Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Viking Women with Weapons

I was taught that Viking culture was divided along strict gender lines. I described it that way myself in my previous books. The Viking woman ruled the house; the Viking man was the trader, traveler, and warrior. His symbol was the sword. Her role was symbolized by the keys she carried at her belt.

Keys? In my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, I compare the number of women with keys in written sources about the Viking Age (three) to the number of women with weapons, and I claim: "I can name twenty from sagas and histories, another fifty-three in poems and myths."

Anticipating I'd get asked to actually name them during my book tour, I decided to double-check—and came up with even more women warriors this time.


First, you need to understand that I'm using the term "women" in the most general way. "Female" might be better, but it's got its problems too, as we really don't know much about ideas of gender in the Viking Age. What we do know is that it wasn't binary, but more of a spectrum with "weak" or "passive" on one end and "strong" or "aggressive" on the other end, and with people able to move back and forth along that spectrum as they grew and aged.

We also don't know much about ideas of species in the Viking Age. What did they mean when they called someone a giant or a troll—or a goddess or a valkyrie? Since these women often mated with humans (and one definition of a species is that the members can mate and produce offspring) I am including them all in my list of "women with weapons."

When you look at the question this way, you end up with a lot of names of women warriors and war-leaders. I'm grateful to scholars Neil Price, Leszek Gardela, and Jóhanna Katrín Fridriksdóttir* for coming up with most of the names on this list. Price, for example, has traced the names of 51 individual valkyries (some of whom I discuss below).

Beginning with medieval historical sources:

—From the Irish history known as The War of the Irish with the Foreigners, you have the Viking chieftain known as The Red Girl who led her fleet against Munster in the 10th century, along with 15 other named Viking war leaders. (Neil Price also finds two unnamed "female war commanders" who fought against the Irish mentioned in the Annals of Ulster and a "vaguely-defined army of barbarians" that included women in the Annals of Innisfallen.)

—In his History of the Danes, Saxo Grammaticus also names a Red Girl (Rusila)—who may or may not be the same woman as the Viking leader in Ireland—along with the warrior women Stikla, Hetha, Visna, Vebiorg, Lagertha, Alvild, and Gurith.

Visna, for example, is described as "a woman hard through and through and a highly expert warrior" who was the king's standard-bearer in battle. Targeted by the Swedish champion Starkather, she did not drop the banner until he cut off her right hand. Starkather himself was forced to leave the field "with a lung protruding from his chest, his neck cut right to the middle, and a hand minus one finger."

Saxo describes Lagertha as "a skilled female fighter … With locks flowing loose over her shoulders she would do battle in the forefront of the most valiant warriors. Everyone marveled at her matchless feats." The hero Ragnar Lothbrok himself was impressed, swearing "he had gained the victory by the might of one woman."

—Queen Gunnhild Mother-of-Kings appears in several medieval histories, as well as in 11 Icelandic sagas—always as the villain. One medieval historian calls the years 961 to 975, when she ruled Norway alongside her sons, the "Age of Gunnhild." The stories make clear that she accompanied the armies and devised war strategy. In Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson even hints that she killed her rival, King Hakon. At a crucial moment in the battle, says Snorri, an arrow of an unusual kind "hit King Hakon in the arm, just below the shoulder. And it is said by many that Gunnhild's servant, the one named Kisping, ran through the crowd shouting: 'Make way for the king-slayer'—and shot the arrow at King Hakon, but others say no one knows who shot it."

—Snorri also tells the story of Queen Asa, who avenged her own rape and the murders of her father and brother, by arranging the killing of King Gudrod. When the king's warriors confronted her, Snorri writes, she "did not deny it was her plan." She then took her infant son and returned, "at once," to her ancestral home. There she "reigned over the kingdom that her father, Harald Redbeard, had ruled" for 17 years.

—In the Russian Primary Chronicle, you have Queen Olga of Kiev, who doesn't wield weapons herself but does lead armies and devise war strategies, including one that avenges the death of her husband and another that destroys a city. She reigns over the Viking Rus for about 10 years. When her son is killed at the Battle of the Danube in 971, John Skylitzes notes in his Synopsis of Byzantine History, the victorious "Roman" (Byzantine) army "found women lying among the fallen, equipped like men; women who had fought against the Romans together with the men."

In the Eddas and other poetic sources, you have:

—The goddess Freyja, who rides to war in a chariot pulled by lions, claims half the dead, and oversees an endless battle in which the wounded are healed overnight to resume their fight at dawn.

—There's also the giant Skadi who, when her father was killed by the god Loki's tricks, "took up her helmet and ringmail byrnie and weapons of war" and set off to avenge him.

—Fenja and Menja, the enslaved warriors in the Eddic poem The Song of Grotti, famously brag: "As heroes we were widely known—with keen spears we cut blood from bone. Our blades are red."

—There's Modgud, who guards the bridge on the road to Hel in Snorri's Edda and may (or may not) be the same as the unnamed woman warrior who challenges Brynhild in the poem Brynhild's Ride to Hel.

—One of Neil Price's 51 individually named valkyries is Brynhild, who when challenged by Modgud replies, "Blame me not, lady of the rock, though I went on Viking raids."

—Brynhild may or may not be the same woman as Sigrdrifa, the "battle-wise warrior" whom Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer discovers in a fire-ringed fortress wearing a helmet and dressed in ringmail.

—And there's Brynhild's rival, Gudrun, who shows her warrior training when she defends her brothers. Says The Greenland Lay of Atli: "the fight was not gentle where she set her hand... [She] felled two warriors … She struck such a blow she cut his leg clean off. She struck another so he never got up again: she sent him to Hel, and her hands never shook."

—Helgi Hjorvardsson, in the poem about him, is given his name by Svava. "She was a valkyrie and rode on the wind and the sea," says the poet. This line has usually been interpreted to mean she was a goddess, but it could just as well be a poetic description of a sailor. The poem continues, "She gave Helgi his name and shielded him often afterward in battle." She also protects him from a giant woman named Hrimgerd who didn't need weapons to kill: She crushed the ribs of men who came into her grasp.

—Sigrun, in the two lays of Helgi Hunding's-Bane, is said to be Svava reborn; she first appears helmeted, in bloody armor, and carrying a spear with a banner waving from it. Later, it's said that Sigrun is again reincarnated as Kara.

In the Icelandic sagas, you have:

—Two warrior women named Hervor in The Saga of Hervor. The first is the famous warrior in the poem Hervor's Song (called by some translators The Waking of Angantyr) who opens her father's grave to retrieve his heirloom sword. She is described as "strong as a man": "As soon as she was able, she practised more with a bow and a sword and shield than at sewing or embroidery." Then, "taking a warrior's gear and weapons, she went alone to a place where there were some Vikings." She joined their band and "after a little while … became the leader."

The second Hervor commands the border fortress between the Huns and the Goths. She is said to be happier in battle than other women were when chatting with their suitors. She goes down fighting and is avenged by her brother.

—Thornbjorg in The Saga of Hrolf Gautreksson also grows up practicing the martial arts. She becomes a king and a war-leader and, at the end of the saga, commands the army that rescues her husband, King Hrolf, from the king of Ireland. Their meeting on the battlefield is beautifully dramatic: "Before him stood a most warlike man, fully armed. The man took off his helmet and stepped back—and King Hrolf realized it was Queen Thornbjorg."

The Saga of the Volsungs includes three warrior women we've already counted, Sigrun, Brynhild, and Gudrun. In this saga, Brynhild describes herself clearly as a warrior, saying, "I wear a helmet among the warrior kings, and I wish to remain in their warband. I was in battle with the King of Gardariki and our weapons were red with blood. This is what I desire. I want to fight."

—There are also Randalin in The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Aslaug in the Tale of Ragnar's Sons, Freydis in the Vinland Sagas, the sorceress Thorhild in Ljosvetninga Saga, and two women without weapons, but with military skill and training: Nitida (in Nitida Saga) and Sedentiana (in The Saga of Sigurd the Silent).

By any count, it's clear that the written sources name more women with weapons than they do women with keys. If we want to understand women's roles in the Viking Age, it's time to rethink our symbolism.

*Sources for The Real Valkyrie (and specifically for this blog post): Neil Price, The Viking Way (Oxbow, 2019). See also his new book, Children of Ash and Elm (Basic Books, 2020) Leszek Gardela, "Amazons of the North?" in Hvanndalir (DeGruyter, 2018). See also his new book, Women and Weapons in the Viking Age (Casemate, 2021) Jóhanna Katrín Fridriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). See also her new book, Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020)

For more on my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the related posts on this blog (click here) or my page at Macmillan.com.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Witch's Heart

In her novel, The Witch's Heart, Genevieve Gornichec picks apart the ancient tapestry of Old Norse myths, sorts and irons out the colored threads, adds some narrative silver wire and sparkling jewels, and embroiders a stunning new story of the Norse gods and giants.

Much of what we know about Norse mythology comes from one short book written in Iceland in the early 1200s by a man named Snorri Sturluson. It's called the Prose Edda, or Snorri's Edda. By the time Snorri wrote it, Iceland and the rest of Scandinavia had been Christian for 200 years. No one exclusively worshipped the old gods. Snorri himself was educated in a powerful Christian family. When Snorri was 17, his foster brother, Páll, was elected the Bishop of Skalholt.

As I explain in my 2013 biography of him, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Snorri had no intention of "collecting" or "preserving" pagan myths for us to enjoy 800 years later--though that's what he did. Snorri was not thinking about his "legacy." Like every writer, he had an immediate audience and purpose in mind when he sat down to write. His audience was the 16-year-old Norwegian king. His purpose was to teach the young king to appreciate the poetry of the ancient North--so that he himself could obtain a powerful position at court.

Snorri was an expert in the songs of the Vikings. He had memorized nearly a thousand poems and could write in the ancient skaldic style himself, with its convoluted word order, its strict rules about rhyme and meter and alliteration, and its many vague allusions to mythology. When he went to Norway in 1218, Snorri brought a new poem to recite. He expected to be named King's Skald, or court poet.

But young King Hakon thought skaldic poetry was old-fashioned. It was too hard to understand. He preferred the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which were just then being translated from the French.

Snorri must have been shocked. Skalds, or court poets, had been a fixture at the Norwegian court for 400 years. Skalds were a king's ambassadors, counselors, and keepers of history. They were part of the high ritual of his royal court, upholding the Viking virtues of generosity and valor. They legitimized his claim to kingship. They were time-binders: They wove the past into the present.

Snorri wrote the Edda to teach the young king his heritage.

To appease the bishops, who controlled the young king, Snorri put a Christian slant on the myths he told. He wasted few words on female characters, choosing instead stories that would excite a young man: stories of fast horses, magic swords, and trials of strength.

When goddesses and giantesses do appear in Snorri's Edda, they are reduced to objects of lust--or disgust.

Such as the one at the center of Genevieve Gornichec's The Witch's Heart.

"There was a giantess called Angrboda in Giantland," Snorri writes (in the 1987 translation by Anthony Faulkes). "With her Loki had three children. One was Fenriswolf, the second Iormungard (i.e. the Midgard serpent), the third is Hel. And when the gods realized that these three siblings were being brought up in Giantland, and when the gods traced prophecies stating that from these siblings great mischief and disaster would arise for them, then they all felt evil was to be expected from them, to begin with because of their mother's nature, but still worse because of their father's." The gods capture the three children and take them away--but Angrboda, their mother, lover of the Trickster God Loki, is never mentioned again.

In The Witch's Heart, Genevieve Gornichec fills that void, imagining the Tale of Angrboda that Snorri never told. It's a love story, an origin story, a coming-of-age tale, and a quest, with an indomitable witch at its center. The mother of Loki's monster children will win a place in your heart.

For more stories of powerful Viking women, see my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, or read the related posts on this blog (click here).

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Odin's Wife

In his Edda, the 13th-century Icelander Snorri Sturluson presents Norse mythology through a wisdom match between the clever King Gylfi and three gods--High, Just-as-High, and Third--who sit on thrones in Valhalla.

Asked "Who is the highest and most ancient of all gods?" High responds with a list of twelve names, beginning with All-father. Later he applies the name All-father to Odin--along with 52 more names.

"What a terrible lot of names you have given him!" objects King Gylfi in Anthony Faulkes’ 1987 translation. "One would need a great deal of learning to be able to give details and explanations of what events have given rise to each of these names."

Responds High, "You cannot claim to be a wise man if you are unable to tell of these important happenings."

Snorri Sturluson considered himself a wise man. In his Edda and in Heimskringla, his collection of sagas about Norway's kings, Snorri quotes apt lines from nearly a thousand poems, most of which had not been written down before.

But because he wrote for an audience of one--young King Hakon of Norway, brought to the throne at age 14--Snorri's tales in these two books skew toward the interests of a boy. As I pointed out in my 2013 biography of him, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Snorri wasted few words on women, human or divine. It's no surprise that he fails to tell us the many names of Odin's wife, or to relate the events that gave rise to them.

In Odin's Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology, William P. Reaves attempts to fill in the gaps in Snorri's Edda--proving himself a wise man by High's definition. Reaves is webmaster of the site germanicmythology.com, which aims to compile everything of interest to students of Norse mythology that exists in the public domain. It shouldn't surprise you that Odin's Wife is similarly comprehensive.

Snorri tells us that Frigg is Odin's wife and the mother of his son Baldur, while the Earth, or Jörd, is the mother of Odin's son Thor. According to the Edda, these are two separate goddesses. But as Reaves points out, "while evidence for Odin's wife Frigg and his wife the Earth are contemporary and congruous--occurring at the same time in the same places and genres--they are never shown together. Like Diana Prince and Wonder Woman, we apparently never see Frigg and Jörd side by side." Both goddesses are also called by several other names; one they hold in common is Hlin, which means "protector."

As Reaves lays out his "preponderance of evidence," the goddess Frigg leaps out of the shadows in which Snorri wrapped her. She convincingly becomes the powerful Earth-Mother and Mother of Gods, including not only Baldur and Thor, but also Freyr and Freyja, whom she had with her brother, Njörd. As Reaves concludes, "She is Odin’s equal in all respects, surpassing him in practical power."

That Frigg sits beside Odin on his throne, watching (and meddling in) all the Nine Worlds, "should not come as a surprise," he adds: "The sons of Borr bestowed senses, wit, and spirit on Ask and Embla alike. Women are not subordinate to men. The sources, both religious and historical, are rife with strong, independent women. Both men and women appear on the battlefield, as mythological, historical, and archaeological evidence affirms. Equality of the sexes was a Germanic reality, long before modern times."

See my complete review of Odin's Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology by William P. Reaves at The Midgardian.

For more about the powerful women of the Viking Age, see my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, or read the related posts on this blog (click here).

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Viking Creation Story

The Viking Age, I was taught, was an era of strict gender roles. The woman ruled the household. The man was the trader, the traveler, the warrior.

This interpretation—as I've noted previously on this blog—has been taught since the 1800s, the Victorian Age, when elite women were told to concern themselves only with church, children, and kitchen.

But it’s not the only way to read the sources.

In my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, I argue that roles in Viking society were decided—not by these Victorian ideas of men’s work vs. women’s work—but based on factors much harder to see.

I was convinced this was true by studying Norse mythology.

Our best sources on Norse mythology were written by the Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson. But Snorri is not trustworthy. In 2012, I wrote a biography of him (Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths) and showed that, not only did he put a Christian slant on the myths he told, he was a terrible misogynist.

In writing down the Norse myths, Snorri wasted few words on females, human or divine. They did not fit his audience or his purpose.

He began writing the Prose Edda in about 1220 for the 16-year-old Norwegian king to teach the young king to appreciate the poetry of the ancient North, with its many allusions to mythology; Snorri’s real goal was to gain an influential position at court.

Snorri wrote Heimskringla, his history of the kings of Norway, during the same king’s reign, again to impress the younger man.

Women in both books are honored mothers or objects of lust, Mary or Eve, as they were in Snorri’s own lifetime. It was the orthodox view of women in medieval Christian society, where even marriage and childbirth were considered matters for churchmen to control.

But Snorri gives us glimpses of the myths he left out—ancient stories that reflect the values of the pre-Christian Vikings. One of these is the Norse creation myth.

Here's how it goes: In the beginning two driftwood logs, one elm and one ash, are found on the seashore by three wandering gods. These gods give the wood human shape and bring it to life with blood, breath, and curious minds.

Unlike the Christian creation myth, where Eve is an afterthought, fashioned out of Adam’s rib, in the Norse myth Embla (the female) and Ask (the male) are equal:

They are made at the same time out of nearly the same stuff. As different as an ash tree and an elm, they make a good team.

Ash wood was used for spear shafts and oars. A good rower was sometimes called an “ash-person.”

Elm was used for wagon wheels. It was also the preferred wood for short, powerful bows: One archer is nicknamed “elm-twig.”

Both woods had roles in peace and war, for transportation and for killing. Their uses were determined by their size and strength, their resistance to rot or tensile stress, the denseness of their grain, and where they grew.

I think the same was likely true for the men and women of the Viking Age. They were equals, their roles in society being decided—not by gender—but based on ambition, ability, family ties, and wealth.

For more on my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the related posts on this blog (click here) or my page at Macmillan.com.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.