The modern world longs for a place in our history in which women were not bound by the struggles they have faced for so long. The Viking realm has been no exception to this desire. The women in the Viking Age have presented us with an interesting situation. There is a significant amount of strong, warrior women in Old Norse literature, yet this takes on a different tone. A tone of commentary, not one of historical record. Nonetheless, there is a significant amount of hype surrounding “Viking” women. So, we will answer this question: were women “Vikings”?
In short, they were not likely “Vikings.” But, that is not the end of their story.
Representation in Literature
Interpreting the Realities
Bringing Everything Together
Many who are familiar with Norse Mythology will quickly note that there are many women who are extraordinary. The Valkyries and Freyja are most definitely not to be challenged nor taken lightly. This description of Freyja in the Prose Edda gives a clear foundation for the possibility of warrior women:
“Freyja is the most splendid of the goddesses. She has a home in heaven called Folkvangar [Warrior’s Fields]. Wherever she rides into battle, half of the slain belong to her. Odin takes the other half, as it says here: (Prose Edda, 35)
Folkvang it is called and there Freyja decides the choices of seats in the hall. Half the slain she chooses each day, and half belong to Odin. (The Lay of Grimnir, 14)”
Here we have a woman who has just as much authority in those that die in battle than Odin does. That is nothing to shy away, either. Mythology shows clear favor for strong women and it does not admire weak women.
Does this mean that women were warriors in days long since past? Not exactly. Even though the myths favor strong women, many goddesses still behave as one might expect. Freyja is definitely notable, but she is also a bit unique. It is also likely that such an image was done for the men themselves. I am quite sure a “Viking” would have enjoyed women taking him to the afterlife. Yet, still, the point here is that there does seem to be some level of acceptability of strong women.
Representation in Literature
This is where the lines begin to blur. We must move away from vague mythological interpretations and into the earthly representations of women. Old Norse literature seems to be covering a transition between the cultural norms of their myths and Christianity. There is noticeable tension. Yet, it is also clear in many sagas that women as “Vikings” was an anomaly. It was not supported and therefore the woman needed to be “saved” or “converted”, returning back to their acceptable social role. This is when we truly realize that the myths were not likely taken so literally. Here is a prime example:
“Among them was Lagertha, a skilled female warrior, 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 of one woman. Learning that she was of noble birth among the barbarians, he steadfastly wooed her by means of messengers, she spurned his mission in her heart, but feigned compliance. (In other words, she rejected him, but played along).
…Thus he had the maiden as the prize of the peril he had overcome. By this marriage he had two daughters, whose names have not come down to us, and a son Fridley…” (Viking Age Reader, 95-96)
Lagertha is a popular “Viking” woman in our modern age, yet in this literature from which she “originates,” she is merely a prize to be won. An obstacle to overcome. It is sad to mention that even their daughters were not cared enough for in the eyes of history to be remembered. Although women appear as strong and as warriors, this does not mean that is was approved, historically speaking. Instead, women as “Vikings” in historical literature (native literature, mind you) simply acts to personify a battle between freedoms and a the coming of a new age.
Interpreting the Realities
There is a middle ground, though. As we have now seen, women as warriors is acceptable in mythology, but not in society. Yet, there are many ways in which a woman can be strong and influential. The majority of literature reveals women to be strong when acting within their limitations. Women often pushed men to act, and those men often benefited from their counsel.
“Thorgils (a chieftain) said he was not obligated to take up a case that concerned Haflidi’s thingmen. She (Bjorg) pressed him very hard, and when Thorgils saw that, he said that she was in a hard predicament (he husband was killed by Haflidi’s nephew, he is also a chieftain and was her husband’s legal connection - obvious bias).” (Miller, 241)
Thorgils eventually helps Bjorg. It turned out that Thorgils profited greatly for representing her. Here a woman can be very influential and authoritative. She was able to convince another chieftain to act on her behalf. The Saga world was one of men, but women played a larger role in it than most other societies. The sagas did not like weak women just like they did not like weak men. Women were not put on pedestals, rather women put men on them and goaded them to stay there.
If you manage tor read a few Icelandic sagas, keep this in mind:
“The conventional women of the sagas is strong-willed and uncompromising. She is the self-appointed guardian of the honor of her men and as such she generally sees honor as unnuanced heroism.” (Miller, 212)
This runestone is known for being dedicated to a woman. It was raised at Hassmyra, Västmanland, Sweden. This woman is praised for what she did within the realm of the household, not based on achievements in battle. I personally have not worked much with this stone, so I cannot offer a translation of my own for what it says, but here is one done by Judith Jesch, author of Women in the Viking Age:
There will come to Hassmyra no better housewife, who arranges the estate.
Here is an image of this runestone:
The Oseburg Ship Burial
This burial was done for two women. It is a burial fit for a queen and the ship itself features intricate detail. One woman was middle aged (20-30) and the other was elderly (50+). They died around the year 830. This burial shows how women could truly achieve an impressive status in Viking Age society, but not through means of war and battle.
Burials of women are found in all parts of the world that the Viking went to. This does not mean that they were participating in raids though. Women, children, and livestock were often brought along for settlement reasons. Raids began to take on the role of both temporary and permanent settlement. This is the case because not many burials of women are found where settlement did not also take place. Women were colonizers, and their grave goods reflect aspects of commerce, not war.
Here are only a few of the items found in this burial:
Custom shoes for arthritis
And much, much more…
Here is an image of the ship they were buried in:
Bringing Everything Together
We now have a very complicated picture. Mythology reveals women in battle, literature represents woman as powerful warriors, and society suggests women who were strong, holding up their family and their husband. It is understandable that the image of women during the Viking Age is so often contested. So let’s finally answer that question.
Women were, historically speaking, not “Vikings.” At least, it is highly unlikely based on current evidence. Yes, there is some evidence floating around out there, but it is not secure evidence (so far). Yet, regardless, women had an unspoken authority. They were self-appointed heroines. Women gained their status in society through other means. They did not have to gain honor through battle. Women made due with their situation and managed to become influential and strong in their own way. They were by no means weak, and the men knew this. Sometimes men envied this, but they also benefited from women, whether they liked it or not. The women of the Viking world were strong and they were admired for it.
Yet, it is alright if we use these warrior women, like Lagertha, as heroes to look up to today. Our young women need strong women to look up to. They have the potential to rise where they were once forbidden to do so. Still we must not allow that to cloud the past. We interpret material much differently today than it was meant to be understood in another era - keep that in mind. History is not always the way we would like it to be.
“…it was the men, not the women, who were meant to die on raids…” (Miller, 208)
Skál og ferð vel, — Steven T. Dunn.
Next Week’s Lesson: Lesson 14 - Ships and Seafaring.
Jennifer Dukes-Knight, “Women,” Lecture, Viking History, University of South Florida, 2015.
Textual (In order of appearance):
Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda, Translated by Jesse L. Byock, (London: Penguin, 2005), 35.
Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, ed. The Viking Age: A Reader, Second Edition (Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures). (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 95-96.
William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 208, 212, 241.
Images (In order of appearance):
(link) Gustaf Eriksson, Date: 14 july 2005, Beskrivning: Odendisastenen i Fläckebo.
(link) Oseberg ship, Kulturhistorisk museum (Viking Ship Museum), Oslo, Norway.
We take this time to honor women who fought in the Haitian Revolution - soldiers, spies, informants, wise women. A few have been listed here. Feel free to add to the list. #HHM #HaitianHeritage #dayiti
We Women Warriors is a documentary about the indigenous groups being threatened by ongoing violence in Columbia. The protagonists are three women committed to non-violent resistance. I don’t know much about the conflict in Columbia, so I did a little reading to get a sense of what’s going on. I apologize for how poorly it went. I’m going to say that the shifting tenses and devolution from sentences into chopped phrases was for legitimate style reasons.
1948. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a populist leader, was assassinated. He was running for president on the Liberal Party ticket. He was popular among low-income Columbians. His critics considered him a demagogue. The man who assassinated him was murdered by a mob. It’s unclear why he did it or why who may have been behind getting him to do it. He had a lot of political opponents–Communists, Conservatives, and, if I’m understanding the politics correctly, some of the more old-school members of his party–and, also, as generally happens in cases like this, and is not totally unreasonable, as it were, theories of the CIA’s involvement have been thrown around (Operation Pantomime). Some believe he was assassinated as part of a USSR plot involving Fidel Castro. Some believe the guy who allegedly murdered Gaitan didn’t murder him, that he was just paid to stand nearby holding a revolver while somebody else shot him. The point is we’re all over the place here. A riot (El Bogotazo) followed and several thousand people died. People tried to storm the palace of President Ospina. Bogota was in chaos.
1948-1958: There was a ten-year period of violence (La Violencia) between paramilitary forces of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 people died. A lot of the fighting took place in rural areas. In ‘54, amnesty was declared for those who had, and were, participating in the violence, which stemmed it some, and they appeared to have the lid back on in 1958 after a unity government was formed.
1960: The military of the unity government began attacking, at the urging of the United States, rural peasant with Communist sympathies. Probably, my instincts are telling me it could be argued, not our finest moment. This went on for several years. The peasants organized guerrilla groups, which later became FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia), one of the groups of combatants featured in the documentary. The government and the CIA organized counter-guerrilla groups. This continued for a long time.
1974: The fighting moves to the city. There was some election fraud and urban guerrilla groups formed. Simmers on and simmers off throughout the decade.
1984: Things had calmed down a bit, the Conservative government offered a cease fire. FARC accepted, but the EIN (another militant group similar to FARC) didn’t negotiate. Some militants had kind of become allied with drug lords, who were doing quite well for themselves through all of this, but they had also kind of not allied themselves with them; for instance, there was a lot of kidnapping and murdering going on, as, if movies have taught us anything, can become the case when drug lords are involved. The drug lords are also bribing and murdering public officials.
1985: Any semblance of what had been a cease-fire is called off. At this point, I’m not clear about what was happening. There are too many guerrilla groups to keep track of in my head. FARC, EIN, M-19. So just three, really, I guess. But in terms of who’s allied with who and why, your guess is as good as mine. FARC stays in peace talks. M-19 does not. Palaces are getting stormed, judges are being held hostage, the guys who are supposed to have been negotiating never actually disarmed. It’s chaos. And I’m not talking about the violence–I’m sure that was chaotic too–I’m just talking about the web of guerrilla groups. Are they fighting for land? Control of the drug trade? Communism? This primer on the Columbian armed conflict isn’t turning out to be helpful at all. I’m just going to phone the rest in.
1990’s: Cease-fires are broken, there are disagreements as to whether cease-fires were actually broken, Pablo Escobar is involved now, there’s a big assasination, and M-19 folks are in the peace process now. FARC steps up their armed-ness and they’re very much involved with coca farmers now.
2000’s: Murders, kidnappings, severe human rights violations. Massacres upon massacres upon massacres. Groups are officially labeled as terrorists. Colombian military goes after them hard with support from the United States. FARC started to lose momentum, so they had a plan called “Rebirth”–land mines, snipers, and bombing in cities.
2010 to Now: Now there are neo-paramilitary groups. They’re controlling large swathes of rural areas. They dress in civilian clothes and attack Colombian security personnel. The government continues to go after them.
And this is the mess these brave women of We Women Warriors find themselves in the middle of.
are you aware that women didn't ask to not be in the army??? women have had to fight to be ALLOWED into the army, they definitely didn't say that they didn't want to
1) You’re confusing ‘feminism’ for ‘women’. It’s a common mistake. A too-common mistake. But it erases a lot of people, speaks over more people, and implies a fundamental lack of understanding of the processes at work.
2) You’re also somehow confusing “not allowed” with “not forced”. One of those represents a right, the other represents an obligation. That was sort of the central issues I was pointing out in that post, which you seem to have missed.
3) Women have been allowed into the army. We have records of women warriors as far back as we have records. On tumblr you can find posts about women serving in the Civil War and both World Wars. I think what you referred to is that in the United States it has only recently become explicitly permitted for women to be deployed directly into combat scenarios or assigned to combat-response units. But even then, nobody has talked about forcing those women to do it against their will. That’s permission, not conscription, as I mentioned above.
4) During the Vietnam war, both anti-feminist women and feminist women alike would protest against the Equal Rights Amendment because they thought that women would be liable to be drafted like the men. They would sneak into maternity wards and hang signs saying “don’t draft me“ on baby girls. That would be women saying that they didn’t want to be in the army. The White Feather girls wanted every single man to be sent to war, and none of the women. That group included several of the time’s most influential suffragists. And none of them were campaigning to conscript women.
5) If you think that I don’t personally want women in the army, I refer you to this post I reblogged yesterday. I want actual equality for all people. That’s why I work against feminism.
Hello Amy, how’s it going today? Isn’t it a nice day to share a little about your work for PiP?
sure, here’s a snippet.
When the guards come for him at sunrise, the Empress is with them. Peeta is awake and on his feet, patiently waiting in the middle of his cell. She still wears her headpiece and her armor, but this time he sees a baldric around her breasts, the hilt of a sword over her shoulder. He tries not to visibly swallow.
She pauses outside the cell, watching him from between the bars. “So eager to greet your death today, Captain Mellark?” she asks.
He allows himself a smile, even though his heart is beginning to race, like a rabbit caught in a snare. His plan is a gamble, a shot in the dark, but he won’t let his desperation show.
“Yes, I could hardly sleep,” he says dryly.
The corners of her mouth curl inward. He’s becoming familiar with that scowl. He might even enjoy it. The Empress nods to the guards, and they unlock the door to swing it open, filing into his cell as she waits outside. Peeta holds his hands up to stop them.
“I have a proposition for you, Empress.”
She lifts an eyebrow as the guards take his arms. “Is that so?” Her tone is disinterested, and he holds himself steady, resisting as the guards try to lead him forward.
“I think you will be interested in what I’m offering. It will be mutually beneficial to us both.”
The spiky-haired guard at his side growls under her breath, preparing to force him to move, but he catches the flicker of interest in the Empress’ eyes. She holds up her hand to stop the guards.
Peeta licks his lips. “You have no men. Do you?”
She blinks, then narrows her eyes. “We have warriors.”
“All women, yes?”
The fingers on his elbows tighten threateningly, and the Empress’ eyes flash. “They are all strong, capable fighters—”
“I saw firsthand that they are, believe me,” he interjects hastily. “But what of your people? If you have no men, your tribe will perish, eventually. You must have thought about this. Or do you expect to keep your tribe alive for generations to come through sheer willpower alone?”
She jerks her chin at the guards, and Peeta feels a sharp stab of hot lightning at the base of his skull. He crumples to his knees with a gasp but grits his teeth through the pain, willing his vision to stop swimming, lifting his gaze to hers as she moves closer. She bends at the waist so their faces are level.
“I will do what I need to,” she hisses. He swallows down the nausea.
“You need an heir, don’t you?” he rasps. She pauses, and he continues, “I can give you one. Many, even.”
Her face twists in angry bemusement, and she straightens. His face rises to follow, holding her gaze. “What are you suggesting?” she asks, lip curling.
“Keep me here. Use me. Killing me would be a waste when you could leverage something much more useful out of me.”