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Life in the Ice Box

How Erik hit the big time in Greenland

· Greenland Erik Inuit

Greenland is big, really big, but not much of it is what you'd call habitable. It has, nevertheless, been the home of two very different peoples. When Erik the Red arrived in the late tenth century, he was a man on the make. He was also a man on the run as he'd murdered two people in Iceland and was officially fair game albeit for a limited period. He set off into literally uncharted waters and managed to find in Greenland some of the few places there where it's possible to farm, fish and survive. He returned to Iceland, somewhat oversold the place as "Greenland" (not much of it is green to be fair) and returned with 14 ships (having lost almost the same number during the voyage) filled with his compatriots. He gave them all parcels of this new land, thereby rising up the social scale as jarl – aka top man.

He built a superior longhouse (above) and became very wealthy, with an income based not just on raising his animals but on hunting seals and polar bears for their skins and walrus and narwhal for their ivory. The ivory became highly sought all over Europe and was used to carve luxury trinkets. Erik became a wealthy man. He even got his own saga.

His wife, Thjodhildr, produced three strapping sons and a daughter. The most famous of his offspring was Leif Eriksson who was the first European to set foot on American soil, some four hundred years earlier than those Johnny-come-latelies Vespucci and Columbus. Thjodhildr (and indeed Leif) converted to Christianity much to Erik's disgust though he did build her a tiny chapel (above is a replica). This was not enough for Thjodhildr who demanded he changed his religion, too, or no sex. Poor old Erik was left to spend his later years in a somewhat monklike state. Well, at least when it came to the wife. He was a Viking, after all.

Over time, Greenland's Vikings died out. No one is quite sure why. Theories include climate change and the Black Death. Whatever the reason, they weren't there when the main migration of Inuit arrived in the 13th century having moved from Siberia to Alaska and finally finding their way to very much the kind of green spaces Erik had searched out. This was a very different culture, based on a spiritual empathy with everything in nature and fully aware of their dependence on it. These were people who, when hunting an animal, would have ceremonies to ensure that it accepted that they killed only for their survival and they used (as they still do) every last part of the creature. Not for them, the option of flogging ivory for trinkets.

Perhaps that's why they've survived in this most inhospitable of landscapes, though there's no escaping this is a tough life. The water, for instance, is so cold, there's no point learning to swim, so they have perfected something called an Arctic Roll. No, it doesn't involve cake and ice cream. It's a technique for surviving being capsized in treacherous waters. So, you tip over...

Roll under your kayak...

And bounce up like a cork on the other side. Honestly.

At least wetsuits have come to Greenland. Though sealskin does look pretty good, too.

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