From Iceland to the Americas, an anthology of thirteen original critical essays, is an exercise in the reception of a small historical fact with wide-ranging social, cultural, and imaginative consequences. Medieval records claim that around the year 1000 Leif Eiriksson and other Nordic explorers sailed westwards from Iceland and Greenland to a place they called Vinland. Archaeological evidence has in fact verified this claim, though primarily by way of one small, short-lived Norse settlement in Newfoundland, which may not even have been Leif’s. Whether or not this settlement was his, however, the contact associated with him has had an outsized impact on cultural imagination in and of the Americas. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, indeed, novels, poetry, history, politics, arts and crafts, comics, films and video games have all reflected a rising interest in the medieval Norse and their North American presence. Uniquely in reception studies, From Iceland to the Americas approaches this dynamic between Nordic history and its reception by bringing together international authorities on mythology, language, film, and cultural studies, as well as on the literature that has dominated critical reception. Collectively, the essays not only explore the connections among medieval Iceland and the modern Americas, but also probe why medieval contact has become a modern cultural touchstone.
The Old Icelandic Vinland sagas enjoy a special status in American culture as the oldest written accounts of an attempted European settlement in the New World. But how are these stories conceived by the people who can actually claim direct descent from Leif Eiriksson and his fellow pioneers, that is the Icelanders? This contribution explores the various ways in which the story of Vinland has been framed in the cultural memory of Icelanders on both sides of the Atlantic. It focuses on written sources from the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, when new ideas on Icelandic nationhood emerged in the spirit of the island’s independence movement. Furthermore, it compares the ideas of Icelanders in Iceland to those of Icelandic immigrants in the New World and analyses the differences between them, using the theoretical concept of territorial kinship. Was the Icelandic approach to Vinland on the other side of the Atlantic markedly different from that of the Icelanders who stayed at home? And if so, what does this tell us about the construction of national self-images at home and abroad?
Iceland in the literary and the professorial imagination
Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (published in French in 1864, but widely circulating in English translations by the mid-1870s) stands as a defining document in the literary imagination of Iceland in the Anglo-American tradition. It looks back to a heritage of associating philology and geology as historical sciences and, in turn, of finding Iceland as the lode for both. It also provided later travellers with a template for exploring both the language and the landscape of the island. In the process, Verne’s novel helped to make the scholar into a heroic adventurer and grant to nineteenth-century writers a new sense of a professorial sublime.
Leif Eiriksson, the 1893 World’s Fair, and the Great Lakes landnám
Amy C. Mulligan
In a headline-grabbing re-enactment of Leif Eiriksson’s Vinland voyage, a wooden Viking ship sailed from Norway to become one of the most popular spectacles at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The voyage of the aptly-named Viking to America’s Midwest, as well as the later erection of a statue of Leif in Chicago and the 1927 naming of the major highway now known as ‘Lake Shore Drive’ as ‘Leif Ericson Drive’, show the many ways in which a medieval Viking past was re-mapped onto the landscape of one of America’s most dynamic urban centres, Chicago, a city which excelled at reinvention like nowhere else in late nineteenth-century America. Through place-naming practices and immersive performances in new landscapes, powerful identity narratives rooted in a medieval past allowed those who came to Chicago, and Scandinavian-American communities in particular, to find Valhalla in the Midwest and establish a valorised American future.
The topics of the chapter are the importance of Old Norse literature for people of mostly Norwegian descent in North America and their devotion to the matter of Vinland. The study includes a discussion on how Professor Rasmus B. Anderson (1846–1936) influenced and contributed to the legacy of the medieval explorer Leif Eiriksson, the reception of Old Norse literature in the founding of the publishing company The Norrœna Society, and translations of Old Norse works. The focus is at the same time on ‘missions of education’ leading up to observances, festivals, and anniversaries, both Norwegian and all American – ´missions´ that involved publishing medieval literature, crossing the Atlantic on replicas of Viking ships, and even raising statues. All of these advocated for the importance of Leif Eiriksson being the first European to find America.
The mythology of emigration in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods
In American Gods, Neil Gaiman imagines how belief in the gods and folk heroes of the Old World is exported to the New World along with each successive wave of emigrants. In the novel, Gaiman fantasises about how these supernatural figures, reified in the narrative, fight for survival in their new setting, and come into conflict with the new gods of Gaiman’s America. This piece focuses on comparing and contrasting Gaiman’s Old Norse-derived gods with their originals in Old Norse mythological sources. It argues that these creatures are at the same time both sinister and comic but concludes that Gaiman’s representation of human immigration is a positive one which crucially does not privilege the value or contribution of one group over another.
Nineteenth-century American poets used Viking artefacts (real and fake) and the Vinland Sagas to help their readers connect, emotionally as well as intellectually, to the deep past. In Samuel Bellamy Beach’s Escalala, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘Skeleton in Armor’, Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s ‘Newport Tower’, and Sidney Lanier’s ‘Psalm of the West’, Vikings appear as spectral figures, representing ancient history while also posing more current questions about the relationship between whiteness, indigeneity, and national identity. When figured as the first so-called ‘Saxons’ to reach the New World, Vikings helped poets to romanticise, to celebrate – and sometimes, though rarely, to question – the legitimacy of the European colonial project.
While the nineteenth century saw many ‘national epics’ which retold (and combined) major Norse myths, the twentieth century saw mythological figures refracted into culture in more complex ways; indeed, sceptical trends in scholarship often corresponded with greater creative leeway in new narrative responses to mythological stories. Many scholars and writers have suggested that American superhero comics are, as one book has it, A Modern Mythology. Such a comparison would require a similar process to those which produced the Norse myths, with an ongoing tradition being sculpted by audience reception, ultimately capturing archetypes of deities. Evaluating the quintessential Batman film The Dark Knight (2008) in these terms shows that its unusual plot likewise owes much to narrative traditions shaped by reception, driving its apocalyptic themes of dynastic failure. As with Balder’s death and capture by Hel in Norse mythology, when a myth occupies a turning point in a set of interwoven stories, it gains ‘the weight of folklore’. In a post 9/11 context, the film depicts the powers of world order corrupt and in decline, as the rule of law collapses. In a time of chaos and conspiracy, the Joker’s mutilation of shining district attorney Harvey Dent takes on hellish symbolism.
Today in Touro Park in Newport, RI, a curious structure stands that has long been enshrined on the city’s flag, a stone tower said by some to have been built by Vikings before Columbus landed in the New World. How the tower – the ruins of a colonial mill built by an ancestor of the Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold – came to be associated with the Vikings is a long story that can be traced through history, literature, and film. And that association can be seen in terms of a larger political and cultural agenda which was intent on validating an alternate founding narrative for America. That narrative sought to recast the extent of the pre-Columbian Viking presence in America in terms of both race and religion, often at the expense of indigenous peoples.
‘Vinland and white nationalism’ explores the utilisation of Old Norse culture among white nationalist groups in the United States, focusing on new religious movements with radical racist agendas. To facilitate such an analysis, the article both provides a brief overview of some of the larger neo-pagan currents in North America and focuses on specific neo-völkisch hate groups such as the Virginia-based Wolves of Vinland, whose members have appeared in major alt-right publications and on white supremacist platforms. For groups like these, ‘Vinland’ serves as a stand-in for the promotion of whites-only tribes and communities in the United States, while the organisation's occupation with an imagined ‘Germanic hero aesthetic’ aligns not only with the men's rights activism of some of its members, but ultimately exposes misogyny as the unifying factor for the radical right in the United States.