The Viking women!

This post exaggerates the role of women in warfare in the Middle Ages — it’s more about how graves are misidentified, that women were sometimes buried with weapons — but most interesting is that two historians weigh in in the comments, one whose specialty is studying weapons in grave goods, and another who is an expert in medieval Scandinavia. Some women may have fought, and they were definitely honored with weaponry at their funerals, but sad to say, Viking society was strongly patriarchal and discouraged women from fighting.

Those Vikings were missing a trick. The Scandinavian women I know are a fierce lot.


  1. Menyambal says

    I knew a Scandinavian woman once, whose name was Thordessa. Everybody called her Dessa. I thought she should have kept the Thor part.

  2. hillaryrettig says

    putting in a plug for Bengston’s The Long Ships, the best novel ever written and a rollickin’ good read.

  3. The Mellow Monkey: Singular They says

    Archaeologists have been using bones to identify the biological sex of skeletons for the past century, but when burials were found which didn’t fit their notions of ‘normal,’ they tended to assume that the bone analysts had made a mistake. This is not entirely unreasonable, because bones are often so badly decomposed that it is impossible to tell the sex of the person. But I can point to cases where the bones clearly belong to a woman, and the archaeologists insisted that it had to be a man because only men were warriors. That’s modern sexism plain and simple, and bad archaeology. But thankfully, archaeologists in recent decades have become aware of this problem, and as a result, more and more women are showing up with weapons!

    Yaaaaaaaay. The “it’s magically easy to identify sex always!” treatment of this story had been bugging me, so I’m glad to see it addressed in more depth here. Those really are excellent comments. I’d brushed past the Tor reporting itself and went for the original MacLeod article instead because that stupidly misleading title made me roll my eyes, so I had missed the comments before.

    This is probably one of my favorite Viking stories, specifically about the Varangian Guard:

    One episode narrated by Kedhrenos, who draws upon the Scylitzes MS written in the late 12th century, is the earliest mention of the name Varangoi in Greek medieval sources. It recounted that during a campaign in Greek Anatolia in 1034, a ‘man of the Varangians, who were scattered in winter quarters in the Thrakesion Thema, met a woman of the region in a private place and tempted her virtue; and when he could not get her to agree willingly he tried to rape her, but she got hold of a spear and struck him through the heart, killing him on the spot. When this deed became known through the neighbourhood the Varangians gathered together and honoured the woman by giving her all the possessions of the man who had attempted to rape her, and they threw his body away without burial, according to the law regarding suicides.’

    There’s an illustration of her stabbing him with a spear and then the other Varangians giving her all his stuff.

  4. Gregory Greenwood says

    The Mellow Monkey: Singular They @ 4;

    That is now officially my favourite Viking story as well. The Varangians may have had a brutal outlook in many ways, but I just can’t find it in myself to feel overly sorry that a rapist got skewered by the woman he was attacking. I probably shouldn’t feel this way, but there seems to me to be a certain darkly poetic justice to that.

  5. The Mellow Monkey: Singular They says

    Gregory Greenwood: Yeah, the story has a lot of interesting elements to it. This woman was not one of their people. She defended herself–against a member of a renowned group of warriors!–and won. They only had her word for what had happened, yet they accepted that she had been attacked and defended herself. They paid her restitution for the crime and then they declared an attempted rape to be the same as a suicide.

  6. Pen says

    I wrote something about the role women did have in Scandinavian societies, which was actually strongly connected with magic. It’s less inspiring for atheist feminists, for sure, but it’s there. I was inspired by a bunch of things, Kameron Hurley’s essay, mentioned at three and the re-gendering of Thor. I don’t really like it when empoering myth-making bleeds over into history but it happens a lot.

  7. Becca Stareyes says

    Reminds me of that paper where handprints in cave paintings were analyzed; individual prints couldn’t be gendered, but statistically you could conclude that it was far more likely for the painters to be a mixed-sex group on the whole.

    So, I could imagine that there could be skeletons that were ambiguous, but there were those that are not, and you probably could make a statistical statement about the population’s sex ratio.

    I still think it’s a useful lesson in sexism, regardless of if the women used those weapons in life, because as The Mellow Monkey pointed out, even in cases where the bones were unambiguous, the anthropologists assumed there was a mistake, because a patriarchal society would never bury a woman with weapons. Except this one did.

  8. cgm3 says

    hillaryrettig @2:

    Just be warned that the 1964 movie of the same name — starring Sidney Poitier, Richard Widmark, and Russ Tamblyn, no less — is based “entirely” on one short paragraph in the book (the season spent serving as mercenaries in North Africa becomes a quest for a giant golden bell called the Mother of Voices). Personally, I enjoy the film as a rollicking action-adventure yarn with bits of comedy, but an accurate rendition of the book it is not.

    On the other hand, it’s head-and-shoulders more authentic than The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage To the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent for period authenticity! (I kid you not, a real 1957 movie from Roger Corman.)

  9. horrabin says

    The 1964 “Long Ships” may be a load of a-historical hokum, but 12 year old me was thoroughly freaked out and awesomed by the Mare of Steel.

  10. David Marjanović says

    They only had her word for what had happened

    …and that corpse with a spear through the heart, or at least a suspicious hole through the heart.

  11. The Mellow Monkey: Singular They says

    David Marjanović @ 17

    …and that corpse with a spear through the heart, or at least a suspicious hole through the heart.

    Not the part of her story I thought was under risk of being disbelieved, but this still made me laugh heartily.

    (It could have been a rampaging rhino wandering through 11th century Anatolia. It could have happened!)

  12. Rich Woods says

    @horrabin #15:

    The 1964 “Long Ships” may be a load of a-historical hokum, but 12 year old me was thoroughly freaked out and awesomed by the Mare of Steel.

    That scene gave me nightmares. I only ever saw the film once, as a kid, and even though I can’t by now remember the name of the film or the execution device I am left in no doubt as to what your comment refers. *whimper*

  13. A Masked Avenger says

    @17 and @18, I don’t get it. Being believed when you explain why you (an outsider) killed a prominent member of a privileged caste is pretty huge.

    What would cops do today in similar circumstances? I’d bet either accuse her of being a prostitute trying to roll a trick, or of killing her lover in a jealous rage because uterus.

  14. Jon Hurley says

    You should look into the GrimHild, if I’m spelling that correctly. They were women warriors that wore masks to hide their identities. Kind of like a Black Knight.

  15. kaleberg says

    I had always heard that Thorgunna Erikson, Leif’s wife, was the one ready with her battle axe after the Skreelings had killed her husband. According to the saga I read, she was the one who rallied the troops and led the fight to safety. If she had flaked out like the rest of the gang, we wouldn’t have heard about the exploration of Vinland.
    There were pre-Christian Irish women who fought. The Romans were impressed with this. One thing that lends credence to the account is that they supposedly fought with their feet which makes sense for a woman given her center of balance and the fact that this would add reach and strength when fighting more traditionally trained male warriors. The Christians, I gather, booted women out of soldiering.