The word shieldmaiden in the Norse language describes a female warrior. However, before we start with a more detailed story about Viking women warriors, we want to look at the roles and rights that females had in the Viking era. This will help us to better understand the idea of how Viking females were able to fight in a battle along with other Vikings.
The Role of Women in Viking Society
It is believed that a Viking woman enjoyed incomparably more freedom and equality than all other women of their time. Although most scholars believe that women did not go into battle like the Norse male warriors, the fact is that they had the same rights as Viking men in most aspects of society.
In Viking culture, females could own land and, run their own business, but also initiate divorce proceedings. Due to the frequent absence of men from home, which sometimes lasted for several months, many females had to take care of their households. Therefore, Viking females were extraordinarily strong and brave, which is why it is believed that they could have played a very important role in times of war as well.
So let's see who the Viking shield maidens were and what history has taught us about them.
What Was a Viking Shield Maiden?
Shieldmaidens are mentioned throughout history in many documents. However, a very small number of records mentioning warrior women can be considered genuinely reliable.
The first reliable sources of shieldmaiden date back to the 1070s. Adam of Bremen wrote that in the vicinity of Lake Malaren (Northern Sweden), there is a settlement inhabited by females who look like warriors. However, it cannot be clearly concluded from his record that they indeed acted as female Viking warriors.
The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus also mentions the shieldmaiden in his works. He wrote about how many females who lived in Denmark subordinated their lives to mastering warrior and sword skills. He wrote that these were strong females who gave up their simple lives to live the life of a warrior and were in constant search of a fight.
However, these writings were not enough to convince many scholars that the shieldmaidens really did exist. For this reason, additional evidence of the existence of shieldmaiden communities began to be sought during archaeological excavations of ancient Vikings settlements.
The first indications that archaeologists are close to proving the existence of Viking warrior woman are the findings of Viking works of art. Throughout the Viking iconographic works, the woman is shown as a warrior. For example, depictions of a woman equipped with armor, carrying spears, shields, or swords have been discovered on many Viking-era brooches. Also, some depictions of shieldmaidens are made in the form of metal figurines as well.
The most famous such figurine and one of the most intriguing discoveries of that type is the silver figurine of a woman holding a shield in her left hand and an upright sword in her right. This figurine was discovered in 2012 in Harby, Denmark.
Despite this discovery, the existence of the shieldmaiden was still in question. Why was that?
One of the reasons is that it is believed that the mentioned depictions of women in the Viking age may actually represent mythical heroines, the so-called Valkyries ("choosers of the slain"). In Norse mythology, the Valkyries were sent to the field of battle by the All-father. The Valkyrie's task was to select warriors worthy of entry into Valhalla (the "Hall of the Slain").
Therefore, the suspicion that shield maidens existed is still present. For this reason, archaeologists have the very difficult task of finding irrefutable proof that shieldmaidens really existed and were not just a myth.
Things changed after re-analyzing the excavation from the Viking tomb, which was found more than a century ago (1889). Since the attention was mainly focused on the recovered objects during the excavation of the grave, the deceased were somewhat neglected. In 2017, scientists came up with the idea to re-examine, this time in more detail, the skeleton discovered in the grave mentioned above.
DNA analysis was performed at the University of Stockholm (the material was taken from a toothpick), and its results astonished the scientists working on the case. DNA analysis showed that the warrior was actually female. And given the items located in the grave, it was almost certain that it was an elite female warrior. Of course, this evidence also met with numerous disapprovals and was refuted, but for now, these are the surest signs that the shieldmaiden was as real as any other high ranking Viking warrior.
Who Was the Greatest Shield Maiden?
1. Brynhildr (Brunhilda),
3. Hlathgerth (Lagertha).
Brynhildr (Brunhilda) was a woman warrior known from the saga of Volsungs (Saga of the Völsungs). She was described as a strong woman who, like other male warriors, took care of the family duties and defended her family's honor.
Hervor was a woman warrior mentioned in the old Hervarar saga. The story of the warrior Hervor included fighting the dead and searching for the cursed sword that belonged to her father. From childhood, Hervor did not show interest in activities that were common for girls and, later, for young women. Instead of "regular" female activities, Hervor practiced sword skills, mastered horseback riding and archery.
Lathgertha (Lagertha) was a woman warrior who is not known from traditional sagas. Lagertha was considered a cultural leader in Norway, whose story is also found in the sagas of Saxo Grammaticus (12th-century records). In the modern-day culture, we know her as the wife of Ragnar Lothbrook from Michael Hirst's TV show, Vikings.'
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Considering the literary, archeological, and historical evidence as a whole, it is highly likely that the existence of females who perfected their warrior skills and participated in battles was not mere fantasy. And if the sagas are to be believed, some of the shieldmaidens perfected their military skills to such an extent that they enjoyed a great reputation as fierce warriors.
We don't know about you, but the idea of female warriors' existence is fascinating and certainly acceptable to us. So we hope that archaeologists will continue to explore, and we will soon get new evidence that the old medieval Viking sagas about shieldmaidens were not just the fruit of someone's imagination.
Until our next meeting,