Was Freydís Eiríksdóttir a hero or a deranged murderess?
Freydís Eiríksdóttir appears in two Icelandic sagas, once as saviour and once as villain – and despite that, she may not have even existed. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir considers what we know (and don’t know) about the Viking-era explorer who appears in new Netlflix series Viking's Valhalla
Freydís Eiríksdóttir is an unforgettable female character who appears in two sagas written in medieval Iceland, the so-called Vinland sagas. Both recount stories that are a blend of history and legend about the Viking settlement of Iceland and then Greenland, before moving on to narrating the tale of a group of Norse explorers who set off from Greenland.
Their destination is a newly discovered place called Vinland, rumoured to be a wonderful land with vines and self-sown fields of wheat – and now suspected to be North America. Scholars agree that the Vikings reached that continent in c1000 – making them the earliest Europeans to do so – and since Freydís is supposed to be a young woman at the time of these voyages, she would have been born in approximately the 970s.
Freydís is counted among the explorers in both sagas, but each gives a different account of her. In one, she is heavily pregnant and scares off a group of attackers by waving a sword at them. In the other, she manipulative and ruthless, murdering a group of defenceless women in cold blood. Freydís behaves in astonishing ways in both stories, but whether presented in a positive or negative light, her steely nature is common to both narratives.
Freydís Eiríksdóttir in Eirik the Red’s Saga
The more famous of the two sagas is Eirik the Red’s Saga, named after Freydís’s father, the Viking Eirik ‘the Red’. According to this saga, Eirik escaped from Norway to Iceland because of the unlawful killings he committed, later moving to Greenland for the same reason.
Freydís is introduced as the illegitimate daughter of Eirik by an unnamed mother, whereas her brother Leif Erikson – Leif ‘the Lucky’ – is the son of Eirik’s wife Thjódhild. It was not unheard of for Viking men to hav
e more than one female partner. But as the daughter of someone who was probably a servant or enslaved, this signals that Freydís’s social status was lower than her brother’s.
Moreover, Leif is the captain of a Viking ship and is said to have spent time in the retinue of King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, a mark of great distinction. In contrast, Freydís receives no description of her personal qualities or achievements.
In Vinland, the Norse explorers soon encounter the land’s native inhabitants, referred to as ‘skrælings’ in the saga. Despite peaceful interactions at the beginning, relations become less friendly and eventually, the explorers must escape from an attack in which several of them are killed. Freydís runs more slowly than everyone else because of her pregnancy, and when she has fallen behind the rest of the group, she sees no option remaining but to defend herself.
She picks up the sword of one of the slain Vikings and brandishes it at the attackers, then slapping it on her naked breast. This sight makes such an impression on the skrælings that they turn around and leave, and Freydís manages to get away. We hear no more of her, but we are told that the group makes it safely back to Greenland. Eirik the Red’s Saga thus gives a sympathetic account of Freydís. It conveys her vulnerability as a mother-to-be and her extraordinary bravery despite her lowly status.
Listen: Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir explores what everyday life was like for women in Norse society, the opportunities available to them and the challenges they faced on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
Freydís Eiríksdóttir in The Saga of the Greenlanders
Freydís is rather less palatable in The Saga of the Greenlanders, another version of the journey to Vinland. Here, she is active in the planning and decision-making for the expedition and more of a doer than in the other saga.
She and a pair of brothers she teams up with agree to bring the same number of participants on the journey, and to divide whatever resources they acquire equally. However, Freydís stealthily brings five more people than agreed, so she has a larger force than her partners.
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The group sets up a camp in Vinland, but in this version, the situation deteriorates because of mutual suspicion and in-fighting rather than an external threat. One morning, at Freydís’s behest, her crew shamefully ambush, tie up and kill the men in the other group.
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Only a small number of women remain alive, but the men draw the line at murdering them. After upbraiding them for their lack of manliness, Freydís takes an axe and butchers the women herself, a merciless act that has no parallel in Old Norse texts.
As in Eirik the Red’s Saga, the group makes it back to Greenland with their spoils, but although Freydís bribes her crew to keep quiet, the word gets out about these horrific killings, and she ends up a social outcast.
How much truth is there in the Vinland sagas?
These sagas were written in the 13th century, more than 200 years after the events they narrate are supposed to have happened. By the time of writing, the story of Viking expeditions to unknown lands beyond Greenland in c1000 had been filtered through much time and geographical distance. However, they probably contain some kernel of truth.
Archaeological digs in the 1960s revealed that the Norse had managed to travel to America, setting up a camp in L’Anse aux Meadows (as it is called now) at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. That means that even though the saga authors exaggerated the land’s qualities, these narratives must contain some distant memories of such expeditions.
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The interactions with the native inhabitants of this place – first tentatively friendly but then descending into fear and violence – seem plausible. Either the hostility of the native population or a break-down in internal relations may be the real reason a Norse presence in North America never became permanent.
It is also fairly certain that women were a part of these expeditions, just as the sagas describe. Textile equipment including a spindle whorl was found at the site in L’Anse aux Meadows, and we know that women usually did the textile work in Norse society. Some of them would have been pregnant or nursing infants on these journeys.
Did Freydís Eiríksdóttir exist?
Some characters in the Icelandic sagas may have lived in reality while others were undoubtedly created by skilled saga authors. Unfortunately, there is often no way of finding out, and that is the case for Freydís Eiríksdóttir.
Apart from these sagas, which are far removed in time and space from the people they feature, there is no other independent evidence to corroborate her existence. Saga authors may have put someone like Freydís into their story about Norse expeditions to add dramatic elements that they thought would improve it.
An expectant mother of low status shows remarkable bravery in the face of mortal danger? A female Viking goes on a killing spree on the frontier? Whatever happened in Newfoundland more than 1,000 years ago, one thing we know for certain is that the Norse storytellers knew how to add meat to their tales.
Freydís Eiríksdóttir in Vikings: Valhalla
Freydís is one of major characters in Netflix’s Vikings: Valhalla, the follow-up to Michael Hirst’s six-season epic Vikings.
Along with her brother Leif, Freydís finds herself in Norway in the aftermath of the St Brice’s Day Massacre – the purported slaughter of “all the Danish men in England” as ordered by King Aethelred II in 1002 – and they are quickly swept up in a tide of revenge that flows from its aftermath.
While the plot contrives to take Leif to England, Freydís remains in Scandinavia, where she becomes embroiled in the violent religious struggles between pagan Vikings and those who have converted to Christianity.
Those tensions were real, but Freydís’s journey is a fabrication – or at the very least, one that is impossible to verify. All we know of her comes from the Vinland sagas. If she even existed, there is no evidence that she journeyed to Scandinavia.
Dr Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir is a medievalist, specialising in Old Norse history, literature and manuscripts. She is the author of Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020), nominated for the Cundill History Prize