Yarmouth Vanguard, Tuesday, May 16, 1989.
The Vikings were pirates from the Scandinavian region, northwest of Europe, who, then, eleven and twelve centuries ago, roved the seas all along the Atlantic coast of Europe and into the Mediterranean Sea. That region is the right arm and shoulder protruding from the U.R.S.S., comprising Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. To us, though, the Vikings are those explorers from Iceland and Greenland who, about a thousand years ago, would have been the first White Men to set foot on the North American Continent, unless there is some truth in the voyage to the New World of two Irish monks some five centuries before.
We are told that Iceland received its first inhabitants from Norway in 874, fleeing the tyrannies of King Harold. To reach Iceland, they had to sail about 650 nautical miles, the distance between Yarmouth and Chesapeake Bay, which was quite a stride for those early days, in mid-ocean, in a rude small craft. A hundred years later, the grandchildren of those first Icelanders were to push farther and cross the 250 nautical miles that separated them from Greenland. But those daring Vikings were not to stop there; ten to fifteen years later, they were to explore what is now North America.
Do not think that one day they woke up and said: “Let’s go to North America” No! it is by chance that they first reached Labrador, whose nearest point to Greenland is over 400 nautical miles. Even the first one to set foot on the North American soil was not coming from Green land, but from Iceland. According to the “sagas” (the name given to the narratives recorded in Iceland of these events), he left Iceland with the intention to visit his father in Greenland, but he was carried towards the coast of North America. This happened around the year 1000. He visited three regions, Helluland, Markland and Vinland.
On his return, he did reach Greenland and told the story of his discovery. His expedition was followed by three others, which are narrated in details in the sagas, but not enough to let us know where were Helluland, Markland and Vinland. For that matter, each author, who has written on the explorations of the Vikings in North America, has had his own theory.
There is one thing, though, that we are sure of: In one of the sagas is described in detail one of the places where they landed, giving an idea of the dimensions of the buildings that they erected. Well, a similar place, where can be detected the foundations of the buildings described by the Vikings, has been discovered some 30 years ago around the northern tip of Newfoundland, not far from St. Anthony, at a place called “L’Anse aux Meadows”. By a modern method known as “carbon 14”, which, in analysing carbon, can give its age, it was proven that the remains found at L’Anse aux Meadows are in fact very close to one thousand years old.
Did the Vikings come farther south? Did they reach our shores? After Dr. Richard Fletcher discovered, in Overton, in 1812, west side of Yarmouth Harbour, the so called “Runic Stone” (now on display at the Yarmouth Museum), there was a general consensus that the inscription on it was from the Vikings. The belief was so strong that the name “Markland” was given to that island west of Yarmouth Sound, now joined to the main land by a causeway, at Yarmouth Bar. But after many studies and scrutinies it was proven that the so called Runic Stone is not “runic” at all; that is, the characters or letters of the inscription are not Scandinavian. The fact is that, up to this day, the inscription has not been deciphered, and nobody knows when they were carved nor by whom.
But that does not mean that the Vikings did not come this far. There is given in one of the sagas the description of one of the places that they visited, which sounds very much like our region. When Champlain was here for the first time, in 1604, he called the bay in which are the Tusket Islands the BAY OF CURRENTS, a very appropriate name to describe the rips that the fishermen know so well in this bay, called “Horse Race” by an old author. Then he added that he found here, on the islands, such an “abundance of birds that no one would believe it possible unless he had seen it, such as cormorants, ducks which make their nest there”. Reading a certain account of the Vikings, we cannot but ask ourselves if Champlain would not have copied his description from it. It is said, in fact, that in one of their landfalls, they stopped in a bay of a sandy cove, which they called BAY OF CURRENTS; it had at its entrance an island which they called “Isle of Currents”, which was covered with eggs of innumerable eider or ducks. Nicolas Denys, who was here around 1650. Says, on his part: “Upon these Islands is so great a number of all kinds of birds that it is past belief… if one goes there he makes them rise in such vast numbers that they form a cloud in the air which the sun cannot pierce”. The similarity of these descriptions with that of the saga does not seem to be mere coincidence.
Another very old author, Marc Lescarbot, who was in our region in 1606-7, tells us that the Indians of the place often used the word “Alleluia” in their songs. “I listen attentively to the word ‘alleluia’ which was repeated many times in their songs, and it was surely that very word that they were saying”. They must surely have learned this word from some Europeans; who else could they be but the Vikings. Lescarbot tells us also of a certain phrase that the Indians would use after a meal, which has been translated from the Scandinavian tongue as meaning “We ate a hearty banquet”.
At the time of the explorations of the 16th century, the name “Norembega” was given to a region which many authors believe to have been southern Nova Scotia; they add that it has a Scandinavian origin. Likewise, the Indians of our region called themselves “Sourikay”, given by the French as “Souriquois”; this word, in the Scandinavian language, would mean a people from a southern territory.
So, if we cannot prove by the inscription on the Runic or Fletcher Stone that the Vikings were here, maybe their sagas and the words that the Indians would have learned from them do the trick.