The Saga of Unn the Deep-Minded

Some sources call her Aud the Deep-Minded but that seems to be a name she adopted in old age. Her sisters were Jor-Unn Wisdom-Slope and Thor-Unn Horned and I think it fairly obvious that whoever named these girls had a plan in mind. Jor and Thor have pagan religious connotations and I suspect that Unn dropped a pagan prefix to her name after she became a devout Christian before she moved to Iceland. The father of these three was Ketil Flat-Nose who moved from Norway to the Hebrides sometime in the 9th Century. There he went a-viking from his base, probably at Barra, into Ireland, the British Isles, and back into Norway — something the Norwegians would later punish him for.

Modern reproduction of "tortoise style" brooches found in a grave on Barra Island. These attached over-the-shoulder straps to the front bodice of a woman's outer dress. [northstararmoury.com]

Modern reproduction of “tortoise style” brooches found in a grave on Barra Island. These attached over-the-shoulder straps to the front bodice of a woman’s outer dress. [northstararmoury.com]

South of the Hebrides is the great island of Ireland, a rich source of booty and a beautiful prize for anyone who could capture it. In the first half of the 9th Century there was at least one serious attempt to do just that but the expedition’s leader, who the Irish called Turgeis (possibly = Thorgeis or Thorgils), only lasted a few years before Irish resistance, led by the Ui Niall clan, brought him down. Then followed a period of conflict between different groups of Norse invaders complicated by the presence of a growing number of Gall-Gael — Norse/Irish métis who were struggling to find their own place in the world. But in 853, the Hebridean Norse launched a well-conceived plan to conquer Ireland.

The leaders of this invasion were, the Irish say, brothers called Ivar and Olaf the White. Ivar sailed up the Shannon river to the heart of the island and anchored a fleet on the large lakes there. Olaf set up shop at Ath Cliath on the coast, the place we now call Dublin. The country south and west of Dublin, Osraighe (now Leinster), was ruled by the Irish king Cearbhall or Kjarval, as the Norse called him. Kjarval wished to be king of all Ireland and the Norse promised to help him. So Kjarval, Olaf, and Ivar began their campaign to bring the country under their sway. [see map here]

The alliance between these three was forged, in the fashion of the time, through marriage. Kjarval married Jor-Unn Wisdom-Slope. His grandson, Helgi the Lean, married Thor-Unn Horned. Helgi’s father, who had married one of Kjarval’s daughters, was a Swede who led Kjarval’s forces. Unn the Deep-Minded married Olaf the White. The fact that Ketil’s daughters were the unifying threads of this peace-weaving is an indicator of his importance in the area.

Viking artifacts from Dublin area. Swords, spearheads, shield bosses, brooches, and gaming pieces. [Watercolor by James Plunkett, ca. 1847]

Viking artifacts from Dublin area. Swords, spearheads, shield bosses, brooches, and gaming pieces. [Watercolor by James Plunkett, ca. 1847]

The Hebridean invasion prospered. Tribute was collected and churches raided. Local Irish clans sometimes fought the Norse, sometimes fought with them against Irish. Except, that is, the Ui Niall of the north who maintained an implacable resistance to the foreigners and fought with them constantly. In 857, Ivar won a decisive victory over the Gall-Gael and from time to time the brothers had to take out some outsider vikings who invaded their patch, but generally things went well. Kjarval’s troops took on a great deal of the fighting and the Norse brothers occasionally found things settled enough so that they could raid across the sea into Pictland or Strathclyde or Wales.

Around 863 the brothers began looting the tombs of Irish kings on the Boyne. This roused the Irish and for four years or so the battles between the Norse and the Irish grew fierce but soon the fighting settled back into a pattern of desultory skirmishes with the resistant Irish and military incursions into areas that the Norse wished to control. In 870, the brothers left Kjarval in charge and mounted a cross-sea expedition against the Britons of Strathclyde. For four months they besieged the fortress at Dumbarton before taking it and returning to Ireland with, the Annals say, “a great prey” of captives. These would be sold into slavery, a great source of wealth to viking Norse over their two centuries of depredation.

But after 871 the Hebridean venture began to unravel. Ivar died in 873. Olaf in 875. The cause of these deaths are unknown but, also around this period, King Harald Finehair of Norway ran out of patience with Hebridean vikings and sent a punitive expedition that struck at their home bases. The Sagas say that he harried as far south as the Isle of Man and, on the way home, installed one of his followers as the first Jarl of Orkney, who was meant to keep an eye on things in this part of the world.

The daughters of Ketil Flat-Nose suddenly found themselves adrift. Sometime in the next few years, Thor-Unn and her half-Swedish husband sailed to Iceland. Once Kjarval understood how the winds of change were blowing, he repudiated the Norse and teamed up with the Irish. He probably turned Jor-Unn out, but she may have stuck around until his death in 888 before she, too, emigrated to Iceland. Unn the Deep-Minded went to see her dad, Ketil, and introduced him to her son, Thorstein the Red. Grand-dad and grandson got on well and the old pirate instructed the youth in the ways of extracting wealth from the poor and defenceless. So Thorstein set up in Scotland. His wife, Raferta (or maybe Thurid), was a grand-daughter of Kjarval’s and so a sister to Helgi the Lean. These two had a bunch of children — five or six daughters, depending on which source you read (possibly one or two were by other wives of Thorstein) and a son named Olaf, the youngest of the brood.

Excavated longhouse site at Quoygrew, Orkney. [photo: Donna Surge]

Excavated longhouse site at Quoygrew, Orkney. [photo: Donna Surge]

Thorstein managed very well in Scotland. He allied with the Orkney Jarls and between them, the Picts and other peoples were squeezed for everything they had. The Sagas say he was king over half of Scotland, which may be a bit of an overstatement, but he was a force in the area. Eventually, though, Thorstein was killed — via Scots treachery, the Sagas say.

Now Unn was in a tough spot. Her father was dead by this time and she had no real holdings in the Hebrides. Her grandson was very young, tweve or thirteen, and not able to take over his father’s enterprise. Nevertheless, Unn asked him for his counsel and he replied, “Whatever you think best, Grandmother.” This, in fact, was more or less what anyone who confronted Unn wound up saying. She was a formidable woman.

Unn hatched an audacious scheme. She went to the chief of her slaves, a man named Koll, and asked for his assistance. “Koll” might be a Norse version of a fairly common name in Irish or any of the Briton languages. It may be that he was one of that “great prey” captured in Strathclyde in 870. He seems to have been fairly well on in years at this time — forty, say, at a time when boys became men at fifteen or sixteen, when they could wield a sword, and girls became women at thirteen or fourteen, when they could bear children. Unn offered Koll a deal: if he would help the other slaves to build a ship, so that they could all sail out of Scotland for Iceland, she would give him his freedom, land, and one of her grandaughters as a bride. Koll agreed.

That winter, the slaves put together a ship. It was important that they leave in the Spring, before the Picts and Scots discovered their weakness and attacked. Sources vary on the exact number of men and women on board when Unn’s group set sail, but let’s say fifteen to twenty-five people. The ship sailed around to the Orkneys, where more skilled craftsmen refurbished it for the voyage to come. There, Unn gave away one of her granddaughters in marriage “and from this line all the Jarls of Orkney descend”. Then she sailed to the Faroe Islands, where another granddaughter was married off and from her “stems the greatest family line in the Faroe Islands”. Then Unn sailed west to Iceland.

…it is generally thought that it would be hard to find another example of a woman escaping from such hazards with so much wealth and such a large retinue. From this it can be seen what a paragon among women she was.
[Laxdaela Saga]

Unn had two brothers. One, Helgi Bolan, was a Christian who lived in the southwest. The other, Bjorn, lived on the north side of Snaefellness. He was called Bjorn the Easterner because, while the rest of his family found fortune in the Hebrides, he travelled east to the Baltic where he made his fortune. When he returned west to the Hebrides, Bjorn found that the rest of the family had become Christians. He thought it “weak-minded of them to have renounced the old belief of their forefathers… so he refused to make his home there.” Bjorn sailed on to Iceland, the first of the family to do so, and remained a pagan after settling there.

Unn landed, or possibly wrecked her ship, in the south of Iceland. She sent to her brother Helgi, who invited her and nine of her group to spend the winter with him. Unn was incensed at his meanness for inviting only nine and left immediately to see her brother Bjorn. Bjorn knew that his sister was “large-minded” and sent out a large party to welcome her and everyone with her to spend the winter.

The next spring, Unn set sail to find the location she wished to settle. Various places in Iceland get their names from this voyage: Dogurdarness (= Breakfast Point) where she had a meal, Kambsness, where she lost a comb, and so forth. Finally, she took up land, a lot of land around Breidafjord in the west of Iceland. Her own home was at Hvamm. To the south was the Laxardale, one of several Salmon River valleys in Iceland. This she granted to Koll as a wedding-gift when he married her grand-daughter, Thorgerd. Her remaining granddaughters married prominent Icelanders.

The slaves that had come to Iceland with Unn were all freed. Amazingly, it turned out that every one of them was descended from kings, not just common folk swept up in a violent struggle. One such, of noble descent, was the slave Vifils who had to ask Unn for his freedom. She replied that it was of no importance, that Vifils would be a man of quality wherever he was. But she granted him land at Vifilstead. That farm did not prosper and Vifil’s sons got on by marrying rich widows. One of them was the father of Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir who was part of the Norse attempt to colonize North America and bore the first child of European descent born in North America. Unn’s ex-slaves played a great part in the settlement of Iceland and few were ever made to feel ashamed for having been enslaved. It was a matter of pride for an Icelander to be able to claim descent from someone who had sailed with Unn in the voyage from Scotland.

Everyday viking items unearthed in Dublin. [Walter Pfeiffer/National Museum of Ireland]

Everyday viking items unearthed in Dublin. [Walter Pfeiffer/National Museum of Ireland]

Now that Unn was settled there was another matter of great importance to deal with. She called her grandson, Olaf Feilan, to her and said, “It is time you were married.” “Whatever you say, Grandmother,” was his reply and Unn sent an emissary, the peg-legged Onund Tree-Foot, to the Hebrides to ask his wife’s cousin, Alfdis, to be Olaf’s bride.

Unn’s plan is clear: she tied her family to the great families of the Orkneys, the Faroes, Iceland, and now back to the Hebrides. If there was to be a renaissance of Hebridean Norse supremacy, her kin would be major actors. Of course, that was not to be. All these islands — the Faroes, the Orkneys, the Hebrides — faded into insignificance as the Scandinavian and Scottish kingdoms coalesced. Even Iceland lost its independence to Norway in the 13th Century. The great viking sea kingdom vanished.

Olaf’s wedding was a grand affair. Unn invited all her kin and most of west Iceland’s notables. Koll was a guest as were others of Unn’s freed slaves, now Icelandic grandees. Helgi the Lean and Thor-Unn attended, as did Helgi Bolan and Bjorn the Easterner. Jor-Unn Wisdom-Slope could not make it and people said What a shame! Though one wonders if this is the understated Saga way of hinting that Jor-Unn, last to leave Ireland, was a bit estranged from her sisters. The festivities were well underway when Unn announced that the house and all inside it now belonged to her grandson, Olaf. Then she said it was her bedtime.

By now, old age was weighing heavilly upon Unn; she never rose before noon and always went early to bed. …she would give an irate reply if anyone asked about her health. [Laxdaela Saga]

Unn urged her guests to enjoy themselves and then retired. Here we have the only physical description of Unn:

Unn was tall and stoutly-built. She walked briskly down the length of the hall and those present remarked how stately she still was. [Laxdaela Saga]

The next morning, when Olaf looked in on her, she sat erect in her bed, dead. Everyone remarked on Unn’s forethought, to arrange her funeral feast in conjunction with her grandson’s wedding. Unn was given a ship-burial and was interred with many valuables. Her grave is undiscovered to date.

Viking ship-burial in Orkney. [from Graham-Campbell and Batey, [em]Vikings in Scotland[/em] ISBN 0-7486-0641-6

Viking ship-burial in Orkney. [from Graham-Campbell and Batey, <em>Vikings in Scotland</em> ISBN 0-7486-0641-6]

Notes:

The primary source for Unn is Laxdaela Saga. Quotes above are from Magnus Magnusson’s translation. This saga tells the story of Koll’s descendants who also figure in other works, such as Njal’s Saga.
There is more on Unn, called Aud, in Eyrbyggja Saga, now available in Gisli Surssons Saga And The Saga Of The People Of Eyr. Translation used above was that of Hermann Palsson.
Orkneyinga Saga is the story of the Jarls of Orkney and speaks of both Unn/Aud and her son, Thorstein.
Grettir’s Saga tells of the marriage embassy of Onund Treefoot and also has a great deal to say about Eyvind the Easterner, Swedish warlord in the pay of the Irish king Kjarval.
The Vinland Sagas tell of Vifils and his granddaughter, Gudrid, who is the main character in the two sagas. The version used here was translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson.
The Book of Settlements: Landnamabok is the earliest extant source for all of the people named above who made it to Iceland.
The Irish Annals may be examined at CELT, a very valuable resource.
A detailed look at the Hebrideans who invaded Ireland: “The Vikings In Scotland And Ireland In The Ninth Century” by Donnchadh Ó Corráin

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4 comments on “The Saga of Unn the Deep-Minded

  1. Njall says:

    Very nicely done. I was just thinking about Unn and the fact that there was no saga about her or her close relatives (that we know of/has survived), and that it’s a pity, since her story is so compelling. Anyway, thanks for your efforts on this, it’s a good summary.

  2. Before my father’s death in 2007, he had spent 25 years on our family genealogy. Our on his death, his cousin completed the research and the book. “The Family of John Quincy Adams Mitchell and Cordelia Clementine Wilson, Their ancestors and descendants.

    To my suprise, after becoming hooked on history channels The Vikings, I was also reading the fascinating history of my ancestors.

    Turns out, Thorstien the Red’s daughter, Groa Thorstien spotter is my 31st great grandmother, making Aud the Deep Minded my 33rd great grandmother. Thank you for this story, showing the strength and fortitude that makes me proud to be a direct descendant.

  3. […] Cuaran to the Irish. He was a descendant of Ivar, a Norse ruler of Ireland in the 9th Century. After Ivar and his brother Olaf died in the 870s, Ireland was free from the Norse for a time, but the Sons of Ivar began raiding the island again in […]

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