Friday, December 2, 2011

Leif the Lucky had a sister named Freydis

It is probably a big shock to many who think that women don't get mentioned in chronicles and sagas. They do. Not as much as men but they are not completely invisible. Their complete absence from history books probably reflects a bias from 19th century and many 20th century historians.
Eirik the Red left Iceland around 985 A.D. to colonize Greenland. That colony survived for centuries and there are the Vinland Sagas that tell of the early days: Eirik the Red's Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders. Eirik had a daughter, who was likely a half sister to Leif the Lucky. The sagas do not agree on this. She rated more than a little mentioning in the sagas because she was such a wild thing. Her name was Freydis.
There was a sister in law Gudrid, who is also mentioned at length. She gave birth to the first European born in the New World, Snorri Thorfinsson, and became a nun. This balances the account of Freydis. There are a few other women mentioned in the sagas because they sailed with the men to explore Vinland.
Freydis headed her own expedition to Newfoundland and asked her brother Leif if she could have the houses he built there. He told her that she could borrow them only. Another group went on the expedition in their own ship. For whatever reason, Freydis would not share the houses with them so they had to build their own. Then she told her husband that the leader of the other group had insulted her so that her husband and their men need take vengeance. So they attacked the other group and killed them all for no reason. No reason was ever given for why Freydis wanted them dead. Greed, perhaps? There were five women with the other group whom Freydis' men refused to kill so Freydis killed all five personally with an ax.
On another trip to Vinland, the group was attacked by natives and some of the men were killed and they were making a rapid retreat. Freydis was pregnant so she could not move fast and she could not keep up with the fleeing men. So she picked up a sword and decided to fight. She faced the natives alone by baring her breasts and slapping the sword against them. This startled the natives and they decided to run away rather than attack her.
The sagas do not tell much more of her. She was married to a man called Thorvard. "She was a domineering woman, but Thorvard was a man of no consequence. She had been married to him mainly for his money."
The history books that I read when I was a child never mentioned her. She commanded a few expeditions to the New World but we only ever heard of her brother. Mind you, should those two stories be included in a history book written for children?

I should mention that I was using the Penguin Deluxe Edition of The Sagas of the Icelanders with Keneva Kunz's translations of the two quoted sagas.


Kristin said...

Mind you, should those two stories be included in a history book written for children?

Yes! Well, a modified version, at least. All the kids need to know is that there were women who led their own expeditions and acted as chiefs. They can leave out the breast-beating until they're older. :)) But I do think it's important that women be brought forward in history as figures who are more than just trophy wives and who can (and do) affect the world around them.

The Red Witch said...

Absolutely. I was surprised that she had her own ships. You could even mention that she took up the sword to defend herself while pregnant. You don't need to mention that the bare-breasted sword slapping fightened tne attackers off although it is very, very funny.

Tracy said...

Funny you should mention hat should be covered in history books for children - I remember when my son was at Primary School, and they were studying The Greeks and had to do a project. He chose the Greek Myths (oh boy!) and his summing up of Zeus and Hera in his write-up was the very diplomatic 'They had a lot of problems in their marriage'

There were five women with the other group whom Freydis' men refused to kill so Freydis killed all five personally with an ax.
One very scary woman!

The Red Witch said...

She is scary, which is why she can't really be held out as a shining example of a female explorer. The women had o be killed because they were witnesses. She bribed her men not to tell back home but word got out anyway.

Anachronist said...

Oh dear, quite a she-devil , that one! I bet with her temper she would be an excellent queen, though!

The Red Witch said...

*shudder* she does remind me of a particular Merovingian queen, Fredegund.