However, what was this "Mother of Kings" truly like? A devious sorceress full of Machiavellian guile or a woman whose character was shamelessly stereotyped by sexist tropes? 

The rich tapestry of Norse literature 

Modern historians, and writers at The Viking Herald, owe a huge debt to the rich tapestry of Norse literature. 

The so-called "Icelandic Sagas" – compiled in the later medieval period, in 12th and 13th-century Iceland, long after the last Viking ship ever sailed – help unlock the sights, sounds, and smells of Viking societies. 

However, they should not be treated as precise historical records, though they contain a fair amount of reliable information. 

Recent historians have cast doubt on some figures that were assumed, until recently, to be actual historical individuals. 

One of these figures is a fierce matriarch named Gunnhildr Gormsdóttir, nicknamed the "Mother of Kings." 

Born the daughter of the first Danish King, Gorm the Old, in the early 10th century, her life and exploits make her one of the most striking female characters that leap out of the sagas and grab your attention. 

Not only was her life shrouded in royalty – she was the daughter of one king, married a King of Norway and Jorvik, and is said to have mothered several future Norwegian kings – but she is often depicted with all the typical sexist tropes of the era. 

Cunning and sexual, she is also said to have had magical abilities as impressive as her childbearing and childrearing skills. 

So, can we uncover any actual historical truth from her depictions in the Norse sagas

While the sagas suggest Gunnhildr was the daughter of a local warrior, the Historia Norwegiae states she was born to King Gorm the Old and Queen Thyra, honored on the Jelling runestones. Photo: Kenneth Bagge Jorgensen / Shutterstock

Like mother, like daughter? 

Whilst the sagas depict Gunnhild as the daughter of a local Viking warrior who commanded a small force somewhere around the basin of the White Sea in what is now northwest Russia, a historical chronicle paints a different picture. 

According to the Historia Norwegiae, written in the 12th century by an author whose name is lost to history, Gunnhildr was actually the daughter of King Gorm the Old and Queen Thyra. 

There has been a recent reevaluation of Queen Thyra, who is mentioned along with her husband and son on the famous Jelling runestones

She may have been more than a mere meek queen regent; she may have co-ruled as an equal with her more famous husband. 

If this were the case, then Thyra must have passed down some of her determination and force of personality to her daughter, as wielding and using power as a woman in the early medieval period was the exception, not the norm. 

Some sagas state that Gunnhildr left the Danish court for Finland, where she learned seiðr magic from Finnish wizards and used her powers to manipulate a Viking warrior. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A wicked witch or just Christian slander? 

Following her father's death, she was said to have remained in royal circles, and there was a possibility of her marrying the new Danish king, Harald Bluetooth

Some sagas, however, say that she left the Danish court and traveled to what is now Finland. 

She lived there with two Finnish wizards to learn the ways of seiðr, the Norse magic that was an integral part of Old Norse religion and Viking society, even though from the perspective of the 21st century, it may seem like mere superstition. 

Allegedly, in return for being taught magic, she performed sexual favors for the wizards, and when a Viking warrior was campaigning in the area, she ensnared him and used her magical powers to make him fall in love with her and whisk her away. 

According to Kendra Wilson, in her 2022 edition of Adam of Bremen's masterpiece, other sagas – including the Heimskringla – often depict Gunnhildr using her magical properties to cause death or influence political events. 

Being tarred as a Machiavellian sorceress and one dripping with animal sexualism was a common sexist trope found throughout medieval literature. 

Gunnhildr is not the first woman in early medieval society or literature to have been besmirched as an overtly sexual female or one with magical abilities. 

Countless women lost their lives and reputations throughout the pre-modern period by being labeled as either a "witch" or overly promiscuous. 

In Viking societies, being a sorceress was not shameful; in fact, it was often respected. 

However, by the time the sagas were compiled in the later medieval period, Christianity was the dominant religion, and any sort of pagan magic was seen as heinous and blasphemous against the will of God. 

Centuries later, being labeled as a "witch" or promiscuous was a common slander used to marginalize or silence powerful women throughout medieval societies all over Europe. 

After marrying the violent Eric Bloodaxe, Gunnhildr fled to England and then the Orkney Islands following his defeat, spending her old age in Harald Bluetooth's court, where she may have drowned in a bog in 977. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Later life 

Gunnhildr was said to have led a peripatetic life, always close to the center of power. 

She was said to have married Eric Bloodaxe, who was not only the King of Norway but also had a violent streak (you don't get a nickname like "Bloodaxe" for being all smiles and hugs!). 

This violent streak saw him overthrown and fleeing across the North Sea to England. 

There, he seized power as the ruler of the Viking Kingdom of Northumbria, centered in Jorvik (modern-day York). 

Following Eric's defeat at the Battle of Stainmore in 954, Gunnhildr was said to have fled to the Orkney Islands, then an integral part of the Viking world. 

She was not alone, as she was accompanied by her many children, including a future King of Norway, Harald Greycloak. She ensured her safety by marrying off a daughter, Ragnhild, to the local ruler's son. 

The sagas relate to how she next set sail back to Denmark and entered the court of Harald Bluetooth, not before a run-in with another famous semi-historical figure, Egil Skallagrímsson

Aside from being cursed by Egil, Gunnhildr ended up in Harald Bluetooth's court as an old lady, where she may indeed have met her death by drowning in a bog in 977. 

The "Mother of all Kings," who magnificently stayed at the center of power for decades in an era when the longevity of rulers was often measured by the length of a sword, was ultimately murdered. 

However, her legacy lives on vividly through the sagas. 

An archeological coda? 

We may never know if there was an actual Gunnhildr Gormsdóttir as described in any number of the sagas or if her depictions are pastiches of several real-life women. 

However, almost a millennium after her supposed death, the remains of a woman were uncovered in a bog in Denmark. 

In Carolyne Larrington's article in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, she describes how this woman had been ritualistically killed, and until the advent of modern DNA technology, many assumed that this may very well be Gunnhildr herself. 

Yet modern science has shown that this woman died in the 6th century BCE, centuries before the Viking Age.

Regardless of this scientific anticlimax, Gunnhildr Gormsdóttir is still one of the most complex and intriguing characters in the rich tapestry of Norse literature and history.

For more information on Norse sagas, visit the BBC here

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