Female Viking Warriors?

Stories about female warriors are frequent in Old Scandinavian poetry and prose. Several Eddic poems tell about Valkyries, (semi-)mythological warrior women taking part in battles, sometimes flying in the air, often acting as the god Odin’s agents. Many 14th century Icelandic sagas as well as Saxo Grammaticus’ Danish chronicle from c. 1200 describe (human) women as warriors, shield-maidens, sometimes as war leaders. The image of female Viking women is an important part of the general image of the Viking Age, known form both high and popular culture from Richard Wagner’s operas to modern TV series.

This is how the grave probably looked. Photo credit: Þórhallur Þráinsson

But during the last 100 years the scholars have been quite skeptical towards the reality behind the female warrior in the Viking Age. It has mostly been seen as a literary motif, a poetic fantasy. However, in a very recent article, a group of Swedish archaeologists (Charlotte Hedenstierna Jonson et al.) have taken up the problem again and delivered a provocative conclusion: the existence of female Viking warriors can be proved by DNA analysis of a skeleton in a 10th century grave in Birka, Sweden. The starting point of the article is precisely the stories about female Viking warriors in the Edda and saga sources, and their conclusion is that the picture given there is now confirmed.

The study is definitely interesting, and the authors are serious scholars, partly belonging to the elite of Swedish archaeologists and experts of the Viking Age. The fact that the person buried in this grave, with all its typical warrior grave goods of weapons, shields and horses is – this is entirely clear from the analysis – a woman, is important and might indeed be an indication that warrior women did in fact exist in the Nordic Viking society. There is, however, also reason to be careful and view the argument of the authors critically and wait before accepting the female Viking warrior as a reality.

The main reason for my skepticism is that other sources than this archaeological find do not support this picture. There are indeed a lot of Old Norse stories about warrior women, but they all depict events very long ago and very far away and often in a supernatural world. The Old Norse sources depicting a contemporary or more recent and geographically close society have nothing to say about such women. This might be an indication that we have to do with a literary motif rather than with a fact of reality – it is common that events long ago and far away are more fantastic and less belonging to the real world than the ones told about events here and now. The group behind the article do not seem to be aware of this source situation (which can be seen from their quote from an Eddic poem). There are also several contemporary descriptions of Viking warriors and Viking societies, some of them by eye-witnesses, and they also describe only male warriors – and one could actually expect that such – from a Christian European perspective – peculiar phenomenon would have been acknowledged if it had been there. These types of sources are not mentioned in the article.

Thus I think that the most likely conclusion is that the existence of female Viking warriors cannot be regarded as confirmed by the article. The grave goods might be interpreted in another way that the buried person’s personal equipment. But I will definitely not rule out the possibility that the authors could be right in the conclusion, and we can only hope for more research – this time hopefully more interdisciplinary. The case underlines the importance of a closer cooperation between archaeology and other disciplines and of interdisciplinary research in Viking Age studies in general. This is in fact the main theme of an international conference which will be held at the University of Tartu on 1-3 December, “Crossing Disciplinary Borders in Viking age Studies”, where, among others, the main author of the controversial article will participate with a paper.

This article was published in Novaator  by the editor Randel Kreitsberg in Estonian.

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