Thorstein Eiriksson was reportedly the only child of Eirik the Red to never reach North America. Thorstein’s brother, Leif Eiriksson, was the first known European to set foot in North America, doing so around the year 999, and he named his site of disembarkation Vinland; Thorvald Eiriksson also journeyed to Vinland and died of an arrow wound there; their sister, Freydis Eiriksdottir, reportedly made her own trip (or possibly trips) to those distant shores and lived to tell the tale. Although poor Thorstein was apparently the only child of Eirik the Red to not be a part of that exclusive Vinland club, perhaps he would be glad to know that oral history about his life was in no way boring, but instead produced an incredibly strange tale that surpassed the stories of all his kinsmen in weirdness. Thorstein makes an appearance in the Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga, both dating from the 13th century and based on oral tradition in Greenland and Iceland. Although the two sagas focus on the discovery and the discoverers of North America, Thorstein Eiriksson features in one of the most striking scenes included in both sagas, even though he never saw or stepped on North American soil. Unfortunately for Thorstein, it was his own death scene. Or, as may be guessed from the title of this article—his undeath.
According to the oral history preserved in the Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga, Thorstein Eiriksson attempted a journey to Vinland, but his crew got lost and had to turn back to Greenland before winter. He and his wife, Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, ended up spending the winter in the region of Lysufjord, either because they owned property (probably undeveloped) in the area, or their ship was simply stranded there by the winter weather. Whatever the case, Thorstein and Gudrid attempted to ride out the winter in the home of a hospitable couple. The man of this host household was named Thorstein the Black, while his wife was given the name Grimhild (in the Saga of the Greenlanders) or Sigrid (in Eirik the Red’s Saga). Staying with this host family would turn out to be a horrible decision for Thorstein Eiriksson and Gudrid, as an outbreak of disease in Lysufjord coincided with the onset of winter, and such conditions led to the deaths of many in the region.
That winter, the illness and death of a certain foreman named Gardi heralded the beginning of an epidemic. Before long, many were bedridden by the illness, including the hostess (Grimhild or Sigrid) of the estate where Thorstein Eiriksson and Gudrid were staying. Eiriksson, too, eventually caught the disease and was restricted to a sickbed. With half of the household sick, Gudrid and the host carried out all the tasks that needed to be done—Gudrid cared for the sick, while Thorstein the Black kept his distance, often fishing or gathering resources that they would need to survive the winter.
Despite Gudrid’s best efforts, she could not prevent the illness from taking its course. The hostess of the household was the first to die. Her husband, Thorstein the Black, reportedly left the body alone with his guests while he went outside to gather planks for a coffin, and to finish other chores, such as fishing. While the host was absent, Thorstein Eiriksson and Gudrid were said to have witnessed something truly nightmarish. According to the folklore preserved in the Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga, the corpse of Grimhild (or Sigrid) reanimated and became a draugr—a Norse zombie.
In the Saga of the Greenlanders, the draugr of the deceased woman posed little threat, and Thorstein Eiriksson, looking on from his sickbed, lightheartedly commented, “Strange are the actions of the mistress of the house now; she’s struggling to raise herself up on her elbow, stretching her feet out from the bedboards and feeling for her shoes” (chapter 5). In that particular telling of the tale, the zombie-mistress stopped moving as soon as Thorstein the Black returned to the home, his walking through the threshold of the house somehow ending her undeath. Eirik the Red’s Saga, however, presented a much more threatening, action-packed scene. In this alternative version of the story, poor Thorstein Eiriksson was again on his sickbed, looking at the body of Grimhild (or Sigrid), when the corpse reanimated and started to move. Whereas the previous story said that the draugr merely moved its limbs aimlessly, the story in Eirik the Red’s Saga instead claimed that the zombie was slowly and intimidatingly moving its way toward sick, immobilized Thorstein Eiriksson. He and his wife were so frightened that they could think of nothing better to do than shout for their host, who was somewhere outside. Thorstein the Black heard their call and came to the rescue, wielding an axe. According to Eirik the Red’s Saga, “When he entered she [the zombie] had reached the sideboards of the bed. He took hold of her and drove an axe into her breast” (chapter 6).
Not long after Grimhild or Sigrid’s death (and second death), Thorstein Eiriksson also succumbed to his illness. There must have been something special about that winter or that particular disease, for the body of Thorstein Eiriksson, too, was said to have reanimated as a zombie or draugr. Zombie-Thorstein was apparently a very polite, well-behaved creature, and therefore the axe-wielding host reportedly decided to let the creature live. In both sagas in which this tale occurs, the draugr merely wanted to speak to Gudrid. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, the reanimated corpse of Thorstein foretold the future for Gudrid, whereas Eirik the Red’s Saga claimed that the zombie begged for his body to be brought to a church so that it could be properly buried by a priest. After delivering its message, zombie-Thorstein apparently collapsed to the ground, once again fully dead.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Viking Age ship burning burial, drawn by Alexander Zick (1845–1907), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Vinland Sagas (Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga) translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.