26 March 2013

Women in Warfare: Did Viking Shield Maidens exist?

By Michelle Styles

Did Viking women serve as warriors?

The Viking  shield maiden has often captured the popular attention.  There is something about the idea of women fighting alongside men during the Viking era but does it have any basis in reality?

 Various sagas and other primary accounts of the era  do mention women fighting as warriors.  Saxo Grammticus in his History of the Dane, written in the 12th century, makes reference to a number of women warriors including Sela, a woman warrior  and accomplished pirate and  Lathgertha the wife of Ragnar Lothborg who possessed a man’s temper in a woman’s body as well as Hetha and Visna and Vebiorg  who fought in the great battle of  Bravellir where Harald the War-tooth lost to his nephew Ring.  Hetha survived and was given a portion of Denmark to rule over but various warriors rebelled because they disliked the thought of having a woman in charge.

As Judith Jesch points out in her book Women in the Viking Age, Saxo depicts these women  as being ultimately defeated and after the Christianization of Denmark, no women warriors appear.  Equally in the 12th century Irish epic about the Irish war with foreign invaders,  Cogadh Gaedrhel re Gallaibh one of the fleets of Viking war ships belongs to the Red Maiden but the reference is very brief and there is no way of judging if it is accurate or not. At the start of the Laxdalea saga, Unn the Deep Minded appears to have had some sort of command over a number of ships. She is the one who controls the land and portions it out amongst her followers.

The term shield maiden also appears to be have used interchangeably with valkyrie – the legendary women who pick out the best warriors for Odin and lead them to Valhalla. Perhaps the best known shield maiden of sagas is Brynhilda who wanted to marry Sigurd. In the Volsunga saga which is detailed in the Poetic Edda. But the problem is that most of these sagas originate from a post pagan world and therefore might not be an accurate representation of what actually happened.  It has been suggested that Saxo used the myth of valkyrie to embellish his histories. You also have the myth of the goddess Skathi who wore her father’s armour.

We do know that a Byzantine  account of a 971 battle in Bulgaria where the Varangians as the Eastern European Vikings were sometimes known suffered a rare defeat mentions finding armed women amongst the dead.  

The archaeological evidence is  tentative and hampered by the fact it was originally assumed that women could not be buried with swords. If a woman was found buried with a sword, it was assumed that the second male skeleton had somehow gone missing. There have  been female burials in Kaupang where arrowheads and small axes were found but the vast majority of female graves have only contained things which are relevant to the female sphere such as weaving and spinning implements . And even if a woman was buried with a sword, this does not mean she actually used in warfare. There are no representations of women with swords or in battle.

So were there women warriors or not? Impossible to say. All we can say is that it makes for a good story and in the case of  legendary women like Lathgertha, there is probably some basis in fact. However  once the Scandinavian countries became Christian, any warrior tradition amongst women died out. I would like to think given the nature of the society, that a few women did take up arms and were good at.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance in a wide range of time periods, including the Viking era. Her next Viking will be published in November 2013. Her most recent published work An Ideal Husband? is an April 2013 release. You can learn more at her website www.michellestyles.co.uk