Shield Maidens: Did the Vikings Have Women Warriors?
Near Birka, Sweden in 1880, the burial mound of a Viking leader was discovered, complete with a magnificent array of weapons and the remains of two sacrificed horses. In 2017, the remains of the “Birka Warrior” were reexamined; and the suspicions of astute researchers were confirmed through DNA evidence – the remains are of a female.1 This find certainly seems to lend credence to stories the Norse skalds have long told – that it was not only Norse men who could become Viking warriors, but also Norse women. Traditionally-minded or otherwise cautious experts were quick to point out that just because the individual was buried with the tools of war did not make her a warrior. At the same time, it would be highly unusual to bury her so if she were not. The discovery raises the question of how many other times archeologists have made this mistake.
Female skeletons have been identified in Viking group graves (like the burial mound at Repton, England); but these may have been the women who accompanied their Viking husbands as colonists, or they could be local captives.2 The archeological uncertainty is further complicated because Vikings did not always bury their dead, but practiced a range of burial rituals including cremation, exposure to the elements, and burial at sea.2 So archeology has not been able to confirm or refute the legend of the shield maiden; but new DNA/genome techniques soon may.
There is no question that Norse society was a patriarchal one; however, women had more freedom, self-determination, and rights than they did in most other societies of the time. Noble and free-born women (that is, everyone except the many slaves) in 8th-11th century Scandinavia and the Viking colonies could own and inherit land; they could chose to divorce their husbands; oaths to them were as binding as to a man; and they had many other legal protections.3 If we can extrapolate from Viking mythology (which we may only do very carefully, for the actions of gods are not always the standards for mortals) women could love as they chose.4 In the Norse sagas, we see women portrayed as being just as courageous, wise, cunning, well-spoken, and respected as men. An example of this would be Aslaug, from the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. In the story, when Ragnar meets Aslaug she is disguised as a poor but free-born woman. Despite these ordinary circumstances, Aslaug is able to decide if she will marry Ragnar; and if so, when. She can come and go as she pleases. Later, after she becomes Ragnar’s queen and the mother of some of the most celebrated heroes in Viking lore, her voice holds great sway, and she even leads an army against the king of Sweden.5 The fictionalized Aslaug has a number of historical counterparts, including Olga of Kiev and Freydís Eiríksdóttir – Norse women who used cunning, influence, tenacity, and ability to accomplish their ambitions and become extremely powerful rulers.3
What we know of Lagertha
Though Aslaug leads an army, there is no overt mention of her physically joining the battle. However, another woman associated with the legendary Ragnar is described fighting alongside men in the shield wall – a woman named Lagertha. According to Saxo Grammaticus, Lagertha was a member of the royal household of Norway. When the King of Sweden defeated the king of Norway, he captured many of his kinswomen as slaves. When Ragnar heard of these outrages, he came to Norway with his followers to avenge the king’s death and to set things right. Many of the women who had either escaped or fled the invaders came to Ragnar and begged to join him in the fight against their oppressor. Among these women was one named Lagertha, described as having “a matchless spirit though a delicate frame”.6 She showed such skill and fury in the subsequent battle that Ragnar “declared that he had gained the victory by the might of one woman”.6 Smitten, Ragnar wooed Lagertha; who after playing hard-to-get in a very Viking fashion (she loosed her bear on him at one point), eventually married him. The happiness of the marriage was short-lived, and the two divorced; but years later Lagertha would again come to Ragnar’s aid, leading the warriors of 120 ships into battle. Again Lagertha’s great skill and valor saved the day, and saved her ex-husband’s fortunes. Returning from this victory, Lagertha slew her new husband for reasons unmentioned and seized control of his kingdom for herself alone.6
Lagertha is one of many Viking heroines described as a shield maiden. This list of valiant fighting women includes Aslaug’s mother, Brynhildr, whose Vǫlsunga Saga inspired Wagner’s famous opera and became one of those cultural images that everyone knows but few understand. Returning to Viking mythology, it was believed that the brave warriors who died in battle were carried from the field by armor-wearing, horse-riding female spirits known as Valkyries. Furthermore, many of the Norse goddesses – including Freya, the goddess of love, sex, and fertility – were also goddesses of war.4 It is clear from these stories that the Vikings did not see the battlefield in strictly masculine terms.
To further consider the plausibility of shield maidens, we can also look to cultures that were neighboring or analogous to the Vikings. Going many centuries before the Vikings, to Celtic Britain at the time of the Roman conquest and occupation; we see women joining the men in battle (though these women are described in very witch-like terms, and may have been female druids).8 Roman occupying forces complained that while trying to arrest men, they would often be attacked by their wives. Unease and underestimation culminated when Boudicca, queen of the Icenii avenged the war crimes of certain Romans by unleashing one of the greatest massacres ever to occur on British soil.7 In the Ulster Cycle of 7th-8th century Irish literature (i.e. just before the Viking Age), the young Achilles figure, Cu Chulainn, is told that his martial training will not be complete until he travels to Alba (Scotland) and studies under a famous female warrior named Scathach.8 Interestingly, when Cu Chulainn first faces Scathach he apparently takes her by surprise and overpowers her, but still demands of her to take him as her pupil. His continued interest despite his victory suggests that Scathach’s real merit was as a technical fighter, and it was this superior level of technique that Cu Chulainn needed to turn his raw power and talent into true greatness. Another interesting detail about the Scathach story is that she has sons and a daughter, demonstrating that becoming a warrior was not seen as a complete alternative to other gender roles. The legacy of female warriors would continue throughout history. In the mid-sixteenth century, Grace O’Malley became one of the most successful pirates of the golden age of piracy, following in the footsteps of Viking shield maidens.9 In our own time, some of the most dangerous fighting in the War on Terror is being undertaken by Kurdish and Yazidi women.
The shield maidens of the Viking Age have left us with many clues and many questions, but few firm answers. We do not know definitively if they existed; or – if so – how common they might have been. We do not know if they would have been used reactively to defend hearth and home, or if they might have also been involved in Viking raids and expeditions. What we can see from the evidence is that Norse women may have been far less constrained by their society than they have been constrained by modern researchers. Norse women were more than nurturers who stayed at home tending the children and the animals. They were respected voices in their communities and brave colonists ready to start lives from scratch in hostile lands. They could be able rulers, and may also have been fearsome warriors. They were Vikings.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including Sons of Vikings: A Legendary History of the Viking Age (which of course we believe is one of the best Vikings books available) and The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
- Greshko, M. Famous Viking Warrior Was a Woman, DNA Reveals. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/09/viking-warrior-woman-archaeology-spd/ Published September 12, 2017. Accessed November 10, 2017
- Viking Dig Reports., BBC History. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/dig_reports_01.shtml Published 2014. Accessed November 10, 2017
- Brownworth, L. (2014). The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. Crux Publishing, Ltd. United Kingdom.
- McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. Columbia. 2016
- Waggoner, B. The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok. Troth. 2009
- Saxo Grammaticus. The Danish History, Book Nine. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1150/1150-h/1150-h.htm . Circa 12th century. Accessed November 10, 2017.
- Tacitus. Annals, Book XIV. Retrieved from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/tacitus/annals/14b*.html Published 1937. Accessed November 10, 2017
- Gregory, I. A., Yeats, W. B., and Boss, C., A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend & Folklore (Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry / Cuchulain of Muirthemne). New York, Avenel Books. Published 1986.
- Trowbridge, B., Meeting Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s Pirate Queen. The National Archives. Retrieved from http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/meeting-grace-omalley-irelands-pirate-queen/. Published June 16, 2016. Accessed November 10, 2017.
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