Were Shieldmaidens Real?

Recently DNA tests were done on the skeleton in a Viking Warrior grave.  The tests produced a surprising result.  The skeleton was of a woman.

Cue the immediate hemming and hawing.  Since this was a woman, it couldn’t have been a warrior.  “Shieldmaidens” were pure myth.  It Says Here.

So, this non-warrior was buried with typical “warrior” grave goods.  The grave goods include a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior?  The complete kit, particularly in an established grave site of other warriors, clearly marked this as the burial of a warrior of some importance–right up until they discovered it was a woman.

There have been previous finds of women buried with weapons.  There was a previous result where folk started claiming “half of viking warriors were female”.  Only the study was the grave site of settlers, not raiders, and had a very small sample size (13 graves with 6 women buried with weapons).  Why these women were buried with weapons and others were not is never explained.  For some people there must be some explanation other than “because they actually used those weapons” since “There were no woman warriors” (It Says Here).

One individual in attempting to rebut the find claimed that no European Culture ever had warrior women.  Well, perhaps not as a common thing but there certainly had been the occasional exceptional individual.  Scanning through the list over on Rejected Princesses (not a reliable source itself but a good list one can use to checkindividual cases) and checking on various individuals from “European Cultures” (staring with Boudica and going on from there) we find quite a few.  Some Mythical, but some quite historical.  It was never a common thing, but it did exist.

Beyond this archaeological find we have various historical records.  Not many, but a few.  The Wikipedia entry (again, a starting point for follow up) on Shieldmaidens has the following:

There are few historic attestations that Viking Age women took part in warfare,[6] but the Byzantine historian John Skylitzes records that women fought in battle when Sviatoslav I of Kiev attacked the Byzantines in Bulgaria in 971.[6] When the Varangians (not to be confused with the Byzantine Varangian Guard) had suffered a devastating defeat in the Siege of Dorostolon, the victors were stunned at discovering armed women among the fallen warriors.[6]

When Leif Erikson’s pregnant half-sister Freydís Eiríksdóttir was in Vinland, she is reported to have taken up a sword, and, bare-breasted, scared away the attacking Skrælings.[6] The fight is recounted in the Greenland saga, though Freydís is not explicitly referred to as a shieldmaiden in the text.[7]

Saxo Grammaticus reported that shieldmaidens fought on the side of the Danes at the Battle of Brávellir in the year 750:

Now out of the town of Sle, under the captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hakon Cut-cheek came Tummi the Sailmaker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Webiorg was also inspired with the same spirit, and was attended by Bo (Bui) Bramason and Brat the Jute, thirsting for war.

Admittedly, that’s pretty thin pickings for historical references but when you consider that shieldmaidens would have been rare (I’ll get into that more in a minute) and that even with nothing more than a quilted jacket as armor, let alone leather, chain, or other metal armor, a woman on the battlefield would basically just look like a smallish man.  When you’re being raided and begging God to deliver you from the fury of the Northmen, are you going to stop to check what they have between their legs?  Note that in the Varangian case above it was after the battle when they discovered that some of the folk they had just defeated in battle were women.

And, finally, of course, there are the various legends.  Other cultures have legends of women warriors that are almost certainly ahistorical.  The Amazons of Greek mythology, for instance.  But note the role they serve in the stories.  The Amazons existed primarily for Hercules, the ultimate symbol of masculine manly-might, to seduce their queen and subjugate them.  They later appear so that one of their number, Penthesilea could be killed and Achilles could engage in some breast beating about a woman who might actually have been a worthy mate for him.  In short, they existed to show how “awesome” the Greek Heroes were.  This is not the case with Shieldmaidens in Norse sagas.  Brynhilde in The Volsung Saga didn’t win Sigurd’s heart by her battle prowess.  It wasn’t that she could match him in combat.  She couldn’t; nobody could.  She won his heart by her long speech of “wisdom”. (And then she lost it when he was given magical amnesia and–it got complicated.) Her being a Shieldmaiden was almost beside the point.  It was just something she was.  This is a quite different dynamic from that of the Amazons.

Shieldmaidens could not have been common.  Indeed, the physical difference between men and women (sorry, those who don’t want to consider that but reality doesn’t care about your feelings) in pre-industrial and pre-gunpowder combat are such that successful warrior women would have to be truly exceptional individuals falling far outside the norm.  Picking up and swinging a sword, holding up a shield and using it effectively, and continuing to do this until the battle’s over.  Then doing it again the next battle.  And again.  And again.  All that requires physical strength and stamina and men just average better in that than women do.  So you’ll have a lot more men successful at it then women.  And the term for a culture that makes a habit of having a lot of unsuccessful warriors is “subjugated” at best.

So while I think shieldmaidens did exist, I think they were rare and represented truly exceptional individuals.

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