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


Joan Høj Jacobsen said...

I am sorry, but I have to disagree with one part of your statement, namely that there are no representations of women wielding weapons. There are, in fact, several in Scandinavia, most notably the socalled "Valkyrie-figurines", though in reality, no one knows if they represent Valkyries or real women, bearing arms.

One of the most recent, the Hårby Valkyrie, is quite a lovely little piece of silver. You can see some excellent pictures of it at http://scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology/2013/01/07/valkyrie-figurine-from-harby/

However, while a lot of people agree that these were Valkyries, there really is no way of knowing for sure if they were or not, or if they represent shieldmaidens.

I do agree with you ... very much so, in fact ... that given the nature of Scandinavian society at the time, it would make sense for women to take up arms and fight at least occasionally.

And it bears remembering, that according to Norse beliefs, an entire flank of the Einherjar are under the command of Freja, who is much, much more than the goddess of love she is typically portrayed as today. More precisely she'd be the "goddess of big emotions", as she has the capacity for tremendous rage as well.

Just food for thought, mind you.

Mary S. said...

Hello, Aside from "Women in the Viking Age" do you have any idea where I could read an in depth account of the role of such women in Viking society? Thanks

kirsten said...

I am of Norwegian descent, and my Norwegian female relatives were awesome and strong as men. I think that the fact that these genetics remain, suggest that shieldmaidens were very real. Women were considered more equal in pagan religions as well.

Anonymous said...

Well recent reexamination of archeological findings in England and written accounts taken from Constantinople clearly points out that there were women amongst the warrior vikings. It’s now a fact and not a myth. They just looked very different from modern scandinavian women. They were almost as tall as their male vikings which means that they were half a f. taller than men they fought in rest of Europe/Russia/middleeast. They had square head bone structure/features with distinct jaw and eyebrows. They were slim. Because of the almost androgynous hairstyle foreigners thought all vikings were male, but they weren’t. Approx 25 % of the warrior vikings were female. It seems like viking women could choose between being warrior or mom/homemaker – or sometimes both.

Seth Collins said...


Did no one read the full essay? It doesn't imply that Shieldmaidens existed in the slightest.

Donna Barr said...

I have three rules for writing, and they apply for history and science, too:

1. If it's funny, it's right (this includes weird - like black holes eating each other).

2. If it's physically possible for its time and place, it happened (Also known as "Some fool already tried this" rule).

3. If it didn't happen, it should have.

I can't believe that some woman didn't pick up a sword at least once, and join in. If Scots women can claim the griddle as their weapon of choice (and think of it as such - it's horrifying!), then us broads could grab a falchion.

And yes, I'm hoping somebody remembers the frying pan in "Tangled."

Windy Wendy said...

First, to Seth, nor does the article imply they "didn't" exist.
We all need to keep in mind the reality of what is "not" known fully, also what is theorized based on archeologist opinions.
Both of these can change at any given time.
As a writer and literary scholar I keep an open mind when it comes to what is written or believed to have happened according to the "experts" this is no disrespect to people who have studied in their field, but as in literature one tries to come up with a hypothesis that makes sense, according to the information which has been studied over time, and the given comprehension of societal and cultural norms at the time.
What fails to be taken into account is logic. I don't mean placing biased opinion according to our own society or culture, but instead looking at the obvious. Consider women studies. In the civil war women disguised themselves as men to fight, and this was in more contemporary times, when things were easier than between 800-1100. To assume women didn't fight along side of men is absurd. It's seen all throughout history. Logically women would participate in whatever area they were drawn to according to their personality, whether openly accepted or not.

tubby said...

Women "are" considered equal in pagan religions. Thankfully paganism still exists.Good point thou

Stephen Lloyd said...

The idea of warrior women being at all common in the pre-industrial age is preposterous. They simply do not have the physical capacity to compete with male warriors. I mean this in a logistical sense. No commander/leader is going to spend the time, effort and money to train and equip women when they are demonstrably inferior warriors.

The average woman has the upper body strength of a fourteen year old boy. In a recent study integrating just 20% female soldiers slowed down units by 50%. Yes, it halved their speed. On top of that the women were injured considerably more often (just from load-bearing movement). The top 25% of women equated to the bottom 25% of men in many tests; this ratio was even worse in other tests. The results are incontrovertible.

In an ancient world of precarious survival, with a demand for the absolute efficient use of resources and man-power, the idea of female warriors being more than an incredibly rare oddity is utterly ludicrous.


Unknown said...

I would agree with you on the statistics you've pointed out above, it seems far fetched that women would have been trained as warriors, but I do not think it far fetched that the Norse trained their women to fight in self defense.