There's been great debate about the role of shieldmaidens in Viking culture – namely, whether they existed in the first place.
The word “Viking” usually conjures up images of burly, bearded, blond men wielding double-handed axes. In a culture so closely associated with violence and bloodshed (the Viking version of heaven is an endless battle where the slaughtered are pieced back together to feast before doing it all again the next day), it is no surprise that even the women – or shieldmaidens – have come down through history as fierce warriors.
These vicious shieldmaidens “offered war rather than kisses” and “assailed men with their spears whom they could have melted with their looks.” Other Viking sagas describe women warriors such as Hervor, who led her own fleet and did battle with the dead in pursuit of a magic sword (and, incidentally, served as the inspiration for Tolkein’s famous shieldmaiden Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings).
The legends of these Viking shieldmaidens passed down through the centuries and became so cemented in popular imagination, that most people do not realize the existence of these female warriors has actually been heavily debated among historians. Part of the problem is a lack of contemporary written evidence: although the Vikings did have their own runic writing system, most of the written information we have about their society comes from English, French, and Arab sources.
Saxo’s History was intended to glorify Denmark rather than act as a factual historic account, and there are exceedingly few other reliable written accounts that describe these legendary women warriors.
Recently, however, one of the best known Viking burials has offered some surprising proof showing that these ferocious females did actually fight in the armies of the Northmen.
The grave was first discovered in the late 1800s by Hjalmar Stolpe. Dating from the 10th century and located in the town of Birka (an important Viking trading center), the tomb quickly gained renown as one of the most elaborate Vikings tombs ever unearthed.
The dead hero had been buried with items indicating he had achieved elite status during life. These items included shields, an axe, armor-piercing arrows, and two horses. This particular grave also included a full game-board complete with pieces, suggesting the deceased was no mere soldier, but a leader familiar with military tactics and strategies.
In the excitement surrounding the discovery of this unique trove of artifacts, the grave’s occupant was somewhat overlooked. Due to the aforementioned lack of historic evidence, it was simply assumed that the warrior buried with such honors was a man. However, over a century after its discovery, a strange twist of fate would bring this famous Viking grave back into the limelight.
Osteologist Anna Kjellström happened to be studying the remains from this particular burial as part of a separate project. During her research, she noticed that the skeleton’s cheek and hipbones looked more feminine than masculine.
Following up on her hunch, a DNA sample was extracted from the body and sent to the University of Stockholm for analysis. The results confirmed what centuries of legend have always claimed: this high-ranking Viking warrior was, in fact, a woman.
So does that mean that Saxo’s shieldmaidens who “thought of death and not of dalliance” were raiding and pillaging right alongside their men? The study warns against making sweeping generalizations about female fighters in Viking society, although it affirms that the individual buried in the Birka grave certainly enjoyed an exalted warrior status, regardless of her gender.
Next, read about the 1,200-year-old Viking sword found on a Norwegian mountain. Then learn about the Onna-Bugeisha – Japan’s badass female samurai.