Female Viking Warriors: Background information when reading When We Were Vikings

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When We Were Vikings

by Andrew David MacDonald

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald X
When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2020, 336 pages

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    Aug 2020, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Female Viking Warriors

This article relates to When We Were Vikings

Print Review

Viking Shield-maiden Lathgertha In Andrew David MacDonald's novel When We Were Vikings, the heroine becomes inspired to take charge of her life when presented with a magazine article about physical evidence of a female Viking warrior. The article refers to an archeological dig from the late 19th century in Birka, Sweden that unearthed the 10th century grave of a professional Viking fighter. For nearly a century, the body was assumed to be that of a man, until more recent studies proved that it was, in fact, a woman. Some academics argue that the determination that the woman was a warrior is premature, and that more information is required before that call can be made (i.e., just because she was found in the grave with the relics doesn't prove the articles of war were used by her).

Although it's believed that Viking culture was predominantly patriarchal, there's evidence that women were respected and, in some cases, given rights equal to those of men; they could, for example, own property and act as head of the household. There are also many legends—some based in historical fact—that laud specific female Vikings as true warriors.

Shield-maidens, unmarried women who fought battles alongside their male cohorts, appear in several Viking sagas, although their existence is still heavily debated since there is no hard evidence to support the tales. Saxo Grammaticus wrote in his Gesta Danorum (a 12-century account of Danish history that included mythology and information passed on by oral tradition), of communities of such women, who "dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers' skills... 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…"

There are also a few women warriors mentioned by name in various historical documents. Lagertha (aka Ladgerda, Lathgertha) is known only from a passage in the Gesta Danorum. In the tale, a legendary fighter, Ragnar Lothbrok, embarks on a quest for revenge, and on his way to slay his enemy gets help from a number of women dressed as men and ready for battle, one of whom is Lagertha. He's so impressed with her skill and courage that he eventually marries her.

According to scholar Joshua J. Mark, Freydis Eiríksdóttir (circa 970-1004 CE) was "either a great woman warrior or an evil, conniving murderess depending on which of the two stories about her one reads." In Erik the Red's Saga (an anonymous account thought to be from the 13th century), when attacked by natives in Vinland (current-day Newfoundland, North America), Freydis stays to defend her homestead while the men of her village run away in fear. After berating them for their cowardice, she grabs a weapon from a dead comrade and tears open her shirt to beat her breasts, causing the enemy to retreat. A later tale has her instigating the murder of her husband's business partners. When he refuses to kill the women of the party, she does so herself—with an axe.

According to Mark, "It is likely that this second story, written later than the first, is an attempt to discredit the strong female figure from the earlier saga... Freydis has a higher chance of reflecting an actual historical person, as the consensus is that these two sagas that mention Vinland remember real people and events that were at least partly preserved through an oral tradition."

Also appearing in Erik the Red's Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir (b. circa 970-980 CE) was one of the earliest explorers of North America. She settled in Vinland with her husband, and her son Snorri Thorfinnsson is thought to have been the first child of European descent born in North America.

Viking shield-maiden Lathgertha as imagined and depicted by Morris Meredith Williams (from The Northmen in Britain by Eleanor Means Hull)

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article relates to When We Were Vikings. It first ran in the February 19, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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