Monday, November 5, 2012

Lady Pirates: The Viking Grande Dame

Aud the Deep-Minded, whose name is spelled Unn by some chroniclers, is a curious case. While her life and times are pretty well known, particularly in Iceland where she is considered a founding mother, she has become a bit of a political football among modern historians. Finding pagan heroines is a particular delight among late 20th century feminist scholars, and Aud is the darling of many. The fact that her mother, Yngvid or Ingvid Ketilsdotter was of Celtic descent and a Christian is basically overlooked by those who put forward the pagan Aud. It seems that many of these historians are trying to explain Aud's "freedom" as a Viking leader by making her pagan. This is a large leap that overlooks quite a few things about the early Church and, in particular, Celtic Christianity. To my mind the issue is neither here nor there. Aud was clearly a strong-minded, resiliant woman who lived through treachery and tragedy and came out on top.

Born in Scotland's Outer Hebrides in 855, Aud was the daughter of a powerful Viking chief who spent his life annexing parts of mainland Scotland to his kingdom. At a young age, Aud was married to another Viking chief in what might have been her mother's native country, Ireland. Olaf the White was ruler of Dublin when he and Aud celebrated their nuptials. They had a son, Thorstein the Red, and Olaf, much like Aud's own father, spent his days conquering native tribes. According to Vicki Leon in Uppity Women of Medieval Times, Olaf and Aud nulified their marriage by mutual agreement. Other historians claim Olaf met his end in battle. Either way, Aud returned to her parent's home bringing young Thorstein with her.

The middle portion of Aud's life was quiet and seemingly blissful. She raised Thorstein who eventually took over his grandfather's holdings. She settled into the role of wise woman, mother-in-law and eventually grandmother to Thorstein's brood of eight or so children. But tragedy struck when Thorstein's subordinates fomented a rebellion. The Red Chief was assassinated and Aud took her daughter-in-law, grandchildren and a small band of loyal vassals to a secluded long house by the North Sea. Here, while continuing to pay tribute to her son's murderers, Aud quietly built a small fleet of viking ships in secret.

Only one ship was completed before the threat from the new chiefs of the area became overwhelming. Aud packed up her family and considerable wealth and set out for the Orkneys.

It seems that Aud's family was well connected and most probably distantly related to many of the Viking chiefs in the area. At her first stop, Aud negotiated a marriage for one of her granddaughters, Groa or Grainne, to the son of a chieftain. Not satisfied with the area as a potential settlement, Aud - who was unquestionably in command of not only her ship but the entire expedition - moved on to the Faroe Islands. Here, another granddaughter's marriage was arranged to another chieftain's son. All the same, Aud was not ready to settle in. She set her sights on a place where her growing band could spread out: Iceland.

The group was growing, curiously enough, because along the way Aud's ship was making raids on coastal towns. Taking much needed provisions was a priority but Aud's men captured locals as well and particularly young men who could do heavy labor such as rowing aboard ship. These slaves, often called "bondsmen" in the Icelandic chronicles, would later found some of the great families of Iceland.

It appears that at least two of Aud's brothers had gone to Iceland either before or after the death of her father. Why one of them did not take over as chief but Aud's son did remains a question and may have something to do with a family dynamic that included a chief wife (Aud's mother?) and one or more concubines or "bondswomen". At any rate, Aud again seems to have headed toward a place where she had connections.

The cruise could not have been pleasant as the ship was packed with people, provisions and probably livestock as well. But it was by now a familiar trip for Vikings of both sexes, and Aud seems to have had no trouble getting her polyglot band to the land of ice. Aud's navigation skills were not up to the jagged coast; her ship ran aground on a reef not far from her brother's land and slowly sank into the frigid water.

Most of Aud's people and all of her grandchildren managed to get safely to shore - with or without the help of her brother Helgi, who was in no way thrilled to see his now elderly sister. Aud packed up her people and moved them to her other brother's domain where she announced that she would need a boat in order to claim her own lands. Icelandic tradition says that she did just that, spending weeks sailing around the coast and lighting huge bonfires on patches of land that she claimed as her own. When she was done she freed her "bondsmen" and parceled out the lands she claimed to each member of her expedition. Where her bonfires had once burned, Aud had stone crosses erected, some of which stand to this day.

While a flury of building and livestock raising ensued around her, Aud went back to being a wise woman and grandmother. She could not, it seems, give up matchmaking, however. Aud personally saw to the marriages of all her remaining grandchildren. She died, in fact, at the wedding of her youngest grandson. Well into her sixties when she passed, most say quietly in her sleep after drinking a good bit of ale, Aud left instructions that she be buried below the high tide line on the coast of Iceland. She was clearly a woman who loved the sea enough to want to be near it for eternity.

Header: A Viking woman's dress via Fossil Science; photograph by Annika Larsson


Timmy! said...

Wow, Aud was a tough old broad, Pauline... And according to the link in your post, "One of her descendants was Thorfinnur Karlsefni, who explored America for three years and tried to establish a Viking settlement there."


Pauline said...

She sure was, and what an exciting life she had... Maybe a little too exciting sometimes.

You have to like anyone whose name includes "Thor". :)

Isis said...

LOL I was looking at the picture a long time wondering thinking that she looks a lot like my friend Anna. Then I realized that it really is her...

Pauline said...

Oh Isis, that's funny. She was the only "authentic" Viking lady I could find and I hesitated a bit before just settling on her picture (don't want to step on any toes in my choice of images). At any rate, Anna looks great and reminds me of what Aud may have looked like.