Shield-Maidens or Housewives? The Real Role of Viking Women
Recent DNA analysis of remains found in a Viking grave in Sweden confirmed speculation that it was possible for women to be warriors and to hold high-ranking positions in ancient Norse society (Morgan, 2017), but what does this really mean? Were women universally regarded as equals in Viking culture, or was the role of women in Viking society less black and white?
On the surface it seems like a no-brainer that Norse women were held in high regard in the Viking age. Ancient Norse myths are filled with powerful women in the form of goddesses, Valkyries, and shield-maidens. Women in these stories were often strong warriors and adept magic users. These stories give the impression that women in Norse society held a higher status and had more independence and influence in their society than did women in many other societies, but was this really the case? Did the average woman’s role in society resemble the role of the women described by Norse myths? Did all women have the ability to climb the social ladder and to hold high-status ranks like the female warrior found in Sweden?
The Role and Status of Women in Norse Society
While Norse mythology was filled with strong female warriors, the average Norse woman probably only filled this role when absolutely necessary, such as in times of great strife during early Germanic migrations. Women may have had a role in pagan religious rites during pre-Christian times, as women were thought to possess natural prophetic abilities during this time in Norse society, but this role was diminished with the arrival of Christianity to Norse lands and the creation of laws that prohibited pagan magical practices (Jochens, 2004). Women had little status in the public sphere, but they played an important role in the private sphere of the home. For the most part, they were legally powerless in public, but did have some amount of power within their own private homes. According to Borovsky (1999), women were scarce in Norse society, so their unofficial status was strengthened in private. Women in Norse society were valued primarily as mothers, wives, and for their domestic work.
It is easy to blame the diminished status of women in Norse society on the arrival of Christianity, but patriarchal societal norms were already in place during pagan times. Marriage was considered a business contract between both parties’ families. The main purpose of marriage in pagan Norse society was to “regulate the flow of property from one generation to the next and to identify a man's legitimate children for whom he was economically responsible (Jochens, 2004).” The groom or his family, never the bride, could initiate the marriage contract. The bride had little say in the marriage arrangement, and was given to her new groom along with a dowry. In addition to his bride, a man was permitted to have concubines and casual sexual relations with slaves and servants. In this regard, women were treated as little more than property. While women didn’t choose their marriage partners and couldn’t do anything about their husband’s extramarital affairs, it was easy for women to obtain divorce and they were permitted to keep their own property after divorce in order to remain attractive to future marriage prospects (Jochens, 2004). Women had some freedom in this regard, but their primary role in society was still that of wife and mother.
Norse women also experienced much sexual violence in both pagan and Christian times. If a woman became pregnant out of wedlock, she could be tortured and forced to reveal the identity of her “seducer” so that he could be forced to provide financially for the resulting child. Norse law required that every baby born had a father, and it was the father who decided the child’s fate. Newborns were brought before the father to be inspected for family resemblances. If he decided that it likely wasn’t his, the baby would be left outside to be exposed to the harsh weather. Women had no power to stop this. Once Christianity took hold, unwanted babies were no longer left for dead, but the father still had the right to send them away from the mother to be raised elsewhere (Jochens, 2004).
Women also had little power in defending themselves over legal matters. Women were considered unable to have the “judicial capacity to look after their own interests (Borovsky, 1999).” The only time a woman was permitted to defend herself legally without the aid of a man was if she was unmarried or a widow and over the age of 20, and in the case of assault or a minor wound. Otherwise, a woman had to be represented by a man (Borovsky, 1999).
Aside from marriage and motherhood, Norse women were responsible for domestic tasks such as weaving and spinning. One of the most important contributions of Norse women to their society was the creation of homespun cloth. Women used this cloth to clothe the entire population, as well as to create other items such as bedding, wall hangings, and sails. This cloth also became an important export commodity, which was used in exchange for other needed commodities that couldn’t be produced locally, such as flour and grain. Though women in Norse society had less independence than men, they made important economic contributions to their society (Jochens, 2004).
Women in Norse society had little control over their lives and were primarily mothers and wives. Their sphere of influence was limited only to private life inside the home, though they did make great economic contributions to Norse society. While they had little autonomy, Norse women did have an important place in their society. It was only in times of great need when women could break free of these limitations and follow in the footsteps of the mythical shield-maidens and Valkyries.
- Borovsky, Z. (1999). Never in Public: Women and Performance in Old Norse Literature.
The Journal of American Folklore, 112(443), 6-39. doi:10.2307/541400
- Jochens, J. (2004). Norse women.
In K. M. Wilson, & N. Margolis (Eds.), Women in the middle ages: an encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
- Morgan, T. (2017) DNA Proves Viking Women Were Powerful Warriors
It's the first genetic confirmation of a female Viking warrior. history.com
© 2017 Jennifer Wilber