Did Women warriors exist in Viking society?

Who has not heard of the story of Wotan’s nine beautiful daughters riding their fiery horses through the night to bring fallen heroes to Walhall? At least since Wagner’s masterpiece ‘Die Walküre’ (The Valkyrie) we know the myth that women were active as warriors among the Germanic tribes. But Wagner only used the myth, he did not invent it. So where does the legend come from and above all – is it true?

A spectacular discovery in a Viking tomb seems for the moment to confirm
for the first time that there is some truth in the myth of the Germanic woman warriors.

The discovery of the grave as such is by no means new, the conclusions however are. It was found in the 19th century in Birka. Birka and Hovgården are places located on two neighbouring islands in a lake in Sweden, the Mälaren. Birka was the most important trading centre in Scandinavia from the 8th to the 10th century, while Adelsön on Hovgården was the king’s residence. In this heyday of the Vikings more than a millennium ago, a wealthy Viking warrior was buried in a magnificent tomb. Swords, arrowheads and the skeletons of two sacrificed horses were found in his resting place. Due to the warlike grave goods, archaeologists assumed since the end of the 1880s that they were standing in front of the grave of a – male – Viking king.

When the bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellström at the University of Stockholm examined the pelvic bones and the lower jaw of the warrior in the present time, a surprise awaited her however. The measurements seemed more like those of a woman. Kjellström’s cautiously suggested opinion that the warrior was a warrior woman presented at a conference in 2013 and published in 2016 met nevertheless with unexpectedly strong resistance.

Critics, especially the scientist Jutta Jesch from the University of Nottingham, argued that it might well be that the bones had been mislabeled or mixed with bones of other people because the excavation of the tomb had already taken place more than a century ago (see for example one of the critical contributions here). Indeed, the bones from the various graves in the area had been stored in a quite messy fashion in bags. Nevertheless, it seemed that the bones that were suspected to be a woman, were the only ones fitting the description of the original find in the ancient grave.

A team led by archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Sweden’s Uppsala University thus refused to accept the criticism and set to work. It verified the bones and extracted two types of DNA that allow to determine whether all bones originate from one person and whether they are male or female. The result was clear: the team could not detect Y-chromosomes in the bones, and the mitochondrial DNA from the different bones matched. All the human remains coming most probably from the Birka tomb belonged to one person – and like Siegfried at the sight of Brünnhilde, they said, “That’s not a man”. The skeleton did indeed belong to a woman, as Kjellström had suspected.

Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues emphasized that they had only done a test of the bones, but in the following they suspected that the woman could well have been a warrior and a respected strategist, since the dead woman was not only surrounded by weapons, but also had game pieces on her lap.

The critic’s voice, however, did again not accept this evidence and a heated debate broke out that was astonishing in its emotionality and debated hotly the question, if Vikings had strict gender roles, reducing women to child and house, or not.

It was among others objected that the dead ‘warrior’ in the grave had no battle wounds and that it had not been checked whether the bones had traces of particularly strong musculature, as should be expected resulting from war-oriented training. It was also suggested, the weapons in the grave could have been only a kind of ‘souvenir’ from the woman’s husband. Birka, home to some of the largest and best-known Viking burial sites, was a thriving commercial centre, but admittedly it was not the scene of armed conflict. The question therefore arose: was the dead person in Birka only a rich merchant or was she indeed a female warrior?

Jutta Jesch, the leading critic of the presumed status of the dead, observed that text studies had to support the archaeological finds and that the burial site could therefore not be interpreted as that of a warrior.

This argument, however, was rather counterproductive, as there are quite rich writings on the subject of woman warriors in Germanic tribes. On the one hand there are the religious fairy tale reports of the Edda about the Valkyries. Old Germanic texts like Völuspá, Grímnismál and Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar report about them. On the other hand there are also more factual stories of female warriors.

An Irish text from the early 10th century, for example, tells of Inghen Ruaidh, a red-haired warrioress who led a Viking fleet to Ireland, and numerous Viking sagas, such as the saga of the Völsungen from the 13th century (inspiration for the Wagnerian Wälsungen), tells of “Shieldmaids” who fought with male warriors. Examples of shieldmaids mentioned by name in Nordic sagas include the Swedish princess Thornbjǫrg in Hrólf’s saga Gautrekssonar, Hed, Visna and Veborg in the Gesta Danorum, as well as Lagertha in the writings of Saxo Grammaticus, recently taken from oblivion by a television series. Two warlike shield girls also appear in certain translations of the saga Hervararar ok Heiðreks. The first of these was known to have robbed travellers in the forest early in her childhood as a man dressed. Later she claimed the cursed sword Tyrfing from her father’s grave and became a pirate. Her granddaughter followed in her footsteps.

Perhaps the bones found in Birka are hence not yet a final proof that Viking warrior women were the rule, but they might at least hint at the fact that they existed.

Gender roles in the Viking society might have been very strict, may be they were however also less strict than we thought and perceptions were falsified later by Christian-Oriental influences, like those of Saxo Grammaticus. Our current views on the historical roles of women and men in Germanic tribes might be shaken by more extensive archaeological studies of grave finds. Let us hope the next time the excavation and archiving methods are more scrupulous and will leave no doubt about the finds and bones.

In any case, we remain immensely curious.

U.C. Ringuer

Further reading:

Hedenstierna-Jonson C, Kjellström A, Zachrisson T, et al. A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. On J Phys Anthropol. 2017;00:1-8. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23308.

Kjellström A, (2016) People in transition: Life in the Malaren Vallye from an Osteological Perspective. In V. Turner (Ed.), Shetland and the Viking World. Papers from the Proceedings of the 17th Viking Congress 2013 (pp. 197-202). Lerwick: Shetland Amenity Trust.

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