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Iceland Mag

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Obama gaffe: Claims Leifur Eiríksson was Norwegian

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • Giants of history, haunted by birthers Barack Obama, like Leifur Eiríksson, has had to battle people who question his citizenship and origin.  Photo/visir.is-Getty Images

Barack Obama, the president of the United States of America, used the occasion of Leif Eiriksson day, today October 9, to commit an inexplicable gaffe. Obama spent his entire address talking about the friendship between the US and Norway, mentioning Iceland only once. Despite the fact that Leifur Eiríksson was Icelandic and not Norwegian.

Obama goes on at length talking about how the discovery of North America by Leifur marked the "beginning of a meaningful friendship between Norway and the United States." He also uses the opportunity to "reaffirm the ties that bind America and Norway."

The only mention of Iceland in the address is where Obama calls Leifur Eíríksson "a son of Iceland and grandson of Norway."

No, Mr. president. Leifur was not Norwegian
We at Iceland Magazine feel we need to correct this misunderstanding. Leifur Eiríksson was no more Norwegian than Mr. Obama is a Kenyan.

Leifur Eiríksson’s father, Eiríkur rauði (“the red”) was indeed originally from Norway, just as Obama’s father came from Kenya. Eiríkur left Norway for Iceland, where he married an Icelandic woman, Þjóðhildur Jörundardóttir. Þjóðhildur was born and raised in Iceland. Leifur’s mother was therefore Icelandic, just as Obama’s mother was American.

Eiríkur rauði later fled Iceland with his family to settle in Greenland, leading some to argue Leifur should be considered a Greenlander. However, all sources on the discovery of America point to Leifur having been born in Iceland and having spent his formative years in west Iceland, by Breiðafjörður bay.

The sagas and the birth certificate
Although we do not have Leifur's birth certificate all written sources point to him having been born in Iceland. And after the drawn-out and ridiculous argument about Obama’s birth certificate we can safely conclude written documents similarly prove conclusively Obama was indeed born in the United States. But of course, there will always be people who refuse to believe the evidence, clinging on to a comforting fantasy which reaffirms their worldview. We cannot help those people, but we would prefer that people in positions of authority not encourage their delusions.

As to the adult life of Leifur and Mr. Obama? After spending the first phase of their lives on the small islands where they were born (Obama in Hawaii, and Leifur in Iceland) they crossed the ocean, one to the east, the other to the west, ultimately finding their way to the east coast of North America.

Despite the howling of Norwegian birthers who cling to their belief North America was discovered by a Norwegian, it simply wasn’t so. Leifur was Icelandic, born and raised in Iceland, by an Icelandic mother. Furthermore: all the sources about the Viking discovery of North America, and in fact most of the written sources on the Viking age, including Norwegian history, were preserved in Iceland, by Icelandic scribes, poets and authors. If there hadn't been Icelandic scholars who preserved these stories through the centuries nobody would even know a Viking adventurer discovered North America. And there would be no Leif Eiríksson day to celebrate.

Two giants of history, millennia apart
The parallels between Obama and Leifur don't stop at ridiculous arguments about their true nationality: Propelled by a belief in something larger than themselves and a yearning to see the world both men travelled the world in their adult years. Leifur sailed from Greenland to Norway, becoming somewhat of a diplomat to king Ólafur helgi (“the holy”) on a mission to bring Christianity to Greenland. (Obama has also travelled to Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.)

Neither Obama nor Leifur were provincial men, content with their small narrow valley, but wished to travel and leave their mark on the world. Like all great men of history, not all of their achievements can be destined to be permanent or successful. Leifur, for example, found North America but had the good sense to lose it again, as the Icelandic joke goes. The Viking discovery of North America wasn't destined to be the beginning of a permanent settlement or continuing connections across the Atlantic.

The parallels between Mr. Obama and Leifur Eiríksson make it all the more sad that this story got mangled in Obama's address on Leifur Eiríksson day.

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