The Viking corpse: dead men do talk

Dale Jarvis
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At the end of this summer, I took a few days to explore the Northern Peninsula, including a trip to both the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site of Canada and the nearby Norstead Viking Village.

The town of L’Anse aux Meadows is home to the earliest known European settlement in the New World. The archeological remains at the Parks Canada site were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Visiting both sites made me think of Norse stories and storytelling. I’ve been a fan of Viking tales since I was young. I still have my well-thumbed copy of the children’s book “Eric: A Tale of a Red-Tempered Viking,” by Susan McDonald Bond, originally published in 1968. It tells the tale of Eric the Red, and his son Leif the Lucky, who went on to discover Vinland.

That early love of the old Norse stories has stayed with me until today. Visiting L’Anse aux Meadows enticed me to dig out my copy of the Vinland sagas, searching for a half-remembered ghost story.

In addition to Leif, the son known to many people in Newfoundland and Labrador, Erik had three other children: a daughter, Freydis, and two additional sons, Thorvald and Thorstein. Unfortunately for the two other sons, they were not quite as lucky as their brother.

Thorvald died and was buried somewhere in Vinland. He was shot in the armpit with an arrow fired at him by an angry Skraeling, one of Vinland’s aboriginal inhabitants, after Thorvald and his men had captured three Skraeling boats and killed their owners.

When Thorstein heard of his brother’s death, he was determined to sail to Vinland and bring back Thorvald’s body. He took 25 men and his wife, Gudrid, along. But early that winter, disease broke out amongst the crew, eventually spreading to Thorstein himself. He died, and was greatly mourned by Gudrid.

It was then that things took a turn towards the supernatural.

Gudrid was being consoled by one of the crew members when the body of Thorstein Eiriksson sat up on the bench where he had been laid out.

“Where is Gudrid?” moaned the newly dead corpse.

His wife, perhaps rightfully terrified at this, said nothing. Three times the corpse spoke, asking for his wife. Three times she said nothing.

One of the crewmembers, also named Thorstein, spoke up instead.

“What is it you want, namesake?” asked the second Thorstein.

At this the corpse spoke again, saying that he was anxious to reveal to Gudrid her destiny. He went on, prophesying that his wife would have a bountiful future, that she would remarry, have children, outlive her second husband, go on pilgrimage to Rome, return to Iceland, build a church, become a nun and die there in her old age.

As far as life predictions go, not a bad one, really.

Having said his bit, the corpse fell back onto the bench. The Vikings packed him up, and sailed with him back to Eiriksfjord, Greenland, the town his father had established. Thorstein was buried there, and presumably did not speak again.

It is an interesting tale, and might very well be the oldest European ghost story with a connection to Newfoundland.

Dale Gilbert Jarvis, storyteller and author, can be reached at

Organizations: Meadows National Historic Site, Parks Canada, UNESCO

Geographic location: Vinland, Northern Peninsula, Canada Newfoundland and Labrador Rome Iceland

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