With shows such as History Channel’s Vikings and BBC’s The Last Kingdom, there has been a resurgence in interest in the Viking Age. In fact, the theme of women in Viking culture was explored in great detail recently at the Jorvik Viking Festival. Then, with the recent discovery of what appears to be a female warrior at Birka in Sweden, women are excited to learn that Viking Age women played an active role in the Norse culture. But, what did Viking women really do during the Viking Age?
The term “Viking” derives from the Old Norse “vikingr,” which translates to mean someone who is sea-faring or as someone who came from the fjords. However, over time, this word has evolved to describe the Scandinavian raiders present during the Viking Age in history, which dates to between A.D. 793 and 1066.
According to a new article by History Extra, Viking women had diverse roles within the Norse culture during the Viking Age. As author and historian Judith Jensch points out in the article, Viking women had many roles which included matriarchs, artisans, traders, and travelers. However, Jensch also believes that it is unlikely that there were actually many vikingr women within this period of time.
During the Medieval time period in which the Viking Age occurred, many women were considered oppressed by today’s standards. However, the Viking woman, while not likely to be as involved with raids as the men were, did enjoy a “high degree of social freedom.” In fact, Viking women could own property as well as ask for a divorce if they felt they were treated poorly, something which is described in the Viking sagas. In addition, Viking women could also share responsibility for property and the day to day runnings of their businesses alongside their menfolk. There were also Viking laws that protected women from inappropriate advancements from men.
There is also some evidence to suggest that women dealt with the everyday finances in the Viking household. Evidence of scales has been found in female gravesites of the era that suggest women helped maintain surplus stocks and dealt with the financial side of the Viking culture.
Viking women also played a role in the passing on of oral traditions and the history of their culture. By sharing common stories and poems of their culture, they helped to preserve their traditions in a culture that didn’t know how to read or write. As a result of this, when the sagas were written down many years after the events, we can likely thank women for maintaining the oral tradition that led to the written recording of their sagas.
Viking women also had many artistic roles. Although, back then, during the Viking Age, they were tasks that helped with their day-to-day living. Viking women were tasked with creating cloth, as well as well as decorative tapestries which would adorn their houses. In addition, they were also usually involved with the preparation of food, including the creation of raw ingredients such as flour and wool.
While in History Channel’s Vikings, the religious head of the Viking group appears to be the male Seer, in the Viking Age, women were usually the ones who were the religious heads. Not only were they in control of maintaining the religious beliefs but they were often involved in sacrifices as well. In fact, the Norse celebration of Disablot was believed to be conducted entirely by women.
And, what about shieldmaidens? Did they really exist?
As previously reported by The Inquisitr, a gravesite in Birka, Sweden, is now believed to belong to a female warrior from the Viking Age. However, even though new research has shown that some gravesites previously thought to belong to Viking men on account of the grave goods discovered in them, actually belonged to women, there is little evidence to suggest many women were also warriors. While women were likely involved in conflicts due to raids occurring on their villages, there is not a lot of physical evidence currently to suggest women were actively involved in training for battle — especially not in large numbers. Although, many of the written sagas do speak of shieldmaidens regularly which could suggest that it was considered a common occurrence at the time. In addition, stories of the Valkyries, who were mythical women who selected warriors to help fight in Ragnarok, also suggests female involvement in matters of war.
While many argue against the existence of shieldmaidens in the Viking Age, many women did travel with Viking men when they explored — and raided — other territories and countries. There is archaeological evidence in various locations that strongly suggest women were present with Viking men in those locations. However, it seems more likely that they came later after an area was conquered in order to settle there, rather than to help take it by force.