Viking Shield Maidens/Women Warriors

The recent success of the smash hit historical mini-series “The Vikings” has reignited an old controversy….Were there really Viking women warriors know as shield maidens who accompanied their men into battle and fought alongside them as equal warriors?

The success of “The Vikings” is apparently based on factual accounts and real life stories, so there is solid evidence to support much of the show’s premise, while realizing that the TV show was not ever intended to be a scholarly representation of exact fact but an exciting rousing story of historical fiction…But there are so many, many factual accounts and details in the show that ARE supported by the historical record that the topic is worth a closer look…

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The squeamish may not like it, but who is to say what really happened on the brutal, gory battlefields of yore, thousands of years before our time, where quickness, cunning, vision and physical courage, coupled with a bloodthirsty attitude to kill were often more important than physical strength?…

Medieval battles were not set piece affairs, with generals safely in the background ordering divisions of troops hither and yon..The leaders led from the front, inspiring their armies, and the battles were a series of individual combat, one on one, set in a swirling, whirling clash of arms, a tremendous collision of two armies colliding at full speed, the soldiers screaming their battle cries and the wailing of the wounded and clouds of dust obscuring the big picture…..

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From my Google sources: “Various sagas and other primary accounts of the era do mention women fighting as warriors. Saxo Grammticus in his History of the Dane, written in the 12th century, makes reference to a number of women warriors including Sela, a woman warrior and accomplished pirate and Lathgertha the wife of Ragnar Lothborg who possessed a man’s temper in a woman’s body as well as Hetha and Visna and Vebiorg, all women warriors who fought in the great battle of Bravellir where Harald the War-tooth lost to his nephew.

Hetha survived and was given a portion of Denmark to rule over but various warriors rebelled because they disliked the thought of having a woman in charge.” (Some things apparently never change!) …We also know that: “A Byzantine account of a 971 battle in Bulgaria where the Varangians as the Eastern European Vikings were sometimes known suffered a rare defeat mentions finding armed women amongst the dead.”

And then there is this solid piece of scientific evidence to ponder: “Shield maidens are not a myth! A recent archaeological discovery has shattered the stereotype of exclusively male Viking warriors sailing out to war while their long-suffering wives wait at home with baby Vikings. Plus, some other findings are challenging that whole “rape and pillage” thing, too.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia decided to revamp the way they studied Viking remains. Previously, researchers had misidentified skeletons as male simply because they were buried with their swords and shields. (Female remains were identified by their oval brooches, and not much else.) By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons.

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It’s been so difficult for people to envision women’s historical contributions as solely getting married and dying in childbirth, but you can’t argue with numbers—and fifty/fifty is pretty damn good. The presence of female warriors also has researchers now wondering just how accurate the stereotypes of raping and pillaging actually are:

Women may have accompanied male Vikings in those early invasions of England, in much greater numbers than scholars earlier supposed, (Researcher) McLeod concludes. Rather than the ravaging rovers of legend, the Vikings (may have) arrived as marriage-minded colonists.

In many ways, this discovery is well-timed with the recent uproar over Thor becoming a title for both sexes instead of an exclusively male name. Fingers crossed this means that pop culture could start including more female warriors than just Sif and Lagertha (from The History Channel’s Vikings, above). Because, as we’re always re-learning, women have always fought.”….

So far, attempts to firmly link the legendary Ragnar with one or several of those men have failed because of the difficulty in reconciling the various accounts and their chronology. Nonetheless, the core tradition of a Viking hero named Ragnar (or similar) who wreaked havoc in mid-ninth-century Europe and who fathered many famous sons is remarkably persistent, and some aspects of it are covered by relatively reliable sources, such as the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle. According to Davidson, writing in 1979, “certain scholars in recent years have come to accept at least part of Ragnar’s story as based on historical fact”.

Lagertha is a powerful and well-known shield-maiden, continuing to fight alongside her former husband and fellow Viking fighters, before her great tragedy. She is completely versed in Viking combat, even to the extent that she can fight off multiple people of greater physical strength than her, and displays a shrewd tongue, which hints at a strong intellect, and strong spirit, which makes her desirable to her husband, Ragnar. She exists to typify a resolved version of the archetype of the deadly and beautiful woman, where she is, as a resolution to the weaknesses of this archetype, a balance between brains and cunning.

Once the devoted wife of Ragnar Lothbrook, with whom she shared a great love story, deep respect, admiration, and ambitions, Lagertha has since married another after they lost their second and unborn third child. Since the loss of her children and suffering the blows of love and rejection, Lagertha realizes that Freyja’s fertility is meant for another, and that it is the goddess’ warrior aspect that speaks to her fellow Valkyrie. Lagertha remains fiercely independent when it comes to protecting her family—and the throne.

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“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’ skills. …They courted military celebrity so earnestly that you would have guessed they had unsexed themselves. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall and elegant embarked on this way of life.

As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill…” (Fisher 1979, p. 212). However once the Scandinavian countries became Christian, any warrior tradition amongst women died out. I would like to think given the nature of the society, that a few women did take up arms and were good at it”.

That’s enough evidence for me! The very existence of a factually proven, true life Ragnar and Lagertha, as opposed to composite media versions of typical Vikings, has convinced me that shield maidens were not only real, but that they existed in far greater numbers than a grudging male oriented society would care to admit, especially the timid, cynical male researchers who first investigated these stories would care to admit…

I admit it, I do love the TV miniseries “The Vikings” but always remember this one fact:

Truth is stranger than fiction!

For more articles by John Whye, click on johnwhye@wordpress.com

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