The Viking Age is the period in European history that begins in 793 CE when Norse raiders attacked the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. It is generally described as ending with the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 CE. The Viking Age thus begins and ends in the British Isles, but the Vikings are not generally considered to be British. The term “Viking Age,” by the way, was first introduced by Oscar Montelius, a 19th-century Swedish archaeologist.
Our starting point for understanding the Viking Age should begin with the word “Viking.” The people that modern historians call “Vikings” did not use that word to identify themselves. The word “Viking” does appear in the Norse runes—their form of writing—but it is a verb rather than a noun. Men, and probably also women, would go “a Viking,” meaning that they went on a trading trip or a raid.
The term “Viking” appears three times in the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle where it is used to mean “robbers” in reference to coastal marauders. In the Irish Annals they were called “gaill” meaning “foreigners.” In other places they were called “Northmanni” or “Dani.”
The term Viking today is generally used to refer to a variety of Scandinavian peoples from the eighth to the twelfth centuries. It should be stressed that the Vikings were not politically nor culturally unified although the written sources at the time—all written by non-Vikings—group them as Norraener menn or Norse men.
The map above shows the Viking home settlements during the Viking age.
The descriptions of the Vikings which were written by their contemporaries have come to us from the people, primarily monks, who were attacked when the Norse went “a Viking” and these accounts tend to be less than flattering. While there were probably women on the raids, the accounts make no mention of them. Nearly all of our knowledge today about Viking women comes from the archaeological record, primarily grave goods.
The popular images of the Viking Age—those found in movies, on TV, and even in many history books—tend to show it as a male-centered time with men going on raids while the women, if shown at all, are presumed to be home tending to weaving and farming. Gunnar Andersson of the Swedish History Museum, in his book Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends, writes:
“There are many indications that women during the Viking Age generally had a more equal position in society than they later came to have.”High status Viking women during the ninth and tenth centuries often wore gilded brooches and colorful beaded embroidery. Oval brooches were generally worn in pairs and were joined by rows of beads. It was not uncommon for them to wear a third brooch below the neck. The brooches were symbols of regional identity: on the island of Gotland, for example, in present-day Sweden, high status Viking women would wear two triangular brooches combined with a box-shaped brooch. The triangular brooches were in the shape of an animal’s head.
Shown above are brooches from high status graves.
As a farming people, land and family were important to Vikings. Land ownership determined social position and the extended family was the basic community on the farm. With regard to the role of women, the archaeological record suggests that they ruled the households and the farm.
Shown above are grave goods from a high status woman’s grave in Gotland. The presence of a spindle stick and spindle whorl shows that women served an important function as weavers. The two small weaving tablets, shown on the left next to the spindle whorl, were used when weaving ribbons, laces, or belts. According to Norse mythology, aristocratic women were associated with the Norns—the mystical weavers of fate who could spin or cut off the threads of human life and destiny. High status women were, therefore, felt to have an ability to influence fate.
While not clear in the photograph, the two brooches shown at the top have an animal-head shape. On the lower right is a key which is hanging from a tool brooch with a chain. The key was a visible symbol of the power of the Lady of the House.
On the lower right, next to the key, is a knife and scabbard. This shows that the woman could defend herself if necessary.
Keys are often found in Norse graves and the well-used iron keys show that these were functional tools. In the graves of some women, however, archaeologists have found unused, bronze keys. These keys would have been worn as a symbol of the woman’s power, showing that she was in charge of the household and the farm.
Shown above are some keys from women’s graves.
Women, and their abilities to predict the future and control destiny, were associated with the mythical Norns—Urdr, Verdandi, and Skuld. These were the Fates who spun and measured a person’s life-thread, and they could also cut it. Women were also associated with the Valkyries, the death goddesses who served Odin in Valhalla. The Valkyries rode into battlefields to choose the men who would die.
Women’s involvement with weaving is seen in the collection of grave goods shown above. These goods include spindle whorls, loom weights, a weaving sword, and staff. The staff, shown at the top of the picture, is interpreted as belonging to the Völur, shamans associated with prophecy. The Völur used this type of staff when telling her prophecy.
Shown above are the grave goods from the grave of a young girl in Uppland, Sweden. She was dressed as an adult, and buried with her was a key (lower right), knife (lower left), whetstone pendant (upper left), and bell (upper right). Bells were used as protection against evil forces as well as toys. Also buried with her were a total of 19 glass beads (center). Children were sometimes described as small adults with superhuman powers.