“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldier’s skills; they did not want the sinews of their valour to lose tautness and be infected by self-indulgence.” – Saxo Grammaticus, History of the Danes, around 1200
Old Norse sagas and chronicles are full of warlike women. The oldest of them is Hervǫr, who led an army against a Hunnish invasion in the 4th or 5th century. Her saga was reworked several times and she became a model for other warrior women. One of them was Queen Thornbjǫrg, who ruled Sweden and performed astonishing feats of arms. Another one, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, is featured in two sagas as the sister of Leif Erikson and as his companion on the expedition to Vinland, where she fought the fierce Skrælingjar.
Warrior women also turn up in chronicles. There is the ‘Red Maiden’ who commanded a fleet against her enemies in the 11th century. William of Jumiège mentions women fighting among the Vikings in France. The most copious amount of examples has been collected by Saxo Grammaticus. In his History of the Danes, he tells of the women Hetha, Visna and Vebiorg, who fought for the Danish king Harald War-tooth at the battle of Brávellir. Another warrior woman, Rusila, fought her brother Thrond for the throne of Norway and led her army to victory in a number of battles before succumbing to the Danish king.
But are those stories based on reality? Experts are still divided. Thanks to archaeology, we now know that Viking women had a much more active role in society than traditionally believed and that they participated in expeditions. To which extent they took part in combat however is still open to debate. Unfortunately, archaeology is a muddy business and often poses more questions than it delivers answers. Do grave goods tell us something about the people buried or do they rather expose the beliefs and customs of the undertakers? If we find a sword with a female corpse, does that mean the woman was a warrior or could it just have been a symbol for her status?
In a cautious and thoughtful overview of Scandinavian findings, archaeologist Leszek Gardela records several graves where weapons have been found buried besides women. Unfortunately (and in contrast to the remains of Scythian warrior women), there is no indication of battle damage (or no investigations have been conducted in this direction), so we can’t know if and how the deceased used those weapons. However, most experts concur that, if nothing else, women would have been fighting when the occasion demanded it, such as on expeditions or when defending their homes in the absence of men.
How would they have been equipped? Basically in the same way as men. Most of the weapons found in graves were knifes or spears. Freydís is depicted as using an axe, while women with swords feature in several sagas. They would also have had similar armament. This is illustrated by a passage from the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki:
“Facing him stood a man in full armour and battle ready. When the man lifted up his helmet and pushed it back, Hrolfr realized it was Queen Thornbjǫrg.”
Chain mail was worn over a thick padded garment, so the body shape would have been largely obscured. Incidentally, this applies to warrior women throughout the ages – skimpy armour emphasising body shape belongs to the realm of fantasy!
Gardela ends his research article on an inconclusive note: He states that it is too early for a definite judgement, but voices the hope that archaeology might “perhaps even sooner than we might expect” surprise us with new evidence for female Viking warriors.
Fortunately, as wargamers we don’t have to yield to the cautious rhetorics of academic safeguarding. Warrior women are certainly plausible – in fact, they are more plausible than other conventions of Dark Ages wargaming, such as units of Berserkers or Jomsvikings! So why not include some in your SAGA warband, or even field Freydís Eiríksdóttir or Queen Thornbjǫrg as female Warlords?
In 28mm, Bad Squiddo Games has recently launched a new miniatures range with an awesome Viking warrior woman. More will follow, so watch the homepage!
Jansone, Santa: “Ladies with axes and spears. Female Viking warriors around the Baltic Sea,” Medieval Warfare IV.2 (2014), 9-12.
Jesch, Judith: Women in the Viking Age, Woodbridge: Boydell Press 1994.
Jochens, Jenny: Old Norse Images of Women, Philadelphia: Penn. University of Pennsylvania Press 1996.
Gardela, Leszek: “‘Warrior-women’ in Viking Age Scandinavia? A preliminary archaeological study,” Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia 8 (2013), 273-309 (available online)