Viking history: Shieldmaidens. Did they really exist?


Viking Warrior Womans! Did they Exist? 




Viking Warrior Women: Did ‘Shieldmaidens’ Like Lagertha Really Exist?


Viking Warrior Women: Did ‘Shieldmaidens’ Like Lagertha Really Exist?





As archaeologists, we’ve spent over thirty years studying warrior women from a variety of cultures around the world, and, we have to tell you, shieldmaidens pose a problem.


Stories of Viking warrior women are found in a number of historical documents, but several come from factually unreliable heroic sagas, fornaldarsogur. A good example is Hervor’s and Heidrek’s Saga. After the hero, Angantyr, falls in battle his daughter Hervor takes her father’s sword and uses it to avenge his death by killing his enemies. There are similar stories of Brynhilde and Freydis, in Sigurd’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders. But in each case the story is more about myth-making than fact. As well, these are tales of individual women who are highly skilled with swords and fight in battles, but give no evidence for a ‘community’ of women warriors, which the shieldmaidens are supposed to have been.

There are, however, more reliable historical resources. In the 1070s, for example, Adam of Bremen (chronicling the Hamburg-Bremen archdiocese) wrote that a northern region of Sweden near lake Malaren was inhabited by war-like women. But he doesn’t say how many women, nor does he clarify what “war-like” means. Were these women just zealously patriotic, bad-tempered, aggressive, or maybe even too independent for his Medieval Christian tastes? It’s hard to say.

Then we have the splendid references to ‘communities’ of shieldmaidens found in the works of 12th century Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, whose writing is sure to make every modern woman livid. Keep in mind, Saxo was likely the secretary of the Archbishop of Lund, and had specific Christian notions about appropriate female behavior. He wrote:

“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).

Okay. Saxo says there were ‘communities’ of shieldmaidens. Apparently, he means more than one community. How many? Ten? Fifty? Five thousand? In his The Danish History, Books I-IX, he names Alfhild, Sela, and Rusila as shieldmaidens, and also names three she-captains, Wigibiorg, who fell on the field at Bravalla, Hetha, who became queen of Zealand, and Wisna, whose hand was cut off by Starcad at Bravalla. He also writes about Lathgertha and Stikla. So…eight women? They might make up one community, but ‘communities?’

Historical problems like these have caused many scholars conclude that shieldmaidens were little more than a literary motif, perhaps devised to counter the influences of invading Christians and their notions of proper submissive female behavior. There are good arguments for this position (Lewis-Simpson, 2000, pp. 295-304). However, historically most cultures had women warriors, and where there were more than a few women warriors, they formed communities. If the shieldmaidens existed, we should find the evidence in the archaeological record.




For example, do we see them represented in Viking material culture, like artwork? Oh, yes. There are a number of iconographic representations of what may be female warriors. Women carrying spears, swords, shields, and wearing helmets, are found on textiles and brooches, and depicted as metallic figurines, to name a few. One of the most intriguing recent finds is a silver figurine discovered in Harby, Denmark, in 2012. The figurine appears to be a woman holding an upright sword in her right hand and a shield in her left.  Now, here’s the problem: These female warrior images may actually be depictions of valkyries, ‘choosers of the slain.’ Norse literature says that the war god, Odin, sent armed valkyries into battle to select the warriors worthy of entering the Hall of the Slain, Valhalla. Therefore, these images might represent real warrior women, but they could also be mythic warrior women.

And where are the burials of Viking warrior women? Are there any?

This is tricky. What would the burial of a shieldmaiden look like? How would archaeologists know if they found one?  Well, archaeologists recognize the burials of warriors in two primary ways:

1) Bioarchaeology. If you spend your days swinging a sword with your right hand, the bones in that arm are larger, and you probably have arthritis in your shoulder, elbow and wrist. In other words, you have bone pathologies from repetitive stress injuries. At this point in time, we are aware of no Viking female burials that unequivocally document warrior pathologies.  But here’s the problem: If a Viking woman spent every morning using an axe to chop wood for her breakfast fire or swinging a scythe to cut her hay field—and we know Viking women did both—the bone pathologies would be very similar to swinging a sword or practicing with her war axe. Are archaeologists simply misidentifying warrior women pathologies? Are we attributing them to household activities because, well, they’re women. Surely they weren’t swinging a war axe. See? The psychological legacy of living in a male dominated culture can have subtle effects, though archaeologists work very hard not to fall prey to such prejudices.

2) Artifacts. Sometimes warriors wear uniforms, or are buried with the severed heads of their enemies, but they almost always have weapons: swords, shields, bows, arrows, stilettos, spears, helmets, or mail-coats. A good example is the Kaupang burial.

There are many Viking “female weapons burials,” as archaeologists call them. Let us give you just a few examples. At the Gerdrup site in Denmark the woman was buried with a spear at her feet. This is a really interesting site for another reason: The woman’s grave contains three large boulders, two that rest directly on top of her body, which was an ancient method of keeping souls in graves—but that’s a discussion for another article. In Sweden, three graves of women (at Nennesmo and Klinta) contained arrowheads. The most common weapon included in female weapons burials are axes, like those in the burials at the BB site from Bogovej in Langeland (Denmark), and the cemetery at Marem (Norway). The Kaupang female weapons burials also contained axeheads, as well as spears, and in two instances the burial contained a shield boss.

There are many other examples of female weapons burials. For those interested in the details please take a look at the Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia, Vol. 8, pages 273-340.


So did the shieldmaidens exist?  When taken as a whole, the literary, historical, and archaeological evidence suggests that there were individual Viking women who cultivated warriors’ skills and, if the sagas can be believed, some achieved great renown in battle. Were there communities of Viking women warriors, as Saxo claims?  There may have been, but there just isn’t enough proof to definitively say so…yet.

However, Lagertha, you personally are still on solid ground. You go, girl.


From Wikipedia:




From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Hervor dying after the Battle of the Goths and Huns. A painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo

A shieldmaiden (Old Norse: skjaldmær, Danish: skjoldmø, Norwegian: skjoldmøy,Swedish:sköldmö, German:Schildmaid) in Scandinavian folklore and mythology was a woman who had chosen to fight as a warrior. They are often mentioned in sagas such asHervarar saga ok Heiðreks and in Gesta Danorum. Shieldmaidens also appear in stories of other Germanic peoples: Goths, Cimbri, and Marcomanni.[1] The mythical valkyries may have been based on the shieldmaidens.[1] The historical existence of shieldmaidens is heavily debated, but scholars including Lars Magnar Enoksen,[2]Neil Price,[3] and scholar Britt-Mari Näsström[4]argue evidence for their existence, while scholar Judith Jesch disagrees, citing lack of hard evidence.[5]



Historical accounts[edit]

There are few historic attestations that Viking Age women took part in warfare,[6] but theByzantine historian John Skylitzes records that women fought in battle when Sviatoslav I of Kiev attacked the Byzantines in Bulgaria in 971.[6] When the Varangians (not to be confused with the Byzantine Varangian Guard) had suffered a devastating defeat in theSiege of Dorostolon, the victors were stunned at discovering armed women among the fallen warriors.[6]

When Leif Erikson's pregnant half-sister Freydís Eiríksdóttir was in Vinland, she is reported to have taken up a sword, and, bare-breasted, scared away the attacking Skrælings.[6]The fight is recounted in the Greenland saga, though Freydís is not explicitly referred to as a shieldmaiden in the text.[7]

Saxo Grammaticus reported that shieldmaidens fought on the side of the Danes at theBattle of Brávellir in the year 750:

Now out of the town of Sle, under the captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hakon Cut-cheek came Tummi the Sailmaker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Webiorg was also inspired with the same spirit, and was attended by Bo (Bui) Bramason and Brat the Jute, thirsting for war.

Legendary accounts[edit]

Examples of shieldmaidens mentioned by name in the Norse sagas include Brynhildr in theVǫlsunga saga, Hervor in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, the Brynhildr of the Bósa saga ok Herrauðs, the Swedish princess Thornbjǫrg in Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar and Princess Hed, Visna and Veborg in Gesta Danorum.

Two shieldmaidens appear in certain translations of the Hervarar saga. The first of these Hervors was known to have taken up typically masculine roles early in her childhood and often raided travelers in the woods dressed as a man. Later in her life, she claimed the cursed sword Tyrfing from her father's burial site and became a seafaring raider. She eventually settled and married. Her granddaughter was also named Hervor and commanded forces against attacking Huns. Although the saga remarks on her bravery she is mortally wounded by enemy forces and dies on the battlefield.[9] Scholars Judith Jesch and Jenny Jochens theorize that shieldmaidens' often grim fates or their sudden return to typically female roles is a testament to their role as figures of both male and female fantasy as well as emblematic of the danger of abandoning gender roles.[9]

Brynhildr Buðladóttir and Guðrún Gjúkadóttir[edit]

Main article: Brynhildr

Brynhildr of the Vǫlsunga saga, along with her rival in love, Guðrún Gjúkadóttir, provides an example of how a shieldmaiden compares to more conventional aristocratic womanhood in the sagas. Brynhildr is chiefly concerned with honor, much like a male warrior. When she ends up married to Gudrun's brother Gunnarr instead of Sigurðr, the man she intended to marry, Brynhildr speaks a verse comparing the courage of the two men:

Sigurd fought the dragon
And that afterward will be
Forgotten by no one
While men still live.
Yet your brother
Neither dared
To ride into the fire
Nor to leap across it.[10]

Brynhildr is married to Gunnarr and not Sigurðr because of deceit and trickery, including a potion of forgetfulness given to Sigurðr so he forgets his previous relationship with her.[10]Brynhildr is upset not only for the loss of Sigurðr but also for the dishonesty involved. Similar to her male counterparts, the shieldmaiden prefers to do things straightforwardly, without the deception considered stereotypically feminine in much of medieval literature. She enacts her vengeance directly, resulting in the deaths of herself, Sigurðr, and Sigurð's son by Guðrún. By killing the child, she demonstrates an understanding of feud and filial responsibility; if he lived, the boy would grow up to take vengeance on Brynhildr's family.

Guðrún has a similar concern with family ties, but at first does not usually act directly. She is more inclined to incite her male relatives to action than take up arms herself. Guðrún is no shieldmaiden, and Brynhildr mocks her for this, saying, "Only ask what is best for you to know. That is suitable for noble women. And it is easy to be satisfied while everything happens according to your desires."[10] In her later marriages, however, she is willing to kill her children, burn down a hall, and send her other sons to avenge the murder of her daughter, Svanhildr. In the world of the sagas, women can be both honorable and remorseless, much like the male heroes. While a shieldmaiden does not fill a woman's typical role, her strength of character is found in even the more domestic women in these stories.


Graves of women settlers containing weapons have been uncovered, but scholars do not agree how these should be interpreted.[11] Norse immigrant graves in England and chemical analysis of the remains suggested a somewhat equal distribution of men and women, suggesting husbands and wives, while some of the women were buried with weapons.[12][13]In a tie-in special to the TV series Vikings Neil Price showed that a Birka-burial excavated in the 1970s containing a large number of weapons and the bones of two horses turned out to be the grave of a woman upon bone analysis by Anna Kjellström.[3]

In popular culture[edit]

While women warriors are a staple of fantasy, they are not often referred to as shieldmaidens. Some who are include Éowyn in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Thorgil in Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls trilogy.

In the 2013 TV series Vikings, the legendary Viking shieldmaiden Lagertha, played byKatheryn Winnick, is a principal character.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jump up to:a b The article Sköldmö in Nordisk familjebok (1917).
  2. Jump up^ Enoksen, Lars Magnar, 2004, Vikingarnas stridskonst s 20, s286, s 295f och s 314 ISBN 91-85057-32-0
  3. ^ Jump up to:a b
  4. Jump up^
  5. Jump up^
  6. ^ Jump up to:a b c d Harrison, D. & Svensson, K. (2007). Vikingaliv. Fälth & Hässler, Värnamo. ISBN 978-91-27-35725-9. p. 71
  7. Jump up^ Thorsson, Ö. (Ed.) The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin Books, 1997.
  8. Jump up^ Elton, Oliver. "THE DANISH HISTORY, BOOKS I-IX by Saxo Grammaticus".Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  9. ^ Jump up to:a b Tolkien, Christopher. "The Saga of King Heidrik the Wise" (PDF). Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd. Retrieved April 22, 2013.
  10. ^ Jump up to:a b c Byock, Jesse L. (Trans.) Saga of the Volsungs.University of California Press, 1990.
  11. Jump up^’t-underestimate-viking-women
  12. Jump up^ McLeod, Shane. "Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD". Early Medieval Europe. Wiley. 19 (3): 332–353.doi:10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00323.x.
  13. Jump up^ Vergano, Dan (July 19, 2011). "Invasion of the Viking women unearthed". USA Today.

Beware the shieldmaidens!