Women of the Viking Age 27

Myths about Norse cultural history are widespread, often demonstrated by sensational tall-tales from newspaper reports, being quoted and pasted on dubious photos and illustrations shared by the thousands on social media. Be it that "half of the Viking warriors were female" or "why the Vikings were even more savage than you thought", peoples concepts of this culture tend to represent either extreme of the scale, with emancipated female warriors strutting around in boob-armour or by chauvinistic mushroom-chewing berserkers trying to rape everything around them. But populist portrayals aside; even when trying to stick to historical sources, we are still likely to run into misinterpretations of archeological evidence, not to mention the fact that historians are basing a lot of their knowledge on medieval literature written by highly biased authors. Sadly, critical examination of sources is often absent in the modern interpretations receiving the most attention by the public.

I thought I'd try to write about women in the Viking Age and their role in the society of the time, a good example of a topic that is easily tainted by newer perspectives, possibly leading to prejudice and misattribution of old as well as newer findings.

Who were the women of the Viking age?

Firstly, allow me to emphasize that what we call Vikings in terms of conducting overseas raids (excluding overseas trading and colonization), which the modern cliché is based on, may have concerned roughly a half percent of the population (1). But when speaking of the Viking age we are speaking of the whole population, which is an essential difference. Ask yourself; would you feel comfortable being characterized by descriptions of the most extreme individuals of our time?

It is common to assume that Viking society was unilaterally male-dominated and that women by definition were suppressed, as humble housewives, browbeaten baby machines or worse. Another common belief is that only the men went Viking so to speak, solely to wage war, plunder and destroy. But research points in the direction of a more egalitarian society, where women enjoyed respect in the community and participated in the emigration alongside their men. As archeologist Marianne Moen suggests in her masters thesis, assuming that men were rated above women in the Viking society is to ascribe modern values to the past, which will be misleading (2, 3). When it comes to religious ideals, it is important to remember that the gender culture of the time was not characterized by Christian women's submission (4), or Islamic women's obedience (5).

The historical literature involves clear and repeated accounts of female figures in a broad range of roles; as housewives, priestesses, valkyries, warriors, seeresses and goddesses. It further contains descriptions of heroines, female strategists, travellers and settlers, and there is no reason to ignore these accounts (or to explain them as due to these women's association with powerful men), while at the same time accepting descriptions of the male Viking from the exact same sources.

There is no denying that there is a lot of machismo in Norse mythology, but remember that the Norse woman was not "created from the rib of a man". Ask and Embla were created simultaneously, they were equal. And in the Norse story of creation, the giant Ymir was proposedly of both genders, and formed the foundation for the physical world (8, 9).

Norse mythology is full of examples of females independence, such as in Lokasenna (10), where we read about Freya's father Njörðr, who tells Loki that he should not mind whom a woman chooses to enjoy herself with, or criticize her for it. In Skáldskaparmál (11) we hear of Skaði, who showed up in Ásgarðr wearing a helmet, coat of mail and full armour, to avenge her father. She was granted settlement and compensation, and to choose one of the men in Ásgarðr to be her mate. In Gylfaginning (9) we hear of her following marriage to Njörðr. He wished to live by the sea, while she wanted to live in the mountains where she could ski and bow hunt. They agreed to spend nine nights at a time in each of their dwellings, but eventually Skaði grew tired of the noise of the waves and cries of the seagulls, and moved to the mountains by herself.

Many of the female deities, the Ásynjur, are remembered for their virtues related to beauty and love, mercy and eternal youth. But in the primary sources we can read that many if the male deities, the Æsir, are also described with these kind of typically feminine and "soft" qualities; for example Baldr (beauty, forgiveness), Freyr (fertility), Skírnir (seduction), and Viðar (silence). Heimdallr (the Guardian of Ásgarðr) on the other hand has no father, but was brought to the world by nine mothers.

When it comes to warfare, strength and other classically masculine or powerful qualities, they were not especially reserved for men (contrary to what you might believe based on the most common and modern descriptions of Ásatrú). Let me mention Eir (medicine), Hel (death), Frigg (all-knowing), Hlín (protection), Rán (the sea) Snotra (wisdom), Syn (rejection), Þrúðr (strength), not to mention the norns of fate; Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld (past, present and future).

The Valkyries are warrior goddesses, who can ride through the air, and decide the outcome of the war. There are numerous Valkyries, and among them are Hildr who can wake fallen warriors back to life, and Skjeggöld meaning time for the axe (13). Other examples are Göndul and Skögul who are described in Hákonarmál (14) when Hákon and his men are dying in battle. They see Göndul, standing there leaning on a spearshaft, surrounded by helmet wearing women sitting tall on their horses. The Valkyries chose who would live or die in battle, and brought them to Ásgarðr. Of all the warriors, Freyja chose half to bring to her domain Folkvangr, while the rest went to Óðinn in Valhöll (Valhalla) (9).

Yes, this is mythology... But the folklore can be said to mirror the society though ideology and norms or attitudes. The Norse legal system was also relatively highly developed in the Viking era. As the runemaster and fellow Viking reenactor Lars Magnar (13) writes, the biggest difference between Scandinavia and the rest of the world in this age was that the position of women was stronger here than anywhere else in public society. In the pagan society, women had rights to inheritance, property and divorce that were unknown in the rest of Europe, and violence against women was punishable by law, also within marriage (17).

As with examples such as the 9000 year old skeleton of the hunter from Bäckaskog (18) (who was buried with a spear and chisel, assumed to be a man and called the oldest hunter in Scandinavia - but who later investigations was showed to have given birth to 10-12 children), we also have examples of archaeological findings of Viking graves where remains buried with swords and armor have automatically been misidentified as men. Later studies of skeletal remains at Repton Woods in East-England have revealed that nearly half of the remains were female (19, 20). Although the implications of that particular finding have been exaggerated out of proportion by popular media (who are unlikely to have accessed the original report at all), it does give reason to believe that other graves where it has not been possible to determine gender, but where the assessment has been based on such objects, may also be subject to erroneous assumptions and gender prejudice. Research also shows that women took large part in the emigration to England, even in the earliest periods (19).

Whether they came as warriors, tradeswomen or family members, the collective evidence of the archeology, literature, religion and legislation of the time contributes to cast doubt about the assumption of the Viking age as being a tendentious era consisting of dominant machomen, with females as passive housewives and shadows in the background. One can assume that gender roles in the Viking Age were most certainly practically distributed considering childbearing, mobility, physical abilities and age, but there is no indication that these limits were rigid and without room for individual variation, or that one gender was deemed more honorable than the other.

The understanding of the Vikings as primarily being farmers and traders often comes short when competing with dramatic stories or movie adaptions of bloodthirsty warriors and raiders. We know that the Vikings were responsible for pillaging, just like the Franks, Anglo-Saxons and Arabians also were (21), but it is important to remember that these events were documented by Christian scholars and literate men of the time, who surely had religious and political reasons to avoid understatements. As Torgrim Titlestad (22) writes; - It was terrified and propagandizing Christian monks who described the Vikings appearance in Europe, and they often concealed abuse and cruelties undertaken by their own rulers. When it comes to the stories of sexual violence and rape which are so often referred to, these are not rooted in the written sources, as opposed to accounts of rape carried out by other groups in the same time (23).

Now, one can of course accuse me of being naïve and uncritical, and say that this is my interpretation based on wishful thinking of the horrible things committed by the Vikings not taking place. But I firmly believe that if you - completely devoid of contemporary gender roles - look at what we can actually claim to know based on tangible and evidence-based research findings, the Viking age was probably a much less stereotypical and male-chauvinistic society than what is the general perception of this people today.

  1. Yngvar Ustvedt (2004). Verre enn sitt rykte: vikingene slik ofrene så dem. Oslo: Cappelen
  2. Moen, M. (2010), The Gendered Landscape: A discussion on gender, status and power expressed in the Viking Age mortuary landscape. Masters thesis at the University of Oslo
  3. Foss, A. S. (2013), Don't underestimate Viking women. Electronic article by Science Nordic
  4. 156 Bible Verses about Submissiveness)
  5. The Quran, chapter 4 (An-Nisa), verse 34)
  6. Broman, J. (2006). Fantastisk måste synen av den vikingatida kvinnan ha varit... – förmedlingen av den vikingatida kvinnan i arkeologisk kurslitteratur. Bachelor and masters thesis (combined) at Lund University
  7. Sigrdrífumál (Sayings of Sigrdrífa), Elder Edda
  8. Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva), the Elder Edda
  9. Gylfaginning (Tricking of Gylfi), the Younger Edda
  10. Lokasenna (Loki's quarrel), the Elder Edda
  11. Skáldskaparmál (Language of Poetry), the Younger Edda
  12. Ynglinga saga, Heimskringla
  13. Enoksen, L. M. (2008), Norrøne guder og myter. Oslo: Schibsted Forlag
  14. Eyvindr skáldaspillir, 10th century, Hákonarmál
  15. Krafft, S. (1956), Pictorial weavings from the Viking Age: drawings and patterns of textiles from the Oseberg finds = Tapisseries du temps des vikings : dessins et motifs exécutes lors des fouilles d'Oseberg. Oslo: Dreyer
  16. Saga Ólafs Tryggvasonar, Heimskringla
  17. Jochens, C. (1998). Women in Old Norse Society. New York: Cornell University Press
  18. Fuglestvedt, I. og Coulson, S. (2009), Kvinnen var jeger. Feature article in Dagbladet, 28.12.09
  19. McLeod, S. (2011), Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 ad. Early Medieval Europe, 19: 332–353
  20. Vergano, D. (2011), Invasion of the Viking women unearthed, electronical article at USA Today
  21. Terra Buskerud – Historieboka.no (2006) 700-900, Historisk tid og starten på vikingtiden
  22. Titlestad, T. (2011). Norge i vikingtid. Våre historiske og kulturelle røtter. Stavanger: Saga Bok
  23. Hjardar, K. og Vike, V. (2011). Vikinger i krig. Oslo: Spartacus Forlag

Photography: Valkyrja.com, Thomas Lekfelt and Rolf Tore Kjaeran, taken at viking markets in
Bjørgvin, Borre, Gudvangen and Møystadssaga (Norway), and Haukadal (Iceland).

Music: Wardruna - Bjarkan

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