Monday, April 04, 2005

Grape Land or Grass Land?

It was called “Vinland” and it’s believed to have been a site the Vikings discovered on the eastern coast of North America. Leif Eriksson named it when his explorations, some historians believe, brought him to the Atlantic’s western shores approximately 1000 A.D. Eriksson may not have been the first Viking to see Vinland, and the locale is cloaked in mystery.

Where, exactly, was it? Robert Wernick, in The Vikings (Time-Life Books, 1979), wrote: “Precisely where the Vikings went, how long they stayed, what they did and why they left are pieces of a tantalizing puzzle.”

Eriksson named it Vinland (“wine land”) because his crew reportedly found grapes there -- real, wine-producing grapes (as contrasted with gooseberries, currants or other types of fruit). Hence a problem for historians: From the descriptions in old Norse records, they feel confident the Vikings at that time were exploring the northerly finger of Newfoundland. Grapes can’t grow in those latitudes.

Several theories have been put forth to explain the enigma. Some believe the Viking expeditions actually reached much farther south, to Nova Scotia or even New England. Others speculate the word “Vinland” alludes not to “wine land” but to “grass land” (which could have been found most anywhere). A few reckon Eriksson blatantly fabricated the vision of a foreign grape land in order to entice people from his home country to settle there.

History now records, incidentally, that Bjarni Herjulfsson, another Viking mariner, preceded Eriksson to the North American coast about 15 years earlier. But if Herjulfsson encountered the fruit of the vine, he made no known record of it.


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