Leif Ericson and the Peanut Bird
A legend by Big Cheese (AKA Mick Zerr) © 2009
Episode 1, THE TRICK
Around the year 986, a Viking trader from Iceland named Bjarni Herjolfsson got lost after a terrible storm blew him off course. When the storm ended, a thick fog set in for two days. As the fog finally lifted, Bjarni and his crew saw a large skógi vaxinn (forested land) with no ice. When he returned to Grænland , he met Leif, second son of Eric the Rauður ( Eric the Red). He told Leif what he had seen when the fog lifted. Leif never forgot the story, and told it to his father, Eric the Red, who was so named because of his bright red hair.
His father told the story to his friend, Konungur (King) Olaf Trygvesson, the king of the Norse Vikings. The Norse king said he would like to send an expedition to find the land, but no one was brave enough to go. Eric the Red told him that his son was the best sailor around, but knew that Leif felt it was too dangerous to search for Bjarni’s mysterious forested land
The two Viking leaders thought for a while and came up with a plan to trick Leif to sail to try and find the new land. It is said that Leif had a crush on the Norse King’s daughter, Thorgunna, so the plan was to have her ask Leif to take her to the west shore to see the beautiful sunset, but not have him ask permission of the King Olaf, which was against Viking law. When the King was to find out about the “date”, he was to demand punishment, which would be to either paint all the houses in the Olaf’s city, (knowing how Leif hated to paint), or take the dangerous trip to the mystery land.
Thorgunna played her part well, and upon coming back from watching the sunset, the King saw the couple and demanded punishment. Eric the Red agreed, and the choice was given Leif, who promptly took the challenge of sailing to the mysterious forested land to the west. He was given the best of ships, including the same dreki bátur(dragon boat) that Bjarni had used years earlier when he first caught sight of the mysterious land.
Episode 2, THE JOURNEY
Thus in the year 1000, the Viking sailor Leif Ericson, second son of Eric the Red of Grænland, set sail with a crew of 35 men in search of the forested land seen by Bjarni, son of Herjulf back in 986. After retracing Bjarni’s route, the Leif expedition encountered a great storm that almost sank them. When the storm was over, a great fog descended, and Leif got out his signal horn and blew it. The Vikings had discovered that they could hear the horn of another ship and judge its distance by the sound. He knew that if land or ice were ahead, the sound would reflect back as an echo, so they would not accidentally run aground. After two days in the fog, an echo was heard after the blowing of the horn.
Shortly after, the fog lifted but land was not seen, so as was the custom of Norse sailors, they released a hrafn (raven), for Ravens always flew toward land, and if there were not land, the bird would return. After a few hours, the Raven did not return and Leif sailed toward the Raven’s direction. After a few hours they sighted land. But it was not the beautiful forested land that Bjarni saw; so Leif named it Helluland, meaning “flat and stony land”, probably present day Baffin Island
They continued sailing south and came upon more land, which they named Markland, or wooded land, likely present day Newfoundland. The ship sailed further south and came upon land with more trees and wild grapes and grains, which Leif named Vineland. They spent the winter there and in the year 1001, returned to Greenland with stories of adventures and samples of the rich plants and trees.
Episode 3, THE GIANT WATERS
Leif married Thorgunna, and became a famous leader, but never went back to Vineland. His adventures were recorded in the famous “Greenland Sagas”.
One of the stories the explorers told was of a venture inland following the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. The Vikings were so awed by the size of the Great Lakes, that they decided to explore them. By now they had learned Indian sign language, and could communicate with most Indian tribes. The natives told them the biggest of the giant Auwa (waters) was many days to the setting sun. Leif could not believe another lake could be bigger than those they had seen, so he set sail toward the west. After many days they came to the largest of lakes. The natives called it Gichigami, meaning “big water”.
Leif and his men were sure the giant lakes were the greatest thing so far in their adventure, but in talking with the Ojibwe peoples, they told him of a sacred place where there is a great river that is broken and surrounded by blood that has turned to rock. Now this place really interested the Vikings, since there was no such place in all of Viking lands. They wondered how a river could be broke, and how blood could be rock. The natives told the Vikings that the broken river is 30 suns march to the south and west, but in their excitement, they read the sign for 30 as 3, so they thought it was only three days march. The Ojibwe chief offered to send a guide with them, but the Vikings, thinking it was only a three day march, said they could find the place by themselves, and thanked the Indians for their hospitality.
Episode 4, THE SEARCH FOR THE SACRED PLACE
The Vikings left some men to tend their Dragon ships near the present port of Duluth and marched southwest toward the Broken river and Blood rock. After three days march, there was no sign of the magic place, but the Vikings continued on until they were almost out of food. They decided to have a discussion and vote to go on or head back. The Vikings were tired as well as hungry, and while they were worrying if they would starve, they heard a loud movement in the forest nearby. It turned into a loud, almost deafening laugh as a giant Indian appeared out of the forest. He was very tall, nearly seven feet, and had a great lance and shield. His face was painted in bright reds and yellows and his shield had a great golden bird painted on the leather. The Vikings themselves were not very tall; most were closer to five feet, so the native chief loomed as a giant to them.
The Vikings gathered in a circle, shields held high, swords drawn, ready for battle, but Leif, the wise leader he was, told them that the Indian showed no sign of attack, and perhaps he had a few more tall warriors behind him in the forest. Besides, Leif cautioned, the Vikings were weak from hunger and the long march. The cautious Leif put his sword down and looked at the tall warrior, who was raising his free hand, palm out, the universal symbol of peace.
“Anniin (greetings) strange men with miskondibe (red hair)”, he signed and said in a deep, concerned voice, “I am not laughing at you, but at your lament (worry). “May I join you around your fire?” Leif waved him over, and they sat around the warm fire. The Chief asked if a few of his Anishinaabe warriors could join them, and Leif said it was ok.
Out of the forest came at least 50 tall warriors. The Vikings were thankful that Leif was wise enough to not fight.
Leif asked the chief what he mean about laughing at their worries?, and the chief told them that no one who is good ever starves in this land. Leif asked how could that be, and the chief told them this most wondrous story:
Episode 5, THE CHIEF'S AMAZING STORY
“Many seasons ago, as many as the buffalo has hairs, my people first came to this land. The maji-manidoo mikwam ( Ice Giant) to the North made the winters cold, and the summers cool, resulting in difficulty for my people to find food. (The Great Lakes area was settled as the great Ice Age ended, with the ice sheets (ice giants) retreating to the north into Canada about 11,000 years ago.)
One Cold Season was very bad, and my people were running out of food, much as you, strange red haired men, and they too were lamenting, but they did not know that watching them from the top of a Chi Wajiwan (big mountain) were two Binesi Banaysheug (giant birds). One of the birds was totally Mukaday (black) even his eyes were black. The other giant bird was Zooniyawbik (golden), in color. The great bird twins had been sent by Manitou (God) to see how the humans were doing during the cold winter. They were directed to see if the people were following the three great rules of Manitou:
1. Be kind to elders.
2. Treat nature with respect.
3. Treat others as you would be treated.
If they were practicing them, they were to get food to keep them alive during the terrible cold.
As the great birds watched, they saw that the people were following the three rules. The great golden bird told the black one that he should give the people food, as directed by Manitou, and he would fly north to tell the great Manitou the people were following the rules and were being given food.
Upon hearing the news of the good people following the three rules, Manitou sent the Golden Bird back to help his black brother distribute the food. When he arrived back where the starving people were, he saw the great Black Bird sitting on an overlooking mountain, looking very full. He asked the black one if the food had been given to the people. The Black Bird said, “I was hungry and ate the food myself, for the puny humans can starve for all I could care”. The Golden Bird was angry and told the black one that great Manitou directed that the people be fed. The black one answered, “I am greater than the people, I am greater than you, and I am even greater than Manitou”.
Episode 6, THE BATTLE IN THE SKY
He then attacked the golden one and the two giant birds fought for 7 days and 7 nights. They fought high in the sky, where they blocked the sun out and caused the first eclipse. They fought at night and their talons smashed against each others causing giant sparks. This became the first lightning. They hit so hard that the sound was deafening. This was the first thunder. On the seventh day, five miles up into the sky, the great Golden Bird moved back 40 miles and headed straight at the black one at great speed. His talons hit the black bird so hard that it killed him instantly. He started to fall faster and faster. Soon he was falling as fast as the spirit of sound travels (speed of sound). He hit right in the middle of a great river, which split in two, causing a giant gakijiwan (waterfall). He hit so hard that the ground cracked and moaned. This was the first earthquake. His body exploded in a mass of blood and black feathers as wide as a day’s walk. The blood fell down to the earth and instantly turned into rock the color of blood.
At this point in the Chief’s story, Leif Ericson commented to his Viking warriors that it was indeed the place they were searching for. All the Vikings now were excited to hear the end of the story.
The Chief continued by telling the Vikings that not only did the blood turn to rock, but the thousands of black feathers turned into crows, all cawing endlessly and flying away in different directions to populate the world so as to remind everyone of the power of good over evil.. One of the black feathers fell upon the top limb of a great, white dead tree. The chief said, “to this day, when you see a crow cawing, small birds will be chasing it because they know that the crows came from the feathers of the evil, Giant Black Bird, and if you are sharp of eye, you will see, at the top of a giant dead tree, a lone, large crow sitting, watching…
Final Episode, THE ARRIVAL
Leif Ericson jumped up and said, “What a great story, can you take us to the broken river with the blood red rock?” The Chief said it is only a day’s march toward the setting sun, so they all headed west.
Soon they arrived at a great waterfall with the rock the color of blood. The Vikings were very pleased to finally see this sacred and beautiful place. Leif asked the Chief how they were to get food for the hungry Vikings. The Chief asked them if they had been practicing the three rules of Manitou. The Vikings always practiced the rules, so the Chief told them to listen for the 7 calls of the Giant Golden Bird, and they would go to the direction the calls came from and they would find all the food they would need.
Suddenly the whole forest became still and 7 great calls came from the west. The Vikings ran over to the cliffs of blood red rock and found food (Indian potatoes*) everywhere. They thanked the great Chief for sharing his wonderful legend and helping them get the food. They all sat in a circle together, held hands and the Indians quietly thanked Manitou, and the Vikings thanked Odin.
All was quiet as the Chief and Leif noticed a shadow cast on the water and they looked up to glance a giant golden image flying fast and far toward the north, while across the broken river, far above the blood red rock, a lone crow watched from a long dead tree……
Thus the origins of thunder, earthquakes, lightning, Sioux quartzite, crows, and the Falls of the Big Sioux River
*Indian potatoes, or Arrowhead, is a very nutritious plant with a tuber that looks like a peanut (thus the “Peanut Bird”). To this day it is very common around the Falls of the Big Sioux River, where the story concludes.
Mick Zerr,as told at Leif Ericson Camp ©2009