Female Viking warriors: fact or fiction?

My Fire Born series has two heroes: Bjarki Bloodhand, a young Danish man who wants to become a berserker, and his companion, Tor Hildarsdottir, a fiery Svear shield-maiden. I was expecting to have to defend my decision to include a female Viking warrior as one of the main characters in The Last Berserker but, so far, no one has batted an eye about her fighting prowess. Dark Age female warriors are now considered the norm, it seems. But did they really exist?

There is plenty of evidence from skeletons and grave goods such as spindles that women accompanied men on military expeditions, such as with the Great Viking Army which fought in England in the 9th century. At least one fifth of the bones they left behind were women’s – and possibly more. But it is very difficult to determine whether women actually fought in the shield wall or whether they were wives, girlfriends, slaves or other kinds of camp followers.

Female warriors feature heavily in the Viking world – for example as shield-maidens in the sagas, and we are told that the goddess Freya, closely associated with the Valkyries, rode into battle in a chariot drawn by cats – but it is difficult to determine whether women fighters are merely mythological fancies. The 12th-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus certainly believed they were real. He wrote that: “There were once women among the Danes who dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instance of their lives to the pursuit of war . . . They sought, moreover, so zealously to be skilled in warfare, that they might have been thought to have unsexed themselves.” (Extract taken from Dr Cat Jarman’s brilliant new book River Kings)

The goddess Freya before her war chariot, which was pulled by two cats

In 1889, a 10th-century Viking skeleton was discovered in a grave in Birka, near Stockholm, Sweden. The individual was found buried with several items of military equipment including, a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and the remains of two sacrificed horses. For more than a century scholars believed this was a male warrior but, in 2017, new DNA and bone analysis revealed that this was in fact a woman of about thirty years old. And not just a female warrior but, since she was found with symbolic gaming pieces, someone with strategic responsibilities, an officer, perhaps, or even a general.

A reconstruction of the Birka Viking warrior by artist Tancredi Valeri

But just because a woman is buried with weapons does that make her someone who actually fought? It’s not a certainty, the weapons could be ceremonial, or an indicator of status but, on balance, I would say yes – mainly because if we found a male skeleton buried with in Dark Ages Scandinavia with seax, sword and shield, the immediate assumption would be that he was a Viking warrior. So was the Birka woman an exception to the rule – or were women warriors commonplace in Viking society? The truth is we don’t yet know. More research is needed.

However, Professor Neil Price, of Uppsala University in Sweden, concludes in his superb Viking history, The Children of Ash and Elm: “Taking a clear-eyed look at the archeological data, it seems that there really were female warriors in the Viking Age, including at least one of command rank.”

And that’s good enough for me. Tor Hildarsdottir will fight on as heroically as ever before in the second novel in the Fire Born series, The Saxon Wolf, which comes out in January 2022, and can be pre-ordered here. And if you haven’t read The Last Berserker yet, you can order a copy of the paperback (just £2, at present) or eBook here.

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