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Did Viking shield maidens really exist?

In Sky History’s myth-busting podcast, Not What You Thought You Knew., Dr Fern Riddell shines a light on the shadowy corners of the past. In episode one she kicked thing off by looking at the legend of the Viking warrior woman Inghen Ruaidh. Were such fearsome, sword-wielding 'shield-maidens' a historical reality? Or just a romantic creation of the modern imagination, rooted in contemporary society’s more enlightened view of gender roles.

Well, even if shield-maidens never actually existed, their legend certainly pre-dates characters like Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings or Lagertha in the drama series Vikings. These formidable female fighters turn up in a number of old Scandinavian sagas, including the 13th Century 'Hervarar saga ok Heidreks'. This features a shield maiden called Hervor, who defies the expectations of her gender from an early age. Preferring archery and sword-fighting to sewing and home-making, she grows up to sail the high seas, fight and pillage like her burly brethren.

In his Gesta Danorum, a sprawling chronicle of Danish history, the 12th Century writer Saxo Grammaticus tells of Rusla, 'whose prowess in warfare exceeded the spirit of a woman;. According to this chronicle, she led an uprising in Denmark, was forced into exile and became a brutal, marauding pirate known as Inghen Ruaidh, or the 'Red Girl', in Irish lore. Elsewhere in the Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus goes further and explicitly states that 'there were once women among the Danes who dressed themselves to look like men', rejected 'dainty living' and 'offered war rather than kisses'.

Case closed? Not quite. We should remember that Saxo Grammaticus was weaving a rich tapestry of triumphant propaganda, and many academics believe there’s no conclusive proof that these great women warriors were any more real than the characters we see in fantasy films and TV shows today. Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham who joins Fern as a guest in episode 1, is one prominent scholar who is sceptical about such folkloric accounts.

Jesch also dismisses trinkets like a Danish figurine depicting a woman brandishing a sword, which was uncovered in 2012. While conceding that the figurine bears all the hallmarks of Viking art, Jesch argues that 'if it is intended as an image of a woman warrior, then it is not a realistic one', since the garments are too ornate and impractical, and the figure lacks any kind of head protection. Jesch sees it as a symbolic incarnation of idealised womanhood, similar to the Valkyries – the handmaidens of the god Odin who would choose which Norse fighters would live and die in battle.

'Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors,' Jesch writes. 'War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.'

But those who believe there is some truth to the legends will point to the Birka grave, one of the most intriguing and controversial finds in the history of Norse studies. First excavated in the late 19th Century in the Viking Age settlement of Birka (present-day Sweden), it was long thought to contain the remains of a male warrior. But then, in 2017, DNA analysis proved it was actually a woman. The researchers made the seismic claim that this was “the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior”.

Why high ranking? Well, there’s the fact that the body had been buried with an array of weapons and two horses, not to mention pieces from a board game. In the words of one of the study’s authors, Anna Kjellström, 'Only a few warriors are buried with gaming pieces, and they signal strategic thinking.'

The study caused a media ruckus. An article in the Washington Post excitedly likened the Birka warrior to Brienne of Tarth from Game of Throne, while a piece in the Guardian pondered the implications of the discovery for our understanding of women in the Viking era – was she an outlier, or 'did she represent a category of women that has been largely relegated to mythology?'

Birka sceptics have cautioned against getting carried away, arguing that – since the site was excavated well over a century ago – there may have been genetic contamination of the remains. And if the DNA analysis is accurate, there’s always the possibility that the weapons buried with the mystery woman had no bearing on her role in Viking society, and may have had some more mundane symbolic significance we’re not fully aware of.

Of course, the natural rebuttal to this argument is that we don’t question the relevance of weapons buried alongside male bodies, so there seems to be a double-standard at work with the Birka burial. As Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, one of the authors of the 2017 study, puts it: 'Since [the site] was excavated in the 1870s, it has constantly been interpreted as a warrior grave because it looks like a warrior grave and it’s placed by the garrison and by the hillfort. Nobody’s ever contested it until the skeleton proved to be female, and then it was not a valid interpretation anymore.'

The prevailing consensus is that, in the words of Judith Jesch, 'Viking women lived in a man’s world', and that while they did enjoy a high status in society, theirs was largely a domestic domain. But the Birka burial does offer a compelling counterpoint to this view of the Vikings, hinting at a more complex picture we’re only just beginning to glimpse.

For more on the mystery of the shield maidens, and their place in history and myth, listen to our podcast, Not What You Thought You Knew.

For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.