Thorfinn Karlsefni

Last updated
Thorfinn Karlsefni Thórdarson
Thorfinn Karlsefni 1918.jpg
Diedc. after 1007
OccupationMerchant/Trader & Explorer
Known forEarly exploration of Vinland
Partner Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir
Children Snorri Thorfinnsson

Thorfinn Karlsefni Thórdarson [lower-alpha 1] was an Icelandic explorer. Around the year 1010, he followed Leif Eriksson's route to Vinland in a short-lived attempt to establish a permanent settlement there with his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir and their followers.



The byname Karlsefni means "makings of a man" according to the preface of Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, [1] although the Cleasby-Vigfusson dictionary glosses it as "a thorough man", [2] elaborated elsewhere as a "real man", a "sterling man". [3]


Thorfinn's expeditions are documented in the Grœnlendinga saga ("Saga of the Greenlanders" henceforth Grl.) and Eiríks saga rauða ("Saga of Eirik the Red" Henceforth Eir.), [lower-alpha 2] which together are referred to as "The Vinland Sagas." [4] The two sources differ significantly in their details (see #Saga sources below). [5]


In Greenland, Thorfinn met and married Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, widow of Thorstein Eiriksson. [6] Gudrid was staying under the care of her brother-in-law Leif Eriksson at Brattahlíð, an estate given to Leif by his father Eirik the Red after his death. Eirik had died in an epidemic c. 1003, though Eir. has him still alive and playing host to Gudrid. [7]


According to Grl., Thorfinn decided to go to Vínland at the insistence of his wife Gudrid. Leif agreed to lend the houses he built in Vinland, but was unwilling to make a free gift of it. [6] Among the other settlers to Vinland was Freydis, the sister or half-sister of Leif Eriksson, who may have accompanied Karlsefni's voyage (Eir.) or headed an expedition of her own that ended in carnage (Grl.).

The Grl. records that Karlsefni left Greenland with 60 men and five women, following the route taken by Leif and Thorvald Eiriksson. The Eir. writes that he took three ships with 140 men aboard, and describes the voyage in greater detail than the Grl. [8] [lower-alpha 3]

In Vinland, Gudrid bore Thorfinn a boy, Snorri, [9] [10] who was the first child of European descent known to have been born in the New World. Many Icelanders trace their roots to Snorri. The exact location of Thorfinn's colony is unknown, though it may have been the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

The relatively few women among so many men caused internal dissension within the settlement, and inability to cooperate caused abandonment of the settlement in the summer of 1006. Thorfinn reached Greenland safely, but many of the settlers drowned when their ship was wrecked in the Irish Sea. [11]

Saga sources

It has been pointed out that Eiríks saga rauða (Eir.) distorts the facts by giving undue credit to Thorfinn. [12]

For instance, it denies that Thorvald Eiriksson ever led his own voyage to reach Vinland (as Grl. records), even before Thorfinn. Although Thorvald had met his death by Native American arrows in Vinland before Karlsefni embarked, Eir. postponed Thorvald's death so he can be made to accompany Karlsefni to Vinland, [13] ultimately to suffer a more fantastical death from a shot fired by a Uniped. [14] Eir. shifts over to Karlsefni the credit for naming numerous geographic features, from Helluland and Markland to Kjalarnes "Keel Ness", though "this flatly contradicts the Grœnlendinga saga and is assuredly wrong". [15] Helluland (Baffin Island) and Markland were named by Leif; Kjalarness was where Thorvald had wrecked his ship, and the keel was left to stand as a monument, [16] and not an anonymous shipwreck as Eir. puts it.

Saga of the Greenlanders

According to the Grœnlendinga saga , Thorfinn Karlsefni's expedition commenced after his marriage to Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir. This marriage to Gudrid was predicted earlier in the saga by Gudrid's first husband Thorstein Eriksson, upon his death. [lower-alpha 4] The expedition brought women and livestock, signifying that they planned on being settled in the area for a while. Along the voyage, they ate a beached whale. They also cut timber, harvested grapes, and caught fish and game. A bull they brought frightened the native people (Skraelings). They tried to appease the natives by offering milk, but the natives took ill and battles commenced. Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir gave birth to Thorfinn Karlsefni's son Snorri before they headed back to Greenland.

Eirik the Red's Saga

Eirik the Red's Saga depicts Thorfinn Karlsefni as a successful merchant from Reynines, Skagafjord, in the north of Iceland. Karlsefni embarks on a trading expedition with 40 men, and arrive at Brattahlid, Greenland where they are hosted by Eirik the Red. Karlsefni marries Gudrid that winter. Karlsefni departs with three ships and 140 men in search of Vinland. Karlsefni's expedition winter on a piece of land, where two scouting slaves found grapes and wild grain. Eating a beached whale causes illness, as well as a rift. Thorhall's group declared the whale to be a boon from Thor, offending the Christian members and they part ways.

Karlsefni's expedition discovers further south a bountiful area full of wheat, fish, and game. They attempt contact with the natives who travel in hide-covered boats. The natives leave and the Greenlanders winter there, where their livestock flourish. The following spring, the expedition reencounters the natives and engages in trade with them, until a bull breaks free and frightens away the natives. The natives return after three weeks with hostile intent, a skirmish ensues, and the Greenlanders attempt as best they can to flee into the forest. Karlsefni and his men are saved by Freydis, who scares the natives off by slapping her bare breast with a sword taken from one of the fallen Greenlanders.

The expedition heads back north, and Karlsefni searches for Thorhall in vain. Karlsefni's men encounter the one-legged creature that shoots Thorvald Eiriksson dead with an arrow. Karlsefni's son Snorri is born in the New World. The group eventually decides to return home, and as they pass Markland, they encounter five Skraelings (three adults and two children). The adult Skraelings disappear into the earth, while the children are taken by Karlsefni to Greenland, where they are taught to speak Norse and are baptized. [17] After spending time in Greenland, Karlsefni and Gudrid return to Karlsefni's farm at Reynines, in Iceland.

Family background

Thorfinn Karlsefni was born circa 980–985 in Iceland. [20] His father was Thord Horsehead (Þórðr hesthöfði Snorrason), [6] [21] and his mother was named Thorunn (Þórunn). [21] Thord Horsehead was son of Snorri, son of Thord of Hofdi  [ is ]. [6]

Thorfinn was presumably raised at his father's estate called Stad (Stað) in Reyniness (Reynistaður  [ is ]). [21] This estate was located in the Skagafjord bay area, [21] which is also where Thorfinn's great-grandfather established roots, at his farm of Hofdi  [ is ] in Hofdastrand  [ is ]. [lower-alpha 5] Thorfinn himself also retired in the area in his later years; while Eiríks saga says "he went (back) to his farm in Reyniness," [22] Grænlendinga saga states he bought new lands at Glaumby  [ is ]. [6]

A more detailed genealogy (under Eiríks saga rauða, ch. 7) is interpolated in the H or Hauksbók text of Haukr Erlendsson. Haukr had particular interest since he himself claimed descent from Thorfinn. [12] However, Haukr's ancestral trace before Karlsefni's great-grandfather Thord of Hofdi deviates from other sources, and the Landnámabók version [19] is deemed more reliably accurate. [18]

Though not shown in the family tree (right), Thorfinn also claims descent from the matriarch Aud the Deep-Minded through Thord Gellir. [23]

In modern art

In the early twentieth century, Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson was commissioned by Joseph Bunford Samuel to create a statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni through a bequest that his wife, Ellen Phillips Samuel, made to the Fairmount Park Art Association (of Philadelphia, now the Association for Public Art). [24] Her bequest specified that the funds were to be used to create a series of sculptures "emblematic of the history of America." Thorfinn Karlsefni (1915–1918) was installed along Philadelphia's Kelly Drive near the Samuel Memorial and unveiled on November 20, 1920. [25] [26] There is another casting of the statue in Reykjavík, Iceland.

By the 21st century, the statue in Philadelphia had become a common rallying location for local white supremacy groups. In time, these rallies led to counter protests and vandalism of the statue. [27] [28] In the early morning hours of October 2, 2018, police were called to the statue's location and found it had been toppled from its stone base and dragged into the nearby Schuylkill River. [29] [30] As of 2020, the statue was being conserved, but the City of Philadelphia had no timeline for its reinstallation and was taking the appropriation of the statue by hate groups into consideration as it made plans for the future. [31]

The 1967 comedic science fiction novel The Technicolor Time Machine by Harry Harrison reveals at its ending that the character named Ottar—an 11th-century Viking hired by a film studio as consultant and actor—is indeed Thorfinn Karlsefni.

Elizabeth H. Boyer published "Freydis and Gudrid" in 1978, a fictionalized account of the first Vinland settlement.

Margaret Elphinstone's "The Sea Road" (2000) is a novel told in the first person. As an old woman, Gudrid recounts her childhood in Iceland, her family's harrowing voyage to Greenland, her marriages, and the trip to Vinland led by Thorfinn Karlsefni.

A fictionalized version of Thorfinn Karlsefni is the protagonist of the ongoing Japanese manga series Vinland Saga is currently composed of 27 volumes by author Makoto Yukimura. The popular manga also received a 48-episode anime television series adaptation by Wit Studio which aired on NHK General TV in Japan from July to December 2019 and released worldwide on Prime Video. [32] This anime was recontinued for another season for another 24 episodes (48 in total) and was adapted by MAPPA, airing in January 2023. [33]


Explanatory notes

  1. Manuscripts of Eiríks saga rauða are indicated by the sigla: A=Hauksbok, B=AM 557=Skálholtsbók in Storm 1891
  2. Smiley 2001 , p. 666 gives "hundred plus forty men" and Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , p. 94 "160 people", but Storm 1891 has "var fjórir tigir manna annars hundraðs" with the reading of ".xl. manna ok .c. " (A, Hauksbok) footnoted
  3. Thorstein had succumbed to disease when the couple was heading for a journey trying to recover the body of Thorvald in Vinland.
  4. Landnámabók indicates that the great-grandfather Thord of Hofdi had emigrated (from Norway?) to Iceland. [19]
Genealogy tree notes
  1. Ragnar Hairy-Breeks Björn Ironside Aslak Thorvald Backbone (hryggr) Björn Butterbox, etc. is the patrilineal lineage given in the Hauksbók
  2. Áslákssonar, Bjarnarsonar járnsíðu in the Hauksbók
  3. Hroald Spine (Hróaldr hryggr) is called Thorvald Backbone (Þórvaldr hryggr Ásleiksson) in the genealogy of Hauksbók version [18]
  4. Björn byrðusmjör
  5. In the Hauksbók she is indicated as bearing the same name as her mother Fridgerd.
  6. Thord Gellir or "Yeller", son of Olaf Feilan, grandson of Aud the Deep-Minded
  7. Þórhildr Rjúpa
  8. Þórðr hesthöfði


  1. Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , Intro., p.8
  2. Cleasby, Richard; Vigfússon, Guðbrandur (1922), An Icelandic-English Dictionary, Printed for private distribution by J. Bunford Samuel, p. 116, EFNI n. .. β. in a personal sense: manns-efni, a promising young man; karls-efni, a thorough man
  3. DeCosta 1901 , p. 122n: "Enfi" finds its equivalent in the Latin Materia, signifying "Stuff". "Mannsefni" stood for a "promising man," and "Karlsefni" for a "real" or "sterling" man... indicated that the person to whom it was applied was made of "good stuff"
  4. Magnusson & Pálsson 1965, Smiley 2001 , pp. 626–676 etc.
  5. Jones 1968 , p. 300
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , Grl., ch. 7 (pp. 64-67 and notes)
  7. Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , Grl., ch. 6, "(After her husband's death, Thorstein the Black conveyed her to Eiriksfjord, and) Gudrid went to stay with her brother-in-law Leif Eiriksson at Brattahlid" (Grl., Ch.6, p.64); "Eirik the red received her at Brattahlid.." (Eir. Ch. 6, p.90)
  8. Smiley 2001 , p. 666
  9. Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , Grl, ch. 7 (p.66), Eir, ch. 12 (p.102), listed as "Snorri Karlsefnisson" in name index.
  10. Mitchell, Alana (2002-11-30). "Legend that begins in Newfoundland ends with a 'fantasy' discovery in field" (Reprint). Leif Eriksson Monuments Pages. Retrieved 2008-08-25. Eventually, they settled in what is now Newfoundland, gave birth to Snorri Thorfinnson and stayed for about three years.
  11. Bowen, Frank C. (1938). America Sails the Seas. New York: Robert M. McBride & Company. p. 21.
  12. 1 2 Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , Intro., pp.30-31 "(Haukr Erlendsson) had a special interest in Eirik's saga, for he himself was descended from Thorfinn...he inserted additional genealogical material into the text (Chapters 7 and 14) and made several slight alterations designed to add further lustre to his ancestor's fame."
  13. Jones 1968 , p. 301
  14. Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , Grl., ch. 12, pp. 101-103
  15. Jones 1968 , p. 301
  16. Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , Grl., ch. 5 (pp.59-61); Storm 1891 , p. 60, "Ch. Þorvalldr for til Vijn lanz"
  17. Eirik the Red's Saga: A Translation read before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool. Translated by Sephton, Rev. John. Liverpool: D. Marples & Co. 1880. p. 32.
  18. 1 2 For example, Rafn, Carl Christian (1837), Antiqvitates americanæ, Schulzianæ crossreferences "Þórvaldr hryggr Ásleiksson" given by Haukr as Thord of Hofdi's grandfather to "Hróaldr hryggr" given by the Landnámabók.
  19. 1 2 3 Landnámabók: Ellwood 1898 , Part III, Ch. X, pp.136-; Pálsson 2007 , §208. Thord (p.93): "Thord, the son of Bjorn Butter-Box, son of Hroald Spine, son of Bjorn Ironside, son of Ragnar Hairy-Breeks.Thord.. took possession of Hofdastrand in Skagafjord.. and made his home at Hofdi...had a third son called Snorri, who married Thorhild the Ptarmigan, daughter of Thord Gellir, and their son was Thord Horse-Head. He married Thorgerd, daughter of Thorir Slouch and Fridgerd, daughter of King Kjarval of Ireland."
  20. Wallace, Birgitta (November 9, 2018). "Karlsefni". The Canadian Encyclopedia . Historica Canada . Retrieved November 19, 2022.
  21. 1 2 3 4 Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , Eir., ch. 7 (pp. 91-93 and notes)
  22. Magnusson & Pálsson 1965 , Eir., ch. 14 (pp. 104-5)
  23. Pálsson 2007, §95. Aud the Deep-Minded (p. 50) to §109 Olaf Feilan (p. 55)
  24. Samuel, Joseph Bunford; Einar Jónsson (1922), The Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni who Visited the Western Hemisphere in 1007, Printed for private distribution by J . Bunford Samuel, pp. 5–9
  25. Samuel & Einar Jónsson 1922 , p. 5
  26. "Interactive Map > Thorfinn Karlsefni". Association for Public Art homepage. Retrieved 2016-08-03.; adapted from Bach, Penny Balkin (1992), Public Art in Philadelphia, Philadelphia: Temple University Press
  27. Bender, William (October 18, 2013). "Skinheads, protesters headed to Fairmount Park". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Philadelphia. Archived from the original on July 20, 2020. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  28. Theodórsdóttir, Emma (2021). "Entangled Duality of a Viking Statue: Þorfinnur Karlsefni". The After Monument. Design Academy Eindhoven (Information Design Masters program). Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  29. Stamm, Dan (October 2, 2018). "Philly's Thorfinn Karlsefni Statue Toppled Into Schuylkill River". NBC10 Philadelphia. Philadelphia. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  30. Newhouse, Sam (October 2, 2018). "Viking statue turned 'flashpoint' between skinheads and Antifa toppled into Schuylkill River". Metro . Philadelphia. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  31. Thompson, Gary (January 30, 2020). "Where is the toppled Boathouse Row Viking statue?". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Philadelphia. Archived from the original on January 30, 2020. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  32. Sherman, Jennifer (March 19, 2018). "Vinland Saga Manga Gets TV Anime by Wit Studio". Anime News Network . Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  33. "Vinland Saga Exec Reveals Season 2 Episode Count". Anime. Retrieved 2022-06-28.

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