As the misty veil of history parts, it’s clear that Viking societies were more complex than warrior-men sailing and raiding. Amidst these societies existed the Viking shieldmaiden, a figure that continues to intrigue scholars and enthusiasts alike. While various sources depict women as fierce warriors on par with men, there is also an ongoing debate about the existence and prevalence of these Viking shield maidens. This exploration delves deep into the Viking Shieldmaiden history and the enigmatic female Viking berserker.
Who Were the Viking Shield Maidens?
The term Viking Shield Maiden refers to women who chose to fight as warriors in Scandinavian societies during the Viking Age (approximately 793-1066 AD). These women supposedly stood shoulder to shoulder with men in the heat of battle; their names whispered with reverence and awe. They were not only warriors but also leaders, strategists, and respected members of their communities. Their stories are steeped in bravery, power, and the drive to shape their destiny, much like their male counterparts.
What Did Viking Shield Maidens Wear?
The concept of Viking Shield Maidens inspires visions of women warriors clad in battle-hardened armor. However, actual historical accounts and archaeological findings present a nuanced picture.
Traditionally, it’s believed that if Shield Maidens did exist, they would likely have worn similar clothing to their male counterparts in battle. Armor, although not as common as often depicted in popular culture, would have consisted of a chain mail hauberk, a type of long shirt made from interlocking metal rings worn over a padded garment to absorb impact. A helmet—usually conical and made from iron or leather—would provide protection for the head.
The iconic horned helmets often associated with Vikings are a product of 19th-century romanticism and are not historically accurate. No archaeological evidence suggests that Vikings, male or female, wore horned helmets in battle.
In battle, the Shield Maidens would have also carried weapons, likely similar to what the Viking men used. This could include a sword, an axe, a spear, and a shield, from where the Shield Maidens get their name.
On everyday occasions, Shield Maidens would presumably wear what was typical for Viking women. This would include a long linen under-dress, with a woolen overdress or apron worn over it. The overdress was often held up by a pair of brooches connected by chains or strings of beads. On their feet, they would wear leather shoes or boots, and in colder weather, cloaks or shawls provided necessary warmth.
While it’s tempting to envision Shield Maidens in battle-ready garb at all times, it’s crucial to remember that they were part of their society’s fabric, living multi-faceted lives that demanded varied roles and attire.
What Is a Shield Maiden Symbol?
In the iconography of Norse mythology and Viking symbolism, the image of a Shield Maiden does not have a specific or universally recognized symbol. However, certain elements are often associated with these legendary warrior women, drawing from archaeological findings, historical texts, and Norse mythology.
One common representation is the image of a woman holding a shield and a weapon such as a sword, axe, or spear. This symbol directly reflects the role of the Shield Maiden as a warrior. The shield signifies defense, protection, and bravery, while the weapon symbolizes strength, courage, and willingness to engage in battle.
The Valknut, a symbol of three interlocking triangles associated with the god Odin, could also be linked to Shield Maidens due to their shared association with the battlefield. In Norse belief, Odin would claim half of the warriors who died in battle, much like the goddess Freya with whom Shield Maidens are often compared.
Additionally, some may connect the image of the Shield Maiden with the rune Tiwaz, associated with the god Tyr, a deity of law and heroic glory in Norse mythology. This rune is linked to concepts of courage, self-sacrifice, victory, and justice, qualities embodied by the Shield Maidens.
Yet, these are interpretations and not established historical symbols for Shield Maidens. The notion of Shield Maidens is both historical and mythological, making their symbolism subject to individual interpretation and personal belief. The representations reflect their role as warriors, their bravery, and their importance within the tapestry of Norse culture and society.
Shield Maiden Rune
The runic alphabet, or Futhark, used by Germanic and Norse societies, doesn’t contain a specific rune for a Shield Maiden. Runes typically represent forces or concepts, and while they could embody the qualities of a Shield Maiden, none directly symbolizes this figure.
Still, certain runes can be associated with the characteristics traditionally attributed to Shield Maidens. One such rune is Tiwaz. This rune is named after the god Tyr, a deity of law, justice, and war in Norse mythology. Tyr was renowned for his bravery, notably sacrificing his hand to bind the monstrous wolf Fenrir. The Tiwaz rune, resembling an upward-pointing arrow, embodies the principles of courage, self-sacrifice, victory, and justice — qualities that resonate with the Shield Maiden ethos.
Another rune that may be linked with Shield Maidens is Berkano, a rune that signifies the birch goddess and is connected with feminine energies, rebirth, and growth. This could mirror the dual aspects of Shield Maidens as both warriors and women.
Uruz, the rune symbolizing strength, courage, and action, could also be associated with Shield Maidens due to their reputation for bravery and martial skill.
These interpretations, while plausible, are not definitive, as the runic system doesn’t provide a direct correlation to Shield Maidens. Yet, they provide a way to link the qualities of these legendary figures to the ancient symbolic language of the Norse and Germanic cultures. Essentially, a Shield Maiden rune is less a singular symbol and more a cluster of related signs embodying their potent mix of courage, femininity, and warrior spirit.
Shield Maidens in Norse Sagas and Mythology
The concept of the Shield Maiden is deeply rooted in Norse mythology and sagas. These ancient prose narratives and poems, filled with tales of legendary heroes and gods, often portray Shield Maidens as fearless warriors.
The most famous example is Brynhildr from the Völsunga saga. A Valkyrie, she chose to live as a mortal, fighting battles alongside men. Similarly, Lagertha’s character from the “Gesta Danorum,” a 12th-century work by the historian Saxo Grammaticus, stands out. She fought in a battle disguised as a man and distinguished herself through her bravery, earning the respect and admiration of her peers.
It’s crucial, though, to distinguish between mythology and reality. The sagas were as much about entertaining, teaching moral values, and keeping history alive, as they were about documenting reality. The Shield Maiden figures found within these sagas could be based on real women, but they might also be fictional characters created for narrative purposes.
Is Freya a Shield Maiden?
Freya, also known as Freyja, is one of the most prominent deities in Norse mythology, revered for her association with love, beauty, fertility, and wealth. Yet, to label her solely as a goddess of love and beauty would be overly simplistic and neglect the complexity of her character.
Although Freya may not be classified as a Shield Maiden in the traditional sense, she is far from a passive figure in the Norse pantheon. Freya is a figure of power and warfare. As per Norse mythology, half of those who fall in battle are chosen by Freya to reside in her heavenly hall, Folkvangr, while Odin receives the other half in Valhalla. This aspect alone points to her significant influence over warfare and death.
Moreover, Freya is known to ride a chariot drawn by two large cats and owns the precious Brisingamen necklace, which she fought fiercely to protect. She also possesses a falcon-feather cloak that allows her to shape-shift into a falcon, demonstrating her agency and power.
While Freya is often depicted as a figure of sensuality, she is also a symbol of strength, independence, and might. She is a practitioner of the magic known as seidr, a form of sorcery often associated with war and power. It’s not hard to imagine her standing in the thick of battle, a formidable and respected presence.
In the end, while Freya might not be a Shield Maiden in the literal sense – a woman fighting alongside Viking warriors – she embodies a powerful and war-like aspect in Norse mythology. Her role in determining the fate of fallen warriors and her magical abilities place her in a unique position of power, making her a compelling, multi-faceted deity that combines attributes typically associated with Shield Maidens and goddesses.
Shield Maiden Lagertha at the Glance
Lagertha is a legendary figure from the misty realms of Norse sagas, most notably in Saxo Grammaticus’s 12th-century work “Gesta Danorum” (Deeds of the Danes). As one of the most famous Viking Shield Maidens, Lagertha’s tale is an amalgamation of bravery, wit, and fierce independence.
In the “Gesta Danorum,” Lagertha is introduced during a battle in Norway where the Danish king, Frø, has slain the Norwegian king, Siward. Frø then forces the Norwegian women to live in a brothel as a form of humiliation. When the hero Ragnar Lothbrok comes to avenge Siward, Lagertha, among other women, dresses as a warrior and fights in the battle. Impressed by her courage, Ragnar falls for Lagertha, leading to their tumultuous relationship.
Lagertha is described as a woman who possessed the courage of a man and fought in front among the bravest. She had a matchless spirit, though, with a delicate frame surpassed only by her beautiful eyes. Her physical beauty was contrasted with her martial prowess, making Lagertha an intriguing, multi-faceted character.
Apart from being a warrior, Lagertha’s narrative also embodies resilience and strategic prowess. After her separation from Ragnar, she continues to play a significant role as a ruler in her own right. She defends her kingdom against various threats, emphasizing her ability as a warrior, tactician, and leader.
In modern pop culture, Lagertha has gained renewed fame through the TV series “Vikings,” where her character has been fleshed out beyond the sagas, portraying a complex, strong woman navigating the political and social landscape of the Viking world. In this representation, Lagertha has become a symbol of female empowerment and resistance, embodying the spirit of the Viking Shield Maiden.
In essence, Lagertha stands as an enduring testament to the potential presence of female warriors in Viking society, blending mythology, history, and imagination in a rich tapestry of courage, independence, and resilience.
Shield Maidens in Archaeology
Archaeological evidence offers another perspective on the existence of Viking Shield Maidens. An essential discovery was the Birka grave (Bj 581) on the island of Björkö in Sweden. When initially excavated in the late 19th century, the grave – filled with weapons, two horses, and a game board indicating strategic thinking – was assumed to belong to a male warrior.
In 2017, genomic analysis revealed that the remains belonged to a woman, causing a stir in the archaeological community and beyond. Some scholars interpreted this as proof of female warriors in Viking society. However, others argue that the burial goods might not necessarily reflect the buried individual’s roles in life. As such, while the Birka grave offers tantalizing clues, it doesn’t provide definite evidence.
The Role of Women in Viking Society
One can’t explore the concept of the Viking Shield Maiden without understanding the role of women in Viking societies. In stark contrast to many contemporary societies, Viking women enjoyed relative freedom. They could own and inherit property, request a divorce, and even act as merchants. Nevertheless, their primary responsibilities were maintaining the household, raising children, and overseeing family wealth.
Evidence suggests that Viking women could have taken on warrior roles when necessary, especially during times of crisis or in defense of their homes and families. A woman who could fight when required would have been a valuable asset in a society frequently engaged in warfare.
The Female Viking Berserker
In Viking lore, the term ‘berserker’ usually refers to warriors who fought in a trance-like, furious state. While typically associated with men, there are accounts of female Viking berserkers, often called “shield maidens.” These individuals were believed to channel animal spirits, like bears or wolves, to augment their strength and ferocity in battle.
The existence of female berserkers remains disputed, with evidence mostly anecdotal or based on sagas. A potential reference is found in the ‘Hrolf Kraki’s Saga,’ where a group of berserkers called “Bodvar Bjarki” included women warriors fighting in animal form. Yet, like the Shield Maidens, the line between myth, legend, and history remains blurred.
Did Shield Maidens Exist Today?
In the literal sense of Viking women going into battle with shields and swords, Shield Maidens no longer exist today. The Viking Age ended over a millennium ago, and with it, the societal structures and practices of that era, including the possible existence of Shield Maidens.
On the other hand, the concept of Shield Maidens – women who stand their ground, fight for their beliefs, and participate actively in areas traditionally dominated by men – is very much alive today. These modern “Shield Maidens” exist in different guises and professions.
One such arena is the military. Women across the globe are serving their countries, often on the front lines of conflict, exemplifying the spirit of bravery and strength associated with the historical Shield Maidens. This includes women in the Special Forces, fighter pilots, naval officers, and more, showcasing the same courageous spirit.
We see the embodiment of the Shield Maiden spirit in sports, particularly combat sports. Female boxers, wrestlers, and martial artists frequently channel the spirit of the Shield Maiden as they face their opponents in the ring or on the mat.
Women in leadership positions in business, politics, and society can also be seen as modern embodiments of the Shield Maiden ethos. They break barriers, make strategic decisions, and stand fearlessly in the face of adversity.
Even in the realm of popular culture, the Shield Maiden lives on. Shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom have brought characters like Lagertha into the mainstream, inspiring a new generation of women to be strong, independent, and unafraid to wield their power.
Therefore, while Viking Shield Maidens may not exist today, their spirit continues to inspire and live on in the modern world, manifesting in contemporary women’s strength, determination, and courage across various spheres of life.
Conclusion: The Enigma of the Viking Shield Maiden
Despite the ongoing debate, the concept of the Viking Shield Maiden continues to captivate the modern imagination. They represent a side of Viking society that challenges our conventional views of gender roles in history.
Although it may be impossible to determine the exact prevalence of these warrior women, it’s undeniable that the Viking world was not solely a man’s world. Viking women were integral to their society, from managing households and properties to possibly defending them as Shield Maidens.
The journey to unravel the truth of the Viking Shield Maiden is to understand the richness of Viking culture. The saga continues, and with each new archaeological discovery or scholarly interpretation, we move a step closer to the truth – a truth likely as complex and nuanced as the Viking Age itself.