Guðríður Símonardóttir

( 1598—1682 )

Guðríður Símonardóttir was born in Iceland, probably in the year 1598. It is not known where she was born, who her family were or how she spent her life up until the year 1627, when she was approximately 29 years old. Then she was living with her husband, Eyjólfur Sölmundarson, in the Westman Islands, by the southern shore of Iceland. It is likely that they were rather poor, and lived of fishing. They had one son, Sölmundur, but his date of birth is not known. The life of Guðríður met with the course of written history because of the most vicious foreign attack in Icelandic history, known as “the Turkish robbery”.[1]

In 1627, five pirate ships arrived in Iceland. Two of them arrived in south-western Iceland, where 15 inhabitants were kidnapped and three killed, and a Danish merchant vessel was robbed. Two other ships attacked eastern Iceland, where 120 were kidnapped and 9 killed. The third ship joined the group, and they sailed to the Westman Islands on the southern shore of Iceland, where approximately 242 were taken and 34 killed.[2] The leader of the expedition was Murat Reis, a Dutch convert to Islam who operated from the city of Salé in Morocco, where one of the two most important slave markets of the Ottoman Empire was situated. The piracy was not organized by the Ottomans, but it was certainly tolerated. [3]

Guðríður was one of the people taken from the Westman Islands, along with her son. We do not know how she experienced the attack, where she was or how her husband managed to escape. A description of the attack exists, written by the priest Ólafur Egilsson, who was captured at the same time as Guðríður.[4] It seems that after the violent attack on the island, the sailors treated the people they had captured relatively fairly, probably to be able to sell them for a higher price. They were brought to the city of Algiers in Algeria, where they were sold on the slave market.[5]

A few descriptions and even copies of letters from the captured people still exist today. One of these letters is from Guðríður, it arrived in 1635, after 8 years in slavery. It is the only Icelandic letter from Algiers that was authored by a woman, even if we do not know if she had the knowledge to write it with her own hand. Sadly, the copy of the letter has been damaged, and only the beginning of the letter survives. Many have also thought the letter strangely impersonal.[6] It begins with a long recitation of Christian blessings and tenets of the faith, and an ardent but yet formal address to her husband. Guðríður has just begun to describe her life, saying that even if she is glad that she was sold to the same person as her son, she is worried about him everyday, when the letter cuts off.[7]

The odd style of the letter has been interpreted in different ways, but perhaps it just shows her ardent desire to go home. The captives knew of the possibility that with financial help from home, they might be released for a ransom. Sending a letter across the globe was no easy task for a slave in the 17th century, but the reward could be freedom. Guðríður may have taken especial care to display her religious strength and her knowledge of Christianity to prove that she had not converted to Islam, since converts were never ransomed back home. Her address to her husband could also be a display of fidelity, and a way to show that she still belonged to Icelandic society, that she was a married Christian woman, and she and her child were in danger.

Her strength of will can also be seen in 1635, when an official of the Danish crown had arrived in Algiers to ransom the Icelandic captives. It turned out that the money collected was not nearly enough, and many were left behind. Guðríður was one of the last people to be ransomed, and an unusually high price was needed to set her free. Perhaps it was a deciding factor in her release that she had managed to earn enough money to pay one tenth of her own price. Her son was left behind, whether he had died or if they were separated is not known.[8]

Guðríður and the other freed captives had to stop in Copenhagen in the winter of 1635-1636. It is unclear if she was aware of the fact that her husband had lived with another woman during her absence and drowned earlier that year. It remains a fact that she started a relationship with another man in Copenhagen, a young and well connected Icelandic student. His name was Hallgrímur Pétursson, and he would in time become the most beloved religious poet of Iceland. He left all hopes of his career, quit his studies and went with Guðríður to Iceland.[9]

Their life in Iceland was first marked by financial difficulties and social scandal, since he was much younger than she, and when their first child was born they were not yet married. Later they fared better financially, but only one of their children survived childhood, and finally Hallgrímur became infected with leprosy, which drove him to his death in 1674. [10]
In time, Hallgrímur and Guðríður became characters of folklore and stories, where she was portrayed as a malicious, quarrelsome and semi-heathen woman who wrecked the life of the poor poet. She was even nicknamed “Turkish Gudda”,[11] which confused her identity with her captors. This can in part be explained by the fact that the wives of “great men” are often treated as insignificant, or even evil, in their afterlife, to make their husbands look even greater.[12]

But this trend in folk-lore and oral history probably also reflects the suspicions and prejudices that Guðríður, and other women and men who returned from slavery, met in Iceland. Their knowledge of Islam and Islamic society and the possibility that they had been abused sexually by their attackers was probably a stigma that followed them throughout their lives.[13] But despite her hard and difficult life, Guðríður Símonardóttir outlived both her husbands and all her children. She died in 1682, in the home of reverend Hannes Björnsson, who thought highly enough of her to write down the date of her death among the deaths of respected priests and bishops.[14]

[1] Helgi Skúli Kjartansson: Hallgrímur Pétursson. Ísafoldarprentsmiðja, Reykjavík, 1974, pp. 17-20.
[2] ˈLítill annáll um Tyrkjans herhlaup á Íslandi Anno 1627ˈ, Tyrkjaránið á Íslandi 1627. Sögufélag, Reykjavík, 1906-1909, pp. 1-5, here, pp. 2-3.
[3] Dagný Kristjánsdóttir: ˈTyrkjaránið og Guðríður Símonardóttir sem blætiˈ, Ritið 3:13 (2013), pp. 27-46, here. p. 31-35.
[4] Reisubók séra Ólafs Egilssonar. Ed. Sverrir Kristjánsson. Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík, 1969, pp. 56-63.
[5] Helgi Skúli Kjartansson: Hallgrímur Pétursson, p. 24.
[6] Dagný Kristjánsdóttir: ˈTyrkjaránið og Guðríður Símonardóttirˈ, pp. 40-41.
[7] Dagný Kristjánsdóttir: ˈTyrkjaránið og Guðríður Símonardóttirˈ, pp. 40-41.
[8] Helgi Skúli Kjartanson: Hallgrímur Pétursson, p. 28.
[9] Dagný Kristjándsóttir: ˈTyrkjaránið og Guðríður Símonardóttirˈ, p. 42.
[10] Sigurður Nordal: ˈTyrkja-Guddaˈ, Skírnir 101 (1927), pp. 116-131, here, p. 128-129
[11] Icelandic:Tyrkja-Gudda
[12] Sigurður Nordal: ˈTyrkja-Guddaˈ, p. 123.
[13] Dagný Kristjánsdóttir: ˈTyrkjaránið og Guðríður Símonardóttirˈ, pp. 42-44.
[14] Sigurður Nordal: ˈTyrkja-Guddaˈ, p. 129.