Though they are mentioned in myth, legend, and saga, these shied-maidens were said to have been the inspiration for the Valkyries and fought everywhere from modern-day Canada to Sweden and Bulgaria. 

Skjaldmær: Defying Viking societal gender roles and expectations

Like most early medieval cultures and peoples worldwide, women in Viking societies had very specific and narrow gender roles and expectations. For the vast majority of women, their milieu did not spread farther than the house: they were expected to be wives, mothers, caretakers, and educators for children. Women had little or no political agency or voice and could not take up positions of economic or political influence. Though many did have some power when it came to domestic affairs, the fact remained that women were highly marginalized in this deeply patriarchal society.

Yet littered throughout Old Norse legends, mythology and sagas are depictions and descriptions of female warriors partaking in deadly and violent battles. One of the most enduring, potent, and gender-defying images is of a Viking shield-maiden.

In Nordic folklore, a skjoldmø (shieldmaiden / shield-maiden) was a female warrior who fought, side by side, with male counterparts in raids, battles, and wars.

These shield-maidens were a varied bunch, differing in age, physicality, social and marital status. Many were said to have temporarily joined Viking raids or battles and then returned home to a life of domesticity. Others were said to have taken a lifelong vow to become a warrior. Further reasons for females becoming shield-maidens included somewhat misogynistic reasons, including a lack of male family members or to escape a forced marriage or an abusive husband.

Given that women during the so-called Viking Age (793 – 1066 CE) had little or no control and agency over their own lives, shield-maidens were very much iconoclasts defying societal and gender norms, roles, and expectations.

Origins of female warriors in Ancient Greece, Rome, and amongst Germanic tribes

By the early late 8th century, this image of a female warrior was neither new nor original. Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe experienced an age of turbulence and upheaval. From the early 4th to the early 8th century, large-scale migrations took place across Europe. The migration, settlement, and invasions of Germanic tribes like the Goths, the Cimbri, and the Vandals helped popularise the image of a female warrior. These tribes placed high importance on martial skills, and armies were said to include female warriors.

The most famous female warrior, however, predates this era by a few hundred years. Boudicca was a Queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the conquering Roman forces in 60/61 CE. She led the Iceni and other British tribes in revolt against the might of the British Roman legions. She would go on to destroy, sack, and burn Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester) and the then small settlement of Londinium (modern-day London).

Her revolt was eventually suppressed somewhere in the midlands of the British Isles before she either fell in battle or poisoned herself when defeat was inevitable. What little we know about her comes from the biased sources of two Roman historians, Dio Cassius and Tacitus. These historians also drew inspiration from the Amazons (female warriors skilled in their agility and martial skill), who were littered throughout ancient Greek poems and mythology.

Boudicca was a Queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the conquering Roman forces in 60/61 CE. Photo: Baran Lotfollahi / Unsplash

Descriptions in Old Norse sagas and mythology

These previous descriptions of female warriors may indeed have influenced their depictions in Norse sagas and legends. It must be noted that many people in Viking societies and cultures practiced oral-based traditions. The spoken word was one of the main sources of transmitting knowledge – historical or legendary – between people, generations, or communities. Though some in Viking societies left us written forms of knowledge (for example, in the form of the famous rune stones), much more has been lost as historical facts, stories, and anecdotes were eventually forgotten.  Nonetheless, this image of a shield-maiden has been passed down in several written sources.

Perhaps the most famous shield-maiden is Brynhildr in the Volsunga saga. This epic poem includes the rise and downfall of the Volsung clan and has many elements found in earlier Germanic heroic legends. Brynhildr is the main character in this saga and brings about the demise of Siegfried following his deceiving her into a forced marriage. She then kills herself after his death. This saga was first inscribed sometime in the early 10th century at the pinnacle of Viking political power.

It is also believed that the Valkyries (of which Brynhildr was said to be one) may have also been based on shield-maidens. In Norse mythology, a Valkyrie ("chooser of the slain") is a female figure who guides the souls of fallen Vikings to two locations. Half of the deceased souls are led to Fólkvangr, a meadow ruled over by Freya (the Norse goddess of love, fertility, and war), whilst the other half join Odin in Valhalla, an enormous hall in Asgard, to prepare to help Odin during the ending of the world, Ragnarök.

The best description we have, in Norse sagas, comes from a poem, Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, found in the Poetic Edda collection. As the hero of the poem, Helgi, engages in a battle, the Valkyries come down to protect him:

Helmeted valkyries came down from the sky
 —the noise of spears grew loud—they protected the prince;
 then said Sigrun—the wound-giving valkyries flew,
 the troll-woman's mount was feasting on the fodder of ravens

The power of this image, female warriors joining in a battle to help save the day, is littered throughout Norse and Germanic lore and legend. Yet what is the historical accuracy of such an image?

Historical accounts of shield-maidens

During the early medieval period, the so-called "Viking Age," there are some historical accounts of female warriors that have been recorded and passed down through the ages.

The first such account comes from the Byzantine historian John Skylitzes writing late in the 11th century CE. His description of a Viking siege in Bulgaria in 971 CE led by the Grand Prince of Kiev, Sviatoslav I, includes the fact that many women fought in the battle. Skylitzes further recounts another siege, later that same year, in which the Vangarian forces (as Byzantines labeled the Norse Vikings) suffered a crushing defeat in Dorostolon. The Byzantines' victors were said to be in a state of shock when they discovered how many of the Vangarian corpses were actually female.

Writing a century later, in the 12th century CE, the Danish theologian and historian Saxo Grammaticus also mentioned the appearance of shield-maidens during a battle at the very beginning of the so-called "Viking Age." The Battle of Bråvalla was said to have taken place between Sigurd Hring, King of Sweden, allied with the Geats, and his uncle, Harald Wartooth, King of Denmark. According to Grammaticus, though shield-maidens fought with Wartooth's forces, Sigurd won the battle and, not for the first time in history, united the crowns of Sweden and Denmark.

Shield-maiden Lagertha featured in a lithography by Morris Meredith Williams in 1913. Source: Public Domain / Morris Meredith Williams, 1913

The Birka female Viking warrior - unpacking the archaeological evidence

Outside of written accounts – some of dubious authenticity – there appears to be little archaeological evidence that shield-maidens, or female Viking warriors generally, were as prevalent as they appear in the sagas, myths, and legends. That was until 2014.

In the 1870s, a Swedish archaeologist uncovered a Viking-era burial chamber on the island of Björkö. A body was found collapsed from a sitting position, wearing silk garments with silver decorations. For 128 years, the skeleton was believed to be a fallen male warrior. Yet, in 2014, an analysis of the pelvic and mandibular bones provided scientific evidence that the skeleton was indeed female. Along with the garments, the skeleton was buried with an ax, a sword, and a game set consisting of a strategic game – all tools of the trade for warriors who not only dealt with violence regularly but also needed to fine-tune their strategic thinking skills.

The recent discovery that the skeleton is indeed female has led many historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and scientists to rethink and reassess and rewrite what is known about Viking society, culture, and history. Was the Birka female warrior an outlier or the norm? If the latter, where are the other female Viking warrior graves?

The cultural legacy of shield-maidens lives on with us even today

The most famous shield-maiden, of course, was Lagertha, the onetime wife of the famous scourge of Paris, Ragnar Lothbrok. She was not only the martial equal of Lodbork but even saved him and his injured son in a battle with a decisive counter-attack. Perhaps the story of the female warrior found at Birka could live up to the tall tales and fantasy of Lagertha.

Despite the limited archaeological evidence of shield-maidens, they remain an ever-present theme throughout old Norse literature, sagas, myths, and legends. The ferocity of their martial skill was the stuff of legends, and, as the saying goes, one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. 

At least that's what the creators of the popular television series Vikings thought when they included Lagertha as one of the main characters. 

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