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Leif Erikson

October 22, 2023 7 min read

Leif Erikson | The Viking who discovered America

Leif Erikson | The Greatest Explorer of the Viking Age

Who doesn't know the story that tells the journey of Christopher Columbus, the great explorer who discovered the Americas? However, the credit does not entirely belong to him since these lands were known by the Vikings nearly half a century earlier.

It was actually Leif Erikson, a great Viking explorer, who crossed the Atlantic in search of Vinland. Between myth and reality, the story of this legendary Viking has not been fully preserved. Nevertheless, we are able to trace the countless exploits of this successful navigator.

So who is the famous Leif Erikson? What are his origins? Did he really discover the new continent of America? We tell you all about the adventures of the hero of the Vinland Sagas!

The Legend of Leif Erikson: The First Viking to Set Foot in America

Leif Erikson | The Viking Who Discovered America

Although America is often presented as unexplored and wild lands before the modern colonists, history books tell a different story. In reality, the discovery of the New World, or rather Vinland, dates back to the Viking Age. Indeed, more than 500 years before Christopher Columbus, an entire cargo of Norsemen had already visited these lands.

According to legends, it was none other than Leif Erikson, the famous Viking explorer, who first discovered the continent. Although this adventure is often attributed to luck, geographical proximity and historical context support a different theory.

So, around the year 1000 AD, a European colony was trying as best as it could to make America its new nation. However, before we get there, let's discover the story of its expedition leader, Leif Erikson. Who is this emblematic character who earned the Vikings their legendary title of navigators?

Discover the surprising adventures of this Viking explorer who breathed new life into his endangered country!

Who is Leif Erikson?

Leif Erikson, or Leifr Eiríksson in Old Norse, is the second son of the famous Viking explorer Erik the Red. The latter is the Viking who founded the very first Norse colony in Greenland, the land where Leif would grow up.

However, before achieving glory throughout the Viking civilization, Erik the Red, whose real name was Erik Thorvaldsson, had lost everything. It was only once exiled from his native land, Iceland, that he embarked on the adventure that would forever engrave his name in history.

Following in his father's footsteps, Leif Erikson becomes the greatest Viking adventurer in history. Although he is nicknamed Leif "the Lucky," his achievements are far from being due to chance since he is the first European explorer to have gone to America. He named this new land "Vinland" because grapes were found in abundance there.

Thus, shortly after the death of Erik the Red, Leif succeeded him as master and king of Greenland. In turn, his son Thorkel took over around the year 1025 AD, which could therefore correspond to the year of his death.

Be that as it may, let's discover in more detail the story of Leif Erikson and his fabulous adventure that led him to Vinland!

The Story of Leif Erikson: The Vinland Saga

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According to the legends of Norse mythology, Jörmungand is a giant serpent that encircles the entire world. This terrible creature, which lives in the sea, devours all ships that approach too close to the edge of the world. Faced with the ferocity of the oceans, this myth discouraged most Vikings from venturing too far west.

However, Leif Erikson was quite different from other Vikings. From a young age, he was marked by the wars and conflicts that existed between the powerful Vikings of Iceland. Although his father's exile to Greenland gave him a new start, his new homeland was struck by famine due to the harsh winters.

More determined than ever to leave behind the barbarity of the Viking world, Leif Erikson decided to find a new, less hostile land. Still a teenager, he did not yet know that this dream would lead him to the discovery of Vinland.

The Origin of Leif Erikson

As with many other Viking personalities, many mysteries surround Leif's life. Indeed, the majority of the information we have about this character comes from the famous Vinland Sagas.

The Vinland Sagas are two Icelandic books that recount the Norse expeditions that led to the discovery of the American continent. They were written around the 13th century, that is more than 200 years after Leif Erikson's voyages took place. They are:

  • The Saga of Erik the Red¬†: it recounts the colonization of Greenland, then the discovery of Vinland. Although this book bears the name of Erik the Red, it is much more interested in Thorfinn Karlsefni. He is the disciple of Leif Erikson who will follow the same path of Viking explorer.
  • The Saga of the Greenlanders or Gr√¶nlendinga saga¬†: according to historians' research, this is the most reliable version of the discovery of Vinland. It is entirely based on the accounts of Viking traditions.

Today, there is no longer a version of this saga. These texts have been preserved in another book, the Flateyjarbók.

Even though these two works are the closest sources to reality, the Nordic tradition is mainly transmitted orally. This is undoubtedly the reason why there are several versions of the story of Leif Erikson.

Leif Erikson, the Young Man with an Unprecedented Destiny

Leif Erikson is presumably born in Iceland, his homeland, around the year 970 to 980 AD. Sources are not formal, but he would have spent a large part of his childhood alongside his mother, Thjodhild.

From a young age, he would have had a taste for navigation and exploration. Just before the year 1000 AD, he went to Norway. It was during this trip that Leif would have learned to be a good offshore sailor. He then became one of the servants of the royal court of King Olaf I Tryggvason.

During his stay, the young Viking Leif Erikson was converted to Christianity. After a few years, he was urged to return to his homeland, Greenland, to spread Christianity there.

The fruit of chance would have changed the destination of this expedition, and would have propelled the young explorer straight towards his destiny. He does not yet know that he will not return to Greenland for several years, after having achieved a real feat.

The Dreamed Land: Vinland

A large number of tales recount Leif Erikson's journey to Vinland, as marvelous as each other. The circumstances and events differ, but the essence of the story is very real: Leif Erikson is the first European to have set foot in America.

How Did Leif Erikson Find Vinland?

Historical sources indicate that Leif Erikson would have discovered North America around the year 1000 AD. There are two versions that would explain how the explorer ended up in Vinland:

  • According to The Saga of the Greenlanders, in the section The Book of Flat Islands, Leif Erikson would have learned of the existence of unexplored lands to the west from an Icelandic merchant, Bjarni Herjolfsson. He would have lost his way during a storm, and he would have ended up there 15¬†years before, without ever setting foot there. After learning of the existence of these fertile lands, Leif would have organized an expedition to discover them. This is the most plausible version, and it is adopted by many historians.
  • The Saga of Erik the Red describes a completely different course of events. It would be during his grand return to Greenland, in order to spread his new faith, that he would have discovered the new continent. He would have encountered a storm on his way that would have changed his initial trajectory. He thus ended up in North America by chance.

The Discovery of Vinland, the Land of Vines

Leif Erikson | The Viking who Discovered America


The young explorer finally arrived in Vinland, the coveted land that the Viking people dreamed of. In contrast to his homeland, cold and hostile, North America was greener, and rich in natural resources. He discovered endless meadows where crops were abundant. Leif Erikson decided to call this new country Vinland, or land of vines. He would have found numerous plots of vines there.

This land of free men knew neither conflict nor slavery. It was a new beginning for the Nordic people who had long lived in difficult conditions. That is why Vinland was considered to be a paradise on earth, and why many other expeditions were carried out to this fairy-tale land.

Leif Erikson is thus the first explorer in the world to have set foot on the American continent. Shortly thereafter, he founded his first colony, Leifbudir. He thus extended the Vikings' territory to a new continent.

Where is Vinland?

The exact location of Vinland is still a mystery today. Historians and archaeologists have long debated this question. The most plausible hypothesis is that Vinland corresponds to the current region of Newfoundland in Canada.

Leif Erikson had divided the places into several regions based on their characteristics. These include:

  • Helluland, or the land of flat rocks: which would correspond to Labrador or Frobisher Bay, further north.
  • Markland, or the land of forests, which would be located around Newfoundland.
  • And finally Vinland, which remains a mystery to this day. Studies conducted in 1960 suggest that L'Anse aux Meadows could be a historical site founded by the Vikings, presumably the famous land of vines.

The Legacy of the Greatest Viking Explorer

After years of adventures in the most distant lands and seas, Leif Erikson made a name and reputation for himself. He was one of the greatest explorers to have made a mark in the region. He became a major player in the area.

He would have returned to Greenland to never return to Vinland again. He continued his mission and tried to convert the Vikings to Christianity. While his father, Erik the Red, categorically refused, his mother complied, and built the first church in Viking lands. A few years later, his father passed away, and he inherited his position as leader of Greenland.

Other expeditions were made towards the new continent, but none of them were fruitful. His brothers, Thorvald and Thorstein, settled there respectively in 1002 and 1003 AD. It is said that there were numerous conflicts between the Native Americans and the colonists at the Viking bases, and that they eventually expelled the Vikings from their lands.

Leif Erikson's first son, Thorgils, who is believed to be an illegitimate child, wanted to follow in his father's footsteps in America. His other son, Thorkel Leifsson, is said to have become the leader of Greenland after his death in 1025 AD.

Leif Erikson Soon in the Viking Series?

The Viking navigator Leif Erikson is not featured in the original Viking series. However, his appearance is planned for the spin-off Vikings: Valhalla, which is scheduled to be released at the end of 2021 on Netflix.

Will Leif Erikson's character and the historical facts be fully reproduced? We certainly hope so! The Viking series Valhalla details the story of the new era of Vikings, so it is predicted that Leif Erikson will be at the center of the action.

Leif Erikson is also featured in the historical manga Vinland Saga. Even though the course of the story does not accurately trace the adventures of this Viking personality, it is clearly stated that he was the first to discover the new continent.


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