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Women in the Viking Age

Quite a lot of information can be found regarding women during the Viking Age but unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation or misinterpreted information that muddies the water per say of what exactly Women did indeed do regarding a lot of aspects during that time period in Scandinavia and beyond. So I wanted to bring to my readers the best of the best sources to show due respect to what roles women had during the Viking Age which is very important to me.

Introduction

The majority of women in the Viking period were housewives, who managed the housekeeping on the farm with a firm hand. It is also possible that there were female entrepreneurs, who worked in textile production in the towns. 

Just like today, women in the Viking period sought a suitable partner. The sagas are filled with stories of women competing over who has the best man. However, love did not always last. So it was good that Scandinavia was a pioneering region when it came to equal opportunities. The Viking woman could choose a husband and later decide not to marry him after all, if she so wished. However, there were limits to the extent of these equal opportunities. For example, only men could appear in court in the Viking Age.

There is believed to have been a hidden moral in the sagas in relation to a woman’s choice of husband. The family probably wanted to participate in the decision-making. When an attempt was made to woo a woman, the father did not need to ask his daughter’s opinion about the interested male.  In cases in which the girl opposed the family’s wishes, the sagas describe how this often ended badly.

The woman’s reputation and place in society was connected to that of her husband. The sagas often describe how various women compete over who has the best husband. Young girls obviously knew what to look for in a prospective husband.

The Icelandic sagas give examples of how a strong woman could overshadow her husband. It was a dangerous balancing act. Sometimes a wife’s drive and energy could make her husband respect her, whilst in other cases the man lost his reputation due to a powerful wife. The woman’s reputation, on the other hand, remained intact. Women could achieve a great reputation and wealth. We can see this at the most magnificent burial of them all: the Oseberg burial in Norway.

The literature tells us that all rich married Viking women carried keys amongst their personal items. The key symbolized the woman’s status as housewife. Or was this actually the case?

This view can at least partially be attributed to the keys that have been found in rich Viking women’s graves, as well as the legal texts, which state that the medieval housewife had the right to the keys of the house. However, archaeologists find increasing numbers of keys, but these are not necessarily from graves. This indicates that the distribution and use of keys was relatively extensive. SOURCE

One of four sleighs found in the elaborate ship burial at Oseberg, Norway, where in 834 CE two women were buried in an extremely rich setting with many grave goods such as this sleigh, an intricately carved wooden cart and various textiles including fine silks that would have been imported. This burial is classed as royal or at least as an upper-class Viking Age burial; at least one of the women must have been of very high status. The two women’s exact relation to each other is unknown. The ship itself and this sleigh are displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. / Photo by Helen Simonsson, Flickr, Creative Commons

The Elite

If some women were indeed involved in trade, this might conceivably have placed them in the upper rungs of society or least given them means and status. The Viking Age’s rich and powerful – a group which obviously was not exclusively male – peep through the gap of time and reach the modern world in a number of ways, such as the large runestones that were erected across Scandinavia, and burials ranging from just ‘rich’ to ones so over the top it leaves us no doubt as to the buried person’s importance.

Runestones – unsurprisingly, big stones covered in runes and ornamentation usually erected to commemorate the dead – were normally commissioned by wealthy families, the runes speaking of their endeavors in life. Not only can one imagine women being important within these families, some stones were actually commissioned by women themselves (either jointly or alone), leaving an “impression of high social standing of a very few women” (Jesch, 49-50). Runestones also illustrate how important the inheritance of a woman was to facilitate the transfer of wealth from one family to another. Furthermore, some richly furnished female graves (and even boat graves) found in rural settings hint at women possibly climbing to high social positions there. In this same setting, we have already seen that women might have ended up running the farm in their husbands’ absence.

Some 40 graves from Scandinavia and beyond have lent some credence to the idea, stemming from the texts and sagas related to the Viking Age, of the existence of female ‘sorceresses’. Seiðr is a type of shamanistic magic mainly connected to women in the sources, who could be vǫlva (singular: vǫlur): powerful sorceresses with the power to see into the future and mainly associated with a staff of sorcery. Similar objects have been discovered in Viking Age burials and have clear symbolic overtones, perhaps even – according to one interpretation – functioning as metaphorical staffs used to ‘spin out’ the user’s soul. These graves are often rich in terms of clothes and grave goods and include such things as amulets and charms, exotic jewellery, facial piercings, toe rings, and, in a handful of graves, even psychoactive drugs such as cannabis and henbane. How we might imagine these women’s roles in society remains mysterious. 

We also know of some royal female burials. Judith Jesch, mentioning the Oseberg boat burial (c. 834 CE) in which two women were buried in a lavishly decorated and furnished ship accompanied by lots of high-quality grave goods, explains how,

A few obviously royal burials that we have, such as Oseberg, cannot be mistaken for anything other than the monuments of persons with enormous status, wealth and power. Although they share characteristics with other Viking Age burials, they are really in a class of their own. (27)

Who exactly these women had been in life – queen and handmaiden, two aristocratic women related to each other, or otherwise – remains a puzzle but that at least one of them was of high status is beyond doubt.

Another woman of plentiful means was the late-9th-century CE Aud the ‘deep-minded’. She is said to have been born to a Norwegian chieftain residing in the Hebrides and married a Viking who lived in Dublin. After the death of both her husband and son, she took over control of the family fortunes and arranged for a ship to take her and her granddaughters first to Orkney and the Faroes, to finally settle in Iceland. Here, she distributed land among her retinue, became an early Christian, as well as being remembered as one of Iceland’s four most important settlers. SOURCE

This is the first book-length study in English to investigate what women did in the Viking age, both at home in Scandinavia and in the Viking colonies from Greenland to Russia. Evidence for their lives is fragmentary, but Judith Jesch assembles the clues provided by archaeology, runic inscriptions, place names and personal names, foreign historical records and Old Norse literature and mythology. These sources illuminate different aspects of women’s lives in the Viking age, on the farms and in the trading centres of Scandinavia, abroad on Viking expeditions, and as settlers in places such as Iceland and the British Isles. Women in the Viking Age explores an unfamiliar aspect of medieval history and offers a new perspective on Viking society, very different from the traditional picture of a violent and male-dominated world.

Did Viking Age Warrior Women Exist?

Stories of Viking warrior women are found in a number of historical documents, but several come from factually unreliable heroic sagas, fornaldarsogurA good example is Hervor’s and Heidrek’s Saga. After the hero, Angantyr, falls in battle his daughter Hervor takes her father’s sword and uses it to avenge his death by killing his enemies. There are similar stories of Brynhilde and Freydis, in Sigurd’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders. But in each case the story is more about myth-making than fact. As well, these are tales of individual women who are highly skilled with swords and fight in battles, but give no evidence for a ‘community’ of women warriors, which the shieldmaidens are supposed to have been.

There are, however, more reliable historical resources. In the 1070s, for example, Adam of Bremen (chronicling the Hamburg-Bremen archdiocese) wrote that a northern region of Sweden near lake Malaren was inhabited by war-like women. But he doesn’t say how many women, nor does he clarify what “war-like” means. Were these women just zealously patriotic, bad-tempered, aggressive, or maybe even too independent for his Medieval Christian tastes? It’s hard to say.

Then we have the splendid references to ‘communities’ of shieldmaidens found in the works of 12th century Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, whose writing is sure to make every modern woman livid. Keep in mind, Saxo was likely the secretary of the Archbishop of Lund, and had specific Christian notions about appropriate female behavior. He wrote:

“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’ skills. …They courted military celebrity so earnestly that you would have guessed they had unsexed themselves. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall and elegant embarked on this way of life. As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill…” (Fisher 1979, p. 212). SOURCE

Read more about this subject at Viking Warrior-Women Existed?

Viking Age Women in Archaeological Material

The archaeological material contains more male than female burials. Female graves may, however, be just as large and as richly equipped as the male graves, but the burial gifts are different. Female graves are equipped for female purposes. Instead of tools, weapons and hunting dogs, the women get household tools, textile equipment, jewelry and small dogs on their journey to the next life.

And – the richest Viking burial we know of is for a woman: The Oseberg Queen

The sagas have little information about the first part of the Viking Age. It is first and foremost the burials that can give us information about gender roles in the Early Viking Age. The deceased is in many cases buried with burial gifts that indicate what the individual did while he or she was alive. Nevertheless, we must face the fact that archeology can also give us a picture that does not match reality.

Let us see if archeology can give us a hint about the development in women’s status:

In the Late Roman and Migration Period, some centuries before the Viking Age, the tendency is that we several places in Scandinavia have more and richer female burials than male burials.

Male burials. The quality of the burials gifts seems to be reduced the older the buried man is.

Female burials. The richest burials belong to women between 50 – 60 years old. Thus; the status of women seems to increase with their age.

In the Iron Age, including the Viking Age, young girls were given away in marriage to create alliances between families. The most prominent gift a chieftain could give way was his own daughter. But – when we then see that the richest burials belong to grown up women, this strongly indicate that these women had a different foundation for their high status and power than just being a ”gift”.

First part of the Viking Age: (9th Century) the distribution between male and female burials seems to be fifty-fifty.

Middle Viking Age (10th Century): Only every 4th grave can be certainly classified as a female burial.

To conclude,
There are indications that women in the Viking Age had to achieve a higher status than men to get the kind of burial that shows up in the archaeological record. This may indicate that there was a decline in the status of women during the Viking Age.

Others believe that this may be due to changes in fashion, it may be that the oval broches that you normally use to determine women’s graves, gradually went out of fashion during the 900’s. Some have also suggested that the burnt burials at this time may have been more common for men than for women. SOURCE

A look at the Norse idea of the women warrior or shieldmaiden (skjaldmær) in the sagas, and the recent discovery that a Viking-Age burial containing weapons also contained the bones of a woman.

Further Resources

The Vikings changed Europe forever, yet half of them have almost completely disappeared from collective memory: the viking women. Quite unjustly so, as they played an important role in the world of the Vikings and performed extraordinary deeds. Viking women commanded ships and settled colonies. The two-part documentary gives completely new insights into a fascinating culture, about which it seemed everything was already known. Based on characters of the Nordic sagas, the mini-series displays the life stories of two Viking women: those of Sigrun and Jova.

‘Women at the Thing’, Nordic women in the Viking age. Coleman, N. & Løkka, N. L. (eds.). Scandinavian academic press 2014, p. 85-100

Women and Magic in the Sagas: Seiðr and Spá

Viking Age Women

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The Legendary Viking Berserkers

One of the most well known yet still much unknown warriors of ancient times are the Berserkers (Berserkr) of the Viking Age. These fierce warriors said to go into an animalistic rage and even trance like in ferocity would bang their axes against their shields and would even chew on their shields whilst gnashing their teeth. They are mentioned in the Sagas and even an account of one famous Berserker who held off an army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. So let us now dive into the what is known and what is thought of these ancient Special Ops warriors of the North.

Hrolf’s Saga tells of the hero Bjarki, who takes on the shape of a bear in battle:

Men saw that a great bear went before King Hrolf’s men, keeping always near the king. He slew more men with his forepaws than any five of the king’s champions. Blades and weapons glanced off him, and he brought down both men and horses in King Hjorvard’s forces, and everything which came in his path he crushed to death with his teeth, so that panic and terror swept through King Hjorvard’s army…” (Gwyn Jones. Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. NY: Oxford Univ. Press. 1961. p. 313).

Another Óðinnic quality possessed by the berserk is a magical immunity to weapons. In Havamál, Óðinn speaks of spells used to induce this immunity:

A third song I know, if sore need should come
of a spell to stay my foes;
When I sing that song, which shall blunt their swords,
nor their weapons nor staves can wound
….
An eleventh I know, if haply I lead
my old comrades out to war,
I sing ‘neath the shields, and they fare forth mightily;
safe into battle,
safe out of battle,
and safe return from the strife.
(Lee M. Hollander, trans. Poetic Edda. Austin.
Univ. of Texas Press. 1962. pp. 44-45)

The berserk was sometimes inherently possessed of this immunity, or performed spells to induce it, or even had special powers to blunt weapons by his gaze. Many tales say of their berserkers, “no weapon could bite them” or “iron could not bite into him.” This immunity to weapons may also have been connected with the animal-skin garments worn by the berserk. As we saw above, while in animal form, “blades and weapons glanced off” Bodvar Bjarki. Similarly, Vatnsdæla Saga says that “those berserks who were called ulfhednar had wolf shirts for mail-coats” (Ellis-Davidson, “Shape Changing,” p. 133). This concept of immunity may have evolved from the berserker’s rage, during which the berserk might receive wounds, but due to his state of frenzy take no note of them until the madness passed from him. A warrior who continued fighting while bearing mortal wounds would surely have been a terrifying opponent. SOURCE

The mushroom Amanita muscaria is known to have hallucinogenic properties and is theorized to have been consumed by Berserkers.

Viking berserkers may have used henbane to induce trance-like state

It tells of the exploits of King Hrolf and of his famous champions, including Bodvar Bjarki, the ‘bear-warrior’
The Lewis Chessmen, discovered in Scotland but believed to be Norwegian, date to the 12th century and include a number of pieces showing wild-eyed berserkers biting their shields.

Further Resources:

The Viking Berserkers Were Norse Warriors Who Entered A Trance-Like Rage During Battle

Berserker: Norse Warrior

Viking Age Berserkers

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The Saga of Gunnlaug Worm-Tongue

The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue is the story of a promising young man named Gunnlaug who achieves fame for his bravery and poetry in the courts of kings and earls throughout the Norse world.

The story tells of poems praising kings and earls in verses received as gifts, in a culture where gift giving was a well established and important means of settling disputes, showing respect, and gaining favor and honor. However, a prophetic dream foretells the love rivalry and betrayal between Gunnlaugr Ormstunga, Hrafn Önundarson, and Helga the Fair, ending in tragedy.

The Gunnlaug saga belongs to the category of Icelandic sagas, which there are about 40, written in the 13th and 14th centuries, but disclose events that happened a long time before. Some of them even tell about a Viking settlement in the late 9th century, but also of places in the second half of the 10th century and all the way to the first part of the 11th. In Gunnlaug’s history , events occur near the 1000s, which are related to Christianity. The story is written in the latter part of the 13th century. Nothing is known about the author, but that he is a learned man who has known for many characters; perhaps he was in a priesthood.

Gunnlaug’s story is not preserved in original, but other Icelandic sagas, but two handwritten manuscripts exist, another from the 14th and the other from the 15th century. A younger paper handwriting has been run from these skins.

“A tale from Iceland, 800 years ago.

In a dream of quarrels and death

The birth of fair Helga is told

Cross the north seas ventured for fame

At the call of kings, hearth bereft

Wounded pride, spawn’d of a sensed slight

When tongues fail, sharper blades prevail

Falcon soothes the cloak wrapt wound

Fair one pines and fades from the light.” – Summary by Fritz

The Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue and Rafn the Skald

The Story of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue pdf

Gunnlaug Saga (Icelandic)

The Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue

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The Estonian Vikings

Not so well know is the subject of the Vikings of Estonia during the late Viking age and into the 12th century even though there are historical accounts of them existing. Most like over shadowed by the far more famous Vikings of Scandinavia. Yet the history of these maritime raiders from Estonia landing on shores from the Baltic’s to throughout Scandinavia is in my opinion a piece of Northern European history more should explore and be aware of.

Estland (Eistland or Esthland) is the historical Germanic language name that refers to the country at the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, and is the origin of the modern national name for Estonia. The largest island of Estonia is called Ösel in Swedish and its inhabitants used to be called Oeselians.

The Oeselians were known in the Old Norse Icelandic Sagas and in Heimskringla as Víkingr frá Esthland (English: vikings from Estonia).

The Livonian Chronicle describes the Oeselians as using two kinds of ships, the piratica and the liburna. The former was a warship, the latter mainly a merchant ship. A piratica could carry approximately 30 men and had a high prow shaped like a dragon or a snakehead as well as a quadrangular sail.

A battle between Oeselian and Icelandic Vikings off Saaremaa is described in Njál’s saga as occurring in 972 AD.

On the eve of Northern Crusades, the Oeselians were summarized in the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle thus: “The Oeselians, neighbors to the Kurs (Curonians), are surrounded by the sea and never fear strong armies as their strength is in their ships. In summers when they can travel across the sea they oppress the surrounding lands by raiding both Christians and pagans.“

Saxo Grammaticus describes the Estonians and Curonians as participating in the Battle of Bråvalla on the side of the Swedes against the Danes, who were aided by the Livonians and the Wends of Pomerania.

From the 12th century, chroniclers’ descriptions of Estonian, Oeselian and Curonian raids along the coasts of Sweden and Denmark become more frequent.

The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia describes a fleet of sixteen ships and five hundred Oeselians ravaging the area that is now southern Sweden, then belonging to Denmark. In the XIVth book of Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus describes a battle on Öland in 1170 in which the Danish king Valdemar I mobilized his entire fleet to curb the incursions of Couronian and Estonian pirates.

Perhaps the most renowned raid by Oeselian pirates occurred in 1187, with the attack on the Swedish town of Sigtuna by Finnic raiders from Couronia and Ösel. Among the casualties of this raid was the Swedish archbishop Johannes. The city remained occupied for some time, contributing to the decline as a center of commerce in the 13th century in favor of Uppsala, Visby, Kalmar and Stockholm. [Some have addressed Sigtuna as the then capital of Sweden] Source

Further Resources:

Vikings in Estonia by Eddi Tomband

The Baltic Finns were Vikings too, but the world ignores it

The Migration Period, Pre-Viking Age, and Viking Age in Estonia

Vikings, Estonians and the Way East

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The Prose Edda

The Prose Edda is absolutely one of the most important books regarding Norse Paganism and the Gods and Goddesses of the Norse. Whenever someone new to the Norse faith comes to me and asks for reading material this is one I always recommend as I feel it is essential to have in your library of Norse religion studies. Some do seem to get overly and in my opinion ignorantly negative regarding The Prose Edda simply because of its author Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) who was born in western Iceland and it can be seen that yes there is some perhaps christian influence in the Edda however he really did have a deep fascination with the old tales, folklore and stories of the Gods. So I feel it is important to read this book with an open mind but at the same time we should never consider it like a bible of the Norse religion because there are so many other books that expand upon where the Prose Edda began. So with that said I do encourage everyone to have this in their library not just as a foundation of Norse Paganism but it is an iconic book that has lasted the test of time.

Check out the great resources below

The Prose Edda Book

The Prose and Poetic Eddas, Völuspá

The Prose Edda on Sacred Texts

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Icelandic Runes, A Brief History

Icelandic Runes, A Brief History

by Teresa Dröfn Freysdóttir Njarðvík

This is by far my favorite little book about Runes out of all I have in my library. I learned about this little lesser known treasure a couple of years ago during a conversation I was having with a dear Völva friend of mine and mentor who lives in Iceland. Turns out a friend of hers is the Author of this little gem. The book is exactly as the title describes. It starts with an introduction to the Elder Futhark and then carries on with other variations of the Runes including the unique Icelandic Runes. Then proceeds into their use, history and the use of Runes in more modern times. It is a book I highly recommend for your library.

To order your copy unless you can read Icelandic you will need to translate the webpage as there is only one source in Iceland to order a copy from.

https://www.penninn.is/is/book/icelandic-runes-brief-history

Article regarding the book from Icelandic Times

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Galdrakver, Book of Magic

This little two volume book set is really a little gem for anyone’s library regarding Norse Magick and Galdrastafurs. I use it on occasion as a reference and for my own practice of Galdur and Seiðr. The great thing about these two books is that Volume 1 is a copy of the original manuscript (Lbs. 143,8vo) and Volume two is the translation in both Icelandic, English, German and Danish. It comes in a nice slip cover box as well. I highly recommend this one for your library.

You can get a copy at https://shop.galdrasyning.is/products/galdrakver-book-of-magic-lbs-143-8vo

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Runes – Types, Meanings, History and more.

A collection of information and references

The first systems of writing developed and used by the Germanic peoples were runic alphabets. The runes functioned as letters, but they were much more than just letters in the sense in which we today understand the term. Each rune was an ideographic or pictographic symbol of some cosmological principle or power, and to write a rune was to invoke and direct the force for which it stood. Indeed, in every Germanic language, the word “rune” (from Proto-Germanic *runo) means both “letter” and “secret” or “mystery,” and its original meaning, which likely predated the adoption of the runic alphabet, may have been simply “(hushed) message.”

Each rune had a name that hinted at the philosophical and magical significance of its visual form and the sound for which it stands, which was almost always the first sound of the rune’s name. For example, the T-rune, called *Tiwaz in the Proto-Germanic language, is named after the god Tiwaz (known as Tyr in the Viking Age). Tiwaz was perceived to dwell within the daytime sky, and, accordingly, the visual form of the T-rune is an arrow pointed upward (which surely also hints at the god’s martial role). The T-rune was often carved as a standalone ideograph, apart from the writing of any particular word, as part of spells cast to ensure victory in battle.

The runic alphabets are called “futharks” after the first six runes (Fehu, Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz, Raidho, Kaunan), in much the same way that the word “alphabet” comes from the names of the first two Semitic letters (Aleph, Beth). There are three principal futharks: the 24-character Elder Futhark, the first fully-formed runic alphabet, whose development had begun by the first century CE and had been completed before the year 400;[4] the 16-character Younger Futhark, which began to diverge from the Elder Futhark around the beginning of the Viking Age (c. 750 CE)[5] and eventually replaced that older alphabet in Scandinavia; and the 33-character Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, which gradually altered and added to the Elder Futhark in England. On some inscriptions, the twenty-four runes of the Elder Futhark were divided into three ættir (Old Norse, “families”) of eight runes each,[6] but the significance of this division is unfortunately unknown.

Runes were traditionally carved onto stone, wood, bone, metal, or some similarly hard surface rather than drawn with ink and pen on parchment. This explains their sharp, angular form, which was well-suited to the medium.

Much of our current knowledge of the meanings the ancient Germanic peoples attributed to the runes comes from the three “Rune Poems,” documents from Iceland, Norway, and England that provide a short stanza about each rune in their respective futharks (the Younger Futhark is treated in the Icelandic and Norwegian Rune Poems, while the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc is discussed in the Old English Rune Poem).

Continue on to Part II, The Origins of the Runes.

Part III: Runic Philosophy and Magic

https://norse-mythology.org/…/runic-philosophy-and-magic/

Part IV: The Meanings of the Runes

Part V: The 10 Best Books on the Runes

https://norse-mythology.org/…/the-best-books-on-the-runes/

Further Resources:

Types of Runes

http://www.therunesite.com/section/rune-meanings/

The Runic Alphabets

http://www.omniglot.com/writing/runic.htm

How to Write in Old Norse With Futhark Runes: The Ultimate Guide

http://www.vikingrune.com/write-in-futhark-runes-old…/

Runic Magic and Divination

http://www.crystalinks.com/runes.html

Runes – Alphabet of Mystery

http://sunnyway.com/runes/

Which Runes go with which language

The names of runes (Elder Futhark)