Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Is Freydis Real?

Freydis Eiriksdottir is set to become America's favorite "real valkyrie," thanks to Netflix's "Vikings: Valhalla." But is she real? That is, is she a historical figure?

I don't think so.

I've written a book on warrior women in the Viking Age: The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women.

I've also written a book on the two Icelandic sagas in which Freydis appears: The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman.

In The Real Valkyrie, I argue that Freydis's predecessor as America's favorite valkyrie--Lagertha in the History Channel's "Vikings" series--was based on a real historical figure. Her story is told by Saxo Grammaticus in his history of the Danes. It's hyped. It's co-opted to make a political point about the inappropriateness of women in battle. But if you accept that the men named by Saxo are real--men like Ragnar Lothbrok, whose feats are also hyped--you have to accept that Lagertha is real too.

The writers of the Icelandic sagas didn't follow the same rules as Saxo, however. They were not writing history.

"Saga" derives from the Icelandic verb "to say." It implies neither fact nor fiction. Some sagas could be shelved as history, others as fantasy: over 140 medieval Icelandic texts are named "sagas."

Compared to some, the two that mention Freydis--The Saga of Eirik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders (known collectively as the Vinland Sagas)--are bare-bones. As I wrote in The Far Traveler, their plots don’t hang together. Their settings and characters are weak. Their use of folk-tale motifs--fortune-telling, belligerent ghosts, one-footed humanoids--is clumsy and repetitious. They read like sketches from a writer’s notebook, not finished works.

Both sagas tell of the Viking voyages to North America around the year 1000. Both highlight the feats of men like Leif Eiriksson and Thorfinn Karlsefni, though the real explorer, as I've argued elsewhere (here,here,and here), was a woman named Gudrid, known today as "the Far Traveler." Despite the fact that the sagas say hardly anything at all directly about her, Gudrid is at the heart of both tales.

As Richard Perkins suggests in "Medieval Norse Visits to America" (Saga-Book 28 (2004): 26-69), the stories about Gudrid were likely collected by her great-great-grandson, Bishop Brand, in the late 1100s. The Saga of Eirik the Red may have been commissioned about a hundred years later by another of Gudrid’s many descendants, Abbess Hallbera, who oversaw a convent in northern Iceland.

Gudrid was a Christian--one of Iceland's first nuns. Her life story was meant to be "a guide for noble women" and "appropriate reading matter" for nuns.

Which, given the nature of one of the famous stories told about the Vinland expeditions, was a problem.

Gudrid and her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni led an expedition of three ships to North America. They stayed three winters, exploring Newfoundland and around the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. It was in the Miramichi River valley, archaeologist Birgitta Wallace thinks, that they met the native people they called "Skraelings," or "skin-wearers."

At first, they successfully traded with Skraelings. Then Karlsefni made a diplomatic mistake. The next time the Skraelings arrived at the Viking settlement, they came in overwhelming numbers, girded for war.

At this point in The Saga of Eirik the Red, Gudrid disappears, and another woman—strong-minded, adaptable, brave, and pregnant—conveniently shows up. She is called Freydis and is said to be Leif Eiriksson's illegitimate sister.

Freydis appears in only one scene in this saga, here, as the Vikings flee:
"Freydis ran after them but fell behind because she was pregnant. She was following them into the woods when the Skraelings reached her. She saw a dead man in front of her…. His sword lay beside him. She picked it up and got ready to defend herself. When the Skraelings came at her, she drew her clothing away from her breast and slapped it with the sword. At this the Skraelings grew afraid and ran back to their boats and rowed away."

As I wrote in The Far Traveler, this fighting technique has a long history in Celtic lore—one that Gudrid could have heard of from her Scottish grandfather. In the ancient Irish epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, when the hero Cuchulainn attacked the fortress of Emain Macha, the women “stripped their breasts at him.” Said the queen, “These are the warriors you must struggle with today.” Cuchulainn, shamed, “hid his countenance” and was captured.

Such an action is in character for the Gudrid we have come to know by then in The Saga of Eirik the Red. It might be too racy, though, for a role model in a saga written for young nuns. I can see a squirming churchman attributing it to another, lesser woman, the fictional Freydis.

The two women were easily switched: “Some people say that Bjarni and Freydis stayed behind,” one manuscript copy of the saga says, while Karlsefni explored to the south and met the Skraelings. A different copy of the same saga puts it: “Some people say that Bjarni and Gudrid stayed behind.”

Providing another clue that Karlsefni would not have left Gudrid behind and taken Freydis, the saga is clear that the only child born in Vinland was Gudrid and Karlsefni's son Snorri. Just before his birth, the saga notes: “The men were now constantly at odds, and all the quarrels were over women.” The lonesome bachelors were pestering their few married friends to share their wives. Would Karlsefni leave Gudrid in another man’s arms for a year? Would Gudrid stand for it?

It seems clear to me that Gudrid, not Freydis, was the woman with Karlsefni when he scouted to the south. It was Gudrid, not Freydis, who revealed herself to be a woman in hopes of surviving the Skraelings' attack.

But churchmen, like Saxo, have long had a problem with women bearing swords. By doing so, he bemoaned, they "were forgetful of their true selves." When they "desired not the couch but the kill," they "unsexed themselves."

Sometime in the 100 to 300 years between Gudrid's death and the writing down of her sagas, this sword-wielding Freydis becomes the main actor in another story of exploration, told in The Saga of the Greenlanders.

While in The Saga of Eirik the Red you have to read between the lines to realize Gudrid organized an expedition to Vinland--and owned one of the three ships--The Saga of the Greenlanders clearly says that Freydis did so.

Her expedition is a disaster. She breaks her agreement with her Icelandic partners, accuses them falsely of having abused her, and has them all murdered. When her weak-willed husband refuses to kill the women in the Norwegian's crew, Freydis does it herself: "Give me an axe," she famously says.

Freydis is "the epitome of evil," says scholar Robert Kellogg; "a woman of treacherous deceit," adds Judy Quinn. Her wickedness is unmotivated--except by her greed. "She stands for the other great anxiety: the disruptive power of sex," notes Michael Pye. She "represents the bad old days, the heathen past," writes Judith Jesch, "that, according to the author, is now mercifully replaced by the light of Christianity."

She is "an entirely fictional figure invented to act as a foil to the pious Gudrid," concludes Perkins.

How Perkins reached that conclusion--with which I wholeheartedly agree--is a good lesson in how to tell fact from fiction in an Icelandic saga.

First, look at the genealogies: Unlike Gudrid, Freydis has no long list of descendants in the vast saga genealogies. If she truly was the sword-wielding pregnant woman who fled from the Skraelings, her child is never named or mentioned again. We know nothing about the family she married into, either.

Second, look at geography: The account of Freydis's voyage to Vinland adds nothing to our understanding of where exactly Vinland is or how to get to it. Instead, it seems to be based on a different disastrous voyage to Greenland that ended in murder and feud.

Third, look at the repercussions: For Freydis and her husband, there are none. No revenge is taken for the murders; no feud arises. Her actions have no effect. After she returns to Greenland, we hear only that Leif Eiriksson was displeased and "no one thought anything but ill of her." She certainly didn't accompany Leif to England, as in the "Vikings: Valhalla" show.

Says Perkins, "On the whole, then, it seems unlikely that either Freydis Eiriksdotttir or [her husband] Thorvardr ever existed in reality and it is therefore equally unlikely that they took part in any expeditions to North America."

Which does not mean that this lusty, greedy, haughty, adventurous woman with an axe--and maybe a sword--has not continued to inspire readers and writers for a thousand years. Why do we so like Vikings--even the evil ones? As Sofie Vanherpen writes, "Now, more than ever, we need heroes. We need fearless men and women, who are larger than life."

For more on my latest book, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the related posts on this blog (click here) or my page at

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.


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