In my latest Viking Age novels (Olaf’s Saga collectively), I introduce a female character named Turid who yearns to fight alongside men in battle. To me, it seems natural that during the Viking Age, there might be women (i.e. shieldmaidens) who wanted to fight. And given some of the freedoms that Scandinavian women enjoyed during that time, it did not seem like such a far-fetched idea, until I began to do more research….

Artwork by Eleni Tsami.

The debate about shieldmaidens

This is an oversimplification, but in 1878, archaeologists digging near Birka, Sweden, uncovered a 10th-century burial tomb believed to hold the remains of a great warrior. Given the grave goods and weapons in the tomb, researchers concluded that the corpse was a male warrior of some prominence. However, recent bone analysis of the skeleton shows the lack of a Y chromosome, i.e. the corpse is female. So the debate has turned from whether she was male or female to whether she could have been a warrior. Which raised the larger question of whether female warriors existed at all. I am not a scientist or archaeologist, so I am not here to make any conclusions on the subject. But I would like to point out several data points (murky though they are) that make the existence of female warriors among the Vikings plausible.

Women Warriors in the Viking Age

The concept of the women warrior is not unique to Northern European culture. Countries around the world have stories of women who trained for and fought in battles, including the Britain warrior queen Boudica, the soldier Hua Mulan whose name you might recognize from the current Disney movie, and the empress Zenobia from Syria.

Women in the Viking Age enjoyed some independence. While most stories from the sagas suggest their roles were largely domestic, e.g. women ran the household, raised the children, cared for the elderly, etc., they had some say over their lives. For instance, they could divorce their spouse, become clergy, or run their own businesses. Could they have also picked up a weapon and shield and fought beside their male counterparts?

To clarify, I do not mean women who picked up a weapon to protect their home or family from a thief. Or women who followed their spouses to a new home in a dangerous land. There are plenty of examples of women who did this. I mean warriors by profession, who donned armor, hefted a shield and spear, served a lord, and fought beside men in a shield wall. I mean, shield-maidens. Did they exist?

What we know of shieldmaidens

In medieval literature, we find several examples of what I will call Viking shieldmaidens.

Helgi und Sigrun (1901) by Johannes Gehrts.

First, there are the Valkyrie. These were a group of maidens who served the god Odin and were sent by him to battlefields to choose the slain who were worthy of a place in the hall of heroes, Valhalla. Not only did they ride to battle with shield and armor and possess names such as Skögul (“shaker”), Gunnr (“war”), Hildr (“battle”), but Odin trusted them to identify heroes. If women were not warriors, or had little knowledge of battle, why make them responsible for this task? Could it be because they knew as much of battle as the men?

Among mortals, albeit those shrouded by the mists of time, we find shield-maidens in several sagas. Among them are names you might recognize, such as Brynhildr, a female warrior from Germanic and Norse legend, and Hervor, a female character or set of characters, mentioned in the Poetic Edda.

Perhaps more convincing accounts of female warriors come from descriptions of the Battle of Brávellir. The battle took place in ca. AD 750 (the date is now being debated) between Sigurd Hring, king of Sweden and the Geats of Västergötland, and his uncle Harald Wartooth, king of Denmark and the Geats of Östergötland. Saxo Grammaticus gives one of the more detailed accounts of the battle in his Gesta Danorum. Written in the early 13th-century (centuries after the battle occurred), Saxo claimed 300 shield-maidens fought for the Danes. Given the distance of time between the event and his writing, who knows what actually happened. However, it is not beyond reason to think that at least some women fought on the field, or else why mention them?

Lagertha as imagined in a lithography by Morris Meredith Williams in 1913.

Ladgerda (aka Lagertha) is also brought to life by the sagas and Saxo. When Ragnar Lothbrok comes to Norway to avenge the death of his grandfather Siward and the humiliation of his wives and kinfolk at the hands of Frø, the king of Sweden, he is greeted by a host of shieldmaidens who volunteer to help him. Saxo writes, “…among them was Ladgerda, a skilled female warrior who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.” Could there be a modicum of truth to the tale?

There are also queens such as Sigrid the Haughty, Unn the Deep-Minded and Olga of Kyiv, each formidable in their own right. In that same vein, one could point to the Lady of Mercia, Aethelflaed, who protected Mercia from Vikings. While they may not have fought in the shield wall alongside their male counterparts, some were certainly on the battlefield and all possessed the heart of a warrior.

Perhaps the best proof we have of women fighting alongside men during the Viking Age comes from the Rus. In researching details for my novel, Sigurd’s Swords, I came across a contemporary military recounting of the Siege of Dorostolon, a former Roman (then Bulgarian) fortress on the Danube that is today the city of Silistra in Bulgaria.

At that site, the Byzantines laid siege to the Rus army in the summer of AD 971. After the eventual defeat of the Rus, the Byzantine war chronicler Leo the Deacon (who was at the battle) was astonished to find armed female warriors among the fallen. In that instance, it seems shieldmaidens did fight in the shield wall, though whether this was an isolated case, we may never know. We also don’t know whether they belonged to the Rus or were part of the mercenaries who fought alongside the Rus in that battle, namely the Pechenegs, the Bulgars, and the Magyars.

Henryk Siemiradzki. Svyatoslav’s Warriors sacrificing prisoners to the Pagan gods during the Siege of Dorostopol.

My hope is that one day, archaeologists may unearth irrefutable evidence so that we can lay this debate aside. Until then, it is fun to imagine what might have been and to introduce those thoughts into fiction as I have with Turid.

Thanks for reading!

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