In celebration of International Women’s Day, I want to make mention of one of my favorite Viking women—Unn the Deep-Minded.
Unn’s story is told in the Laxdaela Saga, one of the Sagas of the Icelanders, stories written down in the 13th and 14th centuries detailing accounts of the lives of certain Icelandic families living in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Unn’s father, Ketil Flatnose married her to Olaf the White, who was the King of Dublin in the 850’s. They had a son Thorstein the Red, who we will meet later.
Ketil Flatnose had to flee Norway after Harald Finehair became the king as there was much bad blood between them and Ketil was sure that Harald meant to kill him and all his sons off one by one. Flatnose then traveled to Scotland where he was well received by the men of rank there and they offered him to settle wherever he wanted.
Flatnose and his kin (including Unn, whose husband was dead by then) settled in Scotland, all except Thorstein the Red, Unn’s son. Thorstein raided Scotland and became a scourge to the Scots as he was quite successful with his raiding. He eventually made peace with the Scots but they betrayed him and killed him.
Back to Unn…when her son Thorstein was killed she was living in Caithness. When she heard that her son had been killed, she figured her prospects for living in Scotland were pretty dim. Her father had also died by this time.
Unn, crafty and smart, hid in the forest in Caithness and had a knarr (a Viking ship) built in secret. Once the ship was built and the winter over, she gathered all her kinsmen and their combined, and considerable, wealth, and escaped from Scotland. No one was the wiser!
They first went to the Orkneys and stayed for a while, and Unn married her granddaughter to a wealthy earl. According to the saga all of the earls of Orkney were descended from Unn’s granddaughter and her husband. After the Orkneys, Unn and her band traveled to the Faroe Islands where she married another granddaughter to an earl there.
Unn was a busy woman and her legacy flowered in all of the Viking establishments!
Her final destination—Iceland, where two of her brothers lived. She met one brother who treated her stingily (which she did not appreciate!) so headed off to stay with her other brother. He treated her well, so she wintered with him.
From there she sailed around Iceland claiming much land as her own, finally settling in Hvamm. Once settled, Unn was very generous! She told her followers, “for your services you will be rewarded; we have now no lack of means to repay you for your efforts and your loyalty.” She freed her slaves (most wealthy Vikings had slaves) and gave them land too.
When her grandson married in Iceland, Unn hosted a huge wedding feast for him. Everyone who attended marveled at its magnificence. As the evening progressed, Unn, who was an old woman, grew tired and retired to her bed. In the morning her grandson found her dead.
Unn had died, “sitting upright among the pillows,” and everyone at the feast was impressed at how well Unn had kept her dignity, even in death.
I love Unn’s story. Her perseverance, strength of character, bravery, intelligence, dignity, and generosity. We don’t hear much about Viking women, but Unn is a wonderful example of the fortitude of women in the Viking age.