The question of whether women fought alongside men in Viking battles, and perhaps even planned attacks and led warriors, has led to much debate, with some researchers supporting the existence of real-life “shieldmaidens” in Viking culture, but others saying that weapon-wielding women in leadership position belongs in “mythological phenomena”—and in TV series.
However, research released on September 8, 2017, in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology confirmed that the body discovered in a “well furnished warrior grave in the Viking age town of Birka, Sweden” is definitely female. “The identification of a female Viking warrior provides a unique insight into the Viking society, social constructions, and exceptions to the norm in the Viking time period,” the study says.
Located in Eastern Central Sweden, Birka was an important trading center between the late 8th and 10th centuries. The population is estimated at 1,000. Researchers have uncovered an incredible amount of graves in the Birka area, and approximately 1,200 have been excavated.
The grave in question clearly belonged to a warrior: “the grave goods included a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses (one mare and one stallion).” Historians say that these objects suggest that the person planned and led battles.
The grave was uncovered in the late 1880s, with a declaration made at the time that the corpse belonged to a male of more than 30 years of age. However, there were always questions about the gender of the body, almost five foot six inches in height.
The researchers from Uppsala University and Stockholm University conducted DNA sequencing to determine the gender of the long-dead warrior. “Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known, a female warrior of this importance has never been determined and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons,” say the study authors.
Those who’ve doubted that females were high-ranking warriors, when faced with similar graves have suggested that the items were heirlooms instead of personal weapons, or that furnishing the grave in such a way is an attempt to honor the dead woman’s family instead of her personally.
In an article published in tor.com, the authors, two archaeologists, said that stories of shieldmaidens come from “factually unreliable heroic sagas” and that “many scholars conclude that shieldmaidens were little more than a literary motif, perhaps devised to counter the influences of invading Christians and their notions of proper submissive female behavior.”
The study authors caution against jumping to conclusions about how many women led Vikings in battle. “It was probably quite unusual,” the study said.
In the popular television series The Vikings on the History Channel, the character of shieldmaiden Lagertha, portrayed by Katheryn Winnick, leads armies, is lethal in hand-to-hand combat, and shows no hesitation in assassinating her rivals. The show’s creator, Michael Hirst, has said in interviews he based Lagertha on a woman from legend. In a 12th century Danish work, Lagertha is described as “a skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest.”
In an interview with DuJour magazine, Hirst was asked what drew him to the Vikings as material for a television show and answered: “I discovered the Vikings many years ago and became fascinated by their culture. They had such bad press. They were always depicted as savages, and then you realize it was because their culture was written about by their enemies—Christian monks. When you dug a little deeper, you found they were more of a democratic society. Their attitude toward women was much more egalitarian. I love their gods and their understanding of nature and the world. I started thinking, ‘These guys are fantastic.‘ ”
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In the study published in American Journal of Physical Anthropology , the authors say, “Our results—that the high-status grave Bj 581 on Birka was the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior—suggest that women, indeed, were able to be full members of male dominated spheres.“