The Vinland Sagas in a Contemporary Light

Gušrķšr Žorbjarnardóttir and the nunnery at Reynistašr

Gušrķšr Žorbjarnardóttir is a prominent figure in "Grœnlendinga saga" and this is even more the case in "Eirķks saga rauša’s" where she is effectively the principal character. Ólafur Halldórsson has argued persuasively that her origins and pre-history as set out in that saga are pure fabrication. In "Grœnlendinga saga" she arrives in Greenland almost out of the blue as the wife of Žórir, a shipwrecked Norwegian merchant (Olafur Halldórsson 1986:239-246). The available oral traditions may not have explained whether she originally came from Iceland or Norway. Yet even though her origins are not explained she is a central figure in the saga, along with her husband Žorfinnr karlsefni.

It is appropriate to ask why the two sagas pay so much attention to Gušrķšr. The most common explanation is that at the end of both works, as we have already noted, she is identified as the ancestor of three twelfth-century Icelandic bishops. But the same is true of Žorfinnr, who is also represented as an ancestor of the same bishops and who also figures prominently in "Grœnlendinga saga". The expansion of the role of Gušrķšr in "Eirķks saga rauša’s" is striking and requires further explanation. It seems to me that the foundation of a nunnery in Reynistašr in 1295 offers a way of accounting for this emphasis. At the end of his copy or redaction of Eirķks saga Haukr Erlendsson traces his own ancestry back to Gušrķšr and refers to Hallbera Žorsteinsdóttir, the abbess at Reynistašr, with whom he shared a common great-grandfather. He also traces her ancestry back to Gušrķšr (Hauksbók 1892-1896, 444; Sagorna, 81). It is worth reflecting on why Haukr did this; there must after all have been several other noble women at that time among Gušrķšr's many descendants. The answer may lie in the fact that, along with

Bishop Jörundr Žorsteinsson at Hólar, the wealthy Hallbera founded the Reynistašr nunnery and Haukr may well have viewed her as a kind of Gušrķšr figure, and seen Gušrķšr as her predecessor, so to speak, at Reynisnes (or Reynines). Like her, Hallbera was in charge at Reynisnes, which became known as Reynistašr. Others may also have noted the parallels between Hallbera and Gušrķšr, and this in turn could have led to the expansion of Gušrķšr's role in "Eirķks saga rauša’s". It seems to me perfectly plausible that "Eirķks saga rauša’s" could have been viewed as appropriate reading matter for the Benedictine nuns at Reynisnes and indeed as a guide for noble women generally. After all, according to the saga, Gušrišr was always Christian, behaved with great circumspection, and lived a thoroughly respectable and dignified life in a hazardous world. Though it has been suggested that "Eirķks saga rauša’s" was probably composed by someone familiar with Snęfellsnes in the west of Iceland, it seems possible that the saga's origins may lie further to the north in the foundation of the nunnery at Reynistašr.

Grœnlendinga saga maintains that Gušrķšr 'went south', by which is probably meant 'journeyed to Rome', and that in her old age she was both a nun and hermit at her home in Skagafjöršr. Puzzlingly, Eirķks saga rauša’s makes no mention of this. Moreover, Grœnlendinga saga states that Gušrķšr lived at Glaumbęr in Skagafjöršr, and not at Reynisnes where the nunnery was later built. […] It is true that the descendants of Žorfinnr and Gušrķšr did live in Reynisnes but the fine farm at Glaumbęr was not in the possession of that family, as far as we know. Glaumbęr is interesting in this connection since it only became a seat for chieftains in the 1280s. In the Sturlung Age a wealthy farmer lived there (Hallr Žorsteinsson in Sturlunga saga), but we have no indication that he was related to the chieftain families. By c. 1285, Hrafn Oddsson, the most important secular chieftain in Iceland, had made Glaumbęr into his residence and subsequently Hrafn Jónsson also lived there—he was almost certainly the grandson of Hrafn Oddsson. Hrafn Jónsson, known as Glaumbęjar-Hrafn, was obviously a force to be reckoned with; he was the leading figure in Skagafjöršr around 1315 (Biskupa sögur 111:162, 339, 340, 391, 394). It is tempting to see the reference in "Grœnlendinga saga" to Glaumbęr as an attempt to valorise the farm and flatter the residents. If "Grœnlendinga saga" is the older of the two sagas—as many scholars believe, for all the absence of conclusive evidence, as we have seen—it is possible to construct the following scenario: "Eiriks saga rauša" was written at the instigation of someone who felt that the foundation of the Reynisnes nunnery was a good reason to highlight the role of Gušrķšr, whose name could help to establish a prestigious pre-history for the new foundation and could also serve to promote the reputation of Abbess Hallbera, the founder. "Grœnlendinga saga" was later altered in the light of this: Reynisnes was replaced by Glaumbęr, and elements such as the church at Glaumbęr, Gušrķšr's becoming a nun, and her 'journeying south' were all added to the text.

"Eirķks saga rauša’s" radiant light prophecy relating to Gušrķšr has its counterpart in "Grœnlendinga saga" and is possibly based on the putative vita of Bishop Björn Gilsson. As Iceland's Nobel prize novelist Halldór Laxness once pointed out, this is the only monastic or clerical reference in "Grœnlendinga saga", and seems in keeping with the tone of "Eirķks saga rauša’s" (1969:46). The wording of the prophecies is similar: 'bjart folk' in "Grœnlendinga saga", and yfir ęttkvķslum žķnum mun skķna bjartur geisli' [over your descendants will shine a bright light] in "Eirķks saga rauša’s". This prophecy is obviously an important feature of Eirķks saga rauša’s; it is referred to twice, which may suggest that it featured in the original work. [...]


Hauksbók. 1892-1898. Eds Eirikur Jónsson and Finnur Jónsson, Hauksbók udgiven efter de arnamagnęanske håndskrifter no. 371, 544 og 675, 4° samt forskellige papirs-håndskrifter. Copenhagen: Kongelige Nordiske Oldskrift-selskab.

Olafur Halldórsson. 1978. Greenland ķ mišaldaritum. Reykjavik: Sögufélag. 1985. 'Formįli', Eiriks saga rauda. Texti Skįlholtsbókar AM 557 4 to, 333-400.

Olafur Halldórsson ed. Višauki viš Islenzk fornrit 4. Reykjavik: Hiš islenzka forn ritafélag. 1986. 'Lost tales of Gušrķšr Žorbjarnardóttir.' Sagnaskemmtun. Studies in Honour of Hermann Pįlsson. Ed. Rudolf Simek, Jónas Kristjįnsson, Hans Bekker-Nielsen. Wien: Hermann Bohlaus Nachf.

Source: Helgi Žorlįksson, "The Vinland Sagas in a Contemporary Light" in Approaches to Vķnland: A conference on the written and archaeological sources for the Norse settlements in the North-Atlantic region and exploration of America, Andrew Wawn and Žórunn Sigurđardóttir (Reykjavķk: Siguršur Nordal Institute, 2001), 67-69.

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