Erik The Red, The Hot-Headed Viking Whose Murderous Temper Led To The Settlement Of Greenland

Published January 5, 2023
Updated March 13, 2023

Erik the Red is perhaps best known as the father of Viking explorer Leif Erikson, but he also established the first known European settlement in North America — and it was all because of his violent temper.

Erik The Red

Wikimedia CommonsA depiction of Erik the Red, one of the most feared Vikings among a host of fearsome Vikings.

Erik the Red is a legendary figure from Viking tales and one of the most influential Viking explorers in history.

Most tales of Erik the Red remember him for founding the first continuous settlement in Greenland — but it’s possible that the famous Viking may not have founded Greenland at all had he not been banished from Iceland for murder.

In any case, Erik the Red became a famed Viking explorer and eventually returned to Iceland to tell its people of this new land to the west. His descriptions of Greenland were evidently so enticing that 25 ships set sail to establish settlements. And though only 14 of those ships are believed to have made it safely there, the settlement eventually grew to roughly 3,000 inhabitants.

This is the story of Erik the Red, his banishment from Iceland, and the founding of Greenland.

Erik The Red’s Early Life

Much of what we know about Erik the Red comes from Nordic and Icelandic sagas. Also known as Erik Thorvaldsson, the Viking made a name for himself due to his bad temper, a penchant for exploring, and his red hair.

According to the sagas chronicling his life, Erik Thorvaldsson was born in Norway sometime around 950 A.D., but when he was 10 years old, his father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, relocated the family to western Iceland.

Of course, Thorvald didn’t leave Norway of his own accord — he was found guilty of manslaughter and faced banishment. This would eventually become something of a trend in teh family. So, he took the family to the Hornstrandir region of western Iceland.

It was in this untamed land that Erik the Red truly grew into his father’s son.

Erik The Red Battling An Icelandic Chief

Bettmann/Getty ImagesErik the Red killing an Icelandic chief.

According to Biography, Erik the Red eventually married a wealthy woman named Thjodhild Jörundsdóttir and took on several servants, or thralls. He inherited them from his wife’s family and life was good. Erik was wealthy, fearsome, and a leader in his community.

That is, until a series of unfortunate events caused Erik’s temper to flare.

The Murder That Led To Erik The Red’s Banishment From Icelande

Sometime around 980 A.D., a number of Erik’s thralls (servants) accidentally caused a landslide while working. This landslide, unfortunately, destroyed the house of Erik’s neighbor Valthjof. In response, Valhjof’s kinsman, Eyiolf the Foul, killed Erik’s thralls.

Naturally, this angered Erik, but rather than wait for community leaders to mete out justice, he took the law into his own hands, killing Eyiolf and a clan “enforcer” named Holmgang-Hrafn. Following the killings, Eyiolf’s kinsmen demanded that Erik and his family be banished from the village of Haukadale.

Erik relocated to Oxney, but he could not escape his neighborly woes.

Around 982 Erik loaned some wooden beams — called setstokkr — to Thorgest, a fellow settler. These beams held a mystical significance in the Norse pagan religion, so when Erik wanted his beams of wood back and Thorgest refused, Erik came and took them by force.

Worried that Thorgest would respond with violence, Erik opted to handle the situation preemptively. He and his men ambushed Thorgest and his clan, killing two of Thorgest’s sons in the midst of the melee.

At his trial, Erik the Red was once again found guilty of murder. He was banished once again, this time for a period of three years.

In His Exile, Erik The Red Set Sail For The West — And Founded Greenland

Like his father before him, Erik the red headed west after his banishment. 100 years earlier, a Norwegian sailor by the name of Gunnbjörn Ulfsson had discovered a large landmass to the west of Iceland, and Erik was determined to find it. Fortunately, Erik was an experienced navigator, because the journey spanned roughly 900 nautical miles across the open ocean.

But in 983, Erik the Red reached his destination at its southernmost tip, a fjord now known as Tunulliarfik.

From there, the intrepid explorer mapped Greenland to the west and north for two years. He found the areas suitable for raising livestock, and despite its cold and arid climate called the place Greenland as a way to entice more settlers to come to the area.

In 985, his banishment ended and Erik returned to Iceland where he convinced a party of roughly 400 people to return to Greenland with him. On his triumphant return to Greenland, Erik the Red set off with 25 ships, of which only 14 completed the journey — two settlements in southern Greenland harbored as many as 2,500 people in their heyday. These were the Eastern Settlement, Eystribyggð, and the Western Settlement, Vestribyggð.

Greenland Fjord

Wikimedia Commons Tunulliarfik Fjord in southern Greenland, a place first settled by Erik the Red around 982 or 983.

Erik the Red lived like a king in Greenland, which boded well for raising his four children. His sons were Leif, Thorvald, and Thorstein, while his daughter was Freydis. Freydis inherited her father’s temper and became a fearsome warrior.

Leif Eriksson, meanwhile, became the first European to see North America when he and his men landed in Newfoundland on the eastern coast of Canada sometime in early 1000s, a full 450 years or more before Christopher Columbus.

Leif Eriksson was able to sail to Canada thanks to his father’s temper that landed the family in Greenland in the first place.

But despite his adventurous, combat-filled life, Erik the Red’s life came to a rather unceremonious end. Legends say that the died shortly after the turn of the millennium — and very likely as a result of injuries he sustained after falling off his horse.

Still, without Erik the Red’s murderous rampages, history might have turned out differently.

Next, check out these crazy Viking facts. Then, read about the Viking’s all-powerful Ulfberht swords.

William DeLong
William DeLong is a freelance wordsmith. He thanks you for reading his content.