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.

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