In 982, Erik the Red took a boat and set sail for the west. He had been recently sentenced to three years of exile from Iceland for a series of killings that he committed. A wild temper was inherent in his family, evidenced by the fact that his father had also been sentenced for manslaughter in Norway. He was banished to Iceland and took little Erik with him.
Erik grew up to be a huge man, one of short temper, but also curious and thirsty for adventure. Unlike most people, who would have probably sailed for some other known lands, he decided to put trust into chance and decided to sail for unknown lands in the west.
He was not the first Norseman to go to these lands, as there were several others who had gone to explore them before him, but he was the first man to actually try to settle them.
He spent his three years of exile exploring the vast new lands. After his period of banishment was over, he went back to Iceland to recruit people to help him settle the land. In order to entice them, he named the land Greenland.
The Vikings Were Fierce Warriors
From the 9th to the 12th centuries, the Vikings were some of the fiercest people in Europe. The sight of the Viking longship would always strike fear in the hearts of all the people living in lands bordering the sea.
The Vikings participated in many raids of coastal areas ranging from Russia to England and France, sometimes sailing to places as far away as the Mediterranean. However, they were not only known as fearless warriors, but also as merchants and most importantly, explorers. They plied the northern seas and settled many inhospitable lands.
All these events would later be retold in stories that were passed from one generation to the next. The heroic deeds of the ancestors would be preserved for the posterity in order to teach them about the past and help them better prepare for the future. These stories were known as the sagas.
Ancient Norse Wisdom Literature
The sagas however were not the only type of literature that has survived from that period. One series of poems that has been preserved is called the Havamal, which can be classified as wisdom literature.
The Havamal is a collection of old Norse poems that deals with giving advice on how to live your life and conduct yourself in different situations. It was meant as a guide for the Viking man, with much actionable advice. It serves as a good source of the ethics of that culture. Its wisdom however is often transcendent and can be applied even today.
Reading the work can also make you reflect on your place in the world and your life as a man. The most powerful passage is probably this one:
You yourself die,
But I know one thing that never dies;
The glory of a dead man’s life.“
You are a sum of your actions. Your life is what you make of it. The way you face challenges and overcome them will come to reflect on you long after you are dead. You will die one day, just like everyone and everything does, but you can leave a legacy. A legacy is immortal.
The Havamal extols the virtue of hard work:
“Wake up early if you want another man’s life or land.
No lamb for the lazy wolf.
No battle is won in bed.“
If you want something, then you need to work for it. If you spend your entire day lying in bed dreaming about it, you will never get it. Only the people who work for something will get it.
You also always have to come prepared. Never assume anything. Danger might be lurking just around the corner:
“Never walk away from home
ahead of your axe and sword.
You can’t feel a battle
in your bones or foresee a fight.“
There are many haters in the world who will try to bring you down. The Havamal also gives advice on how to deal with them:
“The wise guest has his way of dealing
With those who taunt him at the table.
He smiles through the meal,
Not seeming to hear
The twaddle talked by his foes.“
The Havamal deals with different aspects of a man’s life, and includes a part on how to deal with women and on their nature. There is a small theory part, followed by what today someone might call field reports. It talks about how Odin, the supreme Norse God, tried to pick up the daughter of a man named Billing (he failed) and also how he picked up a girl named Gunnlod (he succeeded).
All in all, any man can find a lot of practical wisdom in the collection. This wisdom has helped guide many a Viking to lead a life of glory and to not falter when the going got tough.
The Last Viking In Greenland
The colony that Erik the Red founded survived for over 500 years, but eventually it faltered. Here too we can learn some practical lessons.
In 1540, a German merchant ship, blown off course, sailed into the coastal waters of Greenland. The skipper of the ship sailed past some of the islands and decided to land on one of them. The island seemed desolate, but in the distance he could see buildings that were familiar to him. He had seen very similar ones in Iceland.
The crew of the ship disembarked and decided to check out the houses. In front of one of them, they found a man lying on the ground. He was covered in sealskin and woollen clothes, but he was dead. Beside him lay a knife. Apparently he had died recently, the last of the Vikings of Greenland.
This man struggled on, even as the rest of his countrymen died off or abandoned him. He continued on living his life, surviving and making the best of it in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. The seamen from the merchant ship took his knife as a memento of this remarkable and brave man, who continued to tackle all challenges until the final end.
What was the reason for the demise of the colony? There have been many reasons proposed: environmental, economic, nutritional, climatic, mismanagement, destruction by attack and many others, but we can safely say that one reason was not among them: the human spirit.
For the Vikings were able to survive for hundreds of years in harsh conditions, even thrive. Their lives were a testament to the tenacity and perseverance of the human will. Courage was the preeminent characteristic of the Vikings and they displayed it whenever they could. This characteristic is something that is often missing in the modern man.
A little bit of courage can go a long way. Take example from the brave men of yesteryear, have their spirit guide your own actions. Never give up and continue to work hard until the very end. You will end up leaving a powerful legacy behind you, one that will live on and serve as an example for countless generations to come.
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