Viking Women and Shield-Maidens

Is it possible to think of Vikings and not think of warriors? Do we imagine anything else than big blonde men wielding axes, swords and maces, leaving nothing but a trail of destruction behind them? What to think of a culture whose idea of heaven is to be resurrected to join their God’s army, to fight again at the end of times? The Vikings were definitely a warrior people, but where does this leave the women? Inserted in a society that praises combat skill and victories, would the Viking women be meek housewives, cooking and taking care of children?

While some scholars disagree on the matter, and maintain that the Viking society was, like most, filled with gender inequality and that women’s only role was to be submissive to men, the wide majority seem to think this might not have been the case. Viking sagas are full of reports of shield-maidens or skjaldmö, the Viking warrior women who fought alongside the men and sailed aboard their ships.

Women in the Viking tales.

The Viking Sagas are prose stories from Iceland and Scandinavia, similar to an epic, that tell of Viking conquests, travels, wars and feuds between families. Several sagas talk about warrior women, their bravery in combat and importance in the Viking expansion and settlements. The Greenland Saga describes Freydís Eiríksdóttir, the daughter of Erik the Red, as a fearless woman who joined an expedition to Vinland. The expedition was attacked by natives and Freydís, although 8 months pregnant, took up a sword and scared the natives away. In the Gesta Danorum, Hlathgerth (Lagertha) is described to have fought on Ragnar Lodbrok’s side, and impressed him so much with her fierceness, that he asked for her hand in marriage. In Viking mythology, the Valkyries are female entities protected by Odin that choose the bravest among the fallen soldiers, to take to Valhalla to prepare for Ragnarok, where they will fight at the All-Father’s side. Considering how these women are described, it seems that the Vikings were familiar with the idea of female courage and fighting skills, and valued these traits.

Viking tombs and what they tell us.

Norse burial rites were more than just burying a loved one. Vikings believed that they could carry their wordly possessions to the afterlife, and those same possessions would show their worth to the Gods, and allow them to maintain their social status. If a warrior died, he would take his armour, weapon and horses to his grave, as proof of his military rank, so he would be allowed in Valhalla. These were called grave goods and were also meant to ensure that the deceased was happy in the afterlife, or they would return as a draugr to haunt the living.

Several burial sites show graves of women buried with riches and symbols of social status. The Oseberg grave, for example, in which two female bodies where buried inside a 21.58m long ship, filled with decorative items, wooden chests, and rich textiles including the ones in which the bodies are dressed. In the grave were also found household items, bedposts, a complete wooden cart and the bones of 14 horses, an ox and three dogs. For years it was assumed that being buried inside a ship was an honour reserved for the most powerful and respected Viking men, but considering the Oseberg burial site, we can say that these women held important positions in Viking society. In other tombs, women have been buried with keys, which symbolised control over the household and the family, including the distribution of food and clothing and managing farms and related businesses. Some historians have even linked these keys to being a symbol of land ownership.

The Birka grave is probably the most controversial of these. It was first excavated in 1889 and assumed to be of a male warrior who was buried with a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields and two horses. Later on, some questions were raised about the assumption that the remains were male, and in 2014 osteological analysis of the pelvis and mandible at the Stockholm University showed that they were in fact female. Of course, skeptics were still not convinced and argued that the bones might have been mixed with the ones from nearby graves, but DNA testing done in 2017, showed that the bones all came from the same body, which was female. From these findings, most conclude that the woman at the grave was a respected warrior who was buried with full honours.

Historical accounts also prove that the Norse people had women warriors. After the Siege of Dorostolon, the Byzantines were surprised to see a huge number of women among the fallen Varangians. Although there isn’t unanimity in historian’s opinions, many seem to believe that women in Viking age enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom for the time. They had the right to refuse marriages, divorce, manage farms, be entrepreneurs, and inherit lands and goods. Considering all this, shield-maidens might not have been such mythical creatures but a part of Viking society and history, and cherished and respected in their communities.