Women and Weapons in the Viking World:  Amazons of the North

Book review

Book Cover

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

In the Oct. 2, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American, I presented the then-available archeological and historical evidence for the existence of women Viking warriors (“Who Were the Vikings?”). In late 2021, I thought that I might revisit this controversial topic to see if, in the intervening years, more had been learned about such warriors in the Viking Age. So, I wrote Professor Neil Price of Uppsala University, Sweden, and Professor Elna Siv Kristoffersen of Stavanger University and the Stavanger Archeological Museum, Norway, both experts on the subject. I asked if new evidence or insights had come to light that further supported the participation of women in Viking combat and warfare. 

They both replied that no additional finds had been uncovered since 2017 that shed new light on this compelling topic, but both independently urged me to read the newly published book by Leszek Gardela, entitled Women and Weapons in the Viking World (Casemate Publishers, 2021). Gardela is a Polish archeologist who has conducted extensive investigations throughout Scandinavia, and when his book was published, he was a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark. I took their advice and read the book.

Despite its enticing subtitle, Amazons of the North, Gardela’s book is not a popular overview of the historical and archeological evidence for the existence of Viking warrior women. The subtitle derives from the title of Gardela’s grant-supported academic research project, which culminated with the publication of the book. This project was entitled “Amazons of the North:  Armed Females in Old Norse Literature and Viking Archaeology.”

Woman and Weapons

Terje Birkedal reviews Women and Weapons in the Viking World: Amazons of the North by Leszek Gardela, a professional archeological monograph that meets very high academic standard.

Gardela’s provocatively subtitled book is actually a professional archeological monograph that meets a very high academic standard. Gardela is meticulous in the presentation of the full range of existing evidence for weapon-wielding women in the Viking Age. Moreover, he repeatedly goes out of his way to give careful weight to all the possible and reasonable interpretations of the association of women with weapons in both medieval literature and archeological findings.

After conducting a thorough review of what Old Norse and other medieval writings have to say about Viking women warriors, he carefully leads the reader through a host of data gleaned from burials and from the study of the visual images and symbols found in Viking Age art, with particular attention to small metal figurines and other artifacts, such as the so-called “Valkyrie brooches.” One of the great benefits of this book is that it compiles and presents into a single volume all the available evidence pertinent to the question of whether there were women Viking warriors in Scandinavia.

What merits particular praise is Gardela’s comprehensive description and review of every Viking Age burial known to have contained the remains of both women and accompanying weapons (for example, swords, spears, axes, knives, shield bosses, and arrow tips). His narrative section on burials covers 28 burials of women with weapons from all over Scandinavia. He lists and briefly describes all these burials again along with their accompanying artifacts in a well-organized, matter-of-fact appendix that makes for easy reference without requiring the reader to muddle through multiple pages of narrative. 

At the very end of the book, he provides his own to-scale photographs of all the key artifacts associated with the 28 burials and detailed drawings of how the various dead were laid out in relation to their grave goods. This generous act of careful compilation and sharing of the burial evidence is commendable. With this contribution alone, Gardela has made a major contribution to Viking archeology.

Also interspersed throughout the main body of the book are several artistic reconstructions of some of the female graves as they would have appeared just before final burial. These wonderful and informed illustrations were done by Meroslaw Kuźma under the Gardela’s guidance. The main narrative portion of the book is also graced by numerous photographs of relevant artifacts.

So, what does Gardela say on the question of Viking women warriors? First, he points out that the 28 identified burials of women with weapons make up less than 1% of the known graves of women from the Viking Age in Scandinavia. Moreover, most of these female burials with weapons only contained small one-hand axes, tools that could have been used in battle but could have equally been used to cut firewood or joints of meat. Gardela suggests that some of these axes may have served ritual purposes and the women buried with them were perhaps sorceresses (vǫlur) rather than warriors. A few of the female burials with axes also were found to contain curious iron staffs that are thought to be clearly associated with ritual activities or magic (seiðr).

Only three of the 28 graves contained a full array of weapons and other artifacts that strongly argue for a warrior status for the women laid to rest in them. One of these three is the famous warrior grave at Birka in Sweden that geneticists identified in 2017 as containing a woman. Two similar burials of women had been discovered earlier in Norway, one at Nordre Kjølen in Hedmark and another at Aunvoll in Nord Trøndelag. All three of these female graves yielded swords, spearheads, and arrow points. Two produced shield bosses from decayed shields. And none of these three graves contained the decorative brooches that usually are found in female graves. The Birka grave occupant was clearly dressed as a man and the same is inferred by Gardela for both Nordre Kjølen and Aunvoll. These three graves from the ninth and 10th centuries provide the best evidence for the existence of Viking women warriors. All three are graves of women who enjoyed high status. Two of these burials also contain sacrificed horses, a true sign of high rank.

Two other possible female warrior graves, one in Rogaland, Norway, and another in Sjælland, Denmark, contained spearheads, which are clearly weapons of war. The rest of the grave finds in these burials, with the exception of a shield boss in the Rogaland grave, leave only ambiguous clues as to the warrior status of these two women.

After a scrupulous review of all the pertinent evidence and the possible interpretations of the associations of women and weapons in the Viking Age, Gardela comes to a tantalizing but tentative conclusion that is characteristic of a careful and cautious scholar. He writes: “The archaeological, iconographic, and textual sources thoroughly assessed in this book show unequivocally that the idea of the armed woman was not at all foreign to the population of the Viking world, and that such women warriors may have (italics are his) really existed.” I, on the other hand, believe he made a good case that they really did exist, though not in large numbers, and that such warriors were often women of status and power—perhaps even warband leaders.

As I said earlier in this review, Gardela’s book is an academic work. It is eminently readable, but it is not intended for the casual Viking fan. This is a book for other scholars and serious laypersons with an interest in all things Viking. If you are a “hard-core” Viking enthusiast, then you need to read this book. It is an important book, if not a great book, and an essential book for anyone seeking to fully understand and appreciate the varied and important roles that women played in the Viking Age.

This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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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.