In Which I Unleash My Inner Viking & Discover a New Ancestor

A sign from Reykjavik (Bob Sessions photo)

A sign from Reykjavik (Bob Sessions photo)

The picture at left (a sign we saw in Reykjavik) begs the question: why in the world would one want to unleash one’s inner Viking? They were, after all, the feared Northmen who plundered and raided the coastlines of Europe for hundreds of years, beginning with the sack of the English monastery of Lindisfarne in 793.

I knew the reputation of these bad boys on my family tree before visiting Iceland. But while I was there I visited a number of sites that helped give a more nuanced interpretation of the Viking Age, including the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition at the Reykjavik City Museum, the Saga Museum, and Viking World. While I’m not quite ready to buy the entire Vikings-Were-Just-Misunderstood-Farmers explanation, I was happy to learn that my ancestors weren’t an entirely blood-thirsty lot.

Viking-friendly historians point out, for example, that these Norsemen lived in a violent age, and that Europe had plenty of marauding groups that rivaled them for ferocity. What’s more, many Norsemen put their seafaring skills to use as merchants, traders and explorers.

Leif the Lucky and me in Reykjavik (photo by Bob Sessions)

Leif the Lucky and me in Reykjavik (photo by Bob Sessions)

Exhibit A is Leif Erikson. He was dubbed Leif the Lucky because things just seemed to go his way-—including landing on the shore of North America somewhat by accident around the year 1000. Leif dubbed the region Vinland (historians can’t agree on exactly where he landed, but a good guess is somewhere on the coast of what is now Canada). He was said to be a handsome, wise and generous man, just the sort of person one wants to have in the family gene pool. I was happy to have my picture taken with him in Reykjavik, where there’s a mammoth statue of him overlooking the city.

It was another statue that caught me by surprise. As we were driving along a deserted stretch of highway on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we came upon a monument honoring Leif’s sister-in-law, Gudrid.

Gudrid was born on a farm near the statue, but she certainly didn’t stay there for long. As you can see from the map below that depicts her travels, Gudrid had the Viking wanderlust something fierce. She lived in Iceland and Greenland before traveling to Vinland, where she gave birth to the first child of European origin in the New World. Three years later, she traveled to Norway, then back to Iceland, where she settled on a farm and raised two sons on her own after her second husband’s death. Then, at an age when most women were settling into old age, she sailed to Denmark and walked on pilgrimage to Rome.

A sign at Gudrid’s statue on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula depicts the many journeys she took. (photo by Bob Sessions)

A sign at Gudrid’s statue on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula depicts the many journeys she took. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Let me repeat that: She walked on pilgrimage to Rome. Isn’t that amazing? Historians say Gudrid was probably the most well-traveled woman of the Middle Ages. She crossed the stormy Atlantic no less than eight times. She straddled the Old World and the New and the shift between the pagan and Christian eras. She’s lauded in the Sagas as “Gudrid the Far-Traveler,” a woman renowned for her courage, wisdom and goodness. To this day, most Icelanders proudly claim descent from her.

Forget Leif Erikson––after learning about Gudrid, I want to change my name to Lori Gudridsdóttir.

Nancy Marie Brown’s book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman gives more background on this remarkable woman. Gudrid lived during the era when beliefs in the Norse gods and goddesses were being supplanted by Christianity, but there was still considerable blending of the two traditions. Images of Christ from the period, for example, have a lot in common with muscular Thor.

Brown writes that Christianity was likely adopted first by women in Iceland. While Viking women (freeborn ones, at least) enjoyed considerable status in pagan society, the new religion brought additional benefits. Infanticide–-which historically was done more to girl babies–-was outlawed. Distinctions between social classes were lessened among converts. But the biggest attraction concerned the afterlife.  “Valhalla, the glorious feast hall of Odin, was open only to men killed in battle,” writes Brown. “Several other gods had halls that welcomed certain dead, but most women . . . could look forward only to a cold, damp, dark, dreary and depressing eternity ruled by Hel, the half-giant daughter of Loki.”

To me the most surprising chapter of Gudrid’s life was her pilgrimage to Rome. Think of it: her husband was dead, her children grown. I can see her standing on the shore of the sea, pondering her future of settled domesticity. I’m sure there was religious devotion in her decision to go on pilgrimage, but I think she also was restless for another big trip. Her feet were itching. She who had traveled so far knew that there was one last journey in her.

And think of what she experienced, this woman who had lived only in remote outposts of the Atlantic. She walked across the Alps, saw huge cities, toured gilded cathedrals, and shopped in markets filled with exotic treasures from around the world.

When Gudrid returned home, she became a nun, living out the rest of her days in a church her son built for her. I’m sure she was devout, but I also think she must have spent a lot of time savoring in her mind all that she had seen.

A statue of Gudrid and her son Snorri stands near the farm where she was born in the latter part of the 900s. (photo by Bob Sessions)

A statue of Gudrid and her son Snorri stands near the farm where she was born in the latter part of the 900s. (photo by Bob Sessions)

(About the only thing Gudrid did that I don’t approve of was naming her first son Snorri. If you look at the picture of her statue at right, you can see what happens when you name your son Snorri: everybody thinks he’s a dwarf.)

Isn’t life wonderful? I came to Iceland eager to learn more about Leif Erikson, but to my delight I found an ancestor I claim even more enthusiastically.

Gudrid’s story helped me realize that there seems to be a recessive gene for travel in my family. The Vikings had it in spades, but through the centuries it became diluted. By the time it reached my farming ancestors in Iowa, it had pretty much dwindled out. My parents, wonderful people in all other ways, viewed travel with the deepest suspicion. Even a trip to a seemingly friendly state like Wisconsin or Minnesota held multiple risks—uncomfortable beds, unfamiliar roads, the prospect of getting lost, restaurants where you didn’t know exactly what to order. Best just to stay home.

For whatever reason, however, I got the traveling gene. It explains the route I’ve followed ever since leaving the farm of my childhood, the restlessness I feel whenever I’m home for more than a few weeks, and the sense I have of being most fully alive when I’m on a trip.

So here’s what I learned in Iceland, the insight that turned my trip into a pilgrimage (for the best journeys teach us about ourselves as well as other places). I know that for most of my life, I’ve felt like a chick that was put into the wrong nest at birth. But in Iceland, I discovered that my clan includes a lot of people like me. Some were Vikings, setting off in longboats to raid distant shores. Some were adventurers like Leif the Lucky. And some were like Gudrid the Far-Traveler, who seemed to have taken nearly every opportunity she had to set off to sea. I can recognize a kindred spirit when I see one, even from a distance of 1,000 years.

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