If you want to use this site please update your browser!
05.01.2020

Shield-maiden

A shield-maiden (Old Norse: skjaldmær) was a female warrior in the Viking Age, often known from Scandinavian folklore and mythology. It has long been debated whether shield-maidens were fictional or historical personages.

Historical existence

The historical existence of shield-maidens is heavily debated. Scholars like Neil Price argue that they existed against scholars like Judith Jesch who cite a lack of evidence for trained or regular women warriors.

Evidence

Evidence most strongly supporting the existence of female Viking warriors comes from a grave discovered in Solør, Norway. Containing a hoard of weapons (including arrows, a spear, an axe and a shield), its skeleton was initially believed to be of a male warrior. Once scientists tested the bones’ DNA, however, this was revised: it is likely the 1000-year-old remains of a female. Then in 2019, a dent discovered in her forehead was deemed consistent with a serious sword wound, while her shield showed signs of sword damage. According to Ms Al-Shamahi, this is the "first evidence ever" of a Viking woman with a battle injury.

Other evidence from similar graves, old texts written by non-Scandinavian observers describing war-like women, and the Norse mythologic belief that dying in battle could lead one to Valhalla, where Odin feasts with all his chosen, fallen warriors.

Shield-maidens are often mentioned in sagas such as Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks and in Gesta Danorum. They also appear in stories of other Germanic peoples: Goths, Cimbri, and Marcomanni. The mythical Valkyries may have been based on such shield-maidens.

Archaeology

Graves of female settlers containing weapons have been uncovered, but scholars do not agree how these should be interpreted. 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. In a tie-in special to the TV series Vikings, Neil Price showed that a 10th Century 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. In 2017, DNA analysis confirmed that the person was female, the so-called Birka female Viking warrior, but others, including scholar of the Vikings Judith Jesch, say that conclusion is premature.

Historical accounts

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

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. The fight is recounted in the Greenland saga, which does not explicitly refer to Freydís as a shield-maiden.

Saxo Grammaticus reported that shield-maidens fought on the side of the Danes at the Battle 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.

 

UP