female vikings - could Lagertha really exist?

Fierce women from Viking age on battlefield are an appealing pop cultural concept, which is selling well. Is history backing this up in any way? In autumn 2017 Swedish scientists confirmed first female Viking warrior. Did they discover Swedish Mulan or it is just a woman buried with a sword of her husband who died abroad?

Peter Nicolai Arbo, Hervors død

Peter Nicolai Arbo, Hervors død

NORDIC SAGAS ABOUT WOMEN

I could answer the question right away, if we take a look at the medieval Scandinavian literature – we have plenty of female warriors there. Leaving aside countless Nordic sagas, which may bring us to conversation about Lord of the Rings and the tv show Vikings, we come across shieldmaidens and Valkyries (theoretically speaking, we don’t want to come across them literally). Shieldmaidens are female warriors, often mentioned in Nordic and Germanic tales. One of the most famous one is Hervor, heroine of the Hervarar saga. She was born after her father’s death and raised learning archery, swordsmanship and horse riding.

Based on shieldmaidens, the figures of Valkyries emerged. Closely associated with Odin, firstly appearing as demons of death, later humanized, became capable of falling in love with mortals. Valkyries armed themselves and were able to fight, protect men in the battles and took the chosen ones to Valhalla. 

FEMALE VIKING WARRIOR FOUND IN BIRKA

This is all literature and/or folk beliefes, delivered here in very compressed version. Women, fighting alongside men or by themselves, were preserved in medieval mediums, both in literature, art and rune stones. They were classified as a part of mythology. Until the bomb was dropped in autumn 2017. Swedish scientists (female and male) from Uppsala and Stockholm University announced that they confirmed first female from Viking age, that once actually lived and died and… well, this is all that everybody agreed upon. The controversial part of scientists’ analysis was in which they claimed that the female Viking was also a warrior.

There are plenty of warrior graves, especially from the Viking age, located in the northern Europe. In the central-west part of Sweden, in the town of Birka, over 3,000 of them were discovered. Birka was a trade centre during the 8th, 9th and 10th century. In Birka social, cultural and economic networks met. Merchants, artisans and warriors from Birka travelled to the Ural Mountains and Byzantium. Birka was inhabited by approximately from 700 to 1,000 people.

From 3,000 Birka graves only 1,100 were examined. Additionally, 111 chamber-graves are known. Chamber-graves were devoted to upper-class people. Most of Birka graves were constructed between the 9th and 10th century. Modest in scale archaeological excavation in Birka started already in the 17th century, although larger fieldwork took off in the 1870s, undertaken by Alexander Seton and Hjalmar Stolpe. They did they framework between 1871 and 1895. In the 20th century the excavation continued.

PRESENCE OF A SWORD DEFINES A MALE WARRIOR

Let me introduce Bj 581. This is the name given to a warrior grave, standing out as richly furnished and complete. It’s located in a prestigious place, on an elevated terrace between the town and a hill fort. The grave is richly furnished, as it contains a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, a shield, and two horses of both sexes. This is full equipment of a warrior. The grave is also complete as the skeleton was represented by bone elements from all body regions. Teeth were preserved as well. Based on the grave goods, stated above, first archaeologist of the Bj 581 grave claimed, that the warrior was a man. It’s a reflex that no one even thinks about. Grave goods are obviously war items, so the skeleton next to them belongs to a man.

Well, not exactly.

On September 8th 2017 group of researchers from Uppsala University and Stockholm University published an article A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. The sex of Bj 581 was confirmed as female and the whole interpretation of the grave goods has changed. As long as someone was buried with war items, this someone had to be a man. When it was announced that this someone is a woman, the war items became… house’s souvenirs, passed from generation to generation, a medium for symbolic meanings, reflection of a status of a family rather than of an individual. And my favourite explanation: there was someone else before (a male warrior) in the Bj 581 grave – the corpse/skeleton was removed, female body was entombed, grave goods of the previous tenant remained. Thankfully, this option was rejected after taking into consideration a general composition, the distance between each item and a skeleton.

Graves with male warriors would never be questioned this way. Bj 581 was considered a man, cause when it was discovered in the 19th century, the social construction of sex would not even allow another explanation come across archaeologists’ minds. More and more graves with female skeletons and warrior items have been founding. To spice the things up a little, the type of items gathered in the grave suggested that the person buried held a high position in the army – the presence of the horses is associated with responsibility of preparing the battle tactics.

THE FEMALE VIKING WARRIOR CONTROVERSY

As I can understand the way of thinking of a 19th century Swedish male archaeologists, I frown when I read that people today say that possibility of female warrior is out of the question. One day after the article from Swedish scientists was published, Judith Jesch wrote her own text, arguing with the interpretation of the results. Jesch is a professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham and in 1991 she published a book called Women in the Viking Age. Her arguments fall into two categories: leaning towards sloppiness of the construct of the article (quoting an article which is not exactly saying the same thing that was cited) or towards the analysis and the interpretation. And I can agree with Jesch… in the sloppiness – really, I hate the “western” way of quoting stuff, you really have to be determined if you want to find the adequate quote. But this is not what the fuss is all about, right? I don’t see a scientific, historical argument, presented by Jesch, against female warrior of a high rank, found in Birka. At some point Jesch wrote: All this seems to me to move rather quickly from evidence to speculation which is presented as fact. Cause in history you look for and you can establish facts. Historical objective truth. Yeah, right. (Okay, now I am too postmodernistic, sorrynotsorry). But really. Isn’t his how you build a theory?

One of the greatest things in being a historian is that one can constantly go back and develop a certain research (again, if you’re me – postmodernistic historian – you might enjoy neverending research as there is no definite truth). In the Lagertha case it’s not just an option, it’s necessary. Beside the historical issues I wanted to present the gender perspective. Taking an advantage of the publication date of this text – March 8th is Women’s Day – the story of Bj 581 is a perfect example how social construction of sex influences historical research (and many other types of research as well). Okay, this summary wasn’t anything you haven’t heard before, but hopefully the text itself brought you a new, intriguing story.

Two crucial texts are available online, I leave all the links, feel welcomed to read them by yourselves and let me know what you think. I also attach other literature or articles that I used for this text.

Article by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson (and other Swedish researchers, it’s like 10 people behind the research)

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajpa.23308/full

Article by Judith Jesch (she’s the only one behind her text):

http://norseandviking.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/lets-debate-female-viking-warriors-yet.html?m=1

Other articles: