Monday, December 1, 2014

Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, a traveling woman



On that marvelous bus tour that we took with Yrsa last week, I learned about the first European woman to come to North America—or Vinland as she and her fellow Norsemen called it.  With Yrsa’s permission to horn in on her territory, I am going to report what some quick research yielded about life of Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir.  Most of what I report here comes out of “The Saga of Eirick the Red” and The Saga of the Greenlanders,” which—if one pieces them together and takes a few liberties with exactly how many husbands she had—will give us an idea of Gudrid’s life.

For a long time, Gudrid’s story was thought to be pure myth, even after the discovery of the Viking longhouse in Newfoundland.  It wasn’t until 2001, and the discovery of her house in Iceland, precisely where the sagas said it was, that historians began to take seriously the reports of her adventures.  Viz—



Born in Laugarbrekka, Iceland in 980, Gudrid grew up to earn the nickname Vidforla, the Far-Traveler.  She may have traveled more miles than anyone—man, woman, or child—during her time. 
The sagas tell us that her first love was a young man named Einar.  But her father refused his permission for them to marry because Einar was the son of a slave.  Oh, the dishonor!  But then Papa went broke and the to avoid the scandal of that, he took his daughter and along with thirty others followed Erik the Red to Greenland. Half the company died of plague along the way, but Gudrid and her daddy made it and there she married a Norwegian, who also promptly died. 

Lief Eiriksson, Lief the Lucky, soon showed up, planning a trip to Vinland, now Newfoundland.  Gudrid, at that point a widow, married Lief’s younger brother Thorstein and went along on the journey, but an illness devastated the ranks of the settlers and Thorstein died. 

Here is where the sagas take a paranormal turn.  Thorstein came
back from the dead and told Gudrid that she would go to Norway and then back to Iceland, that she would marry again, to another merchant, that she would travel south on a pilgrimage, and that she would eventually return once more to Iceland and found a church.  Gudrid, in fact, did has the ghost predicted, but with a big detour.



In Norway, she married the merchant Thorfinn Karlsefni and promptly convinced him to take a party of settlers back to Vinland.  They got together a group of sixty men and five women, some livestock, and crossed the sea.  In Vinland, Gudrid gave birth to the first European child born in the New World—Snorri Thorfinnsson.  Thorfinn and Gudrid soon took their baby back to Greenland.

After Thorfinn died, Gudrid converted to Christianity, made that pilgrimage to Rome, where she may have met the Pope.  By this time, Snorri was married and settled in Iceland.  On her return from Rome, she returned to be near him, built a church, and lived out her days as a nun and an anchoress. 

A Scottish writer, Margaret Elphinstone wrote a novel about Gudrid—The Sea Road.  Nancy Marie Brown’s The Far Traveler: Voyages of Viking Woman gives a nonfiction account of the life of this remarkable woman.



Hooray for traveling women!

Annamaria - Monday


11 comments:

  1. I have read Nancy Marie Brown's book and follow her blog. About 20 years ago my cousin in Reykjavik sent me my Icelandic genealogy which says that I am descended from Karlsefni. I need to memorize that part of my lineage before I go back to Iceland in order to avoid the embarrassment of not being able to recite it.
    Gudrid was a helluva woman!

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    1. Wow, Juno, what a great thing to know about your ancestry. And what a connection to have. Can all Icelanders recite thier lineage?

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  2. It sounds like Gudrid was a woman after your own heart!

    Hopefully Snorri was not an ancestor of Snooki Polizzi. Several graves could be roiled by rotating bodies...

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    1. EvKa, I am so out of it that I had to Google Snooki to find out what you were talking about. Considering how many "barbarians' invaded Italy, we Italians never know who will show up in our gene pool.

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  3. One of my favourite saga characters (and there are so many wonderful women in the sagas).

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    1. K, my first visit to Iceland sparked my first interest in the sagas. I Am on my way to becoming a great fan.

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  4. I was fascinated, too, by Yrsa's story on the bus. Made me think you might have some of Gudrid's wanderlust genes. So happy you dug up more details on this amazing woman.

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    1. Jeff, it was my shared wanderlust that attracted me to Gudrin's story the minute I heard it. Yrsa and I agreed that MIE readers might enjoy learning about her.

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  5. What a complex history this USA has... thank you for these comments. I'd never heard of them, so am grateful for your scholarship. T.J. Straw in Manhattan

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    1. So true, Thelma. There are so many fascinating stories to be discovered.

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  6. Fascinating, I recall being enthralled years ago reading books by Tim Severin about the Brendan voyage, where he recreated a supposed journey taken by St Brendan from Ireland to Iceland, Greenland and the Americas. Although, as St Brendan was a monk, I don't believe he had any women quite as remarkable as Gudrun on board.

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