Viking Warriors Were Ultra Violent and Without Mercy: Some Were Women

13-16 minutes 9/2/2021

A Viking is a raider from the sea. During the Viking Age, roughly 750 to 1050, Europe was plagued by such pirates in their swift dragonships. The Vikings were traders and explorers, too. They were farmers, poets, engineers, artists—but their place in history was carved by their swords. “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord, deliver us!” wrote a French monk around the year 900. They “ransacked and despoiled, massacred, and burned and ravaged,” wrote another, who witnessed the Viking attack on Paris in 885. In Ireland in the mid-800s, a monk praised the safety of a storm:

Bitter is the wind tonight, White the tresses of the sea;

I have no fear the Viking hordes Will sail the seas on such a night.

Archaeology backs up the Vikings’ violent image: Across Northern Europe, from Russia in the east to Iceland in the west, Vikings are found buried with swords. Three thousand Viking swords are known from Norway alone. Assuming all sword-bearers are male, writers limn the Viking Age as hypermasculine: a time when “shiploads of these huge and brawny men would suddenly appear out of the sea mists. They would pillage at will, mercilessly cutting down all opposition.”

Let’s set aside, for a moment, the idea that mercilessness is a masculine trait. How does an archaeologist know a buried Viking is male? The bones found beside the buried swords, if any, are degraded. Sexing them by their robustness or by the shape of the skull or pelvis is often not possible—and is always open to interpretation. There’s no internationally agreed-upon definition of “robust”; there’s no absolute scientific scale for pelvic structure. DNA sexing is difficult and expensive and, so, rarely done. Instead, “sexing by metal” has been standard procedure since 1837, before archaeology as a science even existed. Graves with weapons—even cremation graves in which the bones have been crushed after burning—are catalogued as male; those with jewelry are female. The thirty-some Viking graves in which slender, female-looking bones were unearthed beside weapons are ignored as “noise in the data.”

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The result? Historians and novelists write confidently of ships carrying only “huge and brawny men.” Museum designers and filmmakers and Viking reenactors re-create in exquisite detail a male-dominated Viking world. When we hear the word “Viking,” we imagine a well-armed man.

Yet most people who died in the Viking Age were buried with nothing that will sex them. Even the elite, the people whose graves announce their high status, often hide their sexual identity, as if their gender mattered not at all. Half of the elite burials in some Viking graveyards contain neither weapons nor jewelry. Their grave goods, though rich, are horses and boats and knives and tools: things that cannot be gendered.

And now, in Birka grave Bj581, we have a woman buried as a Viking warrior. What does her grave tell us? That we don’t know the Vikings as well as we thought.

In December 2012, a man using a metal detector near the village of Harby in Denmark found a small face peering up at him from a lump of frozen dirt. His find, cleaned up, was an intricately detailed figurine of gilded silver, about an inch tall, in the shape of a woman with long hair twisted into a ponytail. She carries a sword and shield.

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I know of seven flat metal images of a woman with weapons, and seventeen showing a shield-carrier facing a horse rider armed with sword and spear, both perhaps female. These images were found in Denmark, England, Germany, and Poland. Similar images of women with weapons, fashioned from thread or carved in stone, come from Norway, Sweden, and Russia.

The figurine from Harby is the first three-dimensional portrayal to appear. Like the others, she is dismissed as a “valkyrie.” By that the experts mean she is not real.

The Old Norse word valkyrja combines valr, “corpse,” and kjósa, “to choose.” The standard definition comes from Snorri Sturluson. Writing in Iceland between 1220 and 1241, this Christian-educated lawyer, politician, and poet described valkyries as pagan battle-goddesses with shield and sword (or spear) who ferried dead heroes to Valhalla, the otherworldly feast hall of the god Odin, and there served them celebratory cups of mead. Trusting Snorri (who was well known, in his lifetime, for being un- trustworthy), modern scholars classify valkyries as “mythological.” They are “firmly supernatural” or, at most, “semi-human.”

Why, when we see the Harby figurine, do we not assume, instead, that it depicts an actual woman—that carrying a sword and shield was “a perfectly ordinary aspect of a woman’s life” in the Viking Age? A 2013 museum exhibition in Copenhagen did suggest that—and sparked a storm of rebuttal. The argument devolved to one point: Said a specialist on women of the Viking Age, “We know that warriors were men.”

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How do we know that?

Norse culture in the Viking Age, I was taught, was divided along strict gender lines. I described it that way myself in my previous books. The woman ruled innan stokks, “inside the threshold,” where she held considerable power, for she was in charge of clothing and food. In lands where winter lasts ten months and the growing season two, the housewife decided who froze and who starved. The larger the household, the more complex her job. Keeping house for a chieftain with eighty retainers, as well as family and servants, she was the CEO of a small business.

But for all that, the man held the “dominant role in all walks of life,” I was taught. His duties began at the threshold of the house and expanded outward. His was the world of public affairs, of “decisions affecting the community at large.” He was the trader, the traveler, the warrior. His symbol was the sword.

The woman’s role, in turn, was symbolized by the keys she carried at her belt.

Except she didn’t.

Our picture of everyday life in the Viking Age is largely drawn from later written sources, from laws, poems, and the long prose Icelandic sagas, all of which survive only in manuscripts from the 1200s or later—more than two hundred years after the people of the North converted to Christianity and their culture radically changed. There are more than 140 Icelandic sagas; only one, recounting a feud from 1242, refers to a house-wife’s keys. A Danish marriage law from 1241 says that a bride is given to her husband “for honor and as wife, sharing his bed, for lock and keys, and for right of inheritance of a third of the property.” A bawdy poem, in an Icelandic manuscript dated after 1270, describes the hypermasculine thunder god, Thor, disguised as a bride with a ring of keys at his belt.

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These three are the only mentions of housewives with keys I can come up with: two women and a man in drag. They might reflect a pagan truth from before the year 1000. They might equally reflect the values of the medieval Christian world in which they were written. No one can say for sure. Women with weapons appear in these same texts much more frequently than women with keys: I can name twenty warrior women from sagas and histories, another fifty-three in poems and myths. The earliest Icelandic lawbook (dated 1260 to 1280) considers women with weapons a threat to society—which implies they existed. You don’t write laws to control myths.

Why then did keys become the symbol of Viking womanhood? Because our image of the Viking world took shape in the nineteenth century. Keys reflect the values of Victorian society, when upper-class women were confined to the home and told to concern themselves only with children, church, and kitchen. The iconic Viking housewife with her keys first appeared in a Swedish history book in the 1860s, replacing an earlier historical portrait of Viking women who were strikingly equal to Viking men. The Victorian version of Viking history has been presented ever since as truth—but it is only one interpretation.

Surely archaeology backs up the image of the Viking housewife with her keys, doesn’t it?

It does not.

Keys have been found in some Viking women’s graves. But they are not common, nowhere near as common as the symbol chosen for Viking men, the sword. Against the three thousand swords from Viking Age Norway, a Norwegian archaeologist in 2015 sets only 143 keys, half of which were found in men’s graves. An archaeologist in Denmark in 2011 found that only nine out of 102 female graves she studied contained keys. Calling keys the symbol of a Viking woman’s status, these researchers say, is “an archaeological misinterpretation,” “a mistake,” “a myth”—and a dangerous one.

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By accepting the Victorian stereotype of men with swords and women with keys, we legitimize the idea that women should stay at home.

We reduce the role models for every modern girl who visits a museum or reads a history book.

We make it hard to even imagine a Viking warrior woman like the one buried in Birka grave Bj581.

Viking society was not like Victorian society. It was not like our own. It was a martial society, in which vengeance was praised and war was glorified. An insult to one’s honor—as slight as a nasty poem, as serious as the killing of kinsfolk—was repaid with violence or, at least, by the threat of violence until blood money was paid. Of heroes it’s said they “fled not,” but fought as long as they could hold a weapon. Fearlessness was the highest virtue. Death was met with laughter. The winner in any conflict was the one who wouldn’t give up.

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No one is immune to violence in such a society. No one is a noncombatant, no one is safe, inside the threshold or out.

In medieval texts depicting this martial Viking society, women “do battle in the forefront of the most valiant warriors.” “Like a son,” they avenge the killing of their kinsmen. They kill berserks, break shields, kill one king and help another. They say, “As heroes we were widely known—with keen spears we cut blood from bone. Our blades were red.”

These women are called trolls or giants, valkyries, or shield-maids—but not shield-maidens, as in many modern translations. The Old Norse word skjaldmær joins “shield” to “girl,” “daughter,” or “virgin.” Another term for a warrior woman, skjaldkona, “shield-woman,” makes it clear that sexual experience has nothing to do with warrior status. The comparable word for male warriors is drengr, literally “boy” or “lad” (which originally meant one who is “led by a leader”). Drengr is occasionally applied to women, too. The issue is not sex, but status. These warriors are not house-holders. They have no economic responsibilities. They have no obligations except to their war leader. They are professional fighters.

The warrior women in these texts are portrayed as human, semi-human, or supernatural. But so are their male counterparts: the berserks (or “bear-shirts”), whom iron cannot bite, the half trolls and dragon-slayers, the shape-shifters who turn into wolves. Male or female, many warriors in Icelandic sagas and Old Norse poetry talk to gods (or birds), use magic, have inordinate luck or strength that increases after sunset, are matchless athletes, outlive a normal life span, and serve mead to heroes in Valhalla. Only the females are explained away by modern scholars as fantasy or wish fulfillment. Only the females are considered as fabulous as dragons.

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The Victorian stereotype blinds us.

We need to clear our eyes. The sources depicting Viking women with weapons—the Christian-era texts, the images, the ambiguous burials, and stray archaeological finds—are the same sources depicting Viking men. To write about the Viking Age at all means to connect the dots. To make educated guesses. To interpret and to speculate.

Reading itself is a form of interpretation. Words like menn in Old Norse, manna in Old English, and homines in Latin have been casually translated for hundreds of years as “men”—but they also mean “people,” no genders implied. When these menn are warriors, translators have assumed they were all masculine. Yet Old Norse can be gender-specific when it matters. When a warrior using the masculine name Hervard killed a man in a king’s hall, in one saga, the king’s warriors egged one another on to go after him. Then the king spoke up, calling out information they’d apparently missed: “I think he is a kvennmann,” the king said. “I think, moreover, that with the weapon she has, each of you would find it dearly bought to take her life.” As the king’s shift in pronouns reveals, kvennmann means “female person”; kvenn is our word “queen.” Its opposite, karlmann, “male person,” is also used in the sagas—when gender matters.

“Was femaleness any more decisive,” mused one saga scholar as long ago as 1993, “in setting parameters on individual behavior than were wealth, prestige, marital status, or just plain personality and ambition?”

I think it was not.

Mercilessness is not a masculine trait.


From The Real Valkyrie by Nancy Marie Brown. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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