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Maps showing the different cultures in Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland and the Canadian arctic islands in the years 900, 1100, 1300 and 1500. The green colour shows the Dorset Culture, blue the Thule Culture, red Norse Culture, yellow Innu and orange Beothuk
The title of this article contains the following characters: æ. Where they are unavailable or not desired, the name may be represented as skraeling.

Skræling (Old Norse and Icelandic: skrælingi, plural skrælingar) is the name the Norse Greenlanders used for the Thule people whom they encountered in Greenland. When they traveled to present-day Newfoundland ("Vínland"), the Norse used the same term for the inhabitants (possibly the ancestors of the later Beothuk) of North America.



The word skræling is the only word surviving from the Old Norse dialect spoken by the medieval Norse Greenlanders. In modern Icelandic, skrælingi means a barbarian or foreigner. The origin of the word is not certain, but it is probably based on the Old Norse word skrá which meant "skin"; and as a verb, "to put in writing" (written accounts, such as the Icelandic Sagas, were put on dried skin in Iceland). The Inuit, both Thule and Dorset, as well as other indigenous people whom the Norse Greenlanders met, wore clothes made of animal skins, in contrast to the woven wool clothes worn by the Norse.

Some scholars have speculated that skrælingi came from the Scandinavian word skral or the Icelandic word skrælna. The word skral connotes "thin" or "scrawny". In the Scandinavian languages, it is often used as a synonym for feeling sick or weak. But, this speculation is probably a case of folk etymology or linguistic "false friend"; the word skral does not exist in medieval Norse texts (for example the Icelandic sagas) nor in modern Icelandic. It is a 17th-century loanword from Low German into the Scandinavian languages: Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. Skræling in modern Norwegian means weakling. [1]. Skrælna refers to shrinking or drying (plants for example). But, the written medieval texts do not use skræling in an adverse sense.

The Greenlandic ethnonym Kalaalleq may be based on the Norse Skræling (the combination skr is unknown in the Inuit language) or on the Norse klæði (meaning cloth).

As documented William H. Babcock in "Certain Pre-Columbian Notices of American Aborigines", the word skræling may have been the name of one of the North American tribes encountered by Norse during initial contact. The story was that Norseman Bjorn the Bonde saved two Skræling siblings from the sea. As was their custom in gratitude, the Skrælings decided to become the Norseman's life-long servants. During this service, the Skrælings indicated that the word skræling was how their peoples' name was pronounced in Norse. Eventually, “The brother and sister killed themselves and threw themselves down the cliffs into the sea when they were prohibited from following along with Bjorn Bonde . . .” on his return to Iceland. [2]

Literary sources

Skrælingar inhabiting North America are first mentioned in the Icelandic sagas that related how the first Norsemen to settle in Greenland discovered the American continent, and there encountered a hitherto unknown race that they called Skrælingar. Thus, in the Saga of the Greenlanders:

After the first winter summer came, and they became aware of Skrælings, who came out of the forest in a large flock.
...[The skrælings were] carrying their packs which contained furs and sables and pelts of all kinds...Then the skrælings put down their packs and opened them up and offered their contents, preferably in exchange for weapons; but Karlsefni forbade his men to sell arms. Then he hit on the idea of telling the women to carry milk out to the skrælings, and when the skrælings saw the milk they wanted to buy nothing else.

The story's setting is a forested area rich in all sorts of food and even grapes (Vinland). This suggests that the Norsemen first encountered the Skrælings somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard of present-day Canada.


  1. ^ Dictionary lookup in authoritative Norwegian dictionary; unable to find an English-language source as the word is too obscure to be included in most English-Norwegian dictionaries.
  2. ^ William H. Babcock, "Certain Pre-Columbian Notices of American Aborigines", American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul-Sep 1916), pp. 388-397
  • Hans Christian Gulløv, ed., Grønlands Forhistorie, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2005. ISBN 87-02-017245-5
  • Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (Translators), The Vinland Sagas : The Norse Discovery of America, Penguin Books, 1965 Translation, 13th reprint of 1985, p.65, ISBN 139780140441543

Further reading

  • "Skraeling: First Peoples of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland.” Odess, Daniel; Stephen Loring; and William W. Fitzhugh, in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Fitzhugh, William W. and Elisabeth I. Ward, editors. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2000. Pages 193-205. ISBN 15-60-98995-5.

External links

See also



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