The immensely popular TV series ‘Vikings’ and it’s very prominent and powerful warrior character Lagertha, as well as a remarkable recent discovery concerning an ancient grave, has led to the question: did Shieldmaidens, or Skjaldmær in Old Norse, actually exist, or are they simply a romantic product of fiction, more akin to the Amazons of Greek myth than actual historical fact.
‘The Death of Hervǫr’ by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1831-1892. This painting presumably represents the death of the shieldmaiden Hervǫr Heidreksdóttir during the first battle between the Huns and the Goths, since her grandmother, the ‘other’ Hervǫr, did not die in battle. (Public Domain image)
The answer is a very contradictory one: no they didn’t and yes they did. To explain this seemingly impossible statement one must take a quick overview of historical fact. Women have fought in wars since the dawn of recorded history, though men have tended to conveniently overlook that fact when they felt it somehow reduced their own manliness, but those women tended to do so as individuals rather than in military formations. There were female military units as well as individual warriors in some countries to be sure, the forces of both Genghis Kahn and Kublai Kahn included female warriors (the strongest warrior in Kublai’s army, according to Marco Polo, was his niece, Princess Khutulun), some Indian rulers had female bodyguards not unlike those in the ‘Black Panther’ movie, the African kingdom of Dahomey had an entire regiment of women, and there were female samurai in Japan, in fact one of the greatest samurai warriors was a woman, famed for her strength and courage, Tomoe Gozen. But most women who went to war did so singly or in small groups, and usually in response to a developing need, taking up arms defending a town or village if the men were away or fighting alongside the men if the situation was becoming serious. While they fought as warriors, often very well indeed, they were not warriors in the true sense since it was not their profession, though that fact was hardly of much comfort I should think to anyone they killed. If you got a sword shoved through you it made little difference whether it was a man or a woman at the other end of it, you were just as dead.
So, while individual Norse women certainly would have joined in battles if the need arose or they were simply caught up in it, large numbers of Shieldmaidens marching off to war banging drums with banners flapping in the breeze is highly unlikely to have occurred, the considerable numbers shown in every large battle in ‘Vikings’ is almost certainly exaggerated. There is of course a story of the 8th century battle of Bråvalla between Sweden and Denmark in which 300 female warriors were said to have taken part, even naming some of them: Hedborg, Visna and Hedamong them, Visna said to have had her arm cut off while carrying the Danish banner, and a warrior named Veborg was credited with killing a champion male warrior. But historians are divided as to whether the battle was real or symbolic, as actual historical records of it can’t be verified, nor the exact site where it occurred. (1)
But that story of Bråvalla, real or not, raises an interesting question. Concept. The concept of 300 female warriors going into battle, or any women doing so for that matter. Why would something be mentioned that couldn’t exist? Women taking up arms are mentioned many times in the Sagas, which seems odd if they never actually did that. Of course the Norse Sagas are dismissed as little more than fairy tales, anything contained in them of no more historical value than the writings of the Brothers Grimm. But that overlooks a very important point. While those things in the Sagas dealing with gods, magic swords, dragons and such are clearly largely mythological in nature, things related to everyday life and customs are not, they will reflect the actual things that people did, and this is where the concept of the female warrior comes in. Concept and the acceptance of it is very important.
These references in the Sagas are never seen as unusual or out of the ordinary, other characters never seem surprised by them, they accept an armed woman as a perfectly normal thing. They never say ‘Why is there a woman fighting among us?’ or ‘We are ashamed that our women must fight for us.’ No, they seem to take not the slightest notice of it. That would not be the case if it was something that would have raised eyebrows in actuality, something that could never happen, so let us take a look at some things from those Sagas. (2)
But first, remember that the Sagas were originally verbal tales, pagan ones, recited by poets, male and female, called Skalds, and weren’t written down until hundreds of years later, by Christians. The church frowned on many of the rights and privileges that women had enjoyed in pagan times, and there’s a distinct possibility that references to women doing something that would not have suited the Christian viewpoint, like being warriors, may have been watered down or even omitted. Given that, what the Sagas do tell us is all the more interesting. Incidentally, the term ‘Shieldmaiden’ is seldom found in the Sagas, though its frequent use today might make you think you’d find it on every page, but references to female warriors are common enough.
When Skaði’s father, the giant ϸjazi, is killed she puts on her armour and takes up her weapons to go to Asgard to seek vengeance – and it is clear that it is her war equipment, not someone else’s - yet no one is surprised that an armed woman turns up. In the Völsunga Saga Guðrún dons armour, picks up a sword and joins her brothers Gunnar and Hogni in battle, fighting alongside them, yet neither they nor anyone else seems to see anything unusual in that. In the Saga of Ragnar Loðbrók we see that when Eirek and Agnar, his sons by his first wife ϸóra Borgarhjǫrtr (no, Ragnar was never married to Lagertha) are killed in Sweden, his second wife Áslaug goes as a warrior with her own sons by Ragnar to avenge them, she wearing chainmail and leading a large force overland as her sons go by sea, and again this is not seen as strange or unusual. Her sons don’t say “Please go home, Mother, you’re embarrassing us” or anything of the kind.
Nor are many other mentions of women fighting seen as anything but perfectly normal, such as one quite detailed passage in the Icelandic Sagas where a woman joins in a battle and is greatly praised for her fighting skill. Then there is the story of Hervǫr, from the 13th century Hervarar Saga ok Heiðreks, a woman who was as strong as boys and turned her back on female things, learning swordsmanship, archery and horse riding, before dressing as a man and taking a man’s name, calling herself Hjörvard, before going ‘Vikingr’, fighting and killing as she raided and pillaged. She later travels to the island where her father, Angantýr, a famous warrior, is buried in order to retrieve his sword, Tvrfingr. Only she is brave enough to land on the island, her crew deserting her and taking her ships with them, but she goes on, ignoring monsters that are said to lurk there, breaks into the tomb, and demands the sword from her un-dead father. He’s reluctant to give it to her because it’s cursed, once drawn it cannot be sheathed until it has tasted blood, and even the smallest cut from it anywhere on someone’s body will be fatal. Eventually he gives her the sword, and she leaves to have adventures as a great warrior, serving King Gudmund of Glæsisvellir for a time before continuing her Viking ways. Eventually she tires of that and goes home, reverting to the role of a normal woman, marrying King Gudmund’s son Höfund and having children. Is this seen as something wildly unusual, something unheard-of? No, it isn’t. (The idea of a woman being a warrior and a Viking raider that is, as to the un-dead part I don’t know.) (3)
But there’s more. Hervǫr’s granddaughter, Hervǫr Heidreksdóttir, followed in her Viking warrior grandmother’s footsteps, becoming a fine shieldmaiden, skilled enough to be made the commander of a fort that faced what was called the Myrkviōr, (‘The Dark Wood’), an area that formed a boundary between the Huns and the Goths. She was later killed when, heavily outnumbered, she led the army against the first assault of the Huns in a great battle between those two warring factions, yet another example of the acceptable concept of a strong female warrior. (3)
When Leif Eiriksson’s men were attacked by Indians in North America, and were having a hard time of it, retreating in the face of the attackers, his famously ferocious sister, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, 8 months pregnant at the time, ran out and shouted at them "Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon; I think I could fight better than any of you." They ignored her, but like Guðrún she picked up a sword one of the men had dropped and charged at the Indians, bare-breasted, driving them off. (4) But Leif doesn’t seem to have been in the least bit surprised by that, nor unduly upset at having a pregnant woman rescue his men. Freydis of course was no stranger to violence, and on one occasion when she sent someone to kill some men who she wanted out of the way, and they didn’t kill the men’s wives as well because they’d seen no need to do what they regarded as a rather dishonourable act, she took her axe and went and killed all the women herself. She was not someone to mess with.
We know too that it was possible for a Norse woman to be known as ‘Drengr’, which meant a bold, reckless warrior who lived by a code of honour (a term Dr Jackson Crawford, a noted expert on Old Norse, defines as somewhat similar to calling someone a ‘real badass’ today) and there are some women referred to as such in the Sagas, and there was also a feminine term, ‘Skǫrungr’ with a similar meaning but also implying a special talent, which again shows that the concept of bold warrior women was something that was accepted, it was possible. So again we may ask if a woman could not and never did fight in any form, how could she be called a Drengr? The fact that the term could be used for a woman speaks volumes in itself.
I saw a comment by one ‘expert’ who said that ‘just because one woman picked up a sword’, as he put it, that meant nothing, it didn’t mean that women were warriors. Quite apart from the fact that he clearly failed to notice that a number of women were said to have done that, it raises a very interesting point regarding women and weapons, whether any of them were warriors or not. How did those women know how to use the sword after they picked it up? Sword fighting isn’t like using a gun, any fool can point and pull the trigger, but using a sword requites a certain degree of knowledge, especially if one were up against skilled warriors who knew what they were doing. Does this not imply that Norse women must have had some training in the use of weapons, even though there is no actual record of that? Without some knowledge of weapons, and at least a degree of training, any woman just grabbing a sword and rushing into battle with it would have been killed in a matter of seconds. So too would a man who did the same for that matter. Untrained people wouldn’t last very long against men who devoted much of their time to training and fighting, no amount of courage replaces knowledge, yet none of these women are killed, something impossible for anyone completely untrained. So it seems to me that the use of weapons must have been something that was quite familiar to Norse women, and something of course the Saga tellers would have been well aware of, as would their listeners. There was no need to mention it.
But more than titles they might have or references in the Sagas, there is some genuine historical proof that Norse women could take part fully in male activities. The first comes from the Greek historian John Skylitzes, in his Synopsis of Histories, which covers the reigns of the Byzantine emperors from 811-1057 AD. In 971 AD Sviatoslaw I of Kiev, ruler of the Kievan Rus (Vikings who had settled in what is now Russia) invaded Bulgaria, which was part of the Byzantine Empire, bringing female warriors in his army. During the siege of the city of Dorostolon the Rus forces were reduced to near starvation, and a force of some 2000 warriors, including women, made a surprise sally out during the night to search for supplies and managing to defeat a Byzantine force on the way, returning later to the city. After the eventual defeat of the Rus, the Byzantines were astonished at finding the bodies of armed women among the fallen warriors. That fact alone I would put forward to prove not only the acceptance of the concept but also of the reality of the ‘Shieldmaiden.’ (5) (6) (7)
Then there is an early 12th century Irish text, Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh, ‘The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill’, or in other words the war between the Irish and the foreigners, which mentions a Viking fleet landing in Ireland in the late 10th century led by one who they call Inghen Ruaidh, ‘The Red Maiden’. No name is mentioned, though she is probably a Norwegian woman named Rusla, daughter of King Kieg of Telemark, who gathered a Viking fleet after her father was overthrown by the Danish King Omund, attacking Danish shipping in revenge. She went on to raid Denmark, the British Isle and, significantly perhaps, Ireland, gaining a fearsome reputation as a bloodthirsty individual who took no prisoners, gaining herself the name ‘The Red Woman’ in the process, accompanied by another woman, her sister perhaps, named Stikla, who gave her name to the Norwegian city of Stiklestad. She was eventually brought down by her own brother, Tesandus, after King Omund persuaded him to change sides by adopting him as a foster son. Tesandus was said to have grabbed her by her braids and held her as his men beat her to death with rowing oars. What a superb example of brotherly love. (8)
Another interesting thing to consider is the fact that women carrying shields and wearing animal heads are depicted taking part in a procession on the Oseberg Tapestry, dating from c. 834 AD [Terry Gunnell, ‘The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia’ (1995) pp. 60-61)], and one would have to ask why shields? That does seem to suggest a combative role, that these women are shieldmaidens, either in the actual sense or symbolic, and if it’s the latter that would once again raise the question of the acceptance of the concept.
Now to turn to direct concrete archaeological evidence.
Norse women buried with weapons of various kinds were not uncommon, and what a person was buried with rather than the body itself was always taken as the clue as to their profession or status. But, not every weapon was used for combat. A bow or a spear could have been used by a hunter, and many women would have done so, and an axe could well have been used, and was, for woodworking. Those things did not of themselves prove anything. But graves that contained what were clearly military rather than domestic weapons are quite another matter. There were two of those, though they were generally overlooked, which seems very strange, since both seemed to indicate women each of whom might well have been a real-life Lagertha. (Her actual name in Old Norse by the way is Hlaðgerðr, since Lagertha is a Latin version.)
The first is a grave from Aunvoll in Norway, in which a woman about 20 years old was found buried with the full equipment a Viking warrior would have carried, sword, axe, 2 spears, arrowheads and a shield. [Lars F. Stenvik, Trøndelags historie, bind 1. 2005] The second was found in Solør, Norway, in 1900, containing a thin, small woman about 18-20 years old and slightly over 5 feet tall, buried with an even more impressive collection of items, a two-edged sword, axe, spear, 5 arrowheads and a horse, the latter indicating someone of importance, as well as tools. [Per Hernæs. Nickolay, Arkeologisk, Lilo, C 22541 a-g] Both these graves clearly are military in nature, and whatever the actual status of the two women was, the manner of their burial set them apart from all other female graves, in that they were buried the same as men, with weapons that had no other purpose than combat. Nobody went hunting with a sword and shield. But strangely enough these graves were ignored, despite their obvious significance with regard to the stories of Shieldmaidens, and it wasn’t until 2014 that a similar grave was thrust into public attention, a grave that was actually very little different, though the circumstances of its discovery, or rather re-discovery, were very different. It caught popular imagination and raised no end of debate, where the previous two had not. (Avaldsnes Nordvegen Historiesenter)
Viking graves had always been ‘sexed’ by what the person had been buried with, so if they had weapons or tools they were a man, if they had household items like cooking pots and jewellery they were a woman. Simple and seemingly accurate, but flawed when used as the sole means of establishing sex, as we shall see, since it allowed for no possible exceptions.
One of the finest of all warrior graves, identified as such by the items found in the grave, was documented in 1889 at Birka in Sweden. It was in fact the classic warrior grave, containing a man buried with his sword, axe, two spears, a large battle knife, bow and arrows, two shields, as well as two horses and a pair of stirrups (note the similarity with the Aunvoll and Solør graves). There was no doubt that he was a warrior, only a warrior would have a sword and shield, unlikely and highly dangerous things to go hunting wild boars with to say the least, the arrows were of the armor-piercing type unsuited to hunting, the knife was for combat not domestic use and the two horses indicated someone of position and importance. Added to that was a set of gaming pieces the man had been holding in his lap, for a chess-like game called Hnefatafi, which was used to plan strategy, indicating he must have been a military leader of some kind. A man, no question about it, proof positive.
But in 2014 bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellström of Stockholm University, presented an astonishing argument. She had thought there was something odd about the bones, examined them, and said they were those of a woman! Impossible. Weapons proved ‘her’ to be a man. But if indeed it was a women, everyone said well they weren’t very careful back in the 1880’s, probably mixed up some of the bones, or there was more than one person in the grave, though they couldn’t explain where that other person had gone or why there was no room in the grave for anyone else anyway, with the weapons clearly arranged closely around the one body.
So in 2017 Uppsala University archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson went back to examine the bones, taking two types of DNA, which showed that all the bones came from one body, and none had a Y chromosome. It was a woman, approximately 30 years old, buried with a formidable array of combat weapons, the time-honoured method of proving that a person was a warrior. But did that end the matter, as it should have? No.
Bad archaeological practices in the 19th century, a mix-up of bones, poor record keeping - despite a very careful and detailed drawing of the grave at the time of its discovery – all these things were trotted out again. There was even the laughable suggestion that the woman’s husband had been a great warrior, and the weapons, presumably his, were buried with her as a tribute to him. That made as much sense as suggesting that if she had been a famous dressmaker they would have buried him with a sewing kit.
Another said that perhaps her husband had died elsewhere, and his weapons were thus buried with her. All right, so why did he go off somewhere without taking his weapons? He might not have taken all of them if he wasn’t going to war or raiding, but he would have taken his sword and probably the knife as well, and the sword would have been buried with him if his body couldn’t be brought back. No man, especially a warrior, would have gone off somewhere without his sword. Others said just that the presence of the weapons did not mean anything at all, they were not evidence of her status, yet curiously that was the very thing that ‘proved’ beyond any doubt a man had been a warrior. “It was held up before as kind of the ‘ideal’ Viking male warrior grave” said archaeologist Davide Zori of Baylor University. (Just a comment, he was not part of the team.)
It was also pointed out by sceptics that she had no battle injuries, no sword or axe cuts on the bones. (Nor had most of the men buried in the same locality as it happened. Of some 49 males buried nearby only 2 showed battle injuries.) That idea failed to take into account the fact that one could be stabbed with a sword or spear without hitting bone, simply going through soft tissue and thus leaving no trace, or she could have died of natural causes. Not all warriors died in battle, even Viking ones, or received obvious bone injuries if they did.
So it would seem that this particular woman was not only a professional warrior rather than someone who just grabbed a sword if danger threatened, but also a leader of some kind, and a person of importance. There is also a lack of any female items in the grave, no jewellery or ornaments, which to my mind reinforces the woman’s status as a professional warrior, one who may have seen herself in a male role, a total Drengr, though that is my own personal opinion since I’ve not seen that mentioned by anyone else.
But interesting as the Birka grave is, why were the Aunvoll and Solør ones completely ignored, and the Birka grave held up as the shining example of a possible Shieldmaiden? For a start any doubts that lingered as to the bones being the right ones due to poor labelling did not apply to the other two graves, and the weapons were just as indicative of a warrior, as well as being so very similar, even to a horse and one of the women having 2 spears.
I find it interesting that evidence which proves something beyond question if a body is male proves nothing if it isn’t, and this, plus the ignoring of the two previous graves despite their obvious implications, seems to me to be symptomatic of a male desire to play down the role of women in what would be considered a ‘man’s job’, something that sadly still lingers today. Open-mindedness is required in evaluating historical evidence of all kinds, and to ignore that which does not seem to fit a preconceived idea of what should be found in a grave, or to simply ignore it altogether, is a serious error.
There is another grave, known as the Ardnamurchan Boat Burial (a burial where stones were arranged around it in the shape of a ship), (9) and this one in Scotland, dating from around 1000 AD. This is a curious grave, since the burial items are suggestive of both sexes. On the one hand there was a spear, a very expensive sword with a beautifully decorated hilt, indicating a person of position and power, an axe, and the boss from a shield, all very masculine objects. But there were also objects of everyday domestic use, related to cooking and food preparation, such as a sickle, a ringed pin, a knife more like one a woman might have, and a ladle, indicating a female, though a man could have had them as well I suppose, but it would be unusual. And while a boat burial wasn’t uncommon in itself, either with stones arranged as in this case or using a real ship, the more elaborate ones indicated a person of importance, and those who excavated this site seemed to regard it as being such a one. Normally that would be a man, but women could be buried in this fashion, as in the case of the famous Oseberg ship, where a complete longship was discovered containing the bodies of two women. (Ancient Origins)
But only a couple of teeth have survived. While DNA couldn’t be extracted from them, an isotope was, and it is a close match to the teeth from the grave of a woman buried at Cnip on the Isle of Lewis, who would have lived at the same time. While that in itself proves nothing conclusively, combined with the dual nature of the burial objects if one goes by the ‘sex by the burial items’ rule, it has raised the distinct possibility that this was either a female warrior or a rather more domesticated man than most Norse warriors would have been. An unmarried man living on his own perhaps? But then why would he not have a thrall to do his housework, since he was clearly important? But the evidence isn’t conclusive enough to say either way, and presumably will remain so until such time as some new technique may resolve the matter. (Vintage News/MailOnline)
(My friend Dinah Thorneycroft, very knowledgeable on Norse matters and works on the ‘Viking’ TV show as it happens, has researched their attitudes to shamans, wolfskins and the like, and has suggested another possibility, that people such as male shamans were often considered less than masculine, magic being the prerogative of women, raising a third possibility. Could this have been such a one, is that the reason for both male and female items in the grave, or does the quantity and quality of weaponry and lack of shamanic items that we often see in obvious Vǫlva graves rule that out? There’s no way to tell, a shaman could have been of high status and possessed an expensive sword, and they either forgot or didn’t bother to put a wand or other such ritual implements into the grave, but it’s an interesting point, and I’m indebted to her for bringing it up and opening a whole new line of thought. No one else has suggested it to my knowledge, not even those who excavated the site and have put a lot of research into it.)
To conclude I must point out that apart from all the provable, solid historical accounts of females at war in many countries down through the ages, graves of unknown warrior women like the one at Birka have been found in other parts of the world, and there is a splendid Celtic breastplate that was discovered in France clearly made for a woman, with twin projections for the breasts, and another was found in India. So, while there may not have been dozens of Shieldmaidens in every shield wall as we see on ‘Vikings’, we can say with almost complete certainty that there were Norse women on the battlefield on occasions, and at least one of them was a true Lagertha as she is portrayed in that show, and I hope that unknown Birka warrior feasts with the other warriors in Valhall. Or perhaps Freyja in her role as Queen of the Valkyrjur and chooser of the slain took her instead, to Sessrúmir, her own hall of heroes located in the field of Fólkvangr in Asgard.
Note: For anyone interested in the subject of female warriors in general, and a ‘must read’ I should think for any man who says women shouldn’t be in the army because they can’t fight, there is a quite remarkable book that is not only historically intriguing but also a monumental piece of pre-Google age research. It is entitled ‘Female Warriors, Memorials of Female Valour and Heroism, From the Mythological Ages to the Present Era’, published in 1879 by the English author and artist Ellen Creathorne Clayton, 1834-1900, who also wrote under her married name as Mrs Needham, her other works including ‘Queens of Song’ 1863, ‘English Female Artists’ 1876, and ‘Florence Nightingale, the Soldier’s Friend’ in 1860. While she does mention the mythological female warriors, such as the Amazons, 90% of the book, running to 425 pages over two volumes, is devoted to historically proven women warriors, hundreds of them, from ancient times down to 1873. It is available from various sources, but my favourite is the edition by Forgotten Books, (www.ForgottenBook.com), who reprint it as a facsimile of the original book, so you can read it exactly as people did in 1879. (It is also available in a Kindle edition, though in modern format.) It’s a real eye-opener for anyone who thinks women never marched off to war, and I highly recommend it. Despite its age it is the finest book I’ve ever seen on the subject, mentioning women who you won’t find listed anywhere else.
Dinah Thorneycroft’s Facebook: @scotiahistoricalpuppets
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle-of-Br%C3%A1vellir. This page was last edited on 9 March 2018, at 05:14.
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagas-of-Icelanders. This page was last edited on 17 March 2018, at 21:42.
3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hervarar-ok-Hei%C3%B3ttir. This page was last edited on 23 December 2017, at 11:31.
4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freyd%C3%ADs This page was last edited on 18 March 2018, at 10:50.
5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shield-maiden. This page was last edited on 29 March 2018, at 02:02.
6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege-of-Dorostolon. This page was last edited on 28 February 2018, at 03:45.
7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John-Skylitzes. This page was last edited on 10 March 2018, at 13:09.
8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rusla. This page was last edited on 28 June 2017, at 06:07.
9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PorThis page was last edited on 28 March 2018, at 22:55.
(All accessed April 4th – 5th 2018)