What was a Viking? The Vikings emerged from Scandinavia in the late eighth century as marauding raiders and traders with fantastic ships. From approximately 750-1100 CE, the Vikings roamed the world. Popularly, Vikings are often portrayed as overwhelmingly male. Even in the archaeological record, male burials outnumber female graves. Despite this imbalance, evidence shows Viking women lived versatile lives as warriors, witches, queens, traders, and housewives. By exploring the lives of ten Viking women we can reveal an exciting world of intrigue and movement with many mysteries still to be deciphered.
1. Viking Women as Warriors: The Birka Warrior
A warrior was found lying in a wooden chamber in the black earth on the island of Birka. Weapons crowded the grave, pointing to a life of conflict or readiness for battle. A sword, an axe, a knife, two lances, two shields, and 25 arrows rested beside the warrior should the weapons be needed again. Elsewhere in the grave, gaming pieces waited to be used. Made of bone, these game pieces likely formed part of a hnefatafl set, a medieval game of strategy used as preparation for war. Two horses lay at the warrior’s feet. As archaeologists removed the dirt and artifacts from the chamber, they had little doubt that the warrior had been a man of considerable status. They were half right but half wrong.
In 2017, archaeologists published results of an analysis of the warrior’s DNA. These results showed that the warrior had two X chromosomes and was in fact female. Science offered other insights as well. Archaeologists removed three of the warrior’s lower molars and conducted strontium isotope analyses. This study indicated that the warrior’s genetic profile resembled that of present-day northern Europeans. When the analysis was published, some began to question if the weapons really meant the woman was a warrior. Curiously, when the warrior was a man, the answer had always been an easy yes.
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Across Scandinavia, archaeologists have uncovered more graves that include females buried with weapons. In Denmark, they once found a teenage girl buried with a knife and iron axe. In Norway, another teenager was buried with a shawl, glass and amber beads, an imported finger ring, an axe, and a decapitated horse. By a lake in Sweden, archaeologists found a cremation burial on top of a burial mound with combs, brooches, beads, and ten knives. On the surface of this burial, archaeologists found five twisted and bent spearheads standing in the earth.
The warrior woman of Viking Birka was not alone in being buried with weapons. Women from medieval Scandinavia appear to have been able to join in the warrior culture of the Viking world. But this was one of only many lifestyles available to Viking women.
2. The Birka Girl
She was five or six years old when she died. The Vikings buried her in Birka, but the island was not her home. Her mourners buried her in a coffin with a knife, needle case, a brooch, and 47 glass beads. The number of grave goods and quality of the Birka girl’s burial were unusual. Children were often buried with far fewer goods than adults. The Birka girl’s grave, while exceptional, offers a view of growing up in and around the Viking world. In other burials across Scandinavia, archaeologists have uncovered the graves of children also accompanied by goods typically associated with adult women. Such grave goods include beads, knives, keys, and spindle whorls. Young Viking girls likely learned practical skills like weaving and cooking in early life and needed items that would help them carry on in the afterlife.
3. A Ship Fit for a Queen
A serpent’s coiled head climbed past the prow announcing a magnificent discovery. Archaeologists uncovered the Oseberg ship burial in 1904. The ship’s exterior testified to the skills of an expert woodcarver. Additional evidence of the Viking’s superior craftsmanship lay inside with three wood sleighs and carved animal heads. The boat also contained twelve horses, a saddle, three beds, a chair, and two lamps. Looms, tapestries, textiles, two cauldrons, a frying pan, a comb, and shoes. The burial brimmed with everything needed for a luscious afterlife.
Two bodies lay in the Oseberg: both women. An analysis of the bodies showed that the elder woman suffered from arthritis. Dendrochronology dated the burial to approximately 834 CE. Based on the wealth of the burial, archaeologists believe that one of the women buried in the Oseberg ruled Norway as queen during the ninth century. But which woman reigned remains a mystery. Unfortunately, looters beat archaeologists to the Oseberg. Scholars believe the looters made off with the ship’s jewelry as none has been found. The arrangement and distribution of the jewels may have revealed whether the older or younger woman was the Oseberg’s queen.
4. The Fyrkat Seeress, Denmark
The grave stood out. The burial was situated in a ring fortress called Fyrkat in Denmark. In total, thirty graves dotted the fortress, but none were quite like the burial of the lady in red and blue. The woman lay in a horse-drawn carriage in a red and blue outfit embellished with gold thread. Her grave held items typical of the graves of Viking women: spindle whorls and scissors. Other items in the grave included bronze bowls from the East and a unique box brooch. From these grave goods, archaeologists surmised that the woman was a high-status member of the Viking world. But there were other items buried with this woman that suggested there was something more to this woman’s life.
When the Vikings buried the woman in Fyrkat, they included a bent cooking spit, an iron stick with bronze fittings that has been called a wand, a duck’s feet pendant, poisonous plants, and a small purse full of henbane seeds. If the woman threw those seeds into a fire, they would have produced a hallucinogenic smoke. The strange array of goods led archaeologists to suggest that the woman was a seeress, a type of prophet. If correct, the seeress of Fyrkat likely held an important role in the daily lives of the medieval Norse. The uniqueness of her burial indicates that she remained important after her death.
5. The South Yorkshire Woman
York fell to the Vikings towards the end of the ninth century. In 866 CE, the army of Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless invaded the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. In time, the Vikings established a vibrant trading center known as Jorvik. Although Vikings spent a great deal of time in England, their burials are uncommon in the British Isles.
Most of the South Yorkshire woman’s body had disintegrated, leaving the skull and a few bones here and there. An analysis of these remains indicated that the woman likely died in her forties. Archaeologists conducted an isotope analysis and determined that she probably grew up in Norway or Northeast Scotland. The excavation unearthed burial goods including oval-shaped brooches, a key, a knife, and a bowl. The woman of Adwick-le-Street is the earliest Viking woman found in Yorkshire, but much of her life remains a mystery. Was she a trader, raider, or a soldier? Did she follow a male warrior to England after a conquest? Her story is still to be continued.
6. The Pagan Lady of Peel
In the 1980s, archaeologists uncovered a medieval cemetery at Peel Castle on the Isle of Man. The cemetery contained a mixture of Christian and more traditionally Norse burials. Among the Norse burials, archaeologists discovered the Pagan Lady of Peel. Her grave dated to the 10th century. It contained an array of typical Viking goods: jet, amber, and glass beads, two knives, a bone comb, iron shears, bronze needles, a mortar and pestle, and a cooking spit.
The Pagan Lady of Peel’s cooking spit has gained much attention since her discovery. When discovered it was wrapped in a goose wing with herbs lying next to the woman’s body. Some believe the spit might be a staff used by a female witch. Scientists assessed the Pagan Lady’s bone chemistry and determined that Peel was not her place of birth. Scholars believe that the Pagan Lady was born in Scandinavia, lived as a woman of high status, and immigrated to the Isle of Man as an adult. The reason for her journey abroad remains a mystery.
Other items in the Pagan Lady’s grave pointed to her connection to places far from the Isle of Man. Over 70 beads were buried with the Pagan Lady. The beads had been made all around Europe and the British Isles, but some of the beads surprised archaeologists. Examining the necklace, archaeologists realized that some of the beads the Pagan Lady wore would have been at least 300 years old when she traversed the Viking world. The Pagan Lady of Peel clearly lived a life on the move, while maintaining connections to the past and her Scandinavian homeland.
7. Queen Thyra
King Gorm raised a runestone for his queen, Thyra in the tenth century CE. The runes hailed Thyra as “Denmark’s adornment.” Gorm and Thrya reigned over medieval Denmark. Some sagas credit Thyra with the construction of the Danevirke, a defensive fortification, but her role in the fortress remains unclear.
Today, her legacy remains due to the monuments erected by her son, Harald Bluetooth. Harald raised mounds and rune stones dedicated to both his parents in Jelling, Denmark. These monuments clearly show that Queen Thyra played an important role in her family and contributed much to medieval Denmark.
8. The Woman from Ballateare
On the Isle of Man, archaeologists found the grave of a woman in her twenties. Her burial stood out due to the large hole in her skull. Unlike many of the Viking women discussed here, the woman from Ballateare was buried with no grave goods. Combined with the hole in her head, archaeologists thought it possible that the woman was enslaved by the Vikings.
Slavery was a common practice in medieval Scandinavia. The woman of Ballateare may have lived as the Vikings’ property accustomed to hard work and discomfort. If so, her burial represents a life of enslavement experienced by many in the Viking world.
9. Geirlaug From the Hillersjo Runestone
Life in the Viking world could be eventful. The Swedish Hillersjo Runestone offers insight into the drama that could unfold in the life of a Viking woman. The runestone tells of Geirlaug. She married a man named Geirmund when she was young. Together they had a son, but after the deaths of her husband and son, Gierlaug remarried Gudrik.
From this marriage, Geirlaug had a daughter named Inga. Inga married Ragnfast of Snottsta, then Eirik. When Inga died, all her property was transferred to her mother Geirlaug. Though the Vikings sailed the seas, raided monasteries, and traded all over the world, they also had personal lives at home that included marriages, births, and deaths. Viking women’s lives were just as affected by the vicissitudes in their personal worlds as the political, economic, and environmental upheavals of the world around them.
10. The Gerdrup Grave and the Rediscovery of Viking Women
In Denmark, archaeologists opened the Gerdrup grave to find not one but two Vikings. A man lay on one side with a knife on his chest. Beside him rested a woman with a large boulder sitting on her chest and another on her right leg. Genetic analysis suggested that they were mother and son. At her waist, archaeologists found a knife and a bone needle case. By her right leg, they found a spearhead. The interesting arrangement of artifacts and stones at the Gerdrup grave raised many questions for archaeologists.
Archaeologists wondered if the spear in the Gerdrup woman’s grave could be a ritual staff, rather than a weapon of war. But what most intrigued scholars were the boulders. The huge rocks seemed to indicate a concerted effort to keep this woman in the grave. This idea led to speculation that the Vikings’ perceived this woman as having supernatural capabilities, someone capable of returning from beyond the grave. As archaeologists removed the boulders and disinterred the Gerdrup woman, they uncovered evidence of a unique burial that raised many questions about what it meant to be a Viking woman. Archaeologists continue removing obstacles to our understanding of the old Norse, unearthing more and more legacies of the women of the Viking world.