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Death of Thorstein Eiriksson and Grimhild/Sigrid

The following Ghost Story from the Vinland Sagas submitted by Owen Christianson

Thorstein Eiriksson, brother of Leif the Lucky, and his wife, Gudrid, after an unsuccessful attempt to reach Vinland and returned to Greenland just before winter, by the Christian calendar the middle of October. Thorstein the Black invited them to stay at his farm with his wife, Grimhild. Thorstein Eiriksson accepted the invitation. Soon, as cold weather set in, illness spread through their crew and reached the farm where both Thorstein Eiriksson and Grimhild fell ill, but Gudrid, and Thorstein the Black, remained well.

One night Grimhild asked Gudrid to accompany her to the outhouse, which was positioned opposite the main door. As they turned to go back into the longhouse, Grimhild utter a surprised exclamation. Gudrid asked Grimhild what was wrong. Grimhild said she saw dead family and friends lined up across the front of the longhouse, including herself and Thorstein. Then the apparition disappeared and she was herself again. After returning to the longhouse, Grimhild went back to bed and died that evening.

The next day Grimhild’s corpse crawled out of the bed and tried to get into bed with Thorstein Eiriksson. Thorstein the Black took an axe and smote the corpse in her heart.
By nightfall Thorstein Eiriksson died. Thorstein the Black consoled Gudrid and promised to take Thorstein’s body back to Erik the Red’s farm, Brattalid, in Greenland, to be buried in the church yard there.

 

At that point Thorstein Eiriksson sat up in bed and called for Gudrid. He said he had been granted a short time to talk with his wife. First he had some words he whispered to Gudrid. Then he said that Gudrid would marry again, but not a Greenlander. Her future lay in Iceland.

Thorstein the Black kept his promise to Gudrid. That spring, he sold his farm and took Gudrid and Thorstein’s body back to Brattalid. He bought a small farm near Brattalid, and settled there. Gudrid met Thorfinn Karlsefni, a merchant and ship owner from Iceland, at Brattalid the next winter and married him. With her marriage, Gudrid began her Vinland adventures.

Afterword:

The two versions of Thorstein Eiriksson’s death in the Vinland Sagas are slightly different. In The Greenlander’s saga, Thorstein Eiriksson and Gudrid return to Greenland in the fall after being driven off course to Ireland, and spent the winter with Thorstein the Black and Grimhild. In Eirik’s saga, Thorstein Eiriksson and Gudrid spend the winter at a farm Thorstein Eiriksson owned with Thorstein the Black and his wife, who in this version is called Sigrid. In both stories, sickness spreads through the men as winter weather sets in. Both stories have Thorstein the Black’s wife (Grimhildr/Sigrid) dying and her corpse attempting to crawl out of bed, and then Thorstein Eiriksson dies, but shortly afterward, he rises briefly and speaks to his wife Gudrid, foretelling her future.

In Iceland, it was believed that a person’s corpse could be animated and could walk around and talk. This prompted the practice of driving a stake through the heart of the corpse buried in the ground, and later the stake would be removed and a priest would pour holy water into the cavity.

The description of the sickness and symptoms described in the sagas suggest the illness that killed Grimhildr/Sigrid and Thorstein Eiriksson may have been typhus. Described as the cause of an epidemic in Oxford in 1485, typhus was probably widespread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Some believe the Plague of Athens during the Peloponnesian War was also typhus. Epidemic typhus carried by body lice and fleas had a high mortality rate. Typhus affected people in cold and crowded conditions such as prisons and army winter camps. The incubation period is almost two weeks. The illness begins with fever and muscle pain, which are followed by hallucinations, stupor and death.

Let’s see how typhus may fit the description of the illness in these two sagas:
In the Greenlander’s saga, the men had returned from a trip where they could have picked up lice. Then with cold weather, the men would be further confined together in houses where lice could spread resulting in illness a few weeks after their arrival.
The high mortality matches epidemic typhus.
The visions of dead family and friends are consistent with typhus-induced hallucinations.
The apparent death and reanimation of the corpse of both Grimhild and Thorstein Eiriksson could be explained if stupor due to typhus was mistaken for death.
Is it possible that Thorstein Eiriksson and Grimhild/Sigrid contracted and died from typhus? We believe that it is indeed possible. It is remarkable that 1000 years later, 700 years after the sagas were written, we can read the Vinland sagas and diagnose the illness that spread through Greenlanders and killed Thorstein Eiriksson and Grimhild.
This suggests that the Vinland sagas do indeed contain historical accounts of the time when North America was discovered and explored, and even the supernatural stories may have been real, as seen through the eyes of a Viking Age Norseman.
And you now have a real ghost story you can tell on Halloween.

Bibliography:

The Vinland Sagas – The Norse Discover of America, Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga, Translated with an introduction by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, Penguin Books, 1965.

The Vinland Sagas – The Icelandic Sagas about the First Documented Voyage across the North Atlantic, The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga, Translated by Keneva Kunz, with an Introduction and Notes by Gisli Sigurdsson, Penguin Books, 2008.