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The Northern Way

Shieldmaidens

  Skjaldmær better known in English as Shieldmaidens were Late Iron Age (Viking Era) women who had chosen to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. Archaeology is at worst poor best guessing, do consider also the figurine could also be representative of a Viking Age "shieldmaiden". 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. 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 SKJALD-, the form taken by skjöldr in COMPDS: skjald-blætr, m. a shield worshipper (?), Yngl. S. (in a verse). skjald-borg, f. a ‘shield-burgh,’ wall of shields, an old battle array, Ó. H. 206, Nj. 274, Eg. 92, 532, Fms. ii. 319, vi. 416, 418, vii. 262, described in Har.
  S. Harðr. ch. 117 (Fms. vi 413). skjald-fimr, adj. quick with one’s shield, Lex. Poët. skjald-hvalr, m. a kind of whale, from its particoloured skin, Sks. 124. skjald-kona, u, f. = skjaldmær, Lv. 63. skjald-kænn, adj. = skjaldfimr, Lex. Poët. skjald-mær, f. a ‘shield-maid,’ amazon, Akv. 17, Al. 121, Fas. i. 140, 177, Odd. 22, 26. skjald-rim, f. the ‘shield-rim,’ i. e. the line of shields along the gunwale of a ship (skip skarat skjöldum), Orkn. 104 (in a verse), Fms. vi. (in a verse), xi. 140 (read. skjaldrimna). skjald-steinn, m. ‘the ‘shield-stone,’ the upper stone of a hand-mill (?), Gísl. (in a verse). skjald-sveinn, m. a ‘shield-boy,’ shield-bearer, Sks. 705, Korm. 118, Stj. 631.

On the same basis as we tend to interpret most graves, this would be the burial of a shieldmaiden. All these finds are from the Viking Age itself, these are not from the literary text world of the sagas. This is the Viking Age as it really was ~ Neil Price

  In interpreting such individuals, we must question our assumptions and categories. What constitutes a weapon or a warrior, and how might we tell? What links do we make between buried individuals and the items accompanying them? What are our perceptions of gender and personal identity? How do we extrapolate from archaeologically recorded individuals to society in general? We must be especially aware that such perceptions are ours and not necessarily those of Viking Age people. Similarly, such critique must be applied broadly, and not just in contexts where the implications are inconvenient for preconceived interpretations. In that light,we also need to examine ourselves as scholars—our own biases and prejudices—asking what we are prepared to find acceptable in the past,and why. We have not ‘gone looking’ for female Viking warriors. The case of Bj.581 arose after the discrepancy in sex determination was discovered through Kjellström’s original study on the Mälar population (see the OSM); since then, we have followed the trail of data and analysis. Similarly, the DNA work that confirmed the female sex of the individual was part of a much larger genomic study, not specifically directed at Bj.581.
  We feel no intrinsic need for there to have been a female warrior buried in the grave, nor for such individuals to have existed more widely. We simply find it interesting that this seems to have been the case. In the course of our research—and even more so after the 2017 publication—it has been enlightening to discover how many people apparently need that not to be so. Time will prove us right or wrong, but we think it probable that more Viking Age female warriors will be found in the archaeological record—either as new discoveries or as reinterpretations of old finds, perhaps using genomics, as we have done. Given the enormous numbers of buried individuals from this period that have been sexed only indirectly using associated artefacts, it is even possible that female warriors will eventually appear in some quantity. Currently, the figure of the woman with weapons seems to be an exception, but this does not mean that she can be deconstructed out of existence—especially on the basis of Pavlovian scepticism. She adjusts and nuances our interpretations, and challenges our stereotypes. She adds still further dimensions to our understanding of the Viking Age as a time of critical cultural transformation and social encounter.
  Clearly, the investigation of Bj.581 has relevance for archaeological studies of gender (including feminist and queer theory), violence, mortuary behaviour, symbolism, and many other fields, both in general and with specific reference to the Viking Age. At the same time, the relatively meagre data from this single, unusual (and exceptional?) grave cannot be made to bear an infinite burden of expectation and agenda—whether in support of or in resistance to, our conclusions. This article is not, and for practical reasons cannot be, an attempt to achieve a greater understanding of Viking Age sex/gender systems in their totality. Instead, this is a case study that, in some ways, presents more questions than answers, but which also opens up previously unexpected possibilities. Not least, we stand before the collective corpus of excavated Viking Age burials with an urgent task of patient and careful reassessment, in relation to not only gender but also concerning the social signals encoded within every aspect of funerary ritual. In the specific case of Bj.581, of course, one may draw different conclusions, but the integrity of the grave and the biological sex determination are secure. It is now for others to decide how they deal with the wider implications. Prof Neil Price August 2019
"There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’ skills. …They courted military celebrity so earnestly that you would have guessed they had unsexed themselves. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall and elegant embarked on this way of life. As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill” (Fisher 1979, p. 212).

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