If a woman served as head of the household in a family which lacked a man to fulfil this role, she could be buried with symbols of manhood. In Sountaka (Hämne) in Finland two decorative swords have been found in a female burial dated to the 11th century. This one has the blade and the hilt made in bronze, decorated in Jelling style.
Warrior women appear frequently in Scandinavian folklore, whether as pirates, fighters, leaders of armies or avengers. In sagas and poetry, women who chose to live as warriors were called ‘warrior women’. These were women who had chosen to stand outside the traditional gender role, and they seem to have been an accepted part of Old Norse society. In many of the stories and the poems they are referred to a ‘shield maidens’, meaning young women who had chosen to work as warriors. This expression is often used in the texts without further explanation, which suggests that the readers and listeners were well acquainted with the phenomenon The shield maidens must not be confused with the Valkyries, who were divine beings associated with the battlefield.
The question is whether warrior women are literary fantasies, myths, or a historical reality. Warrior women are not mentioned in any contemporary Nordic rune inscriptions, but that is perhaps not so surprising if they comprised only a small part of the Scandinavian warrior groups. Also, we know that rune stones often functioned as documentary records of inheritance and were usually raised by widows or mothers of fallen husbands and sons. Nor are warrior women named in French and Anglo-Saxon annals and chronicles.13 They are not mentioned either in the Irish chronicles in connection with the Vikings, but the phenomenon was not unfamiliar to the Irish themselves. The most famous were the protagonists Scáthach and Aífe, who probably had Scottish-Celtic origins and lived in the 5th or 6th century.
Several older sources claim that warrior women were found in northern Europe and Scandinavia around the time of Christ’s birth. Historians such as Strabo and Plutarch (1st century BC), Dio Cassius (49 AD) and Tacitus (100 AD) all say that there were warrior women among the tribes in northern and eastern Europe. In the 1st century AD, Saxon men and women were regarded by the Romans as of equal value. According to Tacitus, when a man married he gave to the woman oxen and a horse with its bridle, together with shield, spear and sword. She gave him the weapons back. Such reports, probably based on witness observation, surely contributed to reinforcing the Romans’ view of Germanic women as warlike. Such a ritual does not automatically imply that all women fought in war, or that all women bore weapons, but it can mean that Saxon men and women had shared responsibility for defending their nearest and dearest if necessary, and that fighting was part of life.
Two particular features recur in all Roman descriptions of the Germans: their appearance, with powerful bodies and reddish-blond hair and beard; and their women. According to the sources, the women supported their men in war and sometimes took part in the battles themselves.
Roman war reports regularly told of warrior women being found among the enemy’s dead. This can mean that some of the women fought in war, especially if the reports are from conflicts where the Romans were attacked, but it can also mean that women defended themselves with weapons when the tribe was attacked, just as Saxon women apparently did. As we do not know what types of conflict were being described, it is difficult to distinguish if these were warrior women who attacked the Romans, or whether they were taking part in a defence, or if they did both.
At the end of the 3rd century AD, 30 captured ‘Gothic warrior women’ were paraded in front of the populace when Emperor Aurelian (emperor 270–275 AD) held a triumphal procession in Rome. It is quite possible that these women really were warrior women, but the Roman triumphal processions were theatre and these ‘Gothic warrior women’ may also have just been the result of the Romans wishing that such women did exist. The Romans, with their severe and puritanical view of women and their double moral standards regarding sex, must have been terrified and aroused at the same time by the thought that they could be attacked by women. Such emotions certainly led to many stories and fantasies being played out in the gladiatorial arenas and the triumphal processions.
Eastern Roman historians also mention warrior women among their European enemies. In Procopius’ account of the war against the Goths (535–552) there is a story about an English princess who led an invasion of Jutland and captured the young king, Radigis, because he had deceived her. This story is characteristic of Saga material, and it can hardly be used as a reliable source to prove the existence of the warrior woman. On the other hand, another Byzantine historian, Johannes Skylitzes, tells in his historical writing from the 12th century that warrior women took part in the fighting when Prince Svjatoslav of Kiev lost a battle against the Byzantines in Bulgaria in 971. He says that the Byzantines were amazed when they found armed women among the fallen warriors.
Even though Skylitzes was writing 200 years after the events, it is possible that he had access to contemporary archives. Just like the West Romans, the East Romans were prolific writers of reports. In this context, we must also consider the social structures among the rus. Svjatoslav and his warriors were almost nomadic. They could be absent from Kiev for years, and therefore would have their women, female slaves and children with them when they went raiding. It may have been these women who were killed in the battles, as they tried to defend themselves and their families.
Nearly all the descriptions of warrior women are in texts from the Middle Ages. They were written several centuries after the events they describe. Some of these reports are of events said to have taken place in the time of tribal migrations, which was even more remote.
The Fornalder sagas (‘Sagas of Earlier Times’) comprise a collection of legendary sagas which were gathered together at the end of the 14th century. Among others, they include Hervor’s and Hedrek’s Saga, which is about the magic sword, Tyrfing, with the action taking place in the 5th century. Hervor, Angantyr’s daughter, dressed like a man and learned to use weapons in her youth, and went on plundering raids in search of valuables.
In Rolf Gautreksons Saga, which was written down in the 13th century, we find Torbjørg the shield-maiden. She was daughter of a King Erik in Uppsala and preferred to spend her days in fighting and athletic activities than in womanly activities. She even had her own guard troops. In oral tradition she was known as ‘King Torberg’.
A number of women warriors also appear in Saxo’s 13th-century Gesta Danorum (‘Chronicle of the Danes’). It is important to note that all the warrior women in the Fornalder sagas and in Saxo’s writings are upper-class women. In fact, this makes the stories appear more authentic. Even if they had wanted to do so, women from other layers of society would not have had the same opportunity to distinguish themselves in masculine arenas. In theory, upper-class women had the time and the authority to be able to assert themselves outside the wholly traditional role model.
According to Saxo, the warrior women were so numerous that he needed to explain to the reader why this was so. In Book Seven, which mainly deals with events at the end of the 8th century and beginning of the 9th, he says that he will explain how some women behaved in older times:
In olden days there were among the Danes, women who dressed like men and used nearly every moment of their time in battle-training so as not to run the risk that the sickness of luxurious life would drain away their courage. They hated luxury, preferring to harden both body and soul with toil and endurance (…) they forced their womanly nature to act with manly ruthlessness. And they absorbed the art of warfare with such zeal that one would not believe they were women any longer. It was especially those with a strong personality or a tall, handsome body who chose such a life.
After his introduction, Saxo turns back to the story itself, which is an account of the line of Danish kings. Warrior women appear again in Book Eight. In the battle of Brävall, between the Danish King Harald Hildetann and the Swedish King Ring, there are among the leaders of the Danish army two woman warriors, Hede and Visna, ‘to whom nature has given manly courage in women’s bodies’. These two women led a force from Slesvig in the battle. Visna carried the unit’s banner and is described by Saxo as ‘a tough woman with good knowledge of the arts of warfare’. Hede led Harald’s right flank.
Vebjørg was another woman warrior who took part on the Danish side. She led a group of ‘battlethirsty men’ and was herself a feared warrior. She felled a giant called Sote during the battle, but when she began to challenge further warriors to individual combat she was killed by a well-aimed arrow. The other women were all killed in the battle too. Among other wounds, Visna had her hand chopped off. On King Ring’s side, it is mentioned briefly among other things that Gerd den glade (‘Gerd the Happy’) fought for him together with a group of warriors from Värmland.
There is nothing in the reports to indicate that a warrior woman lost her femininity in the eyes of men. In the written sources it appears that the warrior women were desired by men and that they married and had children.
Saxo’s histories are exciting reading and good entertainment, but most people agree that his presentation of historic facts cannot be relied upon as accurate. He wrote in ponderous Latin and was inspired by classical texts, and many of his female characters have classic precedents, such as the Amazons and Camilla in The Aeneid. However, Saxo’s warrior women are not just classic models transferred to a Scandinavian scene. Saxo based his material on Scandinavian sources, mainly Icelandic. He himself says that he had copied much of this material in his presentation, especially from the heroic poetry. Many of Saxo’s stories about the warrior women have literary parallels in the heroic poems in The Older Edda and elsewhere. The events in these lays are mostly supposed to have taken place in the time of the tribal migrations, and they are preserved in Icelandic parchment manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries.
A good example of such parallel stories is Saxo’s account of Hagbart, who in his struggle to win Signe pretended to be a woman warrior, and the story of Helge in Det andre kvadet om Helge Hundingsbane (‘The second poem about Helge Hundingsbane’). In Saxo’s account, Hagbart is asked why he is so masculine. ‘She’ replies that it is not usual for warrior women to concern themselves with feminine arts. In The Older Edda, Helge is asked the same question when he pretends to be a slave girl. His patron explains that the slave girl is so masculine because she was previously a warrior woman from a noble family:
The grinding-stone groans
On the grinding-bench
When a prince’s daughter
Turns the quern.
Once she rode
Above the clouds;
Ventured to fight
Like a Viking;
Sister is she
To Sigar and Hognes;
Quick and sharp-eyed,
We don’t know who wrote these poems, but they are thought to be survivals from an oral folk tradition that existed for hundreds of years before the Viking Age. We know them from early written sources including excavations at Bryggen in Bergen where a number of runic inscriptions from the 12th century have been found, containing verses from the Edda poems. They are also found in fragments of the German Hildebrandslied (‘Song of Hildebrand’) from the 9th century.
Do the Roman and Norse stories reflect an actual reality, namely that warrior women existed in Germanic tribal culture in northern Europe and Scandinavia until well into the Viking Age? Alternatively, are the stories of warrior women just based on misunderstanding, or are they pure literary fantasy?
Women also feature outside their established roles in the Old Norse sagas about events in Iceland; not directly as warrior women, but as women who take up arms. Here, however, they are often punished for this, or have to tolerate social criticism. In the Laksdøla Saga we hear about Aud, who attacked her husband, Tord, with a sword. She was called Broka-Aud (‘Trousered Aud’) because she preferred to wear men’s clothes rather than skirts. This led to Tord divorcing her, because her lack of femininity offended his manly honour. She herself didn’t think there was anything noteworthy or dishonourable in wearing trousers. When Tord found himself a new woman, Aud took the sword and wounded him as an act of revenge. In Gisle Surson’s Saga, Tordis took upon herself the role of avenger when her family was offended. She wielded a sword against Øyolv and injured him to avenge the killing of her brother.
In The Greenland Saga and Eirik Raude’s Saga we meet Frøydis, who was Eirik Raude’s daughter. She was a very determined woman who didn’t hesitate to take up a weapon. She killed five women with an axe after first having their men killed. In Vinland she grasped a sword and displayed her breasts and pregnant abdomen to show the Indian warriors that she was a woman. She hit herself on the breasts with the flat of a sword when they attacked the new settlements. Frøydis’s aim in doing this was probably not to fight with the Indians, but first and foremost to demonstrate that she was a woman and pregnant, and that she was prepared to defend herself and her child.
Neither Aud, Tordis nor Frøydis were warrior women, but as participants in these dramas they were in a theatre where it was considered legitimate for women to handle weapons. These women were also to a certain extent upper-class women. They were married to independent farmers. In Iceland, where there was no king, the free farmers constituted the upper class and the landless, the tenant farmers, the freed serfs and the slaves made up the lower classes. It is possible that the Icelandic family sagas are pure fiction and should really be regarded as intended to combine the telling of good stories with imparting to the readers the kind of behaviour that was accepted in Icelandic society in the Middle Ages.
Gender roles in Viking times were clearly defined and separated. Men and women each related to their symbolic world of rights, values and attributes. A free man had weapons as his symbol, with which to defend himself and his family. The woman held the keys to the rooms and storage chests on the farm. Another symbolic distinction of both sex and status was clothing and appearance. One Icelandic legal decision specified that women who wore men’s clothing, cut their hair or carried weapons could be condemned as outlaws, and the same applied to men who wore women’s clothes. The distinction was most acute in the social milieu of the warriors, which promoted a purely masculine culture.
In the daily toil on the farm, by contrast, many of the areas of responsibility overlapped. The gender distinctions were manifested instead in cultural practices and symbolism.
Marriage between a man and a woman was one of the most important social institutions of the Viking Age. Getting married was a symbolically important decision which affected the whole extended family, and a man had to consult his friends and relatives before he could choose a bride. In theory the woman had no say in the matter but in practice it was probably usual for both bride and groom to give their consent. Women in the aristocratic classes, though, differed from farming-class women in being largely pawns in the game of politics.
A description of a marriage ceremony tells us that the man gave the family sword to the woman as a wedding present, to be passed on thereafter to a male heir. She also received and gave to the man gifts of weapons, as the Germanic women had done in Tacitus’s time.
Weaponry in female burials
Remains of weapons have been found in many sites of female burial from Roman, Germanic migration and Viking times. In some instances, where there is evidence of more than one weapon, this could be interpreted as indicating that the weapons were actually used by the women. There are several female burials in northern Germany which contain evidence of military gear, shields, spears and swords. Two of these are dated between 450 and 650 AD. More usually, however, the graves contain a single weapon rather than the whole equipment. Moreover, it is often difficult to be certain that the surviving artefacts really are the remains of a weapon.
In 1867 a Scandinavian female burial from the Viking Age was found in Norfolk, England. In addition to a pair of oval brooches this contained an object resembling a sword. This obviously made headlines, but it is equally likely that it was a weaving shuttle.
Weapons have been found with greater certainty in other burials from Viking times. In 1981, during an excavation in the neighbourhood of the village of Gerdrup in Denmark, a female skeleton was found buried with a needle-case, an iron knife and a spear. This grave dates from the beginning of the 9th century. It has been suggested that she was either a warrior woman or a woman with ‘man-status’, serving as head of a household which lacked a man to fulfil this role. In such circumstances it was legitimate for a woman to be buried with symbols of manhood. But this does not tell us anything about whether she actually fought with the spear.
In Sountaka (Hämne) in Finland a decorated sword has been found associated with a female burial dated to the 10th century. Perhaps here too we have a woman carrying out a manly role? However, later investigations seem to connect the sword to a secondary grave and not the female burial. Weapons have also been found in two female burials from Kaupang in Norway. In a boat burial from the last quarter of the 9th century, an axe, eight knives, a quiver for holding arrows and a whetstone were found in addition to a pair of oval brooches and other feminine accessories. In addition to these two, nearly 20 burials have been found in Norway containing both women’s and men’s equipment. Many of these were excavated during the 19th and early 20th centuries and are therefore not so well documented as the Gerdrup and Kaupang graves. As documentation is scantly or entirely lacking, we cannot be sure whether there was more than one skeleton in each of these graves. So they cannot be used as a source.
In the light of corresponding finds, it is not unthinkable that many of these Norwegian ‘undocumented’ burials were single female burials with a weapon. The finds are obviously not evidence that these women were warrior women, but they are evidence that women and weaponry were not incompatible in the Viking Age.
Was it possible for women in the Viking Age to appear as warriors in the battle line alongside men? Even though the Edda poems and many sagas should perhaps be interpreted as allegories conveying moral values in the form of parables rather than as factual accounts, and the warrior women should be seen as fictitious, there are many archaeological finds which associate women with weapons. As we have seen, such finds of weapons can be explained other than as weapons for use by women in battle. We have also seen that the gender roles in Viking society were normally kept strictly separate, and that it was associated with shame and dishonour to break those boundaries, though it was still possible for men and woman to break out of such bonds if the conditions were right.
It is however difficult to say anything about why some women in Viking society wanted to appear as warriors and about how some of them seem to have acquired the right to do so. There is much research still to be done in this area, but the preliminary conclusion is that women warriors would probably have represented too big a deviation from the gender roles of the Viking Age.