Shield Maidens! True Or False?

My Wulfheodenas homie David Huggins asked me a good question. ”Shield maidens! True or False? Okay, that was a bit general, but female 'warrior' graves, symbolic or otherwise?”. I take this to mean “Were there female warriors in Northern Europe AD 500-1000?”

Let's start by examining why everyone accepts that there were male warriors. Indeed, to my knowledge most scholars believe that at least, say, 99.9% of all warriors were men, and conversely that a considerable percentage of free-born men received some degree of weapons training. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, the written sources of the time not only assume that fighting is done by men and child-rearing by women – they also describe a male ideal where you aren't really a man at all unless you're a warrior. Scandinavians believed that after death only those who died in battle would go to the part of heaven reserved for real men: Odin's mansion, Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain. Other people ended up in a dreary frigid underworld known as Hel and ruled by the goddess Hel. There may also have been a belief though, barely alluded to in surviving sources, that women's souls would take up residence in Freya's hall. And this opens the possibility that all the gods were believed to run boarding houses for souls of the dead. But still: the ideal male way of death was in battle.

Secondly, furnished burial is strongly gendered and this correlates with osteological sexing. Looking at richly furnished graves, you get weapon burials and jewellery burials, so dissimilar that you have to seriate them separately when you build chronology. The stuff they tend to share are things like pots and table knives. Almost always the weapon graves contain male-sex bones and the jewellery graves contain female-sex bones.

Every once in a very long while you get a jewellery grave with a single piece of weaponry in it, or vice versa. But in most cases those are cremation graves where it is impossible to know if (to pick a 6th century case from my dissertation about the Barshalder cemetery) the heavily armed cavalry man was buried with a dainty bead necklace around his neck or if his wife just put it on the pyre next to his feet as a parting gift. So it seems that if a few women were buried as warriors, their grave goods would be likely to be 100% weapon-gendered, not mixed.

Osteological sexing is a method with a margin of error. That margin is greater the more decomposed or cremated the skeleton is. And mis-sexing is biased towards masculinity, because old women who have worked hard have less feminine skeletal characteristics. David's question thus pertains only to an extremely rare class of source material: inhumation graves that contain well-preserved female skeletons and full weapon sets. I am not aware of any such grave in Scandinavia. To someone who looks at hundreds of graves in aggregate, such a burial is just noise in the data. If shown one, I'm perfectly willing to believe that the woman in question wielded the weapons she was buried with. But since they're so rare I don't pay them much attention.

Next important question: given the above, why does anyone believe that there were female warriors?

This is mainly because of a rather common motif in the High Medieval written sources: the valkyrie or shield-maiden. These are scary female warriors who hunt in airborne packs and select the slain in battles. They also occur in Dark Ages metalwork (e.g. Hårby) and tapestries (Oseberg). And they are clearly fictional supernatural beings. Alaric Hall, in his fine 2007 book about elf beliefs in Anglo-Saxon England, suggests that supernatural beings were imagined to be gender benders: elves were effeminate non-combatant males, valkyries were butch belligerent warrioresses. And neither of them were seen as human.

There are a few celebrated Early Modern cases where women dressed up as men and fought in wars. This was seen as deeply deviant at the time. And my guess is that late-1st-millennium situation was similar. Did any women ever fight? Yes, I'm sure some did, particularly when threatened by male warriors, as would have been an unfortunate fact of life in that barbaric age. But the ones who joined an armed retinue, lived the ideal warrior life and went to Valhalla must have been vanishingly few.

Finally, I should point out that to my mind the question whether there were in fact female warriors back then has no bearing on the issue whether women should be allowed today to be soldiers. It might be that that there were lots of female warriors in the Dark Ages but that everybody today should realise that this is an abomination. Or it might be that there were none back then but that we should see it as a great career for young women today. The past is not our mirror and archaeology must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today.

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It seems to me that battlefields contain the skeletons of men who have been cut by weapons, but women are not, to my knowledge, found there.

You mean post-battle mass graves? We haven't got any in Scandinavia from that period.

To my knowledge, there is *some* substance for the existence of at least some female warrior burials among the Scythian/Sauromatian tribes north of the Black Sea (which apparently inspired somee Greek myths) but I have no way of knowing if it was common . Can the Greek myths have influenced North European mythology through the amber trade route? Other mythology influences: Celts?
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"Elves were effeminate non-combatant males"
But...Elendil and Gil-Galad ???!!! Are you saying JRRT is an unreliable source (gasp!) ?

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 29 Jul 2013 #permalink

"To my knowledge, there is *some* substance for the existence of at least some female warrior burials among the Scythian/Sauromatian tribes north of the Black Sea (which apparently inspired somee Greek myths) but I have no way of knowing if it was common."

In both the Fianna and the Cattle Raid of Cooley, the main protagonists of each (Finn McCumhaill and Cuchulainn) are sent to be taught arms by women warriors. Is there any archeological evidence to back up there being warrior women in 1st-4thcentury CE insular Celtic culture?

By Herbal Infusio… (not verified) on 29 Jul 2013 #permalink

Great article - thank you very much for writing it! Like the two commenters above, I'm most interested in the minority of cultures that did have female warriors. (There was also a West African kingdom whose king had a retinue of female bodyguards ... no, not the late unlamented Chairman Mo.) Why those societies and not their neighbors? Did they have more equality between the sexes overall, or a fighting style that was less dependent on brute force and size - or maybe they were just at the limit of their carrying capacity and unable to seize more territory, so that keeping all the women at home breeding as fast as possible was not an advantage?

Thanks Jane! I believe human cultures are way more irrational and poorly adapted than you seem to suggest.

My grandma was named (way back in 1917) after a mythical viking woman, Alfhild, who if I remember right was portrayed as a human woman as opposed to a valkyrie. Maybe it's like female pirates, a handful of historical examples that stand out because of their rarity. As Samuel Johnson said (of female preachers), they are like a dog walking on its hind legs: it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.

"The past... must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today"

This is pretty much all history is, no?

By Eric Brown (not verified) on 29 Jul 2013 #permalink

Eric, if I believed that I would a) not work in archaeology, b) not be willing to allocate it any public funding. History and archaeology finds out a lot about what actually happened in the past. They have some source-critical and sociology-of-science problems, but so do all other branches of Wissenschaft.

We believe there were Irish women warriors because of surviving Roman accounts. This was in pre-Christian Ireland as best I remember.

Fighting with spears or swords requires a fair bit of upper body strength, and men have more upper body strength. (Irish women warriors tended to fight with their legs which makes sense for a woman.)

Nowadays, most of the serious fighting involves guns of various sizes and various explosives. They call the Colt 45 the great equalizer, though not, I imagine, if you don't have one.

Alfhild is written about by Saxo Grammaticus a couple of hundred years after the nominal Viking Age in the semi-mythical 'History of the Danes', I'd suggest a pinch of salt is needed.
See also
'Transvestite Vikings?'
In earlier accounts women encourage the warriors in combat from the sidelines, they are not participants.

By Dave Huggins (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Saxo and Snorri had trouble separating the mythical from the historical. Snorri explicitly wants to make mundane people of the ancient gods -- "Odin of the Aesir was just this king from Asia Minor".

You don't need to look as far as to the Scythian area (and to quite another time, in fact) - there are several female graves with weapons in the area of present Latvia (mainly Livs), Estonia and Finland. Belonging to the late Viking Age or the 12th century, but perhaps also earlier times - such things can properly be seen only in inhumation graves, but we tended to have mixed cremations before. These are women with abundant jewellery but also some weapons - mainly spears, but sometimes also swords or axes. Not too many of them, but enough for not considering these burials as very exceptional.

In (ethnic) Baltic areas, biologically female skeletons have been found with weapons or other male set of artefacts; perhaps, these were female warriors who considered themselves males and belonged to some army. I don't think that "rich" female burials with some, sometimes even luxurious weapon(s) were necessarily female warriors. Although they could fight in emergency, or had fought in some time in their life, they seem to have been anyway defined predominantly as females in their society.

Grave furnishing is not at all so clearly gendered everywhere in the North, as it is in some areas. And, there is also a number of articles in English of this subject, published in the recent years, and mainly for the eastern coast of the Baltic though.

In the same northern half of the Eastern Baltic, where weapons sometimes occur in female graves (or "female" attributes in male graves, in that matter) weapons and more "male" accessories were nearly identical with Central-Swedish ones in the Viking Age. So, it was not at all some faraway area, but part of the same culture sphere...Quite a few female warriors mentioned in medieval narratives originated one or another way from the eastern areas. Was it now meant like that, or did medieval writers consider this phenomenon just so unusual that it needed to be explained with some foreign background :)

By Marika Mägi (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Thanks for your insight! I agree, female skeletons with full weapon sets should be seen as something quite different from the more common female skeletons with full jewellery sets and a spearhead.

Very concise and interesting article. I particularly cherish your final comment and would ask leave to quote it! It encapsulates a couple of thorny discussions we have had recently.
" The past is not our mirror and archaeology must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today."

By julie mason (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Thanks Julie! Wouldn't it be silly of me to make statements on my blog and then try to keep people from quoting me? Go ahead! And here's more on the subject.

The Zulu allegedly had all-female regiments, but I don't know if they were purely ceremonial or served only to carry supplies.

For Jane's enjoyment - I keep hoping the Beautiful Pink Army will invade, but alas they keep not doing so:

By John Massey (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

There is at least one find of a woman with a weapons set (spear and battleaxe) and a neckwound - likely indicating a blow that would have severed the neck, in the Eastern Latvia. I can look up details on the burial field and grave number, if you are interessed.

By Artis Aboltins (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

It is dated to XI-XII century based on the gear, most likely XII. Find is from Aizkraukle area, not sure of specific place as of yet (everything here is a bit of a madhouse in preparation for Battle of Visby reenactment event).

By Artis Aboltins (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Cool! We hardly get any furnished burials from the 12th century in Sweden. Christian burial customs, grrr! Where do you work?

Very interesting! Especially for someone who devoted his life to a female dominated martial art. All though women fighting along men in the field is almost non existent in history we must not forget how often they did so in siege warfare.

By Jakob Ryngen (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

At the moment I am more of an enthusiast in the field as an independant researcher, while working on my masters in Geoarchaeology. A good friend of mine is working on compiling the information regarding the female burials with weapons and their circumstances, but since she is also preparing for BoW (we leave for it tomorrow) it is a bit hard to get the specifics out.

By Artis Aboltins (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Hi John, thanks! I'll have to check that out at home (your comment makes it sound potentially NSFW ;-) )

Finding this is my feed reader reminded me of another article I read earlier this year -… - linking to the whole thing, but she includes within that, links to some studies showing a not insignificant number of Norse women came over to Britain early on, and appear to have been buried with warrior grave goods.

Norse women early on? In the immediate post-Roman period? Or during the Viking invasion? I haven't come across many mixed-gender furnished graves from England, though I can't say I'm very well read there. Nick Stoodley's 1999 book The Spindle and the Spear is the standard text on these issues.

That said though, I have to object to your first main reason. I too believe that 99.99% of the warriors where men but they were also probably the ones who got their history written. We don't know if the rest of the population thought that they where idiots just because they were male warriors. That hypothetical testimony would not survive, however.

By Jakob Ryngen (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Martin, I think that is a very reasonable position. My chief concern is with the people who try to insist that women must have almost never borne arms. In my opinion, those people give societies of peasants and farmsteads an unrealistic consistency and ability to enforce gender norms (and often oversimplify those norms or exaggerate what we can know about them). And they also have to admit too many exceptions (military historians stopped insisting that the only real war is pitched battles between two regular armies 40 years ago). So I might take another tack, emphasizing that while a few women probably fought, what evidence we have suggests that this would have been considered improper, and that I had seen hundreds of reports of a full weapon set with a male skull or pelvis and none with a full weapons set and female bones.

Aris and Marika, if these weapon graves with female skeletons have been published in English, German, or Latin I would happily read the reports.

When we get back from Battle of Visby event I will get the specifics on that burial. On the top of my head I also remember female burial from Lithuania (Pavervite-Gudi burial field) where you have a typical female grave goods and a spear, which was positioned in the same way as in male burials with weapons (i.e., laid alongside the deceased.)

By Artis Aboltins (not verified) on 31 Jul 2013 #permalink

Jane, no - the Pink Army are not USFW, the Zulus are.


Warning 1: Some people with sadly twisted minds might consider this unsuitable for work. At work you should be working anyway. This is 'definitely' in the fun category, now that it is solely for entertainment.

Warning 2: At 01:03, the Drums of Hell start up - if you have the volume up too loud, it's going to cause aural pain.

Remember, these are the people who beat the British - and the Brits had guns. The Zulus didn't.

By John Massey (not verified) on 31 Jul 2013 #permalink

There was at least one Native American Indian female burial that was likely of a warrior woman at a burial relocation project my former employer carried out. This was a female burial with a chert "sword" and no other grave goods. She had healed depressed skull fractures that indicated she likely saw combat.

A number of First Nations in the 19th century had a way to change gender, either between male and female or to a third gender. In those nations, men who didn't want to be warriors or women who did often used that custom. Its an interesting example of how strong gender norms can interact with human diversity. But I don't know any evidence of similar customs amongst the Norse.

That dissertation is really something, by the way.

By John Massey (not verified) on 02 Aug 2013 #permalink

You're always so kind, John! Watch it or I'll dangle my Bronze Age book manuscript in need of a reading in front of you!

Martin, I'm now working, but if you can allow me some time, I say go for it.

By John Massey (not verified) on 03 Aug 2013 #permalink

This is probably covered in Arch 101 but surely the key question for any interpretation of burial goods is why they were buried with the body? Were they goods that the dead person was assumed to need in an afterlife ? Did a person in their afterlife use the same goods as they used in life? Or were their needs idealised? Who selected them? Were they the goods of the dead person or special goods for burial? Was their selection to impress people who the dead person would meet in the afterlife, or to impress the people present at their burial? Was their selection a representation of the person, or of their position (or supposed position)?
Might a female person be perceived to need a weapon in the afterlife, which they might not have used in life? Might the same apply to a male?

By Neil Howlett (not verified) on 04 Aug 2013 #permalink

I always tell the students that a grave is not a person. It is a work of art made up of a dead body and other materials. More specifically, it's a portrait, and for each burial site we need to figure out the portraiture conventions. It's never photo realism.

Hi. I'm late to the discussion but I want to add something. The burials might have been formalities where certain gendered cultural norms were performed (does that make sense?). Therefore, a female would be buried with jewelry and a male with weapons, regardless of their occupation in life. For example, it is possible that the medieval Scandinavians would bury a female with a necklace regardless of if she had been a warrior or farmer. If you consider this, you might then say that while it was normative for females at the time to NOT be in combat, it doesn't mean that they were never in combat. For example, in the contemporary Western world, a woman might be buried in a dress and high heels regardless of if she spent most of her time in life wearing trousers in the navy or a doctor's coat. IMHO, looking at a grave only tells you about burial practices. It might also tell you about WHY they had these practices, but it does not give you a 100% accurate picture of the way people lived. Also, if you look at medieval Scandinavian laws, women were valued and protected for their childbearing roles. It is possible that if women took on arms in the name of protecting their children or families (or the children and families of their people) they were still buried as "women" and not as men.

I agree. A grave is not a person, it is a portrait, a piece of art. So as I said, I believe we should look at the generalities of the roles depicted in burial, not speculate about individual cases. Archaeologists don't produce the same kind of knowledge as historians do.