Freydís Eiríksdóttir was said to be born around 950 to Erik the Red (as in her patronym) who was associated with the Norse exploration of North America and the finding of Vinland with his son Leif Erikson. The only medieval and primary sources we have of Freydís are the two Vinland sagas; the Grœnlendinga saga and the Eiríks saga rauða. The two sagas offer differing accounts, though in both Freydís appears as a masculine, strong-willed woman who would defy the odds of her society.
Freydís is described as Leif Erikson’s full sister. This was the first saga written in the late twelfth century and is a crude version of the accounts that happened in Vinland. Freydís is mentioned only once in this saga. This is the most famous account we have of Freydís.
After expeditions to Vinland led by Leif Eiríksson, Þorvaldr Eiríksson and Þorfinnr Karlsefni met with some success, Freydís wants the prestige and wealth associated with a Vinland journey. She makes a deal with two Icelandic men, Helgi and Finnbogi, that they should go together to Vinland and share all profits half-and-half. Freydis asks her brother Leifr Eiríksson to use the homes and stables that he has built in Vinland. He agrees that they all can use the houses. Helgi and Finnbogi agree that they will bring the same number of men and supplies, but Freydis ends up leaving after the brothers because she had smuggled more men into her ship. Helgi and Finnbogi, arriving early, take refuge in the houses until Freydís appears and orders the brothers to move, as the houses were her brothers and meant for her. This is one of the many disagreements that would happen in the time they are there.
In Vinland, Freydís betrays her partners, has them and their men attacked when sleeping, and killed. She personally executes the five women in their group since no one else would do the deed. Freydís wants to conceal her treachery and threatens death to anyone who tells of the killings. She goes back to Greenland after a year's stay and tells the story that Helgi and Finnbogi had chosen to remain in Vinland. But not everyone is silent, and word of the killings eventually reaches the ears of Leif. He has three men from Freydís's expedition tortured until they confess the whole occurrence. Thinking ill of the deeds, he still does not want "to do that to Freydís, my sister, which she has deserved".
Freydís is described as the half sister to Leif Erikson. Written after the Grœnlendinga saga in the thirteenth century, this story portrays Freydis as a fearless, and protective woman. She joins an expedition to Vinland led by Þorfinnr Karlsefni, but is only mentioned once in the Saga when her camp is attacked by the Red Skins, or the Skrælingjar. The natives sneak up on the Viking camp in the night and shoot what are believed to be catapults at the warriors. Many of the men, having never seen such weaponry, flee. Freydís hears the commotion and comes out to see the men retreating.
She calls 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 give no heed to what she says. Freydis is eight months pregnant at the time, but this does not stop her from running out of her tent and grabbing the sword from her fallen brother in arms, Thorbrand, Snorri's son. Then come the Skrælingjar upon her. She lets down her sark so that one breast is exposed, and strikes her breast with the sword, letting out a furious battle cry. At this the Skrælingjar are frightened and rush off to their boats, and flee away. Karlsefni and the rest come up to her and, instead of praise, rebuffs her behavior.
Defying Her Culture?
Freydís is a memorable character, and could very well be one of the first stories to give us the stereotype about Viking women. However, through more extensive research we find that Freydís does not act like the most of the women we learn about through historical documents. Although most Viking women would go on expeditions, it was very rare that women would lead an expedition, themselves; mainly they would provide money for these adventures. Many times, the women would stay and work on the house, and on the trade. It is remarkable that many women shared the responsibilities of the trade and also hunted and fished. We see Freydís as a masculine woman who is not afraid to take risks and even takes killing into her own hands; but if we look more closely we see that Freydís is defying the norms of her culture by not only asking to lead a voyage, in the Greenland sagas, but also by financing them to find a new land. Few women have ever done this, although one notable woman would be Aud the Deep-Minded. Freydís also goes against her culture when she slays the five innocent women, as it was looked down upon to kill women, especially women who were unarmed. In the Eirik Sagas we see that she clearly breaks her boundaries not only by exposing herself but by acting like a warrior and running into battle, therefore emasculating the men around her.
She ends up giving herself a bad name and reputation, and neither she nor her children are ever heard about again. Some tie this to the fact that this was also during the Christian reform and that since she refused to reform, she and her family were never prosperous and were no longer recorded in history; but there is no solid evidence to support this.
Adaptations in fiction
- Magnusson and Palsson, Vinland Sagas, 2004
- Jesch, Women in the Viking Age 1991
- Rubio, Salva and Stebba Ósk Ómarsdóttir, Vinland: La Saga de Freydís Eiríksdóttir, Thule Eds, 2015, ISBN 978-84-15357-68-1
• Gunnar Karlsson (2000). Iceland's 1100 Years: History of a Marginal Society. London: Hurst. ISBN 1-85065-420-4. • Magnusson, Magnus and Hermann Pálsson (translators) (2004). Vinland Sagas. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044154-9. First ed. 1965. • Reeves, Arthur M. et al. (1906). The Norse Discovery of America. New York: Norrœna Society. Available online • Örnólfur Thorsson (ed.) (2001). The Sagas of Icelanders. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-100003-1 • Judith Jesch, Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge,Boydell Press,1991)