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Ten fascinating facts about the statue of Leifur Eiríksson

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • The explorer and the blue sky The statue of Leifur Eiríksson is no doubt one of the most photographed attractions in Reykjavík. 

Standing at the end of Skólavörðustígur street and in front of Hallgrímskirkja church is one of the best-known landmarks in Reykjavik, the statue of Leifur Eiríksson. Leifur is probably the best known hero of Viking age Iceland, the first European to arrive in America: Leifur’s voyage to America in the year 1000 preceded the Christopher Columbus’ voyage by roughly half a millennia.

 

Leifur_Hallgrímskirkja.jpg

Two famous landmarks The statue is located in front Hallgrímskirkja church. Photo/GVA

1) The statue was a gift to Iceland from the US
The statue of Leifur Eiríksson (who is known in English as Leif Eriksson) was a gift from the United States to Iceland to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of Alþingi, the parliament of Iceland. Alþingi was first convened at Þingvellir in the year 930 AD. 

Leifur Eiríksson in a 1908 book
The many faces of Leifur When Calder created his statue of Leifur he was a strapping and clean shaven young man. In a 1908 book he was portrayed as a graying granpa with a long beard. The truth is probably somewhere in between those two extremes. Photo/Wikimedia under creative commons license

The statue was designed by American sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder, who won a 1929 competition for the design of the monument. It is also one of Calder´s three best known works, the other being “George Washington as President” on the Washington Square Arch in New York City, and the Swann Memorial Fountain in Philadelphia.

2) It has an identical brother statue in Newport, Virginia
When Iceland participated in the 1939 New York Word Fair it requested permission to make a copy of the statue of Leifur Eiríksson to display in the Icelandic pavillion. Permission was granted, and an identical copy was made, using the original plaster casts which were being preserved at the Smithsonian institution in New York.  

Leifur Eiriksson, St Paul MN
Leifur in Minnesota A statue of Leifur Eiriksson at the Minnesota State Capitol in St Paul. Photo/Mulad under Creative Commons License

After the World Fair some wanted to locate the statue in Washington DC, but instead it was placed by the entrence to the Mariners' Museum in Newport Virginia, where it still stands.

There are other statues of Leifur Eiríksson around the US, including Boston, Seattle, Milwaukee and Duluth, and there are public parks, roads, drives and avneues in towns and cities around the continent named after Leifur.

The Leif Eirikson International Foundation has a helpful timeline of the many statues of Leifur.

3) It weighs over 50 tons
The statue of Leifur Eiriksson probably has the most commanding presence of any statue in Reykjavík. Its sheer size and weight ensure this presence, as it weighs over 50 tons. The statue itself weighs one metric ton, while the foundation on which it stands is composed of 18 granite blocks, and weighs a combined 50 tons. The statue and the pillar are an integral whole, with the pillar made to resemble the bow of a Viking boat, thus recalling Leifur’´s voyage across the sea.

4) Icelanders interpreted the gift as an official recognition Leifur was Icelandic, not Norwegian
In 1930 many Icelanders interpreted the gift as a formal recognition by the US that Leifur Eiríksson was indeed Icelandic, and thus an important victory over the Norwegians who were trying to claim Leifur as theirs. The inscription on the back of the statue seemed to confirm this, as it reads “Leifr Eiricsson. Son of Iceland. Discoverer of Vínland. The United States of America to the People of Iceland on the one thousandth Anniversary of the Althing A. D. 1930.” 

Áletrun á styttu Leifs Eiríkssonar

Son of Iceland The inscription on the back of the statue. Photo/Jóhann Heiðar Árnason under a Creative Commons license

However, the gift did not end the dispute with Norway over the nationality of Leifur, nor did it signal that the US government had recognized the nationality of Leifur.

In the eyes of the US government Leifur continues to be at least partially Norwegian. When, for example, Leif Erikson day was first commemorated nationally in the US in 1964, the date October 9 was chosen because large scale migration from Norway to the US began on that day in 1825 when the ship Restauration arrived in New York from Stavanger in Norway. Since then American presidents have frequently used the occasion of Leif Erikson day to commemorate the relationship between the US and Norway, which annoys Icelanders to no end, since Leifur Eiríksson quite simply wasn’t Norwegian.

Read more: Obama gaffe: Claims Leifur Eiríksson was Norwegian

Of course people in the Viking age didn’t have the same notions of nationality we do today, and the idea of a separate Icelandic and Norwegian identity had barely developed.  The sagas indicate that Viking age Icelanders, Norwegians and Norse settlers of Greenland viewed themselves as belonging to the same “nation”, distinguishing themselves from Danes and Swedes, or the peoples of the British Isles, including Norsemen coming from Viking settlements in Scotland, Shetland and the Orkneys. People did also have regional identities, for example identifying with the fjord where they lived. 

Leifur in Newport Virginia
Leifur in Newport Virginia Postcard of Leifur in front of the Mariners' Museum. Photo/Postcard by Madison's Inc

While Leifur most likely simply identified as “norse”, according to modern notions of nationality there is no doubt he would qualify as Icelandic. Similarly, there is no way to argue, using modern notions of nationality, that he was Norwegian. Leifur’s mother was Icelandic, and he was born in Iceland where he also grew up. Leifur never lived in Norway, the country his father had left years before Leifur was born.  In fact, it would make more sense to claim Leifur was a Greenlander rather than Norwegian, as he moved to Greenland with his extended family, and spent his adult years in the Norse settlement in Greenland.

5) One of three statues of Icelandic explorers to travel to America
Although Leifur Eiríksson is the best known Icelandic Viking to have explored North America, known as Vínland to the Vikings (the land of wine), he was obviously not the only one. The sagas tell of another Icelander, Þorfinnur karlsefni, from Skagafjörður fjord in North Iceland, who settled in Vinland with his wife, Guðriður Þorbjarnardottir at a farm they called Hóp, in Vinland. While many believe Hóp and Vinland is near L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, others have argued it was probably further south, most likely on Manhattan island. 

According to the sagas Þorfinnur and Guðríður had a force of 160 Viking explorers with them on their journey. Forming a sizeable Viking settlement which lasted for three winters, according to the sagas. During these three years Þorfinnur and Guðriður had a son, Snorri Þorfinsson, who is the first known child of European ancestry to be born in the Americas.

However, the American colony of Þorfinnur að Guðríður didn’t last, and after the three years in Vinland they moved back to Greenland, and from there to Iceland, where they settled down at the farm Glaumbær in Skagafjörður.

6) It’s the only statue in Reykjavík which has had a permanent guard protecting it
In the 1930s the statue of Leifur Eiríksson stood on the outskirts of Reykjavík where it towered over the small town and provided shelter on windy Skólavörðuholt hill to townfolk taking a stroll on the city outskirts. And it also provided a place for people to relieve themselves. The city council of Reykjavík, concerned citizens and the US ambassador were dismayed to find that some people, especially drunk locals, believed the statue was really a public toilet.

The filth around the statue became so bad the city council posted a permanent night guard by the statue in 1935. Others, however, argued the problem should be solved by building a public toilet nearby. Others wanted more drastic measures. One newspaper suggested the problem could be solved by connecting the statue to the electrical grid, ensuring public urinators would get a small shock to remind them to behave in a civilized manner.

The guard remained posted at the statue until the Second World War when a British army camp was erected on the top of Skólavörðuholt hill. At that point Leifur was effectively being protected by the British military.

7) Leifur Eiríksson’s statue was not erected in front of Hallgrímskirkja, but rather the other way around!
While the statue of Leifur Eiríksson was presented as a gift to Iceland in the year 1930 it was not until the summer of 1932 that it had been erected in its current location. The statue was unveiled on July 17 1932 by the US Ambassador to Iceland. 

Leifur Eiríksson í Boston
Leifur in Boston A 1887 statue of Leifur Eiríksson by Anne Whitney by Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo/Wikimedia Commons under a creative commons license

At the time Hallgrimskirkja church had not yet been built: Its construction only started in 1945. Which means the statue had been standing in its current location for 13 years when the construction of Hallgrímskirkja even began.

8) Leifur Eiríksson’s monument was very controversial
The primary reason for the delay in erecting the statue of Leifur Eiríksson was that the US had insisted it be erected in a prominent place, specifically requesting the top of Skólavörðuholt hill, at the end of Skólavörðustígur street. At the time the statue would have crowned the small town of Reykjavík, whose eastern limit was on the eastern slopes of the hill.

Many Icelanders were extremely critical of this location. The majority of city councilmen and many citizens felt the top of Skólavörðuholt hill was an inappropriate location, seeing the statue and the US demands for its location as bordering on rude. Many also believed that locating the statue on top of the hill would upset plans for the hilltop, which included a large square and the construction of Hallgrímskirkja church.

Read more: Seven interesting facts about one of Reykjavík’s best known landmarks, Hallgrímskirkja church

The majority of city council therefore wanted the statue placed on Laugaholt hill, east of Laugardalurinn recreational area, which at the time was far outside the city limits. Others wanted Iceland to decline the gift altogether, arguing that in any case there were no trucks in Iceland capable of transporting the statue from the harbour to the hilltop.

The US would have none of this, and insisted the statue be placed on Skólavörðuholt, and finally an agreement was reached: The statue was not placed on the very top of the hill, but slightly to the west, leaving ample room for behind it for the future Hallgrímskirkja.

9) The “School cairn”, then the best known landmark in town, had to be demolished to make way for the statue.
One of the reasons the statue was controversial was that to erect it authorities had to tear down the “school cairn”, a small tower which was located on top of the hill, roughly where the statue is located now. The small tower served a similar purpose as Hallgrímskirkja church does now, with locals and visitors using it for sightseeing and enjoying the panoramic view of the small town and surrounding countryside. 

The cairn/tower was also one of the best known and most loved landmarks of Reykjavík. It gave its name to the hill: Skólavörðuholt literally means the “school cairn hill” and Skólavörðustígur translates as “school cairn street”, since the street ended by the cairn.

In 2013 a monument of the school cairn was erected on Skólavörðuholt hill, slightly to the south of the statue of Leifur Eiríksson.

10) Leifur Eiríksson’s monument was never really completed
Even if the US got its way when it came to the location of the statue, it still wasn’t erected exactly as intended or in accordance with the plans of Alexander Stirling Calder. Calder had envisioned the statue would stand in the middle of a pond, which would represent the Atlantic Ocean which Leifur crossed to discover the Americas.

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