A number of women warriors show up during the Viking age. There is not a wealth of information available about each one, but the very fact that the literature is peppered with so many of them sends a message. Unfortunately, the tales have been taken from their Norse roots and rewritten through a Christian lens, which spins many of them as cautionary tales to be heeded by good Christian women. Jo Stanley, in an essay about Viking women in her book Bold in Her Breeches, claims that “society was being persuaded that lethal, wild, vengeful, and free-roving ways of living should be given up and that women should accept a meek and home-based role, and a Christian one at that.”
The Norse and Icelandic sagas, passed down orally but eventually written down, offer another option to explore the Nordic view of women, although the stories were almost certainly meddled with by Christian scholars, whose work reflected contemporary worldviews rather than true accounts of the Viking age. They do not for the most part cover pirate women, instead relating the tales of Aud the Deep-Minded, who was known as a settler; Freydis, the sister of Leif Erikson; and other women. Viking women wove tapestries, which have newly been the subject of research: textile as text. Stories told in cloth, although they do not always feature women, are presented from a woman’s perspective and are a compelling window into the mind of the storyteller. The stories that exist about these women may have been put down with a clear agenda in mind, but the reader is free to imagine what the authors left out and to attempt to construct another version of these tales, one free of religious or political motive.
In book 3 of the Gesta Danorum, the reader is presented with Sela, who we are told is a “skilled warrior with experience in roving.” Her brother, Koll (sometimes called Koller or Kolles), king of Norway, is jealous of the pirate Horwendil’s (or Orvendil) success and wants to eclipse him in popularity. (It is telling that a king could feel envy for the life of a pirate.) Koll sets off with his fleet to find Horwendil, and eventually the two run into each other. Rather than decimate their fleets in battle, the two men decide to settle their difference in single hand-to-hand combat. They promise to fight with honor and bury the loser as befits his station. When Horwendil bests Koll, he decides (for reasons not given in the narrative) to chop off another limb of their family tree and fight Sela, too, who is called in some translations “a warring Amazon and an accomplished pirate.”
Why was Sela in close proximity to the fight? Was she sailing in Koll’s fleet at the time? Did Koll choose her as a sort of second in the duel with Horwendil? Saxo’s account leaves out all these details. Some versions of the story claim that Sela and Koll were bitter rivals, one on each side of the law. Whether or not they disliked each other, it is generally agreed that both siblings were slain by the pirate Horwendil, although the lavish funeral rites bestowed on Koll are not mentioned in Sela’s case.
Book 8 offers another case of sibling rivalry—this time between Tesondus (also known as Thrond) and his sister Rusla. In some translations, Rusla is called Rusila, although Rusila appears to be a different maiden who, along with her sister Stikla, fought King Olaf for his kingdom. Rusla is also sometimes linked to the mythological figure Ingean Ruadh (the Red Maiden). Tesondus had lost the crown of Norway to the Danish king Omund, which galled Rusla to no end. She could not bear to see her beloved country taken over by Danish rule, and she was annoyed that her brother seemed content to let it happen. So she decided that if her brother was not going to take any action, she would have to do it herself. Rusla declared war on her people who had declared allegiance to the Danes. Omund was not pleased with this dissension and sent a unit of his best soldiers to put an end to her rebellion. Rusla destroyed the Danish contingent, and that gave her a brilliant idea. Why not aim a bit higher than independence from the Danish? Why not take over Denmark and rule both nations herself instead?
Fortune turned her back on Rusla, whose invasion of Denmark did not go well, forcing her to turn tail and run to save herself and her troops. As she retreated from the Danes, she ran into her brother, whom she overpowered in short order, stripping him of all his ships and troops but refusing to kill Tesondus himself; that decision would prove to be her fatal mistake. King Omund sent his fleet to Norway to attack Rusla’s fleet, and again she was defeated by the Danish forces. As she retreated for a second time, her brother Tesondus attacked and killed her. Some stories claim that he beat her to death with oars. For taking care of Rusla for him, Omund gave former rival Tesondus a governorship.
This story has more meat to it than Sela’s story, but there are not enough details to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. What was Rusla’s life like before she took to the sea? Did she regard the repulsion of Danish forces as her patriotic duty or a splendid adventure? When Omund’s forces followed her back home to Norway for a second battle, did she realize that she would not beat them? Did surrender ever cross her mind? And why did she spare Tesondus’s life? Could she have believed that, when their places were reversed, he would do the same for her?
Book 8 also tells of three women longship captains, who, although they had the bodies of women, had been blessed with “the souls of men.” Wisna, Webiorg, and Hetha were all fighters by land as well as sea. Each woman receives only a few lines of text devoted to her. Wisna is said to have been made a standard-bearer in battle and then to have lost her right hand in combat. Webiorg felled a champion before being killed in battle, and Hetha was appointed the ruler of Zealand (part of modern-day Denmark). Although there is almost no information about these women, the scanty tidbits are juicy enough to pique the reader’s interest.
While it may be initially surprising that this warrior culture, packed to the hilt with testosterone-laden images and heroes, had so many women warriors, a look at the religious structure at the time reveals that women were always, at least symbolically, part of battle. Yggdrasil, the tree of life, was the center of the Norse world. At the tree’s roots lived the Norns, mythical women who shaped the destinies of humans and even gods. These women were similar to the Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The powerful male gods, such as Thor and Odin, were subject to the whims of the Norns. In their hands they held life, death, and everything in between. It seems that, in Norse mythology, women ran the world.
Besides the Norns, Norse mythology also includes the Valkyries. These attendants of Odin moved among the Viking battlefields, selecting who would live to fight another day and whose battle was permanently ended. Among the slain, they also chose who would go on to glorious Valhalla, the big dining hall in the sky where warriors prepared to help Odin during Ragnarök, which is the Viking end of the world. The unselected dead were escorted to Fólkvangr, a field of the afterlife ruled over by goddess Freyja. The Valkyries are portrayed as beautiful and noble, helping weary warriors to their final destination, but they are also sinister—some early tales show them gleefully cackling while weaving a tapestry of fate made of human entrails and severed heads. They exist in various permutations across many pre-Christian traditions but have remained in Western popular culture almost exclusively as Viking Valkyries. These women, existing alongside men and performing a vital part of the battle rituals, demonstrate an acceptance by the Old Norse that women did have a part to play in war.
Modern research suggests that Valkyries were neither male or female but a third unnamed gender, which had masculine attributes while being physically female. Original depictions of Valkyries support this assertion and are a far cry from the sexy, undeniably female bodies shown in art today. Mortal Viking women seem to share this mix of masculine traits and feminine bodies, much more so than originally thought. Marianne Moen’s study of grave sites suggests that the positioning of grave sites and grave goods suggests a smaller difference between men and women than originally believed. She cites Cedrenus, an author from 970 BCE, who witnessed a battle between the Rus and the Byzantines and claimed that the Byzantines were surprised by the number of women they found among the dead on the battlefield. Even the traditional roles held by women, keeper of the keys or lady of the house, may have been more public (male) than private (female) than previously thought due to the role of houses in trade; a Viking woman would have been more like a store or factory manager than a housekeeper, since houses were used as trade centers by the Vikings. Moen’s research presents some new possibilities for understanding Viking life that are worthy of continued study.
A major pirate woman from this era was Ladgerda (also called Lagertha). Book 9 of the Gesta Danorum tells her story, which starts inauspiciously. According to Saxo Grammaticus, Swedish king Frey kills a Norwegian king and, in an especially cruel move, puts the dead king’s womenfolk into a brothel so that they might be publicly humiliated. Ragnar of Denmark is moved by the women’s plight and goes to Norway to break them out—and cause some havoc for the Swedish king Frey. When the news of Ragnar’s coming reaches the brothel, many of the women dress as men, sneak out, and join his army. One of them is Ladgerda, who “fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders.”
Ragnar must have been shocked upon arriving at the brothel. He expects to be hailed as a strong and handsome hero by the bound and nearly nude women, who would weep in gratitude for his selfless rescue plan. Instead, he finds an armed team of warriors already in place, ready to aid him. Even if he weathered that change of plans, he would have been really surprised to discover that his fierce new comrades were actually the very women he was meant to be saving. It was enough to knock any man down a few pegs, but it appears Ragnar did not worry too much about it; he was too busy engaging in a furious battle—with the women’s help, of course.
Ragnar and the women win the skirmish. Afterward, taking a leaf from the fairy-tale playbook, he goes on a hunt, asking everyone he can find who the mystery woman was: the one who had caused him to “gain the victory by the might of just one woman.” When he discovers that she is Ladgerda, who is not only brave and gorgeous but also of noble birth, he resolves to woo her. She is unimpressed with him but seems to know that rejecting him outright is not particularly safe, so she allows him to woo her as she installs a vicious dog and a bear in front of her dwelling to protect herself from any unwanted visitors (namely, suitors). Ragnar, apparently unable to take a hint, goes to her, kills the bear, chokes the dog, and grabs Ladgerda in his arms. The two marry and have three children.
Lest the reader worry that Ladgerda suffered an ignoble fate, be assured that the story is not over. Her husband leaves her for another woman, apparently realizing at last that a wife who puts out wild beasts to keep men away might not be that into him. However, when Ragnar gets embroiled in a civil war back home in Denmark, he sends to Norway for help. Guess who rides in and saves the day? Ragnar’s ex-wife, Ladgerda, who turns the tide of the battle with her 120 ships, ensuring a victory for Ragnar. However, the reunion of the old lovers is not a sweet one—after the battle, Ladgerda stabs her former husband with a spearhead she has concealed in her dress. She then wipes the blood off herself and claims the Danish throne, for, as Saxo Grammaticus tells us, “this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.”
Ladgerda’s story includes many more details than do the accounts of most of the other women who are featured in the Gesta Danorum, but it still does not feel like enough. Her actions demonstrate clearly just how she felt about being forcibly married, abandoned, and then summoned to help her ex-husband. But what happened in between all these episodes? What became of this remarkably gutsy woman? Some scholars have pointed out the similarity of her tale with the story of the goddess Thorgerd, the subject of several myths. If Ladgerda is in fact a goddess and not a mortal woman, her story makes a bit more sense. She alone among the warrior maidens is able to get the better of a man who desires her and rule a kingdom. She is the only one who gets a happy ending. A little pagan divine intervention might have been the only way for a Viking woman to come out on top in this collection of stories about bringing wild women in line with Christian values. Goddess or mortal, Ladgerda’s pluck, skill, and ambition make her an irresistible heroine.