“Wealth and honor” was, according to the Icelandic sagas Freydis Eiríksdóttir’s motivation to sail to Vinland. (Illustrating photo via paganroots.tumblr.com)
The Sagas of Icelanders describes the fearless Viking woman Freydis Eiríksdóttir’s battle against Indians in North America in the early 1000’s. Pregnant, with sword and bare breasts she scares the “Skrælingar” to flee.
According to the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, Freydis around the year 1009 sailed from Greenland to Vinland in North America, the first of two long expeditions to the New World.
The first expedition led by Thorfinn Karlsefni consisted of three ships with some 160 Vikings from Greenland. Their aim was to settle in Vinland on the east coast of North America, the country Leif Eirikson had discovered sometime around the year 1000.
Freydis was Leiv Eirikson’s half-sister and she had two brothers, Thorstein and Thorvald. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, she was married to Thorvard and stayed at Garðar in Greenland.
“She was a big and resourceful woman, but Thorvard was a weakling; she was obsessed with wealth.”
The saga gives a brief but heroic description of Freydis, but in the Saga of the Greenlanders she is portrayed very negatively.
Freydis Takes Up the Sword
Thorfinn Karlsefni’s voyage lasted for three years. The first year the Vikings traded peacefully with the Indians who the Norsemen gave the name “Skrælingar.” An interpretation of the word derives from the Old Norse word “skrá” which means “dried skin”, and “Skrælingar” translates to “those who wear dried skin,” as opposed to the Vikings who wore woven wool and linen clothes.
How far south did the Vikings settle and where did the Indians attack them? Did they sail down to Maine where the climate and nature reminds of Norway? (Illustrating photo: usm.maine.edu)
The first year, the relationship to the Indians was peaceful. But then, according to the Saga of Erik the Red, a large number of Indians attacked the Norsemen who were saved thanks to the heavily pregnant Freydis and her courage:
Now it came to pass that a bull, which belonged to Karlsefni’s people, rushed out of the wood and bellowed loudly at the same time. The Skrælingar, frightened thereat, rushed away to their canoes, and rowed south along the coast. There was then nothing seen of them for three weeks together. When that time was gone by, there was seen approaching from the south a great crowd of Skrælingar boats, coming down upon them like a stream, the staves this time being all brandished in the direction opposite to the sun’s motion, and the Skrælingar were all howling loudly. Then took they and bare red shields to meet them. They encountered one another and fought, and there was a great shower of missiles. The Skrælingar had also war-slings, or catapults.
Then Karlsefni and Snorri see that the Skrælingar are bringing up poles, with a very large ball attached to each, to be compared in size to a sheep’s stomach, dark in color; and these flew over Karlsefni’s company towards the land, and when they came down they struck the ground with a hideous noise. This produced great terror in Karlsefni and his company, so that their only impulse was to retreat up the country along the river, because it seemed as if crowds of Skrælingar were driving at them from all sides. And they stopped not until they came to certain crags. There they offered them stern resistance.
Freydis came out and saw how they were retreating. She called out, “Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon, I think I could fight better than any of you.” They gave no heed to what she said. Freydis endeavored to accompany them, still she soon lagged behind, because she was not well (Editor’s note; pregnant); she went after them into the wood, and the Skrælingar directed their pursuit after her. She came upon a dead man; Thorbrand, Snorri’s son, with a flat stone fixed in his head; his sword lay beside him, so she took it up and prepared to defend herself therewith.
Then came the Skrælingar upon her. She let down her sark and struck her breast with the naked sword. At this they were frightened, rushed off to their boats, and fled away. Karlsefni and the rest came up to her and praised her zeal. Two of Karlsefni’s men fell, and four of the Skrælingar, notwithstanding they had overpowered them by superior numbers. (…)
The Second Journey to Vinland
The Saga of the Greenlanders tells that the same summer as Thorfinn Karlsefni returns from Vinland, a Norwegian ship arrives in Greenland led by two Icelanders from the East Fjords, Helgi and Finnbogi.
Norse long house recreation at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. (Photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson)
Freydis pays them a visit and suggests a journey to Vinland, “for this seemed an open road to wealth and honor”:
Now it happened that Freydis, Eirik’s daughter, made a special trip from her home in Gardar to meet the brothers Helgi and Finnbogi. She proposed that they should sail to Vinland in their vessel, and share with her all the profits they might gain together. They agreed to this. Then she called on her brother Leif and asked if he would give her the houses he had built in Vinland. He answered that he would lend them to her, but would not give them away. Freydis and the brothers agreed that each of them should have thirty able-bodied men on board, besides women. However, Freydis broke this agreement at once by taking along five extra men, whom she hid so the brothers knew nothing of it before they got to Vinland.
After arriving in North America, a conflict between the Icelandic and Greenlandic settlers occurs.
Freydis is lying about an assault and asks her husband Thorvard to revenge her. The Greenlandic Vikings kill all the Icelandic men who live in a separate house with five women, but the Greenlanders are not capable of killing the women.
Then Freydis says: “Hand me an ax!” When she gets it, she kills the five women herself, and leaves them dead.
When they return to Greenland her half-brother, Leif Erikson, learns about the story. Leif fails to punish his half-sister, although he wants to, but Freydis and her family are socially excluded from the Norse society.
This is the last we hear about Freydis in the sagas.
As a social outcast in Greenland – it is unlikely that the strong-willed and brutal Viking woman returned to North America a third time together with her husband and other Vikings?
Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews