Norse Women During the Viking Age; Roles, Myths, and Depictions

In recent history, scholars have started to delve more deeply into studies of Norse women during the Viking age (circa 800 AD to 1066). Some areas of study that have gained more prominent scholarship and attention include women’s places in society, their roles, as well as their depictions. Where old Norse women travelers, conquerors, settlers? What importance did prominent female figures of these Viking times, such as Freydis Eiriksdottir, Gudrid, and Aud (Unn) the Deep-Minded, hold? It is unfortunately true that sources on the lives of Old Norse women are rather scarce and often unreliable due to the fact that many are shaped by, and include, the stuff of myth–Valkyries, Völva, and perhaps shield maidens as well. However, “during the last 40 years scholars have written a variety of texts about medieval Scandinavian women” (Eldevik, 1). There also exist historical texts such as Eirik the Red’s Saga (circa 1260) and The Saga of the Greenlanders (13th century) that provide glimpses into the fascinating lives and world of Norse women during the Viking age.

The once prevalent image of “bearded, beer-bellied, and horn-helmeted vikings eager to attack foreign shores” (Jochens, 1), has evolved as Viking studies has moved its focus from the, “typical male activities of raiding and warfare to more peaceful work on the homefront” (Jochens, 3). Much of this “peaceful work” was the work of Norse women. The focus on women’s lives has itself, “gained momentum from the current interest in women’s studies” (Jochens, 3). Without this shift we may still have terribly limited information on Norse women during the Viking age. Fortunately, this shift in attention has allowed for more detailed and in depth looks at the lives, roles, myths, and depictions of Norse women of the time period.

While depictions and tales of female Vikings, warrior women, or shield maidens, are common, there is little concrete evidence supporting the existence of these women in any large quantity within Norse society during the Viking age. While the majority of Norse women of the period may not have been fighting battles on horseback, they were often very brave, strong, and impressive. Viking society was a patriarchal society, however, “Scandinavian women in Viking Age society enjoyed more freedom and power in their communities than many other women of their day” (Pruitt, 1). Both men and women had predetermined societal roles, for the most part. Women mainly resided within the domestic sphere. A woman’s role focused heavily on caring for the home and bearing and rearing children. Similarly to many other societies of the time, the patriarchal Viking world placed a woman “by law, under the authority of her husband or father” (Hurstwic, 2). Women were not included in the realms of politics or government, and could not hold the role of goði, or chieftain, (Hurstwic, 2). It was custom that women, “managed the affairs at home while the men went on their early expeditions and later [the women] accompanied them on trading trips and colonial endeavours” (Jochens, 4).

There were certain aesthetic expectations for Norse women during the Viking age. Such women are often remembered for their legacy of beauty, a prized quality within their society. Women were expected to wear their hair long and to wear dresses. In fact, “the medieval Icelandic lawbook Grágás prohibits women from wearing men’s clothes, [and] from cutting their hair short” (Hurstwic, 1). These roles are specific to Norse women living in settled towns and cities during the Viking age, but there was another side to the lives of many Norse women. It was long theorized and believed that Viking men traveled the high seas on their own, with their wives back on land or in search of wives from new found lands. However, new research paints a very different picture. According to a recent study, “published in late 2014, researchers used mitochondrial DNA evidence to show that Norse women joined their men for Viking Age migrations” (Pruitt, 4). Many of the lands to which the Vikings traveled were largely unpopulated (ex. Iceland, Greenland, Vinland), so in order to establish viable and sustainable settlements, women had to undertake the same sea voyages as men to ensure population. These harsh, “journeys from Scandinavia involved sea-crossings in small, open ships with no protection from the elements” (Jesch, 3). The role of traveler, sea voyager, and settler was a unique role for Norse women, as many male explorers, settlers, and colonizers traveled without women.

Norse women, despite living in a patriarchal society, were respected quite highly. They also held the privilege (unusual for women of the time period) of owning property. Norse women of the time were often given the great responsibilities of managing the finances of their family and running the entire household (which included cooking, cleaning, milking the animals, weaving, making clothing, and a variety of other taxing activities). If women became widows, they could even “be rich and important landowners” (Hurstwic, 3). Women were protected enthusiastically from violence and “unwanted attention” by Viking law (Hurstwic, 3). While marriages were often arranged by families and occurred around age 12 to 15 for women, they did typically “[have] a say in the arrangement” (Pruitt, 6). They also possessed the ability to divorce their husbands. Much of this information appears, if somewhat briefly, in Norse sagas. It is true that “most of the Icelandic family sagas are about men and probably were written by men” and that “women tend to play only minor roles” (Hurstwic, 6), but these roles are still of great significance as they provide information, intermixed with legend and myth, about the lives of Norse women when they were written. The characters are often complex, wise, strong, beautiful, clever, and courageous. They appear as moderators of conflict, inciters of violence, explorers and settlers of new lands, skilled magicians, seeresses, or völva, and even as warriors.

Female Viking warriors are a much debated topic. The idea of female warriors in general fascinates many people, “from the Amazons to Joan of Arc to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the 20th and 21st centuries, this obsession has brought us Wonder Woman, Xena and Katniss Everdeen” (Nutt, 18). Women do appear as warriors in Norse legends, which “showcase female warriors like Hervor and Brynhildr” (Nutt, 17). Freydis Eiriksdottir appears in the sagas wielding a sword quite fiercely. But it can be very difficult to identify accurate historical depictions of women as warriors during the Viking age due to the mixing of truth and legend within sources, such as, epics or novels, not histories, and while some of them are historical novels with good attention to detail, others include elements of outright fantasy” (Bedell, 1). Because of this, “the task of recovering medieval Icelandic women’s history from the extant literature is a complex one” (Van Deusen, 51).

So, women were traveling with their Viking husbands aboard ships, but were they wielding weapons along with them as well? Judith Jesch states that, “women warriors must be classed as Viking legend” (Bedell, 7). Looking outside the realms myth and legend however, a rather recent study by Gotherstrom and nine other scientists from Stockholm University and Uppsala University was able to bring about “the first genetic proof that at least some Viking women were warriors” (Nutt, 6). More than a century ago a 1,000 year old Viking skeleton was found in Birka Sweden. The skeleton was, “ensconced in a Viking grave, surrounded by military weapons, [and] was assumed to be that of a battle-hardened man” (Nutt, 1). However, modern DNA testing has proved that this skeleton was actually that of a Viking woman, buried with “two shields, a sword, an ax, a spear, armor-piercing arrows and a battle knife—not to mention the remnants of two horses” (Nutt, 3). Such accoutrements had long convinced researchers that the skeleton was male, since a typical Viking woman would have been buried with items such as, “jewelry, brooches and everyday utensils” (Nutt, 15). Yet, this is not concrete proof that warrior women existed commonly in Viking society, for this woman could have been buried with another male’s weapons for symbolic reasons, or she could simply have been living far outside the norm. But, if shieldmaidens remain part of Viking legend, then, “so is Vinland, which turned out to be Newfoundland, and Midgard, which is Constantinople, and the sunstone, which is a sort of feldspar you can really use to navigate in cloudy weather, and all sorts of other things that have turned out to be rooted in fact” (Bedell, 9). So, despite the lack of hard evidence and the mythical depictions that blur the lines between reality and fantasy, women appear as warriors in Viking tales and can scientifically be found buried with weapons, so the possibility still remains that warrior women did live and fight during the time of the Vikings, even if it was not the norm.

Norse women’s lives are so entrenched in legend that their depictions become intermingled with those of supernatural beings, such as “Valkyries (from the Old Norse valkyrja-chooser of the slain)” (Olsen, 1). Such beings were portrayed as, “fierce supernatural female attendants of Odin, the Norse war god” (Olsen, 1). Valkyries could be found in poems and stories of the Viking age, such as the “Elder” or “Poetic Edda”, which refers to the Valkyries as “skjaldmaer (shield maidens)” (Olsen, 3). Depictions of Valkyries can be found in modern day heroic tales, such as the recent (2017) Marvel movie about the Norse god/superhero, Thor: Ragnarok, that includes a Valkyrie character as a representation of the Norse mythological figure Brynhildr. She is powerful, demands respect, and possesses a great deal of courage, just as many of the true historical women who lived during the Viking age.

One of these such women was Aud the Deep-Minded. Also referred to as Unn, Aud the Deep-Minded lived from 834 AD to 900 AD. She appears in Eirik the Red’s Saga, which also mentioned the names of her father and brother, but no female family members (typical of a patriarchal society). She was “the daughter of Ketil Flat-Nose” and the wife of “the warrior king Oleif”, both men died in battle (Eirik the Red’s Saga, 653). After this, Aud the Deep-Minded, “acted as the head of her family since the patriarchs had died” (Blurton, 2). She is even referred to as, “the first great matriarch of Viking nobility in Iceland”, (Blurton, 2) where she held ample power and influence. She travelled to Iceland with a crew of 20 men, and once arrived, she “claimed all the land in the Dales between the Dagverdara and the Skraumuhlaupsa rivers and settled at Hvamm” (Eirik the Red’s Saga, 653). In Iceland Aud the Deep-Minded was in a position of power, and provided her crew with land to farm and live upon. While many Icelandic settlers of the time period were still of the Pagan religion, is it notable that Aud was baptized a Christian. Aud is described in Eirik the Red’s Saga praying and erecting crosses in Iceland. Aud is even credited with helping to bring Christianity to Iceland originally. In The Book of the Icelanders, the chapter “Of the Settlers and Legislation” mentions Aud as a settler, along with a list of the men who settled areas of Iceland around the same time. She is referred to as the person who from, “the men of Breidafjord are descended (The Book of the Icelanders, 51). Aud the Deep-Minded embodies the sea traveling, new land settling, powerful Viking women of old, and is remembered by many to this day for her famed wisdom, her role as an important matriarch, her charitable nature, and her great bravery.

Another important woman from the Viking age is Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir. She, like Aud, was a courageous traveler and settler of new lands. Gudrid’s grandfather came to Iceland as a member of Aud the Deep-Minded’s crew (The Mariner’s Museum). Living from 985 to 1050, Gudrid, “probably crossed the North Atlantic eight times” (Brown, 1). Gudrid was not only along for the ride, but may have explored “on North American expeditions with two different husbands (one was the brother of Leif Ericson, who ‘discovered’ America 500 years before Columbus)” (Brown, 1). Unfortunately, details about Gudrid’s life are difficult to track down, however, it is widely believed that Gudrid traveled to Vinland with Eirik the Red’s son, Thorsteinn, and that she also travelled to Vinland with her second husband, Thorfinnur. She is even credited with giving birth to the “first child of European descent at the North American settlement of Vinland”, her son, Snorri Thorfinnsson (The Mariner’s Museum). Gudrid appears in the The Saga of the Greenlanders, where she is described as, ““a woman of striking appearance; she was intelligent and knew well how to conduct herself amongst strangers” (Greenlanders Saga [258]/Wolf, 467). She is another Norse Christian woman during the Viking age. In The Saga of the Greenlanders she acts as a contrast for another famous Norse woman, Freydis Eiriksdottir. Gudrid behaves more “appropriately” for a woman of her time, and represents the replacement of Paganism with Christianity within the sagas. Freydis, a Pagan, “representing the heathen past”, has very unlucky offspring, while Gudrid, a Christian, has prosperous and successful progeny (Wolf, 475). Gudrid’s legacy endures to this day as an important Norse female explorer, settler, and mother.

Freydis Eiriksdottir remains one of the most famous Norse women of the Viking age. Freydis can be found in Eirik the Red’s Saga as well as The Saga of the Greenlanders. Freydis was the daughter of Eirikr the Red, a famous Viking who is said to have formed the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Freydis is portrayed differently in the two sagas. In The Saga of the Greenlanders, she is portrayed more harshly, while in Eirik the Red’s Saga, she is portrayed more as “a bold-spirited woman” of “resourcefulness [and/]or desperation” (Wolf, 475). The parts of Freydis’ life focused on are her travels, her violence, and her daring bravery. “According to the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, Freydis around the year 1009 sailed from Greenland to Vinland in North America, the first of two long expeditions to the New World” (Lanesskog, 2). Freydis traveled to Vinland from Greenland with two of her brothers and her husband, Torcaror. They agreed to split all profits equally, however, Freydis ended up tricking her husband into killing her brothers and the rest of the men. She did so by telling her husband that her brothers harmed her, and by saying to him, “you wretch, would never avenge either my humiliation or your own. I realize now how far away I am from Greenland. And unless you avenge this, I am going to divorce you” (Wolf, 470). So he did avenge her, but did not wish to harm the women present. Freydis however, killed all of the women herself, with an axe. This made her trip quite profitable, but once her brother Leifr, back in Greenland, heard of her deeds, it was said that “after that no one thought anything but ill of them” (Wolf, 471). As a famous Norse woman of history, Freydis “stands curiously alone because of her atrocious deed” (Wolf, 478).

There is yet another focus within the life of Freydis Eiriksdottir. There is a scene in Eirik the Red’s Saga, as well as The Saga of the Greenlanders, of a battle between the Norse and the native skraelings. In this scene the Norse men begin to retreat from the skraelings, when Freydis mocks the men for their fearful retreat and requests a weapon of her own. At this time, Freydis herself was pregnant. When the skrælingar came toward her, Freydis, “freeing one of her breasts from her shift, [she] smacked her sword with it” frightening the natives away (Eirik the Red’s Saga, 671). This bold and brave action is one of Freydis’ most famous depictions. There is even a portrayal of this scene where Freydis exposes and cuts off her own breast. This “unambiguously presents Freydis as an Amazon” (Wolf, 483), since the mythical shield maidens/warrior women, the Amazons, “were said to amputate one breast in order to make the wielding of weapons easier” (Wolf, 482). Freydis is able to embody the idea of the warrior woman as well as of the female Viking voyager, in her famed references and depictions.

Once again blurring the lines between history and legend, come the tales of the “völur, singular völva”, the “Wand-Wed” or “Staff-Carrier[s]” (Kvilhaug, 2). These were women involved with the practice of magic, were seeresses, and/or prophetess. Many Vikings, “nurtured groups of wise women, witches or priestesses who usually lived unmarried (though not necessarily in celibacy), and who could, it appears, travel alone wherever they liked without fear” ([Snorri Sturluson, Skaldskáparmál, Prose Edda] Kvilhaug, 2). These women were sometimes referred to as Norse witches. In Greenland “there lived a woman named Thorbjorg, a seeress who was called the ‘Little Prophetess’. She was one of ten sisters, all of whom had the gift of prophecy, and was the only one of them still alive” (Eirik the Red’s Saga, 658). Thorbjorg traveled around, visiting farms and telling futures. She was respected and treated as a very important guest. She is described as wearing a, “black mantle with a strap…adorned with precious stones right down to the hem” and “she bore as staff” and carried a purse with “the charms she needed for her predictions” (Eirik the Red’s Saga, 658). She traveled to Gudrid’s farm during the saga and performed “magic rites” and “chants”. Gudrid is described as resistant to participating in such practices as a Christian woman, but eventually gave in to help those around her. Thorbjorg is a clear example of the credit given to magic and the prevalence of Pagan practices within Viking society as Christianity was beginning to spread throughout such.

While concretely factual information regarding the lives of Norse women during the Viking age may be difficult to come by due to the existing sources being made up of both legend and fact, the recent attention given to such studies by scholars has allowed the world to see, even if only somewhat clearly, what life would have been like for Norse women of the time period. Despite the patriarchal society in which they resided, Norse women were (in comparison to other women of their time) fairly free, highly respected, and greatly important to their society. They held the unique roles of female sea voyagers, travelers, and settlers of new lands, in order to populate Viking settlements along with their husbands. They owned property, ran their households, and held great responsibility. Some may even have been female Vikings, warrior women, or shield maidens, like the image that Freydis creates striking her sword against her breast. As individuals, and as a societal whole, Norse women, during the Viking age appear to have been amply resilient, courageous, and strong members of society, several of which have carved their names into the lasting history of the Viking people to this very day.