Saturday, September 20, 2014

Shieldmaidens: Were there Female Warriors in the Viking Age?

Were there female warriors in the Viking Age? Probably. But beyond that, everything about this questions is vexed, including how many women fought, under what circumstances, whether they had any special status, and so on. The reason the question is vexed is that the sources are not very good. Although I love the sagas, it has to be said that they are epics or novels, not histories, and while some of them are historical novels with good attention to detail, others include elements of outright fantasy. Under the right circumstances archaeology can tell us a lot about this question, but unfortunately in the part of the world where the Vikings lived the circumstances are mostly bad. (Figurine above was found at Hårby, in Denmark, in late 2012; it dates to around 800 CE. It probably depicts a Valkyrie.)


I was inspired to write about this question by all the attention paid on the internet to a 2011 study by Australian archaeologist Shane McLeod. Lots of people have asserted, based on his work, that half the Viking warriors in Britain were women, but that is not what he found. This is what he asserted:
Viking women accompanied their male partners to Britain in far greater numbers than had been previously thought, a study has shown. Almost half of all bodies in burial grounds researchers examined were those of women - with some carrying swords and shields.

The numbers show that not only were the Vikings accomplished fighters but also the marrying kind who made sure their men had company. . . .  examination of 14 burial mounds found that it was not just the menfolk who came over. Of the 14 studied, six were women and seven were men, with one set not indistinguishable. The researchers came to their conclusion by examining objects found in the graves and looking at isotopes from their bones to identify where they were born. The bones were also examined for signs of which gender they belonged to - previous studies had just assumed that because the body had a knife near it it was a man. One burial site at Repton Woods near Derby, for example, was identified as female even though the remains of three swords were recovered. ‘These results, six female Norse migrants and seven male, should caution against assuming that the great majority of Norse migrants were male, despite the other forms of evidence suggesting the contrary,' the report says. ‘This result of almost a fifty-fifty ratio of Norse female migrants to Norse males is particularly significant when some of the problems with sexing of skeletons are taken into account.’ 
So even if McLeod is right, which is disputed, his main focus was on the number of women among Viking settlers, not among Viking warriors, and he claimed to have found only one female skeleton equipped as a warrior.

Perhaps you are wondering why Shane McLeod went to press after studying only 13 identifiable skeletons, a ridiculously small sample. He did so because identifying the sex of human bones is actually not easy, especially when they have been buried for centuries, and almost all the bones from Viking graves are too badly decayed to be analyzed in this way. Unlike raccoons and lions, male and female humans have exactly the same bones. The only differences are in the size and thickness, especially of the pelvis and skull. These differences are statistical, and there are outliers; there exist women in the world today whose bones would almost certainly be typed as male, and men whose skeletons would be identified as female. If you bury the bones under a ton of dirt -- remember that a cubic yard of dirt weighs 2,000 to 3,000 pounds -- they warp. If the soil is acidic, they gradually dissolve, and sadly for Viking archaeologists, most of the places where Vikings lived and died have acidic soil. Therefore the skeletons that survive are far from ideal for these purposes, and most of them don't survive at all. (Note the poor preservation of these Viking skeletons from Poland.)

Archaeologists bitterly dispute the sexing of partially preserved skeletons. Those archaeologists who come across as sexist fools in internet articles based on McLeod's work, because they prefer to identify the sex of skeletons based on the artifacts buried with them, do so because they do not trust the identifications made by forensic anthropologists. In graduate school I read about some field archaeologists who distrusted their lab so much they sent in the skeletons of ten known people who had died within the past century, and their lab got the sex of only eight correct. I suspect that even under good archaeological conditions, the sexing of human skeletons is never more than 90 percent accurate, and as I said the conditions in the Viking world are rarely good.

So while I consider the occasional reports of well-armed Norse skeletons that seem to be female to be evidence of female Vikings, I don't consider it proof. The situation is quite different on the Sarmatian steppes, where there are dozens of well-preserved skeletons of female warriors.

The Sagas

Viking literature has many references to women fighting, in both the more historical works and the legendary material. However, much of that does not really describe warriors. Some of the internet pieces I have seen lately cite a scene from Erik the Red's Saga in which Erik's daughter Freydis picks up an ax and goes after five women who pissed her off. No doubt many Viking women engaged in fist and knife fights, and some of them grabbed a spear when men tried to invade their houses. But that isn't the same as being a warrior. One of the standard saga scenes depicts an attack by a gang of farmers against a real warrior, typically a man of noble family who has served in the retinue of the King of Norway. These are not fair fights, and with his training, sword and helmet the warrior can easily overmaster two or three farmers; it takes four or even five farm boys to bring him down. The question that interests me is not whether some women might have picked up a weapon in an emergency, but whether any were actually trained as warriors and served in elite war bands. Even in the grimly sexist Mediterranean women appear in ancient battles when they were fought in towns, hurling roofing tiles and other missiles down on attackers. But it would be pushing things to call them "warriors."

The most famous legendary account of shieldmaidens comes from Hervor's Saga, part of the mythic material that depicts battles between Goths and Huns in the fifth century. The saga was written down around 1200, 750 years after those events, so it has little historical value. Wikipedia summarizes it like this:
The saga deals with the sword Tyrfing and how it was forged and cursed by the Dwarves Dvalinn and Durin for king Svafrlami. Later, he lost it to the berserker Arngrim from Bolmsö who gave it to his son Angantyr. Angantyr died during a fight on Samsø against the Swedish hero Hjalmar, whose friend Orvar-Odd buried the cursed sword in a barrow together with Angantyr. From the barrow it was retrieved by Angantyr's daughter, the shieldmaiden Hervor who summoned her dead father to claim her inheritance. Then the saga continues with her and her son Heidrek, the king of Reidgotaland. Between his sons Angantyr and Hlod, there is a great battle about their father's heritage and Hlod is aided by the Huns. However, Hlod is defeated and killed. In the end, the saga relates that Angantyr, had the son Heidhrekr Ulfhamr who was king of Reidgotaland for a long time. Heidhrekr's daughter was Hildr and she had the son Halfdan the Valiant, who was the father of Ivar Vidfamne. After Ivar Vidfamne follows a list of Swedish kings, both real and semi-legendary, ending with Philip Halstensson.
Hervor was eulogized as:
More cheery in battle
than chatting to suitors
or taking the bench
at a bridal feast.
In these stories it is taken for granted that a woman can choose the path of the warrior, but then these stories also take it for granted that Odin walks among men, dragons sit on hoards of gold and a single hero can slay a thousand enemies. In fact the most common meaning of "shieldmaiden" in the ancient material is Valkyrie, the choosers of the slain who led the greatest warriors off to Valhalla after their deaths. Yet the regular appearance of armed mortal women in these stories is still suggestive to me.

Danish historian and mythographer Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150 to 1220) probably preserves more mentions of female Vikings than any other writer. Consider this, from his account of the Battle of Barvalla, around 750 CE:
Now out of the town of Sle, under the captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hakon Cut-cheek came Tummi the Sailmaker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Webiorg was also inspired with the same spirit, and was attended by Bo (Bui) Bramason and Brat the Jute, thirsting for war...The same man witnesses that the maiden Weghbiorg (Webiorg) fought against the enemy and felled Soth the champion. While she was threatening to slay more champions, she was pierced through by an arrow from the bowstring of Thorkill, a native of Tellemark.
So there we have three female warriors, presented as historical figures. Yet they lived, says Saxo, 450 years before his own time, and his accounts of this period read more like Hervor's Saga than Tacitus or Livy. As you approach his own time and his sources get better, the shieldmaidens disappear. An interesting detail about Saxo's account is his notion that these women had men's souls. This is a literary trope we could find in a hundred histories, yet this is exactly the language used by some American Indians to describe people who switched gender roles. They weren't just men who wanted to live as women, they had women's souls. Or in some societies, two souls. I mention this because my impression is that people in traditional societies who chose to switch genders did so in a profound, lifelong way. Like the Albanian "sworn virgins," women who lived as men. In every way they took a male role, dressing like men, speaking like men, doing men's work, except that they never had sex because motherhood was forbidden to them. So I would suspect that if there were shieldmaidens they chose to live entirely as men -- in their dress, they way they cut their hair, and so on. They were not, I suspect, mothers, or if they became mothers they had to put their days as warriors behind them.

As you can see, though, the evidence for shieldmaidens is pretty sketchy. Your hard core, skeptical scholar just waves all these accounts away. Here is Judith Jesch, a historian who as written books on Viking women and is anything but sexist:
It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.
Actually I agree: shieldmaidens are Viking legend. But so is Vinland, which turned out to be Newfoundland, and Midgard, which is Constantinople, and the sunstone, which is a sort of feldspar you can really use to navigate in cloudy weather, and all sorts of other things that have turned out to be rooted in fact. My feeling is that the number of female warriors in Viking stories, and the number of armed skeletons identified as female, suggests that there was some reality behind this particular legend. But I have to admit that I don't really know. (Above, female grave from Bogovej in Denmark)

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