Valkyries were prominent female supernatural figures of the Viking age. They could be found in poems and stories, such as the “Elder” or “Poetic Edda”, which refers to the Valkyries as “skjaldmaer (shield maidens)” (Olsen, 3). The lives of Norse women within the texts that exist today are so intermingled with legend that the image of Valkyries becomes an important representation related to women during the Viking age. The above painting, The Ride of the Valkyries (1890), by William T. Maud, shows what the mythical Valkyries were said to have looked like.

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Modern Day Representation of a Shield Maiden

In Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings, the female character Éowyn appears. She is portrayed in the style of a Viking woman, and is referred to as a shield maiden of Rohan. However, in the film, shield maidens are not the norm, just as was likely the case in Viking society.

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Female Vikings, Warrior Women, or Shield Maidens

While the idea of Norse women during the Viking age being actual Vikings, warrior women, or shield maidens is debated, and many believe them to exist only in legends, there is some evidence that suggests otherwise. Women do appear as warriors in Norse legends, which “showcase female warriors like Hervor and Brynhildr” (Nutt, 17), as well as Freydis wielding her sword in Eirik the Red’s Saga, among others. There has also been more recent scientific findings of a 1,000 year old Viking, DNA authenticated, female skeleton (previously believed to be male) in Birka Sweden, buried with weaponry and two horses. While this warrior woman may have not been the norm, it leaves the question open as to whether Viking shield maidens were a piece of Viking society or not. The painting above, by Peter Nicolai Arbo, shows a shield maiden from the Norse legend of Hervor and Brynhildr.

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Old Norse Women as Voyagers and Settlers

For a long time, it was believed that Viking men traveled predominantly without women, however, newer research shows that Norse women traveled along with the men during the Viking age. These harsh, “journeys from Scandinavia involved sea-crossings in small, open ships with no protection from the elements” (Jesch, 3), like the representation pictured above. It was necessary for women to travel to new lands (such as Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland) with the men, since many of these lands were largely unpopulated, and reproduction was needed for sustainable settlements. Norse women’s roles as travelers, sea voyagers, and settlers is important to the history of all of Viking society.

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Old Norse Women at Home

During the Viking age, Norse women traditionally resided within the realm of the domestic. They cared for the home, birthed and raised the children, cooked, cleaned, milked the animals, wove cloth, sewed, made clothing, and often times held the responsibility of managing their family’s finances. The above image provides a representation of what this domestic realm may have looked like.

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Thorbjorg was a seeress called the “Little Prophetess”. She was said to have the gift of prophecy. She travelled, as a völur, and told people of their futures. She was respected and treated as an important guest. She appears in Eirik the Red’s Saga performing magic rites. The above image is of a model of Thorbjorg from the Icelandic Saga Museum in Sagamuseet, Reykjavik, Iceland. 

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