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Did The Vikings Name America?

by Dick Wicken
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A number of theories regarding the origin of the name "America" have been advanced, but none have been proved true.

First, and most generally accepted, is that the name "America" is derived from the first name of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian mapmaker and self-promoter who explored the seacoasts of North America in the decade following Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of the New World for her most Catholic majesty, Isabella of Spain.

However, there has been no substantiation that this derivation of the name "America" is correct: and there is other evidence indicating that Amerigo Vespucci was not above turning to personal advantage an odd coincidence of phonetics in the sound of his first name and a composite word of ancient Norse invention, evidently in very current use by the North Atlantic sailing fraternity from about the year 1000 until well past the times of Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci.

The claim that the name of the entire continent, North and South, was derived from a given name is odd in itself, for common practice at the time would indicate using a man's family name to derive an identity for a locality.

Secondly, and less generally accepted, is a theory emanating from Bristol, England, submitting that the name "America" was derived from name of one Richard Ameryke, a tax collector for King Henry VII as well as the city's leading lumber merchant. Ameryke was an enthusiastic supporter and financial backer of the Italian navigator, John Cabot. Under letters-patent from Henry VII, dated 5 March 1496, Cabot set sail from Bristol in 1497, accompanied by his three sons.

On 24 June 1497 he sighted Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia, thus "discovering" the mainland of North America - about 600 years after the Vikings had done so.

There is no more factual substantiation of the Bristol theory of the origin of the name "America" than the highly questionable claims of Amerigo Vespucci.

Thirdly, the theory has been advanced that America was named for a Spanish sailor bearing the ancient Visigothic name of "Amalrick".

Since these unproved - and quite possibly, unprovable - claims and theories are being advanced and accepted, it seems only right to submit a fourth unproven, equally logical and far more possible theory of the origin of the name "America".

Therefore, it is herewith submitted that the word "America" is simply a phonetic derivation of an ancient Norse compound word "omme-rike". In its simplest translation from the largely four-letter language of the Viking discoverers of the New World, it means "the remotest land". The various parts of the New World were referred to in the Icelandic Sagas as Helluland (Stoneland), Markland (Woodland) and Vineland (Wineland). "Omme-rike" would have been the logical name to apply to the great land mass as a whole.

In support of this submission the following facts are listed for consideration:

  1. The long-used and familiar name occurring in classic writings, "Ultima Thule," designating a mysterious distant land. The meaning of these two words is singularly interesting in itself. Ultima means "the end," "remotest," and Thule is derived from, not Latin, but from the old Norse word "Thyle," which means to "speak". It is safe to assume that when the Norse word meaning speech is used, the speech being referred to is Norse. The simplest translation of "Ultima Thule" is "the farthest out land where Norse is spoken". The obvious conclusion is simply that "Ultima Thyle" means what it says.
  2. The analysis of the word in question, "America," as to its possible meaning in old Norse, the language of the Vikings, still current in a slightly changed form in Iceland and in isolated parts of Norway. In old Norse, the word "America" strongly suggests two separate words, "omme" and "rike". "Omme" means "over," "out," "out there," "the end," "final," "furthest out," "most remote," "very last," or "ultimate"

    Rike" appears in lively existence today both in contemporary Norse, and its use by the Vikings to designate large land masses is amply attested to today in the names of places in the areas of Viking operations. Sometimes the word is slightly modified, but its presence is as easily recognized as its meaning. In old Norse it is pronounced rica as in America, It is spelled in a number of ways, but always pronounced the same: rige, rega, rike, rikja, reykja. In German it appears as "reich". It always means the same thing: country, land, kingdom empire. Examples of the use of this ancient Norse word can be found in the following:

    Norege, pronounced nor-reeg-eh, meaning Norway.
    Sverige, pronounced sver-reeg-eh, meaning Sweden.
    Frankrike, pronounced frankr-reeg-eh, meaning France.
    Osterike, pronounced oste-reeg-eh, meaning Austria.

    The above should be sufficient to prove that it was common practice for Vikings to use this word to designate countries.

    Combined, the old Norse words "omme" and rike" would be pronounced "Oh-ma-reeg-eh" - virtually identical to "America" - and would translate into an almost identical meaning with the oft repeated classic term "Ultima Thule (Thyle)" when one considers that Norse was a spoken, not a written, tongue, and that Latin was the only written language of the time; additional inferences are obvious.

    On one of Verrazzano's maps, the coast of New England is oddly named "Norumbega". Naturally, one cannot expect a "segener" like Verrazzano to pronounce Norse words correctly, much less spell or understand them. Basic study on the possible Norse origin of the word "Norumbega," bastardized by an ignorant Latin, suggests much support for the idea advanced: "Norum" is nothing else than the Norse word "naerom," meaning "near under" (and contains the stem word "om" from "omme") and "bega" is merely a misspelled-and-mispronounced Italian version of the Norse word "rege" or "rike". I believe it is obvious that "Norumbega" is an Italianized version of the Norse word "Naerom-rega," "Naeromrike," or, possibly, "Naerom-vikja" which would translate into the meaning of "the near-under regions" or "the near-under-harbor". But its real meaning is even clearer: It is only a slightly modified version of "omme-rike".

  3. Finn Magnussen has established that Columbus did visit Iceland at least once in 1477, fifteen years before undertaking his first voyage to the New World. He could have easily heard of Ommerike and could even have visited there in a Norse ship.
  4. Previous to the great plague, Iceland and Greenland - and the lands beyond - are believed to have supported a population numbering into the hundreds of thousands. One of the major ports doing business in this area was Bristol, England. It was the home base for John Cabot and source of the Bristol Theory of the origin of the name "America". The first White man to see America was Bjarne Herulfssen, wind-blown upon it while bringing a cargo of wood (reader please make note of the cargo) from Norway to Iceland, 600 miles across open seas. It is rather naive to assume that what happened to Bjarne Herulfssen did not happen to others, Bristol traders as well as Norsemen. It is, I believe, quite safe to assume that Bristol ships had sailed the Ommerike coast long before John Cabot - if only by accident - and referred to the place by its Norse name.
  5. The key to the main reason that the Icelanders and Greenland Norse would never have abandoned contact with Ommerike can be found in the cargo of Bjarne Herulfssen's ship. As there are no forests on either Iceland or Greenland and wood was needed to sustain life (both to keep warm in the rigorous winter and as building material for shelter for humans and livestock as well as for building and repairing ships), a source of supply of lumber had to be maintained. It had to come either from Europe or Ommerike. Europe meant a six hundred mile voyage across the open seas, with plenty of chance of disaster from the elements, desertion of the crews on arrival and payment of some kind to secure lumber; while a voyage to Ommerike meant a two hundred and fifty mile open sea voyage from Iceland to Greenland with landfall almost certain, another two hundred and fifty miles to certain landfall on the Ommerike coast, and from there on a cold but relatively safe coastal voyage to endless forests that were free for the taking - with little chance that the crew would desert or refuse to return to Iceland.

    Any present Icelander, given a similar choice of voyages, would set his sails for Ommerike, not Europe.

  6. Vatican records in Rome are reported to establish that a Bishop Eric Gnuptson (probably Knutssen), Bishop of Greenland and neighboring regions, arrived in Ommerike in the last year of Pope Pashal II, stayed for at least one year and then returned to Rome via Greenland and Iceland. His ministry is said to have included seventeen parishes. There is also a reported Norwegian record granting the King's authority to one George Knutsen to recruit the sons of leading Norwegian families to go to the lands beyond Greenland to search out and induce to return to the fold those colonists that had drifted off to live with the natives.
  7. The Vatican could well have had very real practical reasons to be reluctant to place too great an importance to the Norse adventures in the New World or to publicize them. The Church's authority always diminished in direct proportion to the northward distance from Rome. The grip on the countries around the Norwegian sea was always precarious, and any real hold in Iceland or Greenland was virtually non-existent.

    Undoubtedly it seemed - and proved to be - to the Vatican's advantage that the discovery and all ensuing "rights" to the New World be credited to the enterprise and operation of nations ruled by devout Christians.

The name of this wondrous land, Ommerike, was so well established, so totally known and accepted, such common knowledge that none of the Italian navigators, not Cabot, Vespucci or even Columbus himself, ever thought of calling the place by any other name but the already long established Ommerike - America.

The political expedients employed in this great delusion worked very well indeed, for both the nations of Spain and Portugal and for the Catholic Church. However, the days of such reasoning and shenanigans are long past and no reason remains, except indifference, to continue to deny that someplace in forgotten archives of the Vatican exist maps and written reports of Bishop Erie Knutssen and many others who visited the New World long before Columbus, voyaging over the Icelandic-Greenland route, and perhaps even as far as the islands of the Gulf of Mexico or even Mexico itself.

Bit by bit, in unexpected ways, the truth of the discovery of the New World surfaces, the last example of which is the authenticated Yale University Vinland map. There will be many more such scholastic breakthroughs and it is safe to predict that in some future rediscovered map or written report predating both the Italian Amerigo Vespucci and the Englishman Richard Ameryke, a name for the new lands will appear very close to "Ommerike".

As stated before, these submissions are mere theories, with no more substantiation than the theories of other origins of the name "America". Proof of them must be left to better and more thorough scholars than the writer. But the meaning of the word "omme-rike" in ancient Norse is sound, and should provide a new and different source to explore in searching out and authenticating a page of human history replete with all the ingredients of enchantment and subterfuge of a mystery novel.

Orange Street Congregational Church