The Vikings: A Memorable Visit to America

The Icelandic house of what is likely the first European-American baby has scholars rethinking the Norse sagas

Vikings sailing to Iceland (H. A. Guerber)
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Freydis: Heroine or Murderer?

Viking scholars have long debated the veracity of the Icelandic sagas. Are they literature or history, or both? The two conflicting versions of Freydis Eriksdottir, who was Erik the Red's daughter and the half sister of Leif Eriksson and who traveled to North America 1,000 years ago, are a case in point.

In Erik the Red's saga, Freydis and her husband Thorvard accompany Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir on their journey to the New World. When Natives attack their small colony, the Norse men run off. But a pregnant Freydis stands her ground, shouting: "Why do you flee from such pitiful wretches, brave men like you? . . . If I had weapons, I am sure I could fight better than any of you." She snatches up a sword from a fallen Norseman and exposes a breast (presumably to indicate that she's a woman), frightening off the attackers. When the danger had passed, Thorfinn came over to her and praised her courage.

But in the Greenlanders' saga, Freydis is a murderer. Freydis and her husband do not travel with Thorfinn and Gudrid, but instead undertake an expedition with two Icelanders, known as Finnbogi and Helgi. When they arrive in Straumfjord (thought by some scholars to be the site in Newfoundland known as L'Anse aux Meadows), they quarrel over who will live in the longhouses Leif Eriksson has left behind. Freydis wins, rousing the Icelanders' resentment. After a hard winter in which the two camps become more estranged, Freydis demands that the Icelanders hand over their larger ship for the journey home. She goads her husband and followers into murdering all the male Icelanders. When no one will kill the five women in the Icelanders' camp, she takes up an ax and dispatches them herself. Back in Greenland, word of the incident seeps out. "Afterwards no one thought anything but ill of her and her husband," concludes the story of Freydis' expedition.

Was Freydis a heroine? Or a homicidal maniac? Archaeologist Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, who directed much of the excavation of L'Anse aux Meadows, doesn't know for sure. "We try to sort out what's fact and fiction," she says. "We can't presume the saga writers knew the difference. What we do know is the writers were often anonymous.and male. They were Christian priests. Freydis was a pagan, while Gudrid was Christian. Gudrid's descendants were bishops and had an interest in making her appear as holy as possible and Freydis as bad as possible, for contrast." Wallace says the murder of the Icelanders is hard to believe. "Something bad happened," she says. "But can you imagine killing 35 Icelanders without all their relatives coming over to take revenge?"

Why Didn’t They Stay?


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