The Icelandic sagas, although written hundreds of years after the Viking Age people and events they describe, can give us some hints--especially if we examine their descriptions word for word.
Gudrun the Fair, heroine of Laxdaela Saga, for example, is one of many saga women described as a skörungr. It's a word translators have serious trouble with--although the saga-writer clearly thinks it's a compliment. In modern Icelandic, the word means a fireplace poker. Concentrating on what a fireplace poker does, William Morris in the 1890s came up with "a very stirring woman." And Gudrun does stir things up, mostly trouble.
Yet a man labeled a skörungr Morris called "a shaper" or "a leader." Other early translators turned a female "poker" into "brave-hearted," "high-spirited," "noble," "of high mettle," "fine," "superior," "of great magnificence," and "a paragon of a woman." They might have done better to think what a poker looks like. For skörungr does, in the end, have to do with manhood. The root skör means an edge, like the edge of a sword.
Bolli was handsome and talented-second only to Olaf's own son, Kjartan. The two boys were best friends. Both fell in love with Gudrun the Fair, who had already been widowed twice when she met them. Gudrun loved Kjartan. Like every Icelandic boy his age, he decided to go to Norway to make a name for himself, and asked her to wait the usual three years for him. She suggested he take her abroad instead. He refused. She refused to promise to wait. Three years passed, and he didn't come home. But Bolli did, full of tales of the impression Kjartan had made on the king's beautiful sister.
Gudrun became insanely jealous. Sometimes she thought Bolli had tricked her into marrying him. Other times she believed Kjartan had spurned her and, when he had come home and made light of her marriage, had insulted her. And indeed, he did insult her after a golden headdress he had given his wife (a gift from the princess intended for Gudrun) was stolen. Kjartan gathered his men and surrounded Gudrun's house, forcing everyone to go to the bathroom inside for several days with no indoor privy. Gudrun arranged his death and then deeply regretted it. As she told her son many years later, "I was worst to the one I loved best."
But for none of these deeds is Gudrun called a skörungr. That comes on the occasion of her fourth marriage. At the urging of her staunch supporter, the chieftain Snorri of Helgafell, and with the agreement of her young sons, Gudrun betrothed herself to Thorkel Eyjolfsson, a wealthy trader and friend of the king of Norway. Gudrun had extensive landholdings and the backing of many men who had been loyal to her recently deceased father. Since her brothers were all exiled after killing Kjartan, Gudrun's husband would wield the influence of a chieftain.
As a mark of her power in the relationship, Gudrun insisted on holding the wedding at her own farm, bearing the cost herself. Among the 160 wedding guests, however, her bridegroom Thorkel recognized a man who had killed one of his friends. Thorkel grabbed the criminal and was about to put him to death when Gudrun stood up from her place at the women's table, brushed her fancy linen headdress out of her eyes, and called to her men, "Rescue my friend Gunnar and let nothing stand in your way!"
As the saga so nicely understates it, "Gudrun had a much bigger force. Things turned out differently than expected."
Before anyone could draw a sword, Snorri of Helgafell stood up and laughed. "Now you can see what a skörungr Gudrun is, when she gets the better of both of us."
What quality is Chieftain Snorri admiring? Translators from 1960 to 2002 have called Gudrun and her saga sisters "exceptional," "outstanding," "remarkable," "determined," "forceful," "capable," "brave," "of strong character," "one to be reckoned with," and a woman "with a will very much her own." These are better than the nineteenth century's "high-mettled" and "very stirring," but they're still not quite right.
Historian Jenny Jochens turns skörungr into "manly," and the best equivalent is indeed man. Imagine if the situation were reversed. Gudrun spotted the killer of her friend on Thorkel's side of the hall. Thorkel had the bigger fighting force. Chieftain Snorri, eager to make peace and see the wedding proceed (and it does), stepped in, laughed, and said to Gudrun, "Now you can see what a man you're marrying, when he gets the better of both of us."
A Viking's character was not either male or female, but lay on a spectrum ranging from strong to weak, aggressive to passive, powerful to powerless, winner to loser or, in the Old Norse terms, hvatr to blauðr. Hvatr, always a compliment, means "bold, active, vigorous." It appears to be related to the verb hvetja, a cognomen for our verb "to whet"--to sharpen (a sword), to put a good, sharp skör (or edge) on it. Its opposite, blauðr, always an insult, means "soft, weak." It is, says the standard dictionary, "no doubt a variant of blautr," which means "moist." Hard, sharp, and vigorous versus soft, yielding, and moist. Think dirty and you've got it.
When the beautiful skörungr Hallgerd Long-legs called Njal, the hero of Njal's Saga, "Old Beardless," she was not saying he was funny-looking: She was saying he was blauðr--weak, cowardly, powerless, and craven. A loser.
And when Chieftain Snorri praised Gudrun the Fair as a skörungr, and a better one than both himself and Thorkel Eyjolfsson, he was locating her far out on the male end of the power spectrum. He was calling her a winner.
"This is a world," writes Old Norse scholar Carol Clover, "in which 'masculinity' always has a plus value, even (or perhaps especially) when it is enacted by a woman." There was only one standard, only one way to judge a person adequate or inadequate. "The frantic machismo" of the men in the Icelandic sagas, Clover concludes, suggests "a society in which being born male precisely did not confer automatic superiority, a society in which distinction had to be acquired, and constantly reacquired, by wresting it away from others."
The women who are mentioned in the sagas, the ones who are admired as skörungr, are the ones who have acquired that distinction. Among them is Gudrid the Far-Traveler, about whom I have written two books: the young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (2015), and the nonfiction book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (2007), from which this discussion of skörungr was taken.
Read more about Viking women on my blog here: