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Were Viking Shield Maidens Real?

Updated: Mar 4



What’s a Shield Maiden?

A Shield Maiden, to put it simply (the only way to put things in my opinion) was a female Viking warrior. We know about their possible existence as the medieval thinker Saxo Grammaticus wrote about Viking women who “dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of their lives to the pursuit of war.”

Shield Maidens also star in many of the Viking Sagas and they are, without doubt, totally brave-awesome-fierce-mass-murdering-violencelovers.

 

Give me some examples!

Oh, you are a very demanding person. What’s the magic word?

 

Abracadabra?

That’s better. Well, the most famous shield maiden to turn up in the Sagas was called Hervor. There were actually two shield maidens called Hervor and they may, or may not, have been the same person. But, for the sake of our much-loved simplicity, let’s assume both small Hervors are just one big Hervor. Anyhow, Hervor was a mighty warrior, who led armies into battle, commanded her own fleet, and even had a magical sword called Tyrfing.


Hervor gets her hands on Tyrfing from the ghost of her father in this oil painting by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein-Stub

The magical power that imbued this blade was so freaking cool. Basically, even the slightest cut inflicted on a foe would result in their instant death. If Hervor just nipped off a Berserker's earlobe mid-duel then BOOM, one dead Berserker. But, it wasn't all blood soaked roses, as Tyrfind was cursed. Whenever the sword was sild from its sheath, someone had to die. Which must have caused all sorts of problems when it came time to clean Tyrfing. We can only assume Hervor must have had a line of hapless minions ready to dispatch after she gave Tyrfing a quick polish.

 

That’s awesome! So were Viking Shield Maidens real? Did Viking Women go to war and fight in battles?

No-one knows for certain but there is some fascinating evidence to suggest that Shield Maidens did really exist. First off, there are some Ancient Roman accounts that tell of women fighting in the ranks of the Germanic armies the Legions faced. Then there’s the Byzantine historian John Skylitzes, who wrote of women fighting in battle in 971AD. Also, many graves of female settlers have been found to contain weapons. But, the most promising discovery is that of the grave of the Birka warrior.


The Birka warrior grave. Courtesy Evalo Hansen.

Oooooh! What’s all that about then?

First uncovered in 1878, the Birka warrior was found in a grave alongside a multitude of deadly weapons. Archaeologists assumed that the warrior was male, but recent DNA tests have revealed that they were actually female. Lots of historians are arguing about all of this stuff, of course, pointing their fingers at each other and arguing and whatnot.


Having said all that, Professor Neil Price (author of the fantastic Viking history book ‘The Children of Ash and Elm’) believes this is the grave of a female warrior and that other case studies will be found in the future to prove it. And, if the evidence is good enough for Neil, then by Jove it’s good enough for us. So, there you have it, Shield Maidens probably did exist!


Hurrah!




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