Gudrid is one of the most known travellers of the Viking Age. Her adventures brought her from Greenland to Rome, from America to Norway.
She gave birth to the firstborn European in America and her descendants are part of the most influential people in future Icelandic society.
The story of Gudrid is the story of a Norse woman who conquered many horizons when travelling was challenging and dangerous. And even many men refused long trips because of how wearying they were.
Her life captures also the clash between two strong faiths during the North’s conversion to Christianity.
She represents the explorer spirit, the everlasting beam of hope, the strength of a woman trying to survive in a tough world, conquering lands and hearts.
Everything we know about Guðríðr víðförla1 Þorbjarnardóttir (Gudrid Thorbjorn’s daughter, “The Far Travelled”) is through Grænlendinga saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders) and Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Eirik the Red).
Grænlendinga saga is believed to have been written in the 13th century in Iceland and preserved in the 14th century manuscript called Flateyjarbók (The book of Flatey). It has been named after the island of Flatey in Breiðafjörður in western Iceland, where it was found.
Eiríks saga rauða is found in two different manuscripts, Hauksbók from early 14th century and Skálholtsbók from ca. 1420.
Not all the content of these sagas can be interpreted as the historical truth due to the fact that there are some inconsistencies between them. Despite this, we know that Norsemen were in North America during the time of the sagas thanks to archeological discoveries dating that time and confirming the presence of men and women from Norðurlönd (The countries of the North, Scandinavia).
Both sagas, nonetheless, are in general agreement in regards to Gudrid’s deeds.
Gudrid, the fairest of women, was born in Laugarbrekka (Snæfellsnes, Iceland) in the year ca. 980. She was married to Þórir Austmaðr (Thorer the Eastman2) and her father was Þorbjörn Vífilsson (Thorbjorn Vifil’s son), a landowner and a honourable man.
She lived for a long time as a foster-child3 with Orm and Halldis, great friends of her father, as it was customary at that time.
In many articles, it’s said that Gudrid converted to Christianity at a later stage of her life, but the sagas always refer to her as a Christian and make no mention of her alleged conversion.
Her faith is confirmed in an episode narrated in The Saga of Eirik the Red. During a great dearth in Grænland (Greenland), a prophetess called Þorbjörg (Thorbjorg, the spae-queen4), made a circuit visiting settlers’ homes. At the house of Þorkell (Thorkell), a landowner and a respectful man, Gudrid was asked to participate in a pagan ceremony, after which she replied:
“Þetta er þat eitt atferli, er ek ætla í engum atbeina at vera, því at ek em kristin kona”“That lore and the ceremony are of such a kind, that I purpose to be of no assistance therein, because I am a Christian woman”
Even so, Thorkell and Thorbjorg persuaded her to partake in the ceremony, and her execution was so powerful that amazed everybody present, especially the spae-queen that, as a gift, foretold Gudrid’s destiny. All of what she said proved true.
As far as we know, her foster-parents were pagan. It was her foster-mother who sure enough taught Gudrid the Varðlokur (translation is not clear, but they were some sort of spiritual songs). Her birth father, on the other hand, was presumably christian. So much so that during the above-mentioned episode, he decided not to be present during the ritual due to its heathen nature. Knowing this, we can deduct that she was already a christian, due to her father, Thorbjorn.
We can then consider that at that time, in the Norse countries, Paganism and Christianity coexisted quite in harmony.
That being said, we have to remember that the hands that wrote Eiríks saga rauða were christian, and this has had a great influence in how religion and faith are approached in this document.
Another example of Christian influence in Norse literature can be found in the Prose Edda, a methodical compilation of Norse mythology written by Snorri Sturluson in the early 13th century.
Love and Survival
In Norse society, women had more rights than in any other contemporary society, but being married was crucial for the survival of a woman (either that, or having a caring brother).
So much so that it was only after getting married that women could “access” most of their rights: having property, having money, spending money, getting divorced, etc.
This being said, not every husband would be suitable for a daughter. This is palpable when Einar asks for Gudrid’s hand, and Thorbjorn, her father, refuses because he deems Einar not worthy enough.
Besides, Gudrid wasn’t exactly very lucky in amourous matters. She had various husbands who unfortunately died before their time, making her a young widow to fare for herself. Let see in detail, though, how these events took place.
Gudrid’s first husband was Thorer, as previously mentioned. There are no details on how or where they met, but the most accepted hypothesis is that he met her at his arrival in Iceland from his motherland, Norway. Shortly after, Thorer died of sickness, making her a widow for the first time.
Few years later, Þorsteinn Eiríksson (Thorstein Eriksson) started courting her, becoming her second husband. Sadly enough, after returning empty-handed from an exploration attempt, Thorstein also died from sickness, breaking her second-time-widow heart. That year was probably one of the worst matters-of-heart-wise for Grudrid, who after losing her second husband, had to bury her father as well.
The strength needed for overcoming the loss of a loved one is huge, even for a woman in the Viking Age, but even more when life takes away from you two husbands and a father. Recovering from such a defeat must have been a prodigious endeavour indeed.
These tragedies, though, didn’t bring Gudrid down, on the contrary, she kept thriving.
After some time, she met her third (and final) husband, Þórfinnr Þórðarsson (Thorfinn Thordarson), better known as Þórfinnr Karlsefni (Thorfinn Karlsefni5) and married him during Yule fest. When, after many years and adventures, Karlsefni died of old age, Gudrid took control of their house and lands. And only after her son got married, she decided to devote herself to faith.
There were many instances of her life where she could have been defeated by sorrow, but she never gave up, she always raised to the occasion and kept moving forward, one land after the other, one adventure after the other. Especially after her final loss of Karlsefni, she would have had the perfect excuse to let go, but instead she decided to partake in what will be one of her longest and hardest voyages.
Bjarni Herjólfsson (Bjarne Herjulf’s son) was the man that first discovered America, but never stepped on it. He was actually trying to get to Greenland to meet his father and decided never to leave his ship.
Who instead stepped in American soil for the first time and built the first temporary settlement6 was Leif Eiríksson (Leif Erik’s son). His father was Eiríkr inn rauði (Erik the Red) the man who first settled in Grænland (Greenland).
When returning from Vínland7 towards Greenland, Leif luckily stumbled upon a shipwreck where he met and rescued Gudrid and Thorer, who departed from Iceland and were most probably headed towards Greenland themselves. After the rescue, he invited them to stay with him, an offer that they gladly accepted. He was known as Leifr inn heppni (Leif the Lucky) after that.
That same winter, a great sickness struck Thorer’s men and Thorer himself, ending their lives. As a widow, Gudrid stayed in Greenland with Leif and her father, Thorbjorn.
Some winters passed and Þorsteinn Eiríksson, Leif’s brother, started courting Gudrid, soon becoming her second husband.
At that time, everyone was talking about the incredible land and riches of Vínland, so Gudrid, Thorstein and their crew went searching for it but, after spending the whole summer in the sea, they returned to Greenland and landed in Lýsufirði (Lysefjord).
Spending a whole summer in the sea must have been one of the most proving endeavours that Gudrid had overcome until this point in her life.
As soon as they landed, Thorstein proceeded to find suitable shelter for his crew, but couldn’t find any for himself and Gudrid, so they slept on their ship for two nights, after which they were invited by Þorsteinn svartr (Thorstein The Black) and his wife, Grímhildr, to their home. They were received with great honour, but that same winter sickness spread and many people died, including Grímhildr and Thorstein Eiriksson himself. Thorstein clearly didn’t inherit the “luck” genes that his brother Leif had.
Gudrid was devastated so, in order to comfort her sorrow, Thorstein The Black promised to accompany her to Eiríksfjörð (Erik’s Fjord, in Greenland) to bury her husband, and offered his servants to comfort and amuse her. He kept his promise, and, after having sold all his possessions, they went to Eiríksfjörð. Once there, they buried Thorstein Eiriksson and then parted. Gudrid went to stay with her brother-in-law, Leif in Brattahlíð (Brattahlid, Greenland) and Thorstein The Black would dwell in Eiríksfjörð, living the rest of his life like a respectable and honourable man.
Later that year, after the death of her father, she inherited all of his properties. Widowed again, she stayed once more with Leif, who always cared for her.
After some years, a Norweagian came to Greenland. He was known as Thorfinn Karlsefni. He was a man of great wealth, and stayed with Leif in Brattahlid, where he soon fell in love with Gudrid. During Yule fest, he proposed to her and they got married with the approval of Leif Eriksson.
At this time, Vínland was still much spoken of, so that Gudrid and her husband Karlsefni got a crew ready for this new expedition. It was agreed that they would distribute the earnings of their voyage equally.
It is very much needed to stress how hard these voyages were. For instance, in the Grænlendinga saga, there is a passage where Leif tries to convince his father, the almighty Eirik the Red, to accompany him to Vínland. Eirik tries to refuse this proposition as much as he can because of how weary life at the sea was. In the end, Erik agreed to join his son in this new expedition but, while riding his horse towards the ships, he fell and got injured, thus remaining on land.
At this stage of her life, Gudrid has gone from Iceland to Greenland, from Greeland to spending the whole summer at sea and returning back to Greeland. And now wanted to attempt to go to Vínland a second time.
Bringing back our attention to Gudrid and Karlsefni, as soon as the preparations were finished, they departed towards Vínland, arrived at Leif’s booths (built in his previous expedition) without any difficulties, and wintered there.
The following summer, they encountered for the first time with the Skrælinga8, natives of Vínland. Neither party understood the language of the other, so the natives showed them their bundles of furs, sables and all sorts of skins in exchange for weapons. Kalsefni strictly prohibited such transactions, as instead, he proposed to trade milk and dairy products in exchange for their goods. The deal was good, and continued for a while.
During this time, Gudrid gave birth to her first son, Snorri, the first European to be born in American soil.
Early the following winter, during another trading visit of the natives, an extraordinary event happened. She was sitting at the door of her house, by the cradle of her son, when a woman wearing a black short kirtle, with a snood around her head, clear yellow hair, pale skin and large eyes, larger than anyone has ever seen in a human head, entered the room, stood near Gudrid and asked her: “What are you called?”. “I am called Gudrid, and what are you called?” replied Snorri’s mother. “I am called Gudrid”, replied the woman. Then our Gudrid put out her hand so that the woman could sit down beside her, when suddenly a great loud noise from outside distracted her. When she looked back, the woman wasn’t there anymore. Nobody saw that figure except for Gudrid.
That unexpected and loud noise was that of a native being killed by one of Karlsefni’s men while trying to grab a weapon. After this, all the Skrælinga fled and Karlsefni started planning their defence, as he knew that the next time they would hear of the natives would be through cries of war.
The following encounter with the natives, they were indeed attacked by them. A battle was held, and many Skrælinga fell. This menace wasn’t ideal for setting in Vínland, so they wintered there and in the following spring they decided to return to Greenland.
As soon as Gudrid and Karlsefni were ready to depart, they set sail and arrived at Eiríksfjörð, in Greenland. After passing the winter there, they decided to go to Norway, and sell all the goods they had earned in Vínland. They returned from their transatlantic expedition with many valuable goods, such as wood, fish, grapes, leather, vines, berries, furs, sables, hides and many more.
They wintered in Norway and both Gudrid and Karlsefni were held in great honour by the most respectable of the Norweagians.
The spring after, they decided to go to Iceland and settle there. Initially they passed the winter in Skagafjörð, but in spring, Gudrid and Karlsefni bought Glaumbæjarland where they built their home and made a living as highly respected individuals.
When Karlsefni died, Gudrid took the management of the house, and when Snorri, her son born in Vínland, got married, she decided to go on a pilgrimage south. This journey took her to Rome9.
When she returned from Rome, surviving a formidable and dangerous peregrination, Snorri had built a church in Glaunbæ, where she became a nun and a recluse until her last days.
And so the tale of an incredible woman comes to an end, but her influence doesn’t cease after her death. Many important members of the future Icelandic society, in fact, are amongst her descendants. From Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir and Þórfinnr Karlsefni, descend Bishop Brand, Bishop Þorlák (Thorlak) and Bishop Bjarn.
Brand, Thorlak and Bjarn were the first bishops of Iceland, authors of the first Christian Code of Iceland. The celebrated sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and the antiquary Finn Magnuson also claim to be descendants of Snorri Þorfinnsson (Snorri Thorfinsson), Gudrid’s son.
We find many great heroes and characters in Norse literature, many of them real and many of them products of imagination. But only few of them travel the distances that Gudrid did.
For a Norðmaðr (Norseman) to go as far south as the Mediterranean would have been already a great deed. Not to mention pioneering in Vínland. That alone would have been a reason for sagas, poems and songs to be written.
Eirik the Red is famous throughout history because he went to Greenland, and settled there. His son, Leif, is a legend. The man that settled in the New Land for the first time.
They all have statues, sagas and poems dedicated to them. And yet I feel that Gudrid deserves more recognition.
She traveled from Iceland to Greenland, from Greenland to America, from there back to Greenland, then Norway, then Iceland again. And, if that wasn’t enough, in later life, she decided to do a pilgrimage to Rome.
She outlived three husbands. Her descendants were very accomplished and had great influence in Icelandic society.
For me, Guðríðr víðförla Þorbjarnardóttir, is one of the most extraordinary characters that I’ve read about and studied. And I just hope I made her justice with the words written here.
- Víðförla means “far travelled” or “wide fared”. It’s a composed word from víðr (wide, large, extensive, far) and fara (to move, to go, to travel, to fare). ↑
- Icelanders would use the term Eastman (Austmaðr) referring to Norwegians, because of the geographical location of Norway in reference to Iceland. ↑
- Children being raised by foster parents was a common practice. Another occurrence of this can be found in Grænlendinga saga when Leif Eiríksson refers to Tyrkir suðurmaður as his foster-father. ↑
- The term spae comes from Old Norse spá, meaning to prophesy, to foretell. ↑
- “Karlsefni” was a nickname, roughly meaning “the makings of a man”. ↑
- Known as Leifsbúða (Leif’s booths). ↑
- Vínland, Vineland, the name that was given to America due to the strong presence of vines. ↑
- Skrælinga, was the term used for the natives of Vínland. It is believed they were the Thule people, ancestors of modern Inuit. ↑
- We know about these visits of the Norse people to the south thanks to a visitor’s book at a Swiss monastery (Reichenau). It has been registered in a Pilgrim’s Diary written by Nikulas, ca. 1150. ↑
- Grænlendinga saga
- Eiríks saga rauða
- Geir T. Zoëga, 2004, “A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic”
- Magoun Francis P. Jr., 1944, “The Pilgrim-Diary of Nikulas of Munkathvera: The Road to Rome”
- Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries of Copenhagen, 1848, “Guide to Northern Archaeology”
- Mallet, Paul Henri, 1847, “Northern Antiquities”