A Viking traveled all over the world

She settled in Greenland, gave birth to the first European woman to give birth on American soil, and went on a pilgrimage to Rome. The most adventurous Viking woman in…

She settled in Greenland, gave birth to the first European woman to give birth on American soil, and went on a pilgrimage to Rome. The most adventurous Viking woman in history, Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, sought adventure and traveled more widely than most of her time.

Let’s let our minds wander back to one spring day, just after the year 1000. Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, 15 years old, sat shivering from the salt and cold on a boat out in the sea, not far south of Greenland, scanning for ships. Guðríður was on his way across the North Atlantic aboard a large ship loaded with Norwegian timber for the Vikings in Greenland. However, the sea around Greenland is particularly rough, and two days before the ship had lost direction and ran aground.

Guðríður was there on the ship with 14 other castaways and tried her best not to lose heart, despite the fact that many of the crew had gone down with the ship and would never make it to the Viking settlement in South Greenland alive.

Finally, Guðríður spotted a longship that appeared to everyone’s surprise in the fog. The exhausted girl now had new hope of being saved and started waving and shouting to get the attention of the captain of the approaching ship.

Around the year 1000, Leifur Heppin became the first European to set foot in America.

According to Greenlandic history, it was no less a man than Leifur Happni himself who saved the shipwrecked men, but he was then on his way from Vínland, the new country he had found in what is now North America. Guðríður and her fellow passengers were picked up by boat and they then sailed on to Greenland with Leif. All 15 castaways made it all the way to the Viking settlement, but they were so tormented that most of them died of diseases that winter.

However, Guðríður did not give up. She was full of adventure and yearning and could not forget Leif’s interesting descriptions of the new, unknown world.

Vikings and their descendants built churches in Greenland and their ruins can still be seen.

Völva predicted Guðríðar’s fate

In 925, a new period of Viking conquest began in the North Atlantic when 25 ship crews sailed with Eirík the Red westward from Iceland, towards the newly discovered country of Greenland. It seems likely that Eiríkur himself gave this huge island its name, because he wanted to attract Icelandic farmers who always lacked grazing land for their cattle.

Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir was born on the farm Arnarstapa in Snæfellsnes. At first, her father, Þorbjörn, did not want to join Eiríki the Red in the latter’s expedition, because he did not want to leave his young daughter behind in Iceland.

Guðríðar Þorbjarnardóttir is mentioned in both Grænlendinga Saga and Eirík the Red Saga. Although these stories do not compare in certain details, both stories tell roughly the same sequence of events about the adventurous Guðrída.

The Vikings settled in Greenland around the year 985, but left the island at the beginning of the 15th century.

From the very first moment, it was clear that the young Viking girl longed for a life characterized by more adventures than the existence offered by a peasant woman in Iceland. In Eirík’s story, Guðríða is described as “ a kind woman”, “brilliant and wise “.

When Guðríður was 15 years old, she left her safe home in Iceland and headed for the Viking settlement in Greenland, where she heard very interesting stories about Vínland.

Around the year 1000, between 400 and 500 people lived in the largest settlement of Eirík the Red on the southern tip of Greenland.

It paid off for the ambitious newcomers to have a good deal with the founder of the settlement, Eirík the Red and his family, including the son Leif the lucky who became the head of the colony after his father’s death.

…because your roads lead to Iceland and there will come from you both a great family and a good one.”

The prophecy of the vault about Guðríði Þorbjarnardóttir

Guðríður spent the first winter with Eirík’s uncle, where she took it upon herself to lead the group through a terrible period of hunger. When a fortune teller, the völva, came home to the farm, the Christian Guðríður was not afraid to sing an old pagan magic verse to help the völva predict the next year’s harvest.

In gratitude for the song of the fairies, the völvan also prophesied for Guðríð:

“You will receive a bounty here in Greenland, that is most honorable, although it will not be for long, because your roads lead to Iceland and there will come from you both a great family and a good one.”

The völva was held in high esteem in Viking society, and she often traveled accompanied by younger women.

After a year’s stay in Greenland, Guðríður, as the völvan had predicted, married Leif’s younger brother Þorstein, probably because she believed that he would take her with him to Vínland. And it didn’t take long before they set the direction in a westward direction on their longship, but Þorsteinn did not have the same knowledge as his brother about the sailing route to Vínland, and the crew lost their direction and the crew had to spend an entire summer in the waves outside what is now called Nuuk.

When they finally returned home, Þorsteinn fell ill and died. Guðríður was then a widow, only 17 years old, and settled on Eirík the Red’s farm, Brattahlíð. However, the desire for adventure was still the same.

It seems likely that sunstones were polished crystals from Icelandic calcspar, which is a transparent mineral that can polarize light.

Sólsteinn may have shown the way to America

The Vikings did not have a compass and depended on the position of the sun to navigate the open sea. When clouds covered the sun, it is possible that the crew relied on a so-called sun stone to find the sun.

The sunstones of the Vikings are shrouded in great mystery, but they are mentioned in old texts such as the episode of the Red Wolf, where the Norwegian king, Ólafur Helgi, is said to have used a sunstone to find the sun in a cloudy sky. These stones are believed to have been made of calcspar, but in 2011 scientists managed to prove that such stones could be used to detect the sun in a cloudy sky.

The explanation of how the Vikings got across the Atlantic may therefore lie in the use of sunstones. In 2018, Hungarian researchers prepared a total of 36,000 computer simulations of the long sea voyages of the Vikings in different weather conditions in order to account for the influence of the sunstones. They found that the use of sunstones had enabled the Vikings to choose the correct sailing routes with at least 92% accuracy.

This is how the sunstones of the Vikings worked

Barmur drove the Indians away

Guðríður first met the Icelander Þorfinn Karlsefni, who had the same aspirations as herself. Þorfinnur Karlsefni was on the lookout for goods in Greenland, probably walrus teeth, but fell completely for Guðríða and quickly went to own her. Guðríður was 19 years old, newly married and pregnant, when she started preparing for her life in Vínland.

She organized a three-ship expedition with her husband, hired crews, bought provisions, and headed southwest as soon as the sea became ice-free in June.

Historians today do not know which way they sailed, but it is assumed that they stopped at the same place as Leifur Happen a few years before, at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, where archaeologists have been excavating since 1960 and excavated a Viking settlement. Utensils used for spinning with wool have been found there, which strongly indicates that a woman was there, most likely Guðríður.

However it all turns out, the couple have built a turf farm somewhere near the coast, where Guðríður has given birth to his son Snorri, the first European born in America.

Guðríður finally made it all the way to America around 1004, along with her husband Þorfinni, a retinue of 60 people and five more women.

Historians are still debating how far south the Vikings got in Vínland, but walnut shells that grow in the south of that country have been found in L’Anse aux Meadows, and nature descriptions in the Icelandic sagas indicate that Guðríður came to the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, where there is an abundance of salmon. There, the Vikings came across the so-called Skreelings, who seem to have been the ancestors of the Indians who are now known as the Mi’kmaq Indians.

The oxen that the Vikings brought with them caused panic among the Indians, but Þorfinni Karlsefni nevertheless managed to buy a stack of furs for a small amount of red cloth. When the natives returned three weeks later, they were in battle mode and the Vikings had to flee into the Canadian forest.

“She bare her breast and laid a sword upon it.”

Eiríksaga red

In Eiríksságur, there is an account of a woman who managed to drive the Indians away after picking up a sword that had belonged to a Viking who had died:

“She bare her breast and laid a sword upon it.” This scared the skreelings and they fled into the boats and rowed away”.

The Indians probably feared the woman’s will to fight more than her breasts. The woman in the story is actually named Freydís, but scholars have pointed out that the characters Freydís and Guðríð have in some cases been confused. The powerful woman with the sword may thus have been Guðríður.

According to Erik the Red, the Indians were frightened when they saw a woman behaving as madly as Freydís.

Relations between the Native Americans and the Vikings worsened, and there were frequent battles between the two groups. The Grænlendinga Saga tells the story of Guðríði, sitting by Snorri’s cradle, where a native woman sought her out.

“Guðríður invited the woman to sit down. My name is Guðríður , she is said to have said. The strange woman repeated her words: My name is Guðríður .

The two women tried to understand each other, but the conversation was soon interrupted by a noise in front of the Vikings’ camp, where one of Þorfinn’s men stabbed to death a Skræling who planned to steal a weapon from the Vikings. The native woman fled and Guðríður quickly got used to life in the new world, where his nerves were constantly strained to the limit.

After three years of discord with the natives, Guðríður, Þorfinnur and Snorri had enough of the creature in Vínland. They then headed for Greenland with the ship laden with furs and exotic timber.

The voyage was by no means without danger, and two other ships on the same expedition disappeared into the sea. This was a great loss for the sparsely populated area in Greenland, and after this expedition the Nordics gave up some hope of finding land in America.

Women in the Viking Age did not allow themselves to be mocked

Women in the Viking Age enjoyed considerably more freedom than their female counterparts in other parts of Europe. They could ask for a divorce and they managed their estate when the husband went on trips. The most diligent women traveled the world themselves.

Gunnhildur was the most powerful woman in the Nordic countries

Gunnhildur was born around the year 910 and helped her Norwegian husband to break his brothers back so that the couple could come to power in Norway. Gunnhildi is described as a clever trickster who often resorted to magic to get her way.

The wealth of deep fog reached Iceland

Auðr djúpúða was the daughter of a Norwegian ruler who fled to the British Isles. When she lost her husband and father in battle in Scotland, she fled with her children to Iceland. With her bravery, she secured a large and good farm, and soon she and her family had great influence in the country.

Freydís wanted to have Vínland all to herself

Freydís got Norwegian brothers to finance her expedition to America. When she got there, she confided in her husband that the brothers had mistreated her. As a result, he killed all her attendants and after that Freydís sat alone with all the people.

Guðríður ended her life as a nun

However, Guðríður and her husband had by no means stopped traveling. After a short stay in Greenland, they sailed across the Atlantic to Norway, where they sold the goods from Vinland. The sale brought them a lot of wealth and they were now able to return to Iceland as rich people.

Around 1010, they settled in Þorfinn’s childhood grounds in Skagafjörður, and there their second son was born. A few years later, Þorfinn died of unknown causes, and the young mother was left alone with the farm and raising the children. However, this was not enough to stop Guðríði.

As soon as Snorri had married a woman who could take care of the farm, Guðríður set out on a pilgrimage to Rome, but it should be noted that her interest in Christianity grew steadily. She first sailed to Norway and then, with a stop in Hróskeld, went down the entire continent of Europe where she stopped in the Alps.

After Guðríðar’s stay in Rome, she went all the way back to Iceland and returned as a very God-fearing Catholic. Her son, Snorri, had a church built right next to the town and she lived there as a nun until her death in 1050. She never tired of telling her grandchildren about her travels around the world.

Nowadays, Guðríður is known for being the most ambitious individual of the Viking Age who ignored the customs and traditions of the time and made his dreams come true.

Read more about Guðríði Þorbjarnardóttir

Nancy Marie Brown: The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman , Mariner Books, 2008

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