In Link Roundup #3.1, we took a look at the everyday roles of Viking women. This time, we’re going to consider some of the less ordinary roles that women may—or may not—have played in Viking societies.
Women and Magic
The Viking Answer Lady reviews several forms of magic that appear in the sagas: seidr, spá, galdr, and runic magic. The practice of magic was primarily a woman’s domain, although runic magic appears to have been dominated by men. Seidr and spá, however, were considered feminine arts, and men who practiced these forms of magic risked scorn. (It is curious to note that Odin, however was largely exempt from such gender restrictions). These forms of witchcraft could be used for good or ill, or to simply foresee the future.
Dr. Michèle Hayeur Smith is a visual artist/archaeologist who focuses on textiles and women’s roles in the Old Norse colonies in Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. In this video, she discusses textile production, economic development, and gender roles from the Viking Age to the late medieval period.
Female Viking warriors?
This has probably been an issue for some time in academic circles, but the increased public interest in Vikings has come with some very unfortunate misinterpretations of scholarly research that have spread far and wide thanks to the internet. Articles and other posts touting the equality of Viking women in warfare (and thereby insinuating women’s equality in other aspects of society) have been very popular. Articles and posts correcting them, not so much.
Recall from my previous post that women’s duties were restricted to the domestic sphere; according to the links above, magic was largely related to feminine roles. But again, while women were not generally permitted to adopt masculine roles, their work was highly valued, as it was necessary for surviving, especially in the hostile northern climates. On one hand, what most women did every day matches what we would expect; on the other hand, the attitudes towards women and women’s work is sometimes quite different than those expressed in more recent times.
With respect to female warriors, the evidence we have is relatively sparse and ambiguous, and therefore more vulnerable to being interpreted through a modern lens. So, are we finding female Viking warriors because they actually existed or because we want to believe they existed (or because we are just too lazy to search for other possibilities)?
A few years ago, articles proclaiming that half of all Viking warriors were female was earning feminist fist-pumps across the worldwide web. But alas, Stuff You Missed in History Class brought some cold, hard reality down upon the article that sparked so much joy. The research paper these articles were based on examines a mere thirteen graves in England from the early Viking Age and concludes that half were female. However, that’s a mighty small sample size to draw conclusions from, and the paper talks about immigrants, not warriors. I read the whole paper myself, and though the text was as dry as the bones of the grave occupants themselves, there was nothing concerning female warriors, not even a favourably ambiguous hint. Sorry.
Dr. Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at Nottingham University, tackles the ongoing debate about the occupant of grave Bj 581 in Birka, Sweden, who was found buried with weapons, game pieces, and two horses. Originally assumed to be male based on grave goods, the occupant was recently determined to be female based on genetic evidence. As Jesch points out, however, the determination that this person was a warrior is based heavily on assumptions and unwarranted inferences.
[As a side note, I attended Dr. Jonathan Herold’s May 2 “Viking Age Revisited” seminar at the Royal Ontario Museum and had a chance to ask him about this site. I was wondering if anyone had done osteological analysis on the skeleton to help determine what physical activities this person may have done regularly, as that may help direct the conversation. However he indicated that they only had a partial skeleton and the remains may not have been in good enough shape for that kind of analysis. Also, I believe he said something about the archaeologists having lost her head. (Guys…)]
An axe is just an axe … unless it’s a ritual tool. In his video and his interview with the Five-Minute Medievalist, archaeologist Dr. Leszek Gardela talks about his current interdisciplinary project concerning Viking women and weapons. He discusses the context of the graves of women found with weapons (mostly axes) as well as a little-known saga that contains a story about a woman who uses an axe in a prophetic ritual.
So far, the general consensus is that there were few (if any) women warriors in real life, but the myths and sagas are full of stories about women who wield weapons to defend themselves and their honour, lead their communities, or practice magic to help their menfolk.