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Einfætingur: The One-Legged Beast from Eiríks saga & the Medieval Traveler's "Wonder Stories".

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

In Erik the Red's Saga, when describing the event when Erik's son is killed, the author notes a Native Americian as a shiny "one legged" man. I've never seen this answered as to why the man is called this, but I think I have a solution. Native Americians in that area wore Breech Clouts and leggings as did many tribes. If he was spotted in a somewhat grassy area, it would indeed seem like the man had one leg. Breech Clouts being a single long piece of fabric or leather that is fasened through the legs and up, and then tied with a strip of leather, that came down to the knees or slightly above. To explain the "shiny" comment, Native Americans often smeared "Bear Oil" and various herbs on themselves, giving them protection from the cold, the sun and providing protection from insects, this "grease" was said to sparkle in the moon or sun light.

What do you think about this?

(signed) Learning About Vinland

Gentle Reader:

The incident you mention occurs in chapter 12 of Eiríks saga rauða:

Það var einn morgun er þeir Karlsefni sáu fyrir ofan rjóðrið flekk nokkurn sem glitraði við þeim og æptu þeir á það. Það hrærðist og var það einfætingur og skaust ofan á þann árbakkann sem þeir lágu við. Þorvaldur Eiríksson rauða sat við stýri. Þá mælti Þorvaldur: "Gott land höfum vér fengið." Þá hleypur einfætingurinn á brott og norður aftur og skaut áður í smáþarma á Þorvald. Hann dró út örina. Þá mælti Þorvaldur: "Feitt er um ístruna." Þeir hljópu eftir einfætingi og sáu hann stundum og þótti sem hann leitaði undan. Hljóp hann út á vog einn. Þá hurfu þeir aftur. Þá kvað einn maður kviðling þenna:
Eltu seggir,
allsatt var það,
einn einfæting
ofan til strandar
en kynlegr maðr
kostaði rásar
hart of stopir,
heyrðu, Karlsefni.
Þeir fóru þá í brott og norður aftur og þóttust sjá Einfætingaland. Vildu þeir þá eigi lengur hætta liði sínu. Þeir ætluðu öll ein fjöll, þau er í Hópi voru og þessi er nú fundu þeir, og það stæðist mjög svo á og væri jafnlangt úr Straumsfirði beggja vegna.
[It happened one morning that Karlsefni and his men noticed up above the clearing a kind of speck as it were glittering back at them, and they shouted at it. It moved -- it was a uniped -- and hopped down to the river-bank off which they were lying. Thorvald Eirik the Red's son was sitting by the rudder, and the uniped shot an arrow into his guts. He drew out the arrow. "There is fat round my belly!" he said. "We have won a fine and fruitful country, but will hardly be allowed to enjoy it." Thorvald died of this wound a little later. The uniped skipped away and back north, and Karlsefni and his men gave chase, catching sight of him every now and again. The last glimpse they had of him, he was leaping for some creek or other. Karlsefni and his men then turned back. Then one of the men sang this ditty:
Men went chasing,
I tell you no lie,
A one-legger racing
The seashore by:
But this man-wonder,
Curst son of a trollop,
Karlsefni, pray ponder,
Escaped at a gallop.
They concluded that those mountains which were at Hóp and those they had now discovered were one and the same range, that they therefore stood directly in line with each other, and extended the same distance on both sides of Straumfjord.]

The words used for this one-legged creature or uniped are:

  • einfætingur
  • einfætingurinn
  • einfætingi
  • einfæting
  • Einfætingaland

All of these are from the root which means literally, "one-foot" or "one-footed".

The term einfættr also appears in Grettis saga, chapter 4 in reference to Önundr tréfótur Ófeigsson (Önundr Tree-foot, for his wooden leg):

Önundur gekk að honum og kvað:
Sjáðu hvort sár þín blæða,
sástu nökkuð mig hrökkva?
Auðslöngvir fékk öngva
einfættr af þér skeinu.
Meir er mörgum, snerru,
málskalp lagið, Gjalpar
brjótr erat þegn í þrautir
þrekvandr, en hyggjandi.
[Önundur went up to him and said:
"Bloody thy wounds. Didst thou see me flee?
One-leg no hurt received from thee.
Braver are many in word than in deed.
Thou, slave, didst fail when it came to the trial."]

In all occurrences of the term einfættr and variants, it is used to mean "having one leg", "one-legged". As in Grettis saga, the term is used literally everywhere it is encountered.

I think it extremely unlikely that Karlsefni and his men would have been deceived by a loin-cloth wearing Native American. The natives that the Norse encountered in Vinland and called skraelings are thought to have been the ancestors of the Beothuk Indians and the Mikmak Indians, related to the Algonquin tribes, whose material culture was based on small bands that pursued a seasonal round of hunter-gathering activities, including salon fishing, caribou and seal hunting, fishing, and coastal birding. These sub-Arctic tribes would have dressed and lived very much like the Eskimo peoples, thus loin-cloths alone would not have been a typical part of their attire.

Note that Eiríks saga rauða was written in the early 13th century. Like the other sagas, the author was a learned man, a part of the medieval scholastic tradition, and like Snorri Sturluson was certainly aware of the literature, including the genre of "medieval traveler's wonder tales".

The "one-legged" creature is a standard of the medieval traveler's "wonder tales". At the edges of the world people always envisioned strange and often dangerous creatures. For ancient peoples the earth's farthest perimeter was a realm radically different from what they perceived as central and human. The alien qualities of these "edges of the earth" became the basis of a literary tradition that endured throughout antiquity and into the Renaissance, despite the growing challenges of emerging scientific perspectives. This phenomenon is so widespread that a number of books have been written on the subject. In fact, the same phenomenon continues today, providing us the many and varied aliens of science fiction and speculative literature.

Another one-legged creature appears on the 13th century Mappa Mundi, drawn ca. 1290, probably by Richard de Bello, Prebendary of Lafford in the diocese of Lincoln. The interstices of the Mappa Mundi feature a multitude of mythological races, beasts and amazing phenomena, which jostle for space, including the drawing of the Sciapod, an extraordinary being who sheltered himself from the heat of the sun with his single enormous foot. This Sciapod is directly contemporary with the einfætingur of Eiríks saga rauða.

It can also be shown that the European concept of the uniped was well-known in Iceland, where the uniped appears in an Icelandic translation of a medieval geographical treatise based on the works of the 7th century scholar Isidore of Seville. Unipeds were said to live in Africa, and so it is likely that the 13th century Icelandic author was familiar with the theories current in his time that Vinland possibly extended to Africa. In general, medieval Icelandic geographers "adopted an uncritical attitude to the numerous fabulous and marvelous tales of remoter and unexplored parts, including tales of one-eyed creatures or humans with dogs' heads, and so on."




Bibliography

  • Babcock, William Henry. Legendary Islands of the Atlantic: A Study in Medieval Geography. New York: American Geographical Society. 1922.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy the book today!

  • Babcock, William Henry. "The So-Called Mythical Islands of the Atlantic in Medieval Maps", Scottish Geographical Magazine 31/32 (1916).

  • Cleasby, Richard and Guðbrandr Vigfusson. "Ein-fættr." An Icelandic-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon. 1957. pg. 120, col. 2.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy the book today!

  • Cronin, Jr., Grover. "The Bestiary and the Mediaeval Mind -- Some Complexities," MLQ 2 (1941), pp. 191-8.

  • Diekstra, F.N.M., "The Physiologus, the Bestiaries and Medieval Animal Lore," Neophilologus 69 (1985), pp. 142-55.

  • Flint, Valerie I. J. The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus. Princeton University Press. 1992.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy the book today!

  • Fitzhugh, William W. and Elisabeth I. Ward. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Washington & London: Smithsonian Institution Press. 2000.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy the book today! Hardback,   Paperback

  • Fuson, Robert H. Legendary Islands of the Ocean Sea. Pineapple Press. 1998.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Harvey, P. D. A. Mappa Mundi: The Hereford World Map. British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. University of Toronto Press. 1996.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Hassig, Debra, ed. The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature. Garland Medieval Casebooks 22. New York: Garland Publishing. 1998.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Hermannsson, Halldor. The Icelandic Physiologus. New York: Cornell University Press. 1938.

  • Huber, Richard. Treasury of Fantastic and Mythological Creatures: 1087 Renderings from Historic Sources. Dover. 1981.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Jakobsen, Alfred. "Geographical Literature." Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia. Phillip Pulsiano et al., eds. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 934. New York & London: Garland. 1993. pp. 224-225.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy the book today!

  • Magnusson, Magnus and Hermann Palsson, trans. The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1965.
    [Particularly see the information on pp. 39 and 101.]
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  • McCulloch, Frances. Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. Chapel Hill. 1960.

  • Romm, James S. The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1992.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Simek, Rudolph. "Elusive Elysia or Which Way to Glæsisvellir." Sagnaskemmtun: Studies in Honor of Hermann Pálsson on his 65th Birthday. Rudolph Simek et al., eds. Vienna, Cologne & Graz: Böhlau. 1986. pp. 247-275.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy the book today!

  • Tomasch, Sylvia and Sealy Gilles, eds. Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1997.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • von den Brincken, Anna-Dorothee. Fines terrae: die Enden der Erde und die vierte Kontinent auf mittelalterlichen Weltkarten. Monumenta Germaniae Historica 36. Hannover. 1992.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy the book today!

  • Westrem, Scott D., ed. Discovering New Worlds: Essays on Medieval Exploration and Imagination. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1436. New York: Garland Publishing. 1991.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy the book today!

  • White, Theodore H. The Book of Beasts. Reprint. Dover. 1984.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

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