Viking Women – Part 3 by Rob Shackleford
Here are more Viking Blogs for your research:
|Vikings at Home
|Viking Women Part 1
|Viking Women Part 2
Witness to war
Whether they fought in battle or not, conflict was a fact of life for many Viking women
War in the Viking age was fought at close quarters with swords, spears and axes. Women could not escape such violence, especially if they were part of a group or community under attack, or travelling with a group of merchants who had to defend their wares.
However, conclusive evidence for female participation in war as trained and regular warriors is currently slight, despite the recent interpretation of a 10th-century ‘warrior’ burial at Birka in Sweden as being that of a woman. The significance of this burial is still under debate, while in other instances women found buried with ‘weapons’ had actually been laid to rest with everyday tools, such as axes for chopping firewood.
Recent research on the Great Heathen Army, a Scandinavian force that harried the kingdoms of England in the 860s and 870s, suggests this was less an army and more a large, mixed and mobile group of people. They engaged in crafts and trading as well as raiding, and certainly included women and children in their number, as evidenced by textile-making tools found at Torksey, Lincolnshire, and a children’s burial at Repton, Derbyshire.
When this group was encamped, no doubt everyone had to join in the defence if they were attacked. But as the Viking armies in England became more organised, there were other options. In the 890s, notes the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hæsten’s army put their women and children in a place of safety in East Anglia before embarking on raids.
The female role in war is also explored in Old Norse mythology, where valkyries – armed female spirits – assist Odin, the god of war. Their job is to select the warriors allowed into Valhalla, who will help Odin await Ragnarök – an apocalyptic series of events including a deadly battle between the gods and their enemies.
Intrepid female travellers journeyed to destinations as far-flung as Jerusalem, Rome, Russia and North America
The Viking age was a time of exploration. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, those with roots in Scandinavia travelled to the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean, and crossed the Atlantic to reach North America. Women participated in most of these voyages, and in the trading and settlement that were their main purpose. There is evidence for this in the Scandinavian-style female jewellery found extensively in present-day Russia, Ukraine and further afield, showing that the Viking traders and rulers known as the ‘Rus’ took their wives and families with them. The female jewellery discovered by metal detectorists in eastern England in the last few decades offers further evidence of female settlement in the Danelaw (the Viking-dominated parts of north and east England).
As for Iceland, an uninhabited island at the beginning of the Viking age, it would not exist as a nation today if its settlers had not included women, with some born in the British Isles rather than in Scandinavia. Indeed many may have been raided from the regions that are now Great Britain to be wives for the Viking raiders.
While most of the first settlers of Iceland recorded in the medieval Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) are men, 13 women are named as having made the journey in an open ship to claim land in Iceland. Most famous of these is Aud (also known as Unn) the Deep-Minded, who is celebrated in Laxdæla saga for her achievements in moving her whole household from Scotland to Iceland, via Orkney and the Faroes.
Further afield, both the archaeology of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, where a spindle whorl and bone needle have been excavated, and the Icelandic sagas, suggest that women participated in the voyages to North America. And with the coming of Christianity, women were soon going on pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem, as in the case of the 11th-century Swedish woman Ingirun, who set up a rune stone in memory of herself. The inscription states that she intended to travel to Jerusalem – and she appears to have been uncertain as to whether she would come back!
Powerful women: queens and seeresses
The Icelandic sagas give examples of how a strong woman could overshadow her husband. It was a dangerous balancing act. Sometimes a wife’s drive and energy could make her husband respect her, whilst in other cases the man lost his reputation due to a powerful wife. The woman’s reputation, on the other hand, remained intact.
Women could achieve a great reputation and wealth. We can see this at the most magnificent burial of them all: the Oseberg burial in Norway. Here a woman aged around 25 was buried with an incredible array of equipment.
Women also played an important role in the pre-Christian cult. Seeresses were highly revered people. They could foretell the future, for instance, on individual farms or for army commanders before great battles.
The female burial from Oseberg
The richest burial of the Viking Age was found at Oseberg in Norway. Here a noble woman, perhaps a queen, was buried in a large ship.
Amongst the grave goods were many fine objects carved in wood. There were chests, buckets, beds, a chair, a carriage and sledges. She was also given bedding filled with fine feathers and down. Other grave goods included oil lamps, together with a tapestry displaying numerous fine patterns and figures. The woman had also been given large quantities of ordinary household utensils to accompany her in the grave. These included cooking pots, frying pans, buckets and knives.
This burial indicates powerful positions in Viking Society were filled by women.
The household items tell us about the woman’s role in society. Even if the women of the Viking Age could also achieve power like men, there were still some particular areas that they were predominantly responsible for: the home and the housekeeping.
So far there is little evidence that they were shield maidens or active in battle, a role cherished by popular media.
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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