Vestur um haf - ráðstefna Sigurðar Nordals, setningarræða

The North Atlantic Saga

International Conference held
by the Sigurður Nordal Institute
9th August 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Interest in Norse exploration and settlements in the North Atlantic region is growing, as is confirmed by this international conference of outstanding scientists and academicians . You are meeting at a crucial time before the celebrations next year to commemorate the Viking discovery of North America 1,000 years ago.

I congratulate the Sigurður Nordal Institute and the Honorary Committee on organising the conference, and I welcome all of you, and especially those who have come from far away to present papers and engage in discussions.

Towards the end of last April I had the honour to take part in a ceremony at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This was the official launching of an exhibition entitled Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, which, as you probably all know, is being planned by an international group of Nordic, American, and Canadian archaeologists, literary historians, material culture scholars and educators to study Nordic cultural history and its contribution to North American society. The exhibit will be opened on the 29th of April next year and is designed to engage the audience in the adventure of the Vikings by allowing them to follow the Vikings westward from their homelands, initially as far as the British Isles, and then across the islands of the North Atlantic, including Iceland and Greenland, and eventually reaching the shores of North America. The exhibition will focus on the complex way that we come to know our past, from sources as varied as heroic saga narratives, archaeological digs, historic records, and the environmental sciences.

The exhibition has been described as the centrepiece of the Smithsonian
Institute's Millennium Celebrations and has also been chosen as one of the White House's major millennium events. America's First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, confirmed this at the launching ceremony. The Viking exhibition will be on the road for many months, or even years, both in the United States and Canada. It is estimated that 15 to 20 million people will use this unique opportunity to get acquainted with the same subjects you are dealing with at your conference here over the next few days.

This is not only a unique opportunity for those who will enjoy the Smithsonian's initiative but for all of us who are interested in promoting
the important role Vikings had to play in the development of our culture.

Traditionally, hard-bitten Vikings have not generally been highly regarded. They are seen as marine bandits whose light boats could handle the roughest seas and yet sail up shallow rivers to raid and pillage far inland. The very rumour of their arrival struck terror into the hearts of the local population. For Christians, even the altar and protection by the Almighty was not a secure refuge, for the Vikings knew where the plunder lay and headed straight for churches and castles.

As we know, cruelty does not however dominate the North Atlantic Saga of the Vikings. In fact, Leifur Eiríksson had reluctantly accepted from King Ólafur Tryggvason of Norway the difficult task of converting Greenland and his father to Christianity when he took the voyage that resulted in his lucky discovery of Vínland.

It has been convincingly demonstrated that Iceland relied heavily on trade in products from its colonies in Greenland. In fact it has even been argued that profits on exports from Greenland were the economic foundation on which large-scale manuscript production was made possible in Iceland, so contributing directly to the growth of saga writing in this country. Without that wealth, it would not have been possible for Icelanders to allow themselves the luxury of writing their literature in their own language instead of Latin, and works were commissioned and copied for wealthy patrons who could afford to pay the high costs involved.

Although Iceland's chieftains quarrelled vigorously among themselves, they had nothing to gain by starting trouble in their neighbouring countries. Merchants and seamen are interested in peace, not war, and will defend themselves if they are attacked. This was the reality recognized by the Vikings who sailed the North Atlantic.

There is a story that Christopher Columbus came to Iceland in 1477, while he was in the service of the court of Portugal. He also stayed in Bristol in England, returning to Portugal in 1478. He was then an accomplished sailor, and these trips gave him a better understanding of the geography to the north and west of the European mainland. All this was important for the preparation of his great voyage across the Atlantic in 1492.

In the light of new research, historians now take the view that with Columbus's visit to Iceland, it is not possible to view the voyages by Icelanders to the North American continent in the early 11th century as an isolated phenomenon, as has often been maintained they were. Rather, they should be seen as a link in the spread of Europeans to other countries, the great geographical explorations that changed the course of human history.

Seven years ago, at the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America, the original idea was to mark the occasion with a big celebration. Then something - everything - went wrong. I should like to quote David S. Landes, author of the highly acclaimed book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. In it he says: "Columbus, symbol of historical achievement, midwife of a New World, turned out to be a political embarrassment.... Columbus was now portrayed as a villain; the Europeans as invaders; the native inhabitants as innocent, happy people reduced to bondage and eventually wiped out by the rapacious, disease-carrying white man.... And when the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. decided to do a quincentenary exhibit with thick glossy-paper catalogue, it did an ABC - Anything But Columbus. The
exhibit covered the rest of the world, the other events of 1492 and years
around. The most important event of all was deliberately omitted."

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Some people feel that the Middle Ages are too remote to have any relevance for us today. I do not share this view. Again and again, we are reminded of the importance of historical events for the present age. This is why it is vital to examine the past with care and skill, and only to
paint pictures of our history that are based on reliable evidence and will
stand up to criticism. Your conference is dedicated to making a critical examination of the sources we have about the Viking voyages in the North Atlantic region, and to arriving at sound and reasoned conclusions. I am certain you will not come to the decision that we should play down the voyages of Leifur Eiríksson and other Icelanders to North America, but rather that their achievements should be celebrated in style.

I wish you success and pleasure in your important work.