Looking forward to the Columbus three-day weekend? Actually, it should be a four-day holiday, since Tuesday is Leif Erikson Day — the first European to actually set foot in North America (sorry, Columbus fans). But no such luck.
The son of fierce Viking warrior and explorer Erik the Red, Leif Erikson (aka Leif the Lucky), set sail in 999 and established a Norse colony in Vinland, on the northern tip of Newfoundland in today’s Canada. But like Rodney Dangerfield, Leif Erikson gets no respect.
Leif’s dad reportedly was supposed to join him on the historic voyage, but fell off his horse on the way to the boat, thought it was a bad omen, and went back home to watch the Vikings battle the Raiders, or something like that.
About 500 years later, Columbus sailed into uncharted waters to seek a new passage to the East Indies. Unlike Columbus, most of the crew supposedly believed the Earth was flat, and freaked out as the journey extended for months, fearful that they were about to sail off the edge of the world.
As some plotted mutiny, a sailor spotted a white stretch of beach and yelled about the land. The natives who greeted the sailors had no weapons and were nearly naked, so Columbus named them “hippies.” Actually, Columbus called them “Indians,” which was equally absurd. He mistakenly believed he had reached the Indies (hence “Indians”), but was actually in the Bahamas.
The name Indians stuck in America until fairly recently, when enlightened people started calling them what they actually are — Native Americans.
Which brings us back to the “who discovered America” beef between Columbus loyalists and Erikson admirers. Of course, neither did — you can’t “discover” a place where millions of people already live!
Nonetheless, Columbus achieved widespread, lasting fame, while Erickson is known to only a few, mostly Norwegian-Americans and “SpongeBob SquarePants” fans (Leif Erickson Day was celebrated in a SpongeBob episode).
But Erikson advocates should be happy. As much as Columbus was praised for being a great explorer, he is now equally reviled for forcing the natives into slavery, and is slowly but surely being turned from hero to villain.
So in the end, maybe low-profile Erikson was indeed “Leif the Lucky.”
Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.