In popular imagination, "Vikings" were always male. They went a-Viking as fierce bands of bearded, helmeted, sword-wielding pagan warriors who violently descended on peace-loving and vulnerable inhabitants of Christian Europe. They maimed and murdered, pillaged and destroyed, raped and enslaved everything and everyone they found - especially monks and women. Well? That is how the historical myth goes, and like all myths, has a considerable amount of truth in it with a long history. From the earliest writers to modern popular thought, the very idea that these savage "Viking warriors" could only have been male has been carried forward. Historically, women would have had little opportunity to participate in war and all the attendant activities usually the prerogative of "males". If a "Viking" were a marauding pagan warrior, then the idea of a "Viking woman" would be unthinkable. However, these myths tend to over simplify and to concentrate on just the "bloody" parts, ignoring a more complex historical pattern. In recent years, starting in 1970, Scandinavian scholarship has been looking past the usual stereotypes and looking further into the culture leading to modifications of earlier thought. In 1980, an important international exhibition assembled by the British Museum was an attempt to "redress the balance". Sir David Wilson, director of the Museum, wrote in the opening preface of the catalog: "In a brutal age the Vikings were brutal, but their brutality was no worse than that of their contemporaries".
This also opened up the subject of Viking women and their roles in Scandinavian society while discarding earlier preconceived notions of their roles. A spurt of archaeological activities at Birka, Hedeby and Kaupang in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to this. At the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, new methods of presenting Vikings of both sexes as peaceful merchants, craftspeople and city dwellers has helped in changing the popular image of just bloodthirsty barbarians. Women are shown as partners in the trades, as merchant wives and so on in their exhibit. However, in most books written about the Viking Age, little has been written about women in other roles, or the subject is just lumped as "Women and Children" within a short subchapter. Only a few, like Judith Jesch ("Women in the Viking Age" 1991), have tried to address this oversight in a more comprehensive way.
Archaeology can only give a glimmer of actual "Warrior Women", from what grave goods are found in burials, the daily life and the sex of the occupant can be surmised. Men usually had weapons, hunting implements, merchant scales, carpentry tools and blacksmith tools as the women graves would have more domestic items. However, an occasional woman's grave would have some of these scales and craftsman's tools also, showing a crossover of trades and crafts women could have held in life. Rarer still are swords, spearheads and small axes and if the weapons were only symbolic or actually used this can only be conjectured. For example, in 1867 in Santon Downham, Norfolk, England, a female skeleton was found with two oval brooches and a sword. If there had been a second skeleton or parts, this was not noticed in the original notes, (nor uncommon then) and is still thought this may have been a double grave at one time. From Suontaka and Pahnainmäki, Häme in Finland were found two richly furnished female graves from the Viking period with two swords placed at their feet. Giving archaeological support to the Sagas describing the independent character of Finnish women who were fatal to Swedish Kings.
In Sogn, in western Norway, a number of women's graves were found having very high status compared to the men's (68 were studied in all) scattered around the area. These were found in long established districts with the biggest farms. At one farm (Hopperstad) six out of the nine graves found were female containing artifacts usually found in men's graves. Possibly the status from managing the farms while male relatives were away. So much has been found during later archaeological digs from all over showing evidence of women warriors elsewhere, it makes one wonder if someday more substantial evidence might be uncovered in Scandinavia. As it is, we only have tales, Sagas and other sources to point the way, but in these are the kernels of truth that myths are based on.
Warrior Women/"Shield Maidens"
In the 13th Century, the Danish scholar
and cleric, Saxo Grammaticus, wrote of such legendary warrior women in his
"History of the Danes" and used many references known to him while
recounting them from Denmark's pagan past. Although he disapproved of women
acting in this way and characteristically, most of his "warrior women"
ended in some kind of defeat. Like many a churchman, he saw only one possible
role for women, still his recounting show a sort of national pride. He opens his
discussions this way: "There were once women in Denmark who dressed
themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldier's
skills; they did not want the sinews of their valor to lose tautness and be
infected by self-indulgence. Loathing a dainty style of living, they would
harden body and mind with toil and endurance, rejecting the fickle pliancy of
girls and compelling their womanish spirits to act with a virile ruthlessness.
They courted military celebrity so earnestly that you would have guessed they
unsexed themselves. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall
and elegant embarked on this way of life. As if they were forgetful of their
true selves, they put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of
kisses, tasted blood- not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm's
embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the
couch but the kill, and those they could have appeased with looks they attack
with lances". (Books 1-9)
Well, I did say he certainly disapproved of them. But from this opening, we learn of "Sela, a warring amazon and accomplished pirate" and of "Lathgertha, a skilled female fighter, who bore a man's temper in a girl's body; with locks flowing loose over her shoulders she would do battle n the forefront of the valiant warriors." She also became the companion of, then wife to and finally divorced from, the famous Viking hero Ragnar Lodbrok and yet still came to his aid in battle when:"…with a measure of vitality at odds with her tender frame, roused the mettle of the faltering soldiery by a splendid exhibition of bravery. She flew round the rear of the unprepared enemy in a circling maneuver and carried the panic which had been felt by the allies into the camp of their adversaries".
In the Battle of Brávellir (Bravoll),
we learn of Hetha (Heid) and Visna (Visma), "whose female bodies Nature had
endowed with manly courage', and Vebiorg (Vebjorg), "instilled with the
same spirit" who led armies of men on the Danish side, with Hetha in charge
of the Harald Wartooth's right flank and Visna as his standard bearer. Visna and
Vebjorg are killed in the battle, but Hetha survives to be given part of Denmark
to rule under King Hring (Wartooth's nephew). There are others mentioned like
Rusila who, "had frequent clashes with her brother Thrond for the throne of
Norway" and had "set her sights on nothing less than the sovereignty
of Denmark." She eventually succumbs to the Danish king, despite a series
of military successes.
In another story is a princess Alvild whose mother had poisoned her mind about her suitor, Prince Alf, and goes running off and: "changed into man's clothing and from being a highly virtuous maiden began to lead the life of a savage pirate. Many girls of the same persuasion had enrolled in her company by the time she chanced to arrive at a spot where a band of pirates were mourning the loss of their leader, who had been killed fighting. Because of her beauty she was elected the pirate chief and performed feats beyond a woman's courage." She and Alf finally do meet up in battle and he compelled her to change back and become his wife. Later she had a daughter by him named Gurith. Later, Gurith follows in her mother's footsteps by taking part in a battle herself with less effect.
Saxo's later Books (10-16) deal with more contemporary history and the only women mentioned there are the mothers, sisters, wives, concubines and daughters of Danish and other kings. Although his "History", is written in Latin and might have been influenced, to some extent, by Classical "Amazon" models, he drew much of his material from native Scandinavian sources and makes notes, especially in his preface, the "diligence of the men in Iceland" and composed a large part of his work by copying their narratives. Many of his tales in the first nine books have parallels in Old Norse literature.
The Icelandic Sagas are full of strong, independent minded women who played an influential role in that society. Freeborn Icelandic women had control over their own lives, including their right to own property independently, their opinions frequently carried weight. When they acted as "heads of households" tithes were paid "in the same manner as men," and like the men they were subject to outlawry for a wounding or a killing. Some are very admirable and some are not, and it must be realized some traits had become literary "stocks in trade" considering these were written down mostly in the 13th century about events from two centuries earlier. Very few are described as wearing "men's clothing" or using weapons.
Freydis, the daughter of Erik the
Red, in both "Grænlendinga saga" and "Eiríks saga rauða"
she is described as wearing men's clothing and knows well how to use the ax and
sword. Freydis is pagan and her actions are held up, like Saxo's warrior women,
examples of the pagan "bad old days". In "Gísla saga", Thórdis,
whose brother, (Gísli) was killed earlier, welcomes his slayer, Eyjólfr, when
he sits at her table with her husband Borkr. She tries to kill him with his own
sword taken from her brother after Eyjolfr had placed it between the wall and
his legs. She dropped some spoons and grabbed for the sword then lunged for his
stomach but the table was in the way and gave him a bad thigh wound instead.
Borkr offered compensation to Eyjolfr for the wounding, and outrages Thordis who
promptly declares herself "divorced". In the "Laxdæla
saga", the character of Auðr is divorced by her husband Thóðr who, on
pretext, declared his wife was "always in breeches like a man" so he
could marry another. Waiting until he was home alone, Auðr later rides over (as
the narrator says "she was certainly in breeches then!") attacks him
with a sword, wounding him severely. However, he refuses to have her punished as
"she only did what she had to do".
In Old Norse literature, "Shield Maidens"/"Warrior Women" have been confused with Valkyries with one becoming the other in later stories. No Valkyrie actually uses a weapon in battle although they are always portrayed as wearing armor and having weapons. Helping to take the chosen slain back up to Valhalla or Folkvangr, several Norse "shield maidens" are said to have been riding with the Valkyries. Sigrun who was the lover of Helgi in "Helgi Hundingsbani saga" is one. She helps him as a "shield maiden" at one point and yet rides looking for him with the Valkyries. In the Sigdrifmal, Sigdrifa is a "shield maiden" who was given a "sleep thorn" and was later awakened by Sigmund. She acts as a teacher and gives him runelore for later protection in battle and other uses. Brunhild is another "shieldmaiden/Valkyrie" who is given the "sleep thorn" and only awakes when the hero, Sigurd, finds her.
In the battle of Dunheidi, we learn of Hervör, sister of King Angantyr, who led an army out of her Burgh against the much larger armies of the brothers, Hlöd and Humli the sons of King Humli. Hers was the smaller army and soon she saw many of her warriors fall, which only made her fight harder. "When Hervör saw that her men fell she became exceedingly angry, and slew six men and horses to the right and left. She was more like a lion than a man to look at, were a man ever so valiant to meet her, he found his death, “All fled from her." At one point, the battle seemed to go against her and so she called to Hlöd: "Come to single fight against me, Hlöd, if you have the heart of a man!" Hlöd shouted back "I am not thirsty for your blood, sister. “He called upon his men to take her alive.” When Hervör heard this, she spared no one and killed all that came against her. This went on for a long time until she finally fell in battle. Hlöd had her laid in a mound with great honor. Later her horn-blower and skald, Ormer, took the tidings to King Angantyr who then raised another great army and defeated Hlöd in another battle.
Scant archaeological evidence aside and all stereotypes too, we do see the presence of this rare role of the warrior woman. Whether or not the stories are highly fictionalized and the myths far and few between, the seeds are still there to find. The women who did take up the "Serpent's tongue" to join in "Odin's Storm" giving a "Raven's Harvest" have earned their right to join their brothers in battle in either Valhöll or Folkvangr. To be remembered and be models for those of us who would play the "boys" games.Laurie "the Deep Minded"