lucky.

From the Arnamagnæan Collection, Copenhagen, N. 544, 4to: Hauksbók, beginning of the 14th century. Description and image found in Jónas Kristjánsson, Icelandic Sagas and Manuscripts (Reykjavik, Iceland: Saga Publishing Co., ©1970) 12. Image courtesy of The Arnamagnæan Institute, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Of course, thanks to archaeological work at L'Anse aux Meadows, we now know that the Norse did indeed make it as far as Newfoundland. Suddenly, the legitimacy of the claims that they were the first to cross the Atlantic was beyond dispute. But if the Norse adventures, once believed to be fantasy, could turn out to have really happened, might the claims also be true, that others had voyaged across the Atlantic before them? There have been claims advanced in support of voyages by the Phoenicians (who certainly had the techniques and skills for ocean sailing). Around 330 BC, the Greek geographer and mathematician Pytheas apparently sailed out into the Atlantic and eventually reached a land called Thule beyond Britain. Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the Atlantic in reed boats called the Ra I and Ra II in 1969 and 1970 in order to demonstrate that the ancient Egyptians were capable of crossing the Atlantic. Most such claims sound as fantastic and incredible to us as claims about the Norsemen had sounded to scholars a hundred years ago. And while none of these alleged voyages are completely beyond the realm of possibility, historians generally remain skeptical for two reasons. One, there is no undisputed evidence, such as a manuscript, a map, or archaeological remains, to support such claims. Two, even if such voyages did take place, can they be regarded as having any significance if they are lost in antiquity and led to no sustained contact between the Old World and the New? Nevertheless, to medieval Europeans, such legends and stories helped provide some measure of credibility to the idea that something lay out there beyond the distant Atlantic horizon.

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