My daughter, Finn, came home last week announcing her frustration with a historical research assignment her class had been given. It was on exploration to North America, and students could choose either Christopher Columbus or the Viking Leif Erikson. As Finn drawled out the men’s names, her eyes nearly rolled across the floor and out the window.
“Where are all the women?” she sighed.
“Oh, they’re there.” I replied, trying very hard to contain my excitement that was threatening to boil over. “So why don’t we do a little research on one, and ask your teacher if you can do your report on her instead?”
Finn’s eyes brightened, “Yes!” she finally smiled.
The proceeding tale is a light summary of our research, and, of course, not an exhaustive academic thesis. We thought that there may be some other students out there in the Grade 5 range, that might be looking for the women in similar curriculum class reports, and the cursory bits of information that we found are so interesting and exciting that we just had to share.
Freydís was an Icelandic Viking (Norsewoman) and the daughter of Erik the Red (father of Leif Erikson, who is credited as being the first European to discover North America. She was born around 970 AD, which is a great time period because there are a lot of Viking explorations going on, and some fun archeological finds for this time range that support the possibility of women warriors (shieldmaidens), and women being involved in Norse exploration and travel.
So, around 1000 AD, we have Leif Erikson gathering up some men and ships from a merchant, who had seen land (what’s now known as Newfoundland) a couple years earlier when he missed his stop to Greenland. Leif goes and checks it out, and then a little while later, his sister Freydís embarks on a journey to Vinland (Leif named the tip of Newfoundland “Vinland” because of its abundant wine grapes), and brought along men for her own exploration of this new land.
What gets interesting is that Freydís was heavily pregnant when she arrived in Vinland, which leads us to believe that she intended to settle there for at least some time. There is a great tale that comes from the Saga of Erik the Red, that details Freydís’ run in with the local First Nations population of Vinland. Now, my research is thin here (as are recordings of this tale), but there seems to be conflicting stories about how the relationship between the locals and Leif became strained when he first arrived, before Freydís. One version is that their other brother, Thorvald, had been the one to ruin the peace, when he turned unreasonably violent towards them, and was subsequently killed. Regardless, things were tense soon after Freydís arrived, and she and her men were surrounded and about to be attacked. Freydís scoffed at her cowardly men, pulled out a sword – heavily pregnant! – and basically screamed intimidating prose at the surrounding men, swung her sword around, and they all scattered terrified, leaving them alone.
We have another version of Freydís’ life on Vinland through the Greenlander Saga, which is much more negative, where she is consumed by greed and the search for fortune, and is involved with much slaughter and killing of anyone that gets in the way of her riches – however, it’s suspected that the Greenlander Saga version of events is tainted by Christian propaganda, and Freydís was used as an example of the dangers of paganism and not adhering to the Christian faith, which was spreading to much of these European explorers.
Although we hear little more about Freydís other than these two documents, there are plenty of other instances in history where we can find evidence of viking women fighting as warriors. My own academic research involves the Early Roman, Late Antique, and Byzantine periods, and a historian John Skylitzes mentions that in 971, a battle between the Byzantines and the Varangians, where the Byzantines were surprised to see that there were many fallen armed women amongst the killed warriors. Saxo Grammaticus is another early historian that records that in 750, that women battled on the side of the Danes in the Battle of Bravellir, as captains, not just as general armed soldiers.
A piece of information that I find the most thrilling is the recent discovery that Norse (Viking) migrants to European countries were comprised of more women than previously thought. In the past, researchers assumed that because of the way norse people were buried and the objects they were buried with, they could assume the sex of the deceased. However, the mistake was to assume! More recently, researchers have studied the DNA of these viking skeletons, and found that there were far more women than originally thought. They were finding female vikings not just in settlements, but from campaigning burials as well – which means women were fighting in their battles to claim territory.
I just love the fact that historically, researchers were assuming that because many of the burial sites had skeletons buried with knives, swords, or battle garments, that they had to be male. But ha! in your face, the osteological proof is that some of these warriors were also female.
So there you have it. The result of Finn and I’s research is that she has been allowed to write her report on Freydís, and at the very least, she and her classmates now know about a badass viking woman that is part of their knowledge of exploration to North America as well.
If you have any insight, comments, or interesting tidbits to share on this story or other research possibilities, I’d love to hear!
Links to a few articles, books:
Top image from the tv show The Vikings.