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Thorfinn Karlsefni

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Title: Thorfinn Karlsefni  
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Subject: Atlantic Ocean, Iceland, Viking Age, Vinland, 1010, List of explorers, Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, Norse colonization of the Americas, Snorri Þorbrandsson
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Thorfinn Karlsefni

Thorfinn Karlsefni (Old Norse: Þorfinnr Karlsefni, Icelandic: Þorfinnur Karlsefni), whose byname signifies "Makings of a man",[lower-alpha 1] was an Icelandic explorer. Around the year 1010 AD, he followed Leif Eriksson's discovered route to Vinland (Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, or perhaps further south), in a short-lived attempt to establish a permanent settlement there with his passengers and crew.


Thorfinn's expeditions are documented in the Grœnlendinga saga ("Saga of the Greenlanders") and Eiríks saga rauða ("Saga of Eirik the Red"), which together are referred to as "The Vinland Sagas",[1] but the details are at considerable variance.[2] According to Grl., Karlsefni left with 60 men and 5 women, trailing the path taken by Leif and Thorvald Eiriksson. Whereas Eir. he took three ships with 140 men aboard, describing the voyage in greater detail.[3]

The finer details notwithstanding, Eir. (Eiríks saga rauða) distorts the facts by giving undue credit to Thorfinn.[lower-alpha 2] For instance, it denies that Thorvald ever led his own voyage to reach Vinland (as Grl. records). In reality, Thorvald had already met his death by Indian arrows in Vinland even before Karlsefni disembarked, but Eir. delays Thorvald's death so he can be made to accompany Karlsefni to Vinland,[4] ultimately to suffer a more fantastical death from a shot fired by a Uniped.[5] Eir. shifts over to Karlsefni the credit for naming numerous bits of geographic features, from Helluland and Markland to Kjalarnes "Keel Ness", though "this flatly contradicts the Grœnlendinga saga and is assuredly wrong."[6] Helluland (Baffin Islands) and Markland were named by Leif; Kjalarness was where Thorvald had wrecked his ship, and the keel was left to stand as a monument,[7] and not an anonymous shipwreck as Eir. puts it.


Thorfinn Karlsefni met in Greenland Gudrid Thorbjorns-daughter (Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir), the widow of Thorstein Eiriksson and wedded her.[8] She had been staying under the care of her brother-in-law Leif Eriksson, at Brattahlid the estate left to Leif by Eirik the Red, who was dead by this point, having succumbed to an epidemic ca. 1003, even though Eir. has him still alive and playing host to her.[9]


Thorfinn reached the momentous decision to go to Vinland (ON and Icelandic Vínland), which according to Grl. happened at the insistence of Gudrid. And Leif agrees to lend the houses he built in Vinland, though unwilling to make a free gift of it.[8] Among the other settlers into Vinland was Freydis 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.).

Gudrid bore Thorfinn a boy in Vinland, who was named Snorri,[10][11] the first child of European descent known to have been born in the New World and to whom many Icelanders can trace their roots. The exact location of Thorfinn's colony is unknown but is believed to potentially be the excavated Norse camp at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.


Karlsefni byname signifies "Makings of a man" according to the preface of Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson,[lower-alpha 3] although the Cleasby-Vigfusson dictinary glosses it as "a thorough man",[12] elaborated elsewhere as a "real man" a "sterling man".[13]

Family background

Thorfinn Karlsefni's father was Thord Horsehead (Þórðr hesthöfði Snorrason),[8][14] and his mother was named Thorunn (Þórunn).[14] Thord Horsehead was son of Snorri, son of Thord of Hofdi (is).[8]

Thorfinn was presumably raised at his father's estate called Stad (Stað) in Reyniness (Reynistaður (is)).[14] This estate was located in the Skagafjord bay area,[14] which is also where Thorfinn's great-grandfather established roots (at his farm of Hofdi (is) in Hofdastrand (is)).[lower-alpha 4] Thorfinn himself also retired in the area in his later years; while Eir. says "he went (back) to his farm in Reyniness,"[16] Gir. states he bought new lands at Glaumby (is).[8]

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.[lower-alpha 2] However, his ancestral trace before Karlsefni's great-grandfather Thord of Hofdi deviates from other sources, and the Landnamabók version[15] is deemed more reliably accurate.[17] Though not shown in the stemma below, Thorfinn also claims descent from the matriarch Aud the Deep-Minded through Thord Gellir.

Family Tree

(based on Landnámabók,[15] up to Karsefni's father)

Ragnar Hairy-Breeks[† 1]
Björn Ironside
Hroald Spine[† 2]
Kjarval, King of Ireland
Björn Butterbox[† 3]
Thorir Slouch
Thord of Hofdi
(Þórðr fra Höfða Bjarnarson)
Thorgerd[† 4]
Thord Gellir[† 5]
Snorri (Þórðarson)
Thorhild the Ptarmigan
(Þórhildr Rjúpa)
Thord Horsehead
(Þórðr hesthöfði)
Thorfinn Karlsefni

For further descendants, see under Snorri Karlsefnisson.

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).[18] 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.[19][20] There is another casting of the statue in Reykjavík, Iceland.

In fiction

The protagonist in the manga Vinland Saga is loosely based on Thorfinn and his (likely fictional) connection to King Canute and Thorkell the Tall.

Groenlendiga Saga

According to Groenlendiga Saga Thorfinn Karlsefni’s expedition commenced after his marriage to Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir. This marriage to Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir was predicted earlier in the saga by Thorstein Eriksson upon his death. On the expedition to Vinland Karlsefni brought 60 men, 5 women, and livestock. The fact that women and livestock were brought signified that they planned on being settled in the area for a while. According to the story on the voyage they ate a beached whale. They also cut timber, harvested grapes, and caught fish and game. Later on in the story a bull that they brought along frightened the native people. They Initially fixed the relationship with the natives by offering milk, the natives got sick and then the battles commenced. Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir gave birth to Thorfinn Karlsefini’s son Snorri before they head back to Greenland


Explanatory notes



  • . The sigla used in this texts for the manuscripts of Eiríks saga rauða are: A=Hauksbok, B=AM 557=Skálholtsbók.
  • , with indices for Personal Names and Place Names.
  • , with Index of Characters only; maps with routes.
  • 13-ISBN 978-0-887-55370-7

External links

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