Freydis Eiriksdottir came from a family of adventurers and explorers. Her father was Eirik the Red, the man who spearheaded the Nordic settlement of Greenland around 985 or 986. Besides Freydis, Eirik the Red had three other known children, all sons—Leif, Thorvald and Thorstein. Each of Eirik’s children shared their father’s wanderlust and longing for adventure. Leif Eiriksson was the first known European to step foot on North American soil, doing so around the year 999 or 1000, and he named the land where he disembarked Vinland. Over the next decade, several more expeditions for Vinland would be launched from Greenland, and Eirik the Red’s children were said to have been involved in all of them. Leif’s brothers, Thorvald and Thorstein would attempt to repeat their sibling’s feat in separate expeditions. Thorvald Eiriksson was said to have succeeded in reaching North America, but reportedly died in a clash with natives. Thorstein Eiriksson, when it was his turn, apparently got lost during the journey and never reached North America. He had to turn back to Greenland, where he died of disease before he could try again. Freydis, like her brothers, would also attempt to reach North America. She would prove to be much more successful than her brother Thorstein, reportedly reaching North America in one or two expeditions.
The little that we know about Freydis Eiriksdottir comes from oral history preserved in two 13th-century sagas: the Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga. Freydis made an appearance in both of the sagas and comes across as a tough and fearsome woman that no one would want to cross. The independent sagas, which can be conflicting in some places and complimentary in others, focus on different voyages in which Freydis was said to have participated, and feature different feats that she was said to have accomplished.
As told by the Saga of Eirik the Red, Freydis Eirikssdottir and her husband, Thorvald, joined a voyage led by Thorfinn Karlsefni. It was a three-year experience, dated to 1003-1006 or 1007-1009, in which the Norsemen settled and traded with the natives. The peaceful relationship between the locals and the Nordic explorers, however, was said to have eventually deteriorated into hostility, ultimately leading to a battle. In the version presented by the Saga of the Greenlanders, Thorfinn Karlsefni won the battle with psychological warfare and masterful strategy, making no mention of Freydis. According to Eirik the Red’s Saga, however, Thorfinn’s strategies failed and Freydis Eiriksdottir (described as being pregnant at the time) had to step up and rally the troops to save the day. She reportedly turned the tide of battle in a most unorthodox way—heavily pregnant, she supposedly scooped up a sword, waddled to the front line, stared down the natives and, “Freeing one of her breasts from her shift, she smacked the sword with it” (Eirik the Red’s Saga, chapter 11). This act of rattling her sword against her breasts as if they were a shield apparently scared off the native warriors and won the day for Thorfinn Karlsefni’s army. After the battle, the Norsemen decided that North America was too hostile for their liking and they returned to Greenland.
According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Freydis would venture one last time across the ocean. As the story goes, she partnered with a pair of brothers named Helgi and Finnbogi to lead an expedition of about 65 or more people to North America. The voyage, dated to around 1010-1011, was said to have been a disaster. When the Norsemen arrived in North America, the leaders argued over the choicest spots on the campground. As they were said to have conveniently anchored at Leif Eiriksson’s former landing site, everyone wanted to stay in the preexisting dwelling built by Leif. The brothers Helgi and Finnbogi apparently tried to claim that structure for themselves, but Freydis kicked them out and occupied the building herself, stating that it was her brother’s property and that they would need to build their own house. Helgi and Finnbogi did reportedly build their own shelter, and the members of the expedition divided themselves between Freydis’ followers and those of the brothers. Although the separate households got along for a while, relations between the two factions of Norsemen ultimately became quite heated. In the end, Freydis Eiriksdottir was said to have tired of both Vinland and her rival expedition leaders. As the story goes, she rallied her own followers around herself, carried out a massacre of Helgi and Finnbogi’s camp, and then set sail back to Greenland after stockpiling her ship (and that of the late brothers) with goods from Vinland. Upon Freydis’ return to Greenland, news of the massacre earned her universal condemnation, but, other than that, she was said to have lived happily ever after.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Lagertha by Morris Meredith Williams (1881-1973), [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.