The sagas suggest she settled in Newfoundland and eventually made eight crossings of the North Atlantic Sea.
More than 1,000 years ago, a woman named Gudrid sailed off the edge of the map with her husband and a small crew, landing in what the Vikings called Vinland and what is now Canada. She lived in and explored Newfoundland and the surrounding environs for three years, bearing a son before returning home to Iceland. Ultimately, she made eight crossings of the North Atlantic Sea and traveled farther than any other Viking, from North America to Scandinavia to Rome—or so the Viking sagas claim.
But did Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, the “far traveler,” really exist? And, if so, did she really set foot in the Americas 500 years before Christopher Columbus?
Definitive answers to these questions will remain out of reach unless physical evidence or more reliable documentation emerges—highly unlikely scenarios. Still, says Nancy Marie Brown, author of the 2007 biography The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, Gudrid’s story suggests that “Viking women were as courageous and as adventurous as Viking men and that there were far fewer limitations on the life of a woman in those times than we may think.”
What the Sagas Say About Gudrid
Gudrid’s name appears in two Viking sagas: specifically, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eirik the Red, known collectively as the Vinland sagas. Her story differs slightly between the two accounts. In Greenlanders, Gudrid is poor and ends up shipwrecked on her way to Greenland. In Eirik the Red, she’s wealthy and survives a harsh Greenland winter before traveling to Vinland. Each saga is like a giant, centuries-old game of telephone. Sometimes it’s a harsh winter. Sometimes it’s a shipwreck. But regardless of which saga one reads, certain elements of Gudrid’s story remain the same.
In both chronicles, Gudrid is born in Iceland sometime in the late tenth century. When she’s around 15 years old, she travels with her father, Thorbjorn, to Greenland, where Thorbjorn’s trouble-making friend Eirik is busy setting up a new Viking settlement.
While there, Gudrid marries Eirik’s younger son, Thorstein. (You might know Thorstein’s older brother, Leif Erikson, as the first European to set foot in North America.) Following in Leif’s footsteps, Thorstein also sets sail for this strange New World, perhaps with his young bride in tow if Greenlanders is to be believed. In both sagas, Thorstein fails to make it to Vinland—literally “wine land,” the Vikings’ name for the evergreen peninsulas they encountered in North America. He and Gudrid, if she was indeed with him, manage to return to Greenland just before winter sets in.
That winter is a harsh one, and one by one, the people around Gudrid start dying. Thorstein is among the deceased, but his ghost—one of many to visit the living in both sagas—lingers long enough to suggest “that her destiny [will] be a great one.” Now widowed, she returns to the main Greenland settlement.
As a 17-year-old widow, Gudrid could’ve chosen where to live and whom, if anyone, she would wed next. Both sagas report that she decides to marry the Icelandic merchant Thorfinn Karlsefni, whose nickname means “the makings of a man.”
Gudrid sails to the New World with Thorfinn. There, they have a son, Snorri, and after three years, sail back home. Though one saga has the young family taking a detour to Norway, both accounts ultimately find Gudrid back in Iceland at a farm called Glaumbaer.
It’s only in Greenlanders that we hear what happens to Gudrid next. Now a much older woman, somewhere in her 40s or 50s, she embarks on a pilgrimage to Rome, making the journey almost entirely on foot before returning to her farm to live out her days as a “nun and recluse.” (Scholars aren’t entirely sure what being a Viking nun looked like in the early 11th century, as Brown points out in her biography of Gudrid.)
The Gudrid presented in both sagas is dignified and sensible. In Eirik, she’s the “fairest of women” and has a lovely singing voice. In Greenlanders, she’s described as knowing “well how to carry herself among strangers”—a reference to a later scene in which she speaks to an Indigenous North American woman.
Can the Sagas Be Trusted?
Can contemporary observers trust the sagas? These accounts, after all, include ghosts, dragons, witches and all sorts of clearly fictional events. But historians also know that the sagas contain the names of real people, including Viking kings and queens. They tell of real battles, real settlements and real cities. As scholar Lars Lonnroth writes, “[The sagas] all claim to present some kind of truth,” though that truth has to be parsed out from the tales of trolls.