Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir

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statue of Gudrid seen in its setting

Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir (Icelandic: Guðríður víðförla Þorbjarnardóttir) was a Norse explorer, born around the year 980 at Laugarbrekka in Snæfellsnes, Iceland.

She appears in the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, known collectively as the Vinland sagas. She and her husband Þorfinnur Karlsefni, led an expedition to Vinland where they begat their son Snorri Þorfinnsson, the first European born in the Americas outside of Greenland.

In Iceland, Gudrid is known by her byname víðförla (lit. wide-fared or far-travelled).

Biography[edit]

As recorded in The Saga of Eirik the Red, Gudrid was the daughter of a chieftain by the name of Thorbjorn of Laugarbrekka. As the story goes, a young man by the name of Einar asked for her hand in marriage, but because his father was a slave, Gudrid’s father refused to give her hand in marriage. Gudrid and her father promptly left Iceland and voyaged to Greenland to accompany Eirik the Red. Thirty others went with them on the journey, but the group experienced complications due to poor weather, which slowed their progress during the summer. After this setback, illness plagued the group and half of the company died. Despite these failures, Gudrid and her father landed safely in Greenland in the winter.[1] Although it is not mentioned in The Saga of Eirik the Red, according to the Saga of the Greenlanders, at the time Gudrid was married to a Norwegian merchant named Thorir.[2] According to this account, Leif Eirikson rescued Gudrid and fifteen men from a skerry, brought them safely to Brattahlid, and invited Thorir and Gudrid to stay there with him. That winter, Thorir died of illness.

In Eirik the Red’s Saga, Gudrid exemplifies the transition from the pagan Norse religion to Christianity. One winter, Gudrid, her father Thorbjorn, and his companions feast at the home of Thorkel, who is visited by a seeress named Thorbjorg. Thorbjorg arrives at Thorkel’s home, intending to carry out several magic rites, specifically ward songs, for which she needs the women present to help chant. Gudrid is the only woman present who knows the songs, having been taught them by her foster-mother Halldis, but she tells Thorbjorg that “These are the sort of actions in which I intend to take no part, because I am a Christian woman”.[3] With minimal effort, however, Thorbjorg and Thorkel convince Gudrid that taking part in the chants will help the people present, and not damage her status as a Christian woman. Gudrid performs the songs with admirable skill.

According to both sagas, Gudrid then married Thorstein Eiriksson, Leif Eiriksson's younger brother and Eirik the Red's son. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Gudrid then accompanied her husband on his quest to Vinland, with the hope that he could retrieve the body of his brother Thorvald. The two spent the winter in Lysufjord with a man by the name of Thorstein the Black and his wife Grimhild, but illness soon struck the group and both Grimhild and Gudrid’s husband Thorstein died. According to this account, Thorstein temporarily rises from his dead bed to tell Gudrid that she will be married to an Icelander, and that they will have a long life together with many descendants. He stated that she would leave Greenland to go to Norway and then Iceland, and after a pilgrimage south, she would return to Iceland, where a church would be built near her farm. According to the Saga of Eirik the Red, Thorstein makes the voyage to Vinland by himself, and it is only upon his return that the two marry. According to the Saga, “Thorstein had a farm and livestock in the western settlement at a place called Lysufjord” and another man by the name of Thorstein (whose wife in this version is named Sigrid) owned a half-share on this farm. The couple moved to the farm and, like in the Saga of the Greenlanders, Thorstein died and told Gudrid of her future, although in this version he focuses more on the importance of Christianity, asking Gudrid to “donate their money to a church or poor people.” [4]

After his death, Gudrid moved back to Brattahlíð, where she married a merchant named Thorfinn Karlsefni, who is described in the Saga of Eirik the Red as being “a man of good family and good means” and “a merchant of good repute”. According to The Saga of the Greenlanders, after their marriage, and at Gudrid’s urging, the two led an attempt to settle Vínland with sixty men, five women, and a cargo of various livestock (while it is implied in The Saga of Eirik the Red that she accompanies him, Gudrid is never actually mentioned in the account of the journey). While in Vínland, the couple had a son whom they named Snorri Thorfinnsson, who is the first European reported to be born in the Western Hemisphere. Shortly after Snorri was born, the family traveled back to Greenland. According to The Saga of Eirik the Red, the couple had another son named Thorbjorn. Although it is only mentioned in The Saga of the Greenlanders, Thorfin died, leaving Gudrid to live as a widow.[5]

Christianisation of Iceland during this period meant that religious conversions were common.[6] Gudrid converted to Christianity and, when Snorri married, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. While some have discussed the possibility that Gudrid spoke with the Pope on her journey, there is no proof of it. While she was away, Snorri built a church near the estate, fulfilling the prediction that Thorstein had made. When she came back from Rome, she became a nun and lived in the church as a hermit.[7]

Descendants[edit]

Her son Snorri Thorfinnsson had two children; a daughter named Hallfrid, and a son named Thorgeir. Hallfrid was the mother of Thorlak Runolfsson, bishop of Skálholt in the south of Iceland. Thorgeir was the father of Yngvild, the mother of the first Bishop Brand. One of the descendants of her son Thorbjorn, Bjorn Gilsson, was also a bishop of Hólar.

Cultural references[edit]

  • Her tale is told in the novel The Sea Road by Scottish writer Margaret Elphinstone (Canongate Books, 2000)
  • Her story is told in first-person point of view in the historical novel ''God's Daughter'', Book 1 in the Vikings of the New World Saga, by Heather Day Gilbert (WoodHaven Press, 2013)
  • She appears as a character in the manga Vinland Saga

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jones, Gwyn (1961). Eirik the Red: And Other Icelandic Sagas. London: Oxford UP. 
  2. ^ Sigurosson, Gisli (2008). The Vinland Sagas: The Icelandic Sagas about the First Documented Voyages across the North Atlantic. London: Penguin. 
  3. ^ Smiley, Jane (2000). The Sagas of the Icelanders: Eirik the Red's Saga. New York: Penguin. p. 659. 
  4. ^ Jones, Gwyn (1961). Eirik the Red: And Other Icelandic Sagas. London: Oxford UP. 
  5. ^ Logan, Donald (2005). The Vikings in History: Third Edition. New York: Routledge. 
  6. ^ Christianisation of Iceland (Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies)
  7. ^ Brown, Nancy Marie (2007). The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. Florida: Hartcourt.