Who do you think you are? — Auðr djúpúðga

If an episode of “Who do you think you are?” was devoted to Auðr djúpúðga (‘deep-minded’), where would the journey lead to?

Who_Do_You_Think_You_Are-_(Irish_TV_series)

Despite her fame and popularity in literature, Auðr remains a bit of a mystery. We have very little historical information about her other than Íslendingabók (‘Book of Icelanders’) that was composed by the Icelandic historian Ari Þorgilsson, also known as Ari fróði (‘the learned’ or ‘the wise’), in the early twelfth century.

Auðr, dóttir Ketils flatnefs, hersis nórœns, byggði vestr í Breiðafirði; þaðan eru Breiðfirðingar komnir.[1]

Auðr, daughter of Ketill flatnose, a Norwegian lord, settled in the west in Breiðafjörður; from her the people of Breiðafjörður are descended.

From this small tome, we have the following information:

  • She was simply known as Auðr.
  • Her father was a man of great importance in Norway, which she called her homeland. Even though hersir (‘lord’) is a title only men could hold, it implies that Ketill’s children belonged to a higher social class in Norway.
  • According to Ari, she was one of the foremost first settlers of Iceland. She claimed land in the West of Iceland, a region known as Breiðafjörður.
  • Towards the end of the narrative, we are told that she was married to Óláfr hvíti (‘the white’) and together they had one son, Þorsteinn rauði (‘the red’).

But … should we take Ari’s information on Auðr at face value? After all, he was her eight-times-great-grandson. So, he might at least have been prepossessed in favor of Auðr. 

In the centuries to follow, these facts were elaborated on and developed into rich narratives that still hold our interest to this very day. In some of these stories, like for example Laxdæla saga, Auðr – known as Unnr here – is a magnificent matriarch who leads her family, followers and thralls to the safe shores of Iceland. In Laxdæla saga, she is buried in a ship in a mound, a burial fit for a pagan queen. In other sources such as Eiríks saga rauða, she is a devout Christian who says her daily prayers at Krosshólar (‘Crosshills’). It is in these later medieval sources that Auðr is attributed the nickname djúpúðga (‘deep-minded’), which later changes to djúpauðga (‘deeply-wealthy’).

From the sixteenth century onwards, these medieval stories in their turn served as sources of inspiration for new tales about Auðr, who were first transmitted orally and later written down on paper. Through these, a prayer attributed to her and a folk legend about Auðr warding off the evil influence of a woman called Gullbrá, even from beyond the grave, ‘survived’.

In the eighteenth century some of these narratives were put to print for the very first time. And through this new medium, Auðr’s was being retold, but also reinvented as she inspired new generations of authors to elaborate on and add to her story. Trilogies, children’s books, poems, metrical romances, songs and theatre plays in which she features or plays the leading role suggests that Auðr and her story were extremely popular first in Iceland and beyond throughout the ages.

Who the historical Auðr was, does not really matter in the end. What matters is that she was remarkable enough to be remembered for over more than a 1000 years.

And, on that note, I would like to wish all of you a sparkling start of the New Year!

[1] Jakob Benediktsson, ed., Íslendingabók. Landnámabók, Íslenzk Fornrit 1 (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1936), 6. My translation.

 

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