Monday, 29 October 2012

Freydís Eiríksdóttir, Viking Warrior

A recent study of Viking burials in Britain showed that there were a lot more female Vikings in invasion forces than scholars have given credit for over the years.  In fact, it's now estimated that the invading forces to Britain may have been between 33-50% female.  The reason for this change of heart is that archeologists have started analysing the skeletons found in burials, as well as the grave goods, rather than judging gender on the grave goods only.  In the past, a burial with a brooch was thought to be female; with a sword, it was thought to be male; with both, it was a male burial with a female offering.  The new study shows that no, those were women with swords and brooches -- after all, what Viking warrior woman would go to settle somewhere without her sword and her jewelry?

Sure, that sounds like jest, but I find it hardly surprising in a lot of ways.  I know I can fight with a sword and shield; I also know that there's no way I'd want my other half to go off to colonise another country without me.  And dammit, I'd want my brooches and my sword, especially if the brooches were being used to hold my clothes on.  Which they were:

10th Century Woman's Oval Brooches found in Suffolk, England.  British Museum.  Viking Bling!

Revival clothing -- brooches in place!  (Link: )

So, back to Freydís Eiríksdóttir, one of a potentially more prevalent breed.  She was the daughter of Eric the Red and one of those colonists to go to Vinland -- that part of Canada that her brother, Lief Eiríksson, discovered.

She went out there in the early 11th Century with her husband.  The natives, called Skraelings in the Sagas, seemed to be interested in trade at first.  The Skraelings tolerated the Viking squatters and traded animal furs for strips of red fabric as the natives had no method of creating red fabric dyes at that time.  As the Viking settlers ran out of cloth, the natives still wanted to trade, but the Vikings had nothing left -- except cow's milk.

Cue the cultural misunderstanding that is lactose intolerance.  The Skraelings believed they'd been poisoned and this soured relations between the people for several years.  This became compounded by a bull escaping and roaring around the locality before the Vikings could get it back into it's pen.  The Skraelings ran, terrified by the monster and weren't seen for three weeks, when they returned in force.

 Although I'm fairly certain they didn't know about lactose intolerance during this time period, the saga of Erik the Red was written down between 1387 - 1394.  This is what it looks like -- The Flateyjarbók (The Flatley Book).

They rowed up the river, outnumbering the Vikings, brandishing their staves and howling.  The Vikings stood their ground.  They bared shields on the shoreline and prepared for battle.  However, the Skraelings had slings and pole weapons that flung projectiles that caused terrible damage and made terrifying noises when they struck the shore.  The Vikings had no reach; they were outnumbered and were fighting a battle on all sides.  They did the only sensible thing -- they tried to use geography.  They retreated, pulling the battle into "certain crags", creating a bottleneck and forcing fighting from only one or two positions and reducing enemy contact, despite being outnumbered.

Sadly, Freydís Eiríksdóttir was in the camp and heavily pregnant.  She couldn't keep up with the retreat.  As she saw the way the battle was retreating, she called out:

"Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon, I think I could fight better than any of you."  (Saga of Erik the Red)

She was left behind, so she tried to catch up to them through the woods.  All she found was the body of a fellow Viking, Thorbrand, with a stone lodged in his skull... but he'd been carrying a sword.  She grabbed the sword, stopped running and prepared to defend herself.  As the Skraelings came upon her, she let out a battle cry, bared her breast and struck it with the flat of the sword.  The Skraelings fled, likely terrified of the fierce, definitely female and definitely pregnant being in front of them.  I can't say I blame them as an armed, angry, topless pregnant Viking woman fighting for survival would be a truly terrifying opponent.

Freydís Eiríksdóttir:  Officially a better fighter than any of the chaps in the above picture from The Flatley Book.  Even though they weren't even in the same saga.

The Viking men came back after the Skraelings fled, praising her for her battle zeal, though I'm fairly sure she was thinking "what choice did I have?".  Two Vikings and four Skraelings died in the battle, which were certainly not the last deaths on either side.

After this point, Freydís was known for a level of bravery -- until more expeditions went out.  The second expedition had two boats, with one of them sinking in bad weather.  There was no loss of life; however, that meant there were two crews on one ship and half the provisions.  In a fit of cold logic, she ordered everyone on the first ship to kill everyone who'd been on the second.  They complied, but the men refused to kill unarmed women.  Of course, Freydís had no problem with that and cut the heads off the five women on the second boat.  Grim.  They reached land.  They fought the natives.  They left again.  The sagas do not state whether or not anyone starved to death; for that kind of sacrifice, you have to hope not.

She then led a third expedition herself, partnering up with two brothers and her husband.  She was pretty manipulative and made sure she and her husband got the bigger boat, as well as hiding five more men on her boat than she'd agreed with the brothers.  The brothers fell out with her to the point that two camps were formed once they'd reached Vinland.  She then swore that the brothers assaulted her, so the men of her camp attacked and killed everyone in the other camp, except, again, the men refused to kill unarmed women.  She and her axe saw to it that the women were killed.  She then bade that no one tell of what happened on their return home.

She allegedly lived to an old age, dying of natural causes; a rich outcast, but an outcast, nevertheless.  Now, I'm aware that this saga wasn't written with all the facts of each situation.  I'm aware that winners write the histories and the outcasts are never the winners.  I still can't help but hope that bad press is the major source for the last two paragraphs, but I doubt it is.  Why couldn't she stay the badass Viking warrior that took on the Skraelings whilst she was pregnant?   Then again, badass Viking warriors are rarely known for their mercy...

More Female Viking Invaders Than Previously Thought Sources here.
And here.
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