Earlier this year, I wrote (twice) about an outrage to sense, science, history, folklore, grammar, punctuation and all that is good in the world, called Claws, Jaws and Dinosaurs by “Dr.” Kent Hovind and William J. Gibson. From this book, I learned that Leif Ericson and his men
encountered hairy, ugly giants that uttered harsh cries. This is the earliest recorded encounter with Bigfoot, or Sasquatch….
Since then, I’ve wondered if this is a common argument among Bigfoot enthusiasts. After some investigating, I have discovered that it is not an uncommon argument. This account from the show “Ancient Mysteries: Bigfoot” is typical:
The oldest account of Bigfoot was recorded in 986 AD by Leif Ericson and his men. During their first landing in the New World, the Norsemen wrote about monsters that were horribly ugly, hairy, swarthy and with great black eyes.
It’s almost always Leif Ericson who is credited with discovering not only North America, but also Bigfoot. It’s never one of the later Norse explorers. The year 986 also recurs, as does the description. There are also often references to Leif writing about or recording his encounter. Almost all these details are impossible.
Two sagas deal with the Norse discovery of America: Greenlanders’ Saga (Grænlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eric the Red (Eiríks saga rauða). In both sagas, Leif’s single voyage to the New World is described rather briefly. In both, the most significant things he finds are the grapes and vines which provide Vinland with its name. In Eric’s Saga, Leif sees no animals at all. In Greenlanders’ Saga, he sees salmon (lax) larger than any he had seen before. While large, the fish are not said to be hairy; there is no mention of feet.
The date 986 is very specific, and I haven’t figured out where it comes from. No one knows exactly when the Norse discovered Vinland, but, based on information from the sagas, the initial sighting seems to have taken place around 1000. Leif hadn’t been born in 986, and his father had not yet settled in Greenland. This is important: there is a logical progression from Iceland to Greenland to Vinland.
If the discovery occurred around 1000, it was more or less contemporary with the Christian conversion of Iceland and Greenland. Eric’s Saga claims that Leif accidentally discovered Vinland when he got blown off course traveling from Norway to Greenland on a mission from
God King Olaf Tryggvason to convert the Greenlanders. This story is generally agreed to be untrue, but the general time period is probably right. One of the perks of conversion was a shiny new alphabet. Well, okay, a slightly used alphabet. But not even the Icelanders (who took to writing with wild abandon) started writing within a week or two. The stories weren’t written down for centuries after the events described. It is true, of course, that the Norse had the Runic alphabet, but it seems unlikely that Leif schlepped around a supply of big rocks so that he could record a journal or captain’s log.
Absurd as they are, these details appear over and over, sometimes with extra absurdities added on. Rick Emmer, in his book Bigfoot: Fact or Fiction, says:
Vikings led by Leif Ericson made their way to the East Coast of North America in 986 CE. It was there that they reported seeing an “horribly ugly, hairy, swarthy and with big black eyes” (Ericson, Leif. 986 CE) creature. They called the creature “Skellring”. People believe that the creature “Skellring” is what we know today as Bigfoot. But it is possible that the Aboriginals were playing a prank on the vikings by wearing large animal hides. This Bigfoot sighting was the first to be recorded in North America.
I love the way he cites Leif parenthetically as his source, in (almost) proper APA style. One website suggests that Bigfoot were an aboriginal tribe:
[Leif described] encounters with huge hairy men, with a horrible odor and piercing shrieks. L’Anse aux Meadows…is the only known village settlement by the Vikings in this area around 1000 AD. That region was inhabited by Native people from back to 6000 BP. Native people who surely had dealt with the local Bigfoot. Is it possible that the Vikings landed on a continent that had two tribes? One Native American and one being Bigfoot? If and [sic] upright human-like being can manage to stay well hidden from man, showing a good degree of intelligence, then when we refer to Bigfoot, are we not referring to the “other” tribe of the Americas?
A similar account was recorded by the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization:
It is a little known historical fact that the first Sasquatch encounter was perhaps observed by the vikings who settled on the island of Newfoundland in Eastern Canada….Leif kept a record of his journey across the Atlantic, from Iceland to Greenland, and of his experiences whilst in Newfoundland, the last point of land on his voyage. Among his accounts, Leif told of seeing huge hairy men who towered over him and his Berzerker crew (and the vikings are known to have been large men). The “huge hairy men”, according to Leif, lived in the Woods and had a rank odour and a deafening shriek. Apparently, Leif had several sightings of the “huge hairy men” before departing the island.
DESCRIPTION OF CREATURE: Towering height, hairy, man-like, rank smell, deafening verbal tones., The natives of Newfoundland, the Beothuck (now extinct), most likely had similar relations to the Sasquatch like other native bands, especially those of Western Canada (ie Bella Coola). Leif’s accounts spoke of his meeting of a race of men (seperate [sic] from the “huge hairy men”), which were almost certainly the Beothuck.
It should be noted that neither Leif nor the later Norse explorers of Vinland were Vikings: properly speaking, “Viking” refers specifically to raiders. They certainly weren’t Berserkers. While the Norse explorers have become insane, frothing warriors in this account, Bigfoot has become huge, loud, foul-smelling and clearly distinct from native peoples.
So where does the story of Leif and Bigfoot come from? I believe it comes from Peter Byrne’s The Search for Big Foot: Monster, Myth or Man? and he drew on Samuel Eliot Morison’s The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500-1600, though Morison did not mention Bigfoot. Byrne, who appears on the “Ancient Mysteries” program, refers to Morison’s account of the Norse discoveries, particularly:
an encounter by Leif Erikson and his men, during their first landing in the New World, with creatures that were pictured as “horribly ugly, hairy, swarthy and with great black eyes. (Byrne 7)
While Byrne admits that this case is “borderline” and that the “creatures” were probably “simply Indians,” he still thinks it may have been Bigfoot. Why? Because they were hairy:
The Norse word “skellring” is a term of contempt. It means, roughly, a “babarian.” But what caught my eye . . . was the word “hairy.” The Norse were a hairy people themselves, big men with matted hair and beards. Why did they remark on the “skellring” being hairy? Was it because they were very much hairier than the Norsemen, even covered with hair, perhaps? If the encounter had been between, say, Tibetans, who are not a hirsute people, and the “skellring,” one could understand the reference to hairiness. But why the Norse mention? (7)
And what of Samuel Eliot Morison? Morison held a Ph.D. from Harvard University and taught history there for forty years. In his account of the Vinland voyages, Morison essentially retells the two sagas, sometimes conflating them. Although he lists the manuscripts and some editions and translations in his bibliography, it is not clear what translation he is using when he quotes, or if he is using his own translation. It is not always clear what saga he’s quoting from. He includes some information that is definitely false. He says, for instance, that Eric the Red “left Norway for Iceland to escape punishment for manslaughter” (39). Eric’s Saga does say that Eric and his father left Norway “because of some killings,” but in reality Eric would have been a child when his family moved to Iceland, too young to have been involved in the killings. Morison also interprets and embellishes some parts of the sagas. He says that Leif considered Helluland (Flat-Rock Land, here identified as Baffin Island) worthless “after finding no gold in the rocks” (41). As far as I know, neither saga in any manuscript mentions gold or the lack of it in Helluland.
So Morison’s account is eccentric or at least dated. Is there any justification for thinking Leif might have met Bigfoot based on Morison’s book? No. First, Morison mentions no encounters between Leif and any sort of animal or native person. Second, the often-quoted description of what Morison calls the Skrellings (not Skellrings, as Byrne calls them) as “horribly ugly, hairy, swarthy, with great black eyes” (55) is not actually in quotation marks. More importantly, he applies this description to “the natives.” It would take a huge amount of determination and delusion to find Bigfoot in Morison’s account. The Skrælings (the word actually used in the sagas) speak, use weapons (arrows and some sort of catapult), row and presumably build boats made out of animal skin. They also bring a variety of animal pelts to trade. All this is clear from Morison’s account.
As for the description of the Skrælings which inspired Byrne to think of Bigfoot, it’s a pretty close paraphrase of a description in Eric’s Saga:
Þeir váru svartir menn ok illiligir ok höfðu illt hár á höfði. Þeir váru mjök eygðir ok breiðir í kinnum. (chap. 10)
This can be translated as, “They were dark men and ill-looking and had bad hair on their heads. They were large-eyed and broad-cheeked” (my translation). “Illt,” used to describe the Skrælings’ hair, can mean “ill, evil, bad; hard, difficult; close, mean, stingy.” Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson translate it as “coarse.” So the excessive hairiness that so fascinated Byrne is just hair that the Norse considered ugly. And it’s not body hair: the description says they had bad hair on their heads. This description comes from the manuscript Hauksbók. The other manuscript, Skálholtsbók, describes the Skrælings as smáir, small, rather than svartir, black or dark. So the huge, hairy, bigfooty Skrælings were neither large nor particularly hairy.
So how did humans become Bigfoot? Well, first Morison retold the sagas in a slightly odd way. Byrne seized on one word and ignored everything else Morison said, while making several mistakes. Others have dismissed Byrne’s reservations but repeated his mistakes, while adding their own (anyone who uses the word “Skellring” has clearly gotten their information from Byrne, either directly or indirectly). The same mistakes get repeated religiously until they become established fact. And no one, not even Byrne, bothers to look at the actual sagas.
Well, almost no one. One poster at Bigfoot Forums has almost restored my faith in humans. In a thread called “Best Bigfoot Documentaries,” spasticskeptic warns,
["Ancient Mysteries"] repeats the arguably mistaken claim that the earliest known alleged sightings of hairy manlike beasts in the New World go back to 900-something A.D., with “Leif Erickson and his men.” The textual evidence that they quote is just one English translation, and it differs markedly from nearly all other English translations of this material with respect to the issue at hand. Consult the myriad English translations of the early Norse explorations/settlements of North America and this notion that the Norse encountered “hair-covered manlike beasts” pretty much disappears. I looked into to this at length some years ago because to my mind the quotes in the A&E special were especially promising in terms of establishing a historical record of alleged sightings. Thus, I learned the hard way (through old school research) that the translation quoted by A&E is aberrant.
See, Bigfooters, there are books that aren’t about Bigfoot. Some of them are instructive and entertaining. It is possible to read primary sources and, you know, learn stuff.
“Ancient Mysteries: Bigfoot.” A&E. Originally aired as season 1, episode 1 on 7 Jan. 1994, narrated by John Swanson. Version narrated by Leonard Nimoy aired as season 4, episode 18 on 15 May 1997. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCfF-JLpo4I
Byrne, Peter. The Search for Big Foot: Monster, Myth or Man? New York: Pocket, 1975.
Eiríks saga rauða. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. http://www.heimskringla.no/wiki/Eir%C3%ADks_saga_rau%C3%B0a (Hauksbók); http://www.snerpa.is/net/isl/eirik.htm (Skálholtsbók)
Emmer, Rick. Bigfoot: Fact or Fiction. Infobase Publishing, 2010. Qtd. in http://elo11g05a.blogspot.com/2011/11/bigfoot-leif-ericsons-sighting.html
Grænlendinga saga. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. http://www.heimskringla.no/wiki/Gr%C3%A6nlendinga_saga
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500-1600. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.
The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. Tr. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. London: Penguin, 1965.