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Guerber, H. A. - 1909
The Ride of the Valkyrs
John Charles Dollman - 1909 hat tip to Badjuh for the correction
Through most of the cultures throughout history, little is mentioned of the roles of women in society, and many of the records that do exist paint a picture of that society with limitations placed on women based on gender with little rights, or little room to accumulate power or wealth.   Yet the written records of the Norse provide a surprising contrast to that for a society where masculinity was revered above all.  In her article on Gender Roles in Viking society, Caitlin Larson, states that:
When reading these epic sagas and the myths we see women portrayed in a variety of ways.  Some Viking women went overseas and traveled with the men and took part in the killing, fighting alongside them, while others followed a more feminine role with an image of fertility and dedication to the home.
Brynhild was one such woman whose adventures were recorded in the Völsunga saga.  A woman so revered that she rested equal upon a bale with Sigurd, and who interacted with giants, and gods.  
After the death of Brynhild were made two bales, one for Sigurd, and that was first burned; but Brynhild was burned on the other, and she was in a chariot hung about with goodly hangings. And so folk say that Brynhild drave in her chariot down along the way to Hell, and passed by an abode where dwelt a certain giantess.  

Brynhild: “Nay, blame me naught,
Bride of the rock-hall,
Though I roved a warring
In the days that were;
The higher of us twain
Shall I ever be holden
When of our kind
Men make account

Despite the warrior characterization shown in the excerpt above, the majority of the text on Brynhild is with regard to her legendary wit, which she matches with the giantess throughout the tale. But Brynhild isn’t the only female in the saga renown for her ferocity and wit.  The tale of Gudrun gives mention of her own prowess.
Gudrun went down unto the sea whenas she had slain Atli, and she cast herself therein, for she was fain to end her life: but nowise might she drown. She drave over the firths to the land of King Jonakr, and he wedded her, and their sons were Sorli, and Erp, and Hamdir, and there was Swanhild, Sigurd’s daughter, nourished: and she was given to Jormunrek the Mighty. Now Bikki was a man of his, and gave such counsel to Randver, the king’s son, as that he should take her; and with that counsel were the young folk well content
Emil Doepler - 1905
Much as was the case with Brynhild, despite mention of slaying Atli, Gudrun’s council to her son, and thus her words and wit in motivating them for vengeance is the illustration provided of her power. This would also be a theme in the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, where the intelligence and wit of the female, beyond just her beauty,  was a quality that Ragnar sought in his second wife Áslaug.
The saga begins with the childhood misfortunes of Áslaug, daughter of Sigurðrthe dragon-slayer, a character introduced briefly as an infant in Völsunga saga…. Ragnarr’s men catch sight of Kráka, the foster-daughter of cruel and avaricious peasants living in southern Norway. Kráka is really Áslaug Sigurðardóttir (or Brynhildardóttir), brought there by her foster-father Heimir, who was murdered by the peasants for his treasure. Despite the peasant-woman’s attempts to hide her beauty, Kráka-Áslaug is astonishingly lovely, as Ragnarr’s men report to him. Ragnarr summons her to his ship; in an attempt to discover whether she is as clever as she is beautiful, he sets conditions as to how she must come to him:

“I want her to be neither clothed nor unclothed, neither fed nor unfed, and she may not come by herself nor shall anyone come with her’(Ragnars saga 1906–10, 124). Kráka fulfils his demand by going to Ragnarr’s ship, wearing a fishing-net and covered by her hair which extends down to her ankles. She is accompanied by her faithful dog, and has licked a leek whose smell is apparent on her breath.”

Much like Gudrun mentioned above, Áslaug would play a major role in the fame of her sons, as the motivation behind their own viking and their vengeance for the execution of Ragnar, who had he listened to his wise wife, Áslaug, would have not met his fate in the snake pit.  These are just a few examples of powerful women seen in the sagas, but there really are many more. While these records are an interesting example in their own right, the archaeological record provides evidence of women whose wealth and status were beyond what was expected in a male dominant society.  

Caitlin Larson writes that :

For those women who were buried as higher ranking individuals, the grave goods that they were buried with can help indicate what parts women were playing in the Viking culture. One of the most well-known and richest Viking ship burials is the Oseberg ship burial, which many people do not realize was a burial for a woman…. The idea of the ferocious Viking women is written all over the myths of the Vikings.

One such story is that of Fraydis who was said to be the daughter of Erik the Red, in which she travels to Vinland and stands and fights alongside her family (Jesch 1991). As well as the stories of the Valkyrie who fight with Odin as well as mortal men (Page 2004). In the archaeological record we see the appearance of women who were buried with weapons, although in very few. One example is the grave found at Gerdrup, Denmark, this particular burial contained the bodies of both a man and a woman both buried with knifes. The significant part of this grave is the presence of a spear with the female (Figure 5). This spear has been argued to have been used as a weapon, as well as seen as a possible staff used for magic purposes (Gardeła 2009).

These archaeological finds are important evidence that women in Norse society could through their acts move farther up the social order than possible in many cultures of the time.  These burials provide material evidence that the heroines of Norse society were not just stories from the oral tradition, but real women, who held real power derived from their own acts and skills rather than just from their lineage or marital status.  Ms. Larson’s article discusses the Norse burial practices and how the object buried with the person was indicative of his or her profession or skill at it.  A famous warrior would be buried with his weapons, and a particularly skilled blacksmith would be buried with his tools. The deceased would carry his or her status with them into the afterlife, which makes these findings all the more amazing.  This pre-christian tradition is important to note when taking into account the burial evidence Ms. Larson provides in her article, where a woman buried with a spear would be indicative of her battle prowess.  

Women in Norse society could also hold important roles within religious practices. Priestesses of the Norse religion were said to practice a form of magic called seiðr.  Magic was an area of Norse society that was the realm of women almost exclusively.  To understand this notion, one must understand the importance of masculinity to the Norse.   Males who were more masculine, were more revered, and free males who were effeminate would have been outcast or shunned.  Magic was seen as being innately feminine thus men practicing it would be taking on a feminine role, something that can be discussed more thoroughly in a future article.  Though, it is important to note, that while seen as a feminine art, Odin is said to have practiced magic as well.  

An excellent resource I have found in learning about Norse society is the Viking Answer lady website.  While not my preferred .edu source, her articles are very well cited.  On magic in Norse society she says this:

“Many of the most important cult practices of the pagan Norse religion occurred in the housewife's domain, where the woman of the house would act as priestess or gyðja (Steffensen, 191). From the time of the ancient Germanic tribes, women were revered by the Northern peoples as being holy, imbued with magical power, and with a special ability to prophecy, a reverence which endured in Scandinavia until the advent of Christianity…. It has been noted that women's magico-religious activities are always associated with their socially accepted and defined roles. Sometimes women's magic and religion reflect their domestic duties, while at other times magic and religion are the antithesis of a woman's socially expected role, acting as an outlet for rage and frustration but abhorred by the men who define a woman's role in their society (Geertz, 126-141). This is likewise true for magic in the world of the Norse woman. The woman of the Viking Age found magic in her spindle and distaff, wove spells in the threads of her family's clothing, and revenged herself on the powerful using the skills of sorcery.
In Ragnar’s Saga, Áslaug uses magic in this way by giving Ragnar a tunic that would make him invulnerable. At his wife’s request, Ragnar wore this tunic on his final voyage to England, a voyage that Áslaug warned him about taking, but the tunic was removed before he was put into the snake pit, thus the spells could not protect him from death.

Now that we have discussed women in roles of power, I feel it is important to discuss the role of women in the most common aspect of Norse life, the family.   While men held the power in society, women had more power in a marriage than one might expect.  Through threat of divorce, a woman could likely hold quite a bit of sway in a relationship.  Krause and Slocum of the University of Texas write:

Though a man might often consort with many concubines under one roof, the legal wife's status was ensured primarily by the 'bride-price' paid by her husband. This bride-price, as well as a gift given by the husband to his wife the day after the wedding, remained the property of the wife. Her father also supplied a dowry for the wedding, but this was repaid if the marriage terminated in divorce. A wife did not take the name of her husband, but generally kept her own patronymic, and was free to ally with either family if they fell into dispute. A wife was as free as a husband to seek divorce. The sagas tell of impotence, the husband wearing an effeminate shirt, and the woman wearing pants as grounds for divorce. The method of divorce was simple: gather witnesses, state the particular complaint, and the intention to divorce. The result seemed to carry no social stigma for either party.
So, while Norse society was primarily male dominant, there is evidence that women could take on a far more active role in warfare, seafaring, and religious practice than in many other European societies.  The sagas tell us of these women powerful in the ways of war and magic. Women who traveled as far as Vinland (believed to be modern day Newfoundland), and women whose wits were as sharp as their spears. While I wouldn’t  go so far as to say that Norse society was progressive in its views on gender, it is exceptional in its written account of heroic women, its archeological evidence, and its views of marital power.   The shieldmaidens of the sagas, as the burial records suggest, would have been extremely rare, but the average Norse woman in the household, would have held more sway through her ability to divorce, and accumulate wealth in the form of a repaid dowry and ownership of the bride-price than almost anywhere in the world. Moreover, men upon marriage handed over the keys literally and symbolically to the woman of the house.     One essay really can’t due this subject justice, so I will plan to explore this topic again sometime in the future, as I run across more evidence and scholarly articles.  

Originally posted to Jorybu on Sun Oct 27, 2013 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, Invisible People, and Community Spotlight.

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