British Museum blog

Viking women, warriors, and valkyries


Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham

Odin:
What a dream! I dreamt I woke at dawn
to tidy Valhalla for the fallen ones;
I … made the Valkyries bring wine, as a prince was coming.
I’m expecting some renowned heroes
from the human world; my heart is glad!

Anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend promises to reveal ‘a world of warriors, seafarers and conquerors’ and its iconic image is a sword. As that suggests, much of this world is a male world, and this chimes with popular perceptions of the Vikings as large, aggressive and bearded men. A more nuanced view of the Viking Age would recognise that even large, aggressive and bearded men had mothers, and very likely sisters, wives and daughters, and if you look closely at the exhibition you will find some personal items associated with such women. Nor did these women all stay at home while their menfolk went out into the wide world of raiding and trading. There is evidence for female traders in Russia, for instance, for far-travelling women, for queens and mistresses of large estates, as well as for women as victims and slaves. Also, women were an absolute prerequisite for the lasting establishment of a successful new nation in the uninhabited island of Iceland. Women can boast of many achievements in the Viking Age yet, in a quarter of a century of studying them, I find that the one thing I get asked about most often is the one thing I do not think they ‘achieved’, which was to become warriors.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie (view from 4 sides), c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A very small silver figurine, found in Hårby, in Denmark, in late 2012, may seem to contradict this. It undoubtedly represents a woman: she has the knotted pony-tail and long garment characteristic of many other representations of female figures in Viking art. What is unusual is that she is carrying an upright sword in her right hand and a shield in her left. The function of this figurine is unknown, and what it represents is also mysterious. If it is intended as an image of a woman warrior, then it is not a realistic one. Her garment is elaborate and beautifully decorated, and would be a real hindrance in combat, as would her uncovered head and its pony-tail. Male warriors did not always have helmets, as these were expensive, but would have had some kind of protective headgear like a leather cap. So we are left to conclude that the figure must be symbolic, rather than realistic, and most experts are inclined to label her as a valkyrie.

Valkyries are interesting and significant figures in the warrior cultures of the Viking Age. We know about them mainly from Old Norse literature, the poetry and prose written down in Iceland in the thirteenth century and later. The medieval Icelanders understood the function of valkyries literally from their name (valkyrja means ‘chooser of the slain’), and presented an image of them as handmaidens of the war-god Odin. He would send them to battle to choose those warriors who were worthy of dying and going to Valhalla, the hall of the slain, where they prepared themselves for the final battle of Ragnarok. There, the valkyries acted as hostesses, welcoming the dead warriors and serving them drink, as in the anonymous poem about Eirik Bloodaxe cited above. This literary understanding is confirmed by many Viking Age images of female figures, with long hair and gown, rather like the Hårby figurine, but holding out a drinking horn. When carrying out their duties on the battlefield, however, valkyries needed to be armed and the literary texts suggest that they were usually equipped with helmets, mail-coats and spears. Any association between valkyries and swords, on the other hand, is very rare as a sword, closely associated with masculinity, would be incongruous on a female figure. The sword was the weapon of choice, the prized possession and the status symbol of the better sort of Viking warrior. Many men, not all of them necessarily professional warriors, were buried with their swords, although they would also have an array of other weapons, like the man in the Kaupang burial, or the helmeted warrior depicted on the Middleton cross from North Yorkshire.

The undoubted successes of the Vikings in warfare and conquest were rooted in a well-developed Odinic ideology that sustained and strengthened them through their campaigns. The myth of Valhalla, the idea of death as a reward for the successful warrior, mediated by a female figure, is a powerful part of this ideology. It provided the warrior going into battle with an incentive and the dying warrior with a kind of consolation. Some of the literary texts develop this idea in a romantic way by telling of love affairs between warriors and valkyries though these, too, generally end in death. This martial ideology of which valkyries are a part also seeped into daily life. A typical valkyrie name, like Hild, means ‘battle’, and many ordinary women in the Viking Age also bore names (Iike the very common Gunnhild, or ‘War-battle’) that contained such elements. Yet that did not make them women warriors. Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.


Professor Judith Jesch is the author of Viking Poetry of Love and War and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Vikings: life and legend, , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Interesting article, I would like to point out that ‘ Hild’ also means illusion or magic. We use that word in modern Norwegian to describe someone’s beauty ex. ‘ Hun var vakker som en hildring’ She was as beautiful as an illusion/ magic. Hun var en hildring, she was an illusion. The name Hilde is a modern version of the name Hild. :)

    Like

  2. janet atamanenko says:

    It seems to me that a culture must entertain a concept based in some reality before materializing a symbol of that concept, therefore, in this case, I believe, perhaps intuitively, that there WERE, at least some, real life women warriors in ancient Viking culture. What their role actually entailed may have been different than that of the males. For example, they may have acted in protection of their settlements when many of the males were away on forays.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pia says:

    Well recent reexamination of archeological findings in England and written accounts taken from Constantinople clearly points out that there were women amongst the warrior vikings. It’s now a fact and not a myth. They just looked very different from modern scandinavian women. They were almost as tall as their male vikings which means that they were half a f. taller than men they fought in rest of Europe/Russia/middleeast. They had square head bone structure/features with distinct jaw and eyebrows. They were slim. Because of the almost androgynous hairstyle foreigners thought all vikings were male, but they weren’t. Approx 25 % of the warrior vikings were female. It seems like viking women could choose between being warrior or mom/homemaker – or sometimes both.

    Liked by 1 person

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,118 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

This beautiful photograph taken by @miracca shows a detail of the decoration on the South Stairs of the Museum. The patterns and colours on the walls and ceilings near the entrance to the Museum were inspired by classical Greek buildings, which would have been brightly decorated. #regram #repost #architecture #decoration 
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum To celebrate #NAIDOC week, we’re sharing some of the amazing objects from #IndigenousAustralia.
Spearthrowers like these are the Swiss army knife of the desert. Created and used exclusively by men, the broad body of these spearthrowers hints at its other functions. Its firm edges were used for digging in the desert sand and scraping the ground in preparing a place to sleep. Those same hardwood edges were sawed furiously against softer wood, to create the smouldering embers by which desert people made fire. In some parts of Australia stone knives were hafted to its end with natural resins, allowing the spearthrower to also be used for butchering animals and as a chisel for engraving other objects.
#NAIDOCWeek #art It's #NAIDOC2015 – a week celebrating the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We’ll be sharing objects each day this week from our #IndigenousAustralia exhibition.
This masterpiece of Indigenous art is called 'Yumari' and is on loan from the National Museum of Australia. It was created by the artist Uta Uta Tjangala in 1981 and is a highlight of the exhibition. Tjangala was one of the artists who initiated the translation of sand sculptures and body painting onto canvas at Papunya in 1971, making him a pioneer of contemporary Australian art. This iconic work now features on the Australian passport.
#NAIDOC #art #painting This wonderful photo by @cnorain captures the roof of the Great Court, which includes 3,312 glass panels. Each one is unique as the space is asymmetrical.
#regram #repost #architecture

Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum For #ThrowbackThursday this photograph from 1875 shows the Museum’s first Egyptian Room.
This is one of a collection of photographs taken by the photographer Frederick York of Notting Hill, London in 1875.
#tbt #throwback #archives #mummies We’re delighted to announce our first exhibition of the autumn ‘Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns’, which opens 10 September.
This exhibition will feature around 100 of the best examples of #metalpoint spanning six centuries. Metalpoint is a challenging drawing technique where a metal stylus is used on a roughened preparation, ensuring that a trace of the metal is left on the surface. When mastered it can produce drawings of crystalline clarity and refinement.
This exhibition was organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington @ngadc in association with the British Museum.
Book your tickets now to see these spectacular works! #art #drawing #Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Bust of a warrior. Silverpoint, on prepared paper, c. 1475-1480.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,118 other followers

%d bloggers like this: