Who were the Vikings?

As science proves that some ancient warriors assumed to be men were actually women, Ted Birkedal provides an overview of historical evidence for real-life Lagerthas

A Viking warrior.

Photo: Terje Rakke / Nordic life / Visitnorway.com

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

In the late 19th century a high-status Viking-era grave was excavated at Birka, Sweden. The grave goods included a sword, an axe, a spear, a battle knife, several armor-piercing arrows, and the remains of two shields. Two horses were also buried with the grave’s inhabitant.

Until 2014 the grave was thought to belong to a man, but a forensic study of the skeleton in 2014 suggested that the buried person was a woman. This hypothesis was confirmed by a DNA study in 2017, and the story went viral in newspapers and social media around the world. Had this woman been a “shield maiden” and war leader like the fictional Lagertha in the popular TV show The Vikings? A hot scholarly debate has arisen over the meaning of the battle-related artifacts in the woman’s grave. Were they her weapons or just ritual or heirloom items? Was there once a man in the grave whose skeleton mysteriously disappeared or disintegrated before the archaeologists began their excavations?

As it turns out, this find is not all that unusual. Very similar Viking-era graves of women have been excavated in Nordre Kjølen, Aunvoll, and Solør, Norway. Like the Swedish woman at Birka, these Norwegian women were buried with a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, and a shield. The woman from Solør was also buried with a horse with a fine bridle. Another grave from Kaupang, Norway, contained a woman seated in a small boat with an axe and a shield boss. Still another high-status grave in Rogaland, Norway, turned up a woman with a sword at her side. Many other graves throughout Scandinavia have revealed Viking Age women with weapons, particularly axes, knives, and arrowheads.

Archaeologists have also found numerous brooches and small figurines from the Viking period showing women carrying both spears and weapons. Similarly, the Oseberg Tapestry, found in the famous Oseberg Viking Ship burial in Norway, displays women marching with spears. Interestingly, the Oseberg burial contained only the remains of two women. One of these is thought to have been Queen Åsa Haraldsdottir of the sagas, who is said to have had her husband murdered so she could take over his kingdom. Neither of the women from the Oseberg ship burial were found with weapons, but archaeologists believe the grave had been looted, for they found none of the expected jewelry, gold, or silver.

There are also clues in early medieval literature. Saxo Grammaticus, a 12th-century Danish historian, mentions in his Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes) that there were once women in Denmark who dressed in men’s clothing and practiced martial arts. Saxo Grammaticus gives the names of three such warriors: Hetha, Visne, and Veborg. They all fought for King Harald Wartooth of Denmark in the eighth century Battle of Bråvella against no other than Sigurd Hring, the father of Ragnar Lodbrok, legendary hero of the TV show The Vikings and the first husband of Lagertha, the shield maiden of legend.

There is still more historical evidence for Viking warrior women. Archbishop Wulf­stan of York, who actually lived during the close of the Viking Age, wrote a homily that referred to the Wǣlcyrge or “Choosers of the Slain,” an early English word that closely resembles the Old Norse Valkyrur (Valkyries).

A burial mound.

Photo: Terje Birkedal
Krosshaug near Klepp in Rogaland, Norway, is the burial mound of a powerful woman chieftain of Iron Age Norway. The mound is now 30 meters in diameter and three meters high, but at one time was six meters high. The stone cross was added later, after Norway converted to Christianity.

At least two sagas tell of female warriors. The 13th-century Icelandic Saga of Hervör and Heidreks tells of Hervör, a legendary Swedish woman warrior who fought with her dead father’s famous sword and died on the battlefield. And the Laxdaela Saga contains the story of a woman who wears men’s clothes and attacks her estranged husband with a sword. There is also the tale of famous Arab traveler and writer Ibn Fadlan, who meets a woman presiding over the flaming ship funeral of a Rus (Swedish Viking) chieftain. She is described as the “Angel of Death,” a term very close to the word Valkyrie.

Moreover, 11th-century Greek historian Johannes Skylitzes mentions that the Greeks were astounded to find dead female warriors among the Rus who died during the 10th century Siege of Dorostolon in Bulgaria. William of Jumiѐges, a French historian of the 11th century, similarly wrote that the Viking raiding armies attacking France included women.

Rusla, nicknamed the “Red Maiden” for her bloodthirsty ways, is one of the most famous Viking women warriors. She and her sister Stikla are mentioned in both Danish and Irish medieval accounts. Together, they harried the seas and coasts of Britain, Denmark, and Ireland and fought as mercenaries for the Viking King of Dublin at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Eventually, her Viking brother, who hated her, captured her in a sea fight and had her beaten to death with the ship’s oars.

It should not be surprising that some Scandinavian women of the Viking Age became warriors. Women enjoyed relatively high economic and social status and many were leaders even if they were not warriors. For example, one of the largest grave mounds in Rogaland, Norway, called Krosshaug, contained a woman who had been buried with fine jewelry and other rich grave goods around A.D. 450. She was no doubt politically powerful, for her mound was raised on the highest ridge in Jæren, one of Norway’s most productive agricultural districts. It was here that the people of Jæren held their annual assembly or “ting.” Archaeologists therefore judge that she was a chieftain of considerable power and influence at the time of her death.

Another woman who exemplifies the power of early Scandinavian women is Aud the Deep Minded, who lived in the ninth century at the very heart of the Viking Age. After her husband Olaf the White, the King of Dublin, died in battle, she led a large retinue of men and women to western Iceland, where she was one of the first high-born settlers and served as a chieftain for the rest of her life. The author of the 13th-century Laxdæla Saga described her as “a paragon among women.”

Viking women warriors may not have been common, but both archaeological evidence and historical sources suggest they did exist and that they enjoyed a welcome place in Viking Age society and warfare. This should not be seen as unusual in a warlike society where women could become chieftains and leaders of men. Some of these apparently chose to become war leaders, and by their example motivated both men and other women to follow them into battle.

Note: The 12th-century Laxdæla Saga has been corrected to the 13th-century Laxdæla Saga.

Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has conducted archeological fieldwork in the American South, the Great Plains, Norway, Canada, Guam, and Alaska. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.