A reader is irked by Kottke’s nomination of Peter Freuchen as one of the most interesting men in the world:
It’s always men – and the women are neglected in history. Make a thread asking readers for candidates for the most interesting women.
He nominates the Icelandic explorer Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, who crossed the North Atlantic more than half a dozen times around the turn of the last millennium:
Her name is known from the Icelandic Sagas about Viking travels and colonization in America. She may have been the first European woman to have a child in America during the Viking attempt to build colonies there. Also she lived in Greenland. Later she became a Christian, traveling from Iceland to Rome, making her the most far-travelled woman of her age.
[Leif Eiriksson] discovered America 500 years before Columbus, which is why the official US holiday, Leif Eiriksson Day (October 9), comes before the official Columbus Day (October 12). But what happened next? Leif never went back. It was his sister-in-law who tried to settle the Vikings’ Vinland, or “Wine Land” …
Gudrid knew the killing force of the sea, of weeks at the mercy of the winds, of fog that froze on the rigging, when “hands blue with cold” was not a metaphor. She knew how fragile a Viking ship was. Sailing from Iceland to Greenland as a girl, she was shipwrecked, plucked off a rock by Leif, who thereby earned his nickname “the Lucky.”
Knowing the risks, Gudrid and her husband, Leif’s brother Thorstein, sailed west off the edge of the known world. They were “tossed about at sea all summer and couldn’t tell where they were,” says one of the medieval Icelandic Sagas. Just before winter, they reached a Viking farm near Greenland’s modern capital, Nuuk, a distance they could have rowed in six days.
That winter, Gudrid’s husband and crew died. Come spring, Gudrid ferried their bones south to Leif’s farm and buried them by the church. She remarried, to a rich Icelandic merchant called Karlsefni, and here’s the kicker: She set sail again. “Making a voyage to Vinland was all anyone talked about that winter,” says the saga. “They all kept urging Karlselfni to go, Gudrid as much as the others.”
When I tell people I’ve written a book about Vikings, they expect a pageant of bloody berserks, like the Sega Viking game “Battle for Asgard” or the Viking movie Last Battle Dreamer. “Viking,” you’d think, meant “man with a big axe.” But for me, the classic Viking is Gudrid the Far-Traveler.
(Photo by C.J. Moss)