First, a bit of news: America Unearthed was in Wisconsin last Friday to explore the Rock Lake, Wisconsin underwater “pyramids” near the mound site at Aztalan State Park. Any guesses what they’ll attribute the Mississippian ruins to? Giants? Aztecs? A Lost Tribe of Israel? All have appeared as explanations in the alternative literature.
Anyway, on to today’s topic.
Yesterday I discussed a bit about Vikings and Vinland, and I talked a moment about the origins of the wine-producing grapes of Vinland in medieval ideas about the Fortunate Islands. I thought it was worth expanding on this to bring together the textual evidence for a tradition of a grape-filled land beyond the Western Ocean that I think played a big role in creating the literary vision of Vinland.
Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (6.37) describes the geography of the Fortunate Islands and says that they abound in fruit, but he does not specify anything about grapes. That honor falls to Isidore of Seville, who in the early 600s CE produced the medieval world’s most influential reference to the Fortunate Islands, one that echoes down through later myths and legends. Isidore wrote:
The Fortunate Islands signify by their name that they produce all manner of good things, as if they were happy and blessed with an abundance of fruit. For suited by their nature they produce fruit from precious trees; grape vines of their own accord clothe the hillsides; instead of grass, crops (i.e., wheat) and vegetables are common. (14.6.8, my trans.)
Ah, grapes! And wheat! This idea of a vine-covered land of plenty spread very quickly. Here is Rabanus Maurus in De universo (12.5) about a century later:
The Fortunate Islands … by their very nature they produce fruits of the most precious trees; the slopes of their hills are covered with unplanted vines; there is grain in place of grass and kitchen vegetables everywhere. (trans. George Boas)
Compare this to the Voyage of Saint Brendan (chapter 25), believed to have been composed around 900 CE. Brendan crosses the sea and finds a magical island filled with grapes:
Three days after, they saw near at hand an island covered all over with trees, closely set, and laden with such grapes as those, in surprising abundance, so that all the branches were weighed down to the ground, with fruit of the same quality and colour, and there was no tree fruitless or of a different kind in the whole island.
Such texts set the stage for the expectation that any land found across the sea must perforce be rich with perpetual grapes. This description of the island of grapes seems to inform Icelandic literary descriptions of Vinland centuries later.
The oldest text about Vinland is that of Adam of Bremen, written around 1075 CE. “Vines grow there naturally, producing the best of wines. That unsown fruits grow there in abundance we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relations of the Danes” (Gesta Hammaburgensis 4.38, my trans.). In so saying, Adam was very clearly conscious that his audience would relate the story to the well-known tales of the Fortunate Islands. In fact, Adam specifically relates Vinland to the Thule of Romans—which was the last stop before Hyperborea, where enchanted people live for a century or more in a land where fruits grow from the ground (Pliny, Natural History 4.26; Pindar, Pythian 10). We know, though, from Icelandic authors like Snorri Sturluson a century later that the northern people were well-aware of Greco-Roman mythology and had taken to interpreting their history and civilization through this lens. For Snorri, Odin and his crew were Trojans, and Norse history entwined with that of Rome.
If I had to guess, though, I would think that the story came about when Adam tried to find out why the place was called Vinland, a name that could mean either “wine-land” or “pasture-land.”
Less than a century after Adam wrote, King Arthur was promoted to voyager through northern waters when Geoffrey of Monmouth made conqueror of Iceland in his History of the Kings of Britain (9.10). In his later work, the Life of Merlin, Geoffrey describes a Fortunate Isle, the Isle of Apples, in language borrowed from the Fortunate Islands of Isidore of Seville, and a bit about the long-lived Hyperboreans taken from Pliny:
Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country.
Geoffrey also describes Sri Lanka as having perpetual grapes and rocks covered in gems, a description very similar to the Island of the Saints in the first chapter of the Voyage of Saint Brendan.
Obviously, at the time lands over the sea were expected to have wild fruit, specifically the grain and grapes Isidore specified. Now let’s turn to the Icelandic sagas and see what we find.
In the Saga of Erik the Red (chapter 8), known from two slightly differing manuscripts of the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries from a presumed twelfth century original, there is a brief mention of grapes. Upon arriving at the new land across the sea from Greenland, Leif Erikson puts ashore two Scots, and they return days later: “And when three days were expired the Scotch people leapt down from the land, and one of them had in his hand a bunch of grapes, and the other an ear of wild wheat.” Grapes and wheat… the two boons of the Fortunate Islands. What a surprise. Indeed, more than one scholar connects Vinland to Isidore’s Fortunate Islands.
Given how paltry the saga’s reference is, and the fact that there was no wheat in pre-Columbian America (though native peoples of eastern Canada cultivated maize), this may well be either (a) a fictional application of the Fortunate Islands or (b) the application of Old World terms to New World fruits, such as the blueberry (particularly Vaccinium angustifolium), which looks like small European champagne grapes and is native to the circumpolar regions of Canada. After all, the Spanish called turkeys “peacocks.” Technically, the saga does not say that Leif’s men found grapes and therefore called the land Vinland; instead, it says they purposely went in search of a place called Vinland the Good and then found grapes at an unnamed spot.
The same chapter relates that “Karlsefni and his people sailed to the mouth of the river, and called the land Hop. There they found fields of wild wheat wherever there were low grounds; and the vine in all places where there was rough rising ground.” I think you can see how this is a fairly direct translation of Isidore’s Latin text, right down to the vines on the hills and the wheat in the low ground. That this does not correlate to the facts on the ground in the known Viking settlement area in eastern Canada does not bode well for Vinland as a land of grapes.
We turn next to the Greenlander Saga from the Flateyjarbók, written around 1387. It offers a more expansive version of the story, but one that differs in its details. Here is the material:
“I have not been very far, but I have something new to tell you; I have found vines and grapes!” “Is this true?” asked Leif. “Yes, indeed it is,” answered Tyrker, “for I was brought up in a land where vines and grapes were in abundance.” “Then there are two matters to be attended to on alternate days to gather grapes and to fell timber, with which we may load the ship,” said Leif; and the task was at once commenced. It is said that their long-boat was filled with grapes. And now, having felled timber to load their ship, and the spring coming on, they made ready for their departure. Before he left, Leif gave the land a name expressive of its good produce, calling it Vinland—land of wine. (trans. James William Buel)
I’m not sure what kind of grapes grow in winter, as the narrative says, but the saga claims that the grapes of Vinland are perpetually ripe all the year round. These are clearly the magic grapes of the Fortunate Isles, not a real species.
Literary critics note that many of the readings in the Flateyjarbók are expanded and more fully developed versions of texts found in other sources. In fact, the Greenlander Saga appears to be an interpolation in the text and cannot be dated certainly. Since it is more elaborate than the Saga of Erik the Red, there is therefore reason to suspect later mythic expansion of an older, simpler text. Indeed, the Greenlander Saga has several points of contradiction with a version of Erik the Red included in the same book.
However, traditionally, scholars have argued on internal evidence that the Greenlander Saga is the oldest Icelandic account of Vinland—largely because Bishop Brand is given his name without the sobriquet “the Elder” found in the Erik the Red, implying the text was composed prior to 1263 when the second Bishop Brand was consecrated. Similarly, Greenlander preserves an older name for Blacksarck not found in the other texts.
At the same time, however, the inclusion of mythological motifs in the Greenlander narrative suggested to twentieth century critics that whatever truth there was to the account, it had been purposely or by chance corrupted in the telling. The magic grapes that ripen at all seasons were cited specifically as evidence of this corruption, as they match no known species.
Let’s recall that Erik the Red, in his Saga, supposedly named the frosty wastes of Greenland after the verdant valleys of paradise “‘because,” said he, ‘men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name.’” I’m not entirely sure that Vinland does not follow the same pattern—whether pasture land or wine land—with the name attracting to it the myth of the Fortunate Islands that then informed the “history” of the place.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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