Were there Viking warrior women? Spoiler alert; Probably not. We’re into movies these days about chicks with swords. We dramatize history with lots of them. They’re always hot... The men around them are always oppressive. Except for the one guy, the love interest, who’s enlightened, in the 21st century, millennial sort of way. It’s all very empowering, but it’s not very historical, especially if the setting is the middle ages.
And so it was.. that the meme-sphere lit up last year with the discovery that some warrior bones in Sweden were female except that it wasn’t completely clear on clinical grounds that they were female.
There were lots of other people’s bones in the grave too, and it wasn’t obvious which of them to associate with the various war paraphernalia there.
The skeleton showed no sign of injury and was only supposed to belong to a warrior at all because there was a chess set nearby.
Lastly, Norse written records don’t talk about any warrior women anywhere except the legendary sort who do things like weave spells and fly.
Genomics did not show, nor could they have shown, that there was a warrior woman in that grave. There is also no wider reason to think there might have been one.
And in fact (read to the end), there is a good reason to think there was none. "But the historical record!" say the people who want there to have been a warrior woman. The idea exists in written sources, they say. Surely, the notion of a woman warrior comes from something historical! Fair point. Let’s take a close look at that historical record and see... In the written record, there’s a History of the Danes “Gesta Danorum” that alludes to 300 'shield maidens' in an 8th century battle but that was written in the 13th century.
There were lots of powerful women in folklore, and some of them are pretty violent but they aren’t Warrior Queens.
There’s a story of one Blenda, who is supposed to have gotten some 7th century Danes drunk and then killed them with her army of girls while they slept. But we only know that story from a source in the 17th century.
Freyja, who rides through the heavens in a carriage pulled by cats, and who causes good harvests to come.
Brynhildr, a Valkyrie, who messes up in politics and dies in her husband’s funeral pyre.
Lagertha, one of the maidens in the Gesta, whom we see slicing and dicing on History Channel's Vikings.
There’s a story character called Hervor, but she’s from the 13th century.
Skadi, daughter of Thjazi the giant and mother of some of the gods.
The list is pretty long but nobody is historical, except maybe Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, who is famous for having made it to Vinland with her husband and brother-in-law, who never swung a sword or anything.
Here’s the thing about national histories (that’s how you translate ‘Gesta’) and folklore: they elide. Tribal creation myths are like this. It’s called ‘mythopoesis. We’ve always done it, and we do it still.
Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome, were raised in the wilds by a she-wolf. The Merovingian Franks knew themselves to be descended from Poseidon.
Attila the Hun, who died in the fifth century, got woven into the Germanic creation narrative clear to the 12th century Nibelungenlied.
Some of his co-actors there, like Siegfried, extended the journey all the way into Wagner, and then to Nazi Germany. Victorian Englishmen made a national hero out of one Arthur, copying Malory, who did the same, in the 15thcentury.
Puritans fled persecution in Europe and founded a virtuous colony in the New World and made friends with noble Indians and ate turkey with them.
In the olden days, men only oppressed women; and now we know that’s wrong. There were also enlightened sisters like Boadicea did their best to smash the patriarchy, which deserved smashing.
But it’s a problem when archeologists find bones and then allude to historical record without talking with historians. They’re probably showing their own prejudices. Yes, folk histories do speak of people who really lived. They also speak of giants and gorgons. The records from the medieval Norse world don’t speak of warrior women, or not ones shown in pop culture today, anyway. Medieval Scandinavia was a richly lettered world, too. If there had been warrior queens, it’s hard to imagine our not being able to read about them. They’d be mentioned somewhere.
Let’s go a little deeper. Let’s look at the actual words the Vikings used about women with swords. There are only three. A maiden warrior was called a valkyrja, a skaldmaer, or a meykongr.
The valkyrja was supernatural. She took the shape of a woman in armor. She chose who fell on battlefields, sits in Valholl with the dead heroes and can fly.
Skjaldmaer, shield-woman, was a synonym. Some poets prefer it to valkyrja.
Brynhildr is called the latter in the Edda, and the former in the Volsunga saga.
Meykongr is used rarely. This is a ruling queen in literature who doesn’t want to share her power with a man. She is forced or tricked into capitulating. She does court politics and doesn’t do battles.
All of these are literary. It’s true that literary figures can have historical antecedents. But so far, the women’s graves we’ve found in the Viking world contain no weapons, no books of magic that our own women can use, and no evidence of anyone being able to fly.