In this lesson, students will explore the travels and discoveries of the Vikings. After viewing a short video about the Eric the Red and Leif Ericson, students will analyze a painting that depicts a Viking ship at sea and then read an Icelandic saga written about the early Norse people. The lesson will conclude with students researching the impact the Vikings had on the region of their choice and completing a report or presentation.
- Intro Activity – 15 minutes
- Video and Class Discussion – 20 minutes
- Visual Primary Source Activity – 10 minutes
- Written Primary Source Activity – 60 minutes
- Geography Activities – 20 minutes each
- Culminating Activity – multi-day activity
- Video: Eric the Red and Leif Ericson | PBS World Explorers
- A smart board, projector, or other type of screen to show videos to class
- Image: Norse Alphabet
- A Class set of Vikings Video Graphic Organizer
- Map: Viking Expansion
- Image: Viking Ship
- Image: Summer in the Greenland Coast
- A Class set of The Saga of Eirik
- Computer lab or computers with internet access
- Interactive: The Vikings | Google Earth Story
- A Class set of Vikings’ Journey Map handout
- banish – to send away from a country or place as an official punishment
- fjord – a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs
- Inuit – the native peoples who inhabit the Arctic regions of Canada, Denmark, Russia and the United States
- saga – a long and detailed story that involves the heroic events of a legendary character
The Vikings — The Vikings were Scandinavian seafaring traders, who mainly spoke the Old Norse language, and were known for raiding and settling in many parts of northwestern Europe during the late 8th to the late 11th centuries. Vikings traveled on the Norwegian Sea and Baltic Sea to sea routes in the south. They used various ships for different purposes, though the longships are the most well known; these were used for warfare and exploration and designed especially for speed and agility.
- Vikings visit North America: Map Based Exploration, PBS LearningMedia
- Vikings Unearthed | Space Archaeology, PBS LearningMedia
- Nova - Vikings Unearthed, PBS
Iceland — Iceland is an island country in the North Atlantic Ocean. It is believed that Iceland was settled in the year 874, when Ingólfr Arnarson of Norway became its first permanent settler. Over the next few centuries, other Norwegians, including Eric Thorvaldson, or Eric the Red, settled in Iceland.
- A Photographer’s View of Iceland | Nyholl and Dettifoss, PBS LearningMedia
Sagas — Sagas are stories mostly about ancient Nordic history, written in the Old Norse language. The sagas include details of early Viking voyages and battles, as well as the history of Icelandic families. We know much of the Vikings’ history because of these sagas, including the stories of Eric the Red and his son, Leif Ericson.
- The Saga of Erik the Red | Appartement 611, PBS LearningMedia
Background on Eric the Red and Leif Ericson | Explorers and Settlers
The Viking Age is the name given to the period of Scandinavian exploration from the late 8th to the late 11th century. The Vikings were Nordic seafarers who traveled far and wide from their homelands in northern Europe all over the North Atlantic and even reached parts of North Africa, Russia, and the Middle East. The Vikings’ open wooden ships were an integral part of their culture: the ships allowed for transportation across vast oceans and waterways, and provided a means for their exploration of new lands. Vikings are most famously associated with the raiding and plundering of other lands, which is somewhat accurate, but especially in the later years of the Viking Age, they also began to trade with neighboring cultures and even established settlements in lands they had newly encountered. Much of the Vikings’ travels and explorations are known to us because of Icelandic sagas, which are traditional narratives that tell stories of the genealogical and family histories. By the 14th century, many sagas had been written down.
One famous saga, the Saga of Eric the Red, describes the life and explorations of Eric Thorvaldson, who was born in Norway in the year 950. When he was about 10, Eric’s father was banished from Norway for murdering a man, and his family moved to Iceland, which was already well settled. By 982, Eric the Red was himself banished from Iceland, also for murder. After hearing about islands located west of Iceland, Eric decided to sail there with a crew. He landed on the coast of eastern Greenland and discovered a land full of fjords and fertile valleys. When Eric eventually returned to Iceland in 985, after his exile was over, he brought with him stories of “Greenland.” Eric had deliberately given the place an appealing name in order to lure potential settlers there. The following year, Eric and around 500 men and women set out in 25 ships with the purpose of settling Greenland, though only 14 ships made it to their final destination. Eric the Red established himself as the leader of a settlement in southern Greenland while others continued further north and established a second settlement. Though Eric the Red was not the first European to reach Greenland, he is known as the first permanent European settler there.
According to the Saga of Eric the Red, Leif Ericsson, the second of Eric the Red’s three sons, who had grown up in Greenland, sailed to study in Norway around the year 1000. In Norway, King Olaf converted Leif Ericsson to Christianity, and a year later sent him back to Greenland to spread the religion among the settlers there. According to the saga, Leif Ericsson sailed off course on his return to Greenland and landed on the North American continent. However, another possibility that has been suggested is that he deliberately set out in that direction after hearing stories of an earlier voyage by an Icelandic trader. Leif Ericsson landed in what is now Newfoundland, and called it Vinland after the wild grapes that grew there. Before the discovery of archaeological evidence in 1961, Vinland was known only from the Icelandic sagas, but there is now real proof of its existence:the Viking Leif Ericsson reached North America over 500 years before Columbus made his journey. The sagas describe both peaceful and violent meetings between the native Inuit of Vinland and the Vikings, and ultimately the Viking settlers in Vinland did not last long.
Meanwhile, after spending the winter in Vinland, Leif Ericsson sailed back to Greenland and spent the rest of his life there, spreading Christianity throughout the region, and dying around the year 1020. He and his mother, Thjodhild, built Greenland’s first Christian church. There is evidence that the Viking community in Greenland lasted about 500 years, but the reason for its ultimate disappearance is a mystery. Possible causes include an increasingly colder climate, conflicts with the Inuit, European pirates, disease, and starvation.
- Explain to students that the Vikings used runes as the characters in their alphabet. Each rune represents a phonetic sound and has a meaning connected with Norse mythology. Project or hand our the rune alphabet below, and have students write a brief message to a friend and be sure to sign their name.
- Introduce Eric the Red and Leif Ericson
The late 8th century until the mid-11th century is considered the Viking Age. It was a time when Norsemen from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark traveled on oceans, seas, and rivers; trading, raiding, and colonizing the Western coast of Europe, nearly all of the United Kingdom, parts of Russia, Italy, and North Africa. Some also sailed west across the Norwegian Sea to the Faroes Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and even North America. These Western-traveling Vikings included Eric the Red and his son Leif Ericson. Eric the Red is credited as the founder of the first permanent settlements in Greenland and for naming the territory. Leif Ericson is the first European to have landed in North America.
Video and Class Discussion (20 minutes)
Distribute the Vikings Video Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Play the video, Eric the Red and Leif Ericson | PBS World Explorers
Discussion questions after viewing:
- Explain that Vikings have captivated people’s imagination for hundreds of years. They have been vilified and romanticized. Were they “barbarians” or traders and explorers? Project the Viking Expansion map and ask your students to discuss their impressions of what Vikings were like as they traveled throughout Europe and the North Atlantic Ocean. Note that the orange lines represent approximate routes of the Vikings; light green shading represents Viking settlement areas; and numbers are dates of Viking contact with that region.
[Source: Fabian-Baber Inc.]
- Explain that Eric the Red grew up in Iceland, and eventually discovered and settled in Greenland after being banished from Iceland for three years. Eric the Red was the first to colonize Greenland, which meant that he and other people settled there among the native Inuit tribes. There was an East Settlement and a West Settlement. The houses were made from stone. While there, Eric married and had children; among them was his son Leif Ericson.
- Thinking about if Eric were alive today and living in the United States, compare and contrast materials Eric and the settlers would use today to build houses versus the materials available at that time.
- Have your students use an atlas, Google Earth, or similar tool to determine the distance from Greenland to Newfoundland, Canada. Project and examine the Viking Ship image.
Discuss what it would be like to travel in a Viking boat across the North Atlantic Ocean like Leif Ericson did.
Video Graphic Organizer
Eric the Red
Reasons for exploring Greenland, Year of settlement, Length of settlements
What caused the settlements to be abandoned?
Reasons for exploring North America, Approximate time of discovery, How long did the settlements last?
What caused the settlements to be abandoned or disappear?
- Vikings had to have a lot of determination and good sailing skills, so they had learning. They are definitely not just “barbarians” but explorers.
Looking at the map, the Vikings appear to be skilled seamen as they travelled far distances by ship successfully.
- Eric and the settlers used stone to build their homes. Today, they could choose from wood, stone, brick, and steel. Eric and the settlers had no access to electricity for cooking, so their kitchens, for example, would not include stoves and ovens, but fireplaces to warm the house and cook the foods available.
- Greenland and Newfoundland are roughly 760 miles apart.
It must have been difficult to travel that much distance in an open Viking boat like the one in the picture. There appears to be no shelter; it’s just an open boat. The people on the boat would have had to withstand whatever weather was happening—rain, snow, wind, etc.—all while still rowing and controlling the boat!
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)
Project or make copies of the following image.
Summer in the Greenland coast circa 1000, by Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen (1841–1893); in Danish, the painting is called, Sommernat under den Grønlandske Kyst circa Aar 1000.
Carl Rasmussen was a Danish painter, known for his maritime scenes and, in particular, his paintings of Greenland, which he visited in 1870 and again in 1893. In addition to handing out the painting, it would be advantageous to project this image, so that students can see all of the detail in the painting.
The boat in the painting is likely an ocean-going cargo vessel, called a knarr (rhymes with car). Like the famous Viking longships, the knarr was built using construction techniques that were unique to the Norse people. The planks for the ship were split from tall oak trees using an axe rather than a saw. This made the planks stronger. They were then attached directly to the keel in an overlapping fashion rather than by the more common method of building an inner frame of wood and attached the planks to the frame. A keel is the bottom-most structural member of a ship. It runs from the bow to the stern. The hull (which is the watertight body of a ship) is typically built around the keel. Floor timbers were next installed, again attached to the keel. This design made the boats light, fast, and flexible.
- The knarr was steered using a single side rudder located on the right or “steering board” side. The modern-day nautical term for the right side of a boat is starboard. This term is believed to have originated from the setup on these Viking ships. Do you know the modern terms for the left, front, or back of a boat?
- The painting is entitled “Summer in the Greenland coast.” What object in the painting might you be surprised to find in summer?
- What animals do you think are depicted swimming around the boat?
- There is a person situated above the sail. He or she is standing on the yard (the wooden part that the top of the sail is attached to). They are holding onto the mast and staring out across the sea in front of the ship. What might they be looking for?
- What ornamentation is on the prow and stern of the ship? These creatures were believed to protect the ship and its sailors from the sea monsters that roamed the oceans.
- Left = port, front = bow, back = stern
- An iceberg
- Looking for land; watching out for icebergs, whales, other ships, or sharks
Written Primary Source Activity (40 minutes)
Tell your students that the following passage is Chapter 2 from the Iceland saga known as The Saga of Eirik the Red. The sagas are written stories about the early Norse and Celtic peoples who settled in Iceland. The sagas were written in the 13th century, based on oral tales passed down for hundreds of years. They are still widely taught to Icelandic children, and shared and celebrated throughout Iceland.
Have your students read the passage and then carry out the activity, in which they will develop a sales pitch to convince other people to join them in colonizing a new land.
Download the The Saga of Eirik the Red PDF
Geography Activities (30 minutes for each part)
- A Class set of Vikings’ Journey Map handout
- Computers with internet access
- Interactive: The Vikings | Google Earth Story
- Distribute the Vikings’ Journey Map handout, which includes grid identifiers and numeric identifiers of the geographic locations discussed in the Google Earth Story.
- In class, or independently, have students follow the journey of Eric the Red and Leif Ericson. Have students make notes on the map; encourage them to include aspects of the journey that they find interesting as well as any questions that arise.
- East and West Settlements are found in Square 3b.
Fish; water; grasslands and weather appropriate for pasturing sheep, horses, cattle
Grasslands to pasture sheep for wool and cows for hides
Sheep and cows for meat and dairy; fish; building materials; horses for travel and communication between settlements/trade with Inuit
- They look relatively similar, with farms along the coastal green pastures. Yes, the coasts of Greenland appear to offer the same resources that they did during the times of the Vikings: green pastures and long deep harbors.
- There are no urban cities to be found on the island in Newfoundland, Canada. It’s mostly rural with a lot of land dedicated to natural preserves. There is small city/large town on the island called St. John’s. But other than that area and a couple of other towns, it’s mostly rural farms and fishing villages.
This is best done as a multi-day in-class project. Give your students 30 to 60 minutes to decide which country or territory they will research and what sources they will use. They will need one to several hours to do their research. Writing the report and preparing the presentation can be assigned as homework.
Encyclopedias and books in your library are good resources. Online resources include:
Explain that hundreds of years before the Mongol empire and before Columbus lived, the Vikings used their superior shipbuilding and seafaring skills to spread out from Scandinavia. From the 8th through the 11th centuries, they explored Europe and the North Atlantic, where they colonized, traded, and raided. They were some of the earliest explorers of Europe and Asia. Through their travels they made the world a smaller place. They connected people on four different continents, and infused Norse culture into major parts of Europe, while adapting and assimilating much from the cultures they encountered.
Using the Viking Expansion map provided with this lesson, have students choose a country or territory that the Vikings encountered. Instruct students to research the impacts that the Vikings had on that place. Have them consider things like place names, style of government, architecture, language, and technical skills, such as weaving, boatbuilding, and metalworking. Students prepare a report or presentation to share with classmates.