We’ve all heard the term “resilience.” It’s the ability to bounce back after a setback or some kind of difficulty. How much resilience we have can determine how successful we are in life, and it’s something most of us try to instill in our children.
Viking age women had to be resilient. It was a harsh time with life or death choices regularly on the table. One particular Viking woman fits the definition of resilient perfectly: Unn the Deep-Minded.
Unn and her father flee Norway
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 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 was also dead by this time.
Unn flees Scotland
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 with 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!
Unn in Iceland
Her final destination—Iceland, where two of her brothers lived. She met one brother who treated her stingily (which she did not appreciate!). It was bad form to be stingy with silver or food. In fact, one of the best compliments a Viking could get was to be “generous with food” or a “generous ring-giver.” Not appreciating that brother, Unn headed off to stay with her other brother. He treated her well, so she wintered with him.
From there she sailed around Iceland claiming a great deal of 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.
A dignified death
Unn died, “sitting upright among the pillows,” and everyone at the feast was impressed at how well Unn 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 and resilience of women in the Viking age.