|WOMEN IN THE VIKING AGE|
Scandinavian women had a strong position in society
There were great differences between men and women in the Viking Age,
but the Viking women had a stronger position than women elsewhere in
Europe at this time.
| || ||These pages are made by|
Marit Synnøve Vea
Social position connected with the family
The social position and the work done by women were first and foremost connected with the family and the farm. But women could also have other occupations than those connected with the farm. They could be rune- masters, scalds, priestesses, traders and warriors.
Women in the sagas
In the sagas we meet strong, proud and independent women, many of them are pictured as willful, manipulating and often uncompromising. They seem to be brought up to be both self-conscious and eager for power.
We also see that women are given away in marriage to confirm alliances between families. Young girls are married off to strangers. They have to become accustomed to unknown families and adapt themselves to the power structures that already exist in these families. You would believe that such girls were brought up to be obedient and self-sacrificing.
It seems to be an ambiguity in the different roles that Viking women should fit into. Are we dealing with two completely different role models? Or could it be that the gender roles in the Viking Age were more multifunctional than expressed in the traditional picture of Viking women?
"People of the Germanic tribes believe there
are something sacred about women, something
clairvoyant.” (Tacitus ca 100 AD)
Harald Fairhair's men propose to Gyda.(Ill E. Werenskiold)
WHERE CAN WE TRACE VIKING WOMEN?
On rune stones
It required both initiative and power to erect a rune stone. Still, some of the memorial stones are erected for a woman or by a woman, but much fewer than those mentioning men. In Denmark there are ca 220 memorial stones. For 23 of these stones, women are the sole commissioner. 11 stones are erected in memory of a woman, but women are in most cases prized for other skills and qualities than men.
Men are often prized because they have been on long voyages or because they are great warriors.
Women are prized because of their housekeeping or other typical female skills
The runes of the Dynna stone say:
”Gunvor, daughter of Thydrik, made a bridge in memory of
her daughter. She was the cleverest maiden in Hadeland”
One runic inscription tells:
“The husband of Odinisa gives her these memory words:
No better housewife will come to Hasselmyra to look after the farm"
|The Dynna Stone
In the art
We can also get knowledge through artistic expressions like carvings, jewellery. picture stones, tapestries etc.
Contemporary foreign sources
We have some contemporary foreign account that also mentions Viking women. Most of them, both eastern and western, are astonished about the liberty of these Scandinavian women.
In the law
The oldest parts of the laws were not written down until the 12th century. But laws are conservative and have elements that go further back in time.
According to the laws, women in Scandinavia had more rights than elsewhere in Europe. But they did not have the same rights as men. We must also take into consideration that the laws describe ideal conditions, how things are supposed to be, not what they really are.
A king could become a king, if only his mother was of royal blood.
A woman could meet at the thing
It was possible for women to inherit land and farm.
When a woman married, she brought a dowry with her into the marriage.
In case of a later divorce, the women could keep her dowry.
Harald Fairhair passed a law against rape and prostitution
“For her sake he (Harald) at once protected the chastity of all by
passing a law by which the rape of women was punished by exile
or a fine of sixty marks which would cancel the exile.
He ordered that free-born women who had worked as prostitutes
should be conveyed to the palace and punished them with slavery,
until they had earned the price of their freedom which was three
marks of the same value, so that those who wished to be chaste
might be so, and none might transgress the limits of modesty with
impunity.” (Historia rerum Norwegacarum)
Picture stone, Gotland. Woman driving a wagon|
Silver jewellery, Gotland. Freya
with her gold necklace Brisingamen
In myths and religion
The Norse religion is crowded with female beings:
They are goddesses, giantess, elves, nornes, valkyries etc
In sagas and Norse poems
Women are described as strong- headed, proud, independent and vindictive. We also meet
women who encourage the men to take revenge in order to keep up the honour
of the family.
In the matter of honour, the women themselves were in no danger of being killed.
A man who laid hand on a woman had lost his honour, and he had damaged the honour of his family.
Sometimes the women also took revenge themselves.
This is what happened to Gunnar from Hlidarende in Njåls saga:
Gunnar’s home is attacked by enemies. Gunnar keep them away with his bow, but then his bowstring breaks, and he asks his wife Hallgerd if he can get two locks of her hair to make a new bowstring. Hallgerd asks if much depend on that. ”My life” he answers. Hallgerd then says: “Now is the time to remind you of that slap you gave me in my face”. She refuses to give away these two locks, and Gunnar is killed.
Olav Tryggvason proposes marriage to Sigrid the
Haughty, who rejects him. He strikes her with a
glove. She warns him that this might lead to his
death. And it does! ( Ill E. Werenskiold)
It is first and foremost the burials that can give us information about gender roles in the Early Viking Age. The deceased is in many cases buried with burial gifts that indicate what the individual did while he or she was alive.
- Usually the gender is determined by the objects found in the grave. (Archaeological sex-determination)
- Only a few persons with high status were buried in huge burials mounds with rich burial gifts. Thus burial finds tell us little about the life of common people.
- If we find rich female burials this ought to be a strong indication that women had a strong position in the society. See also: Frans-Arne Stylegar: Grav og slektskap i Jernalderen
Late Roman and Migration Period (200 - 500 AD):
In the Late Roman and Migration Period, some centuries before the Viking Age, the tendency is that we several places in Scandinavia have more and richer female burials than male burials.
Male burials. The quality of the burials gifts seems to be reduced the older the buried man is.
Female burials. The richest burials belong to women between 50 – 60 years old. Thus; the status of women seems to increase with their age.
In the Iron Age, including the Viking Age, young girls were given away in marriage to create alliances between families. The most prominent gift a chieftain could give way was his own daughter.
But – when we then see that the richest burials belongs to grown up women, this strongly indicate that these women had a different foundation for their high status and power than just being a ”gift”.
First part of the Viking Age: (9th Century) the distribution between male and female burials seems to be fifty-fifty.
Middle Viking Age (10th Century): Only every 4th grave can be certainly classified as a female burial.
There are indications that women in the Viking Age had to achieve a higher status than men to get the kind of burial that shows up in the archaeological record. Thus; there seem to be a decline in the status of women during the Viking Age. (See also: Frans- Arne Stylegar: Kaupang- men and women)
Still: The riches Viking Age burial ever found is that of a woman: The Oseberg Queen.
|Gausel Queen, Norway.
Ill: Ragnar Børsheim
Burial gifts for a woman. Tuna,
Sweeden, ca 300 AD.
Archaeological classification of gender
The gender is normally identified by the burial gifts, partly because there seldom are much left of the skeleton in the graves..
Burials interpreted as male burials: Those that contain weapons, riding equipment, blacksmith’s tools, penannular brooches.
Burials interpreted as female burials: Those that contain objects like: Pair of oval brooches, disc brooches, necklaces, keys etc
Burials interpreted as mixed burials of one man and one women: Those that contain both male and female objects.
In Scandinavia there are found many burials with both male and female artifacts including female oval brooches together with weapons.
Such burials are normally interpreted as mixed graves of one man and one woman
What then, if a woman was buried with weapon a thousand years ago and we found her grave? She would probably be classified as a man.
To cross the gender barriers?
But sometimes we find burials that force us to reconsider our idea of gender roles in the Viking Age. Sometimes the archaeological material indicates that both men and women could cross the gender barrier.
In this mixed burial from Gerdrup; Denmark (1981)
We have a man with his hands and feet tied with a rope.
He is probably a sacrificed male slave. At his side there is
a woman buried with a spear and knife. (Christensen & Bennike 1983)
Osteological investigation or DNA extraction
By using osteological investigation or DNA extraction on burials instead of archaeological determination, scientists have identified:
- male skeletons with female burial gifts
- female skeletons with male burial gifts.
We even find men buried in female clothes. Why, were they transvestite Vikings, or were they shamans? We don’t know.(See: Tina Lauritzen og Ole Thirup Kastholm: Transvesitite Vikings?
Sword, shield and knife found in Østfold, |
Norway 2004. Identified as a male burial
Ovale brooches, necklace and broche found in
Frøyland, Norway in 2007. Identified as a female burial.
WOMEN AS TRADERS AND TRAVELLERS
The sagas tell that women did go on some of the Viking expeditions.
The most notorious and frightening of these long distance travellers were Freydis, the daughter of Erik the Red. She initiated one of the Viking expeditions to Vinland. When natives attacked the family groups, the Viking men escaped. But Freydis, who was pregnant, bared her breasts, sharpened a sword against her chest and screamed a battle cry, and scared away the natives.
On rune stones
A runic inscription on a stone slab by Ryssgraven in Sweden told that:
Ingunn, the daugther of Hård, let these runes be made in memory of her self. She wanted to go east to Jerusalm. Fot wrote the runes (U 605)
The stone slap was destroyed around 1850 when they made a road in the area. Here is a drawing made before the stone was demolished. (See Runsten)
The archaeological material tells the story of Scandinavian women that reached places as far apart as Greenland and Russia. We tend to say that these women accompany their men.
The sagas, however, tells that women also initiated voyages. Like Aud den deep-minded who created her own fortune and immigrated to Island when her husband and son have died.
A Celtic relic-shrine found in Norway, now in the museum of Copenhagen, have a runic inscription telling that Ranuaik a kistu (Ranveig owns this shrine).
No male is mentioned in the inscription, but most people interpret it as a gift brought back to Norway of a travelling Viking for his woman. But perhaps Rannveig acquired the box while travelling herself
In Scandinavia there are female burials with scales and weights. Such weights were used to measure precious metals and spices. The women in these burials were probably traders in their own right.
Freydis in Vinland. As exhibited in the Saga Museum, Iceland |
Stone slab from Ryssgraven
WOMEN AS VALKYRIES AND SHIELD-MAIDENS
There were several kinds of female warriors. Some were divine beings, like the valkyries sent by Odin to pick up the warriors that were slain on the battlefield.
Others were half divine and half earthly. They were mortal women with supernatural power. We often meet them in the heroic poems as beautiful daughters of kings.
Others again are described as just mortal female warriors that dressed and fought as men.
Valkyrie means “chooser of the slain” (Old Norse valkyrja, from the words valr "the battle-slain" and kyrja "chooser")
Shield maiden means "woman with a shield/woman of battle" (Old Norse, skjaldmær, from he words skjald “shield” and mær “maiden” )
The words valkyries and shield maidens tend to be used synonymously, also in the old Norse litterature, but originaly there must have been a difference:
Probably valkyries were used for the divine female fighters or rather "choosers of the slain". (You never hear that Odin's valkyries actualy fight). Shield-maidens were used for the mortal female fighters.
The love-godess Freya was looked upon as the greatest of all valkyries. She rode onto the battlefield in a chariot drawn by huge cats. Here she picked out half the men who had been slain in battle and took them back to her home Folkvang. The other half, those rejected by Frøya, were destined to live with Odin in Valhalla.
Did the shield-maidens exist?
Valkyries and shield-maidens were certainly part of the mental universe of the Vikings. We find them both in literature and in art. But did they really exist?
To day we tend to say that both valkyries and shield-maidens are only mythical figures, and that the question we should ask is: Why was such a myth created? Still, we can not totally ignore the fact that some mortal women became warriors.
Female warriors in Norse litterature
Norse sagas and scaldic poems tell colorful stories about female warriors. One of them is Sigrdrifa.
In the scaldic poem Sigrdrifamal we meet the valkyrie
Sigrdrifa. Valkyries had the power to chose which side should win in a battle.
Sigrdrifa once brought victory to a prince against Odin's will. Odin punishes
her to eternal sleep at the mountain Hindarfjell.
Sigurd Favnesbane rides up to this mountain. He sees a great light, as if fire is burning, and the
glow reaches up to heaven. When he comes closer, he sees a tower of shields.
Inside the shield-tower Sigurd finds a man sleeping with all his weapons.
He takes away the helmet and find that the warrior is not not a man – it is a
woman with a mail-coat that seems to have grown to her flesh. Sigurd cuts the
mail-coat with his sword, and Sigrdrifa awakes.
Sigurd asks her:
I have come here to ask if you can teach me wisdom. I have come to ask if you can teach me the magic of the runes.
Sigrdrifa then takes a huge drinking horn, fills it with mead , gives it to Sigurd and says. Drink this my, friend, let us share this drink. Then I shall teach you wisdom.
Then Sigrdrifa starts to pray. This is the only prayer left us from pre-Christian times. And it is not at all a prayer you would expect from a warrior.
We greet the Day
We greet the sons of Day
We greet the Night and her daughters.
Look at us now
with soft and tender eyes.
Bless us who are sitting here
We greet the Gods
We greet the Goddesses
Greetings to you; Holy Earth
Give us the gift
of knowledge and wisdom,
and let us have hands that can heal.(Sigerdrifamál)
Saxo, the Christian Danish chroniclar (ca 1200 AD), describes the shield maidens like this:
"There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldier's skills; (…..)
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, and those they could have appeased with looks they attack with lances". (Books 1-9) —Saxo Grammaticus, History of the Danes, circa 1200 CE.
"Aasgaardsreien" by Peter Nicolay Arbo, 1872
" Freya in her cat-drawn carriot", by N.J.O. Blummer, 1852
"The death of Hervor " by Peter Nicolai Aarbo, 1880
The shield-maiden Hervor ignites people to battle aginst the huns. (Aarbo)
Foreign accounts of female warriors
Contemporary foreign accounts tell about female Viking warriors:
The Red Maiden that attacked Ireland
An Irish history book called The war of the Irish with the foreigners from the 12th century, tells a story abut a warrior woman called: The Red Maiden. The book gives us a list of Viking fleets that attacked Munster in the 10th century. The last of these fleets were led by a woman called The Red Maiden.
Female warriors among the Vikings that attacked Byzantines in Bulgaria 971
A Greek historian from the late 11th Century, records that the Scandinavian ruler of Kiev attacked Byzantines in 971 and was defeated. The victors were astonished when they saw armed women among the fallen warriors.
Female warriors in the art
The Oseberg tapestry was found in the Oseberg ship burial. It tells a visual story of a religious procession. Many of the figures, also women, carry spears. Why? Are they female warriors?
Another example is a woman with spear from a pillar in the stave church at Urnes, Norway:
Female warriors in archaeology
There are also some burials that can hardly be interpreted as anything else than women buried as warriors. I want to introduce you two rather unknown burials from Norway.
The shield maiden from Aune
One of them is called the shield maiden from Aune, Nord Trøndelag
The grave was found when a farmer should cultivate new land. It contained the skeleton was of a woman, ca. 20 years old: She was buried with the complete equipment for a Viking warrior:
the fragments of a shield
The tiny shield-maiden from, Solør, Norway
Another burial was found in Solør, Norway in the year 1900. It is dated to the 10th century.
The burial contained a skeleton of a woman, 18 – 20 years old. She was thin and gracefully built, with a neat cranium. She was not more than 1.55metres high.
This tiny woman was fully equipped as a warrior with:
- a two egged sword
- an axe
- a spear
- 5 arrowheads
- a shield
- a skeleton of a horse
- a bridle
- some other tools
Why were these women equipped with weapons for their journey into the other world?
The most obvious interpretation is that they were female warriors?
Or, could it be that the weapons symbolized something, perhaps power?
Were the women sacrificed?
Did the women participate in battles as sorcerers? Literary sources tell us magic could be used on the battlefield.
A Shield Maiden guarding the Norwegian Constitution (Andreas Bloch 1905)
"Valkyrie", Johannes Gertz
"Valkyrie" by Peder Nicolay Aarbo, 1880
"The Valkyrie's Vigil", Edward Robert Hughes
(1851 - 1914)
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Text by Marit Synnøve Vea
Photo Marit S. Vea, Hybris film