Why is Red Sacred?
May 19, 2008 12:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to reconcile the significance of red cloth to the natives in Eirik the Red's Saga. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

In the Saga, the Vikings are confused about the natives' interest in red cloth, which the Vikings consider worthless. My gut tells me that the natives consider the color red sacred, but I'm not having any luck at finding any scholarship to prove it. I've tried searching the obvious keywords in Google Scholar and JSTOR.

Where might I find authoritative evidence that red would have been considered sacred or valuable by native North Americans?
posted by Edelweiss to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You're barking up the wrong tree here. The business about the red cloth is one tiny element in the saga, mentioned in one sentence (p. 670 of The Sagas of Icelanders, for those who have that convenient collection): "They signalled with their shields and began trading with the visitors, who mostly wished to trade for red cloth." (As far as I can see, there's nothing about the Vikings considering it worthless; if they thought it was worthless, why would they have brought it as trading goods?) As it says in the introduction to the Vinland Sagas in The Sagas of Icelanders, "their oral background also means that The Vinland Sagas cannot be taken as trustworthy contemporary historical documents." The events described happened around the year 1000; they were not written down for centuries, and our first manuscripts are from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The basic story, of an expedition to Vinland (Newfoundland), is true; none of the details need have any connection to reality. The bit about the red cloth could have been added at any point along the chain of transmission, just as a touch of color.

And even supposing it is a miraculously preserved nugget of historical truth—the natives actually did value red cloth—what can we usefully say about it? Absolutely nothing. We're not talking about "native North Americans" (you might as well talk about "Asians" or "Africans" as if they were a homogeneous group); we're talking about one group of locals a thousand years ago who have left no traces other than whatever truth is contained in this saga. Who knows why they might have valued red? It looked good on their women, it didn't run when it was washed, their shaman said it was the color of good fortune, they'd never seen red cloth before? It's utterly pointless to speculate, and your "gut" is not a historical source. If you keep trying to follow it you'll dig up some Cherokee or Tlingit tradition about the color red and try to apply it and look really silly. I strongly suggest you focus on some more productive line of approach.
posted by languagehat at 2:42 PM on May 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't know about sacred, but good, true reds can be hard to come by (if we're talking about natural dyes for cloth, anyway), and therefore more valuable for their rarity.

And what languagehat said.
posted by rtha at 2:52 PM on May 19, 2008

Colors, Dyestuffs, and Mordants of the Viking Age: An Introduction

This document originally formed part of a paper I wrote for a competition at Ice Dragon in the East Kingdom, a Society for Creative Anachronism event in 1991. Later it became part of "Textiles and Clothing in the Viking Age," a chapter I wrote in 1997 for the on-site training manual for the open-air museum staff at the site of the Viking landfall at l'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

An Archaeological Guide to Viking Men's Clothing

The most common colors which have been found in dye analyses of Viking Age fabrics are red, mostly from madder; blue, from woad...

Looks like the Vikings mainly had red.
posted by jamjam at 3:39 PM on May 19, 2008

Response by poster: Crap. Perhaps I've managed to mix up the Saga with Christopher Columbus's diaries?

Maybe I'll just try to cut that aspect of the paper. Fortunately, it was a relatively minor point I was making, so I should be able to alter my approach.

That said, I have to confess that the mere mention of the color red still strikes me as significant. If the Vikings did, in fact, have mostly red clothing, why mention that the natives traded for "red" cloth? Why not just say "cloth?" Ugh...maybe I'm over-analyzing.
posted by Edelweiss at 3:56 PM on May 19, 2008

In normalized Old Norse form that sentence reads,

ok vildi þat fólk helzt hafa rautt skrúð

which is sort of,

"and would that folk rather have red shroud"

or more colloquially,

"and they preferred red cloth"

The rest of the section doesn't discuss any deeper meaning of the Natives' color preferences. But there is a sense that the Natives accepted what the Vikings thought was a very tiny amount of the cloth:

...skáru þeir þá svá smátt í sundr, at eigi var breiðara en þvers fingrar, ok gáfu Skrælingar þó jafnmikit fyrir sem áðr eða meira.

"…they cut it into such small pieces, that it was no broader than a finger, and the Skrælings gave just as much for it, or even more."

It also mentions that the Natives wanted to buy swords and spears (sverð ok spjót) but that Karlsefni & Snorri decided against that particular kind of arms dealing.
posted by squid patrol at 4:09 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Actually, Tony Horwitz mentions the trading of red cloth in his recent book, A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World.

He doesn't dwell on it, but states that the Indians that later were encountered by European fishermen in the 18th century, had applied ocher to their skin and clothing. It looks he sourced the statement from a book by a James P. Howley in 1915 on the Indians of the area. It, in turn appears to be entirely on a website in Canada. Here might be the appropriate page.

"The epithet "Red Indian" is given to these Indians, from their universal practise of colouring their garments, their canoes, bows, arrows, and every other utensil belonging to them with red ochre."

Horwitz makes an allusion that perhaps the red cloth could have originated this practice (or simply was of interest because of an existing social belief).

Ultimately, what Languagephat said. The Indians mentioned were wiped out as a people and thus, the importance of the color is forever lost. Horwitz attempts to guess on it, but this quote from the same paragraph probably serves best. It concerns one of the last surviving members of the Beothuk tribe (believed to be the descendants of those the Vikings met), who was taken in and asked to educate a colonist on her people and culture:

"Shanawdithit also drew pictures, always depicting Beothuk figures in red. She never explained - or Cormack didn't understand - why her people prized this color." Horwitz then goes on to say, "Ocher, mixed with grease, had a practiceal value, as an insect repellent, and possibly as camouflage while hunting game in autumn. But the fact that Beothuk coated their possessions in red, and put packages of ocher in graves, suggests the color also had spiritual power, perhaps as a symbol of blood and life."

In other words, Horwitz is theorizing.
posted by Atreides at 5:09 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm confused by the connection between Vikings and North American Natives. It seems like there are some leaps in logic.

A good bright, colorfast, non-fading red dye was not widely available in North America until the mid 19th century with the development of "Turkey Red" dye. Yes, red dyed cloth was available, but it was hard to get the color using materials found in nature. Therefore, red dyed cloth would have been a novelty to Native people. Once traders figured out the novelty of red dyed cloth, they started including it as one of the one the items presented for trade from Europe (like beads). I've seen lots of examples of Native artifacts with tiny fragments of red wool on them.

I feel like red fabric was prized by Natives primarily because it was scarce.
posted by pluckysparrow at 6:58 PM on May 19, 2008

Response by poster: "…they cut it into such small pieces, that it was no broader than a finger, and the Skrælings gave just as much for it, or even more."

Yes, yes, yes! This is what made me think the Vikings thought the red cloth "worthless," hence my original assumption that the Natives must have attached some value to it--beyond monetary worth.

And now, I suppose, I'm back at square one...I feel there may be something to explore in this vein, but there's little scholarship to back me up. Off to see about the Horwitz book.
posted by Edelweiss at 5:59 AM on May 20, 2008

Not to get you down, but I probably typed out about 50% or more of what he had concerning red and the vikings and the indians. If you haven't yet, I'd just browse through it at the bookstore and check out his list of sources for the chapter in the back.
posted by Atreides at 7:11 PM on May 20, 2008

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