Hobbits and Skraelings, Oh My!

originally posted Oct. 12, 2006

Imaginary peoples from the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien? Hobbits, yea. Skraelings, nay.

I previously explored the issue of a so called new species of peoples who were eagerly donned “Hobbits”. Come to find out they were ancestors of an already existing indigenous people, the Flores Pigmies. That was a tall tale. And this one is no small one.

In my exploration for the true discoverer of America I have come upon such interesting information. In learning about Viking exploration of North America I wondered what hardships the Vikings encountered that prevented them from maintaining a permanent community in Newfoundland, Canada. Much speculation exists as to the cause of this – plague, famine, weather? Were there giants in the land? Just who did they encounter and what if any impact did it have on the Viking settlements of North America?

Skraelings. Yes, Skraelings, who in Norse means “aboriginal people”. These were the native inhabitants that Vikings encountered in Vinland the Good. The Viking explorers of North America referred to the Skraelings they found as barbarians. Some Vikings, being recent Christian converts, apparently had not learned the “pluck the log from your own eye” principle. The Scandinavian mariners, infamous for plundering European coasts from the eighth through the tenth century, were not exactly remembered for their own gentility. Evidence reveals that the Vikings both battled and traded with the Skraelings. So just who were these Skraelings?

The people that the Vikings encountered when during their time in Newfoundland were most likely the Beothuck Indians who were native to the territory where Viking ruins have been found. They were probably the first American Indians to ever meet the fair skinned Europeans. The Norse description of the natives were described as using humped canoes and red clothing consistent with the Beothuk. They were obsessed with red, in fact, and decorated themselves extensively with red ochre, which they used as an insect repellent, but also wore superstitiously throughout the year. The Vikings traded their red clothing with the Skraeling for furs, this would also indicate the mutually satisfying trade.

There was a pale Skraeling woman in a dark dress whom the Vikings recorded in the Greenland Saga who tried to communicate with the Vikings. This may have been a Micmac who often sailed along the Newfoundland coast. Micmac legends also suggest they were aware of Norse settlements. One group to the south were Algonquin Indians, whom Viking sagas recorded hostile encounters. Whether or not the Beothuk were involved in the massacres is unknown, but it is known that they became even more reclusive following the Viking intrusion.

Then we have the Dorcet culture, an ancient civilization that preceded the Thule Inuits and the modern Inuit peoples of same region. The Dorset people were called the “Tuniit” by the Inuits and characterized them as “giants”. Though taller and stronger, they were easily scared off and displaced by the Thale Inuit of Alaska, of whom there was no biological relation. Contrarily, Vikings also characterized the Thale Inuits, who later also came to Greenland, as small. Canadian poet Al Purdy’s poem, “Lament for the Dorsets”, begins “Animal bones and some mossy tent rings… all that remains of Dorset giants, who drove the Vikings back to their lc…”. This suggests that the Dorsets were giants even to the Vikings and drove them away, although the Inuits were reported to have driven the larger Dorsets away.

It is interesting that that the Dorcet culture disappeared at about the same time that the Viking settler’s of Newfoundland returned to Greenland, abandoning their settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows. Perhaps, the Thule Inuits subjugated not only the Dorcets, but the Vikings, as well. Interestingly, evidence supports that Dorcets also existed in Greenland after this period, as well as Quebec and Labrador until about 1500 AD when they were totally annihilated. Strangely enough, thousands of years prior to the Viking habitation of Greenland, evidence shows the existence of Dorcet culture. Interactions between the Vikings and the Dorcets, I speculate, could have influenced Viking religion translated through their sagas which depict wars between the Viking gods against giants. The Dorcets subdued by the Vikings, only to have history repeat itself. Though much of this is legend, it is probably based in true experiences, though translated through the eyes of exaggeration, spiritualization, superstition, and selective memory. Perhaps the Viking setters in North America were confronted by similar scenarios.

For the most part, Viking sagas suggest that they sought peaceful relationships with the Skraelings through the trade of milk and cloth for fur, while forbidding the trade of weapons. Yet, more the memorable sagas describe the the bloody battles that the Vikings had with the Skraelings, giant or not.

Dorcet Culture peoples, Beothuck Indians, Thule Inuit, as well as the Vikings all have ceased to exist. Ah, but are there still Skraelings in the land?

Additional Ponderings:

Who are the little people?

What really makes one a giant?

What giants do I encounter, and are they really as powerful as I perceive them?

“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.” ~ Swedish Proverb

Further Exploring . . .

One especially interesting battle between the Skraelings and the Vikings involves Freydis, Leif Eriksson’s pregnant half-sister. Her noble act influenced even the culture of her enemy in the protection of women/motherhood. Read about it here:

Freydis and the Skraeling Saga

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Viking/Skraeling history – very interesting

Viking history and their Skraeling encounters

More history of Viking/Skraeling interaction

Viking religion

Early Artic Americans

Inuit history

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