Vexilla Tantum #1: The Erfalasorput

Danish and Greenlandic flags flying together

Danish and Greenlandic flags flying together

The Vexilla Tantum series is solely devoted to the niche world of vexillology—the study of flags. Flags serve an interesting role in cultures, often encompassing history, heraldry, identity, and pride. Some are beautiful and some much less so, but each has an interesting story behind it. The first flag in the series will be that of the Arctic island of Greenland.

Greenland’s isolation has led to only sporadic inhabitation throughout history. A few thousand years ago began some early human settlements and communities, from early peoples in Canada, but these might have ended sometime in the first millennium AD. The island was virtually uninhabited when the Vikings settled in the south in the tenth century (meaning one could make the argument that Norsemen are technically the aboriginal people of Greenland today). Centuries later, the Inuit would migrate from Canada to Greenland and settle on the western shore. We know that the Vikings would come into intermittent contact with the Inuit (who the Vikings called skrælings), and some of these contacts spilled over into violence. Eventually, the Viking communities would die out or become abandoned, and but for some sporadic maritime explorations, no Europeans would remain on the island. Despite this, during the age of exploration, Greenland would be claimed by the Kingdom of Denmark, where it remains today.

The flag of Greenland is relatively new, having been created in 1985. The Danish flag, which carries the lovely name Dannebrog, is still a prominent and official flag within Greenland, and the two flags often are flown together. And much like the Dannebrog, the Greenlandic flag also has its own name: the Erfalasorput, meaning “our flag” in Greenlandic. Since Greenland is an autonomous community within the Kingdom of Denmark, its flag is not flown at the United Nations or the Olympics, only the Dannebrog is. However, in the Nordic Council and other minor international events, the Erfalasorput flies proudly.

Flag of Greenland
The Erfalasorput, the flag of Greenland

An initial visual assessment of the Erfalasorput is to be impressed with its laudable design. The flag uses simple and highly contrasted geometry in a distinctive and imaginative way; furthermore, the design manages to be easily identifiable even if one were looking at it waving from long distances away. It was designed by Thule Christiansen, a Greenlandic politician and artist. The red band symbolizes the sea surrounding Greenland from the south, and the white band symbolizes the glacial domain that surrounds her in the north. The red half of the circle represents the setting and rising sun, while the white half represents the ice-capped land. The halving of the sun also neatly recalls the complementary occurrences of the polar day and night on much of the island.

It is also striking how different the Erfalasorput is from the other flags on the Nordic council. All five member nations on the council, plus the two other autonomous Nordic communities (Faroe Islands and Åland islands), have a flag with the distinctive Nordic cross. Greenland’s flag on the hand eschews the cross; however, the center of the “sun” is still placed where a cross’ intersection would have been such that some of the geometric relations remain. Perhaps this is fitting since the majority of Greenland’s population is not Nordic, but rather Inuit, so Greenlanders’ heritage is further from Scandinavian Christian tradition than all of the other nations and communities.

There is one flag in Scandinavia that does resemble the Erfalasorput: the flag of the Sámi people, a recognized minority community in northern Scandinavia. The Sámi flag also prominently features a circle with its center at the location of where a Nordic cross intersection would have been. Thus, the relationship between these two flags is particularly symbolic as these two communities are unique in being mostly ethnically separate from the majority of Scandinavians. Despite this, I cannot find a source that confirms that the Sámi flag was inspired by the Erfalasorput, even though it was adopted officially only one year later. Additionally, I will confess that the Sámi flag vexes me to look at because the colors have too little contrast, and the color density toward the circle makes for an almost dizzying effect.

Flag of the Sámi community
Flag of the Sámi community

The Dannebrog had been the official flag of Greenland for centuries previous. Unsurprisingly, the idea to introduce a specifically Greenlandic flag ruffled the feathers of those Greenlanders who drew pride in their Danish identity. Danish unionists (represented foremost by the Atassut party in Greenland) were resistant to any changes that made the Dannebrog unofficial or created a new flag that was starkly different. From the beginning of the flag negotiations in 1979, there were calls that any flag decisions should be put to referendum, particularly from Otto Steenholdt from the Atassut party. Steenholdt was so adamant that the choice should have been put to a vote that he would still testify at municipal meetings twenty years later about regret over the lack of a referendum.

The council did ask the public on their opinions over a new flag design, however. In fact, the first round of flag negotiations involved a call for public proposals, in which almost six hundred designs were submitted. Apparently, this must have yielded few satisfactory submissions because the council was not keen on the topic and put the issue of flag design on the legislative back-burner. Committee chairman Jonathan Motzfeldt explained the delay: “We must find a flag that is more beautiful than Dannebrog; that is the main problem and why the process has drawn out.” [1] In Denmark, on the other hand, there was consternation that the Greenlanders would not sufficiently consider heraldic traditions. The idea of public proposals and a referendum was very troubling to the vexillological conservatives. The situation could lead to Denmark having to accept a flag in its kingdom that was unorthodox and dreamt up by Greenlandic locals.

Final two flag designs
Final two flag designs: (Left) Sven Tito Achen’s Nordic cross design, (Right) Thue Christiasen’s winning design

Therefore, the final round of flag negotiations in 1985 were between two flags: the eventual winner by Christiansen and a Nordic cross flag designed by a Danish heraldist, Sven Tito Achen (this flag was, of course, more traditional). For whatever expertise in vexillology and heraldry Achen had, his flag is quite bizarre: despite having a Nordic cross, the hue of green is completely unorthodox and disconcerting to look at. It seems unlikely that such a flag design really was better than all the six hundred or so public proposals previously, so I chalk its inclusion in the final round down to needing to satisfy Danish concerns back on the mainland. The final vote in the council ended with a narrow victory for the Erfalasorput; though the vote was close, thankfully, the better flag won.

One strange aspect of the Erfalasorput remains: the fact that the flag is actually a plagiarism. It replicates the design of a flag used by a Danish rowing club for many years previous. Drawing inspirations from other flags is an important aspect of vexillological design, but outright copying another obscure and unique flag is a bit more suspect. The rowing club has given full rights to the Greenlanders to use the design, and supposedly the council was aware of the plagiarism at the time of the vote. Additionally, given the much greater importance of Greenland compared to a minor rowing club in Denmark, such a fact has become over the decades naught but a minor bit of historical trivia.


[1] Adriansen, Inge. Nationale symboler i det Danske Rige, 1830-2000. Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 2003.