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Freydis Eiriksdottir – Legend of a Viking Woman

Statue of Freydis Eiriksdottir in Reykjavik, Iceland
Statue of Freydis Eiriksdottir in Reykjavik, Iceland

Everything that is known about the life of Freydis is based in legend(s), however, we do know that she really did exist and she was the daughter of Erik the Red. As can be noted, Eiriksdottir is translated into Erik’s daughter in much the same way that Leif Eiriksson is translated to Erik’s son. The infamous viking, Erik the Red, was relocated from Norway to Iceland as a result of his father’s banishment for crimes of murder along with the rest of his family. Erik later followed in his own father’s footsteps when he found himself banished from Iceland for crimes of murder as well. The viking had stumbled across new land, which he called “The Green Land” or Greenland which he discovered and founded. When Erik’s banishment ended 3 years after the discovery, he returned to Iceland and gathered 500 men who would return with him.

It was during his time in Iceland that Erik met his wife, Thjodhild, who would become the mother to Leif Eriksson. Thjodhild is the only known wife of Erik and while we know that Leif was his son, it is unclear in the legends whether Freydis was a legitimate daughter or the product of an affair. There is never any clear indication given as to whether she was a full sister or a half-sister to Leif either, but none-the-less, it is shown that the two got along as siblings would have. This is all important considering the exploring nature of the family as Freydis would also follow in the family business of exploration and discovery. It is also important to note that a lot of the above knowledge is based on legend and all of the below is as well. Freydis, while hailing from such a famous family, is only mentioned in two Icelandic sagas whose versions vary quite drastically from one another.

Legend one about Freydis comes from her father’s saga and portrays her as a tough woman who was braver than her fellow men. During the journey to Vinland (Newfoundland, North America) with her brother Leif and other vikings, Freydis was pregnant but it did not stop her from participating in the men’s business.

Leif and his men had made a truce with the locals of Vinland but the peace was short-lived. A bull that belonged to Leif’s crew had run and screamed out of the woods near the locals encampment, and fearing that it was a war cry, the locals prepared for battle and set out in hunt for the foreigners. As soon as the vikings saw the locals charging at them with unknown weapons, such as a catapult, they fled in fear much to the chagrin of Freydis who tried to urge the men to stay and fight, as well as demanding a weapon for herself.

Her pleas fell on deaf ears and she was left all alone as her people ran faster than she was able to being as pregnant as she was, so Freydis did the next logical thing, she stopped at the site of a dead viking, took up his sword and waited for the locals to reach her. When the horde of local men saw Freydis, they stopped and she proceeded to expose her breasts, scream in a language unknown to the locals and put the sword she obtained against her breasts. The locals were so afraid of this gesture that Freydis single-handedly won the battle as she watched the locals flee.

A brave and fearless woman who had saved her people from an ensuing war that would have ended in bloodshed aplenty. Legend two is not so endearing to Freydis’s plight.

Legend two, The Greenlander’s Saga, states that Freydis went back to Vinland a second time but this time without her brother’s company. She had commissioned two brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi, to join her in the exploration of Vinland where she wanted the plunder the riches of the land. The two brothers took their ship with a crew of men, while Freydis took her own ship and her own crew. It was agreed upon that each ship would carry the same number of men but Freydis brought on 5 extra men that she kept hidden below deck. As to why Freydis smuggled the extra men and what she did with them is a mystery that the legend does not include. It is only the act that The Greenlander’s Saga mentions not once mentioning her motive or the implications of such an act.

Before their departure, Freydis went to Leif and asked his permission for her to take up residency in his home that he built on the last trip to Vinland and he agreed. Unfortunately, the two brothers arrived in North America first and unpacked their belongings in Leif’s home. Bad move. Freydis arrived and told the brothers and their men that they needed to leave and build their own homes. It would not be a very good story if it ended here; Freydis felt the brothers had overstepped their bounds and held a grudge and planned revenge.

It should be stated that even though Freydis was fuming inside, the two brothers and their men were still welcome at their camp. The two groups would spend much time together playing games and passing the time but as the winter grew on, the men began quarreling and the two groups finally separated.

One night as Freydis lie in bed with her husband, she decided to get up and go visit the brothers. A barefooted Freydis arrived at the brothers’ door where she met with Finnbogi alone as everyone else was still sleeping. The two talked and agreed that the groups would trade ships because Freydis was anxious to leave for home and the brothers had a larger ship than she did. Her intentions were not to trade ships, it was a far more sinister plan indeed.

Arriving back to her own camp, Freydis crawled into bed with her husband who awoke when her cold, wet feet touched him. When asked why her feet were cold and damp she told him that when she went to arrange the trade of ships, the brothers both became enraged and beat her. She may have then told her husband that he was a coward who would never defend her so he would get out of bed. Freydis’ husband woke all his men and told them of the encounter that just occurred and the band of men gathered and went to the brothers’ camp; slaughter was on their minds. Arriving at the camp, all of Freydis’ men killed the brothers and their entire crew but none would touch the women.

Freydis called them all cowards and told them if they would not complete the deed that she would just do it herself. She picked up an axe and killed the 5 women of the brothers’ camp without an ounce of remorse and forced a truce among her men that they would never speak of the happenings of the night. Of course, when Freydis and her men returned to their homes in the spring, the story leaked as to her evil ways even though she threatened to kill anyone who spoke the truth. The news finally reached her brother’s ears but he would do nothing against his own sister. Even though Freydis was not banished from her home, her family was no longer welcome among the community and led a life a seclusion from that point on.

It is interesting to see two very different stories of one woman who may have been brave and fearless or a cold-hearted villain that would stop at nothing to see the glory of her ambitions.