The Northern Way

Daily Life in Greenland


Konungs Skuggsjá (The King´s Mirror)

Father. There still remains another species which the Greenlanders count among the whales, but which, it seems to me, ought rather to be classed with the seals. These are called walrus and grow to a length of fourteen ells or fifteen at the very highest. In shape this fish resembles the seal both as to hair, head, skin, and the webbed feet behind; it also has the swimming feet in front like the seal. Its flesh like that of other seals must not be eaten on fast days. Its appearance is distinguished from that of other seals in that it has, in addition to the other small teeth, two large and long tusks, which are placed in the front part of the upper jaw and sometimes grow to a length of nearly and ell and a half. Its hide is thick and good to make ropes of; it can be cut into leather strips of such strength that sixty or more men may pull at one rope without breaking it. The seals that we have just discussed are called fish because they find their food in the sea and subsist upon other fishes. They may be freely eaten, though not like the whales, for whale flesh may be eaten on fast days like other fish food, while these fished may be eaten only on the days when flesh food is allowed. Now I know of nothing else in the waters of Greenland which seems worth mentioning or reporting, - only those things that we have just discussed.

Son. These things must seem wonderful to all who hear of them, - both what is told about the fishes and that about the monsters which are said to exist in those waters. Now I understand that this ocean must be more tempestuous than all other seas; and therefore I think it strange that it is covered with ice both in winter and in summer, more than all other seas are. I am also curious to know why men should be so eager to far thither, where there are such great perils to beware of, and what one can look for in that country which can be turned to use or pleasure. With your permission I also wish to ask what the people who inhabit hose lands live upon; what the character of the country is, whether it is ice-clad like the ocean or free from ice even though the sea be frozen; and whether corn grows in that country as in other lands. I should also like to know whether you regard it as mainland or as an island, and whether there are any beasts or such other things in that country as there are in other lands.

Father. The answer to your query as to what people go to seek in that country and why they fare thither through such great perils is to be sought in man's threefold nature. One motive is fame and rivalry, for it is in the nature of man to seek pales where great dangers may be met, and thus to win fame. A second motive is curiosity, for it is also in man's nature to wish to see and experience the things that he has heard about, and thus to lean whether the facts are as told or not. The third is desire for gain; for men seek wealth wherever they have heard that gain is to be gotten, though, on the other hand, there may be great dangers too. But in Greenland it is this way, as you probably know, that whatever comes from other lands is high in price, for this land lies so distant from other countries that men seldom visit it. And everything that is needed to improve the land must be purchased abroad, both iron and all the timber used in building houses. In return for their wares the merchants bring back the following products: buckskin, or hides, sealskins, and rope of the kind that we talked about earlier which is called ‘leather rope' and is cut from the fish called walrus, and also the teeth of walrus.

As to whether any sort of grain can grow there, my belief is that the country draws but little profit from that source. And yet there are men among those wh o are counted the wealthiest and most prominent who have tried to sow grain as an experiment; but the great majority in that country do not know what bread is, having never seen it. You have also asked about eh extent of the land and whether it is mainland or an island; but I believe that few know the size of the land, though all believe that it is continental and connected with some mainland, inasmuch as it evidently contains a number of such animals as are known to live on the mainland but rarely on islands. Hares and wolves are very plentiful and there are multitudes of reindeer. It seems to be generally held, however, that these animals do not inhabit islands, except where men have brought them in; and everybody seems to feel sure that no one has brought them to Greenland but that they must have run thither from other mainlands. There are bears, too, in that region; they are white, and people think they are native to the country, for they differ very much in their habits from the black bears that roam the forests. These kill horse, cattle, and other beasts to feed upon; but the white bear of Greenland wanders most of the time about on the ice in the sea, hunting seals and whales and feeding upon them. It is also as skillful a swimmer as any seal or whale.

In reply to your question whether the land thaws out or remains icebound like the sea, I an state definitely that only a small part of the land thaws out, while all the rest remains under the ice. But nobody knows whether the land is large or small, because all the mountain ranges and all the valleys are covered with ice, and no opening has been found anywhere. But it is quite evident that there are such opening, either along the shore or in the valleys that lie between the mountains, through which beasts can find a way; for they could not run thither from other lands, unless they should find open rads through the ice and the soil thawed out. Men have often tried to go up into the country and climb the highest mountains in various places to look about a learn whether any land could be found that was free from ice and habitable. But nowhere have they found such a place, except what is now occupied, which is a little strip along the water's edge.

There is much marble in those parts that are inhabited; it is variously coloured, both red and blue and streaked with green. There are also many large hawks in the land, which in other countries would be counted very precious, - white falcons, and they are more numerous there than in any country; but the natives do not know how to make use of them.

Son. You stated earlier in your talk that no grain grows in that country; therefore I now want to ask you what the people who inhabit the land live on, how large the population is, what sort of food they have, and whether they have accepted Christianity.

Father. The people in that country are few, for only a small part is sufficiently free from ice to be habitable; but the people are all Christians and have churches and priests. If the land lay near to some other country it might be reckoned a third of a bishopric; but the Greenlanders now have their own bishop, as no other arrangement is possible on account of the great distance from other people. You ask what the inhabitants live on in that country since they sow no grain; but men can live on other food than bread. It is reported that the pasturage is good and that there are large and fine farms in Greenland. The farmers raise cattle and sheep in large numbers and make butter and cheese in great quantities. The people subsist chiefly on these foods and on beef; but they also eat the flesh of various kinds of game, such as reindeer, whales, seals, and bears. That is what men live on in that country.

© 2000 Hringari Oðinssen

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