Vol. 2 No. 2 - Pentecost 2007
Gudrid: Canadian Anchorite
When the first Orthodox settlers to Canada returned home to Scandinavia around 1050, they left little behind them in the way of physical evidence of their venture to Canadian soil. The timbers and foundations in northern Newfoundland have tempted archaeologists for decades with the promise of startling discoveries about the early Viking influence in Canada. On an archaeological level, these finds have been disappointing.
Yet for Orthodox Christians, the life of one of these settlers provides a remarkable insight into the spiritual life of one of our continent's earliest faithful, its first Orthodox mother, and its first female anchorite monastic. Her life, along with those of her brethren, is outlined in the famous Icelandic Saga of Eric the Red.
The woman Gudrid was likely born just before the year 1000AD, in Norway, at the beginning of the first missionary work in the region. Possibly one of the first Norse people to accept baptism, she eventually married the Viking Thorstein, brother of Leif Ericson. Thorstein died of illness, and Gudrid was widowed. She soon remarried, this time to Thorfinn Karlsefni.
It was this second marriage that was to prove providential for Gudrid, for within a year of her marriage, her husband Karlsefni undertook a voyage to the sought-after Vinland, located west of Greenland. While the location of Vinland is disputed, most authorities agree that Karlsefni and Gudrid and their company arrived in northern Newfoundland, where the group established the first European settlement in North America.
It was also the first settlement in the western world to include Orthodox Christians, evidenced from description of the burial rites of those who perished there, either through natural causes, or in skirmishes with the local natives, whom the Vikings called Skrellings. Two major battles are detailed in the Saga, comprising perhaps the first ever Christian-pagan conflict in the west (although some of the Vikings were likely pagans as well), and certainly the first native vs. European one. Despite several attempts at establishing friendly trading relations between the two peoples, their common destiny was to be one of blood.
Gudrid had the distinction of giving birth to the first Canadian of European descent, her son Snorri, who was also the first Canadian-born to be baptized a Christian. It was beside the cradle of this same son that Gudrid stood when she experienced an encounter - a supernatural encounter - which would foreshadow both the fate of the tiny settlement, and her own calling as well.
The Saga relates:
Gudrid was sitting within, in the doorway, beside the cradle of her infant son, Snorri, when a shadow fell upon the door, and a woman in a black namkirtle entered. She was short in stature, and wore a fillet about her head; her hair was of a light chestnut color, and she was pale of hue, and so big-eyed that never before had eyes so large been seen in a human skull.
She went up to where Gudrid was seated, and said, "What is thy name?" "My name is Gudrid, but what is thy name?" "My name is Gudrid," says she.
The housewife Gudrid motioned her with her hand to a seat beside her; but it so happened that at that very instant Gudrid heard a great crash, whereupon the woman vanished, and at that same moment one of the Skrellings, who had tried to seize their weapons, was killed by one of Karlsefni's followers. At this the Skrellings fled precipitately, leaving their garments and wares behind them; and not a soul, save Gudrid alone, beheld this woman.
"Now we must needs takes counsel together," says Karlsefni; "for that I believe they will visit us a third time in great numbers, and attack us. Let us now adopt this plan..."
The Norsemen adopted a complex strategy of defense, which carried the day despite being outnumbered by the native attackers. Yet this encounter was to prove the end for the first Christian settlers in Canada. They remained until the spring, whereupon their leader Karlsefni announced that they would return to Greenland. A return voyage some years later saw a disastrous defeat of the Norsemen by the natives, followed by a bloody internecine struggle that left half the Norsemen and women dead in a single morning.
The strange visitation experienced by Gudrid bears a remarkable resemblance to the description of the demons encountered by Saint Herman in the Alaskan wilds centuries later. Gudrid's response to these events - the later death of her husband, the news of bloody chaos among the later settlers, and her return to the homeland she hoped to leave - inevitably led her to take up the life of an anchorite, a hermit-nun in then still-Orthodox Norway.
Hers was a life full of extensive experiences, struggles, and trials, a conversion from paganism to Christianity, the death of two husbands, and the birth of a child in a strange and foreign land. It was a life marked by travels almost unknown in the ancient world. And it was a life that saw a face-to-face encounter with a demonic apparition, an encounter which foreshadowed the continuing spiritual attack on those who would ever dare put down the tiniest roots of Orthodox Christian faith in North American soil.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Pentecost, 2007)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.