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Viking Women: What Women Really Did in the Viking Age

Viking woman standing by ship in the water

Women in the Viking Age enjoyed more equality and freedom than almost all other women of their time. From warriors to farmers, here's the story of the roles of Viking women.

Some recent articles have highlighted gender equality in the Viking Age. But while women did hold a certain level of power, there were still great differences in the roles of men and women.

Women in the Viking Age

Legends of the valkyries and sagas telling of shield maidens have long been doubted by experts. In 2017 a DNA study of a Viking warrior grave claimed the deceased was actually female. Although the study has since been refuted, many still believe the sagas.

Today, Norwegian women enjoy positions of power in business and politics, but what exactly were things like during the long history of the Vikings? Most people know the legend of the valkyries and have heard of supposed female Viking warriors known as shield maidens.

Read more: Why Did the Viking Age Start?

But what was life like for Viking women? Did they really join the raids? We've gathered together the latest research, plus the assumptions based on sagas and other records to pull together this guide. All set? Then let's dive into the details.

A Viking ship approaching shore
Did women join Viking battle ships? Most scholars say no.

The Birka warrior: male or female?

Known as Sweden’s first town, Birka has such strong historical and cultural importance that the settlement on Björkö island is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Nowhere can the Norsemen's status as great traders be better seen than on Björkö. Merchants came here from across Europe–and possibly beyond–to trade valuables. Arabic silver, eastern European beads, ceramics, rare fabrics and a glass goblet are the among the items discovered here.

Read more: Viking Funerals

However, Birka became even more famous in 2017, when a DNA study into this 1889 grave excavation was published. Thought to be a male warrior since 1889, the human remains were proven to be female. The study concluded that the items buried with the woman prove she was a high-ranking warrior.

One of the items was a strategic board game related to chess. Researchers thought of this as evidence of her strategic thinking, as such games were usually only found in warrior graves. The Washington Post was among the global media to report on the study: “The warrior was, in fact, female. And not just any female, but a Viking warrior woman, a shieldmaiden, like the ancient Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones.”

Sketch of archaeological grave found and labelled "Bj 581" by Hjalmar Stolpe in Birka, Sweden, published 1889
Sketch of archaeological grave found and labelled “Bj 581” by Hjalmar Stolpe in Birka, Sweden, published 1889

However, criticism of the study came quickly. Viking studies professor Judith Jesch was a particularly vocal critic. Among other points, she argued that bones from other graves may have been mixed together, and the association of game pieces with warrior status was premature speculation.

She also claimed that researchers did not consider other reasons why the body of a female may have been placed in a warrior's tomb.

Research reveals “remarkable” equality

Most scholars share Jesch's view that the “Viking ethos” means there would have been no female warriors. However, women did share equal rights in many aspects of society. They could own land, initiate divorce proceedings, serve as clergy and run a business. However, their sphere of influence was domestic.

Modern Scandinavian society is known for its march towards gender equality. From laws on parental leave to a high proportion of women in parliaments, the Nordic countries are seen as a template to follow worldwide.

A fashion shoot of a Viking woman with sword

Yet recent research suggests that such a society may not be so modern after all. Viking society may well have promoted gender equality more than one thousand years ago, in a time when boys were “preferred” across much of Europe.

In the journal Economics & Human Biology, researchers argue that men and women of the Viking era experienced “remarkable” equality. They also suggest that this society may even have helped to contribute to the equality in Scandinavia today.

Read more: The Vikings in Norway

Archaeological discoveries helped University of Tubingen researchers trace health and nutritional equality between men and women during the Viking Age. They did this by analysing the teeth and skeletons of human remains dating back more than a millennium.

This data was then compared with others across the continent, using the Global History of Health Project. The Europe-wide dataset includes references to human skeletons from more than 100 sites from the last 2,000 years.

Scientists found that things like teeth enamel and femur lengths were relatively equal between men and women. In an unequal society, they would expect to have found permanent damage to tooth enamel in ill or malnourished children. The condition is known as linear enamel hypoplasia.

Viking woman with horse on a Scandinavian farm

“We hypothesized that if girls and women received less food and care than the male members of society, they would have more such damage. The extent to which values differ between men and women is therefore also a measure of equality within the population,” said researcher Laura Maravall.

What did Viking women wear?

One might think that Viking clothes were made just for practicality, dull and boring, to match the often gloomy and grey lands in which they lived. In fact, experts believe they were from that. It is believed that many of their clothes were bright and colourful.

Clothing was first and foremost functional. The most important factor was warmth. Likely clothing included a base layer of a linen under-dress that stretched from the shoulder down to ankle length. On top, a wool strap dress of a shorter length was most likely worn. The two layers would have been fastened together at the straps by iron or bronze brooches.

Read more: Viking Clothes: What Did The Vikings Wear?

Viking women at home

The University of Tubingen study also suggests a link between rural equality in Viking times and a specialisation in raising animals. Professor Jörg Baten explained that men dealt with crops because of the need for greater physical strength, adding: “raising animals enabled women to contribute a great deal to the family income. That probably raised their position in society.”

The viking farm at Avaldsnes in western Norway
The viking farm at Avaldsnes in western Norway

Women were also just as responsible for their homesteads, often working for months at a time while a community's men were away. The hub of everyday life was the longhouse, a long, single-roomed accommodation with benches for sleeping and seating set around a central fireplace.

Read more: Viking Homes Were Stranger Than Fiction

Typically, the woman's responsibility would have been to care for the house and its residents. This could include elderly relatives, visiting political or business guests, and in many cases, foster-children. Viking women were practised storytellers. In fact, this oral tradition carried on for centuries until the stories were captured in writing in the Icelandic sagas of the Early Middle Ages.

“Such women in the Nordic countries may have led to popular myths about the Valkyries: They were strong, healthy and tall,” says Jörg Baten. But the picture in Scandinavian cities was different. “The Swedish towns of Lund and Sigtuna – on the site of today’s Stockholm – and in Trondheim in Norway, had developed a class system by the Early Middle Ages. Women there did not have the same equality as their sisters in the countryside.”

Women in Viking literature and Norse mythology

So, while women did have many equal rights to men, their influence was mainly domestic. They were unlikely to join men in battle. That being said, why is Norse literature and mythology full of legendary women doing just that?

The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909)
The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909)

The Icelandic sagas, especially the work of Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241)—an Icelandic writer who turned oral tales into written works—were not made until a few hundred years after the Viking Age. Historians consider them unreliable as they often relate to somewhat mystical events that have no archaeological or other evidence.

Read more: What Does The Word ‘Viking' Really Mean?

However, they do reflect the Norse admiration of strong women who go where they want and get things done.

Valkyries

Of course, it's impossible to talk of Viking women without mentioning the valkyries.

Anyone with a passing interest in Norse mythology is sure to have come across these female figures that choose who makes it to Valhalla upon death.

They are Odin's female helping spirits who are most often depicted as elegant maidens ferrying the slain to Valhalla. Their more sinister side is often overlooked, even though their name means choosers of the slain!

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

15 Comments

    1. Many of the people in the series are real. The problem is that their lives span over centuries. Ragnar is real but may have had the exploits of other Vikings attributed to him. Ragnar and brother Rollo are years apart in reality. Ragnar and his son “Snake in the eye” are direct ancestors in my family tree. My opinion is that the sagas may be more accurate than the series “Vikings”. The series also shows a lot of violence, blood and sex to draw in more people. One of my ancestors is Harald Hardrada Sigurdson. Check out his life on Wikipedia. His story could be a book or series by itself.

  1. I find the statement about the Valkyrie choosing who lives and who dies a little misleading. Only the Nords know how and when a man is to die, not even The All Father can change that! The Valkyrie choose whom among the dead, died bravely and in so doing then escort them to Valhalla. Bodies would be marked with the valknut by fellow warriors to identify the bravest of the slain to the Valkyrie.

  2. Great article. I´ve become more interested in the norse people during the Viking Age, lately. I`m from Norway and over 80% Scandinavian according to a dna-test. Thinking about finding out more about my roots, and my ancestors. 🙂

  3. Norse women did fight along side their male counter parts. When a village was attack the women would take up arms to defend their families and home. Women going on raids I do not know, but the possibilities are their. We must remember their are always some scientist who would prefer to depict all women as the weaker of the Male/Female life of the times.

  4. I have no doubt that Norse women would fight to defend themselves and their children if attacked. Any mother would. Just look around at nature. The depiction of female warriors in the series ‘Vikings’ is more a reflection of current day values of perceived equality than historical accuracy. Also the compression of the true experience of numerous people and generations into a few heroic characters is a fictional device which moves well away from reality. Knowing many of the Sagas, I found this device became more annoying, to the point where I stopped viewing the series.

    1. Nothing was “refuted.” Doubt was cause on the research study. But it was certainly not “refuted.” There are ancient historians from Greece and other places that reported women Viking (or Scandinavians) fighting with the men. So it did happen. This article could have done with an editor.

  5. Love how “historians” refuse to believe in these tales because they were written down years later. Where as they tend to believe in the Bible which the first mention of Jesus was almost a hundred years later and there is NO historical proof of Jesus in any Roman paperwork.

  6. Wow you gotta bring Yeshua up when we are having such great Nordic knowledge being handed out! Let’s face it the true Teutonic men and women of this world would still be worshiping Odin and his sons had not been for missionaries and Catholic priests. To believe in the Son of Man takes the faith of little child not the scribblings of Roman scribe! After 2000 years he is still the Light of World and love is still the answer. May he shine on us all!

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