Family over Future


There are many descriptions of Vikings written around the year 1000. Perhaps the mildest of them described the fearsome Norsemen as violent and impulsive. Most use very graphic and negative terms, which are used today to describe psychopaths and worse. Basically, the Vikings’ main pursuit for over two centuries was raiding, plundering, and taking over other people’s lands. The land stealing becomes more understandable if you consider the poor, rocky soil and frigid weather that dominates Scandinavia. So it took a real effort to stand out among the Vikings as being the most violent of them all. But one Viking was just that, and he was banished twice, until he ended up living at the far western edge of the entire European world. This Viking was called Eric the Bloody. Eric the Red is the more tempered translation, which is suitable for consumption by schoolchildren. Eric the Bloody managed to get himself banned to remote Iceland and then from all but a corner of that small island. But even after killing several neighbors in what should have been easily settled disputes over boundaries, the man had enough charisma to gather a group of followers and lead them even farther west. They settled on an island he called, more for good PR than reality, Greenland. The name stuck.

The settlement had Eric the Bloody as the acknowledged leader so at least there, no one could banish him again. The settlement thrived for a while, and Eric raised two children. These were Leif, called for obvious reasons Ericson, and Freydis Eiriksdottir (Eric’s daughter). Leif too was a leader and explorer. When old enough, he gathered a crew and sailed west again. It is likely Leif had heard accounts of a rich land to the west from native traders and fishermen. And after a surprisingly short sail, the Viking party landed on what must have seemed a verdant landscape after frozen Greenland. Leif named it Vinland, the fertile land.

As was the Viking habit, they decided to take the land where they had arrived as their own. Leif’s followers showed this by laying out a town and building stone houses. This upset the local peoples, who eventually attacked the settlement. They drove the small party back to their ships. The season was late so they returned to Greenland. This is when we first hear about Freydis, whose rage changed history. At this point she is a hero—well, heroine—fighting in the rear guard and helping hold back the far more numerous Native Americans until the boats could be launched. Women, particularly the daughters of higher-class Vikings were trained to use weapons. Since the men of a village might be away for weeks at a time raiding, this was almost a necessity.

Not long after his two children returned from Vinland, Eric the Bloody died. Leif took over as ruler of Greenland. He no longer could take the time to go exploring. But Vinland was not forgotten and another, stronger expedition formed to return there. There were more ships sailing west this time, and the way was known. They may have started together, but the ships sailed at different speeds, and some arrived sooner than others. Unfortunately for two families, their ship arrived earlier than the one Freydis was on. There was another Viking tradition. In abandoned lands, the first to arrive got to take their pick of the houses. Normally, those would be Saxon or British homes from which the owners fled, but the rule was applied to Vinland as well.

So when Freydis arrived at the site where she had been a hero, there was a problem. She was the daughter and sister of the king and hero of the retreat. Evidently, Freydis had her heart set on taking the largest and, most likely, best-made of the stone houses. But the two families who had arrived earlier had already moved into the one she had chosen. So Freydis ordered them out. They said no. The law was on their side. There was likely a real confrontation and many unfortunate things were said. It ended with Freydis, and possibly her personal guards, killing the two men who had moved in first.

This was not good, but seemingly within acceptable limits for the daughter of Eric the Bloody in 1001. Remember, this was a violent culture and her brother was king. But then Freydis didn’t stop. She ordered those with her to also slaughter the wives and children of the two men. When they refused to do this, she grabbed an ax and did the deed herself. It was a rage truly in the tradition of her father. The murder of women and children was also highly unlawful, even among the Vikings.

The colony was not off to a good start. By fall, perhaps by plan, everyone returned to Greenland. This put Freydis’ brother, who was also her king, in a bad position. By law, she was a murderer. Like most highly armed cultures, the Vikings took the law very seriously. Killing men was one thing, but killing the rest of their families was too much. There were never enough Vikings, and mothers and children were highly valued. He should have executed her, but if he did, there was another complication. To avoid a serious shortage of siblings in such an ambitious and violent culture, there were strict laws about killing off anyone in your own family as well. Whatever Leif did, he was going to break a law. If he broke the law, there was a good chance he would be ousted as king. So he chose instead a compromise. Freydis was banned from Greenland. Then he ordered that the colony was never to be returned to or even spoken of. The entire incident was hushed up.

The Vikings never did return to Vinland. It was five centuries later when Europe again “discovered” the Americas. How different this world would have been if the Norsemen had settled and stayed. The Native Americans most likely would have absorbed European technology and culture in smaller doses. Without rifles and cannons, there was no way for just a few Europeans to be able to come to dominate or destroy the native cultures on two continents. At the very least, northern Europe, not Spain, would have benefited from the wealth of the new continent. The world of today became a far different place, all because a thousand years ago Freydis flew into a rage.

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