Editor’s note: Read an update of this story here.
Steering the tiller of his ship with one hand, and the other hand positioned to hold a solar navigator; his gaze, which once scanned the mysterious oceans, should be directed toward the deep, cold waters of Lake Superior. Instead, he stares toward the cars on London Road.
This is not the only thing that is wrong with the statue of Leif Ericsson, the Norse explorer credited with discovering North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
“The first time I looked at the statue, I observed two ‘anatomical’ errors — a cross around the neck and horns on the helmet,” said Stefan Guttormsson who refers to Ericsson as Leifur (there are multiple spellings of Ericsson’s name). “Wearing a cross is all right because Leifur was a Christian and always remained a Christian, but horns, not one single Viking had horns on his helmet. Never, ever.”
Stefan Guttormsson, M.D., is of Icelandic origin and a direct descendant of Ericsson’s sister-in-law Guðriður, whose son, Snorri, was the first European born in North America.
Guttormsson is the president-elect of the Icelandic American Association of Minnesota and has been living in Duluth for 30 years.
According to Guttormsson, the mistake of Vikings having horns on their helmets started with the first archaeological excavations of the viking burial mounds. The archaeologists found weapons and items of daily use in the mounds including the drinking horns which were incorrectly thought to have been attached to the helmets. This was corrected very quickly, but the idea of helmets having horns grew a life of its own.
During battles, Vikings wore a round metallic helmet with a nasal piece.
“I can’t imagine that they could have gone to the battles with horns,” Guttormsson said. “I mean it’s cumbersome and the enemy can grab you by the horns.”
Kris Eide, president of Sons of Norway Duluth Lodge, was born and raised on the island of Karmøy, Norway — the heart of Viking culture, where an annual Vikingfestivalen, or Viking Festival, is held each June. She has been living in Duluth for 10 years.
“The helmets in the Viking museums in Norway have no horns,” Eide added.
According to the Leif Erikson International Foundation website, statues dedicated to Ericsson are present in U.S. cities such as Boston, Chicago, Newport News, Va., St. Paul, Seattle, Milwaukee and Cleveland.
None of the statues have horns, except the one in St. Paul.
An Ericsson statue in Reykjavik, Iceland, was presented as a gift from the United States commemorating the 1000 anniversary of Ericsson’s discovery of North America.
The statue has no horns.
“The presence of horns on the statues depends when they were sculptured,” said Ruth Karras, professor of history and Director of Center for Medieval Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
“The concept of vikings having horns was invented by artists in the 19th century,” Karras said in a telephone interview. “It was based in part on cauldrons found in Denmark which depicted figures wearing horned helmets.”
Ericsson’s statue in Duluth was erected in August, 1956. According to the 1956 proceedings of the City Council of the City of Duluth, “that part of the land upon which now stands the Leif Ericsson Statue, the land formerly known as Lake Shore Park, be now named, and shall thereafter be known as Leif Ericsson Park”.
According to the article, “He still carves in granite despite 99 years’ erosion” published in the May 12, 1974 issue of the Duluth News Tribune, “the statue was designed by John Karl Daniels, a Norwegian-American sculptor, who also created a 13-foot monument of Leif Ericsson installed near the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.”
The article also states that “the Leif Ericsson effort was contributed by Norwegian American League of Duluth, Minnesota.”
Daniels died in 1978, and the Norwegian American League of Duluth does not exist anymore.
But what still exists are the horns on the helmet of Ericsson’s statue. And according to Guttormsson, “there never ever was a viking who wore a horned helmet.”
This slideshow is a series of pictures of Leif Ericsson statues. It’s a timeline that stretches from all the way back in 1887 up to today. Some of the statues are right here at home in Leif Erickson Park and others are from far away places like Greenland. These images courtesy of http://www.leiferikson.org/.