Gallery of reconstructed portraits

Created: 2004
Published: 2004

The reconstructed portrait of Leif Ericsson

Leif Ericsson

Please note:
Norsemen = people from Scandinavia, ca. 800–1100 ce;
Norwegians = people from Norway;
Normans = people from Normandy (France);
Vikings = Norsemen on raid.

At the end of the tenth century ce the Scandinavians dominated the North Sea, Baltic Sea, and the northern Atlantic. As ‘Vikings’ they had raided the shores and, sailing the rivers, sites far inland. As ‘Norsemen’ they had settled in conquered areas. The Swedes had built up a trade network along the Eastern European waterways and were locally known as the Rus — the ‘Rowers’. Many Danes had settled in England (the region of the Danelag or Danelaw) and in Northern France, where it's still called ‘Normandy’. Meanwhile, the Norwegians had colonized the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, the Shetlands, the Faroese, Iceland, and Greenland. The American continent was the logical next step. Leif Ericsson (*970–†1020 ce, in Old Norse ‘Leifr Eiríksson’) was a born explorer, for his father — Eric the Red (‘Eiríkr raudi’) — had founded the Greenland colony. About the year 1000 ce Leif Ericsson and his shipmates set sail and left Greenland to search the land that, according to rumours, could be found even further to the west. He found Helluland (= ‘Flat-stone-land’, now Baffin Island), Markland (= ‘Forrest-land’, now Labrador), and sailed to Vinland (= ‘Meadow-land’, now Newfoundland), where he stayed for the winter. Leif Ericsson was the first European on American soil, but at the time that wasn't the reason to name him ‘Leif the Lucky’ (‘Leifr hinn heppni’). He obtained this nickname only after rescuing some shipwrecked people on the journey back to Greenland. After a few years the settlement on Vinland was abandoned, under pressure of indigenous Skrælingjar (= ‘Ugly People’ — at least according to the Norsemen; possibly Inuit or Beothuk) and a worsening climate.

How should we picture the appearance of Leif Ericsson? The most reliable record on the story of Leif Ericsson is the Greenlanders' Saga, but in regard to his looks it doesn't mention anything other than that he was an impressive man. It's nevertheless apparent that he was a sailor rather than a warrior, a ‘Norseman’ rather than a ‘Viking’. The two types were depicted together on both the Norman Bayeux Tapestry from the eleventh century ce and the Hylestad Portal, a Norwegian wood carving from the twelfth century ce. The warrior wore a conic helmet with nose guard, a sword, a long shield, and sometimes a coat of mail. The dress of the unarmed Norseman — sailor, craftsman, or farmer — was limited to a long shirt, a girdle, long, narrow trousers, short shoes, and occasionally a cloak. The shirt was tight at the top, loose below the waist, and had long sleeves. Whereas the combatants generally had their hair short-cropped and their face smoothly shaved, the other men sometimes wore longer hair, with a decently well-kempt beard or moustache.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Leif Ericsson? The art of the Norsemen is especially recognizable by the decorations with winding plants and twisted loops. The Danish Great Jelling Stone from the tenth century ce is a nice example thereof. Humans are also represented elegantly, sometimes with naively deformed limbs. The images are flat and they contain no depth. Though overlaps and cut-offs do occur, like on the Bayeux Tapestry, most depicted objects and scenes were put next to one another or they were ‘stacked’. Some figures seem to float in the surrounding space. The images on the early Swedish Picture Stone from Tängelgårda simply consist of light silhouettes in side view against a dark background. The embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry consists of lines and fields in the main colours dark green, grey–blue, red–brown, ochre, and black, on a light surface. The colours were applied purely: they don't blend into one another.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. Leif Ericsson wears a beard and long hair. Individuals with this hairstyle can be found on the Bayeux Tapestry and the Hylestad Portal. His hair is somewhat reddish, because his father (Eric ‘the Red’) had red hair. The clothing is simple and the pleats were modelled on the examples on the Bayeux Tapestry. The reproduction of the body (with the face and the legs in side view) is similar to the silhouettes on the Picture Stone from Tängelgårda. The ship — not one of the well known drakar (battleships) but a knorr (cargo ship) — is a mix of the ships on the Bayeux Tapestry and the ship on the Picture Stone from Tängelgårda. The border decoration was inspired by the Great Jelling Stone. Leif Ericsson gives direction with his hand, but not necessarily towards the west. The exploration of a certain point of the compass was less important than finding new land — wherever.

Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated. Are you curious about what this portrait would look like today, if it had existed and if it had been preserved? One of the forgeries was based on this reconstruction.


  • Greenlanders' Saga in the Flateyjarbók, Ísland: Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, gks 1005 fol. (Ísland 1387–1394 ce). The Flateyjarbók is a manuscript with various older Icelandic sagas, written and illuminated by Jón Thórdarson and Magnús Thórhallsson. The Greenlanders' Saga (Grænlendinga Saga) also tells that Leif Ericsson was converted to Christianity in Norway by King Óláfr Tryggvason and that he brought the Christian faith to Greenland. That was probably made up by royalist authors, because in the 10th century ce the Greenlanders were in fact trying to escape from the grip of the Norwegian king, whereas in the 13th century ce (when the saga was written down for the first time) Iceland and Greenland were brought back under the firm authority of the Norwegian Kingdom. According to the saga, it was Bjarni Herjúlfsson who accidentally, on route to Greenland, spotted America on the horizon, without going ashore. Next, Leif Ericsson would have bought the ship of Bjarni Herjúlfsson for his own expedition. The saga also relates in detail of the experiences of others who, after Leif Ericsson, left for Vinland, among them his brothers Thorvaldr and Thorsteinn Eiríksson and his sister Freydís Eiríksdóttir. One should attach no value to the remark that, because grapes were found there, Vinland would mean ‘Wine-land’. That was made up as well.
  • Bayeux Tapestry, France: Bayeux: Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux (Canterbury/Bayeux 1077 ce). The Bayeux Tapestry is a unique embroidery (dyed wool on linen), 70 m. long and 50 cm. high. Through images (and short comments in Latin) it reports on the conquest of England in 1066 ce by William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy. The Normans were actually Danes who had settled in Northern France at the end of the 9th century ce. They had been formally included in the French Kingdom, but they still clung to their Scandinavian lifestyle for some time. Odo, bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of the duke, commissioned the tapestry and it was almost certainly designed by a Norman. Maybe (a part of) the needlework was done in one or more workshops in Canterbury (South-Eastern England). Though it's possible that, as a result, Anglo-Saxon style influenced the work, the Bayeux Tapestry still unmistakably belongs to the heritage of the Norsemen. After all, many Danes had settled in England too and, shortly before the Norman invasion, the whole of England had belonged to the Danish Kingdom of Canute (‘Knútr inn ríki’ in Old Norse; ‘Knud den Store’ in Danish). Only the Latin comments on the tapestry are clearly un-Scandinavian.
  • Hylestad Portal, Norge: Oslo: Kulturhistorisk Museum: Oldsaksamlingen (Setesdal 12th century ce). This wood carving was once part of a Stavkirke in Hylestad, in the Setesdal (Southern Norway), until this church was destroyed in the 19th century ce. The portal is now kept in Oslo. It shows scenes from the legend of Sigurd (warrior) and Regin (blacksmith).
  • Great Jelling Stone, Danmark: Jelling: Kongernes Jelling, Dr 42 (Ostjylland 983–985 ce). Harald ‘Blåtand’ Gormsson, king of Denmark, had this huge stone (2.4 m. high) raised on the royal burial ground in Jelling, Vejle Amt, on Eastern Jutland (Denmark), between two large mounds. The stone consists of red veined granite. Two images, which perhaps once had been coloured, have been carved in the surface: a lion with a snake and a representation of Christ. An inscription in runes (in ‘Danish’ or ‘young’ futhark spelling) reads: “haraltr kunukR bath kaurua kubl thausi aft kurm fathur sin auk aft thãurui muthur sina sa haraltr ias sãR uan tanmaurk ala auk nuruiak auk t[ã]ni [karthi] kristnã”, meaning: ‘King Harald had this monument made in memory of Gorm (‘den Gamle’ Hardeknudsson), his father, and in memory of Thyre (‘Danebod’ Haroldsdatter), his mother — that Harald who conquered all of Denmark, and Norway, and made the Danes Christians’.
  • Picture Stone from Tängelgårda, Sverige: Stockholm: Historiska Museet, shm 4373, Föremål 108186 (Gotland 8th century ce). This 2 m. high stone formerly stood in Tängelgårda, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It shows the fortunes of a Viking: his death on the battlefield, his funeral, and his journey to Valhalla by ship.

Alternatives for ‘Leif Ericsson’: Leiv / Leif / Leifur / Leifr — Ericson / Erikson / Erickson / Eirikson / Eiríkson / Ericsson / Eriksson / Ericksson / Eiriksson / Eiríksson / de Gelukkige / the Lucky / hinn heppni.

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