As you know, I’ve been circling back and researching some of the claims I missed during my first pass through America Unearthed. One that has been bothering me is the episode 4 claim that the Norse who allegedly colonized Minnesota in the Middle Ages were giants. Why giants? There are no giant Norse skeletons in Norway, Iceland, or Greenland, so at first blush this claim seems silly.
I’ve seen claims of Norse giants going back to the nineteenth century, and it just doesn’t sit right with me. I’ve been looking into it, and I think I see how this weird story came about. The first thread is straightforward. The Vikings landed in the region of New Brunswick and Labrador in Canada and interacted with the Dorset and their successors, the Inuit. These people remembered the Norse as “invulnerable” because they wore armor (unknown to the Inuit), and their myths also called them “giants” because the Norse were several inches taller on average than the diminutive Inuit, whom evolution had selected to be shorter and more compact to retain heat.
The relevant myth is recorded in Samuel Robinson’s “Notes on the Coast of Labrador” (1843), in which the Inuit are called by their previous name, the Eskimo (retained by Alaska natives), in an archaic spelling:
The Esquimau tradition concerning the Norsemen is clear enough: that they were a gigantic race, of great strength—were very fierce, and delighted to kill people—that they themselves could not be killed by either dart or arrow, which rebounded from their breasts as from a rock. The Esquimaux suppose these giants still to exist, only very far north. (source)
However, other scholars have attributed such myths to either Spanish conquistadors or to poetic fancy.
So that’s the first thread. The second, I think, derives from Norse sources. Snorri Sturluson records in King Harald’s Saga (ch. 104) that Harald Sigurdsson, known as Hardrada, Viking explorer and King of Norway (as Harald III), stood five ells (7.5 feet) tall. He was rumored to have been among the first to travel to Vinland, now known to have been the area around L’anse-aux-Meadows in New Brunswick, according to one reading of passages in the work of his contemporary, Adam of Bremen. Immediately after describing Vinland as a land of “the best” wine, Adam recorded in the Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum of 1076 (4.38, or 39 in some editions) that Harald had recently “searched the breadth of the northern ocean in ships.”
Another island … is called Vinland because 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. After this island, habitable land is not to be found in the ocean, but all the regions beyond are filled with impenetrable ice and immense darkness. Of this, Martianus [Marriage of Mercury and Philology 6.666] makes reference as follows: “Beyond Thule,” he says, “the sea is congealed after one day’s voyage.” The most enterprising prince of the Norseman, Harald, recently tried this sea. After he searched the breadth of the northern ocean in ships, at last before their eyes lay the darkening limits of a fading world, and by retracing his steps he only just escaped in safety the vast pit of the abyss.
Incidentally, this is also the very first record of Vinland in medieval literature and therefore of great interest to diffusionists.
Other individual Norsemen, like Eric the Red’s son Thorvall, were also accused of being “giants.”
Now is it a coincidence that Scott Wolter asserted that the race of Norse giants were “between seven and eight feet tall”—the exact height Snorri’s saga attributes to Harald, the “giant” who sailed to Vinland, according to Adam of Bremen?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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