The Old Woman and the Sea

Iceland’s most renowned female settler was Aud the Deep-Minded. She was considered peerless among women, provident and wise, as witnessed by her epithet. She took leave of her husband and sailed to Iceland along with her crew. It is said that her settlement extended across all the valleys of Breidafjordur. Aud was a Christian and considered to be particularly noble and generous. She gave large estates in her settlement to her crew and made her home at the current church estate of Hvammur in Dalir. (Retrieved from: Air Iceland – Facebook)

About a fortnight ago, this quote — posted on the Facebook-site of Air Iceland — announced the naming of their new airship, a Bombardier Q400, after the infamous female settler Auður djúpúðga (‘deep-minded’). Air Iceland decided to organize a contest to name their most recent aircraft after one of Iceland’s own saga heroines who shaped the country and its culture. They wanted first and foremost to honour these heroines’ legacy. Other suggested names were: Arndis the Wealthy, Hallgerd Long-Pants, Thorun the Horned and Thurid the Sound-Filler.

Only three years ago, four Icelanders attempted to cross the North Atlantic between Norway and Iceland by rowing their boat, which they baptized Auður after Auður djúpúðga. They planned to row from Norway to the Orkneys, from there to the Faroe Islands and finally from there to Iceland. Following in the footsteps of Auður, they visited most of the places that Auður once set foot on. In the Orkneys, the four rowers met up with a local storyteller who told a tale about the unique link between the Orkneys and Iceland. They were the very first to make the crossing by rowing without a sail or engine.

Auður djúpúðga brought us home across the ocean like her ship or “knörr” did more than 1000 years ago. We were the first to row successfully without sail or engine from Norway to Orkney and onwards to the Faroe Islands with Iceland as our final destination. (Retrieved from: North Atlantic Row – Facebook)

Though the naming of an aircraft after a saga heroine is new, the custom of naming ships after heroes and heroines goes back to the early Viking Age. However it wasn’t until the 12th century that sources record that ships were named after people, saints to be more precise. The use of proper personal names would have to wait until the 14th century. Ships were often named after Auður djúpúðga, though we only have written proof of this custom from the 19th century onwards, for example from newspaper clippings.

One of these newspaper clippings tells the story of a motorboat named Auður djúpúðga. In March 1961 this motorboat sank and its two crew members went missing. The two men were never found.

Schermafbeelding 2016-05-15 om 09.25.38

Fortunately, most of the other boats named Auður djúpúðga didn’t share the same fate as their namesake back in March 1961. But what inspired these seamen to name their ship after a 9th-century Viking woman?  It was no mean feat for women or men alike to cross the rough seas from Norway or the British Isles to Iceland in those days. Yet, Auður (or Unnur as she is known in Laxdæla saga) succeeded in making a safe crossing from Scotland, over the Orkneys and Faroe Islands, to the shores of Iceland.

“Nú býst Unnur í brott úr Færeyjum og lýsir því fyrir skipverjum sínum að hún ætlar til Íslands. Hún hefir með sér Ólaf feilan son Þorsteins rauðs og systur hans þær er ógiftar voru. Eftir það lætur hún í haf og verður vel reiðfara og kemur skipi sínu fyrir sunnan land á Vikrarskeið. Þar brjóta þau skipið í spón. Menn allir héldust og svo fé.”

Unn now sailed away from the Faroe Islands and told her shipmates that she was going to Iceland. She had with her Olaf Little Wolf, son of Thorstein, and those of his sisters who were unmarried. After that, she put to sea and had a good voyage, and her ship sailed to the south of the country, at Vikarsskeið. There the ship was smashed to pieces. All the men and goods were saved.

(Retrieved from: Netútgáfan Laxdæla saga. My translation.)

To cross the Atlantic ocean without loss of men or goods was quite unusual in the sagas. It is another illustration of what makes Auður or Unnur such a unique woman in the Old-Norse literature, apart from being one of only a handful of female settlers. Her first name, Unnur, could be derived from the noun ‘unnr’ meaning “wave.” Furthermore, Unnr (or Uðr) was also the name of one of the nine daughters of the Old-Norse deities Ægir and Rán. Each name reflects a different characteristic of an ocean wave. Unnr or Uðr means “frothing wave.” Auður or Unnur’s connection with the sea or water runs much deeper. In Laxdæla saga, her body is laid out in a ship with a large hoard of treasure. In Landnámabók’s account of her life, she is buried at the floodmark where the ocean waves wash over the shore. Both stories differ at this key point, even so there is a clear connection between Auður / Unnur and the sea.

Water runs through Auður or Unnur’s life story and so it makes sense that numerous seamen would name their ship after this particular woman from the Viking Age.


3 thoughts on “The Old Woman and the Sea

  1. Greetings from the United States — I am fascinated by your work as I learned in the past year that I am the 29th great grand daughter of Aud the Deep-minded. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to learn more about your research and to read your publication, “The Never Ending Story of Auður/Unnur djúpúðga Ketilsdóttir Cultural Memory and Religious Identity.” Could you kindly advise how I may obtain a copy? Thank you for any help you can provide!


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