Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Not Leif Eiriksson Day, but Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day

Tomorrow, October 9, is Leif Eiriksson Day, when people of Scandinavian heritage and Viking enthusiasts like me celebrate the fact that the Vikings explored North America 500 years before Columbus.

While I whole-heartedly support the celebrations, I wonder, Why does Leif get all the credit? As I wrote on this blog before--in 2012 and 2013--I think we should celebrate "Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day," instead. Leif spent a winter in the Viking's Vinland and never went back. His sister-in-law, Gudrid, lived there three years and bore a child in the New World.

Gudrid is mentioned in both of the medieval Icelandic sagas about the Vikings' adventures in Vinland, or Wine Land, around the year 1000. Experts believe the stories in The Saga of the Greenlanders were first collected by Gudrid's great-great-grandson, Bishop Brand, in the 1100s. The Saga of Eirik the Red was commissioned about a hundred years later by another of Gudrid's many descendants, Abbess Hallbera, who oversaw a convent in northern Iceland.

The two sagas don't agree on the particulars of Gudrid's life, and they don't tell us very much about her. She was "of striking appearance," intelligent, adventurous, and friendly. She could sing and she was Christian. She was born in Iceland, married in Greenland, explored Wine Land, returned to Iceland and raised two sons, took a pilgrimage to Rome, and became one of Iceland's first nuns. Many Icelanders today trace their ancestry from her.

Over the last 50 years, archaeologists have proved more and more of her story true. In Greenland, they uncovered Eirik the Red's Brattahlid and the church built there by his wife, Thjodhild. They uncovered the house at Sand Ness where Gudrid's husband died.

On the far northwestern tip of Newfoundland, near a fishing village called L'Anse aux Meadows, they found three Viking houses. This small settlement is now thought to be the gateway from which the Vikings explored North America. Among the Viking artifacts found there was a spindle whorl, proving a Viking woman had been on the expedition.
Three white walnuts, or butternuts, found at L'Anse aux Meadows prove the Vikings sailed well south, to where butternut trees—and the wild grapes for which Wine Land was named—then grew. The most likely spots seem to be near the mouth of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, where there was a large Native American settlement at the time.
In 2001 a team of archaeologists began working in Skagafjord, the valley in northern Iceland where Karlsefni came from. I volunteered on the project one summer as we uncovered a Viking Age house on the farm called Glaumbaer, where the sagas say Gudrid finally made her home. The floorplan of the house looked like no other found in Iceland. It most closely resembled a house at L'Anse aux Meadows.
I told the story of my summer working on the archaeological team in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, which was published by Harcourt in 2007. I thought then that I had written all I could about Gudrid the Far-Traveler. Her spirit disagreed. As soon as that book came out, I began writing a new one.

My young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, will be published in Spring 2015 by namelos. I look forward to sharing the process with you.

To read my earlier posts about Leif Eiriksson Day, see: and


  1. Thanks for this insightful blog. I find Gudrid fascinating. One of these days I'd like to go to Iceland (and on one of your tours if you're still leading them).