Shieldmaidens

Skjaldmær better known in English as Shieldmaidens were Late Iron Age (Viking Era) women who had chosen to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. Archaeology is at worst poor best guessing, do consider also the figurine could also be representative of a Viking Age "shieldmaiden". There is evidence for female traders in Russia, for instance, for far-travelling women, for queens and mistresses of large estates, as well as for women as victims and slaves. Also, women were an absolute prerequisite for the lasting establishment of a successful new nation in the uninhabited island of Iceland. Women can boast of many achievements in the Viking Age yet, in a quarter of a century of studying them, I find that the one thing I get asked about most often is the one thing I do not think they ‘achieved’, which was to become warriors. A very small silver figurine, found in Hårby, in Denmark, in late 2012, may seem to contradict this. It undoubtedly represents a woman: she has the knotted pony-tail and long garment characteristic of many other representations of female figures in Viking art. What is unusual is that she is carrying an upright sword in her right hand and a shield in her left. The function of this figurine is unknown, and what it represents is also mysterious. If it is intended as an image of a woman warrior, then it is not a realistic one. Her garment is elaborate and beautifully decorated, and would be a real hindrance in combat, as would her uncovered head and its pony-tail. Male warriors did not always have helmets, as these were expensive, but would have had some kind of protective headgear like a leather cap. So we are left to conclude that the figure must be symbolic, rather than realistic, and most experts are inclined to label her as a Valkyrie

SKJALD-, the form taken by skjöldr in COMPDS: skjald-blætr, m. a shield worshipper (?), Yngl. S. (in a verse). skjald-borg, f. a ‘shield-burgh,’ wall of shields, an old battle array, Ó. H. 206, Nj. 274, Eg. 92, 532, Fms. ii. 319, vi. 416, 418, vii. 262, described in Har. S. Harðr. ch. 117 (Fms. vi 413). skjald-fimr, adj. quick with one’s shield, Lex. Poët. skjald-hvalr, m. a kind of whale, from its particoloured skin, Sks. 124. skjald-kona, u, f. = skjaldmær, Lv. 63. skjald-kænn, adj. = skjaldfimr, Lex. Poët. skjald-mær, f. a ‘shield-maid,’ amazon, Akv. 17, Al. 121, Fas. i. 140, 177, Odd. 22, 26. skjald-rim, f. the ‘shield-rim,’ i. e. the line of shields along the gunwale of a ship (skip skarat skjöldum), Orkn. 104 (in a verse), Fms. vi. (in a verse), xi. 140 (read. skjaldrimna). skjald-steinn, m. ‘the ‘shield-stone,’ the upper stone of a hand-mill (?), Gísl. (in a verse). skjald-sveinn, m. a ‘shield-boy,’ shield-bearer, Sks. 705, Korm. 118, Stj. 631.


“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’ skills. …They courted military celebrity so earnestly that you would have guessed they had unsexed themselves. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall and elegant embarked on this way of life. As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill…” (Fisher 1979, p. 212).

Odin:
What a dream! I dreamt I woke at dawn
to tidy Valhalla for the fallen ones;
I … made the Valkyries bring wine, as a prince was coming.
I’m expecting some renowned heroes
from the human world; my heart is glad!
Anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe


Valkyries are interesting and significant figures in the warrior cultures of the Viking Age. We know about them mainly from Old Norse literature, the poetry and prose written down in Iceland in the thirteenth century and later. The medieval Icelanders understood the function of valkyries literally from their name (valkyrja means ‘chooser of the slain’), and presented an image of them as handmaidens of the war-god Odin. He would send them to battle to choose those warriors who were worthy of dying and going to Valhalla, the hall of the slain, where they prepared themselves for the final battle of Ragnarok. There, the valkyries acted as hostesses, welcoming the dead warriors and serving them drink, as in the anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe cited above. This literary understanding is confirmed by many Viking Age images of female figures, with long hair and gown, rather like the Hårby figurine, but holding out a drinking horn. When carrying out their duties on the battlefield, however, valkyries needed to be armed and the literary texts suggest that they were usually equipped with helmets, mail-coats and spears. Any association between valkyries and swords, on the other hand, is very rare as a sword, closely associated with masculinity, would be incongruous on a female figure. The sword was the weapon of choice, the prized possession and the status symbol of the better sort of Viking warrior. Many men, not all of them necessarily professional warriors, were buried with their swords, although they would also have an array of other weapons, like the man in the Kaupang burial, or the helmeted warrior depicted on the Middleton cross from North Yorkshire.

The undoubted successes of the Vikings in warfare and conquest were rooted in a well-developed Odinic ideology that sustained and strengthened them through their campaigns. The myth of Valhalla, the idea of death as a reward for the successful warrior, mediated by a female figure, is a powerful part of this ideology. It provided the warrior going into battle with an incentive and the dying warrior with a kind of consolation. Some of the literary texts develop this idea in a romantic way by telling of love affairs between warriors and valkyries though these, too, generally end in death. This martial ideology of which valkyries are a part also seeped into daily life. A typical valkyrie name, like Hild, means ‘battle’, and many ordinary women in the Viking Age also bore names (Iike the very common Gunnhild, or ‘War-battle’) that contained such elements. Yet that did not make them women warriors. Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.

Ref: Viking women, warriors, and Valkyries~Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham

Other arguments to the contrary suggest that fighting weapons found in female graves such as axes, spears and in some instances arrows are obviously confusing to those biased against the notion of the amazon Viking Age warrior to understand. The existence of axes in these graves they argue might reflect the need for the woman to have her axe, useful for cutting up meat, with her in the grave. These axes might not be weapons as such. Or they might be symbolically placed in the graves referring to Mjöllnir, the hammer of Thor. Some of these axes were very old and appears to be heirlooms. One could counter argue till the cows come home but the archaeology strongly suggest the contrary, that there is a probability for the existence historical of the Skjaldmær or Shieldmaiden.The archaeological evidence until very recently was tentative and hampered by the fact it was originally assumed by many scholars that women could not be buried with swords. If a woman was found buried with a sword, it was as if by default presumed that the second male skeleton had somehow gone missing. There have been female burials in Kaupang where arrowheads and small axes were found but the vast majority of female graves have only contained things which are relevant to the female sphere such as weaving and spinning implements . And even if a woman was buried with a sword, this does not mean she actually used in warfare. There are no representations of women with swords or in battle. Or perhaps after or during the funeral the bereaved also threw spears or axes into the graves in order to keep the women from haunting the living? Poor argument that one. But we have also to take into consideration that as we find stronger arguments to suggests these women warriors existed during the Viking Age via better methods of discerning funerary evidence such as identifying a females instead of a male buried in a warriors grave, we should stop making excuses to support that old Christian bias that women are not warriors.

Skjaldmær better known in English as Shieldmaidens were Late Iron Age (Viking Era) women who had chosen to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology and are often mentioned in sagas such as Hervarar saga and in Gesta Danorum. Controversy surrounds the existence of such women and scholars have varying opinions/prejudices as to their existence or that they were simply part of the romance of the sagas. In my view, defending the homestead against attacks would also qualify a woman to be a warrior in the literal sense and I agree whole heartedly with the compelling views based on actual Viking Age archaeology of Prof Neil Price on their existence in the historical timeline ~ Rig Svenson


In this special, Michael Hirst, the creator and writer of the TV series Vikings, together with a number of scholars, provide some historical background for the show. In particular, the special focuses on shield maidens, the great halls and Viking ships. Prof Neil Price puts forward some very compelling arguments based on archaeology and funerary forensic evidence that Viking Age shieldmaidens did exist during the late Iron Age.

A shieldmaiden was a woman who had chosen to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. Something about a woman who wields a sword well that so appeals to me. The Grágás or Grey Goose Law is the name given to the laws which were used to govern the Icelandic Commonwealth until some where around 1262-1264CE. It consisted of six sections, the fourth of which was “The Wergild Ring List”. Wergild, was the reparation paid by an individual to compensate a family or clan for theft, injury or death. The revision of these laws of 840CE makes various provisions, including for the payment of Wergild by Skjoldmø. The nearest translation of Skjoldmø is “Shield Girl”, but it is important that we do not confuse them with the popular fantasy figure of the “Shield Maiden” (think Opera's Brunhilde) but rather honed professional warriors, given rights, privileges and status of their own within Norse Culture.

In Hrolfs saga Gautrekssonar, the only child of King Eirikr of Sweden is Thornbjorg, who "spends her girlhood pursuing the martial arts". Her father provides her with men and lands; and she adopts male dress and name (Thorbergr) and is known as king. (quoting “Maiden Warriors and Other Sons”) These girls were often from noble families (such as Freydis Eiriksdottir, who voyaged to America with her Father Eirik the Red. She and her brother Lief both commanded ships on this voyage) and that was likely to do with the environment of their birth (adequate food, warmth, etc.) being far more conducive to their growing to be strong and healthy. Certainly most of those mentioned by name as captains, were from noble families, but then, so were most of the men.

 
In many sources, not least the story of Auðr, we hear of these warrior women wearing “breeches like a man” and it is certainly likely that the Skjoldmø took the trouser as a practicality. Certainly they would have worn similar armour to their male counterparts and used similar equipment and weapons. Finds that bear this out include:A Spear and knife found in the graves of two women in Heslerton, North Yorkshire (dating to 450-650CE) and a Woman's burial (circa 500CE) with dagger and shield just outside LincolnSaxo Grammaticus, in his “History of the Danes” in around 1200CE wrote:

"There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers' skills."

He goes on to discuss these women in some detail and was clearly fascinated by them. However, he also appears to have been quite the fan of classical literature and this is betrayed by his tendency to mix the Norse tales he was told with Greek Amazon myths. For those who may be interested, Birgit Strand discusses this in depth in her book “Women in Gesta Danorum”.
 
We know that life was hard for all those who went “a viking” - the climate, high-stakes living etc are all well known and documented, (there are even sources that detail some of these women going “a viking” while heavily pregnant) but these women appear to have embraced and thrived upon the lifestyle and indeed, it is difficult to read Norse or even Anglo Saxon history without tripping over at least one of many of these warriors mentioned. Some notable names include:

Aethelflaed (also known as “The Lady of Mercia”) daughter of Alfred the Great, Freydis Eiriksdottir, Gurith, Alvid's daughter, Hervor (who later adopts the name Hervardr while seeking vengence for her father), Hethna, Kahula, Olga, widow of Igor of Russia, Queen Aethelburgh (destroyer of Taunton), Queen Gudit, Rusilla, Salaym Bint Malham, Sela, Stikla, "The Island Girl" of Procopius' history of the Gothic War of 535-552 CE, Thordis, Thyra, Queen of Denmark, Vebiorg, Visna, Wafeira

The valkyrie (ON valkyrja or "chooser of the slain") who are a host of supernatural female figures go to those who may die in battle and sometimes to those who may live. The role of these supernatural shield maidens in Norse mythology is to select who dies on the battlefield and guide their souls to Odin’s manor, where they will spend the afterlife training for the Twilight of the Gods, the final battle against the forces of chaos. After each day’s combat training, a mead-hall party with drink and reincarnated pork ensues, with the Valkyries waiting the tables. But I cannot help but wonder if these carrion bearers (correction cadaver) are soul reiver's rather than how the myths portray them as, collectors of dead warriors? Dead bodies, absolutely nothing romantic or heroic about rotting flesh?

We have had very few period depictions of armed women. Instead scholars have applied the term “valkyrie” to a common Late Iron Age motif of a usually unarmed woman who offers up a mead cup or horn, sometimes standing alone, sometimes to an armed man, who is often on horseback. A more cautious term for this motif is “the greeting scene”, and there is reason to link it to beliefs about what would happen to men in the afterlife (cf. houris). But there are armed women embroidered on the tapestries from the AD 834 Oseberg ship burial, and a small group of brooches shows them in 2D relief . Thanks to Danish amateur metal detectorists, that group is growing steadily.