How far did the Vikings go?

In the spirit of Leif Eriksson

viking ship

Photo: Corey Ford / iStock
A seafaring people the Vikings traveled to many Northern countries in their sturdy boats.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

With Leif Eriksson Day celebrations set for Oct. 9, some of you may be wondering how far the Vikings may have traveled throughout the world. Did the Vikings ever reach Boston? Probably not. Yet it offers a fun story and interesting speculation, particularly since we could prove “yes” if we find evidence, but we could never prove “no.”

The Vikings continue to be associated with Norway and its neighbors, representing adventure, exploration, and excitement. Although they never seem to have worn horned helmets and their use of runes is generally overstated, these symbols remain in the cute stuffed toys and fridge magnets that continue to sell. More realistically, the Vikings’ slavery, warmongering, and assault do not match today’s expectations of Nordic peoples and the rest of humanity.

With the bad comes the good. Their rich culture and legal system influenced Europe, still evident today in the north from mottos to parliamentary structures and from food to architecture. The Vikings were seafarers, settling Iceland and the Faroe Islands (although they were not the first humans to live there), followed by attempted settlements in Newfoundland and Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). They were well-known around the Mediterranean and the Caspian seas.

These are impressive achievements for just a few centuries of work without the steam engine, electricity, or other modern conveniences. The eternal mystery remains: how far did they actually travel? Especially since the definition of “Viking” matters and not all the actions attributed to Vikings were necessarily completed by “real” Vikings.

The idea of Vikings in New England is a long and winding tale. A historian, a poet, a chemist, and a violinist are among the 19th century figures speculating, claiming, advocating, and hoping that Leif Eriksson, and presumably people with him, graced Beantown’s shores. Some are legitimate analyses, hypothesizing and weighing the evidence. Others are complete fabrications. Whims and obsessions, without evidence or expert acceptance, led to the private funding of an Eriksson statue, commemorative plaques, and even a stone tower.

Ultimately, the desire for Vikings to have reached Boston has led to sites purporting to mark Vikings having actually reached Boston. This manufacturing of history does not diminish the Vikings’ accepted deeds.

The Viking remnants in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada, remain the first confirmed presence of Europeans in the Americas. The location appears to have been a temporary base, with the Vikings visiting Baffin Island, other parts of Newfoundland, and Labrador. Why would they not have ventured farther south?

To the east, the Vikings were well-known along the Volga River and around the Caspian Sea. Did a single one ever leave their boat and comrades to trek overland beyond the Vikings’ known inland forays?

In the end, we will never really know how far the Vikings reached. A boatload or an individual could have voyaged thousands of miles past accepted sites, only to vanish in a storm, to be killed by locals, or to settle peacefully and then be wiped out by disease or an earthquake including the loss of any genetic legacy through children. This extent might have included Cape Cod or might have bypassed it entirely. Any evidence from Havana to Lagos to Tashkent would be far gone.

Then, as with so many other peoples, why did the Vikings fade out of history? Theories abound, including the rise of Christianity, internal strife within Viking society, assimilation with locals, and communities improving at defending themselves. It was most likely a combination over an extended period.

The Viking presence in Britain is taken as ending in 1066 at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, when King Harold killed his namesake Harald III Hardraade, Norway’s king. Harold then marched to Hastings to suffer his own ignominious and/or noble defeat and (legend adds) death to William, the Duke of Normandy. And thus, that year, Britain’s Anglo-Saxon era also ended.

The Viking spirit in Norway still manifests in histories, souvenirs, and tourist attractions such as the Flåm Railway—admittedly, definitely still well worth the journey for the scenery. And their presence in our minds and cultures today, despite having disappeared so long ago, is a testament to how far the Vikings have traveled in time.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.