Unn, The Deep-Minded

I love it when I’m searching for something fairly mundane and it leads me to a brilliant piece of information. That happened recently when I started reading about Unn, The Deep-Minded in the Laxdæla Saga. She’s also known as Aud in some versions.

Old Norse sources are difficult to decipher. Most histories come from those who wrote the stories hundreds of years after the fact. However, Unn’s story comes from her several times-great grandson. Albeit, he recorded it from hearing it through oral tradition from his family. Like anything passed down through the generations, sometimes there are embellishments or holes. However, for the time, it’s a great resource.

Unn was a Norse-Gael woman from the 9th century during the Viking age and settlement of Iceland. By birthright, or marriage, she became a queen, then an outcast, a commander, and a settler. In short, she was amazing.

The daughter of a military commander, her father raided the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland for his king, then kept the land for himself. His true motives, and whether he considered himself a king is unknown, but his daughter Unn married Olaf, the White, (also known as Olaf Guthfrithsson) the King of Dublin. Thus, becoming officially royal either way. 

Where things get really interesting is later in Unn’s life. She and her husband had one son, Thorstein, the Red. 

(They liked to add a designation tag back then, that’s for sure. To be fair, they also used the same names a lot, so those little tags are helpful.) 

Thorstein married, had six daughters and one son, and amassed a large territory in Scotland. He must not have been that great in character or leadership, because his subjects betrayed and killed him. 

At that point, Unn was older (we don’t know what age that means) and her father had also died. Regardless, she didn’t believe she had any glorious prospects for holding onto a suitable position in her society, aka she believed they wanted to kill her too, so she commissioned a ship to be built in secret. She gathered her family, household, and bondmen for the journey. Unn then led the crew on a sailing voyage to Orkney for a time, and then onto Iceland. 

The stories say that she commanded the Bondmen well and gave them their freedom upon landing in Iceland. In their society, one positioned as a bondman had a status between a slave and a poor peasant, but had some rights. They wouldn’t have had to follow her, but did so willingly and with respect. She had the skills, the ability, and the presence for them to see an older woman as their leader. Talk about a later in life career change!

I’ve heard from quite a few places recently about people today wanting to hear stories of middle-aged men and women who battle to save the world in fantasy stories. People with children, jobs, and responsibilities instead of teenagers. Honestly, we all grow and change throughout our lives and have many coming-of-age moments at different ages. There’s even a TV show coming out (or already has) with a modern-day main character just like this. 

Unn, The Deep-Minded is exactly that woman as well. After she landed in Iceland, she settled the land and lead the people—saving her world while still being a mom, grandmother, and feminine woman. It can be done, then and now. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still love my coming-of-age teens who grow up a lot faster in vicious fantasy worlds, so don’t expect that to change too much in my books. However, I do plan to use Unn as inspiration. It’s time to dispel the idea that a fantasy mentor has to be an old dude with a long white beard, because a woman of the same age can only be an evil crone. Nope, sorry, I don’t accept that. Like the typical evil male villains, there are older women who deserve to be the main evil villain. But there are good, wise, and strong older women for mentors as well. I think it’s time they get their chance to shine. 

What are your thoughts on Unn, and characters like her who rise as heroes at an older age? I’d love to hear in the comments!

The Laxaela Saga can be read for free online at sagadb.org or from Project Gutenberg. I’ve only given a small highlight of Unn and her life, but you can read the full story here. She begins the tale through chapter seven.