The Rise and Fall of Viking Greenland – A Non-Fishy Tale: Ch 4 of Go Greenland

September 30, 2021
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WHEN the first Inuit settlers arrived in Greenland, packing their extensive survival toolkits, they would have come into contact with another iron-working civilisation, namely, the Norse. For settlements had already been founded in the south of Greenland by Erik the Red, a Norse explorer who was banished from Iceland for three years because of his involvement in a couple of murderous brawls.

During his exile, Erik discovered a new land, which he named Greenland because he wanted to back there with some fellow-colonists and settle down, away from disapproving Icelandic busybodies, and also because, as the old sagas frankly attest, Greenland also sounded a heck of a lot better than Iceland as a place to emigrate to.

This wasn’t entirely a con on the Erik’s part. The southwestern part of Greenland is green; it is reasonably temperate and though it is deforested today, in Erik’s time it was actually wooded, with trees that were up to six metres high. The Norse founded two main colonies, one in the far southwest of Greenland, in the then-wooded area around today’s Narsaq. This was known as the Eastern Settlement and probably contained about 4,000 people at its height. The other main one was called the Western Settlement, in the vicinity of today’s Nuuk, which probably never got much above 1,000 people. There was also a smaller, and more ephemeral, Middle Settlement.

The main difference between the three settlements was latitude, not longitude. The Western Settlement was well to the north of the Eastern Settlement, which meant that it was colder and more marginal from a European standpoint. First the Middle Settlement, and then the Northern Settlement, were abandoned as the climate started to deteriorate at the end of the Middle Ages, in the early years of the episode known as the Little Ice Age. Finally, after centuries of occupation (and deforestation), the Eastern Settlement disappeared as well, during the early 1400s.

Ruins remain, such as the complex at an Eastern Settlement site which the Norse called Hvalsey (‘Whale Island’) and which the Inuit call Qaqortukulooq, near Qaqortoq in the far south of Greenland. These names mean ‘big white’ and ‘white’ respectively: researchers at the Greenland National Museum, which I visit in Chapter Seven, think that they refer to the walls of the Hvalsey Fjord Church, which were whitewashed when it was in use. The church is one of the most intact ruins in the Eastern Settlement, though it bears few traces of former decorative coatings these days.

Hvalsey Fjord Church, near Qaqortoq. Public domain image by ‘Number 57’, original upload date 3 August 2014, via Wikimedia Commons.

So, the Norse left, and the Inuit moved in to occupy this part of Greenland. The Inuit, with their clever harpoons and other tools, were able to make use of marine sources of food like fish, bowhead whales, seals and other marine animals, whereas the Norse were never able to adapt to that sort of way of life and depended on European-style farming methods that the Little Ice Age rendered unviable.

When it came to survival in the North, Viking technology might actually have lagged behind that of the ‘stone age’ Inuit in terms of ingeniousness and adaptation to purpose. But this certainly didn’t mean that the Vikings weren’t able to catch fish at all. Nor were they incapable of catching whales and other marine mammals, which were often classed as fish in those pre-scientific days, if they wanted to.

The reason why the Norse failed to make more use of marine resources as their farming failed is a little mysterious, given that Scandinavians catch plenty of fish these days. However, one reason may be that the Viking-era Norse often kept slaves called thralls — the origin of our word ‘enthrall’ — and the thralls tended to be fed on fish while the higher-status free Vikings ate meat reared on land. As such, though they sailed about in boats, the Vikings remained landlubbers in their culinary tastes.

Thraldom was abolished in the Middle Ages, starting in Iceland in 1117 and everywhere in post-Viking society by the end of the 1300s, but it’s likely that fish continued to be viewed as a low-status food for a time. So, it’s possible that the free Greenland settlers decided that, if they were going to be reduced to eating fish to survive, they might as well pack it in! That’s one big difference between the Norse Viking era and modern Scandinavians, who don’t have any kind of taboo against eating fish.

It’s a rather surprising difference, given how strongly modern Scandinavia is associated with the fishing industry and fish dishes.

The Viking fish-prejudice was widespread throughout the Germanic or Teutonic peoples, who very often made a distinction between themselves as eaters of meat and other supposedly lesser peoples who lived on fish. Thus the Germans, who expanded into territory occupied by Slavs in a similar or slightly later era than that of the Vikings, noted as a sign of the supposed inferiority of the Slavs that they tended to inhabit swampy areas and catch eels, erecting their villages on raised mounds of dry land. The landscapes of Eastern Europe, which are low-lying and often flooded, tended to favour such a way of life.

Borrowing hydraulic technology from their cousins the Dutch, who also inhabited a flooded landscape but had discovered how to pump out the water, the Germans drained many swampy areas and turned them into farmland and dairy flats, known in German as Holländereien. A practically identical story played out in the fens of East Anglia, inhabited by people who didn’t like the Normans, and in colonial New Zealand as well, where the Māori caught eels in wetlands that the settlers saw as ideal for dairy conversion, if only they could be drained (and the Māori evicted).

Though it no longer exists in the original sense, the prejudice that linked the consumption of fish to an allegedly backward or low-status way of life, as opposed to respectable people who lived on the proceeds of sheep, beef and dairy farms, survives in the English language in the sense that we say of anything we don’t like that it’s ‘a bit fishy’.

Fishing was a big industry in Norway by the 1400s. And later on, of course, we discovered the health benefits of cod liver oil and Omega-3s. But in the meantime, the old prejudice against fish seems to have lingered on in Greenland, where it probably also served to uphold a social distinction between Norse and Inuit. Norse Greenland, which could have prospered hugely from fishing but didn’t, may thus have ended its days as a backwater clinging to the old, prejudiced ways while the rest of the world moved on, in ways that ultimately contributed to the colony’s demise.

There was a similar situation in Iceland, though it didn’t actually doom the colony. According to writings of the Icelandic economist Þráinn (Thráinn) Eggertsson, while the island’s seas and fiords teemed with fish, post-Viking Icelandic society was dominated by its farmers. The farmer dominated assembly called the Alþingi (or Althingi) passed new laws, after the emancipation of the thralls, to force labour to work on farms and not to do other things such as fishing, save on a small and amateur scale.

Farming was a bit less marginal in Iceland than in Greenland, and so the Icelanders managed to survive; though the country stagnated for several centuries, as did its population, which for an equivalent period of time did not greatly exceed fifty thousand. From the late Middle Ages on, other countries fished Icelandic waters on a commercial scale. The main harvesters of the fish were Iceland’s more economically developed Norwegian and Danish overlords, of whom the last ruled the island as a dependency until the twentieth century.

This was an obviously colonial situation. The thinly populated margins of the Scandinavian world were often in a colonial position vis-à-vis Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, and with Norway in a colonial position vis-à-vis Denmark, as if the system was like an onion, with layers. But if so, it was a colonial system that Iceland’s local ruling class was quite happy to go along with. Colonialism is often a two-way street in this respect. A colonial system is seldom imposed entirely by force. It is more often a question of doing a deal with local elites, with the aim of making sure they won’t do anything to stop outsiders harvesting the region’s resources. The reason independence is often a disappointment is that the same local ruling class then takes over after independence, which is in that sense ‘premature’. There has to be some kind of revolution in the economic structure or the political system first, if independence is to live up to expectations.

Not until the nineteenth century did Iceland get serious about developing its own fishing industry despite the abundance of fish in its waters. By the time that Iceland’s independence came, a process that occurred in stages between 1918 and 1944, Iceland had already become more economically diversified, no longer in thrall to its farmers, and thus ready for independence.

Meanwhile, it seems clear that, whatever the motive, a form of agrarian chauvinism similar to the prejudice that had ruled Iceland in its centuries of stagnation had also doomed the more precarious Greenland colony.

Go Greenland is available on this website,


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