There were once women among the Danes who dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of their lives to the pursuit of war, that they might not suffer their valor to be unstrung or dulled by the infection of luxury. For they abhorred all dainty living, and used to harden their minds and bodies with toil and endurance.
They put away all the softness and lightmindedness of women, and inured their womanish spirit to masculine ruthlessness. They sought, moreover, so zealously to be skilled in warfare, that they might have been thought to unsex themselves.
Those, especially, who had either force of character or tall and comely persons, used to enter this kind of life
(Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum 6.8)
I was recently asked about shield maidens, warrior women of the Viking Age, a fascinating topic since Old Norse legends provide a great deal of material which, alongside other accounts of strong women, serves to make Scandinavian women of the Dark Ages stand out in comparison to their sisters on the Medieval European continent at the time, stand out as strong, self-assertive, self-confident and sometimes even powerful, and they even had warrior women who appear to have fought on an equal standing as their brothers.
The question is, how true is this?
I would hate to disappoint my fellow women in this regard, but as a serious historian I also need to search for the truth of the matter, and all my studies tell me that the position of Scandinavian women prior to the conversion compared to the position of women in Christian, Medieval Europe says a lot more about the “Gilead”-like society of Christian medieval Europe than it says about Viking Age Scandinavian women.
The position of European women in the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages and even right up to the last centuries was horrendously oppressive. Not only were their lives controlled, their potentials suppressed and their opportunities limited, they were also constantly told that they were weak both of mind and body, that they were less intelligent, and that they were more sinful and besides terrible temptresses who needed to be put in their places most of the time, and they were almost constantly blamed if they were victimized.
Medieval Europe was a terrible time and place for women, and even for most men, since very few men actually had any power either, but lived to serve and toil for their masters too.
Compared to that sort of life, Scandinavian women and men were practically freewheeling hippies, only considerably more warlike.
TV-series such as “Vikings” have emphasized this aspect of Norse culture; the relative individual freedom, the sexual freedom, the relative equality, the lack of misogyny, the existence of warrior women, women who led religious rituals – all that is sort of true, but some of it is perhaps a bit exaggerated, especially in the way they depict individual independence in both sexes.
Individual independence is a great thing, I have enjoyed it most of my life, and contrary to what some people seem to think, describing the facts of life in the past does not mean that we think it is an ideal of sorts. The facts of life in the past are not always what we would have liked them to be. Individual independence is completely dependent on a society that will legally protect your right to that independence, and that sort of central government who would protect everybody´s individual freedom did not exist in the Viking Age. You had to go to your clan if you wanted protection of your rights, and then you had to make sure your clan agreed with you, and that your clan was powerful enough to protect you. You had to think communally rather than individually if you were even to survive, whether you liked that or not.
My studies also tell me that Scandinavian women were not quite as equal to men as we would have liked them to be.
Yes, it is a fact that Scandinavian women were blessed with a lack of misogyny and a cultural basic respect for our gender and not the least a deep respect for our potential for equal intelligence that was unheard of in the rest of Europe at the time.
Yes, it is a fact that there were loopholes for women who did not fit into the traditional gender roles in some way or other.
But it is also a fact that Viking Age society was a clan-based society where the extent of your power to be self-assertive depended a lot on the strength and power and importance of your clan, whether you were a man or a woman.
The Clan and Patriarchy
The clan was patriarchal in the original sense; patriarchal because the head of the clan, the one with the final decisions and the right to vote at parliament (most Norse societies were more or less democratic, and yes, there were differences from tribe to tribe in this matter), and the right to command everybody else in the clan, was a man, the head of the clan would always be a man, and only in cases where the man died and left sons too young to rule would his widow act in his place. Her children would always carry the name of their father, not her. Only if a woman gave birth outside of marriage would the child sometimes be surnamed after her, although it appears to have been more common to invent surnames such as “Guest´s Son” or “Viking´s son” rather than applying the mother´s name (and yes, they were relatively laid-back concerning births outside of marriage).
However, today, the term “patriarchy” has come to mean something different than what it once did. Patriarchy in its original sense did not necessarily mean that all men ranked above all women or that they were all privileged as men compared to women, and it certainly did not mean that in Scandinavian society – as said, your family, your clan, and its united power to put swords behind words, decided your rank more than gender did.
The clan would mean your entire extended family alongside other dependents, fosterlings, servants, warriors and lesser farmers all living together in the settlement that the clan owned. Sometimes, a settlement would consist of more than one clan, but usually they made up a sort of small confederation of clans where one of them took precedence. Within this community, everybody had to do their part, men and women worked at everything that was needed for everybody to thrive, and women´s work was just as important as men´s, and even more time-consuming, which may be why most girls never got to practice the arts of combat that freeborn boys were obliged to practice every day from the time they could walk. Only in extremely powerful, noble clans who had lots of servants and slaves could time be freed for the occasional noble maiden who wished to learn the battle arts alongside her brothers.
As to independence, only the vǫlur (traveling oracles and witch-priestesses) could be described as independent women. There would also be the occasional independent, rogue warrior, but they were not fortunate as such, and would usually attempt to become bound to a clan, since that was how you actually survived back in those days.
Everybody else, men and women, would have been completely powerless if they were independent, because everybody, men and women, depended completely on their clans for physical protection, legal representation, economic support and status. Without the clan, you had nothing and nobody to protect you against hostility, represent your legal cases, or take care of you in case of sickness and old age. So to say that anyone was independent would have been wrong – people had to be a part of a community and act within that community as an active, productive member in some way or other, and I think it is hard for modern westerners to even imagine the degree of communal thinking that people back then depended upon for their lives and their well-being.
Within the clan, led by a patriarch, his wife, the House-Freyia, was second in command and would be first in command in his place while he was away, and would also be first in command in the case she was widowed before her sons were grown. In matters of combat and war, however, most House-Freyias would assign a male warrior kinsman for the task of leading her warriors.
Norse society was not egalitarian even if it provided a certain dignity and freedom to the individual compared to other places at the time; It was a hierarchic society that would mean some women did take a leading role in many circumstances, but only if they were the wives or widows of a powerful man, or if they happened to belong to a category of women who wielded religious and magical power – but these women were the exception, not the rule.
Most women were wives and daughters of men who did not have that much power in society, and the relative power of women depended completely on the power of their menfolk. Men were usually the only ones who could put blades behind words.
Norse people also kept slaves, just like everybody else did at the time in some way or other; Slaves, whether male or female, had no power at all, and sources more than suggest that slave women could be sexually abused, bought and sold, although the sources that we have also suggest that they were usually treated with the same famous lack of misogyny and victim-blaming that the Old Norse society is known for. Women who were abused were hardly ever blamed for it in any way. Free women could honorably avenge themselves or demand that their kinsmen did it for them. Beating your wife could get you killed by her kinsmen or else cause her to act in a way that would get you killed anyway, and nobody would blame her, since beating a free person was unpardonable. Some of the slave girl stories tell us that even an enslaved woman could impress her masters if she acted with dignity and self-respect all the way – that sort of personal quality could even earn her freedom.
This complete lack of cultural woman-hatred in itself could have provided Scandinavian women with a great deal of freedom even compared to many places today– freedom to not live in shame and self-loathing and the constant message that you were a lesser human being and that your sexuality or looks defined you – they were free from that.
It was also taken for granted that a woman could possess wisdom and intelligence and cunning just as men could, and if a woman possessed such qualities, she would be respected for it, and she was allowed to speak up and could expect to be listened to. Women could trade and own their own property and get a divorce if they were unhappy in their marriage. Once widowed or divorced, she could not be married off again without her personal consent.
Sexually, the pagan Norse society was extremely liberal compared to Christian Europe. Nobody cared about virginity before marriage, and you were pretty free to have lovers if you were unmarried or widowed – the only objections would be if your lover was lower in status, from a lesser clan. In this, there was no equality; a high-ranking man could have sex with low-ranking women, a high-ranking woman had to find someone of equal or higher standing. This had to do with the way sex appears to have been perceived as a performance of male dominance; to penetrate was to dominate, and so a high-ranking woman could not let herself be dominated by a man of lesser rank, while she could honorably let herself be dominated by a man of equal or higher standing. (Because of this perception of sex, a free, high-ranking man who engaged in homosexual activity would be discreet about it in the first place, since it could earn him a great deal of teasing, but could not ever be known for letting himself be the penetrated one, since that would earn him deep shame and loss of manhood. In one Edda poem, two former, homosexual lovers argued in public about who had been the penetrated part, no free man and warrior wanted to admit to having taken that role, at least. )
This apparent Viking Age attitude to sex is a powerful reminder that the way we (or many of us) today perceive gender equality and sexual freedom, was not exactly there either, despite all that relative liberty and tolerance.
And yet, compared to other medieval to Iron Age cultures, Scandinavian women really did stand out.
But did they fight alongside men?
Warrior Women in Written Sources
It would be extremely exaggerated to say that warrior women abounded in Old Norse society. Not even the written sources, where we have most of our information about such women, do women as such stand out as warriors. Men, on the other hand, appear to have been obliged to practice and excel in combat art – even commoners. They had annual parliaments where all free men had to appear carrying all the weapons they owned, and they could be fined if they did not possess the weapons appropriate to their rank. Only noblemen were expected to own expensive swords, but every commoner needed at least a battle-axe and a spear. This was because, if needed, every free man had to partake in the defense of their tribal land. So even among low-ranking farmers and other commoners, a free man was always supposed to be a warrior, and to be afraid of fighting was a deep shame for a man unless he got off the hook due to extreme talent at some craft or because he chose the path of seiðr.
Women were not in any way expected to own weapons or prove themselves as warriors or partake in battle and combat. But in such a warlike society, they were constantly surrounded by a warlike mentality and appear to have been engaged anyway. Many women would have known a little about fighting and weaponry, and in cases where women acted with warlike courage in order to help their outnumbered menfolk, they were appraised for that.
Several sources describing courageous women who took up arms despite having no chance against a large, heavy, trained warrior also suggest that a certain gentlemanly behavior was expected of men; it would dishonor a man to use his strength against a woman, and if attacked by a woman he would attempt to just disarm her rather than harm her. Most women spent their girlhoods learning all the crafts needed for the community´s survival, including medicine and surgery, and had no time to set aside for combat practice. Most boys, however, were under obligation to set aside time for that. By the time they were grown, the greatest difference between the sexes would have been that men were expert at all sorts of martial arts while women were expert at transforming fiber into clothing and sails and shoes, and at mending wounds and making plant medicine and running farms.
However, as mentioned before, there were high-ranking noble clans where the work of young maidens could be done by servants. In such clans, it appears that girls who wished to train in battle were allowed to do that, and nobody raised an eyebrow. This is where we are most likely to find women carrying arms and acting like warriors, but we still do not know to what extent they actually partook in battle on an equal standing as their brothers. Also, while an army would have consisted of all the free men of the tribe regardless of rank, only a very few, high-ranking women would have been present.
Around the year 1200, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote, in his Gesta Danorum (The History of the Danish People) several passages concerning warrior women. In chapter six, he summed up what he believed had been a past, pagan tendency:
“And that no one may wonder that this sex labored at warfare, I will make a brief digression, in order to give a short account of the estate and character of such women. There were once women among the Danes who dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of their lives to the pursuit of war, that they might not suffer their valor to be unstrung or dulled by the infection of luxury. For they abhorred all dainty living, and used to harden their minds and bodies with toil and endurance.
They put away all the softness and lightmindedness of women, and inured their womanish spirit to masculine ruthlessness. They sought, moreover, so zealously to be skilled in warfare, that they might have been thought to unsex themselves.
Those, especially, who had either force of character or tall and comely persons, used to enter this kind of life. These women therefore (just as if they had forgotten their natural estate, and preferred sternness to soft words) offered war rather than kisses, and would rather taste blood than lips, and went about the business of arms more than that of armorers. They devoted those hands to the lance which they should rather have applied to the loom. They assailed men with their spears whom they could have melted with their looks, they thought of death and not of dalliance.”
In chapter 8, we hear of more such women, ready to attend the legendary Battle of Brávellir, which may have taken place around the year 750:
“Now out of Lejre came Hortar and Borgar, and also Belgi and Beigad, to whom were added Bari and Toli. Now out of the town of Sle, under the (female) captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hákon Cut-Cheek came Tummi the Sail-Maker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Vebjörg was also inspired with the same spirit….
…The maidens I have named, in fighting as well as courteous array, led their land-forces to the battle-field…”
This all sounds splendid. But the reality of medieval and Iron Age warfare was harsh, and women could be mutilated and killed just like men could. During the Battle of Brávellir, the shieldmaiden Vebjörg killed the champion Soti and managed to give additional wounds to Starkad, who was greatly angered. She was killed by the champion Thorkell. Furious, Starkad went forth in the Danish army, killing warriors all around him, and cut off the shieldmaiden Visna’s arm, which held the Danish banner.
Another and very ambitioius Shield Maiden was Rusla, whom Saxo refers to as a Norwegian Amazon (chapter 8):
“At the same time, the amazon Rusla, whose prowess in warfare exceeded the spirit of a woman, had many fights in Norway with her brother, Thrond, for the sovereignty. She could not endure that Omund rule over the Norwegians, and she had declared war against all the subjects of the Danes. Omund, when he heard of this, commissioned his most active men to suppress the rising. Rusla conquered them, and, waxing haughty on her triumph, was seized with overweening hopes, and bent her mind upon actually acquiring the sovereignty of Denmark.
She began her attack on the region of Halland, but was met by Hormod and Thode, whom the king has sent over. Beaten, she retreated to her fleet, of which only thirty ships managed to escape, the rest being taken by the enemy. Thrond encountered his sister as she was eluding the Danes, but was conquered by her and stripped of his entire army, he fled over the Dovrefjell without a single companion.
Thus she, who had first yielded before the Danes, soon overcame her brother, and turned her flight into a victory. When Omund heard of this, he went back to Norway with a great fleet, first sending Homod and Thole by a short and secret way to rouse the people of Telemark (a tribe in Norway) against the rule of Rusla.
The end was that she was driven out of her kingdom by the commoners, fled to the isles for safety, and turned her back, without a blow, upon the Danes as they came up. The king pursued her hotly, caught up her fleet on the sea and utterly destroyed it, the enemy suffered mightily, and he won a bloodless victory and splendid spoils.
But Rusla escaped with a very few ships, and rowed ploughing the waves furiously; but, while she was avoiding the Danes, she met her brother and was killed.”
Warrior women who lost a battle would easily have become booty, like Saxo here describes how Alfhild tried to escape her suitor by assuming a masculine role, but is defeated and forced to marry him anyway (chapter 6):
“Thus Alfhild was led to despise the young Dane, whereupon she changed woman´s for man´s attire, and, no longer the most modest of maidens, began the life of a warlike rover.
Enrolling in her service many maidens who were of the same mind, she happened to come to a spot where a band of rovers were lamenting the death of their captain, who had been lost in war; they made her their rover captain for her beauty, and she did deeds beyond the valor of woman (….)
… For Alfhild had gone before them with her fleet into the same narrows… The Danes wondered whence their enemies got such grace of bodily beauty and such supple limbs. So, when they began the sea-fight, the young man Alf leapt on Alfhild´s prow, and advanced towards the stern, slaughtering all who withstood him. His comrade Borgar struck off Alfhild´s helmet, and, seeing the smoothness of her chin, saw that he must fight with kisses and not with arms; that the cruel spears must be put away, and the enemy handled with gentler dealings. So Alf rejoiced that the woman whom he had sought over land and sea in the face of so many dangers was now beyond all expectations in his power, whereupon he took hold of her eagerly, and made her change her man´s apparel for a woman´s, and afterwards begot on her a daughter, Gurid. Also Borgar wedded the attendant of Alfhild, Groa, and had by her a son…”
Another shield-maiden who was maimed and ended up married to the man who maimed her, was “Stunt-Brynhild” of the Saga of Bósi and Herrauð, chapter 2, although Brynhild may have been luckier with her man than Alfhild and Groa:
“There was a man called Thvari or Bryn-Thvari, who lived not far from the king´s residence. He had been a great Viking in his younger years and during his fighting career he had come up against an amazon, Brynhild, the daughter of king Agnar of Noatown. They had set about one another, and soon Brynhild was wounded and unable to carry on fighting. Then Thvari took her into his care, along with a great deal of money. He saw to it that her wounds were fully healed, but she remained bent and twisted for the rest of her life, and so she was known as Stunt-Brynhild. Thvari made her his wife, and although she wore a helmet and a coat of mail at her wedding, their married life was a happy one.”
A far more successful Shield Maiden was Lagertha, or, as she would have been called in a less Latinized account, Hlaðgerð. She is found in Saxo´s book chapter 9 as one of several women who, after having been had been forced into prostitution and who would now rather join the army before being raped more:
“At the time, Fro, the King of Sweden, after slaying Siward, the King of the Norwegians, put the wives of Siward´s kinsfolk in bonds in a brothel, and delivered them to public outrage. When Ragnar Lóðbrok heard of this, he went to Norway to avenge his grandfather. As he came, many of the matrons, who had either suffered insult to their person or feared imminent peril to their chastity, hastened eagerly to his camp in male attire, declaring that they would prefer death to outrage.
Nor did Ragnar, who was to punish this reproach upon the women, scorn to use against the author of the infamy the help of those whose shame he had come to avenge.
Among them was Ladgerda, a skilled amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.
Ragnar, when he had justly cut down the murderer of his grandfather, asked many questions of his fellow soldiers concerning the maiden whom he had seen so forward in the fray, and declared that he had gained the victory by the might on one woman…
…Ragnar sent envoys to Norway, and besought friendly assistance against these men, and Ladgerda, whose early love still flowed deep and steadfast, hastily sailed off with her husband and her son. She brought herself to offer a hundred and twenty ships to the man who had once put her away.”
There is also the story of Hervör, a shield maiden who even got a whole saga named after her and her grand-daughter by the same name, Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks. In this saga, Hervör the elder retrieves the sword of her own father from his grave after conquering his ghost. Hervör was described as being as strong as the boys from an early age, and learned archery, swordsmanship, and horse riding. She dressed like a man, fought, killed and pillaged, played tafl and even demanded to be called by a masculine name, Hervarðr.
After having traveled far and wide, she settled down, resumed her female identity, got married and had two sons, Angantyr and Heiðrek. The latter had a daughter who took after her father´s mother and was also named after her; Hervör the younger became the commander in chief of a Gothic fort, but perished during an attack of the Huns. Upon hearing of her death, her brother made a praising lament about her:
“Unbrotherly the bloody game they played with you, excellent sister.”
Stories like these do tell us something: they tell us that people of the Viking Age told legends of warrior women and that they appraised these, and that these stories were remembered and told way into the High Middle Ages, when they were written down by men who, like Saxo, felt the need to explain that this was how things were back in the pagan era.
Stories will often reflect the attitudes and values of a culture, and often also reflect some realities about that culture. Numerous so called “shield maiden graves” have been found, serving to give evidence to the truth of these stories – although many archaeologists are cautious and pointing out that many of these graves are not quite as certain evidence as we might think on first sight. When the skeleton of a woman found next to a sword belongs to a woman who could hardly have weighed more than 40 kilograms and probably was unable to lift and wield the sword effectively, we have to consider whether she was actually the warrior or whether the grave could yield some other possible explanations, which they often do.
Images of fighting women or armed women from the Viking Age are rare, but they are there. Stories about fighting women are also there, but they are also quite rare compared to the entire source material available. Graves belonging to warrior women are also there, but even they are rare. We must assume that the presence of women warriors in this society was also rare, even if they existed – but when they did, they appear to have been honored as such.
I will finish this with a short account of a woman who appears in the Poetic Edda, Gudrun Giuki´s daughter, a princess of the Burgunds. As with the saga of Hervör, the story is set in the time of the Huns, which would historically mean that these are legends of the 4th and 5th centuries, the deep Iron Age, as is the case with many of the shield maiden stories.
Gudrun does not appear to be a warrior in most of the story, but when her brothers are outnumbered by the Huns, she does pick up arms. The Greenlandic Poem of Atli (Attila) tells us, in stanza 50-51:
50: Guiki´s daughter ————– Dóttir lét Givca
brought down two warriors —-drengi tva hníga,
she struck at Atli´s brother——brodvr hio hon Atla,
he had to be carried thereafter—bera varþ þann siþan,
she designed her fight————scapþi hon sva scǫro,
cut the foot from under him——sceldi fót vndan.
51: Another man she struck so hard—-Annan reþ hon hꜹggva,
he could not get up again——— sva at sa vpp reisat,
into Hel she had him sent———-i Helio hon þann hafdi,
and her hands never trembled.——þeygi henne hendr scvlfo.
Despite her courage and skill, Gudrun and her brothers are taken down, and Gudrun must watch how her brothers are tortured to death. She commits a terrible revenge, tricking the Hunnish king, Atli (Attila) into eating the hearts of his two sons by her, spellbinds the entire hall and burns it down and strikes her sword into Atli´s heart. The real Attila was rumored to have died by the hands of a Germanic princess whose brothers and father he had slayed.
In the Medieval, Christian version of this story, Gudrun is called Kriemhild, and when she picks up arms to avenge herself, she is condemned and killed, for in this Christian Medieval world, a woman could not be suffered to live if she transgressed the limited role of a woman.
But in the Edda, a much older source and far closer to the pagan mind, Gudrun is praised in the end, praised as the last warrior woman.
Stanza 43 in the Lay of Atli goes;
Fully this story has now been told—— Fvllrętt er vm þetta,
never again will anyone see—————-ferr engi sva siþan
a bride in armor——————————brvþr i brynio
avenging her brothers———————-brǫþra at hefna;
She had, to three—————————–hon hefir þriggia
been the bane——————————– —-banorþ borit
that bright woman, before she died too —–biort, aþr sylti.
 First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani stanza 32-44, the ritual bickering between Gudmund and Sinfiötli where they end up revealing that they have been intimate together before, and then argue about which one was the stallion.
 Gesta Danorum Book Eight and Sögubrot