[This is an encore post of one of my most popular posts ever.]
After several decades of rummaging in the archives of antique newspapers, I fancy myself a connoisseur of 19th- and early 20th-century journalistic hoaxes. For the completely improbable blended with the plausible, few tales have given me so much pleasure as the following story:
ENTOMBED IN AN ICEBERG FOR CENTURIES;
The startling discovery which came when the grand floe drifted ashore and revealed a picturesque Viking, perfectly preserved, even to his armor and red hair.
Drifting for ten centuries through the uncharted seas north of the Arctic Circle, traversing heaven knows how many thousand miles of snow and silence, perhaps pushed by the ever-grinding ice floes of the North Pole itself, the body of a Viking king a thousand years old has been returned at last to civilization.
Dressed from head to heel in a frozen winding sheet that preserved it more perfectly than any Egyptian mummy, the Viking’s body was discovered by Danish doctors, standing upright in a huge iceberg cast up on the east coast of Greenland.
It towered before their amazed eyes like an incredible phantom —seven feet tall, clad in rude ancient armor, gripping spear and shield, head crowned with the winged helmet of Norse royalty, the whole dimly visible within the transparent tomb of ice.
Men with axes chopped away this natural casket. Then the Viking stood as unmarred by time as though he had died but yesterday. He was not dried or shrunken. The skin was white and firm. The hair of the head and of the bushy beard was long and red and silky. The iceberg had kept him imperishable for posterity.
The body is being taken on a ship to Copenhagen. There scientists will endeavour to perpetuate the process of preservation by the injection of chemicals. If they are successful, the body of the Viking king in the Copenhagen museum will be the most remarkable relic on earth. Millions will come to stare at the Norseman who lived and loved and fought a thousand years ago.
While Copenhagen scholars impatiently await the arrival of the extraordinary find they have dispatched an expedition to Greenland to continue excavations. Word has reached them that seven more bodies, as untouched by the years as the first, have been found. Further explorations may give science the most valuable light it has ever had on the Norsemen and their voyages. The early history of America may be rewritten before the investigations are through.
Actually they are considering a theory that the Viking with his royal winged helmet may be no less a celebrity than Leif Eriksen, “Erik the Red,” famed in saga and rune as a dauntless voyager, believed by many historians (who base their assumption on authentic findings) to have landed on the shores of America 400 years before Columbus steered the Santa Maria into harbour at San Salvador.
“Erik the Red,” according to Norse legend, was an Earl banished to Greenland because of his secret romance with his liege lord’s beautiful daughter. He was a great fighter, a great lover, a great adventurer. After settling at Brattelid and building dwellings (foundations of which were unearthed a few years ago) he heard from his uncle, Bjarnl, a noted discoverer of a vast new land to the southwest.
Erik followed the lure of the unknown. By the account of his voyage preserved in Norse story, historians judge that he finally reached what is now Cape Cod Bay, sailed along Scituate Beach past Coronet Rock into Boston Harbor, and thence up the Charles River into the Back Bay, where he landed near Cambridge and built a long house.
The archaeologists have found to confirm the legend, ruins of various dwellings, fish pits, canals, bowls, nets for salmon fishing, a marble cup of unmistakable Norse origin. The family of Eben Norton on whose property these tokens were unearthed erected a statue of Leif Eriksen in Faneuil Hall Boston.
“Erik the Red” left a small colony of Vikings in the new world and sailed back to Greenland. There he died—violently, as became a King. The old sagas tell how he and his chieftains pledged their last “Skoal” in foaming horns of mead before they roared forth to battle against an alien invader. But before the raider was driven into the sea his archers and spearmen slew “Erik the Red” and many of his warriors.
They buried Erik, according to Viking custom, in full armor. His helmet, with its twin wings and its gold incrusted lining, was upon his head. His shield was buckled on his arm and his javelin was in his hand, that he might be fit to sit with the high gods. Buried with him were those of his companions who had fallen in battle.
But the earth was not their grave. They placed the body of Erik and those other bodies in galleys. They rowed out to the ice floes, grinding past the Greenland coast. In niches carved deep into the ice they laid the dead Vikings, then watched them disappear—slowly, majestically—into the red eye of the sunset on their long journey to Valhalla.
Thus, sing the old sagas, passed “Erik the Red” in the year 922 A.D. or thereabouts. Now, a thousand years later, the ice mountains of the Arctic have given up their secret of the centuries.
Years passed. In the steady, ceaseless grind of the floes immense chunks, mountain tall, were broken off, to become icebergs at the mercy of ocean currents.
By what freak of ocean wind and tide the iceberg containing these eight bodies was brought to that particular spot on the Greenland coast, only Providence knows. But eventually—possibly after completely circumnavigating Greenland—it was thrust up by the waves onto a lonely promontory on the southeastern seaboard.
Here the iceberg may have rested years before a human being passed that way. Even did some lonely hunter come upon it he might have missed the bodies buried in its side. Only gradually did the iceberg melt under the action of sun and wind until the helmeted chieftain was visible for the first time in a thousand years, though the sheet as through a window.
The discovery of the Vikings by the Danes came about through an unusual chain of circumstances. For many months, Eskimos, coming into the settlements, had brought ghostly tales of a spectre-haunted point on the lonely east coast. But white men paid little attention to the stories.
They were used to such superstitions in the frozen North—legends of beach-walkers and dune-haunters of the ghastly “Yoe-Hoca or Iloca” that stalk the trails of hunters; of the phantom crews of lost ships heard in the night whistling—not singing, but whistling—for the soul of the man who steered them to their doom. This rumor of a fair-skinned, red-haired giant staring out of the side of an iceberg seemed but another yarn.
Then, at the kryolite mines at Ivigtut, an epidemic of scurvy broke out. The Danish Government sent a party of physicians to the town. They heard the story of the phantom giants in the iceberg, and the more adventurous spirits of the party proposed an expedition.
The young doctors set out more in fun than in earnest. They believed they were stalking a ghost. But guided by Eskimos, they stumbled at the end of their journey on the find of the century—the Viking King, entombed for a thousand years, released from his icy casket by their swiftly chopping pick-axes for the first time since he set forth for Valhalla in the dawn of the tenth century.
History has no episode that rivals the strange discovery. Only in fiction can anything similar be found, and that in a novel of a dead generation, “The Frozen Pirate,” fantastic narrative of a South Pole expedition, tells of a pirate, who was found frozen in a chunk of ice, who was thawed back to life, who took again to murder on the high seas, and who was finally refrozen and re-entombed that the Spanish main might be saved from his bloody hand.
To that extent is fiction, in this case, strange than truth. For though his body is in perfect condition may draw the scientists of the world to Copenhagen, no human hand will ever wake the soul of Leif Eriksen—if it be he—from his sleep of a thousand years. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 March 1922: p. G3: p. 6
I wondered what the inspiration could have been for this story. The Frozen Pirate by William Clark Russell (a ripping yarn if ever there was one) was serialized in Belgravia magazine in 1887-1888—long before this article appeared. Possibly the author knew of other frozen bodies from Greenland: very well-preserved bodies dressed in elegant, fashionable European garments, c. 1400 have been found in Greenland cemeteries. In 1540 a merchant ship was driven to a Greenland fjord by a storm. On the shore the crew found the frozen body of what has been called “The Last Norseman on Greenland.” His face was covered by his hood; he had a knife that had been sharpened and resharpened to a thread, which the sailors took with them as a souvenir.
I think, however, that you’ll find that the following article has many of the elements that the author of the frozen Viking story incorporated in his wonderful flight of fancy. But why settle for 15 Viking skeletons, no matter how well-preserved their skin garments and javelins, when you can create a 7-foot legend in full armor, sealed in an iceberg?
Grave Of Vikings
When the Norwegian steamer Vesla docked in Philadelphia recently, its captain unfolded a tale as thrilling as any to be found in the pages of Hakluyt. For the story told by Capt. Lars Olsen Apold was of the unearthing of the bodies of Vikings from their frozen graves in Greenland, where it was computed, they had lain for one thousand years.
Capt. Apold was not the actual discoverer of these bodies, but his steamer was at Julianehaab, Greenland, waiting for its cargo of cryolite when the discovery was made by Dr. Norland, a Dane. Capt. Apold and this physician and his party had been sent to Ivigtut, Greenland, by the Danish government to attend the families of cryolite miners in the surrounding country, and it was while on an errand of this nature that the graves were found.
There were 15 bodies buried in the one spot and while only the bones of human beings were left, the skins of animals had proved more hardy, as the garments worn by the Vikings were almost intact.
These were made out of skins and were frozen solid. Beside the bodies were found javelins and implements of war that made it possible to determine what period the warriors lived in. This is believed to be the fourteenth century.
The bodies were discovered by accident, and when the physician and his party realized the importance of the discovery they hastened back to Ivigtut, 30 miles from Julianehaab, where they sailed at once for Denmark on the Danish steamer Fox to place their discovery in the hands of the government.
The peculiar appearance of a mound led to the discovery of the bodies, which were found a short distance back from the coast, between towering mountains and icebergs nearly as towering. This mound was built entirely of stones piled on top of each other to a height of three feet.
It was so evidently not a natural formation that the exploring party decided to see what lay beneath the stones, and were well rewarded for their efforts. The fact that the bodies had been buried in this manner helped to place them as probable Vikings, for that method of burial was one of the religious customs of this race.
Odin, who was their god, was responsible for many curious tenets, which are disclosed in their Sagas. No land has bequeathed a literature containing so minute and comprehensive an account of the life of a people as the Land of the Midnight Sun, the home of the old Vikings, and the story of many a hero ends with the announcement that “his grave was hidden under the stones, in obedience to the injunction of Odin.”
The Vikings, history tells us, were the ancestors of the English-speaking nations, and were, in reality, war-like and ocean-loving tribes of the north. Northmen, or Norsemen, was the name they were entitled to, but they were of so restless and nomadic a temperament that they were called Vikings, a name derived from the Anglo-Saxon tongue, which we would interpret as pirates.
Paul B. du Chaillu, in The Viking Age, says:
“Almost every young Norseman of sufficient means and position went a-viking. This was analogous to the grand tour made by our great-grandfathers in the eighteenth century.”
The heroes of the Viking settlement in Greenland, according to an ancient Saga, were the Norwegian chief, Thorwald, and his son, Eric the Red. New York Times 20 December 1921
As for the notion of going “a-Viking” as a Dark Ages version of the Grand Tour–the monks of Lindisfarne and Iona might have had a differing viewpoint.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.