Beyond the Viking homestead, the example of Aud the Deep-minded
Posted on: 9 March 2022 by Betty West in 2022 posts
Two major roles have been discussed for women in the Viking Age, the conforming housewife who took care of the homestead, and her polar opposite the fierce shieldmaiden. However, my research focuses outside these categories, on women who went abroad with Viking fighting forces who were not warriors. Often these women are nameless in literary sources, but one stands out from the Icelandic Sagas, Aud the Deep-minded.
Aud also known as Unn, features in multiple sources including; Laxdaela saga, Grettir’s Saga and the Book of Settlements. Aud followed her kinsmen during their travels for years, settling sporadically. Following the deaths of her husband, father and son, Aud travelled from Scotland to Iceland, becoming an early and very wealthy settler. Far from a warrior, Aud was a survivor who used her intelligence and tenacity to protect her family, and some of her actions as a result of losing her family whilst in an area of conflict give an insight into the roles women could have undertaken.
On hearing her son was dead, Aud took control, ordering a ship built in secret and evacuated her family along with various other followers. Controlling the course of their journey, Aud took the role of a commander normally reserved for men, earning the respect of at least twenty-five free-men who travelled with her to Iceland.
Having reached Iceland, Aud met separately with her two brothers Helgi and Bjorn, staying with the later her first winter. There was no question of her remaining, showing her independence and position of authority as she chose the area she would settle. Aud’s authority is extended to the division of land to her followers, some of which she freed from slavery. These tasks were often controlled by Jarls and in showing similar authority Aud demonstrates her role as a leader.
Aud also acted as the head of her family, marrying off her son Thorstein the Red’s six daughters and his son Olaf at various points in her journey. In negotiating these unions Aud takes on a role rarely extended to women, but with a lack of male relatives in the country many barriers are surpassed,
The fact that Aud had few male relatives did aid her ability to act, however much of this could not have happened had she been settled in a homestead, in that scenario it is likely a distant male relative would have taken responsibility for her wealth and safety until her grandson was grown. Aud is an exceptional example of how women took control when in hostile environments during the Viking Age, as Laxdaela saga records, “people say it is hard to find another example of a woman managing to escape from such a hostile situation with as much wealth and as many followers. It shows what an outstanding woman Unn was.” Aud is not the standard for all women to be judged upon, but a true example of how strife and conflict could lead to diversions from typical gender roles.
When examining Aud there are limitations as she appears in texts written two centuries after the events they discuss, which bridge the gap between reality and mythology. It is likely that Aud was a real person, in the sense that her name was probably passed down through oral-tradition. How much of her story it true, we will likely never know. However what we can learn, is that at least in later centuries women could be renowned for performing acts that went outside their normal gendered roles in the Viking Age and this encourages researchers to question the limitations that fixed gendered roles create.
 Pálsson, Hermann and Paul Edwards, trans. The Book of Settlements Landnámabók. Vol. 1. (University of Manitoba Press, 1972), 95, 97, 105-109.
 Kunz, Keneva, trans. “The Saga of the People of Laxardal” in The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders Including 49 Tales., ed. and trans. Viđar Hreinsson, Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz and Bernard Scudder, 1-120. Vol. 5 (Iceland: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 4.