Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World 1788314778, 9781788314770, 1350230308, 9781350230309, 9781350137127

Valkyries: the female supernatural beings that choose who dies and who lives on the battlefield. They protect some, but

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Table of contents :
List of illustrations
Language and pronunciation
Introduction: 'Valkyries decide who dies or lives'
1. Infancy and childhood
2. Teenage girls
3. Adulthood, married life and divorce
4. Pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood
5. Widows
6. Old age and death
Further reading
Image Section
Recommend Papers

Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World
 1788314778, 9781788314770, 1350230308, 9781350230309, 9781350137127

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Valkyrie The Women of the Viking World Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir

BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA BLOOMSBURY, BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in Great Britain 2020 Copyright © Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, 2020 Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work. For legal purposes the Acknowledgements on p. x constitute an extension of this copyright page. Cover design: Terry Woodley Cover image © Ash Thayer All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc does not have any control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites referred to or in this book. All internet addresses given in this book were correct at the time of going to press. The author and publisher regret any inconvenience caused if addresses have changed or sites have ceased to exist, but can accept no responsibility for any such changes. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. ISBN: HB: 978-1-7883-1477-0 ePDF: 978-1-3501-3712-7 eBook: 978-1-3501-3710-3 Typeset by Newgen KnowledgeWorks Pvt. Ltd., Chennai, India To find out more about our authors and books visit and sign up for our newsletters.

Contents List of illustrations  vii Acknowledgements  x Language and pronunciation  xiii

Introduction:  ‘Valkyries decide who dies or lives’  1 1 Infancy and childhood  19 2 Teenage girls  37 3 Adulthood, married life and divorce  73 4 Pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood  117 5 Widows  145 6 Old age and death  169 Epilogue  197 Further reading  201 Notes  205 Bibliography  227 Index  243


Illustrations Cover image

Kari Kvittingen Djukastein at the Viking fortress Trelleborg, Denmark. Photo: Ash Thayer. By kind permission.

Images in text Figure A

A picture stone found in Dynna, Gran, Southern Norway. Photo: Ove Holst. Museum of Cultural History, Oslo, Norway, CC BY-SA 4.0.  53

Figure B

Silver figurine found in a cremation grave in Sibble, Grödinge, Södermanland, Sweden. Swedish History Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0.  69

Figure C

‘Valkyrie’ figurine carrying a sword and shield, found in Hårby, Funen, Denmark (C 39227). Photo: Arnold Mikkelsen. National Museum of Denmark. CC BY-SA 2.0.  70

Figure D

Copy of a silver pendant which was a part of an extravagant set of woman’s jewellery excavated in Aska, Södermanland, Sweden. Swedish History Museum. CC BY-SA 2.0.  90

Figure E

Copy of a silver mount found in Klinta, Köping, Öland, Sweden. A figure in a trailing dress carrying a drinking horn. Photo: Swedish History Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0.  101

Figure F

Picture stone from Hunninge, Klinte Parish, Gotland, Sweden, now in Gotland Museum, Visby. Photo: Harald Faith-Ell, 1933. Swedish National Heritage Board. Public domain.  102



Figure G

Runestone U 29 in Hillersjö, Uppland, Sweden. Photo: Ofeig. CC BY-SA 3.0.  146

Colour plates Figure 1

Flateyjarbók (the Book of Flatey), Reykjavík, Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, GKS 1005 fol. Photo: Jóhanna Ólafsdóttir. By kind permission.

Figure 2

A necklace with over one hundred beads and nineteen fish-shaped pendants, found in a girl’s grave in Norrkvie, Grötlingbo, Gotland, Sweden. Photo: Gabriel Hildebrand. Swedish History Museum. CC BY-SA 2.0 

Figure 3

The Saga Oseberg ship. Photo: Ole Harald Flåten. Oseberg Vikingarv and Ole Harald Flåten. By kind permission. 

Figure 4

Norsemen’s Frøya. The warrior woman Frøya, played by Silje Torp. From the Norwegian TV comedy Norsemen (NRK and Netflix, 2017–). By permission.

Figure 5

Stora Hammars stone I, Lärbro parish, Gotland, featuring several panels with mythological motifs. Photo: Bengt A. Lundberg/Riksantikvarieämbetet. CC BY-SA 2.0. 

Figure 6

Gilded silver pendants with niello inlay found in Tissø, Kalmergården, Zealand, Denmark. Photo: Roberto Fortuna and Kira Ursem. National Museum of Denmark. CC BY-SA 2.0. 

Figure 7

A watercolour image by Mary Storm reconstructing what the tapestry found in the Oseberg ship might originally have looked like. Photo: Eirik Irgens Johnsen. Museum of Cultural History, Oslo, Norway, CC BY-SA 4.0. 

Figure 8

Drawing by Sofie Krafft of one of the fragments of the Oseberg tapestry. Museum of Cultural History, Oslo, Norway, CC BY-SA 4.0. 

Figure 9

Hunnestad stone, DR 284 from the Hunnestad monument. Photo: Hedning. CC BY-SA 3.0. 


Figure 10


Runestone Hs 21, Jättendal, Hälsingland, Sweden. Photo: Bengt A. Lundberg/Riksantikvarieämbetet. CC BY-SA 2.5. 

Figure 11

Melina Beck in reconstructed Viking dress. Photo: Ash Thayer. By kind permission. 

Figure 12

A set of jewellery found in Aska, Södermanland, Sweden. The set contains the silver pendant depicted in Figure D. Swedish History Museum. CC BY-SA 2.5. 

Figure 13

Picture stone from Tjängvide, Alskog Parish, Gotland, Sweden. Now in the Swedish History Museum. Photo: Berig. CC BY-SA 4.0. 

Figure 14

Whalebone plaque decorated with dragons found in Scar, Orkney. Photo: Crown Copyright HES. 

Figure 15

Figure in a trailing dress on carved stone no. 123, Kirk Michael, Isle of Man. Photo: Leszek Gardeła. By kind permission. 

Figure 16

A reconstruction of a woman’s grave in Peel, Isle of Man. Artist: Mirosław Kužma. 



hen I started working on this book in the autumn of 2017, my husband, Anders Winroth, had been suggesting to me for a couple of

years that I should write a book about Viking women. It took time and persistent prodding for me to come round to the idea, but he was – of course – right, that I  would hugely enjoy this project. I  wish to begin by thanking him with all my heart for his encouragement through the years, and for patiently, generously and lovingly supporting me, academically and otherwise, while I  was researching and writing the book. The other person who was most instrumental to this project is Carolyne Larrington, my longtime mentor and friend. When I told her that I was thinking about writing a book about Viking women, she immediately suggested structuring it along the life cycle and starting with Darraðarljóð. I  am indebted to her for this and for her never-ending supply of knowledge, wisdom, warmth and humour. I am also enormously grateful to John Davis, who frequently kept me cheerful company over lunch when I was working in the British Library, and to both of them for their embracing hospitality over the years and especially in the summer of 2018. I wish to thank my parents, Kristín Björnsdóttir and Friðrik Már Baldursson, and my friends and colleagues, Guðrún Ingólfsdóttir, Helen Brookman, Merrill Kaplan, Dale Kedwards, Emily Lethbridge, Lukas Rösli and Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir, who, during the course of writing this book, have variously shown unstinting enthusiasm, talked over scholarly issues with me and given me sustenance in various forms. My mother-in-law Eva Winroth and stepkids Elsa and Hjalmar patiently put up with my disappearing into the world of Viking women, and my rambling about them when on this side, more often than they probably hoped for, and I thank them for their humour and affection meanwhile.



This book is based on and synthesizes a great deal of research from many fields within the broad umbrella of Viking and Medieval studies. Many people have been extremely helpful to me during the writing of this book and I thank everyone who sent me their work or recommendations for reading when I was foraying into areas that were new to me. I also wish to thank all the people I’ve interacted with in the Twittersphere for sharing their passionate interest in Vikings, as well as their knowledge and perspectives. During my time at Yale University, I  was fortunate enough to teach a cohort of wonderful students whose astute questions and observations often gave me new ideas about this subject, and whose presence enriched my life in many other ways. My utmost gratitude goes to Ash Thayer for our stimulating discussions about the Viking Age, and for letting me contribute to her film Viking Women: The Crying Bones, which has helped me think about some of the material in this book. Rannveig Þórhallsdóttir and Leszek Gardeła patiently answered my questions about archaeology and Leszek let me read his work before publication. Kristel Zilmer and Marcus Smith helped me with questions about runic inscriptions. I am particularly grateful to Judith Jesch, author of the foundational and pioneering Women in the Viking Age and numerous publications besides. Professor Jesch’s extensive work on the Viking and medieval period, whether on women or other subjects, is one of the pillars on which my own stands, and she kindly gave me words of encouragement when I told her, with some trepidation, that I had embarked on this project. Chihiro L. Tsukamoto read a draft of the entire book and made many intelligent suggestions for improvement, and I thank her for her work as well as our lively discussions about Norse subjects in the last couple of years, which have greatly enriched my knowledge and thinking about the sources. Anders Winroth and two anonymous peer reviewers also read the book and I am very grateful for their positivity and helpful feedback. However, all potential errors of any kind remain mine alone. I wish to thank Alex Wright, who originally took this book on, for his enthusiasm and wisdom, Joanna Godfrey for her careful and insightful editing, and Olivia Dellow, for taking such good care of the book at all stages. Many thanks are due to Ash Thayer and Mirosław Kužma for letting me reprint their art, Ole Harald Flåten at Oseberg Vikingarv for his photo of the Saga Oseberg ship and Leszek Gardeła for his photo of the Manx stone. I am



also grateful to all the museums and the photographers – some of whom are anonymous – for generously making photos available on online repositories for all to use, free of charge. I  wish to thank Yale University for giving me a grant to pay for additional images, and Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, the British Library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford for their excellent resources, which enabled me to do the necessary research for this book. This book was written with the financial support of Hagþenkir, the Association of Non-Fiction and Educational Writers in Iceland, and I gratefully acknowledge their funding.

Language and pronunciation


his book is written for readers from a variety of backgrounds, and although learning material for Old Norse and related skills is easier to find

than ever before, my aim is to make the content accessible for those who have not studied the Norse language or the history of the Vikings extensively. For that reason, quotations are given in translation, but I also provide the chapter or stanza number in endnotes, which will enable those interested to go to the source in the original language. For primary sources in ancient languages, I have generally cited the most recent and/or accessible English translations of these works, but many new and excellent translations are also available in other languages. I  have normally chosen to reproduce Scandinavian words, titles and names in their normalized (West) Norse form, except when other forms will be more familiar to most readers. This is especially the case for Anglicized names of mythical figures and concepts (e.g. Odin, Thor, Valhalla), and, occasionally, modern Scandinavian forms of names (e.g. Estrid, Stiklestad). In Old Norse, the emphasis is always on the first syllable of a word. Without getting too deep into the debate about the pronunciation of Old Norse, there are a few characters that require explanation: ð: ‘th’ in ‘they’; Guðrún is pronounced ‘Guthrun’ þ: ‘th’ in ‘thorn’; Þórdís is pronounced ‘Thordis’ j: ‘y’ in ‘yellow’; Jórunn is pronounced ‘Yorunn’ y: i in ‘this’; Sigyn is pronounced ‘Sigin’


Introduction: ‘Valkyries decide who dies or lives’

We wind and wind, the web of spears, there where the banners of bold men go forth; we must not let his life be lost – valkyries decide who dies or lives.1 On Good Friday, 23 April 1014, the Battle of Clontarf was fought near Dublin. In a bloodbath that cost thousands of lives, the forces of the High King Brian Boru of Ireland successfully resisted an army made up of his own countrymen from opposing factions and their Norse allies. The Norse had been a presence in Ireland and all over the British Isles for over two hundred years, sailing from the North on their agile longships, where they had settled, traded, intermarried and integrated with native communities. Apart from such peaceful activities, the Vikings also engaged in what they are still best known for: stealing sacred treasures from churches, killing people or capturing and selling them into slavery and creating general terror with their brutality. The Battle of Clontarf is recorded both in Irish annals and the most famous Icelandic saga, Njáls



saga, where its main events are outlined and the foremost warriors are singled out. The saga poetically refers to the fray as a ‘blood rain’, a simple but effective metaphor for the slaughter of all those people, but, unlike the Irish sources, it attributes this outpouring of blood to the agency of women. This is not to say that it was fought by female warriors. Although there may have been some women fighting along with the men, we have no record of them. Instead, the key agents of this bloodshed, according to Njáls saga, are valkyries, the female supernatural beings who choose ‘who dies or lives’ on the battlefield. They protect some but guide spears, arrows and sword blades into the bodies of others, the warriors fated to die. The method by which the valkyries did this functions in exactly the same way as weaving, the work that Viking women did all the time. Njáls saga relates that a man called Dörruðr saw the most remarkable sight the same day as the battle was fought. Dörruðr was five hundred miles away, on Caithness, the north-eastern tip of Scotland, and on that day, he saw twelve mysterious people enter a house with a weaving room. He approached the building and, letting his curiosity get the better of him, he peered in to see what they were up to. At first, everything looked normal: the figures he had spotted turned out to be women, and they had begun to weave on what, in those days, would have been a standing, warp-weighted loom. But soon, it became clear to Dörruðr that this superficially domestic scene was, in fact, an event of utmost horror. The warp and weft which made up the fabric under production were entrails instead of yarn. The weights keeping the warps taut were human skulls, not stones. The women used a sword and arrowhead as tools to weave their bloody fabric. And to keep up the rhythm while they worked, the valkyries energetically chanted songs about the unfolding battle. The ‘spear women’, as the valkyries call themselves, revel in the clashes of swords and shields, the spattering of blood and the spilling out of entrails. Their work gains momentum with the song’s refrain, vindum, vindum (let’s wind and wind), and we can sense the battle escalating. Calling the warriors whom they favour their ‘dear ones’, the valkyries boast that they have the men’s life in their hands, and they promise to protect the leader of one of the warring sides against the onslaught of weapons. Their ‘victory songs’ end suddenly – we can assume that the chosen warriors have now fallen – and



the women tear up the red-grey textile they had woven, each of them holding on to their share. The valkyries exit the building and ride off on their steeds, some to the north, others to the south, disappearing as quickly as they had appeared. Presumably, they made their way to the battlefield in Ireland to fetch the dead and carry them off to Sessrúmnir or Valhalla, the halls of the gods Freyja and Odin, where, according to mythological sources, Viking warriors went if they died in battle. In the afterlife, they would fight for sport during the days and feast in the evenings until Ragnarök, the great war that is the doom of their gods, in which they are enlisted to fight the hostile armies of jötnar that march on Asgard (jötnar are mythical beings that are the frequent antagonists but also romantic and sexual partners of the gods, i.e., the Æsir and the Vanir). These verses, usually referred to as Darraðarljóð, ‘The Song of Dörruðr’ – though they would more aptly be called ‘The Song of the Valkyries’  – are among the most gruesome poetry in Norse literature, and their depiction of the valkyries as gleeful, blood-stained, even revolting creatures might come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with valkyries from popular culture. The best-known source for Norse mythology, and the likely model for the popular conception of valkyries, is the so-called prose Edda, a handbook of mythology and poetics composed in the early thirteenth century by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson. The Edda focuses on valkyries as clichéd male fantasy ­figures  – greeters and waitresses who serve drink to the slain warriors. The compound word ‘valkyrie’ means ‘she who chooses the slain’, from valr, that is, the battledead (also the first component of Valhalla), and kjósa, past tense kuru, that is, to choose. The feminine grammatical ending of the word throughout Norse sources means that there are no male valkyries. According to Snorri, these creatures were sent to battles by Odin, the highest god, to select those lucky enough to join the elite retinue of einherjar, the army that will fight in the final battle at Ragnarök alongside the gods. As Odin’s proxies, the valkyries in the Edda arguably don’t exercise their own agency in choosing the dead, and they appear as robotic servants who exist only to help Odin carry out his plan.2 Judging from what little information Snorri gives us, we can draw the conclusion that for Norse warriors, the fantasy of being spirited away by an accommodating lady to a Viking hall, where you can have fun, eat unlimited



pork and drink mead to your heart’s content, might not have been considered such a bad way to die. Snorri’s representation of valkyries is pithy and anaemic, but other sources are more emphatic about their grace and allure. For instance, the ninthcentury Viking poem Hrafnsmál (Words of the Raven) relates the magnificent military successes of a Norwegian king by way of a conversation between a raven and an ethereally beautiful valkyrie. She has white-blonde hair and fair skin, and her ability to converse with the raven gives her a distinctly otherworldly character.3 Eddic poems, the corpus of simply constructed but profound verse relating ancient Norse myths and heroic legends, develop this aspect of valkyries even further, turning them into quasi-human figures who have a mind of their own. The results of their decisions are mixed: one of these valkyries, Sigrdrífa, disobeys Odin, giving victory to his favourite’s opponent, but this causes him to punish her. He not only removes her valkyrie powers but also condemns her to marriage  – valkyries usually didn’t marry  – thus barring her from the independent life she previously enjoyed.4 In the legendary Völsunga saga, a prose saga based on the heroic legends told in eddic poetry, Sigrdrífa changes names to Brynhildr when she stops being a valkyrie and gets tangled up in a tragic love quadrangle with the hero Sigurðr the dragon-slayer, her eventual husband Gunnarr and his sister Guðrún, Sigurðr’s wife. After this change, the story shifts towards an exploration of marriage, family relations, jealousy, greed and ambition at the royal court of the Gjúkungar, but although she doesn’t bear weapons herself at this point, the human Brynhildr retains valkyrie characteristics when she mercilessly orchestrates the death of Sigurðr, her former lover. The women in Darraðarljóð weave their weft of war in a traditional women’s workspace, the textile workshop, using sharp weapons normally wielded by men as their implements, metaphorically causing lashings of blood to flow onto the battlefield from the warriors’ bodies. The poem itself is saturated with the vital fluid: as the valkyries create their fabric of entrails, there is so much blood dripping from the textile that it ‘rains’ onto the floor. The warrior’s shields are splattered with blood, and when the battle is lost and won, the field is reddened. But the weaving in Darraðarljóð seems to be conceptual and the valkyries describe the battle as if they were on the battlefield:



Let us go forth amongst the fighters when our dear ones deal out blows … and then stand by our stalwart king. Gunn and Gondul, who guarded the king, saw the bloody shields of brave men … valkyries decide who dies or lives.5 As the valkyries make ‘shafts … splinter, shields shatter’, we can almost hear the din of the fighting – it seems that the weaving is meant to occur simultaneously with the battle or, more likely, be a supernatural visualization of it.6 In a parallel sphere, the valkyries are on the field among the warriors, controlling what happens and weaving the weapons’ route, thus deciding ‘who dies or lives’. Two of the valkyries in Darraðarljóð are Gunnr and Göndul, well-known figures in Norse poetic tradition. In Völuspá (The Seeress’s Prophecy), an eddic poem narrating the history of the mythical world, Göndul is mentioned in a list of valkyries along with her friends Skögul, Hildr and Gunnr, whose name is also used as a poetic word for battle, and another eddic poem, Grímnismál (Grímnir’s Sayings), names a few more of these creatures, including Hrist, Mist and Hlökk.7 These valkyries also crop up widely in skaldic poetry, an elite type of verse that was cultivated by the warrior kings of Viking Age Scandinavia. In this tradition, which was firmly rooted in a military context, valkyrie names evoke the trappings of war – weapons, noises, blood and corpses – suggesting nothing about their welcoming disposition that Snorri emphasizes. The skaldic representation of valkyries is consistent with Darraðarljóð: first and foremost, they choose the slain, and contrary to the impression given in Snorri’s Edda, they are far from pleasant.8 Skaldic poetry, much of which is embedded in sagas that narrate early Scandinavian history, was mostly composed to describe and commemorate



battles (often fought between factions struggling for regional or national supremacy within Scandinavia in the Viking Age); to describe weapons, sailing and longships; and to praise kings. Consequently, its vocabulary reflects a world where men were mostly in the company of other warriors in the king’s retinue, and women seldom appear except to admire them. Owing to the limited subject matter, the poets’ creative challenge was to find varied ways to discuss the same things, and to that end, they created elaborate circumlocutions called kennings, using mythological phenomena as their building blocks. Valkyries feature prominently in the descriptions of battles, which were often imagined as loud noise – referring to the sound of weapons clashing – or bad weather, on account of the showers of arrows and blood pouring down. Although organized and fought by humans, the ‘storm’ or ‘blizzard’ or ‘din’ of war is conceived as being caused by valkyries and/or Odin, and this is reflected in the poetic language. Many skaldic kennings refer to valkyries with terms such as ‘the goddess of blood/wounds’ or, more baroquely, ‘the desiring-goddess of the excessive drying of veins’, glamourizing the grim physical reality of bleeding out in battle and, again, understanding valkyries as thirsty for blood and death.9 However, one late-tenth-century Icelandic poet, describing a sea battle, conceived of the event as the ‘judgement of Göndul’.10 With this kenning, he compared the clash of two armies to a court scene, where both sides litigate but one party is ultimately given victory by a judge – the valkyrie. In a related image, the tenth-century poem Hákonarmál (Words about Hákon), composed after the death of the Norwegian king Hákon ‘the Good’ Haraldsson in c. 961, imagines a grievously wounded Hákon asking the commanding valkyrie, mounted on horseback, ‘Why did you settle the battle thus, Spear-Skögul?’11 She replies that ‘we brought it about that you held the field and your enemies fled’, taking credit for the battle ending in victory for Hákon’s side, but her matter-of-fact comment expresses neither regret nor sympathy with the dying king. Whatever imagery the poets used, these different types of kennings grant valkyries power over each warrior’s life, and their agency is what determines the outcome of a battle. Since the weaving valkyries need special tools for their blood work, it follows that weapons and valkyries are strongly associated with one another. ‘The fire of Skögul’ refers to a sword in skaldic diction, the blade visualized as a



protruding flame which sears into the body, and the ‘rain of Mist’ implies that the valkyrie makes the arrows pour down from the sky. This works the other way round as well, and the kennings ‘sword girl’, ‘spear-maidens’ and ‘goddess of the spear/sword’ are all poetic ways to describe valkyries, implying that they wield arms, at least metaphorically. The connection with arrows and spears – sharp, projectile weapons that descend from the air – is particularly striking. Since valkyries are able to fly, perhaps they direct the lethal missiles shot or thrown by the warriors into those men destined to haemorrhage all the blood. In skaldic tradition, valkyries are powerful and violent, but coolly impersonal, like members of a well-trained SWAT team who efficiently and remorselessly take out their target. In a figurative sense, valkyries could even be understood as having their roots here, being the personifications of the spears and arrows that ‘choose’ the slain.12 The randomness of who is hit and who isn’t can be rationalized as the conscious decision of a supernatural being, especially if it’s a benevolent valkyrie sent to collect the dead warrior by Odin, and it seems no coincidence that his emblematic weapon is a magical spear called Gungnir. Valkyries, with their profound power over death, are one pillar holding up the ideology of war. They play their well-defined part in the propaganda intended to convince people to sacrifice their life or that of others  – their followers, their sons, their subjects – in the secure knowledge that the bravest and best warriors will be taken care of when they die. In myths about valkyries, we see an attempt to elevate the banality of war  – to make the pain and suffering, the lost limbs and deformities, the piles of lifeless bodies of young men, glorious and worthwhile. Rather than their death being futile, it is their destiny and good fortune, determined by divine beings.

The awe-inspiring Freyja The valkyries’ ability to fly evokes weapons hurling through the air, and it also connects them to birds. Some valkyries remain in their human form, riding through the sky on horses, but in poetry, they have the ability to converse with birds, just as Odin can communicate with his two ravens that bring him information from around the world. Others actually turn themselves into birds. As Odin can shape-shift into an eagle, similarly, the three mysterious valkyries



who are found spinning flax on a lake shore in the eddic poem Völundarkviða (The Poem of Völund) have swan shapes which they use for flying.13 When they are tired of being in one place, they simply glide through the air to the next battle, where there are dead warriors to be had. These dynamic figures, possessing independence and mobility, share characteristics with many of the women we will meet in the rest of this book, whether real or imagined, and these themes are particularly strongly attested in myths about the goddess Freyja, the most prominent female deity in Norse mythology. The best-known text in which Freyja features is perhaps the mythological poem Þrymskviða (Thrym’s Poem), in which, to her horror, a jötunn called Þrymr tries to obtain the goddess as a wife by stealing Thor’s hammer and demanding her as ransom. When Freyja is told that the gods expect her to marry Þrymr to save their skin, she vehemently rejects this idea, indignantly snorting in rage so that her emblematic necklace Brísingamen comes apart, and they go away from her hall with their tails between their legs. (The rest of the poem follows Thor and Loki in their efforts to retrieve the hammer by disguising themselves as the desired bride and a female servant.) Freyja is a somewhat shadowy figure in Snorri’s Edda, which generally tells us very little about her compared to male gods, but she is the heroine of a short myth about a boorish jötunn called Hrungnir who visits the gods in Asgard and demands hospitality. Since Thor, the strongest god, is away, the rest of them are unable to refuse, but when no one else dares to come near the increasingly drunk jötunn, Freyja alone is brave enough to deal with him. Taking on the female, aristocratic cup-bearer role common in visual depictions of women (see Chapter 3), the goddess serves Hrungnir at the table, diffusing the situation and buying time until Thor comes with his hammer Mjölnir to get rid of him. Freyja appears as an impressive figure in this myth, but moreover, Snorri also quotes a stanza from the eddic mythological poem Grímnismál which states that Freyja receives half the battle-slain and Odin, the highest god, the other half.14 If this information reflects an actual Viking Age belief, she would surely have to be put on comparable footing with Odin. This seems a recordscratch moment, screaming out for further discussion about the goddess’s role in the warrior’s afterlife, but for some reason, Snorri does not elaborate, and this passing reference is the only explicit information about this role of



Freyja’s in the Edda. We do not know if the author wanted to downplay Freyja’s receiving half the slain, or if he simply didn’t have more information available, but based on these episodes, we are left with the vague impression that Freyja might have had a more prominent role in the Norse pagan belief system – or some version of it – than what we can gauge from the Edda. Freyja is a formidable presence in the myths addressed so far, and her assertive persona in them is consistent with the most extended depiction of her, found in the mythical poem Hyndluljóð (The Song of Hyndla), a poem that shows Freyja travelling far to seek the well-guarded expertise of the jötnar, much like Odin does in many of his myths. Either Snorri did not know this poem or he chose to ignore it, and likewise, the redactor of the manuscript usually referred to as the Codex Regius (King’s book) excluded it, either by choice or ignorance. This is a unique manuscript copied in Iceland in c.1270, preserving most, but not all, of the extant Norse mythological and heroic poems. Fortunately, Hyndluljóð is preserved in another Icelandic manuscript called Flateyjarbók (The Book of Flatey), a huge compendium written in the late fourteenth century, containing thrilling Norwegian kings’ sagas, sagas and tales (þættir) of Icelanders as well as legends, poems and annals (Figure 1).15 Hyndluljóð depicts Óttarr, a young man with an illustrious pedigree – but one about which he knows little – making sacrifices to Freyja so that she will help him gain his inheritance, which his competitor threatens to snatch away.16 Answering his prayers, the goddess transforms Óttarr into a boar and rides on his back to visit the cave-dwelling Hyndla with the purpose of gaining some of the ancient, prized lore that he needs to support his claim. Only those descended from the jötnar – the first inhabitants of the earth – possess this knowledge, but Freyja attempts to get her to divulge it by appealing to female solidarity, calling Hyndla her sister. The wary Hyndla is, at first, unwilling to have anything to do with the intruders, but unable to resist showing off her learning, she eventually recites Óttarr’s genealogy, while he and Freyja listen in deferential silence. For good measure, Hyndla also throws in a prediction about the future which has many similarities with Völuspá, further proving her possession of esoteric knowledge. After she has spoken, Freyja asks her for a memory drink for Óttarr so that he can retain what he has been told, but Hyndla bristles at the suggestion. The two female characters spar for a while



and the last part of the poem moves into a so-called senna (sometimes translated as flyting), a type of formulaic, contentious verbal exchange that could easily escalate to crude, hyperbolic insults. When Hyndla brands her opponent as a slut – one of the standard insults used about women in any patriarchal society, and one used against other goddesses as well – Freyja sees that it is time to depart and she rides off in triumph with the knowledge for which she and Óttarr came. Although Freyja is accused of promiscuity in both Hyndluljóð and another mythological poem, Lokasenna (Loki’s Quarrel), these claims seem more like a rhetorical device than serious allegations.17 Across the mythological corpus, there are no myths that depict Freyja having sex, apart from one, related in Sörla þáttr (Sörli’s Tale), a story found in Flateyjarbók which depicts her sleeping with four dwarves in exchange for Brísingamen. While this tale clearly draws from ancient traditions, it was clearly shaped by its fourteenthcentury context: Freyja is characterized by greed and lust in the antifeminist clerical tradition, a misogynistic trope frequently encountered in romances that were in circulation at the same time, and one that could have influenced the tale’s writer.18 In fact, Freyja is more often accused of having extramarital sex than actually having it, and it is difficult to reconcile the slander of her as a loose woman – and the popular cliché that she is a fertility goddess that is the result of this – with the powerful, if conceited, figure she cuts in Hyndluljóð, or the brave and powerful one in Snorri’s Edda and Þrymskviða. In Hyndluljóð, Freyja comes across as self-serving and disingenuous, just like Odin does in the many myths in which he steals from and betrays the jötnar. Freyja is ready to use Hyndla to get the information she needs, though in her case, she is motivated by nurturing a reciprocal relationship with a devoted follower rather than Odin’s relentless search for knowledge about the future. Hyndla’s verbal aggression and petty accusations towards Freyja might be said to diminish her initial dignified image, but on the other hand, literary texts represent the Norse system of personal honour as strongly based on holding your own in a senna, so the insults she bandies about are to be expected in that context. The representation of both Hyndla and Freyja is typical of the way Norse authors sketched their characters:  women, no less than men, are complex



figures, often admirable, sometimes flawed, but whether sympathetic or not, they are conceived of as individual subjects with considerable agency, either through words or actions. Viewing the myths about Freyja as a whole, then, what do we know about how Norse people in the Viking Age regarded this goddess? The myths construct Freyja as confident and shrewd and relate her to seeking knowledge, war and death. She gets half the slain in battle, she alone possesses enough courage to deal with an unruly invader, she refuses to marry a suitor she considers unworthy of her and she is a loyal patron goddess to Óttarr. First and foremost, these motifs suggest a conception of Freyja as having been perceived – at least by some – as noble, assertive, powerful and awe-inspiring. As we have seen in the previous pages, the fateful agency of women, and their power over life and death, is a pervasive and consistent feature of Norse mythology. As the rest of this book will show, less supernatural women, too, are associated not only with violence and death but also with preserving life. Sagas tell of proud, fierce heroines who incite men to murder their friends or kinsmen, and these women set in motion or perpetuate devastating feuds, tearing families apart. Other women are the epitomes of wisdom and restraint:  soothing their husbands’ violent instincts, they extinguish the sparks that could potentially ignite blood feud. The ferocious queens of Norse legend use their children as political pawns and even murder their own offspring. Others administer poison that kills, directly or indirectly. Conversely, the goddess Iðunn provides the gods with the apples that rejuvenate them, embodying the life force. An explicitly martial figure is the shield-maiden, a young unmarried woman who takes on the role of warrior, bearing weapons and sometimes fighting alongside men. But the pregnant or new mother trying to protect her child can be equally fierce, and loyal wives put their comfort and even lives on the line in defence of their men. Norse sagas and myths tell stories of war and strife, loyalty and betrayal, murder and revenge, privation and success, and they span the entire scale of human emotion, often ranging between macabre and poignant on a single page. The women in these stories take full part in the power struggles and upheavals in their communities and families, for better or worse. The sources are alive to the causes and results of marital discord and divorce, a legal provision for



which Viking Age Scandinavian societies seem to have allowed, though we meet many women who are devoted to their husbands. But in some spheres, women are systematically oppressed or excluded because of their gender, and the sagas communicate heartbreaking stories of girls’ and women’s traumatic experiences that resonate strongly today. This book will introduce readers to the diverse and fascinating texts recorded in medieval Iceland, a culture able to imagine women in all kinds of roles carrying power, not just in this world but, as we have already seen, as pulling the strings in the otherworld, too.

Women in the Viking Age Life could be exciting for a woman in the Viking Age. Starting sometime in the last decades of the eighth century, the next three hundred or so years were a time of profound changes in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. The impact of technological developments, international warfare and exploration, and the global movement of people, goods, ideas and belief systems in a world without government-imposed borders was felt by all. Power shifted and consolidated in this period, and the interconnected development of Scandinavian kingdoms and eventual conversion to Christianity changed the Northern world for good.19 Perhaps some people experienced this new state of affairs as dangerous and stressful, but it was undeniably brimming with opportunities and alternative ways of life for those who were ready to take advantage of them. The noun ‘Viking’ wasn’t a narrow label equated solely with pillaging; rather, it originally seems to have been a loose, neutral term referring to the actions of people who travelled abroad (it was not a verb like in modern English usage), and it encompassed a range of interrelated activities that included not only raiding but also trade, travel and settlement in colonies.20 For that reason, it is justified to use it about people of both genders who engaged in some, if not all, of these activities, even if they were not warriors. It was not just men who went off to see the world: women travelled widely – often, though by no means always, by men’s sides. At the beginning of the Viking Age, power units centred around chieftains and petty kings who dominated smaller areas, and the disparities in power, status and material wealth within communities were smaller than later. This era was a



period of massive expansion in all directions from Scandinavia. The improved design of ships enabled the Vikings to travel longer distances around the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, trading, raiding and settling as the opportunities presented themselves. The resulting flow of wealth into Scandinavia helped magnates to secure loyalty from supporters and knock out competition, allowing the stronger ones to consolidate rule over larger regions. Women were a part of the expansion that underpinned these political changes. They moved to the Norse urban centres that burst onto the international commercial scene: Ribe and Hedeby in Denmark, Birka and later Sigtuna in Sweden, Kaupang in Norway, York and Lincoln in England and Dublin in Ireland. They accompanied men to raid and colonize all over Northern Europe, traded furs and walrus blubber and hides with the Sámi far north in the Arctic and sailed along the coast of Poland and deep down the Russian rivers, where Scandinavians established the Rus kingdom. The Vikings explored lands in the West largely unknown to Europeans, settling in Iceland and Greenland, and although their attempt to operate in North America was short-lived, we know that the women made it that far, too. Despite all these changes, the primary Norse way of life remained predominantly rural, and the fundamental social structure consisted of households living in the traditional longhouse, an architectural style that the Vikings brought with them wherever they settled in the North Atlantic.21 Whether in Scandinavia or Viking colonies, women were often in charge of running the family farm with their husband, or alone when the men were away or dead, becoming important pillars of their family and community. Remaining at home does not mean their days were monotonous and boring. With increasing demand for produce and goods, especially textiles, they could seize new opportunities to expand the household’s economy, which brought them into contact with the world beyond their homestead, for instance at seasonal gatherings and markets. Viking women were bold and resourceful, determined to use their assets and skills to improve their material conditions, social status and political influence. They involved themselves in politics, sometimes through their husbands or male relatives, but others claimed space to make their own independent life and decisions. A few women became proxy or co-rulers, and perhaps even sole rulers, empowered by their authority or charisma.



Gender is a fundamental category that has structured human societies throughout history, but it is much more complex than a simple male/female binary. One of the factors that complicate gender identity, especially for women, is age.22 Women were (and are) perceived differently depending on whether they are unmarried or married, fertile or not, and becoming a widow could give women a new-found freedom and independence but also leave them unprotected. As both literary sources and burials show, old women were sometimes seen as dignified and worthy of respect, or witch-like. The Norse had sophisticated laws that provided married and widowed women with substantial scope and security, and the protections afforded to children suggest that they were seen as valuable members of society. On the other hand, adolescent girls seem to have had little ability to make their own decisions and they were often married off as suited their family. The book will follow the life cycle, addressing each of these phases in turn to uncover the complexity of a woman’s experiences and the shifting identities and roles she might have had. Social status is another factor that intersects with gender, and different social groups probably had different dominant gender models. Individual women no doubt sometimes broke glass ceilings and rose to positions of power, perhaps enabled by a particularly advantageous social network, but on a structural level, upper-class women were still less powerful than men. However, their lives would have been very different from those of peasants and servants, let alone slaves, who probably had dreadful lives, and elite women might not have shown much solidarity with their sisters across class divides. A  woman’s economic status was also hugely important, whatever her age and class: having either movable assets or land determined whether she was able to marry and support herself and her family. Yet another variable was people’s place of origin and their ethnicity. Norse men and women might not have thought much about their identity as Norse in their daily life, but they may have done so when they lived, traded or intermarried with other ethnic groups, including people from the British Isles or the Sámi, a semi-nomadic Finno-Ugric people who lived much further south on the Scandinavian peninsula in the Viking Age than they do now. Isotope and other analysis shows that there was an influx of migrants to Scandinavia, particularly in (proto-)urban settlements:  for example, around half of the population of the late-Viking



Age town Sigtuna was not born in Sweden.23 When the Vikings were on their travels, their dress and language would have distinguished them from other peoples, and in mixed settler communities in Viking colonies, ethnicity may have become important. I will bring up these intersectional issues when relevant, but suffice to say that Viking women’s identity was complicated and heterogeneous, and it developed throughout an individual woman’s life as time passed and circumstances changed.

Parchment, earth, stones Few written sources created by the Scandinavians themselves are preserved in a genuinely Viking Age context, except for terse inscriptions preserved on the runestones that dot the gentle landscape of Sweden and Denmark – they also appear in Norway and the British Isles, though in fewer numbers. These brief texts carved in runes, commemorating a deceased relative, provide us with the names and relationships of people who lived a thousand years ago, and by interpreting them, we can get closer to the ways in which they thought about themselves in relation to other people. The inscriptions and the imagery of which they are a part also reflect the transition from heathenism to Christianity and how women configured and adapted their identity to a new belief system. A few additional aspects about the Vikings can be gleaned from contemporary European sources, written either by visitors to Scandinavia – usually merchants and missionaries – or the Vikings’ victims in the British Isles and on the Continent. Place names provide yet more pieces of a larger puzzle, giving us a window into the distribution of pagan cults or proof for Norse settlement beyond Scandinavia, a movement of people described as a diaspora. The picture stones in Gotland, an island in the Baltic off the coast of Sweden, and other Viking art such as tapestries, stone carvings, metal figurines and gullgubber (tiny pieces of gold foil with images stamped on them) depict what seem to be mythological scenes and may thus give us some access to their ideas about death and the afterlife. This iconography allows us to reconstruct an impression of how Viking women dressed and styled their hair.



An important source for our knowledge about the Viking Age is, of course, what is dug out of the earth. Grave goods and other finds suggest that women in the Viking Age had diverse roles and identities. They were not ‘only’ housewives who cooked and cared for the nuclear family at home, though that was an indispensable, demanding and highly valued role that has often inaccurately (and puzzlingly) been described as ‘passive’. However, many women also engaged in some of the same tasks as men (and vice versa). They explored the world, ran busy farms or textile workshops, worked as craftsmen and in trade, and although we have no unambiguous evidence for independent female rulers, women’s rich burials in power centres suggest that some women engaged in politics and public affairs. Archaeology, a large field, employs divergent approaches, ranging from testing excavated materials in a lab to analysis using theoretical frameworks from the humanities and social sciences. Although bones often do not survive well (if at all) in the earth, techniques such as isotope and carbon analysis can tell us about people’s nutrition and whether they grew up in the same place as where they were buried, which was often not the case in the Viking Age. Osteological analysis can reveal congenital defects, poor health and physical trauma, while the shape of people’s pelvis and cranium can indicate biological sex. The study of architecture and material culture – how the Norse organized their living space, the objects they used at their daily work or took with them to the grave and even what they threw away into garbage heaps  – opens many windows into everyday lives. These studies flesh out the complex and fascinating reality behind the clichés about the Vikings, showing us how women really lived, how they saw themselves and what they believed. Taken together, sources from the Viking Age can tell us a good amount about the Vikings, but they do not fully capture the beliefs, traditions and values preserved in laws and the works of literature that their descendants wrote down. Although they were changed and adapted in the course of time, some components of these texts and treatises are believed to date to the Viking Age in some shape or form. How to deal with this evidence is not always straightforward, since written sources do not preserve memories of the Viking Age in a time capsule, and literary scholars and historians devote their efforts to further our understanding of the ways in which saga authors worked with



their source material. We know that many of the events depicted in the sagas probably didn’t happen, or not exactly in the way they are told in the sagas, and certain aspects have obvious elements of wish fulfilment about them, for example, when the ancestors of the sagas’ patrons are depicted as more noble or important than they probably were. Saga authors based their texts on traditional tales, but they were creative minds who sometimes took poetic licence, inventing characters and dramatic conversations or using literary techniques such as stranded narratives, intertextual references or foreshadowing, which builds suspense and foreboding.24 The sagas are further shaped by the contemporary culture and concerns at the time of writing, and the medium of ink and parchment, which was enormously expensive and labour-intensive to produce, and thus, writing sagas was the preserve of the few. The Christian, learned scribes who wrote the manuscripts were somewhat bound by honouring the tradition, but they were also trained in subjects such as grammar and rhetoric and familiar with contemporary European literature, including medieval romances. Their education and attitudes affected the way they wrote, leading them to edit and rearrange the material to suit their own taste or that of their patron or audience. Some were concerned with maintaining verisimilitude, while others made generous use of folkloric and supernatural motifs – even fantasy elements. Although the sagas are narrated in an economical style, relaying conversations, actions and events rather than elaborating on their characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, their apparent objectivity is deceptive: only highly skilled authors can craft literature as powerful and sophisticated as the sagas. The endurance and popularity of these works is in no small way thanks to their arresting images of women, many of whom we will meet in this book. Although the sagas and poems on which we base so much of what we know about Norse culture are strongly shaped by literary culture at the time of the sagas’ writing, they nevertheless retell ancient stories that were strongly rooted in an ancient tradition. We know this from corroborating evidence, especially tales preserved in Old English and medieval German poems that also stretch back to this same Germanic narrative universe. Viking Age runic inscriptions are another type of such evidence. For example, a thirteenth-century eddic poem mentions the legendary figure Þjóðrekr, a character who also crops up



on the Rök runestone (c.800), located in the Östergötland province in Sweden. Thus, Icelandic authors  – writing 150 or more years after the Viking Age ended – drew on a common store of recurring plots, themes and characters that reflect the deep-seated attitudes and fundamental beliefs of the people who shared these traditions. That medieval writers were still engaging with these centuries-old narratives means that they had enduring relevance, exploring the recurring sources of contention and conflicts that characterize societies structured in the way that the Norse one was, whether in the Viking Age or the thirteenth century. The modes of thinking expressed in Norse sagas and poetry were a product of a society without a state and an executive branch of power, and until 1262, Iceland was a commonwealth with largely similar social structures and methods to resolve conflicts as those in the Viking Age.25 As we will see, family was a fundamental building block in this society, and honour was a crucial asset in a judicial system centred on feud and vengeance. Thus, although the sagas are literary creations composed to be effective narratives, in another way, they are ‘true’ stories that enabled writers and their audiences to address themes and problems that resonated strongly with them. Finally, some information in the sagas has been shown to be ‘true’ by other means. Women such as Unnr ‘the Deep-Minded’ and Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir  – fearless pioneers who sail to new lands in the West, settling in Iceland and Greenland or exploring unknown territories in North America – are captivating as literary characters, but their movements are supported by archaeological finds. Whether or not these exact women existed in reality, someone of a similar description probably did. In other words, literary texts are challenging sources to work with, but they shouldn’t be seen as purely ‘made up’ and therefore unworthy of our attention. Provided that we recognize which elements of the sagas are recurring literary tropes, and carefully sort out what might reflect a distant reality, written sources give us some access to the Vikings’ identities, worldviews and ways of life. Theirs was an unsentimental, pragmatic mindset, one that may, in many cases, seem merciless towards human life, just as the valkyries have no sympathy towards the great warriors and kings whose death they cause. That the valkyries and Freyja, the main mythological female figures in Norse culture, have so much agency is a consequence and reflection of a society in which women’s contributions, work and wisdom were essential.

1 Infancy and childhood

Then still with Svanhild sat her maids, the one of my children whom I loved best in my heart, so was Svanhild in my hall like a splendidly glowing sun-ray.1 These poignant lines, a mother’s expression of love for her daughter, are spoken by the heroine Guðrún, a woman who suffers through one tragedy after another in the course of her tumultuous life. Guðrún, who was born into the Gjúkung dynasty, is bullied into a disastrous marriage by her own mother, and she loses three brothers, two husbands, her daughter and four sons in the brutal events that form the core narrative of Norse heroic legend, told in eddic poems collected in the Codex Regius and the prose Völsunga saga (see Introduction). But Guðrún wasn’t a straightforward victim and some of these losses were her own doing: in Guðrún, we meet a child murderer. The story of how Guðrún came to kill her children is complicated: she was not always that cold-blooded, but the constant feuds and slayings that characterize her world eventually make their mark on her. Her problems go far back in time, and they are rooted in other people’s greed and betrayals rather than her own. Guðrún’s second husband, Atli, wanted to get his hands on her brothers’ gold, so he lured them into a trap and murdered them. Her brothers, on the other hand, had killed Sigurðr the dragon-slayer, Guðrún’s first husband, and their sworn brother, for this same gold. Even so, the brothers’ murder is a heavy blow for Guðrún and she cannot forgive Atli for killing them. She decides to take the most horrifying revenge conceivable and murders the two



young sons she has by him. One poet describes how the boys came into their mother’s arms when she called them to her: Guðrún’s sons were afraid, sensing that something was not right, and protest, but still, they didn’t cry, and their mother slit their throats. Mixing their blood with ale and carving their flesh into steaks, she feeds them to their father, who thereby unwittingly commits cannibalism. After the fateful meal, Atli starts to worry about his sons and asks where they have gone, but too late. Triumphantly, Guðrún gloats to her husband about her revenge, revealing how she has treated their sons’ bodies: Your boys you have lost … their skulls, you know, are used for ale-goblets I augmented your drink by mixing it with their blood. I took their hearts and roasted them on a spit, gave them to you – told you they were calf-meat … you wouldn’t leave any scraps, chewed it up greedily, trusting your back teeth.2 Guðrún’s disgust at Atli’s indelicate manner of eating is palpable, though her revulsion may really stem from Atli’s cannibalism and her own part in it. Completing her revenge for her brothers, she stabs Atli to death before setting his hall on fire, ending his bloodline and kingdom. Years later, we meet Guðrún again, now on husband number three. At this point, she has suffered another loss: her young daughter Svanhildr, married to a jealous, older man, had been unjustly accused of adultery and put to death by her husband. Bereft but unbending, Guðrún sends her other two sons, Hamdir and Sörli, on a mission to avenge their sister, one from which all three know they will never return. Like their little half-brothers before them, Hamdir and Sörli plead, protest and argue with their mother, but their words are futile. The prospect of losing her only remaining family does not deter the steely Guðrún – revenge is more important to her than the life of her children. Such an utterly uncompromising view, where your own flesh and blood is collateral damage in the zero-sum game of honour, might be bizarre, deranged or repugnant to many modern readers, and it raises the question whether Norse people saw children as mere objects that could be useful resources in the pursuit of revenge. Other texts also hint at a harsh, even callous attitude

Infancy and Childhood


towards children. In Laxdæla saga, a scorned woman takes her former partner unawares at the crack of dawn and unceremoniously dumps their infant daughter on him, abandoning her child to her ex.3 Medieval law codes record oblique but somewhat plausible references to infanticide, and more hyperbolically, a Spanish traveller who visited the Viking town Hedeby in the tenth century claimed that its inhabitants threw surplus children they couldn’t afford to raise into the sea.4 Such examples give the impression that to the Vikings, babies and children were no bundles of joy but, rather, disposable, unloved objects that can easily be got rid of by abandonment or murder. The Vikings do have a reputation for brutality, but that was when they were abroad on raids, doing violence onto ‘foreigners’ and enemies, not their own flesh and blood. Could these people really have been so savage as to desert or kill their own children in the most abjectly cruel ways imaginable – slitting their throats, drowning them, leaving them out to die or sending them off to a certain death in battle? Did the Vikings not love their children? The short answer is, of course they did, and though their ideas about parenting were probably radically different from modern practices, most people treated their offspring well and cared for them, physically and emotionally, the best they could. Although heroic legend has a very limited value for recovering historical events, it is important to realize that these sources do not justify or idealize sacrificing children for the sake of the family’s honour or any other reason for that matter. On the contrary, in the eddic poem Guðrúnarhvöt (The Whetting of Guðrún), Guðrún is determined when she takes Hamdir and Sörli’s battle gear out for them, laughing in the knowledge that they will exact revenge for their sister, but she breaks down in tears after their departure.5 It’s not clear if these are tears of repentance, but Guðrún realizes that she must live with the dreadful fact of having sent her sons to their deaths, and the poem depicts her as aware of how her choices have changed her for the worse. Norse legend gives us an insight into the horrific costs of maintaining an unyielding culture of honour and shows that the Vikings’ descendants were intensely preoccupied with the repercussions of pursuing revenge. The legends about Guðrún convey the inner turmoil and remorse that many people may have experienced when the ideology of maintaining honour at all costs and the love for a child collided.



Guðrún’s story also provides a window into gendered views towards daughters and their value. Guðrún insists on vengeance for Svanhildr:  for her, the killing of a daughter was just as much of a crime against her family as the slaying of a husband or brother. Her sense of honour demands that it be redressed, even if such efforts entailed sacrificing her other children. Svanhildr’s death is felt not only in social terms – honour being the currency with which to maintain social status – but also on an emotional level. Amidst all the gruesome bloodshed and violence Guðrún commits or has committed, and the rigid ideology to which she adheres, she is also capable of deep feelings for her child. The poet of Guðrúnarhvöt has the mother express this in the plainly worded but poignant verse cited at the beginning of the chapter, where she compares Svanhildr to a gleaming ray of sun. The bereaved Guðrún then goes on to describe how she carefully adorned her precious girl with gold and finery before sending her off into adulthood and marriage, and she wails that Svanhildr’s death – she was trampled by horses, her white-blonde hair stomped into the mud  – was the cruellest of her many tragedies. Heroic poetry may have a reputation for brutality but poets were certainly capable of exploring a mother’s feelings of love and loss, too. It is unlikely that many girls, if any, were treated in such a cruel way as the literary character Svanhildr. However, children often died prematurely, usually because their young bodies were not able to withstand the challenging health and sanitary conditions of the Viking Age. Excavated graves show that many mourners put a great deal of thought and tenderness into the burials of daughters, dressing them in their best clothes and jewellery before laying them to rest.6 The profound love Guðrún feels for her daughter, and the burning grief when she loses her, must have been the experience of many parents in the Viking Age.

Infants Although we have seen that the Vikings loved their children, when a healthy child was born to a woman in the Viking Age, such an event may not always have given rise to joy. An unwanted baby may not have been allowed to live for

Infancy and Childhood


more than a few hours, and the phrase bera út (carry out) is used throughout the written sources about the act of infant exposure, that is, putting babies out to be found by others – or, realistically, to die – in nature. The evidence for infanticide is scant and flawed, but analyses of Norwegian and Icelandic laws from Christian times indicate that this practice may have been entrenched in Norse culture. After the conversion in Norway, laws were repeatedly passed against infanticide, suggesting that however much lawmakers regarded it as a pagan and despicable custom, it was an uphill struggle to get people to change their ways.7 In Iceland, the author of Íslendingabók openly admits that one of the major concessions when the ruling class decided that the country should convert to Christianity was to continue to permit child exposure, though he also asserts that it was banned a few years later.8 The bodies of babies have been found in springs and wetlands around Scandinavia, suggesting that there may be some kernel of truth in these later medieval stories about infanticide, and the traveller to Hedeby may not have been entirely wrong about babies being drowned. Many scholars have interpreted such finds as stemming from ritual sacrifices, where water and wetlands were viewed as gateways into another world, but these children may also have been deposited for more prosaic reasons.9 What might have been other motivations for killing or abandoning babies? Sagas claim that infanticide mainly arose from either poverty or physical criteria, that is, birth defects, disabilities or just a sickly appearance, indicating that the child would have limited ability to work when it got older. As one author apologetically explains, It was sometimes the custom when the country was completely heathen for people of little means with many to have their children carried out for exposure. It was nevertheless always considered a bad deed.10 This account is written centuries after the events in the saga are said to have taken place, but it doesn’t seem entirely unfeasible. We know that resources were often scarce, the summers were short, and analysis of Viking Age skeletons shows that in bad years, even those who were better off suffered through periods of malnutrition.11 In a subsistence economy, limited means were probably among the most important considerations for raising a child,



particularly if the mother was a servant who was dependent on her employers for food and shelter. The long-term cost of raising girls, who needed dowries when (and if) they got married, was another consideration. Scholars have speculated that girls were somewhat more likely to be exposed than boys because of structural inequalities based on gender. The evidence is admittedly not very strong, but one of the indications is the pattern that appears in runic inscriptions on Swedish runestones raised by groups of brothers and sisters in memory of family members. These inscriptions systematically name many more men than women as the sponsors and there are almost no cases of more than two sisters raising a runestone, while the brothers’ names can be as many six.12 This skewed ratio could suggest that there were more brothers than sisters in the average family, though another explanation is that women were sometimes not considered important enough to be mentioned on runestones. At any rate, this pattern has given rise to speculation that if a couple already had one or two daughters, additional girls were considered a drain on the family’s economy and may have been exposed. Icelandic saga authors do not represent infanticide in a realistic way, preferring to address it only when a child who later turns out to be important in the narrative is saved from exposure. In Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu (The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue), Þorsteinn Egilsson, a rich man who belongs to one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Iceland, has a disturbing premonitory dream in which two warlike eagles kill each other while a swan looks on. His companion interprets the dream, suggesting that it concerns the future fate of his unborn baby girl, represented by the swan, and her two suitors, who will die as a result of fighting over her hand in marriage (see Chapter 2). The father naturally becomes worried about future violence and his solution is to nip the problem in the bud. Þorsteinn orders his wife Jófríðr, who indeed turns out to be pregnant, to have the child killed when it is born, should it be a girl. This announcement comes as a complete shock to his wife, and she exclaims that he can’t be in his right mind. When the girl is born, Þorsteinn is away, and Jófríðr disobeys his command, sending their daughter to her paternal aunt who lives in another district, and the aunt raises the child in secret. Six years later, Þorsteinn is overjoyed to discover that a radiantly lovely, blonde girl he meets at

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his sister’s house is his own daughter. Taking the girl, Helga, back into his own home, he admits his previous error of judgment, and she grows up to become one of the most eligible young women in Iceland.13 The story about Helga’s birth and early childhood do not tell us much about the mundane aspects of child exposure as it might have been practiced – it fulfils a literary purpose. The ominous dream and secret escape foreshadow the terrible, fated events narrated later in the saga and make the reader regard Helga as even more special than if she’d had an unremarkable infancy. Girls who are born frail, disabled, in poverty or to a single, lower-class mother might not have been as fortunate, but such children generally don’t warrant a mention in sagas. Whether infanticide happened with any frequency or not, in reality, many children died of natural causes, often within a year of being born. The infant mortality rate probably ranged between 30 per cent and as much as 60 per cent, as is normal for societies without modern medicine and challenging living conditions (see Chapter 4).14 The archaeological record on children is patchy, and sometimes Norse graveyards have strangely few babies buried in them, which has fuelled speculation about infanticide.15 But this has been explained by other factors, such as the poor preservation of children’s small bones or separate burial practices for infants. Other heathen and early Christian cemeteries – especially those that have been excavated more recently with better methods – do preserve the remains of children in the proportions that could be expected, and, moreover, many infants were given rattles or cups for milk to have in their little grave.16 One Gotlandic girl of around 3 or 4 was even buried with a horse and a dog as her companions.17 Sometimes children were buried with older people, perhaps relatives; many multiple-occupancy graves are a mystery but they might all have died from a contagious disease or accident, or perhaps one of them accompanied the other to the afterlife as a sacrifice.18 At any rate, the Norse were by no means the heartless baby-killing monsters that the Southern traveller made them out to be. Moreover, killing a pregnant woman was regarded as a heinous crime: The Icelandic lawbook Grágás states that even if a woman is an outlaw – which usually meant that she could be killed with impunity – no one has a right to kill her if she is with child. If they do, the incident shall be prosecuted as two killings.19 Unborn children were clearly worth protecting – after all, they were the future.



Entering the social world Some Norse texts claim that babies were sprinkled with water in a name-giving ceremony, though, without other evidence to corroborate this, it’s difficult to gauge if this custom really existed or, more likely, that it was retroactively inserted into narratives by Christian scribes.20 According to some Norse laws, when a child was formally initiated into the community, one of the first steps was the first feed. The new mother nursed her infant in the presence of others, a transformative act which symbolically acknowledged the child as a member the household.21 Another ritual may have been performed before or after the first feed in which the father took the new baby into his arms, meaning that he acknowledged paternity and responsibility for its well-being. Written sources seem to agree that the father (or the male head of the household) had ultimate power to decide whether the baby lived or was put out to die, a right which superseded the mother as the source of life.22 As the case of Helga shows, mothers would have had to resort to surreptitious methods to keep their child alive against its father’s wish. Whatever the rituals were, they weren’t primarily a reason to gather the family together to admire the baby  – their purpose was more practical. By performing a ritual in public, the parents declared responsibility for their children’s upkeep and incorporated them into the line of inheritance, giving them legal personhood. This is also reflected in traditions of naming: children were frequently named after their grandparents or other ancestors, fostering a sense of continuity through the generations.23 On the other hand, if the father did not accept paternity, which was probably often the case if he had impregnated his servants, the child was a social outsider and had no right to inherit. Judging from the various Scandinavian and Icelandic law codes written down in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but believed to stretch back to the Viking Age in general principles, Norse society had sophisticated rules about children’s upkeep. Parents were responsible for taking care of their children, but only if they were first able to provide for themselves and their own parents, if necessary. In other words, your child had less priority than your parent. The default arrangement for splitting the maintenance costs prescribed in law was that the father had to supply two-thirds of the upkeep and

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the mother one-third, though this could be altered by mutual agreement.24 In case of divorce, the parents should decide between themselves where their children should live, with the exception that nursing mothers had the right to keep their babies until they were at least a year or two old.25 Should a child acquire any property of its own (by inheritance), it was unable to gain control of these assets until the age of 16, and its family had a responsibility to take care of its maintenance until that age.26 An exception was made for girls if they were married or widowed before 16, in which case they could come into their inheritance. The precise details regarding age and other factors probably varied from one region or period to another, but it seems clear that the Norse were concerned about how to organize this aspect of people’s lives. A child’s father, paternal uncle or mother was responsible for taking care of its property, and there were strict rules about this management which aimed to protect the child until he or she came of age. It would obviously have been quite difficult for a minor to enforce these laws, so a child of means was dependent on its guardian’s honourable and responsible behaviour.27 Norse society also had mechanisms in place for taking care of orphans or children whose parents were paupers or criminals, though the ways in which these most vulnerable members of society were taken care of paint a sad picture. Children who had no one to provide for them were placed in the care of neighbours and would rotate between them on a yearly basis if no one wanted to take them in permanently.28 Furthermore, the laws stipulate what should happen if children are starved or thrown out and left to die, which suggests that dependent children were not necessarily treated very well.29 While we do not know if this was actually carried out in practice with any consistency, we can be certain that a childhood in unstable and possibly unwelcoming environments was an unhappy existence. Consequently, kindness to a destitute child can contribute to a positive character portrait in a literary text. Gísli Súrsson in his eponymous saga treats his foster-daughter Guðríðr as his own daughter, which comes to benefit him in the course of his dramatic life. When tensions between Gísli, on one hand, and his brother and brother-in-law, on the other, escalate, the young Guðríðr undertakes a spying mission for her foster-father, visiting the latter two, who live on the same farm, under some pretence. Her visit enables her to gather information that confirms



to Gísli that he is in grave danger, and thanks to Guðríðr’s reconnaissance, he preempts an impending attack at the hands of the pair.30 Years later, Guðríðr is one of the outlawed Gísli’s most loyal supporters, helping his wife Auðr to harbour him and finally trying to come to his defence during his last battle. The loyalty and love between foster-father and daughter attests to the kindness with which some orphans were undoubtedly treated by their foster-parents, regardless of legal requirements. Apart from close blood ties, foster relationships were one of the strongest links between people recognized by law, and in some situations, fosterchildren had the same legal status vis-à-vis their foster-parents as biological children.31 Apart from a few political centres, Norse society didn’t have much in the way of formal structures like schools or clubs in which people could form networks. Fostering between members of the upper class was an institution that fulfilled this function, establishing allegiances beyond the blood family.32 Since fostering relationships were so heavily regulated by law and custom, they indicate that although a child was small and cute for the first few years, it was also a member of a kin group and would eventually grow up to play its part in society. Therefore, it was important to consider carefully with whom they were allowed to stay.33 One purpose of fostering was to educate the child. Icelandic sagas sometimes show boys being sent as fosterlings to be trained as lawyers, which seems to be a sort of apprenticeship. Perhaps a similar arrangement was conceivable for girls, too, though the sources are vague on this issue. In Eiríks saga rauða (Eirik the Red’s Saga), a devout woman named Guðríðr relates that in her youth, she received some training in chanting verses that are necessary to perform such magic ritual (see also Chapters 3 and 6). The woman who taught her these verses was her foster-mother Halldís, whose husband was a close friend of Guðríðr’s father, so it could be inferred that girls customarily spent extended periods in the homes of family friends as foster-daughters.34 Other sagas describe magic as a skill taught by women to young people, though not necessarily on a live-in basis.35 When a child grew up in its parents’ home, it was often the job of lower-class people, both men and women, to take care of them as so-called foster-parents. Confusingly, the same words – fóstri and fóstra – are used over these people,

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some of whom may have been enslaved, as about the higher-born fosterers, but this type of foster relationship clearly fulfils a different social function than the fostering previously outlined.36 Although there are few explicit descriptions of these foster-parents’ role, we can assume that they were nannies, caring for children physically and emotionally. The bond between low-born fosterparents and their female wards is often characterized by intimacy and trust in the sagas, and it is understood as lifelong. Women often bring their fostermothers along to their new home at marriage or provide for them in their old age.37 Separation from foster-parents could be painful: Laxdæla saga’s abducted Irish princess Melkorka asks her son Kjartan to bring her foster-mother back with him when he travels to meet his grandfather in Ireland, and she is upset when she learns that her request had been denied by the king. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the foster-mother is so happy to have news of Melkorka, who had been abducted and sold into slavery years earlier, that she weeps tears of joy and relief.38 Amid such moving examples of love between women that transcends class barriers and age, Njáls saga depicts the foster relationship as potentially dangerous. Hallgerðr’s jealous and manipulative foster-father Þjóstólfr, who kills her violent and boorish first husband, becomes a nuisance by the time she is in a second, happier marriage. When Þjóstólfr turns up to her home uninvited and clearly unwelcome, his foster-daughter recognizes him for the menace he is and we expect her to send him on his way, now that she has a husband who cares for her and can protect her. Usually, Hallgerðr is no pushover, but for reasons that seem illogical to many readers, she cannot bring herself to send Þjóstólfr away. Naturally, disaster ensues: Þjóstólfr soon kills her second husband, a tragic murder that derails Hallgerðr’s life. Some might suspect that the saga author has – inadvertently or consciously – picked up on and depicted signs which accord with the foster-father having lusted after and/or sexually abused Hallgerðr as a child, which would perhaps rationalize Hallgerðr’s fear of and passivity towards Þjóstólfr even as a married woman.39 Grandparents also take on childcare, perhaps having more time to pay attention to a child than parents who were busy with all their other responsibilities, and they might also have more need for companionship. In Laxdæla saga, Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir takes her granddaughter Herdís into her care as a



baby. The saga touchingly describes how Guðrún comes to dote on the girl and how Herdís faithfully stays at her side when she prays at night. The mutual love and loyalty between grandmother and granddaughter has none of the tensions that Guðrún experiences in most of her other relationships (see Chapter 4), and her tenderness towards the girl in this last period of her life complicates the emotional make-up of her harsh character. Another sweet portrait of a grandparent is found in Fljótsdæla saga (The Saga of the People of Fljotsdal), where an older man offers his newly bereaved son to take care of his 2-year-old motherless daughter.40 According to the narrator, the idea is to give the father comfort and relief, but since the grandfather is imagined as taking the girl into his own home rather than arranging for her to be cared for by someone else, it gives the impression that it was normal for a grandfather to want to have a personal relationship with his granddaughter and take charge of her upbringing. These brief saga sketches make it is easy to imagine the Norse woman buried over one thousand years ago on a sandy beach in Orkney as having been laid to rest with her granddaughter: a child of about 10 rests by the old woman’s side.41 The touching examples of fondness between adults and girls lead us to believe that in Norse society, young girls were often lovable companions who would pass on the legacy of their family and provide support and comfort when they grew older.

Children at work and play We have limited information about what it was like to be a child in the Viking Age, and the experience must have varied between places, social groups and religions. The disparate situations of social classes is echoed in Rígsþula (The List of Rig), a poem describing how the god Rígr visits three households:  a slave’s hovel, a farmer’s longhouse and a royal hall.42 Oddly, Rígr sleeps between the couple in each place and nine months later, a baby is born. The children of the enslaved people are allotted the heaviest farmwork and their names, which include Badbreath, Stumpy, Greyish, Raggedy-Hips, Crane-Legs, Bulgy-Calves and Bellows-Nose, suggest lives of drudgery, disease and malnourishment. On the contrary, the aristocratic baby, named Earl, has blonde hair and bright cheeks and he is swaddled in silk. The archaeological record tells a similar

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story: a little girl buried in Birka over a thousand years ago was reared on an expensive meat-based diet, she wore well-made clothes and her costly funeral suggests a life of material comfort.43 Other children in Birka had less wealthy graves, and there was a huge difference in status, diet and lifestyle for Viking Age children, depending on their family’s means. Archaeological evidence also suggests that childhood was complicated by age, that is, it had sub-phases. In Gotland, variations in how many beads on their necklace girls were buried with suggest that they entered a new period of childhood at around the age of 5. Funeral traditions may have been unusual on this island, but there is a common pattern that girls go from being buried with only a few beads before the age of 5 or 6 years old to having prominent necklaces with 100 to an impressive 250 pieces, some of which may have been gifts from older female relatives (Figure 2).44 The number drops again around the time they get married, so it seems that the age of around 6 to the late teens was a clearly defined life phase. Authors of sagas and poetry are not very interested in children’s day-to-day lives, and objects specifically made for children are rare in the archaeological record, but a scattering of finds – rattles, carved figurines, pebbles, animal bones and miniature objects which look like those used by adults  – have been interpreted as toys.45 Other grave goods such as jewellery, keys, mirrors and textile tools suggest that girls began to be socialized into a gender role from when they were a few years old, though perhaps they also played with miniature horses, ships and swords alongside their brothers.46 A few examples of inexpertly shaped runes next to more proficient inscriptions have also been explained with children learning how to carve runes.47 Children probably began to work at a relatively young age, and those who grew up in urban centres – where gender roles may have been less rigid than in rural societies – learned basic vocational skills from their elders who worked in specialized trades.48 The Birka girl was buried with a needle case and another girl there was also given weights for use with scales. They were likely the daughters of textile producers and merchants set to enter and inherit their families’ businesses before their untimely deaths.49 Although most sagas depicting children’s play, sports and games only feature boys and men, Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss (The Saga of Bard the Snowfell



God) includes an episode featuring children from neighbouring farms, two brothers against a group of sisters, at play on sheets of ice at winter. The boys are stronger but the girls, described as tall and attractive, are fiercely competitive and put them in a defensive position. The game  – perhaps ice hockey or tag – ends in tragedy. One of the boys is so afraid of losing to a girl that he grows overly aggressive, pushing the eldest sister, Helga, onto an iceberg floating by the shore, but to the children’s horror, the iceberg is blown away by a strong gale and it disappears into the pack ice. Helga is presumed dead and her father Bárðr is devastated, killing the boy and his brother in furious revenge. Perhaps the episode is meant to remind the audience that children’s games, which are meant to test their strength and develop social skills, need to be supervised. Children have not yet learned to moderate their competitiveness and might go too far in the heat of the moment, with unintentional consequences which cannot be undone. Back on the iceberg, Helga floats across the sea to Greenland, where she is taken in by its first settlers, Erik ‘the Red’ and his wife Þjóðhildr, and eventually she manages to get back to Iceland. This is no happy ending though, because Helga’s time in Greenland ruins her life. As an unprotected young girl far away from home, she is taken as a sexual partner by a man named Skeggi, but he discards her when the arrangement no longer suits him. Helga never gets over the relationship – the saga states that ‘she had no joy after parting with Skeggi’ – and spends the rest of her days feeling displaced, working as a servant and roaming about the Icelandic wilderness and consorting with trolls (see also Chapters 2 and 4).50 The story may have functioned as a warning to parents to keep their girls close: if you lose your daughters out of your sight, they might be taken advantage of by unscrupulous men. The attitude that girls should be less assertive and physically active than boys can also be found in Njáls saga. Three children – two boys and a girl – put on an entertaining show for the assembled household and guests, who include the newly divorced Hrútr and his brother Höskuldr; Hrútr is in the midst of a legal dispute over his divorce from Unnr, the daughter of a man called Mörðr. The boisterous boys pretend to be Hrútr and Mörðr and perform a vulgar skit in which they squabble over the legalities of the divorce, revelling in some of the more embarrassing details. Throughout the scene, the

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girl is silent, reflecting the similar role of Unnr in the saga’s main plot. This spectacle has everyone apart from Hrútr and his brother in stitches, though the narrator distances the boys’ behaviour by saying that they were ‘very talkative and foolish’ and adding that they were paupers who had been taken in by the farmer as an act of charity, a comment which hints at class prejudice.51 The boys’ role is the same as the child’s in the fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes – they say what everyone is thinking but too polite to point out. But the girl’s passivity is also telling, suggesting a cultural expectation of girls to be silent and docile. In Njáls saga’s very first scene, we meet another girl playing with other children. This is Höskuldr’s daughter, Hallgerðr, who turns out to be one of the saga’s central characters (and a frequent subject of this book). Hallgerðr, who can’t be more than 6 to 8 years old, is introduced in an unforgettable way: She was beautiful and tall, with hair as fine as silk and so abundant that it came down to her waist. Höskuldr … took her by the chin and kissed her. Then she went back. Höskuldr said to Hrútr:  ‘How do you like this girl? Don’t you find her beautiful?’ Hrútr was silent. Höskuldr asked again. Hrútr then answered, ‘The girl is quite beautiful, and many will pay for that, but what I don’t know is how the eyes of a thief have come into our family.’ Höskuldr was angry at this, and for a time, the two brothers had little to do with each other.52 The comment about Hallgerðr’s thieving nature stemming from outsiders would be perceived as extremely rude and mean by any father, since it not only insults the child but also her mother by inference, and Höskuldr is understandably upset. Despite his displeasure, Hrútr’s assessment is presented by the narrator as an objective evaluation of Hallgerðr’s sinister nature, rather than the slander of an innocent child, and her character is arguably tainted for the rest of the saga.53 The idea that girls are inherently deceitful is also epitomized in the wisdom poem Hávamál, which states that ‘the words of a girl no one should trust’.54 This poem’s outlook on human nature is generally rather cynical, but the two examples taken together seem to suggest that there was an attitude in some strains of Norse culture that accused girls and young women of being untrustworthy.



It would be hard to find a more negative saga portrait of a young girl than our first encounter with Hallgerðr, and Hrútr’s assessment early on in the saga undoubtedly taints her character for the rest of the story. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Laxdæla saga’s Guðrún is praised as Iceland’s foremost daughter for her intelligence, eloquence and beauty. We first meet her at the age of 14, when she is put in charge of welcoming a local dignitary, Gestr, to her father’s home, a big responsibility for a young girl.55 When they meet, Guðrún has a long conversation with Gestr, famous for his wisdom and foresight, about four dreams she has dreamt. In the first dream, Guðrún finds herself by a brook, wearing a cumbersome headdress that she takes off and throws into the brook. Next, she is by a lake, fondly admiring a silver ring on her finger, but the ring slips off when she least expects it and disappears into the water. In the third dream, she has been given a gold ring instead, but it also falls off onto a stone and shatters in two, with something that looks like blood seeping out of the cracks. Finally, Guðrún sees herself with a golden helmet encrusted with jewels, but the helmet is so heavy that she has difficulties keeping her head steady. Although she tries hard to keep it on, the helmet topples down and into the fjord. Gestr interprets the dream as being about her four marriages, none of which will go well, and of course, the rest of the saga follows Guðrún’s turbulent relationships with the men in her life. The girl’s dreams about her four husbands indicate that she is undergoing a change: the child is turning into a woman and preparing for a new phase in life. For girls of her social class, that meant entering the marriage market. As we will learn more of in Chapter 4, Guðrún entertains hopes of leaving the small community in which she grows up to see the world, but despite her potential, her talent was squandered – her destiny was to marry four times and never to leave her local region. Guðrún is first married at the age of 15, a common age for marriages in the sagas and surely in reality as well. The study of Gotlandic girls’ graves indicates that maturity was achieved somewhere between the age of 15 and 20, at which time the number of their beads drops and arm jewellery consistently moves from one arm to the other. This stark change in their outfits indicates that girls underwent some type of perceived change, perhaps expressed in a comingof-age ritual that initiated them into the sphere of women, which could have been decided by chronological age, physical age – the onset of menstruation or

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the birth of her first child – or a change in social status, most likely marriage. Though the sagas or mythological sources say nothing about such a ritual, the law code Grágás indicates two milestones in age which indicate the upper limits of childhood. It stipulates that a girl can come into her inheritance at 16, and this is also the age at which a fostering relationship is formally over; at 20, she can decide on her own domicile if she is not married.56 A law code from Gotland, which, like Grágás survives in manuscripts from the thirteenth century, required fathers to support their daughters until they were 18, rather than 16 or 20.57 We cannot know if these laws were followed to the letter or to what extent they reflect later medieval rather than Viking Age developments, but they do suggest that young women acquired rights and responsibilities in increments in Norse society. The experience of childhood in the Viking Age was not homogenous, but it is likely that girls had some activities separate from boys from a young age. Although there are some signs that girls were regarded with suspicion, Norse laws dealing with the welfare of young children do not make a stark gender distinction, and these sources indicate that girls were generally not considered less worth than boys. Many sagas feature acts of kindness and love towards children of both genders, and judging from the archaeological record, relatives sought to make them as comfortable and well-equipped as possible in the grave. However, as girls got older, it becomes increasingly clear that their lives were defined and circumscribed by their bodies and reproductive abilities more so than men. They were seen as future wives, mothers, housewives, and possibly entrepreneurs, merchants and craftsmen if their families were in such trades, but likely not as warriors, poets, lawyers, chieftains or independent rulers. But although most girls were not trained for such a role, that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t break into some of these careers, and the next chapter will explore the divergent paths that girls take in reality and the imaginary realm.


2 Teenage girls

The Vikings would have scoffed at modern romances. Judging from sagas, once a girl was in her mid-teens, it was time to say goodbye to her childhood and enter the next stage of her life, marriage. But there would be no wistful pining or romantic dates. Norse laws and literature reflect a harsh, patriarchal world in which fathers, grandfathers, brothers and, occasionally, mothers and grandmothers married their daughters and sisters off without considering the bride’s attitude to the prospective husband or asking for her consent. We often meet fictional characters for the first time when they are in this period between childhood and adulthood, so it was clearly conceived of as a pivotal moment in a woman’s life, regardless  – or perhaps because  – of her lack of choice in the matter. The betrothal and wedding often seem abrupt: a hastily carried out, unsentimental process driven by calculated interests rather than love. Even the matriarch Unnr the Deep-Minded is no proto-feminist, though she is praised as the foremost of women for her courage and leadership in leading her followers out of a perilous situation in war-torn Scotland. On their journey to Iceland via Orkney and the Faroe Islands, Laxdæla saga relates that Unnr marries off two of her young granddaughters, seemingly without a second thought, and she arranges the marriages of their sisters once the family has settled in Iceland. Ólöf and Gró are left behind in a new place, never to see their family again, while Þórhildr, Þorgerðr and Ósk at least get to live on the same island as their relatives. All of the girls are said to produce illustrious descendants.1 Heroic legends, too, depict women being cajoled and bullied into marrying men they loathe, while in sagas, many girls meekly accept their marriages without a word.



And yet, despite the submissive impression medieval narratives give of teenage girls, the Norse were also able to imagine this same category of women as rebels and warriors. These young women travel unfettered on land and sea, pursue the men they want and lead Viking warbands. Although this degree of independence was probably the exception in reality, it is not altogether convincing to brand Norse society as oppressive of women. Accounts of arranged marriages give us only one facet of the roles, identities and ambitions of young women in the Viking Age. The real existence of shield-maidens is uncertain, but we know for a fact that a few young women forced their ways into other ultra-male professions, namely the exclusive sphere of poets. Breaking the glass ceiling in the Viking Age must have required a lot of guts, but it also hints at a willingness among some men to make some, however limited, room for women if they were talented. Though the image of the astonishing women who rebel against social norms is a literary phenomenon rather than a historical fact, the Vikings probably realized that there needed to be a balance between maintaining social stability, preserving family bonds and allowing girls to exercise agency. After all, living a life of prosperity made huge demands on people. In a world in which adult women sometimes carried sole responsibility for fundamental aspects of life, it would have been counterproductive to stifle their independent thought and drive in their teenage years.

Betrothal The story of the insurgent Ástríðr and the way she managed to snap up a king for a husband is one of the most astonishing episodes in Norse saga writing, and the first of several that show her as one of the most admired royal women in medieval Scandinavia. In the Legendary Saga of King Olaf Haraldsson, one of the oldest sagas, Ástríðr, the illegitimate daughter of King Óláfr of Sweden, travels to Norway to propose marriage to King Óláfr Haraldsson, the Viking king and future saint.2 He was engaged to be married to Ástríðr’s sister Ingibjörg as part of a peace treaty between the two kingdoms, but the Swedish king – often portrayed as enormously hot-tempered and unreasonable – went back on his promise, leaving King Óláfr in the lurch. We can imagine that he’d

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have been furious when he heard that there would be no wedding: he was a proud, often overbearing, man himself, and being humiliated in this ignominious way calls for a response. The crisis has repercussions on a personal level for the betrothed couple but it also imperils the precarious peace between the two kings and their countries. An international crisis looms: will King Óláfr attack Sweden in retaliation? It is perhaps no wonder that Ástríðr decides not to trust her father for her future, given his reckless character. Seeing the need to move fast, she takes matters into her own hands and dashes off to Norway to offer herself to the king. We can easily imagine the princess galloping across the Swedish countryside on her shining steed, garments flowing in the wind. The saga author doesn’t give us an insight into Ástríðr’s feelings:  perhaps she felt daunted, though she might just as well have been eager and full of confidence. Ástríðr had more to gain than to lose: if successful, she would not only secure a royal match for herself but also likely preserve the peace between the two kings. It would be awkward for her father to attack his daughter’s new husband regardless of their past squabbles. As a royal woman with material resources and a male chaperone, Ástríðr was in a different situation from most other women. Crucially, she also had the audacity to defy her father and propose marriage to a man, and a king, no less. Although Ástríðr is consistently portrayed as assertive across Norse textual sources, both actions run contrary to everything we know about the conventions for betrothal in Norse society, which makes her actions all the wilder. Upon arrival in Norway, different sagas tell the story of Ástríðr’s proposal to King Óláfr in different ways. One late version depicts her as the model of piety, using Christian rhetoric to persuade Óláfr, the future saint of Norway, to marry her in order to prevent unnecessary bloodshed and war between the two kingdoms, while in others, she has more in common with the strongwilled heroines of Norse epics. In the Legendary Saga, an early source, Ástríðr shrewdly appeals to King Óláfr’s sense of honour, pointing out that by marrying her without the consent of her father, he will be able to humiliate his opponent in return. This argument implies the threat of a negative impact on King Óláfr’s honourable standing, should he let this insult go unavenged.3 The king sees the sense in Ástríðr’s proposal and agrees to the marriage. She



emerges from this trip as the champion diplomat, being acknowledged for implementing a peace treaty of sorts as well as having gained a better match than she could ever have hoped for as the lower-ranking daughter. Whether any of this happened in reality is impossible to know, but although Snorri Sturluson suppresses this episode in his Heimskringla, giving a Swedish earl the credit for orchestrating the betrothal, other redactors seem to believe that there is some truth to the story. But Ástríðr was a king’s daughter, and she is not representative of an ordinary teenage girl in the Viking Age. Assuming that a young woman’s family was prosperous enough to afford a dowry, many would have simply married the man chosen for them, whereas poorer girls would likely have worked as labourers of some sort from childhood onwards with no prospect of a husband. In Njáls saga, the circumstances of one girl’s engagement and marriage are particularly alarming. Þorgerðr, the daughter of Hallgerðr, is 14 when she attends her mother’s third wedding to Iceland’s most eligible bachelor, Gunnar. At the feast, which would have been the wedding of the century given how glamorous the couple were, the groom’s uncle, Þráinn, a much older man, begins to ogle the young Þorgerðr. His obvious leering appals his wife Þórhildr, who vocally criticizes Þráinn for being a lecherous creep. One suspects that their marriage was not in a good place to begin with, given Þráinn’s swift and brutal reaction to his wife’s correct observation. He divorces her on the spot, has her cast out of the party and subsequently asks Þorgerðr’s grandfather Höskuldr for the girl’s hand in marriage. Höskuldr hesitates, but when the groom’s best friend declares the suitor to be wealthy, accomplished and powerful, he agrees; they hash out the details of the marriage contract and Þorgerðr is married to Þráinn in a flash. Nothing is said about either her own or her mother’s feelings about this turn of events, but the narrator notes that Þorgerðr did herself credit as a housewife at her new home.4 The match is thus presented as a brilliant coup for Þorgerðr and her family, and the saga swiftly moves on to other events. As much as we might empathize with the plight of a young girl being traded in such an unsympathetic way between grandfather and freshly divorced, much older groom, the account seems to express the attitudes of the ruling class in Norse society. Marriage was primarily a business transaction between men: the woman’s body and reproductive capabilities along with any dowry

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she received were exchanged for capital possessed by the groom’s family, such as material assets (the bride price), political clout or higher social status. Each new match created a set of important reciprocal duties between groups, so getting married wasn’t a private matter between two people; it concerned their extended families  – parents, grandparents, siblings and any children they might already have. Germanic laws afforded Norse women more rights than many other ancient and medieval cultures, such as the right to inherit and own property and to decide where they lived, but they had no formal say over who should be their life partner.5 Marriage was an institution of such importance that the adults in charge weren’t about to leave any decisions in this regard to young fools in love – or lust. In both sagas and laws, suitors wishing to marry approach the woman’s legal guardian, often accompanied by their own fathers or uncles. If they are turned down, it is usually because the guardian considers them too low-born or loutish, but if he – for it was usually a man – agrees to the match, the two of them settle on the amount of property each party brings into the marriage, along with other formalities such as the date of the wedding and the couple’s home. This is usually all done without the woman’s knowledge, and she only finds out that she is to be married after an agreement has been reached.6 At this point, the bride is sometimes asked for her opinion, but apart from the occasional grumbling, most girls demurely defer the matter back to their fathers, claiming he knows best. The only circumstances in which a woman could refuse to marry someone were if she was a widow and her father was deceased. Otherwise, she has no right to go against the agreement if the guardian and the suitor had shaken hands.7 For most women, refusing to obey your family was against the law and it would also have been intimidating, given the structural and material inequalities between young women and their elders. The threats of being dispossessed of property and inheritance, levelled against the legendary heroine Brynhildr by her brother when she tries to resist being married, give a sense of the brutal consequences of refusing to comply.8 Even the highest-ranking women seem to have a very limited scope if their guardians were determined to see a match go through. They could perhaps try to drag their feet until the details of the contract had been negotiated more to their liking, but that was it. The steely Hildigunnr in Njáls saga refuses to marry Höskuldr until he is



made a chieftain, the highest formal rank one could achieve in Viking Age Iceland, and so, too, does King Óláfr Tryggvason’s sister Ástríðr (not to be confused with the Ástríðr Óláfsdóttir discussed previously), withhold consent to marriage as leverage to make her brother raise the station of her husbandto-be.9 King Óláfr is clearly displeased when his sister refuses to marry beneath her: he has a hawk belonging to her apprehended and its feathers plucked off, a cruel but efficient way of telling her who’s in charge. Understanding this menacing message, Ástríðr concedes her position. She goes to her brother and humbly tells him that she will marry whom he wishes, though her new husband is made earl soon after, partly as a concession to Ástríðr. In this context, the myth of how the god Freyr acquires his wife Gerðr, told in the mythological poem Skírnismál (The Lay of Skírnir), communicates a clear moral. One day, Freyr sits in Odin’s high seat without permission and from there, he sees Gerðr, a lovely jötunn maiden. The god immediately falls violently in love with her and sends his servant Skírnir to Gerðr’s home to woo her on his behalf. Freyr promises the servant a renowned horse and his self-fighting sword in payment, signalling his desperation to secure her for his wife. On behalf of his master, Skírnir offers Gerðr riches beyond measure – the endlessly multiplying ring Draupnir and splendid golden apples (probably the apples of youth) – but the young girl rejects all these gifts, saying that she has everything she needs at her father’s court. Now in a tight spot, Skírnir resorts to threats. If Gerðr doesn’t give in, he intends to kill her father and ‘tame’ her with a wand, causing her to lose her autonomy and sexual self-possession. She will suffer ‘madness and howling’, be consumed by ergi (lewdness) – usually interpreted as female sexual perversion – and unbearable sexual desire. She will be stared at, excluded, shamed, she will be raped by a disgusting ogre, forced to drink goat’s piss and beheaded with the sword.10 Skírnir’s words and wand-waving are effective:  Gerðr, now rendered submissive, agrees to meet Freyr at the appointed hour and the poem ends with the groom fretting about how long he must wait to meet his new fiancée. This poem is truly disturbing and makes for an unpleasant read, perhaps especially because, despite progress resulting from feminist activism in the last few decades, many of these tactics sound all too familiar even today. Skírnir’s intimidating words escalate with disconcerting momentum, and

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Gerðr’s resolve understandably breaks down against this torrent of threats. His words seem to be aimed at everything a woman might want in life: dignity and respect, social status, agency and sexual autonomy and satisfaction.11 Some of the threats seem to have a basis in real historical practice: a series of protective spells and loathsome curses very similar to Skírnir’s threats were found carved in runes on a stick in Bergen, Norway. Along with the intention to render the curse’s female target restless and sleep-deprived, the carver also makes a threat which echoes the specific words in Skírnir’s speech: ‘may you suffer a she-wolf ’s lewdness and unbearable desire’.12 Although the stick dates to the fourteenth century, the common phrasing suggests that it bears witness to a Norse tradition reaching back centuries.13 We don’t know who may have carved such an inscription, against whom and in what circumstances, but the underlying meaning of the myth of Freyr and Gerðr’s marriage as it is told in Skírnismál communicates women’s subservient position in the patriarchy.14 Any girl listening to the litany of abuse Gerðr faces when she tries to resist marrying would have been left in no doubt as to her lack of power when it came to betrothal, and many would have been anxious about the consequences of trying to assert their own will. Laws and patriarchal social structures aside, other sources acknowledge that it can cause problems to give your daughter unwillingly into marriage, at least if she considers the groom beneath her station. In heroic legend, one such woman, the valkyrie Sigrún, calls the man she has been betrothed to a kitten – a slur that questions his courage and honour – and she approaches another warrior, the far superior Helgi, to challenge her fiancé.15 Sigrún’s brother is livid when he finds out that she has rejected the husband chosen for her, but since Helgi is such an outstanding hero, Sigrún’s insistence on having him instead seem justified  – a valkyrie must have a worthy partner. This is perhaps why some sagas make a point of showing a girl changing her mind about a suitor when she has been given a chance to judge his character. In Laxdæla saga, Þorgerðr, the daughter of the Viking hero Egill Skallagrímsson, flatly refuses to marry Óláfr ‘the Peacock’ because he’s the low-born son of the concubine Melkorka, but her father persuades her to spend a couple of hours in his company and that does the trick.16 An episode in a thirteenth-century saga promoting women’s consent may of course be influenced by the Church’s



doctrine of consent, which the clergy began to advance in the twelfth century. But poems that have strong roots in Norse heroic tradition frequently grapple with this problem, too, so it seems likely that opinions differed, and that some Norse people did consider it appropriate that young women be involved in their betrothals in some shape or form if the marriage was to succeed.17 The repercussions of forcing women into marriages can also have negative effects on family dynamics, and some texts suggest that such an event is potentially a traumatic experience which could cause rifts between parent and child. When Njáls saga’s Hallgerðr first enters the marriage market as a teenage girl, her betrothal to Þorvaldr Ósvífrsson is arranged by her father Höskuldr. Þorvaldr is a man of good family and fairly well off, but he is no golden boy and no match for a proud woman who considers herself the descendant of legendary heroes and heroines. Hallgerðr’s reaction at hearing that she is to be married to a local farmer who has never gone on as much as one trip abroad conveys immense anger and betrayal, and there is also a sense that feelings of resentment towards her father have been building up for years. Hallgerðr exclaims to him that ‘now I have experienced what I have long suspected, that you do not love me as much as you have always said, since you didn’t think it was worth consulting me’.18 He reacts angrily, accusing her of being out of touch with reality if she thought that she was going to get a better match. In Höskuldr’s eyes, Hallgerðr has failed to manage her expectations regarding a spouse. But his statement comes across as disingenuous and one might equally wonder if fathers like Höskuldr aren’t being indirectly criticized for carelessness and lack of ambition on their daughters’ behalf. The marriage goes forward but Þorvaldr soon turns out to be a surly miser and he slaps Hallgerðr for overspending the household’s resources, in his judgement. Hallgerðr’s fosterfather Þjóstólfr subsequently kills him and the young woman, now a widow, returns to her childhood home. Upon hearing that her husband is dead, Höskuldr admits his failures and acknowledges that his daughter was justified in having doubts about the match, whatever the reasons, though by then, it was too late. The episode fits in with a broader view in Norse culture that for a successful marriage, couples ought to be both socially and temperamentally matched, and fathers who ignore this recommendation do their daughter and son-in-law – and by extension, themselves – no favours.

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Vulnerability and honour Written sources reveal a great deal about the sexual vulnerability of young women, though few of them perform the martial arts we see Viking women do on screen when attacked. Young women’s honour rested on their sexual purity before marriage, and it was the job of their father or other male guardian to protect it. Judging from mythological sources, patriarchal and classist double standards regarding sex seem to have been prevalent in Norse culture: while Odin comes out on top despite his many affairs with jötnar women, negative attitudes towards female sexual activity outside of a heteronormative marriage (between social equals) cause Freyja to express her fears about being ostracized in Þrymskviða. The poem begins with a crisis: Thor’s hammer Mjölnir has been stolen by the jötunn Þrymr, who is considered the gods’ social inferior, and Thor intends to exchange Freyja for his weapon (see also Introduction). When he notifies her of his plan, Freyja – in furious disbelief – retorts that she would be branded as ‘the most man-mad of women’ if she were seen travelling to the jötnar’s realm.19 The poem communicates the understanding that the accusation of promiscuity – slut-shaming in modern parlance – is one of the main tools to keep female characters, even goddesses, subservient and compliant, and therefore that women need to police their own behaviour to guard against such threats to their reputation. This risk is underscored in an account of the Icelandic conversion to Christianity around the turn of the last millennium in the year 999 or 1000. When the Icelanders debated the suggestion of converting, one of those in favour of changing religions allegedly uttered an anti-heathen verse which concluded with the slur ‘Freyja is a bitch’, meaning that she is sexually loose.20 It is unclear whether this verse was ever performed in public, but the Icelandic cleric and historian Ari Þorgilsson (1067–1148 ce), who quotes this line in his treatise traditionally referred to as Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders), seems to have thought that Freyja was important enough in the Norse heathen belief system that she would be the target of slander. Her anxiety in Þrymskviða expresses women’s reasonable fear of being the target of such words, however undeserved they might be. As mentioned in Chapter 1, Bárðar saga tells the tragic story of Helga, an unprotected girl far away from home. She is taken as a concubine (or, arguably,



sex slave) by Skeggi, and after he casts her off, she is preyed on by other rakes. The saga relates a distressing account of a farmhand attempting to rape Helga in her bed, and although she is able to beat off the aggressor, the incident causes her to fall completely out of human society and spend her remaining days as a social outcast, living with the trolls in the mountains.21 This text is unusual in attending to the psychological effects of Helga’s traumatic experiences, but it is not unique: a similar, though much shorter, account of a young woman going mad after being sexually assaulted in bed is preserved in Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), a twelfth-century treatise purporting to record many of Iceland’s earliest inhabitants.22 However, most accounts of sexual assault against women focus on the disruption such aggression causes to social harmony and their family’s honour rather than the women’s feelings about being attacked. Such episodes seem to suggest that many men saw women merely as objects belonging to their fathers or brothers that could be damaged, like other property. At stake in assaults on women is status and honour, and in some contexts, men do this to harm other men in a zero-sum system rather than to satisfy any purported sexual attraction towards the woman in question, though those sorts of affairs do appear. Skeggi is an exception, probably because of the strange circumstances of their relationship, and his grooming of the young Helga to become emotionally dependent on him would explain why she unravels after he casts her off. A man’s honour was dependent on preventing outsiders from getting near the young women in his family. Episodes concerned with this theme typically begin with young, idle, men hanging around their neighbours’ farms. They flirt and dally with their daughters but don’t propose marriage, which can soon become a serious threat to the woman and her family.23 One saga hero, Gísli Súrsson, employs a straightforward strategy when rumours begin to circulate that a young man is flirting with his sister: he simply kills him.24 In Kormáks saga, the situation is trickier – the girl’s father is not as macho as Gísli. The family first try unsuccessfully to get Kormákr, the saga’s morose protagonist, to propose, but he ignores them. Steingerðr, the object of his sexual interest, has more luck, but despite their obvious mutual attraction, he jilts her at the wedding. Steingerðr’s father quickly marries his daughter off to another man to save face, suggesting that he worries about his daughter’s reputation and

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doubts his ability to withstand Kormákr’s continuing antisocial behaviour. Following the wedding, it is now the husband’s job to keep the aggressor at bay; Kormákr has become his problem.25 Sexual aggression also manifested itself verbally, through the privileged medium of poetry. In Fóstbræðra saga (The Saga of the Sworn Brothers), the poet Þormóðr, one of the saga’s two protagonists, composes provocative verses praising a young lady, which greatly alarms her mother. Such verses were playing with fire:  like illicit visits, they were considered not an honest expression of love but potentially defamatory to the woman and her guardian. To that effect, these poems sometimes additionally mock the woman’s male relations to drive home the point.26 Love spells were yet another form of this dynamic. In Egils saga, a young man tries to seduce a neighbour girl through carving a series of runes on a wooden stick and placing them in her bed. However, the boy is unskilled at carving, he botches the runes and the girl becomes seriously ill. Egill visits the girl’s farm on his travels and turns out to be the only person who knows how to help. He finds the stick, destroys it and heals her with counter-magic.27 The girl recovers, but one wonders whether her sickness couldn’t rather be attributed to the trauma of sexual assault than to rune magic, and that the episode is a way of talking about rape and the pain it causes, whether consciously or not. While Egill isn’t interested in illicit sexual encounters in his saga, his patron god Odin, the highest of Norse gods, boasts repeatedly of having used magic to have non-consensual sex with women.28 In a myth alluded to in several sources, most extensively in Gesta Danorum (A History of the Danes), written by the Danish cleric and chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in c.1200, Odin uses spells carved on a piece of bark to gain control over Rinda (Rindr in Icelandic sources), a princess who is destined to bear him a son according to a prophecy told to him.29 The runes make Rinda go mad – just as in Skírnir’s threat in Skírnismál – and she is tied to her bed. Odin, disguised as a female healer, convinces her father that he can cure her, but the god, well-known for disguises and deceit, cannot be trusted: once he has tricked his way into the maiden’s bedchamber, he rapes the bound Rinda with her father watching and impregnates her, in an unusual scene for both the gender fluidity of Odin as well as the father’s unsettling voyeurism and inaction. The child resulting from



this episode is the supremely powerful Bo, named Váli in Icelandic sources, who avenges his half-brother Baldr’s death when he is only 1 day old. From the god’s point of view, this result is a double win: Odin gets to ‘exercise his lust’ on Rinda and he sires a son who plays an important part in the terrible events of Ragnarök. On the other hand, the father must live in ‘utter shame and remorse’ for his failure to protect his daughter.30 Rinda’s horrific rape is yet another example of how women’s bodies and souls become fair game for men so that they can achieve their goals. Although Saxo was no feminist, Odin’s treatment of Rinda, and the father’s refusal to prevent his daughter from being raped, seems to sit badly with him and understandably so. Perhaps his unease stems from his Christian morals or simply human compassion, but in his account of the myth, Rinda is without a doubt the victim of a violent crime. The episode shows Odin in various disguises, repeatedly attempting to kiss her and ingratiate himself with expensive gifts, but Rinda persistently refuses to yield to him. Saxo uses the adjective peruicax, which can be translated as ‘constant’, to describe Rinda’s character, and it is not until Odin uses hostile magic – reminiscent of modern so-called date-rape drugs – on Rinda that he is able to subdue her will.31 It is clear that Rinda perceives Odin’s malicous intentions towards her from the outset and she acts to defend her own honour, proving that her behaviour is faultless, though she is unable to withstand Odin’s aggression in the end. Given Saxo’s training as a cleric, her portrayal may be inspired by the hagiographical trope of the chaste virgin martyr, but at any rate, it is clear that Odin is doubly concerned with satisfying his lust and begetting a son, and he sees Rinda as an object through which to achieve his goals. Rinda’s feelings towards him, and the question of her (sexual) autonomy, are of no consequence. Though scenes depicting men using magic in a sexually aggressive manner are embedded within sagas or mythological narratives, there is a substantial body of runic messages carved on sticks dating to the Viking and medieval periods that contain lewd boasting about sex with women. Some feature gems such as ‘Þóra, I can beguile (any woman)’ and ‘Smiðr fucked Vígdís of the Snældu-legs/Snældu-farms’.32 They demonstrate that there was a reality behind the narratives of sexual conquest. Norse masculinity was partly based

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on the sexual subjugation of women, and some men believed that using violent, dishonourable methods was acceptable.

Young attraction Not all male behaviour towards women was as aggressive or immoral as the previous examples suggest. Poets yearned for female admiration, addressing women in preening verses in which they boast of their manly accomplishments, such as prowess in battle or sailing skills, and some even note that they managed to impress other women. The Icelandic poet Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, a farmer’s son who ended up dying with his king at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, composed a poem to a lady in which he proudly describes the Norwegian ruler’s impressive ships and the men rowing them: I saw the warship, beautiful lady, propelled out of the river onto the ocean; look where the long side-planking of the splendid dragon-ship lies offshore. … fine women gaze at the side-planking of the serpent, looking out from the town. The youthful overlord set about steering the brand-new longship west out of Nidelven [river], and the oars of the warriors plunge into the sea. The prince’s troop know how to whip the oars expertly up from the stroke; the woman stands and wonders at the handling of the oars, as a marvel. There’ll be rowing, lady.33 Þjóðólfr’s poetry draws a vivid image of the vessel’s launch from the banks of a Norwegian river almost a thousand years ago. The longship might have had a skilfully carved dragon-head prow, and we can imagine the ambitious young king at the helm, looking approvingly at his brave seafaring crew as they rowed



the vessel towards sea (Figure 3). Perhaps the banks were thronged with the king’s fans, cheering and calling out well wishes for the crew’s enterprising journey – at least the poet boasts about the ‘fine ladies’ gazing at the beautifully made ship. The poet hopes that this muscular, glamorous image will impress the lady addressed in the verse, but his references to the admiration bestowed by other women hint at a degree of uncertainty. Even the most warlike Viking kings were not impervious to the need to look manly to a girl they liked. According to Snorri’s Heimskringla, the ninthcentury Norwegian king Haraldr Fairhair conquered and unified all of Norway, then consisting of many petty kingdoms, just to impress a young woman, the beautiful but arrogant Gyða. Her dismissal of Haraldr as a minor king in comparison to the more powerful monarchs of Denmark and Sweden serves as a catalyst for his ambition to aim higher, and he vows not to cut his hair until he reigns supreme over all Norway.34 Nor did Norse poets practice modesty when it came to discussing their accomplishments  – on the contrary, they craved female affirmation. One proud poet even boasted to his lady how manfully he and his companions baled out a leaking boat.35 (Perhaps you had to be there.) The earl Rögnvaldr briefly turns his attention to the woman herself, describing her golden hair as the most beautiful locks of any lady, but after only a few lines, he abruptly reverts to his own battle prowess, declaring that he ‘reddened the claws of the food-hungry eagle’, an unromantic if thoroughly clichéd change of gear.36 Judging from the intense showing off outlined here, Norse men considered it important to be admired and validated by young women. Their masculinity going unnoticed and unacknowledged would render it less important, and feminine recognition is partly what spurred them on to accomplish great things. Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga attends to the female gaze from another point of view, depicting its heroine Helga – the same girl who was supposed to be put out to die in Chapter 1 – as a woman of hidden passions underneath her silent exterior. Helga is only attributed with one line of direct speech in the entire saga, but the narrator reports that she did a lot of talking in private with the man she loves, the precocious young poet Gunnlaugr. The two of them fall in love as youngsters over games of chess, and the doomed lovers are said to have conversed at length at two pivotal points later in the saga. As predicted

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in her father’s dream, their hopes of marriage are dashed and Helga is married to two other men in a row without being asked for her opinion. Helga’s character is not drawn in much depth, but after her first marriage, her fixed stare at Gunnlaugr across the Öxará river at Þingvellir after a chance encounter at the alþingi (the annual national assembly held every summer in Þingvellir, now a national park) makes clear her continued desire for him and her regret over their thwarted betrothal.37 Like Þráinn’s ogling in the wedding scene in Njáls saga, the saga’s focus on her silent gaze is a way of representing her sexuality, subjectivity and desire, though unlike Þráinn, Helga does not act on her longing for Gunnlaugr. Her arguably bland character has often frustrated readers, most of whom are struck by the more forceful women in Njáls saga and Laxdæla saga, but in the saga’s defence, Helga’s passivity is exactly the point. In repeatedly focusing on her quiet longing for a man other than her husband, the saga author, perhaps unintentionally, draws attention to women’s powerlessness in matters of love and to their independent psychological existence. Helga’s unspoken ardour is so strong that years later, she dies gazing at the cloak Gunnlaugr had given her; she exits the saga as a woman who never stopped having forbidden emotions. Helga remained compliant and suppressed her emotions, but in heroic legend, Oddrún (Brynhildr and Atli’s sister) recounts her surreptitious affair with Gunnarr (Brynhildr’s husband) until her brother put an end to it, his spies catching the pair in bed. In Oddrúnargrátr (Oddrun’s Lament), she recounts her melancholy story to Borgný, an old friend, as she helps her through labour. Borgný’s baby was fathered by her secret lover, so both women have had unsanctioned relationships they kept hidden from their families. The two women squabble for a while about the other’s lack of morality, but though Oddrún insists that her own affair was motivated by love and not baser instincts, she lets the matter drop. Her subsequent ‘sorrow-heavy’ admission of her own transgressions in the past and the emotional agony it has caused her, while Borgný endures excruciating labour pains, expresses a sisterly solidarity as well as grief about women’s lack of freedom to have sex with and love whomever they want. Ástríðr Ólafsdóttir’s proposal to King Óláfr, retold at the beginning of this chapter, was a story about a woman astutely reading the political situation



and boldly acting on it to advance her own interests. But Helga’s, Oddný’s and Borgný’s stories are about something more, something that goes deeper to the core of human existence. Engaging with some of the same issues as Skírnismál, they’re about the yearning to be able to choose and to be able to live one’s life with dignity, free from shame and judgement. These texts are subtly critical of the patriarchal social order and express women’s desire for personhood and agency. In these texts, women want to be consulted and listened to and not to be harmed in some twisted power game between men. They want to be allowed to have feelings, hopes, preferences and sexual desires and to act on them – or, simply, to be perceived and treated as people, not objects. The sheer fact that Norse authors put these voices into writing must mean that some of their audiences would have felt the same way.

Alternatives to marriage? In the Viking Age, most Norse people lived a rural and agrarian life. Whether married or not, girls and women had endless work on and around the farm, and their upbringing would have prepared them to carry their jobs out efficiently. Upper-class girls and women probably had less physically demanding tasks but they still did textile work – spinning, sewing, weaving and embroidery. The inscription on the Dynna stone, found in southern Norway, describes Astrid as ‘the handiest maiden’ in all the district – her mother Gunnvör raised the stone in her memory. This adjective might refer to her skill in embroidery, and the stone’s art may be inspired by her handiwork (Figure A).38 With the growth of Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang and other urban centres, no doubt some young women whose families were involved in trade and crafts went into the family business, as the presence of scales, textile tools or needle cases in girls’ and women’s graves suggests.39 But what if you wanted to do something totally different and unconventional?

Women as court poets Some girls might have harboured dreams of breaking into a male profession, perhaps living an exciting life at court among royal retainers. This is

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Figure A  A  drawing of the carvings on a picture stone found in Dynna, Gran, Southern Norway. The runic inscription reads in English translation:  ‘Gunnvör, Thryðríkr’s daughter, made the bridge in memory of her daughter Astrid. She was the handiest maiden in Haðaland.’ Photo: Ove Holst. Museum of Cultural History, Oslo, Norway, CC BY-SA 4.0.

not to say that they all dreamed of being their wives and girlfriends but, rather, warriors and poets in their own right. Becoming a court poet – a role somewhere between the monarch’s political pundit, spin doctor, advisor, PR manager and public fan – was one of the most prestigious careers available for intelligent, ambitious young men. The sagas tell us the success stories of many scrappy young Icelanders who rose through the ranks and became a king’s favourite poet, receiving both status and assets to set them up for life in return for cementing the king’s reputation in verse. It wasn’t enough to be bright, confident and deft with words; you also had to have the right



education. Accomplished poets had the Oxbridge degree of their day: extensive training in composing skaldic verse. This was an elite skill requiring a thorough knowledge of the conventions for how to compose these puzzle-like stanzas, using specialized vocabulary, intricate metrical rules and enigmatic kennings which some poets delighted in making as difficult as possible to decipher. Like the poetic conventions, this profession was extremely exclusive and the vast majority of known poets were male, as were the commissioners of poems. But a few surviving poems by female skalds  – although a tiny amount compared to the mountain of poems by men – indicate that girls and young women, too, were given training in the craft of poetry, though it was probably not common. Similarly, sagas occasionally represent queens such as Gunnhildr commission poetry, but not anywhere as often as men.40 While eddic poetry is anonymous and often explores the grief suffered by women whose men die in violent conflicts, skaldic poetry is attributed to named authors, often glorifying battle and weaponry. Its main topics are kings, warfare, ships, warriors and their heroic deeds, and there is a great deal of boasting, one-upmanship and bullying – no wonder it’s considered a quintessentially macho genre (also see Introduction).41 The surviving verses attributed to women who were likely historical figures display their poets’ command of both the mechanics – the nuts and bolts – as well as the artistry and typical themes of skaldic verse, but, moreover, they show that women can be macho, too.42 Those female poets who did compose skaldic verse were perfectly at ease with the conventions, proving that they could take on the outrageously arrogant persona of a skald, one poet – if the verse really was composed by a woman – pitting her patron god Thor against the feeble Christ with all the swagger of a contemporary rapper. One court poet we know by name is Jórunn, nicknamed skáldmær (poetgirl), who was active in the early tenth century. Her poem Sendibítr (Biting Message) is an elegant political comment on the disagreement and reconciliation of King Harald Fairhair Hálfdanarson and his son Hálfdan the Black.43 One of the lines in Sendibítr is shared with another poem by a male poet.44 Whether one of them was quoting the other or they are both referring to a shared source is impossible to tell, but Jórunn’s use of the line reinforces the assessment that she was operating in exactly the same sphere as her male

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colleagues. We do not know anything further about this Jórunn except that she is associated with a Norwegian court, but the component mær (maiden) rather than kona (woman) in her nickname skáldmær may indicate that she was, like most of her male counterparts, young and unmarried.45 Since no other poems have been preserved by Jórunn, perhaps she moved on to other pursuits after a stint at court. Alternatively, they may have been lost in the time it took until saga authors began to write the poems down around 1200, or they may have been left out by these authors. But what’s for certain is that Jórunn was a rare woman in a mostly masculine section of society. We know the name of at least one other woman who was a Viking court poet, Vilborg, who was active in Norway in the late eleventh century.46 A few more women are nicknamed skáldkona or said to have composed poetry, and there may be many more who have been forgotten. Yet more female saga characters who are the creations of an author (rather than people who may have existed) are said to have uttered original verses, which the authors could not have got away with unless their audience knew that women poets existed. Even so, there were probably nowhere near as many women poets as men in the Viking Age. On the other hand, sagas also include episodes that hinge on women decoding skaldic verse. Although these are literary scenes that serve a function in the plot, they might suggest that many women were able to understand this poetry – which would have required considerable training – whether or not they were active in creating it. The perceived quirks and difficulties of skaldic verse are used to striking effect in Gísla saga Súrssonar (Gisli Sursson’s Saga), when the protagonist Gísli confesses to murdering his brother-in-law in a cryptic verse he speaks in the presence of his sister Þórdís, whose husband he had, indeed, killed. Although the verse is not immediately understood, Þórdís realizes that Gísli is saying something of grave importance in it, so she memorizes the verse and unlocks it on her walk home from their meeting.47 Þórdís had married her husband’s brother only a few months after his slaying and when she figures out that Gísli did the deed, she tells her new husband and encourages him to seek redress. Gísli’s mistake is not that he assumes that she can’t decode the verse but his entitled belief that she will stay silent about its content.



Women and weapons Even though Þórdís effectively gives Gísli a death sentence, she later tries to murder his killer in his revenge by taking up weapons herself, seizing the moment when a sword falls on the floor to try to stab the man in the belly, but she misses and hits him in the thigh instead.48 Þórdís is unsuccessful, but one manuscript preserving an account of Jórunn’s poem refers to her not as skáldmær but skjaldmær ‘shield-maiden’.49 This is the word that is used for female warriors in some legendary sagas as well as a Norse translation of an epic poem about Alexander the Great, and it appears to be the Icelandic term for an Amazon, suggesting that the word has learned Latin rather than Norse origins.50 Since the difference only comes down to one or two letters, the scribe may have accidentally made an error when copying out the word, but it need not be a mistake. One version of her story may have assumed that she joined her king in battle as male skalds were known to do, either as a warrior or an observer – the better to be able to commemorate the bravery of the king and his retinue. But this is only one word in one manuscript from the late fourteenth century, so it is not weighty evidence for proving that women participated in battle in the Viking Age. On the contrary, none of the kings’ sagas, which primarily relate Norwegian history, suggest that Viking warrior bands included women. Written in the thirteenth century and based on older skaldic verse and oral narratives, they contain plenty of grand battle scenes, and women are occasionally portrayed as the instigators of war by charging men to prove their bravery and manhood (see also Chapter 5), but apart from the single reference to Jórunn, there are no hints in these texts that women fought in battles. The representation of women wielding weapons in Norse written texts is wholly dependent on genre, and sagas that have women warriors also include so many fantasy elements – talking dragons, magical potions, dwarves, trolls and revenants – that they need to be analysed with a bucket, rather than a grain, of salt. The more realistic sagas almost never show women take up weapons and the laws make clear that men wield weapons on their behalf.51 One could not just pick up a sword and expect to be deft with it. These sagas are set in a recognizably Icelandic and Scandinavian world, which constrained authors in terms of what they could get away with. They

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could invent characters and conversations, but they couldn’t put a legendary figure such as a shield-maiden into such a story if the audience was supposed to go along with it. In the rare instances when women in these sagas wield weapons – three episodes in hundreds of pages – it’s a spur-of-the-moment act with mixed motivations and results. The most successful of these characters is Laxdæla saga’s Auðr, nicknamed Breeches-Auðr, who attacks her former husband as he lays sleeping in his bed, in revenge for divorcing her with underhanded methods.52 She badly wounds his hand and slashes his chest so that his nipples bleed, but he lives to tell the tale, if rather shamefacedly. However, Laxdæla saga’s central narrative goal is to interrogate the boundaries between gender roles, so it is not a good source for reconstructing historical reality. Auðr’s unusual act of violence is used to make a point about the husband’s lack of honour, and he fully deserves the shameful role reversal of being wounded (and perhaps symbolically penetrated) in bed by a woman with a sword. Nor do many accounts written by the Vikings’ victims in Europe suggest that women were among their attackers: for example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the most reliable contemporary written sources on Vikings, states that the Viking ‘Great Army’ which ravaged the English countryside in the ninth century stowed women and children in a safe location before a battle.53 In other European sources, authors describe battles that were fought decades or centuries earlier, and their accounts are often overtly biased in favour of the Vikings’ victims, which is understandable, given that they are written by their descendants. For example, an early-twelfth-century Irish chronicle claims that a woman called Inghen Ruaidh (the Red Maiden) was one of the many Viking leaders who fought against the Irish king Brian Boru in 1014.54 Apart from the text being written decades, or up to one hundred years, after the battle itself, historians have argued that it was intended as propaganda for the contemporary political situation.55 It is not possible to exclude the idea that there really was a red-clad or red-haired woman leading one of the Viking warbands attacking Ireland – there were undoubtedly some women who broke into this male sphere, even if we have no reliable record of them. But because of the nature of these written sources, it is difficult, if not impossible, to suggest that they imply that training and operating as warriors was a viable and socially accepted lifestyle for Viking women.



Archaeologists have uncovered several mass graves in England bearing witness to unsuccessful Viking raids, preserving the remains of groups of Vikings whose luck ran out. Some of them contain only male skeletons, though a mass grave in Repton, Derbyshire, is an interesting case, with around 20 per cent of its bodies sexed female.56 Were these women warriors, or might they have performed a variety of other roles so that the army – or, a travelling group of mostly men but also women and children – could function? In light of such finds, the debate about the reality of women warriors is more vibrant than ever, taking new turns with more refined scientific methods to analyse human remains as well as our growing knowledge about the complexity of gender and mortuary practices. In autumn 2017, a new study carried out in Sweden, entitled ‘A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics’, thus claimed to have evidence to prove the existence of at least one woman warrior.57 The study analysed DNA from bones found in one of the most magnificent graves of the Viking Age, labelled Bj.581, which was a chamber grave located in an exclusive burial area near the garrison in Birka, marked with a large boulder.58 The person was around 30 to 40 years old when they died, and they were interred in silver-trimmed clothes, donning a distinctive cap; both were made in a style typical for the East, perhaps Kiev, rather than Scandinavia. The body was surrounded with a rich array of weapons, including a sword, two spears, twenty-five sharp arrow heads, a battle axe, a fighting knife and two shields, and they were also given a bronze bowl, an item interpreted as a spearhead amulet, a fragment of an Arab coin, two horses (male and female) with equipment, weights and a game board with gaming pieces and dice.59 Considering how many splendid things had been put into the grave, the funeral must have been a spectacular display of status, wealth, military power and trade links, and the person in it clearly belonged to a wealthy elite. Moreover, the spearhead item and the two spears, which may have been thrown into the grave as part of the funeral ritual, inevitably prompt connections with Odin and the valkyries, who are commonly referred to with kennings such as ‘spear-girl’ in Norse written sources (see Introduction), though they might symbolize something else which is lost on us (or nothing at all). The grave, excavated in 1878, has been famous in Viking studies for decades, but the new study presented a sensational discovery: the person in the grave

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was biologically female. The article, and a follow-up study published in 2019, argued, based on the weapons in the grave, that everything pointed to the deceased having been a woman warrior, and, moreover, that the exotic clothes and gaming set indicated that she had been a ‘high-ranking officer’.60 These statements made big ripples far outside the scholarly community and went viral online, generating dozens if not hundreds of popular articles that summarized the findings, most of them celebrating the discovery of the skeleton’s female genes as ‘proof ’ for female warriors.61 The public followed, enthusiastically sharing and discussing the news on social media. This ecstatic reception of the study is a story of the present as much as the past, emblematic of a contemporary shift to recover strong women who have often been unjustly erased from the history books.62 Our culture has a tendency to understand being powerful with being physically strong and able to subjugate others – at least in a context like the Viking Age – so rather than adjusting and expanding our understanding of power in its many forms, we get excited about women warriors who were strong ‘like men’. This development goes hand in hand with society becoming increasingly permissive, even celebratory, of women being physically strong and fit. In addition, the growing willingness to acknowledge female warriors positively affirms women reenactors and members of living history projects, many of whom embrace the military part of Viking history. Now that the person who once lay in the Birka grave has been proven to have been biologically female, what do we do with this information? In many ways, we are left with even more questions than before. First, can we be sure that this person was socially female – that their body and their social role corresponded? Or was this a cross-dressing Viking? Some Icelandic saga authors have no concept of a female warrior role – a warrior is a ‘he’ regardless of body parts, so when they enter this way of life, their shield-maidens dress like men and adopt a male name, and the pronouns referring to them switch from female to male pronouns.63 For these medieval authors, and perhaps for some people who lived in the Viking Age, gender might have been more fluid than was previously assumed. This doesn’t exclude the possibility that some cisgender women enjoyed the thrill of fighting and cross-dressed so that they could join Viking retinues. However, as many people pointed out in the wake of this study, there might also have been people who experienced



gender dysphoria – who were what we now call transgender – including those who had an internal male identity despite being perceived as female. Although it is clear that Norse society had two binary categories, a few sagas raise the question whether someone born with a female body could take on a male role with the correct clothing and behaviour, as we know people have successfully done throughout history.64 In light of all these different possibilities, we can’t simply equate chromosomes with social gender.65 On the other hand, with growing knowledge about the complicated cultural beliefs and practices in the Viking Age, archaeologists have become increasingly careful about making assumptions about individuals based on the objects and clothes with which they were buried. Are grave goods a mirror of a person’s occupations in life or were people buried with things they didn’t personally use? How can we know? If an individual, male or female, buried with weapons shows little signs of training for and participating in combat, the question of whether they used them becomes tricky. In 2008, archaeologists excavated the remains of thirty-seven tall and robust young men of Norse origin from the grounds of St John’s College, Oxford.66 They had been brutally slaughtered but their bones also bore witness to older wounds. Many scholars have pointed out that the skeletons of real warriors show signs of rigorous physical training along with the injuries that people would have suffered as a result of this lifestyle, so these men have been assumed to have been fighters. Following this logic, a dead person buried in a grave with weapons should only be categorized as having fought if their bodies show signs of wounds and training. But the bones in Bj.581 are described as ‘slender and gracile’, with no signs of trauma, so how can we be sure that this person – or anyone woundless buried with weapons for that matter – wielded those weapons in real life?67 The meaning of objects is another issue and weapons are a particularly difficult category, partly because they can have so many functions beyond being used in combat. Spears and arrows can be used for hunting, some axes can function as household items, for example, to chop firewood, dismember animal carcasses or many other activities that demanded force, and sagas suggest that, rather than being effective weapons, weapons  – especially swords  – can be seen primarily as status symbols or family heirlooms.68 Drawing an uncomplicated line between these objects and physical combat, and from there to

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‘warrior’ as a discrete identity, is fraught with questions. The presence of a female skeleton in a grave with objects that are traditionally categorized as male thus opens up a vast discussion about how humans live within and push against social barriers, and how they memorialize their dead. Archaeologists have significantly developed their methods of interpreting grave goods in the last decades, and they regard burials as ultimately for the living, since they are performed by the mourners and are seen, heard, smelled and experienced in the company of others. The most elaborate Viking rituals performed by people with rich resources must have been a spectacle to behold. Viking funerals weren’t standardized and customs must have varied, but for members of the elite, there was likely a ceremony during which many and expensive items were placed in the grave, including garments, food and drink and a variety of objects and animals, which were likely slaughtered at the scene (and interred whole or in parts). People are known to have been buried in clothes and with objects that were probably much older than they were and sometimes so damaged as being unusable – perhaps these items were foremost of sentimental value, and in those cases, the mourners may have been saying something about lineage and the deceased as the member of a family.69 This is not to mention visual components such as the grave’s structure – a chamber, ship, coffin or wagon, stone formation or a mound  – which demanded a great deal of material and labour to construct and would have made a strong impression on onlookers.70 Moreover, whatever their wishes might have been, the corpse does not have the agency to control the way they are remembered or the ceremony that unfolded. Perhaps it would have been seen as bad form to stray too far from the person’s final wishes, but ultimately, they couldn’t tell their survivors what to do. A funeral was (and is) an opportunity for mourners not only to honour the dead person and state what they meant to them but also to affirm the family’s status, wealth and values, that is, to perform a designated social role or identity that they constructed through the details of the ritual.71 This means that funerals and graves are not an objective snapshot of what the dead person got up to in reality but, rather, the result of all kinds of ideas the mourners might have had about their role and activities in this life or the next. In light of these many, complicated factors, the presence of weapons in any grave is no longer seen as direct and straightforward proof that the



person buried in it, whether biologically male or female, was a warrior, especially when the skeleton shows no signs of combat. This is particularly clear from other graves in Birka such as Bj.977, in which a boy around 9 years old was buried with a sword and shield, a horse and other military equipment, or the grave in Balnakeil on the northern shore of Scotland of a boy of about 12 to 13 who was around 150 cm tall, containing a 86-cm-long sword, spanning more than half his height.72 Neither of these boys would realistically have lived a warrior lifestyle that required the use of these weapons, though the older boy seems to have been on the verge of the first stage of adulthood. Their graves say more about the identity of the people who mourned them, and how they wanted their loved one to be seen and remembered, likely as promising leaders of a high-ranking, powerful, affluent family. The boys may have been preparing for becoming warriors as one component of an elite male identity, but the weapons could also have been symbolic of lineage, wealth and status. Though they do not give us any straight answers, these finds have implications for weapon graves with the remains of biological women. Norse graves that have been osteologically sexed as male or female suggest that most people took on traditional gender roles as they were determined by society, though, importantly research is increasingly uncovering that these roles overlapped to a larger degree than was previously believed, especially in less rigid urban environments.73 Grave goods common to both men and women are animals (probably slaughtered during the funeral), food, combs, cooking equipment and fine tableware, horse equipment, household and agricultural tools such as knives, whetstones, scythes and sickles  – perhaps denoting land ownership  – and items for specialized occupations such as trade. However, when graves are clearly gendered, generally, swords and certain tools signify male graves whereas oval brooches and strings of beads or textile equipment signify female ones. Osteological analysis – determining the sex of a skeleton based on the shape of the hips and cranium – is not foolproof, especially when the person died young, when their body was still developing, and there is some variation in local customs – for instance, in Iceland, men were buried with beads more often than in most other places.74 However, three graves that have been sexed female (out of thousands of excavated graves in

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all of the Viking world) contain a sword.75 According to the latest figures, seventeen more have projectile weapons – arrowheads and spears – or an axe.76 Another skeleton sexed female buried with a sword, discovered in southeastern Norway in 1900, was found in the grave of a young woman of very slight build.77 She would have been around 155 centimetres tall, which was quite short for women even then, and likely weighed around forty kilograms. Even if one is prepared to believe that women warriors existed, one might question whether this particular woman could have fought with the sword buried with her. Many theories swirl around graves such as these, and one interpretation advances the idea that the woman may have been sacrificed and buried in her husband’s stead. There are vague references in Norse sources to ‘suttee’, when a wife voluntarily accompanies her husband into the afterlife on his funeral pyre (see Chapter  6).78 Sometimes bones completely decompose, or perhaps, if a husband died abroad, the theory goes that the wife could have been buried in his stead, becoming a sort of ‘prop’ in the ritual drama that was performed.79 After all, there are several double (or larger) burials where one person seems to have been killed as a companion for the other, and Norse legends include references to women accompanying men in death, which prompts the question whether this practice was glorified by poets and storytellers as propaganda aimed at women, who might have needed some persuading to embrace such a death.80 Another idea that critics have proposed is that the woman could have been a ‘functional son’: if a girl had no brothers, perhaps she would have been treated like a son, including in her burial. This legal status would have had significant implications for the family because of the rules of inheritance in Norse society.81 Icelandic and Norwegian laws provided a long and complicated list of which male relatives of a deceased man should receive the so-called ‘wergild ring’ (baugr), or the right to inherit a dead relative’s property and receive compensation for the slaying of the deceased, which went hand in hand with the duty to avenge or provide compensation for his own killings. In the absence of male receivers, an unmarried daughter may have entered the proceedings; such women were called baugrýgr (ring lady) and received compensation as if they were a son.82 Both the Norwegian and the Birka graves remain enigmas, but the varied aspects of weapon burials show that the Vikings had complicated ideas about



death and the afterlife, burial rituals and commemoration. We must allow for several different options when arriving at conclusions about the identities of the dead – all that seems clear is that the question of women fighters in the archaeological record remains unsolved. At the end of the day, in a time when there was no effective birth control, women had to contend with pregnancy, breastfeeding and associated physical ailments whether they liked it or not (see also Chapter 4), and it might have been difficult for most of them to make this aspect of life compatible with the gruelling training and fighting a warrior life would have demanded. Ultimately, it’s impossible to arrive at irrefutable facts about warrior women:  we can’t deny the likelihood that some women fought, and the Birka woman might have been one of the most successful female warriors of the Viking Age, but the existence of women warriors is difficult to prove beyond all doubt.

Shield-maidens Where, then, are the famous shield-maidens we know from sagas and popular culture? They’re in Norse texts that could be characterized as a medieval version of the modern historical fantasy genre. Icelandic sagas set in the legendary Scandinavian past (i.e. fornaldarsögur), and the mythical-heroic portion of Saxo’s History of the Danes, recount stories about women warriors who receive training in battle skills and make a career of being Vikings and pirates. Wearing male clothing and armour, bearing weapons and sometimes taking male names and pronouns, they sail around Scandinavia harrying and fighting along with their companions and followers, terrifying their opponents and victims, and some hold court as Viking monarchs. These characters are successful for a time, exerting military power that proves more than their opponents can handle, and both the narrators and the other characters seem just as in awe of them as modern audiences. This period of their lives is usually followed by marriage and the renouncing of weapons, though as discussed in Chapter 4, a couple of legendary queens return to warfare after they marry. These are the inspirations behind captivating figures such as the swashbuckling Lagertha and her shield-maidens in Vikings, Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, Sif and The Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor comics and movies and Frøya in NRK/

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Netflix’s Norsemen (Figure 4), who has a successful career as a Viking warrior among her male pals and even makes a necklace from her victims’ penises.83 Authors put their individual touches on their women warriors: Hervör of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks is the daughter of a berserk chieftain, and unlike the loyal Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, she’s got a mean streak. As a teen, Hervör does ‘more evil than good’ and spends a period as a bandit, lurking around in forests and killing people for their possessions, more out of malice than material need.84 Her maternal grandfather, an earl, makes an effort to keep her in check, but Hervör’s anger is provoked by some slaves who accuse her of being the daughter of a swineherd, prompting her to go on a Viking expedition to prove her worth. The climax of Hervör’s story is when she boldly enters her dead father’s burial mound on Sámsey to retrieve his magic sword. Engaging in a versified battle of wills with his animated corpse, who repeatedly refuses to give the heirloom to a woman, she eventually persuades it to release the weapon through sheer determination. Hervör continues to travel and harry for a time, but one day she suddenly grows tired of the pirate life. Shedding her male identity and name, she goes back to her grandfather’s home and embarks on an embroidery project, which signals the end of her rebellious phase. Soon after, a compatible suitor turns up and receives her hand in marriage, and they have two sons. Hervör does not take up weapons again, but her granddaughter and namesake is also a shield-maiden, keeping up the family tradition of unconventional behaviour. There is nothing strange about retiring from Viking life: most men are not Viking warriors forever either, and unless they die in battle, they use it as a springboard to power and social status, becoming kings or rulers. In effect, Hervör behaves like a ‘ring lady’, becoming male in all but biology, but only for a time. The mythical past and fantastical universes often function as a safe space for authors to engage with immediate concerns in ways that are too sensitive to talk about explicitly, and as the episode in the burial mound suggests, the story about Hervör has a serious subtext about what happens if a man has no sons to inherit him.85 Hervör’s father is at first reluctant to acknowledge his daughter as a valid heir, but when she’s proven that she can hold her own against him, he yields and recognizes her right to inherit his sword and status.



Saxo names a handful of women who fought in legendary battles, and the numerous appearances of shield-maidens in his work indicate an ambivalent fascination with them. He writes with admiration of their height, grace and elegance, self-denying training regime, gritty endurance and military-political ambition – or, as he puts it, ‘virile ruthlessness’. Although Saxo seems to admire these women’s physique and chutzpah, he is explicit that shield-maidens deviate from the natural order of things, accusing them of having ‘unsexed’ themselves and forgotten ‘their true selves’. He characterizes the shield-maiden Rusla as ‘surpassing a woman’s temperament in her strenuous military activities’, while his Lathgertha ‘bore a man’s temper in a girl’s body’.86 Although in these assessments of women fighters, Saxo vocalizes the type of disdain for women which was entirely characteristic for medieval clerics, he goes on to feature several shield-maidens extensively, retelling their stories with obvious interest. Rusla appears in several places in Saxo’s work, and her fraught exchanges with her brother are perhaps an inspiration for Yara and Theon Greyjoy’s tumultuous relationship in Game of Thrones. As a war leader, Rusla leads a short-lived uprising against the mercurial Viking king Ømund, and along the way, she defeats her brother Thrond in battle, ignominiously robbing him of his retinue and ships. Subsequently, Rusla is attacked by King Ømund and stripped of most of her own warriors. Now on the run, she has a less fortunate encounter with Thrond, who ‘cut her to pieces’, and as a reward for killing his sister, the king makes Thrond governor.87 Another shield-maiden, Hetha, plays an important part in the critical battle of Bråvalla and is rewarded by her king with lordship over Denmark. The Danes are so appalled by the idea of being ruled by a woman that they threaten to revolt unless the decision is partly withdrawn, and Hetha is only given Jutland in South-Western Denmark.88 However, the most impressive of all must be Lathgertha, whose gorgeous flowing hair – a feature which obviously sexualizes her – singles her out on the battlefield. Ragnar, a Danish king, becomes dazzled by her, and he proves his worth by slaying a bear and a hound she placed outside her house as guardians of her virginity. They marry and have three children, but Ragnar later discards his wife for another woman on the pretence that she had tried to have him eaten by a bear when he first wooed her! When Ragnar is embroiled in a war,

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Lathgertha unexpectedly turns up with her son, second husband and a huge fleet, claiming to love him, still. Her troops fight on Ragnar’s side, but she has the last laugh, subsequently killing her former lover with a dart to the throat and seizing his kingdom. Saxo tells these exciting stories with gusto, and he clearly enjoys them so much that he sometimes forgets to retain the tone of a disapproving, authoritative cleric, despite his previous statements about their lack of femininity. Like in Icelandic sources, shield-maidens in Saxo’s work disappear when his stories get closer to his own time, and they are one feature of many strange ones, from Saxo’s point of view, in the fantastical, pagan past.89 Though Saxo would have considered his tome history, it can scarcely be regarded as a reliable historical source. Some scholars argue that he was influenced by classical works, stories about Amazons in the case of women fighters, and equally, it is rife with folklore, myths and supernatural elements.90 In this respect, shieldmaidens in Saxo’s History and Norse legend share characteristics with mythical valkyries (discussed in the Introduction). In Lathgertha’s last battle, she is said to fly over the enemy force in an attempt to spread fear and panic, just like some valkyries do in heroic poetry.91 Valkyries are firmly supernatural, though a few have human lovers, but they occupy some of the same zones as shield-maidens in a whole spectrum of connected motifs that associate women and violence. Both figures are unmarried women who wear armour and are present in battles, though shieldmaidens take part in actual combat while valkyries ride through the air, hovering over battlefields and controlling which of the warriors on the ground get hit with arrows and spears. Supernatural women who fight – though without weapons – also appear in a riddle in Hervarar saga whose solution is the pieces of the hnefatafl, a Norse boardgame similar to chess: What women are they, warring together before their defenceless king? Day after day, the dark guard him, but the fair go forth to attack.92



Taken at face value, this snippet of verse may suggest that there were elite teams of bodyguards for kings consisting entirely of women skilled in combat. However, the lines appear in a cluster of riddles that personify as supernatural women the waves of the ocean and other natural phenomena, so it is unreasonable to take one riddle out of the sequence and interpret it as being about real, human fighters. This example drives home that we must always take the narrative context and literary nature of the source into account. Usually this leads to the conclusion that there is no way of interpreting women fighters in sagas and Saxo’s work as anything other than belonging in the realm of legend. The same array of overlapping attributes meets us when we look at Viking visual art, which depicts a multitude of figures, some of which are recognizable from written sources. For example, the myth of Thor’s fishing expedition, in which he nearly catches the world serpent Jörmungandr, can be identified on stone carvings from the detail of his foot going through the boat’s hull.93 Others are more elusive, such as those depicted on the intricately woven Oseberg tapestry, found in a Norwegian ship burial from the early Viking Age, or the enigmatic Gotlandic picture stones. Many of these stones, made on the island Gotland in the Baltic Sea and probably raised as memorial stones or tombstones, feature war motifs carved on their surface, some of which depict bird-like beings hovering over crowds of men brandishing weapons (Figure  5).94 Could they be valkyries that have shape-shifted into birds or Freyja  – who receives half of the slain  – in her feather cloak?95 In metal art, figures that sometimes hold weapons or appear on horseback appear in long, trailing dresses with what looks like feminine hairstyles (Figure B and Figure  6). They often have pointy faces reminiscent of beaked birds  – perhaps they’re wearing masks, or perhaps they’re part-human, part-bird. Some critics have argued that Viking art is so stylized and unrealistic that humanlike figures are most productively interpreted as being beyond gender, but even so, it is tempting to label the spear-carrying figures on tapestry found in the Oseberg ship burial as having some connection to valkyries (Figures 7 and 8).96 The figures march in a crowded parade that likely depicts a funeral procession, since the tapestry was found in the grave of two elite women (see Chapter 6), their facial features are reminiscent of birds, and they are carrying the spears with which valkyries are often associated in skaldic poetry (see

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Figure B  Silver figurine found in a cremation grave in Sibble, Grödinge, Södermanland, Sweden, interpreted as depicting a valkyrie. Swedish History Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Introduction). A larger female figure with a bird’s head which is among the most prominent on the tapestry has been interpreted as a representation of Freyja.97 We never witness Freyja actually flying, but in the Viking world beyond Norse mythology, the links between divine women, birds or the ability to fly, the afterlife and war are also widespread, if difficult to interpret. Other interpretations are possible:  they could be the legendary heroine Brynhildr, who is both a shield-maiden and a valkyrie in Völsunga saga (as Sigrdrífa, see Introduction), but they might also represent a type of mythical being that we have no way of recovering.98 In 2012, a detectorist working on the island Funen in Denmark found an exquisite silver figurine depicting a woman wearing a long dress and ponytail, carrying a sword and a shield – a unique object whose three-dimensional form and style is somewhat different from those surveyed previously (Figure C). Although it is tempting to interpret this figurine a straightforward



representation of a warrior woman, it is useful, once again, to pause and examine its context. The Vikings wore all sorts of amulets presumably seen as having the power to bestow protection or luck, such as miniature hammers usually understood as symbolizing Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. These items were stringed onto necklaces, stashed into purses and pouches or somehow fitted onto their dress, and although they were sometimes included among grave goods, they regularly turn up as stray finds. While it is uncertain what the figurine represents, in parallel with miniature hammer amulets, it seems more likely that this object depicted a non-human being, such as a valkyrie, Freyja or other supernatural figure in whom their devotees put their trust, much like the hammer would have invoked Thor. Saxo and the Icelanders who wrote down narratives about the Vikings in the thirteenth century, long after the Viking Age ended, based their accounts on myths and legends rather than first- or second-hand eyewitness accounts

Figure C  ‘Valkyrie’ figurine. Figurine of a woman, perhaps a valkyrie, carrying a sword and shield, found in Hårby, Funen, Denmark (C 39227). Silver with gilding and niello decoration. c.800 ce. Photo:  Arnold Mikkelsen. National Museum of Denmark. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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about real female warriors. Their shield-maidens emerge out of a rich narrative tradition with a vast complex of female figures that are connected to violence, combat and war in different configurations. These characters are not ‘real’ in the same way as Breeches-Auðr and her weasel of a husband are: they belong to a mythical-heroic universe, a distant but vividly drawn world within which authors can let their imagination run wild. In this imagined space, it is often impossible to draw a line between the realms of the supernatural and the human, the known world and the otherworld, which is inhabited by monsters and all sorts of wonders. This space was likely to the saga authors and audiences what universes like those depicted in Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and other modern fantasy are to a modern person, whereas sagas closer in time and less fantastic are more like historical fiction, whether based on real events and people or only using a particular period for its setting. In the Norse fantasy world, there are many recognizable elements from the historical past, such as social structures, modes of economy, gender roles and family dynamics, but there is also scope for magic and invention. Here, women have the freedom to run off and become warriors, to reject marriage, to inhabit the gender they feel most comfortable with and to antagonize those that have wronged them; in short, they can do everything that the more realistic sagas show women as being unable to. Perhaps these characters were in some way compensation for women’s restricted circumstances in real life. The gap between reality and fantasy would no doubt have been viewed positively or negatively by different people. Through the sources, we can recover some of the perspectives Viking women might have held regarding things like respect in marriage, the right to acquire and own property or reject a suitor, the ability to protect themselves and their family and, in a nutshell, to have determination over their own lives. Women probably spent most of their time doing mundane, physically demanding work, and most of them would have seen getting married to a well-to-do and respectable man as advantageous, though ideally they would like to have something to say about the choice of partner. The self-assured women who go on to help their husbands and sons in wars are characteristic of the general perception that the Vikings valued their wives for initiative, assertiveness and wisdom in many spheres, not just warfare. We’ll meet some of these women in the next chapter.


3 Adulthood, married life and divorce Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir  – wife, leader, traveller, mother, Christian  – was the Viking woman embodied. According to Eiríks saga rauða, she grew up on a farm on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland, the granddaughter of an enslaved Irishman on one side and a descendant of settlers who likely came from Scandinavia on the other. Nothing is known about their social rank, which suggests that there was nothing to say about it, but the family is upwardly mobile: Guðríðr’s father Þorbjörn manages to become a landowner and chieftain. In Eiríks saga rauða, the teenage Guðríðr is introduced as a skörungur, a word that literally means a poker for a fire, but in sagas, it is often applied figuratively to women who stand out for their assertiveness and leadership. In Grænlendinga saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders), she is described as wise and socially competent.1 In other words, Guðríðr is a major catch. After preventing his daughter from marrying beneath her, Þorbjörn decides to move the entire family to Greenland, and they sail off to the Arctic to join the colony of Norse settlers. Life in Greenland is challenging from the start and they suffer a period of bad weather and an outbreak of plague, which kills Þorbjörn. But Guðríður lands on her feet and marries the Icelander Þorfinnr, whose nickname Karlsefni  – makings of a man  – denotes boldness and strength. With Þorfinnr and his crew, the young woman goes into unchartered territory: they sail to Vínland, the newly discovered land in the west, and spend a period exploring the terrain and trading with the natives. In Vínland, Guðríðr gives birth to a son, Snorri, and Grænlendinga saga relates a brief, fascinating scene in which she is visited by a curious native woman as she sits by



her son’s cradle. After the men have violent encounters with the natives (unlike the women, who communicate peacefully), the Norse explorers go back to Greenland for good, and soon after, Guðríður and Þorfinnr return to his farm in Iceland. When Þorfinnr’s mother finds out about her daughter-in-law’s commonplace ancestry, she is initially horrified and bars Guðríðr from living in her husband’s home, but soon enough, she ‘learned what an outstanding woman Guðríðr was’, lets her into the family, ‘and the two women got along well’.2 Guðríðr’s legacy is to be one of the most important pillars of Christianity in Iceland:  she goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and becomes a nun and anchoress in Iceland on her return; her son Snorri has a church built, and the saga narrator proudly notes that several of his descendants became bishops.3 Guðríðr’s story is unique and captivating, but her mixed ethnic and class background, her extensive travelling, her Christian piety in a multifaith society, her position as a wife and mother and especially her need to manage tricky interpersonal relationships with skill perfectly represent the complex identities and experiences of many Viking women. The Norse ethos, which valued women’s hard work, initiative and intelligence, comes across loud and clear in the literature written by the Vikings’ descendants. Sagas and heroic poetry consistently celebrate women’s wisdom and sound advice, and their female characters are renowned for their boldness and ambition to protect their honour and that of their families, for better or worse. A loyal wife who suffered no fools could be her husband’s most valuable ally and advisor, and, conversely, marital strife was destructive for the fortunes of the family as a whole. Divorce was a fact of life rather than a moral failure, but sagas tell of the serious fallouts and violence between individuals and families in the wake of such turns. Although Norse law codes paint a patriarchal picture in which women have much less power than men, sagas are famous for bossy female characters who wield significant influence over their family members, regardless of official rules and regulations. Considering the extraordinary literary figures that appear in the Norse narrative tradition, it is difficult to picture that the Vikings would have been as successful as they were, and produced such a rich narrative tradition, if they hadn’t given women like Guðríðr scope to assert themselves. In this chapter, we will look at individual

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literary characters so vividly drawn by their authors – with all their human flaws and follies – but they should be seen as standing for thousands of real women whose multifaceted contributions made the Vikings’ achievements possible.

Life in the Viking Age Mobility Many Scandinavians were on the move in the Viking Age, looking to make a lucrative trading deal, carry out a successful pillage or find land to settle. They travelled within Scandinavia and went west to the British Isles, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and even North America, east to the Rus (present-day Russia and Ukraine) and south to the northern parts of the European continent. Some even made it to the Mediterranean, as far as Jerusalem and Miklagarðr (Great Fortress), the Norse name for the city that was then Constantinople, now Istanbul. Distinctly Norse burials, objects found in the ruins of buildings constructed in the Norse style and the scientific analyses done on the teeth of excavated skeletons attest to women’s mobility, with finds reaching from the Rus in the east to Newfoundland in the west. Closer to home, the small trading centres and towns that began to form in Scandinavia around 800 ce – most significantly Birka in Sweden, Hedeby and Ribe in Denmark and Kaupang in Norway – were by definition populated by newcomers. In Birka, neither the little girl nor the person buried in the famous weapon grave (mentioned in Chapters 1 and 2) had grown up on this small island at one end of the lake Mälaren in central Sweden. Likewise, the two women found buried near the Trelleborg fortress in southern Zealand, Denmark, had each arrived there from a distant place, as had the disabled elderly woman found in Coppergate, York, who likely grew up in South-Western Norway.4 How did these women travel? Many walked on their own two feet, but perhaps they also skied during the long winters:  the mythological jötunnwoman Skaði, an athletic and highly mobile figure, glides across the snow on her skis.5 Many women also seem to have been good riders. In Norway and Iceland, it was not uncommon for women to be buried with one or more



horse or horses’ heads – in Norway, the steeds wore beautiful harnesses with imported ornamental mounts.6 Icelandic burials are generally simpler, but a striking number of women were buried with horses compared to other areas where the Vikings settled. Women appear on horseback in written sources, so it seems that horses were not sacrificed at women’s funerals only to display status and wealth but to be useful to them in the afterlife. The eddic poem Oddrúnargrátr draws a brief but striking image of the elegant Oddrún saddling her black steed, letting it ‘travel over the smooth paths’.7 More ominously, valkyries ride horses to battle, and the mythological giantess Hyrrokkin goes to Baldr’s funeral on a wolf ’s back, using a snake as reins. Wolves are called the ‘giantess’s steed’ in the poetic tradition, and this motif is found in Viking visual art, for example, on the Hunnestad 3 stone found near Ystad in Southern Sweden (Figure 9).8 Women traversed the ocean, too: the Norse began to use sails at the start of the Viking Age in the second half of the eighth century, and their shipbuilding technology improved rapidly in the ninth century to produce fantastically seaworthy vessels.9 In the Oseberg burial, the grave of two women, an entire Viking ship was pulled onto land and eventually covered under a large mound, while in places whose landscape is characterized by narrow fjords, lakes or rivers – such as the Västmanland province in central Sweden, and the Norwegian, Orcadian and Icelandic coastal regions – elite women were conveyed to the next world in boats.10 These vessels were the symbolic centrepieces of the funeral, a show of economic and military might which reassured the mourners that their kinswoman would arrive to the afterlife with the dignity they deserved, but they also tell us about the Vikings’ real means of transport. Moreover, those who carried out the Oseberg burial ensured that the women buried in the mound had an alternative means of getting to the afterlife, namely a sleigh for winter travel, and an intricately carved wagon that may have been horse-drawn, similar to the one pictured on the tapestry found in the ship.11 The prose introduction to the eddic poem Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild’s Ride to Hel) states that the dead Brynhildr was laid in an opulent cart for her cremation, and the goddess Freyja gets around in a cart drawn by cats (probably lynxes or other large felines rather than domestic cats). Perhaps these vehicles were mainly intended for royal processions or exclusively for

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funerals, but otherwise little is known about the extent to which such wagons were a practical means of travelling in the Viking Age. In their earthly life, many women sailed and rode long distances to settle new lands, braving arduous and potentially fatal journeys across choppy seas and marshy or mountainous lands to start up a new life in distant place. The archaeological record, and Icelandic sources, that is, sagas and Landnámabók, indicate that many of the men credited with settling a particular area had wives and children. Although these women’s names and achievements were often left unstated or only mentioned in passing, they should be acknowledged as pioneers no less than the men. Settler women had to be of exceptionally strong mettle, and their physical, mental and emotional labour as well as reproductive capabilities were indispensable for the colonial populations across the North Atlantic to prosper and grow. Physical traces of women’s existence are scarce in some of the places to which they travelled, but a spindle whorl found at what may have been Leifr ‘the Lucky’ Eiríksson’s winter camp in L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland, or a stray brooch unearthed in the Norfolk countryside by a metal detectorist, is enough for us to know about their presence there along with the men.12 The remains of women in full Viking dress have been found in places as far apart as the banks of the Russian river Volga in the east, in Sámi terrain far beyond the Arctic circle in northern Norway, in a field near the village Adwick-le-Street in southern Yorkshire, or Finglas, now a suburb of Dublin, on the Isle of Man, in Orkney and the Hebrides, and all over Iceland. Some of these women may have been ethnically Norse traders or settlers, while others had perhaps been married off to Vikings with the purpose of cementing political and trade ties.13 The Vikings sometimes brought women and children along when they were on foreign conquests, in large groups that may have looked like travelling villages. This custom may have existed from at least when the Roman author Tacitus wrote in his treatise Germania (c.98 ce), where he claims that the Germanic peoples ‘have their nearest and dearest close by [as they wage war] so that they can hear the shrieks of their women and the crying of their children’.14 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 893 relates that when King Alfred and his troops stormed a fortress built by a Viking called Hæsten and his army in Benfleet in Essex, the English found women and children within



the fortification, including Hæsten’s wife and two sons, who were taken as hostages.15 The entry for 895 states that ‘Danish’, that is, Norse, women were put in a safe place before a battle between these two forces, and continental sources, too, mention the presence of women among the Vikings. The mass grave at Repton in Derbyshire, believed to be the final resting place of massacred members of the Viking Great Army, contains the remains of women and several children or adolescents among the c.264 skeletons (see also Chapter 2).16 Since these people, who ended up the victims rather than the conquerors, weren’t given a proper Norse burial, we don’t know much about them beyond what their skeletons can tell; recent research has confirmed that they were Norse and lived in the late ninth century.17 In these military campaigns, men and women must have performed a wide range of tasks beyond fighting. Many women were undoubtedly there as the wives of male warriors, like those mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Tacitus’s Germania. Some may have worked for the army doing traditional female tasks, for example, the enormous labour of making and repairing garments and other textiles, cooking, nursing warriors and healing their wounds – Icelandic written sources depict women in this role – and they may have carried out religious functions of some kind.18 In terms of emotional labour, texts of various origins depict women hardening the men’s spirits and rallying them before or during battle. An epic poem written in Latin by the monk Abbo after the Vikings laid siege to Paris in the 880s depicts the Vikings’ wives goading their husbands and berating them for not fighting valiantly enough, and centuries earlier, Tacitus described women as bringing ‘words of encouragement’ to their husbands on the battlefield.19 The poem Darraðarljóð (discussed in the Introduction) has been interpreted as a ‘battle hymn’ that may have been performed for this purpose, and although we have no record of this in reality, the poem’s escalating rhythm would conceivably have lent itself well to psyching up fighters for battle.20 Women, who are often portrayed as adept politicians and advice givers in Norse literature, may also have participated in developing the army’s strategy and negotiating ransoms and truces, whether or not they were active on the battlefield itself. The possibilities are many but whatever these women in Repton were there to do, the natives evidently decided not to take any risks by letting them live, and they were slaughtered along with the men.

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Women went abroad on more peaceful errands, too. As mentioned previously, Grænlendinga saga claims that Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir went ‘south’, that is, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.21 This might be an invented story to make Guðríðr – the ancestor of prominent Icelandic bishops, according to the saga – seem holy to its thirteenth-century Christian audience, but it could be based in a real tradition of women’s pilgrimages in the late Viking Age. The pilgrim book of the Reichenau monastery by Lake Constance in the Swiss Alps records the names of several Scandinavian women who may have stayed there on their trek to the Holy Land in the eleventh century, though it is possible that their names were written down at the behest of others.22 Closer to home, a runestone found standing on the banks of Mälaren claims that ‘Ingirun Harðar dóttir … wants to travel to the east and abroad to Jerusalem’, though whether she ever made it there is unclear.23 Many Norse women embraced the Christian faith and there is no reason to reject the possibility that they went on a pilgrimage if they had the means. The extensive movements of Viking women around the world prompt us to revise some of our assumptions about the lives of those who ended their days in Scandinavia. Although it was probably not a common occurrence, some women may have had careers requiring them to move around. The rune carver Gunnborga ‘the good’ was active in north-eastern Sweden, where a runestoneraising culture flourished in the late Viking Age (Figure  10), and a Þuríðr identifies herself as a carver on a runestone found in the Isle of Man.24 Two further inscriptions suggest women carvers, though anonymous ones might also be the work of women.25 Possessing the skill to carve runestones – one of the most significant ways in which Scandinavians commemorated their dead  – implies training, literacy and some degree of mobility. Scholars also speculate that craftspeople sometimes worked on an itinerant basis, travelling from one urban centre to another to ply their trade for a while, going to the next place when the market was saturated.26 Sagas indicate that women could travel not just in one direction but went back and forth. In Laxdæla saga, Þorgerðr, the mother of Höskuldr, is restless in Iceland after her husband dies, and she decides to go back to Norway, where she has many relatives.27 She remarries there and has another son, Hrútr, but when her second husband also dies from illness, Þorgerðr returns to Iceland to



live with Höskuldr. If women travelled for work, trade or leisure at some point in their life but died in Scandinavia, such travels would not necessarily be clear in the story told in their burial. The fine Irish and British brooches, serving utensils and other exotic items buried with women in Norway, have usually been interpreted as goods looted by male Vikings to bring home to their wives. Although this may often have been the case, such blanket assumptions exclude other possibilities. These women might have been the foreign-born wives of Viking magnates, who intermarried with the Irish elite, or some of the goods may have been acquired by the buried women themselves.28 We know that Norse women traders travelled far east into present-day Russia and Ukraine, so it seems perfectly believable that their sisters living on the west coast of Norway would have hopped onto a ship and travelled the much shorter and easier jaunt to England – a couple of day’s sailing in summer – returning with new possessions.29 Alternatively, women who displayed beautiful imported brooches on their dress or tableware in their homes may have acquired the objects closer to home, either secondhand, at markets or from travellers.30 In Eyrbyggja saga, Þuríðr, the housewife of the farm Fróðá in West Iceland, is crazy about the stylish jewellery, clothing and bed covers Þórgunna, a single woman from the Hebrides, brings to Iceland, and she (unsuccessfully) nags her visitor to sell them to her.31 Irish and British objects functioned as the desirable and trendy designer goods of the time, so in showing off their possessions, women could have been communicating not only their spending power but also, consequently, cosmopolitan connections and access to overseas trade networks.32

Staying rural The radical social and economic changes that developed during the Viking Age affected those who mostly stayed on the farm, too.33 Even the humblest Scandinavians living in remote places would have heard exciting stories about foreign adventures told by their friends and neighbours, or the itinerant workers, peddlers and other travellers they might meet on the farm or at seasonal gatherings. They would have marvelled at the unfamiliar objects, exotic jewellery and clothes and observed with curiosity the new cultural customs and

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religious ideas – most significantly, the Christian faith – that Scandinavians learned from contact with other peoples. In other words, those who stayed rural would still have felt connected to the outside world even though they didn’t go far themselves. Prior to the Viking Age, life was simpler, and although farms were never entirely self-sufficient, the economy expanded massively in this era:  people now consumed more and in different ways.34 Imported objects entered the economy and native raw materials began to flow around in unprecedented volumes. Soapstone, iron, fur and hides, whetstone, antler and leather were traded, sometimes across vast distances. Artisans and craftspeople (male and female) would transform them into crockery and cooking vessels, household furnishings, garments, combs, jewellery, leather straps and buckles, rope, pouches, bags, gaming pieces and tools. The items were sold either on commission or in bulk. Townspeople needed to procure food, building materials and home furnishings, which those living in the rural hinterlands could provide for a price. These imports ranged from basic produce to luxuries. As an example, the farm Sanda, not far from Birka, had a mill and bakery, baking fine bread for the town’s richer inhabitants. There was no good land for growing wheat in Sanda’s immediate vicinity, so the owners must have purchased the ingredients for their loaves, as well as more suitable stones for grinding the wheat than what they had, from elsewhere.35 As the development of specialized sectors shows, the economy expanded and became more varied, and wider distribution networks allowed goods to travel further. Seen through material objects, the world became larger and more diverse. In the wake of these radical changes in trading, urbanization and consumption, hard-working men and women all over Scandinavia found new ways to supplement their basic economy. One of the most significant changes around 800 ce was the rising importance of long-distance sailing, transporting the Vikings around the world to plunder and trade. This had radical consequences at home. There was a sharp rise in the need for textiles required for journeys across the open sea and to the Arctic – sails and deck coverings for the ship, and sturdy outer garments, warm inner clothing and bedding for the crew.36 This meant new opportunities, not just for the men who built the ships but also for those who made the textiles, women. Though



it is impossible to exclude the possibility that men worked in textile production, the evidence points to it being a female activity on the whole. Textile equipment is mostly buried with women, sagas consistently show textile workers as women, and a poem composed at the Norwegian court of King Óláfr Haraldsson in the 1020s explicitly refers to a sail as woven by women.37 A resourceful housewife could expand her work beyond the immediate needs of the family and become a small-business owner, capitalizing on her knowledge of textile production, trade networks and organizational skills, which she had from running her family’s farm.38 A sail for a Viking ship, typically one hundred square metres in size (though it varied depending on the size of the ship), would have required a huge amount of resources. Making textiles was not some quaint hobby but a serious business: on one hand, one needed tools and raw material, and, on the other, skilled labour and technical knowledge. Anyone who wanted to be successful in this industry had to understand how to breed and raise sheep to produce the best wool possible or how to grow and harvest fibres from flax and hemp. Processing plants for textiles was cumbersome, requiring retting (soaking) the stems, after which they were dried and beaten to release the inner fibres. Consequently, linen was an expensive fabric fit for royalty.39 Wool, the more common material, was sheared or pulled off the animal, cleaned, sorted into piles depending on its coarseness – different parts of the sheep’s fleece were used for different purposes – and combed smooth. Next, the yarn was spun, using a distaff and a drop spindle fitted with a whorl, its weight and spin twisting the fluffy cloud of fibres to a thread.40 This work required skill and patience and it was hard on the hands, as the arthritic damage on the fingerbones of Viking Age women shows.41 The yarn then needed to be soaked in water and left on racks to dry and set. The loom was now prepared for the weaving: the warp – the vertical foundation of the fabric – was arranged in a dense row of threads with the utmost precision, using stones with holes in them as weights to keep them taut. Finally, it was time to weave the weft: the yarn was passed over and under the threads in the warp, and the textile began to take its form. After the yarn had been passed from one side to the other, forming one strand of the weft, it had to be ‘beaten’ upwards with a weaving sword, a narrow, thin implement, to make the fabric denser. This must have

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been dull, repetitive work unless the weaver was making a tapestry decorated with images, but that was the exception. To make a sail, lengths of woven fabric were sewn together to form a large canvas, then covered with animal grease to make it windproof. Heimskringla claims, moreover, that sails were striped or decorated in blue, red and green, which, if true, would have been a magnificent sight to behold.42 A large sail, demanding the wool of approximately 150 sheep, would have taken four to five years to make from start to finish for one person working full time, so a workshop employing around ten professional textile workers would have needed a long, Scandinavian winter to make one sail.43 This means that sails had immense material value, and although they don’t get fetishized in texts to the extent that weapons and ships do, they are prominent in representations of ships on Gotland picture stones, for example, on the Tjängvide stone, where a diamond-patterned sail takes up half the lower panel (see Figure 5). An encounter between King Óláfr Haraldsson’s steward and an insubordinate subject of the king results in the latter’s sail being confiscated, and he is given an old, tattered piece in its place. The loss of his sail allegedly made the poor man burst into tears.44 Bearing in mind the stupendous amount of work behind making a sail, it goes without saying that clothing and other textile items for household use were enormously expensive. It would have taken two to three kilograms of wool and months of work to make a complete outfit for one person, or approximately 750 gram yarn and 9 weeks, for a single linen shirt.45 Business ventures such as textile production may have been a seasonal activity in some areas. The archaeological site at Bjørkum in Lærdal, a narrow and deep valley surrounded by towering mountains, located at the innermost part of Sognefjord, the longest fjord in Norway, seems to have been a place where people set up camp over the summer. There were no permanent buildings in the traditional longhouse style at the site, but instead, its transient inhabitants dug out pits and rustled up frames and tents to make living quarters and workstations.46 Some of them sheltered looms where textile workers produced fabric for a variety of uses, ranging from utility textiles to fine garments.47 The wool presumably came from sheep grazing on the sides of the mountains. Remains of lead weights, a small smithy and debris from rock



crystal and antler suggest that people also engaged in bartering and crafts, perhaps bead-, needle- and comb-making. They ate a variety of food, including salmon from the nearby river, and meat, but also herring, cod and grain, which was transported there from the Atlantic coast, two hundred kilometres away. We don’t know what else went on in Bjørkum but the Lærdal valley was located near a network of routes across the mountains, and it leads to the Sognefjord, the sea route to rural settlements along its tributary fjords and the coast, so it’s easy to imagine that some people dropped by on their travels, exchanging goods, news and gossip, while others stayed for the season. They worked hard, the more experienced workers giving their juniors training in the craft, and words of wisdom, too. During the bright summer evenings, they probably enjoyed themselves around the campfire, telling stories, singing, dancing and watching the sun set between the mountains. When the nights became darker, the season came to a close and people from the region gathered for the annual feast, sharing food and drink, playing games, brawling, forming alliances or falling in love. Perhaps there was also a larger market, an assembly, horse fights or a religious ceremony thanking the gods for what they provided and asking for another good year.48 For a short period every year, then, Bjørkum was a lively village where people met and mingled, exchanged knowledge and passed on expertise, did business and politics, and found spouses. Sites like Bjørkum and the textile workshops excavated elsewhere in Scandinavia, such as Birka, Hedeby, Löddeköpinge in Southern Sweden and Kaupang, were places where women could earn an independent income and perhaps even achieve upward mobility through their work. Textiles were produced on an industrial scale in these places, but in a domestic setting, textile work is a logical fit for women, whose ordinary lives were to a large extent shaped by their bodies, especially during their childbearing years. Spinning a few metres of yarn or weaving a few rows can be done in between breastfeeding, child-rearing, cooking and other housework. The constant presence of and need for textile work probably meant that women were almost never without a spindle or a needle. This is certainly the case for their burials, which frequently contain textile tools, though such grave goods could also indicate a woman’s leadership role in textile production.49 In sagas, fateful scenes involving women are often set when they are spinning, weaving

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or sewing, but saga authors couldn’t have got away with anything else, since that was the work to which most women were bound for the majority of their time, whether in the Viking Age or during the saga’s period of writing. In Gísla saga Súrssonar, an overheard conversation between two women while they are sewing shirts fatefully stirs up old jealousies, while in Laxdæla saga, Guðrún is at her spinning while her husband Bolli is out killing Kjartan, his best friend and her former flame. When he returns, she ironically compares their day’s work: ‘I have spun 12 ells’ worth of yarn and you have slain Kjartan.’50 This perpetual female task carries over to the belief system: each individual’s fate or predetermined life course is imagined as a piece of yarn whose strands were plied together by the nornir. One poet visualizes life as ‘golden thread’ which they hang ‘under the moon’s hall’ (the sky) like a sparkling string of fairy lights up above, but the bloody gut-fabric of the weaving women in Darraðarljóð is a more macabre manifestation of the metaphor (see Introduction).51 That textiles and violence tend to go hand in hand in the imaginary realm should come as no surprise:  the prosaic fact is that women spent a very large part of their lives at textile work because they and their families would have gone naked without it. The intense and continuous effort of keeping the family clothed was probably as mundane and necessary as ordinary housework is to us, but there was nothing sinister about it. The foreboding associations in literature and mythology between textile work and violence – another perpetual presence in the world of the sagas – are shaped by a reality where a spindle whorl or a loom was always at hand. Sagas are not documents about everyday life in the Viking Age, but their authors are good at creating a veneer of realism, for example, by setting dramatic scenes when people happen to be at their work, thus giving us incidental glimpses into ordinary lives. Procuring and producing food was another of women’s most substantial jobs, judging from the sagas. They milked and worked the dairy, making cheese, skyr, butter and whey, they cooked, baked and brewed ale and mead. Women are also depicted washing clothes in a nearby brook or hot spring, joining in the haying and harvesting, and dwelling in shieling in the warmer months to tend cattle and sheep grazing in the summer fields.52 Unless the household was very small, the women at the head of the household would not have carried out all of the different ‘women’s’ jobs



necessary for it to function. Some tasks, especially the more menial or physically taxing ones, were delegated to those below them in the farm’s hierarchy. In one saga, a husband asks his wife to milk sheep ‘though you don’t usually do it’, indicating that she was normally occupied with less gruelling work, and women workers, often bondswomen, are referred to as matselja ‘cook’, seta ‘housemaid’ and deigia ‘baker’ in texts.53 Low-status women were not spared the worst, most backbreaking work in poor conditions:  Rígsþula depicts a bondswoman working outdoors in bare feet getting burned by the sun, while the jötunn girls who work the mill in the eddic poem Grottasöngr (The Song of Grotti) complain about grinding barefoot in the cold, wet mud.54 Low-status women also personally serve their masters or visitors, for instance, if their clothes were wet after a journey.55 Servants perform all sorts of other ad hoc jobs and are sometimes asked to deliver things or messages to other farms, in which case they might also be expected to gather news.56 We are rarely given any insight into the feelings of servants regarding their lot, though in one saga, there is so much tension between the master of the household, his wife and her former lover, who – oddly enough – lodges with them for a year, that the staff threaten to quit and leave.57 Households based on a single farmstead varied in size: the richest farms probably had several dozen inhabitants while the smallest might have been just two people living together in a hut. An average Icelandic household such as the farm at Keldudalur in Northern Iceland would have been made up of seven to eleven people of all ages, approximately five to seven adults and two to four children, and this number is similar to Norwegian farms.58 The typical saga household is a fairly compact unit composed of a nuclear family, that is, a married couple and their children, often with a grandparent or relatives living with them. They were at times joined by guests, and people further down in the hierarchy, such as foster-children, dependants (including orphans and old or disabled people), farmhands and enslaved people, who may have slept in the same space as the animals.59 In some sagas, the children marry and their new spouse moves in with their in-laws, and other patterns of cohabitation occur:  in Gísla saga Súrsonar, two brothers with different values and temperaments cohabit uneasily for a time, but eventually one of the couples moves in with friends at a neighbouring farm, a pattern also

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present in the archaeological record.60 Living arrangements were, in other words, flexible, fluctuating and varied. Although the Viking Age saw the beginning of urbanization, the towns were never very big and some may have had more inhabitants over the summer during market season than at other times. This form of social organization, consisting of fairly small single (or, less frequently, double) households surrounded by a sizeable tract of farmland, was the general pattern in Scandinavia and most Viking settlements, and it is also observed in Norse mythology, where the main gods all have their own abode.

Clothes for busy people The distinctive, non-restrictive clothing that Viking Age women wore enabled them to be physically active and mobile, whether at home or travelling (Figure 11). Although fashion varied from place to place and developed over time, the standard look for women featured a simple silhouette, an anklelength dress (serkr) fitted around the upper body, covered with a suspended pinafore (smokkr, often referred to as an apron dress), shifts or tunics.61 The garments sometimes had a pleated front section over the bust with the skirt flowing more loosely from the waist – a pretty, yet practical, fit, especially for pregnancy.62 In Icelandic written sources, women’s shifts and tops are sometimes described as low cut, which does not mean that they showed a lot of cleavage but more likely that the garment could be opened easily to allow them conveniently to breastfeed. Gullgubber or gold foil ­figures – tiny sheets of gold metal stamped with human-like motifs found in postholes  – feature motifs of probable women in skirts paired with a top or blouse, but since textiles survive poorly in the archaeological record, no such outfits have been found. These mysterious little items corroborate saga evidence which suggests that Viking Age clothing was gender-specific, cut in different ways for men and women.63 Wearing a garment intended for members of the opposite sex is stigmatized in some texts, though this might be a later phenomenon:  Laxdæla saga presents cross-dressing, whether intentional or accidental, as grounds for divorce, while Grágás states that it was punishable by lesser outlawry, that is, being shunned from society for three years.64 Whatever the truth behind this,



Viking clothes were designed to accommodate women’s busy lives at home and on the road, and their biological needs as mothers. For outerwear, women wore wool shawls or wraps, sleeved coats and cloaks in a variety of patterns, which the more affluent wore beautifully trimmed with fur, embroidery, ribbons, mounts and perhaps fringe of some sort. Rígsþula also mentions a woman wearing what seems to be a jacket made of goat’s leather.65 Shoes and ankle boots were made either from leather or needlebound textile (nålbinding), a method of making dense wooly fabric that long predates knitting and crochet in the north. Given how costly clothes were, servants and enslaved people probably wore skimpy clothes made from coarse fabrics, and they were probably not always afforded shoes. Norse poets dwell on the exposed skin and bare, muddy feet of low-ranking women and hint at their suffering because of how unprotected they were from heat, cold and moisture.66 Fabrics were woven in timeless patterns which still appeal to us today: diamond, herringbone, stripes and plaid. Fibres were either linen, hemp or wool, the most common and durable one, and the Norse in Greenland even used local specialities – goat, Arctic hare and dog or wolf.67 The Vikings wore more colourful outfits than might be expected, eschewing, if possible, drab naturals for more vibrant tones – red, pink, yellow, orange, green and purple. Colours were dyed using plant, chemical and mordant dyes, some of which were local, but others were acquired from distant places through trade. For whatever reason, blue, dyed from woad (a flowering plant of the cabbage family), was all the rage in Norse communities, or at least it was common for burial outfits, at least in Iceland.68 Better-quality linen, which is naturally off-white, could be bleached to make it lighter, using lye and the natural effects of the sun.

The accessories The graves the Vikings left behind show that they had no qualms about ostentation, and both men and women decorated themselves with anything shiny or colourful they could get their hands on. Their jewels were sometimes produced locally but the most desirable ones were imported. The Vikings repurposed various kinds of plundered or traded objects as jewellery, picking

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or hacking ornamentation off church objects, for example, crosses, croziers, clasps from manuscripts and altar paraphernalia, to which they added fittings and fastenings for attaching to their clothes.69 Jewellery was also imported from the East, especially all kinds of colourful beads, and an Oriental silver ring with a pinkish glass stone and an inscription in Kufic writing was found in a woman’s grave in Birka.70 To decorate the clothes, opulent, glistening silk traded from Byzantium was cut up into smaller pieces which were sewn onto the edges of sleeves and collars, both decorating and reinforcing the garment, and colourful tabletwoven ribbons, sparkling with silk, gold and silver threads, added oomph to any dress.71 Other ways of making a visual impact were to sew padding into garment edges around the neck and wrists. Finally, a foreign visitor to Hedeby claimed that the look was completed with body paint of some sort; it’s not clear what he means but it could refer to tattoos or make-up such as eyeliner.72 Jewellery was an indispensable part of any woman’s outfit, especially armand neck-rings, brooches and dress pins in various shapes and sizes, amulets, bells and pendants, perhaps featuring mythological motifs (Figure  11).73 Viking women often wore strings of beads in a rainbow of colours, sometimes incorporating bead-spacers or pendants. Beads were made from a variety of materials from Scandinavia and all over the world, including glass, amber, jet, rock crystal, lignite, shell, amethyst and carnelian, and some were decorated with gold or silver foil or wire. They were worn either as a necklace, hanging across the chest between the shoulders, or stitched onto the garment. Beads didn’t only function as embellishment:  they were status symbols, and their number, colours and arrangement on the string might have said something about the wearer’s age, marital or social status, travels or other experiences.74 Although a necklace of a few dozen beads was a striking statement piece, several individuals have been found with hundreds of beads, forming jewellery sets that would have been very impressive. On a mountain pass in the Icelandic East Fjords, a young woman was found under a rocky ledge with 523 beads and no less than four brooches.75 She was likely killed in a landslide, which would explain why the upper part of her body was covered in rocks. The beads either formed a very long necklace (approximately 170 cm long), which might have been worn in several circles around the neck, or



they were suspended across her chest in rows – either way, the arrangement must have been eye-catching. It’s difficult to know if the display of beads had a symbolic significance or if it was mostly to show off her wealth and access to overseas trade networks, but it’s tempting to contextualize the woman’s outfit with little Viking Age figurines that have several strings of beads placed on the upper part of their body. One such object is a silver figurine that hung among other trinkets in a splendid woman’s set of jewellery, found in Aska in the Östergötland province in Sweden (Figure 12 and Figure D), usually interpreted as the goddess Freyja wearing her glorious Brísingamen). A  variety of utilitarian objects which may also have indicated the woman’s main preoccupations and status may have hung from the chest or waist. Needle cases, keys, scissors, knives and tools for grooming or medical use, including tweezers and earspoons, reinforce what seems to have been a Norse

Figure D  Copy of a silver pendant which was a part of an extravagant set of woman’s jewellery excavated in Aska, Södermanland, Sweden. The figure is generally interpreted as depicting the goddess Freyja, adorned with the Brísingamen necklace. Swedish History Museum. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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custom of keeping oneself clean and neat. After all, Saturday was and is still called ‘bathing day’ in the Scandinavian languages. Viking women are best known for their oval, domed brooches that held the outer dress together, one at each front shoulder. The brooches, found all over the Viking world, were mass-produced in workshops by melting copper and other metals together and pouring the mixture into moulds with complicated patterns, such as geometric or animal motifs. Brooches were sometimes gilded or trimmed with silver fittings to make them even more attention-grabbing, and they often have all sorts of protruding knobs. However, a woman buried in Finglas outside Dublin wore a rather endearing pair of brooches with five little bears in a seated position and four more bear heads.76 Oval brooches were not the universal items that they have come to be in popular representations of Viking women: For instance, neither the two women buried in the Oseberg burial nor elite women in Denmark were found with such jewellery. But they were a distinctive feature of many Norse women’s wardrobe, and wearing them was one way for a woman to express her identity and status; some critics believe that they symbolized marriage, in the way that many people use wedding rings today, and even fertility, with the knobs representing nipples.77 Moreover, brooches associated a woman with one group or differentiated her from another, especially in hybrid settler communities, where women migrants may have reacted to being displaced from their original home by altering and adapting their dress in some way. Some women were undoubtedly interested in the latest fashion or what the locals wore, whereas others chose a more conservative and traditional style. Others may have had their style forced upon them, conforming to the dress of the dominant culture. Design trends developed over time, so brooches can often be dated to a fairly narrow period, and idiosyncratic features can help localize them to workshops in specific regions or towns regardless of where they were found. Different brooch designs may have been a part of a distinct regional dress, since women’s graves in Gotland, the large island in the Baltic sea, were buried with brooches in an unusual box style.78 In hybrid settler cultures such as Viking Dublin or Iceland, where a large part of the female population was from the British Isles but the elite was mostly Norse, the question of wearing jewellery in the Viking or native style took on an even stronger meaning of social expression, bridging



the past and the present – where a woman came from and the family to which she now belonged.79 But brooches could surely also have personal, sentimental value. The women buried in Skógar, Iceland, and Sandey, Orkney, were laid to rest with brooches that were antiques at the time of their death.80 Perhaps these were treasured family heirlooms passed down through the generations, given by a doting grandmother or proud mother to a girl when she came of age, in the hope that one day she would give it to her own daughter. Although objects no doubt had varying meanings for each individual, the evidence of burial outfits shows how deliberately the Vikings used clothes, jewellery and other items to say something about themselves, just as we do now.

Hair The Vikings took great care in grooming and combing their hair:  even the graves of relatively poor, disabled or marginalized people sometimes contain combs to ensure that they wouldn’t be unkempt in the afterlife.81 Hairstyles for women are depicted in Viking visual art as long ponytails, often with decorative coils around the base. Other styles part the hair in two and fasten or arrange it into pretzel-like twists.82 It is possible that these coils and loops represent fabric that has been manipulated into these shapes rather than uncovered hair but it is difficult to determine either way.83 Decorative ribbons were worn as headbands, and caps and other fabric headdresses of wool and even silk that would have protected the hair from dust and dirt are preserved in the archaeological record. Unlike male characters, whose looks attract a great deal of comment from saga authors, we have little evidence about what kind of hair colour or facial and body features the Norse considered beautiful for women. We have more ideas about what they found ugly. The bondswomen in Rígsþula are darkskinned and their limbs are twisted and crooked, which can reasonably be attributed to long-term malnourishment, injuries and diseases such as osteoarthritis, common in preindustrial societies.84 The farmer woman’s body is never described in the poem, but the lady has light brows and arms, a white neck and delicate fingers, suggesting a life spent indoors and/or covered up, protected from the sun. Literary representations of elite women tend to focus

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on their fine garments rather than their physique, probably because they showed little of their body in reality and to a medieval audience, it would have been considered rude to dwell on parts normally kept hidden. The only consistent feature of physical attractiveness by which young and/or unmarried, higher-class women are distinguished in the sagas is their long, gorgeous hair. One of Njáls saga’s heroines, Hallgerðr, is famous for her glorious locks, so long that they reach all the way to her waist, though her hair colour is left to our imagination. When Hallgerðr, two times a widow, walks around the alþingi (national assembly) at Þingvellir in her scarlet red cloak with her tresses on prominent display, she is fully aware of their effect on men, and her goal is surely to attract admiration.85 The strategy succeeds: Iceland’s most eligible bachelor, Gunnar, falls head over heels for her at first sight, and he proposes marriage more or less on the spot. Gunnar and Hallgerðr are in the same league when it comes to physical beauty, but the bride’s uncle, Hrútr – the very same man who declared her as a child to have eyes of a thief (see Chapter 1) – warns the suitor of her ‘mixed’ nature, saying that the match is an inadvisable one as it is driven by lust. Indeed, after the wedding, Gunnar soon tires of Hallgerðr, whose neuroses and fixation on status get the better of her. After a public spat soon after the wedding, prompted by Gunnar’s refusal to support his wife, their marriage is never the same. Although Uncle Hrútr was jarringly cruel in his remarks about Hallgerðr’s eyes as a child, his assessment of the motivations for the marriage can be understood as a judgement of Gunnar’s recklessness no less than his niece’s qualities. The suitor lets himself be blinded by the lady’s hair and beauty, but it is a self-imposed blindness. Gunnar refuses to see his wife as anything but a sex object, and when she turns out to be a person of flesh and blood – with flaws, feelings and expectations towards him – the fantasy is burst. A woman’s hair was thus clearly a signifier of her sexual attractiveness, but while Hallgerðr puts it on display as a power move, hair can also be the vehicle through which a married woman – and by extension, her husband – is dishonoured. In the Edda, Snorri relates an episode in which Loki cuts off all of the goddess Sif ’s hair, and when her husband Thor discovers this, he threatens to beat Loki to a pulp unless he finds a way to replace it. Loki goes on



a mission and manages to acquire a gold hairpiece for Sif made by the dwarfs.86 The myth as Snorri tells it is tantalizing in its terseness, and he includes it primarily to explain why gold is called ‘Sif ’s hair’ in Norse poetry, paying little attention to the goddess’s perspective. Loki’s motivation for cutting Sif ’s hair is never convincingly rationalized either – Snorri trivializes it as ‘mischief ’ – but we can gauge from Thor’s furious reaction that the act was more than a prank. Remembering that married women usually covered their hair in public, if Loki got close enough to Sif to cut off her tresses, what else might he have managed to do to her? Beneath the surface, the episode may be a way to talk about extramarital sex, violence against women and possibly rape.87 Elsewhere in Norse mythological sources, Sif is branded as a loose woman, an accusation which seems to be rooted in the hair episode. In Lokasenna, Loki taunts the gods by insinuating that he has slept with Sif, and Odin accuses her of having a lover in Hárbarðsljóð, though how seriously these allegations should be taken is questionable, given that they appear in flytings (sennur, see Introduction). The issue at stake in the myth, as Snorri tells it, is not Sif ’s possible cheating on her husband but Thor’s failure to prevent other men from gaining access to his wife. In Snorri’s retelling of the myth, Sif ’s hair can thus be seen as standing in for women’s sexual honour. Although it is replaced by the dwarf-made hairpiece, the episode resurfaces in the gods’ final showdown with Loki at the feast in Lokasenna, their last exchange before Ragnarök. Once again, a story ostensibly centred on a woman is really about two males competing for dominance and honour, enacting their competition on a woman’s body. Sif is written out of the story, but paying attention to its silences allows us to comment on its meaning from a female perspective.

Cohabitation, concubinage and marriage Apart from gender, the single most important variable which shaped a woman’s identity and daily life across all other identity categories, including ethnicity, geographic location and class, was her status vis-à-vis a male sexual and/or romantic partner. Concubinage – sexual partnerships without the legal status of marriage – was likely practiced by elite men who could afford, economically

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and politically, to keep more than one woman (and any resulting children). That does not mean that the Vikings subscribed to the idea of free love for all: the man’s female partners would naturally have been off limits for other men, regardless of the women’s independent sexual desires. Concubinage took several different forms. Despite the negative connotations of the word in modern usage, the practice was socially sanctioned in some cases, allowing kings and other magnates to create political alliances with several families at once and to differentiate themselves from those beneath them in the hierarchy. In the kings’ sagas, long-term cohabitation is sometimes depicted as mutually beneficial and negotiated between a king and a father. In other cases, kings coerce those lower in rank to give them access to their daughters as temporary – and perhaps unwilling – sexual partners.88 If the woman had a son from this relationship, he could eventually make a claim to the throne. With this prospect in mind, becoming a concubine could have its social and/or economic benefits for a woman, both in the long run and the short term, though at what psychological, emotional or other cost to her is usually of little interest to saga authors. King Harald Fairhair of Norway is one of the highest ‘achievers’ on record in terms of accumulating partners. He is said to have had divorced or separated from nine unnamed women so that he could marry Ragnhildr, the daughter of a Danish king, but he was also married to two more, and he had numerous children with them.89 The fate of Gyða, the young woman who spurred him to unite Norway by rejecting his marriage proposal on account of his alleged lack of courage, was worse. After his military and political successes, he refused to marry her but formed a relationship with her as an unmarried partner, and she bore him five sons in addition to the ones he already had with his wives.90 Some scholars consider the practices of Viking leaders such as Haraldr as being the root cause of Viking expeditions: when a few of society’s top men take this many women at a certain social rank out of the pool of potential partners, it skews the sex balance in the higher strata of society. This results in disproportionately many men unable to find a wife and settle down, and the large surplus of single young men at a loose end, with no wife and no land to farm, may have been at least a partial impetus for Viking activity. Young men sought to boost their status and wealth to boost their chances at home, though



they could also acquire a partner and land overseas.91 However, it is difficult to gauge whether the polygamous practices of a small section of society would have upset the gender balance to such a large extent that it precipitated Viking activities. The stereotypical image of Vikings in popular culture presents them as sexually aggressive, at least on their raids abroad. Both Norse sources and those written by their victims have very little to say about rape during Viking raids – perhaps because such events went without saying  – but at least one skaldic poem boasts about antagonizing a foreign woman by making her run through the forest.92 On the other hand, unrestrained sex with freeborn women at home was forbidden except for royal and aristocratic men, some of whom partly founded their masculinity on sexual conquests.93 As mentioned in Chapter 2, Norse men based their honour partly upon preventing access to ‘their’ women, so when a free farmer’s son or anyone further down the social ladder tried to seduce a girl of good social standing without proposing marriage first, it was a punishable offence. In Norse laws, stealing a kiss, let alone getting a woman pregnant out of wedlock, could result in severe punishment, including outlawry.94 On the other hand, enslaved women and servant girls seem to have been sexually available to their masters: sex with and rape of low-born girls is treated casually in many sagas, where the hegemonic point of view is often aristocratic and male.95 Norse mythology also depicts the male gods having sex with and impregnating multiple jötnar women who can be understood figuratively to have represented women belonging to a subordinate social group, whereas the gods jealously guard the goddesses from the jötnar who desire them.96 The concubines of free farmers were more likely long-term sexual and possibly romantic partners without the legal recognition of marriage, which was probably the lot of at least some women who came as captives to Iceland from British Isles. In 2000, a pioneering study of Icelanders’ mtDNA concluded that the country’s settlers, that is, the ancestors of the current population, were mostly Norwegian men whose partners were Irish bondswomen, but more recent work has adjusted this picture, concluding that Norwegian women were prominent among the settlers, as the sagas and Landnámabók suggest.97 Irish women do not feature prominently in these sources, but one

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such character, Melkorka, the concubine, or rather, sex slave, of Höskuldr, is given a backstory in which she turns out to be the daughter of a king (see further Chapter 4 and earlier in this chapter). There are a few other instances of concubinage in sagas set in Viking Age Iceland: for example, Njáls saga refers obliquely to the married Njáll having a second wife named Hróðný, who lives respectably on another farm and has a son by him.98 On the other hand, many magnates in sagas set in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have concubines, and keeping mistresses was so entrenched among the Icelandic elite that despite its best efforts, the church was unable to eradicate the custom for centuries after the adoption of Christianity.99 However, concubinage in later centuries was probably rooted in Viking Age slavery, as the negative attitudes towards and insults directed at people born out of wedlock indicate, as well as their lesser status when it came to inheriting their parents, and we can only imagine the unrecorded stories and feelings of most of the women who were abducted and forced to spend the rest of their life as sex slaves or low-status concubines.100 Achieving marriage was a much better fate, giving a woman a degree of economic security and social standing encapsulated in the title húsfreyja (lady of the house). A valid and socially recognized marriage meant that a sum of money, the brideprice (mundr), had been paid to the woman’s family, a patriarchal practice by no means unique to Scandinavia.101 Weddings generally seem to have been celebrated with feasts, but written sources don’t give much detail about wedding ceremonies; in Þrymskviða, reference is made to hallowing the bride – Thor in drag – with a hammer, but it is uncertain whether the poem reflects a genuine Viking Age custom.102 A marriage bestowed privileges onto the wife, such as the right to inherit a part of her husband’s property upon his death, and their children had more rights of inheritance than those born out of wedlock.103 In sagas, wives are generally depicted as attending social events by their husband’s side, and these texts suggest that they were generally treated with the level of respect that the status of their husband entailed. Women also go to assemblies (þing), where legal matters transpired, marriages were arranged and people did business, though formal affairs such as litigation and judgement in lawsuits or legislation are predominantly conducted by men. Regional law codes from Norway



state that a free woman could participate in the proceedings at assemblies for several reasons, for example, on her husband’s behalf if he was ill or away for a prolonged period, if she was a widow or if she had no close male relatives (i.e., if she was a baugrýgr).104 The cultural practice of (elite) women having a say in public matters might be reflected in Norse myths, which show goddesses administering oaths and sitting in council with the male gods when important matters are discussed.105 It’s difficult to say to what extent women’s authority in this sphere might have been accepted in reality, and it must have varied between one situation to another. At least some pockets of Norse male culture prioritized homosocial bonds with other men (who shared their values), viewing women as currency with which to cement these bonds while often harbouring sexist or even misogynistic attitudes towards them.106 Moreover, a few chieftains who dominated communities politically and economically could overshadow legal proceedings that were, in theory, supposed to be proto-democratic.107 In that case, it didn’t much matter whether you were a man or a woman.

The life and roles of a wife Whether a woman stayed in her home region or travelled and settled in farflung locations, being a wife and co-head of household was no simple task: it was a job that demanded intelligence, foresight and determination. Wives were highly valued for their skills and contribution to the household’s economy, and their indispensable role as managers was not ignored. Holmgautr, a farmer in the Västmanland province in central Sweden, commemorated his wife Odindisa by raising a runestone with an inscription praising her most important qualities: There will come to Hassmyra no better housewife, who rules the farm.108 As Holmgautr’s reverent words imply, a housewife was an important person and many people depended on her. She managed the farm’s resources, making

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sure the food would last through the long winter and that everyone had enough clothes, did business with neighbours and at markets, and organized and oversaw workers within her domain. The housewife’s role in the farm’s management is clearly conveyed in Norse laws, which assert her authority over the ‘indoor household’ (innan stokks) if she brought assets into the marriage.109 However, in practice, there was never a complete separation between male and female spheres and the legal terminology should not be taken as reflecting a society where roles were completely gender-segregated. For example, women often brought a substantial sum of land or moveable property into the household economy as their dowry, and consequently, they could make economic decisions on behalf of the household. According to Grágás, a wife had the right to spend a defined amount of money without consulting her husband – we could imagine this as day-to-day expenditure – and she could handle more substantial business as long as she had his consent.110 The presence of scales and/or weights, which were necessary tools for business transactions, in many women’s graves all over the Viking world suggests that their shared responsibility for the couple’s economic affairs was real. Most people presumably would consider it reasonable to consult their spouse about big financial decisions, and this degree of fiscal discretion suggests that Norse women were generally seen as capable of managing their household’s economy. Literary texts often represent the housewife’s authority in her home with a bunch of keys hanging from her waist, a motif used to comedic effect in Þrymskviða, when the burly Thor has to dress up as Freyja. Keys are found in women’s graves, too, but not as frequently as might be expected, considering that they have come to be seen as the quintessential symbol for the Viking housewife. In Denmark, keys are present in only 9 per cent of women’s graves dating to the Viking Age, whereas housewives surely accounted for more than such a small part of the population.111 A key-shaped leather piece which had no practical function and keys used as jewellery have also been found, so it seems that these items had a rich symbolic meaning in burials, representing more distinctive personal qualities or identities than that of housewife. In Þrymskviða, Thor in drag is dressed as a still-unmarried bride, not a married woman – we don’t know if there was a clear distinction in dress for these two



roles – and he is supposed to be Freyja, probably the most important goddess. Perhaps a woman buried with keys was singled out as carrying a role of leadership, reflecting Freyja’s characterization as assertive, even dominating.112 On the other hand, having a key entails having something to unlock – a chest or a room storing valuables – so it seems reasonable to conclude that a key in a grave could have signified property ownership and responsibility. Among the many matters that housewives and the wives of aristocratic men presided over, feasts may have been among the most important. The state was in its primitive infancy in Viking Age Scandinavia, and Iceland was a completely stateless society without any law enforcement. People had to protect their safety and ensure their prosperity by building and maintaining alliances, and kings and magnates had to take care to reward their supporters. In addition to marriage, inviting people to extravagant parties and giving gifts were among the most effective strategies to forge reciprocal bonds.113 In sagas, the mistress of the household often seems to be in charge of the event and its preparations (see also Chapter  4), and at the feast itself, the hostess could make visible the pecking order by allotting seats or serving those that the couple wished to honour – or dishonour – in a particular order. She could also oversee retainers’ toasts or make speeches of welcome that might be politically expedient, though in Norse heroic legend, women sometimes subvert this role by bringing drink laced with mind-altering substances or even poison.114 In Viking visual art, figures holding up drinking horns that appear to be female (based on their garments and hairstyles) might symbolize a mythical counterpart to this dignified women’s role (Figures E and F; Figures 5 and Figure 13).115 On the Gotland picture stones, these women sometimes face a figure that looks like a warrior, riding an eight-legged horse, perhaps Odin on his horse Sleipnir, or the dead man commemorated with the picture stone, whom Odin has allowed to ride to the afterlife on Sleipnir (Figure  5). The motif might represent Freyja or a valkyrie: in a myth Snorri tells in the Edda about the jötunn Hrungnir visiting the gods in Asgard, only she dares to serve him drink (see also Introduction), and, the valkyrie Sigrdrífa serves the hero Sigurðr liquid from a horn when they meet, soon after he has performed the ultimate feat of slaying the dragon Fáfnir.

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Figure E  Copy of a silver mount found in Klinta, Köping, Öland, Sweden. A figure in a trailing dress carrying a drinking horn, perhaps representing Freyja or a valkyrie. Swedish History Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Viking longhouse was a space where most fundamental activities took place, whether basic ones such as sleeping, eating, working and raising children or more sporadic ones – annual rituals such as the winter solstice feast (jól) and the marking of major life events. These celebrations often involved offering hospitality to guests, which is inextricably linked to the political dimension. In that way, the typical lived-in spaces of the Norse could host activities that we conceive of as public and official today, and that we tend to separate from the private and domestic, but this spatial overlap suggests that the two were not necessarily separated in the Viking Age.116 It follows that women’s and men’s roles cannot be neatly divided either, and that in many cases, women’s identities and activities overlapped with those of men, and were as much based on their social status as their gender.



Figure F  Picture stone from Hunninge, Klinte Parish, Gotland, Sweden, depicting mythological scenes. In the upper right and bottom left corners, the stone depicts two figures that appear to be women holding drinking horns. Now in Gotland Museum, Visby. Photo:  Harald Faith-Ell, 1933. Swedish National Heritage Board. Public domain.

Loyal, intelligent and assertive Wisdom is one of the most important qualities of a woman, and female characters are attributed with an innate intelligence and ability to perceive the world, reflected in the nicknames of the sisters Auðr or Unnr djúpúðga (which literally means deeply wise or subtle but is usually translated as deep-minded) and Jórunn mannvitsbrekka (wisdom hill). The wisdom poem Hávamál refers to women as wise, and the stock phrase væn ok vitr (beautiful and wise) is applied to countless female characters throughout the literary corpus, suggesting that physical looks and mental aptitude were considered equally important.117 Women possess a range of knowledge, from skills in rune lore and magic which can be used to protect and heal to the ability to interpret dreams and omens. More practically, literary women have common sense, social skills and an

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understanding of human nature, all of which can help navigate fraught political situations and temper their husband’s immoderate reactions to bad news or perceived insults. Their knowledge is something to be shared and applied, and as wives, women often appear as their husbands’ friends and councillors. The poet of Hávamál uses the term eyrarúna about women, literally meaning ‘woman into whose ears one whispers secrets’ but more succinctly translated as ‘confidante’, reinforcing the image of wives being valued for their trust and emotional support. This is not just about lending a sympathetic ear but being prepared to discuss matters through and offer advice. A common Norse trope features women giving warnings, sometimes at their own initiative, to prevent their husbands from attacking someone or waging war. They give various reasons for their intervention: perhaps a portentous dream that the husband will fare badly, or she wishes to prevent him from breaking the bonds of friendship and loyalty on which society puts a high price. Other wives are alive to their husband’s abilities and shortcomings in comparison with his enemies. In Laxdæla saga, the strategic thinking of Höskuldr’s wife Jórunn prevents him from escalating a budding, ill-advised feud with his brother Hrútr. The brothers’ animosity originates in a dispute in which Höskuldr had behaved less than nobly, killing a couple of Hrútr’s farmhands and stealing his cattle. Jórunn, introduced by the narrator as ‘a handsome woman and proud … and exceptionally intelligent’, correctly identifies Hrútr as her dimwitted husband’s superior in both character and social standing, noting that he has marshalled more support among the local magnates than Höskuldr, which is important to realize in the case of potential legal action.118 She convinces him instead to make peace by inviting Hrútr to their home, and the matter is soon resolved without bloodshed or tears.119 When the warnings of wives like Jórunn are heeded, they are able to foster peace and social harmony, which benefits their family and the peace of the community as a whole. Jórunn is not just full of wisdom and foresight – she is also better at keeping track of and analysing local alliances than her husband. A  Norse woman would have done well to pay attention to shifts in the balance of power in the community around her. This would enable her to play her part in protecting her family and home, which were always at a risk of being attacked. But some women take the matter of protection even further, attempting to intervene



in male violence. Eyrbyggja saga’s Auðr fares exceptionally badly, her hand being amputated when she tries to subdue an outbreak of fighting between her husband and his enemies – a rare example of a woman being hurt in battle.120 A woman by the same name, Auðr Vésteinsdóttir, the wife of Gísli in Gísla saga Súrssonar, is the ideal of wifely loyalty in its purest form. A climactic battle scene towards the end of the saga, in which she fights tooth and nail with a wooden club alongside her husband against his dogged enemies, has captivated countless readers. Gísli had been outlawed for killing his former sworn brother, and Auðr, now the wife of a convicted murderer on the run, sacrifices her own reputation and material comfort to live in a hut in a remote fjord, with only the couple’s foster-daughter Guðríðr as support. In her hideout, she can provide Gísli with a relatively secure hiding place, and Auðr’s physical and psychological shelter becomes his refuge for years in between his other escapades. Gísli is finally discovered by Eyjólfr ‘the grey’, an unworthy farmer who was paid to pursue Gísli by the kinsmen of his victim. When he arrives to the hut along with his men, Auðr tells her husband to hide. Eyjólfr, certain that he is by now very close to his target, offers her a bag of silver with a huge sum of money in return for divulging where her husband is. To Guðríðr’s horror, Auðr agrees to be paid off, but, when Gísli is told of this by the weeping girl, he gives no credence to the idea that his wife will betray him. In one of the most celebrated scenes in all of the sagas, Auðr counts out the silver, but then puts it back into the bag and swings it towards Eyjólfr, who is eagerly waiting for her to reveal Gísli’s whereabouts. The bag hits him straight on the nose and as it begins to bleed, Auðr then utters these immortal words: Take that for your gullibility … There was never any hope that I  would render my husband into your hands, you evil man. Take this now for your cowardice and your shame, and remember, you wretch, for as long as you live, that a woman has struck you.121 Auðr’s scathing speech demolishes Eyjólfr’s honour, and the blow to the nose is as ignominious an insult as he could possibly suffer. We might worry that this would trigger Auðr’s downfall, but her audacity pays off: though Eyjólfr hysterically screams that she is a cowardly dog and orders her to be apprehended, his companions refuse to stoop so low and they abandon the mission. Despite

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Auðr’s violence against Eyjólfr, the saga expresses unambiguous admiration for her courage and loyalty, and she is easily one of the toughest and most positive female characters in all of medieval literature. Norse literary sources contain fascinating explorations of marriage; no two relationships explored in any depth are the same. These insights are shaped by the idiosyncrasies of Norse social structures and, importantly, rigid codes of honour, but these stories have no less appeal today than at the time of writing, and it’s easy to recognize some of the feelings and decisions that we see the characters go through. Many of the saga authors and poets are extremely canny at observing the way that humans behave and their stories transcend the specific historical conditions, deftly sketching complex relationships with universal resonances. In these sources, we observe the whole gamut of marital relations, from women enacting vengeful cruelty, goading their husbands into killing their friends and foster-brothers, to unswervingly loyal women such as Auðr and her mythical sister Sigyn. After Loki has offended the gods so badly that they fetter him with the entrails of his own son and hang a snake above his head, the goddess sits by her husband, holding a bowl over his head to catch the drops of venom that would otherwise leak onto him.122 When she empties the bowl, Loki writhes in pain, causing the earth to shake, but Sigyn steadfastly resumes her position and stays there until the bitter end when Ragnarök comes. Auðr and Sigyn’s characters bleakly encapsulate the Norse idea of limitless faithfulness  – even if one’s husband has committed the worst crimes imaginable, these Norse wives stand by their men.

Women who rule Royal women are active in statecraft in the sagas, and they seem to be able to wield significant influence over their husbands and sons on the throne. The most ubiquitous of these is Gunnhildr, the consort of King Eiríkr ‘Bloodaxe’, who, according to medieval sources, reigned as queen in Norway for a brief stint in the mid-tenth century and subsequently ruled Viking kingdoms in York and Orkney. Gunnhildr is never far from the action in saga episodes featuring Eiríkr, ruling and strategizing alongside the king in their perpetual struggle to maintain power. In Icelandic tradition, the queen becomes a



figure onto which the Icelanders project their biased opinions about gender and monarchical rule, and some of the more misogynist writers attribute Gunnhildr with overtly negative features, such as nymphomania and dabbling in malevolent magic. In Egils saga, however, the queen is a complex character, and, as a politician, she is arguably more ruthless than her husband, bold and willing to take risks, unflinching towards her enemies, but loyal to others – indispensable qualities in the cut-throat politics of the Viking Age. The saga hints that she has a sexual relationship with the promising young Icelander Þórólfr Skallagrímsson, but she cannot stay on good terms with him after she and his brother Egill, an unruly Viking poet who killed his first victim at the age of 7, develop an intensely antagonistic relationship. Her hostility towards Egill is not surprising, given how rudely and violently he behaves on their first encounter at one of the royal estates. Egill becomes so drunk that he vomits all over the place and then kills the estate’s steward, and although Gunnhildr is quick to take offence, his actions can hardly be justified. Following this episode, the queen orders her supporters to kill Egill, but he repeatedly escapes their clutches, and on his romp around Norway, he runs into a group which includes the royal couple’s 10-year-old son. Not to do anything by half-measures, Egill kills the boy and performs a hostile magic ritual against Gunnhildr and Eiríkr, laying a curse that they will be driven out of Norway. Whether it was a consequence of the curse or their political failures, the royal couple soon lose power and leave for the British Isles. Egill has a long, glittering career as a Viking, but despite his successes at raiding and warfare in Scandinavia and England, he is never able to escape the enigmatic hold Gunnhildr has on him. After a period abroad, Egill settles down on his patrimony in Iceland, but despite his advancing years, he soon decides to travel to England for one final showdown with the queen, now reigning with Eiríkr in York. Though the narrator attributes Egill’s restlessness in his temporary retirement to a magic spell that Gunnhildr had cast on him, he might alternatively be understood as being obsessed with subjugating this most difficult of his enemies  – Queen Gunnhildr is the only one of his many antagonists that he hasn’t managed fully to overcome, either through force or magic. Upon arrival in York, Gunnhildr wants Egill executed without delay, but a friend of his intercedes and manages to negotiate

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with King Eiríkr for mercy if Egill agrees to compose a praise poem in his honour. The king – who was always less belligerent than his wife – succumbs to flattery, but, seeing as their son is still unavenged and Gunnhildr gets nothing out of the deal for her part, this development is understandably to her displeasure. She tries to shame and goad the king into taking revenge on Egill, but she gets nowhere with that, and the prisoner ends up performing an unremarkable praise poem he calls ‘Head Ransom’, after which he is freed. Because of her husband’s unwillingness to pursue the matter, Gunnhildr has no option but to accept defeat, bringing the feud between her and Egill to a close. Though we might find her ruthlessly cold and ambitious in her dogged pursuit of Egill’s life, Gunnhildr acts with no more zeal than many other Norse warrior kings: killing your rivals was standard practice, and, after all, one of her brothers and her young son were collateral in her earlier clash with Egill. Gunnhildr shares traits with some historical medieval queens and their modern reincarnations such as Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, who is prepared to use whatever methods necessary in order to win. We don’t know whether Gunnhildr’s contemporaries judged her by different standards than a man, but her saga reputation as a prominent, if not altogether successful, political figure in Viking Age Norway and England, suggests that she was one of the most imposing queens in the period. Queen Álfífa – Ælfgifu in English sources – the English queen who co-ruled Norway with her son Sveinn for a short period in the 1130s, is not terribly prosperous, either. The wife of King Canute (who ruled the English Danelaw, Norway and Denmark), she arrives from England and the mother–son duo are installed as proxy rulers. They are hugely unpopular, mainly because they are seen as intruding foreigners without a mandate from the Norwegian elite, but the pair make themselves even more hated by passing a number of new laws. Their reign seems to coincide with a period of bad weather, crop failures and privation, and trouble begins to stir: some of the local factions rise up against them, which culminates at an assembly where a quarrel breaks out between one of the magnates and Álfífa. The magnate manages to attract the support of his countrymen and they overthrow Canute’s puppets, bringing their reign to an end. The queen and her son leave Norway soon after, and the period was remembered as a time of terrible suffering.123



Viking Age politics shifted endlessly, alliances were forged and broken, and people stabbed each other in the back, so failure to hang on to the throne was all par for the course and it cannot be ascribed only to Álfífa being a woman. Perhaps she lacked the kind of practical political skills in which a royal man would have been trained, such as alliance-building, which meant that she failed to build support for her and her son’s rule, or she may have been unwilling to be as ruthless as Gunnhildr. Although her gender may play some part in the locals’ hostility towards Álfífa and her son, their foreignness was worse. It was politically expedient for their political opponents to blame them for everything that went wrong, and the pair lost because their enemies outwitted them. Lavish burials suggest that high-status women were present in the most important Viking power centres, for example, in the Trøndelag area in Norway and the Mälardalen region in Sweden.124 Though it may have been forgotten in oral tradition, or saga authors may have minimized their part, it is possible that they were there to partake in high-level politics and intrigues alongside or on behalf of their husbands, or as widows.125 Moreover, the Oseberg burial could well have been the grave of a woman ruler (see Chapter 6). Gunnhildr and Álfífa are not depicted with much sympathy or admiration, but nor are they the worst monarchs in Viking history. Though there are no examples in medieval texts of women as sole rulers, and only daughters of kings could not inherit the throne  – the Norwegian king Hákon Haraldsson, who dies with only a daughter, is succeeded by his nephew – depiction of women in sagas suggests that the mother or wife of a king could take part in ruling and politics.126 It doesn’t mean that she always won, any more than other politicians, but that didn’t stop them from playing.

Discord and divorce As we saw previously, Gunnhildr and Eiríkr’s relationship is not without its problems: her extramarital affairs and his weak character come to the forefront in Egils saga. The couple’s bickering in public is by no means unique: Norse authors are frequently fascinated with disharmonious marriages and divorce, and they explore the problems between man and wife from all angles. Contemporary accounts by foreign travellers to Scandinavia, law codes and

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sagas all suggest that divorce was a reality in the Viking Age.127 Even myths acknowledge that divorce is sometimes inevitable:  the jötunn-woman Skaði receives a marriage with the god Njord in compensation for the gods’ killing of her father, but the pair soon realize that they are incompatible.128 Being a sea god, Njord likes living by the shore, but Skaði grew up in the mountains and wants to live in the hall she inherited from her father, where she can go skiing and hunting. They initially agree to spend nine nights in each place, but after this trial period, Skaði finds the seagulls’ squawking unbearable. Njord, in turn, cannot stand the wolves’ howling in comparison to the swans’ dulcet tones, and they separate. Both husband and wife could initiate a divorce – technically, according to Grágás, all they needed was five witnesses. Although this probably varied, the valid causes for divorce mentioned in Grágás are marital discord, domestic violence, abandonment of the marital bed and failure to maintain dependents, in which case the responsibility for them would fall on the partner and unfairly deplete their resources.129 Saga authors attribute divorce to a variety of reasons, including adultery, failure to consummate the marriage, wives’ perceived unruliness and transvestism. In sagas, we witness troubling scenes of domestic violence, especially slaps or blows to the head, but rather than directly leading to divorce, such scenes fulfil a literary purpose to foreshadow the breakdown of a marriage later on.130 Njáls saga’s disastrous divorce case between Hrútr and Unnr is caused by troubles in the marital bed – Hrútr is unable to penetrate his wife because of his cursed, enlarged penis. The saga’s description of the procedure, in which his wife Unnr stands at their bed and declares herself divorced in the presence of witnesses, does not find support in preserved law codes, but the divorce has calamitous consequences, sowing the seeds for bad blood later in the saga. Even more humiliatingly, Breeches-Auðr in Laxdæla saga is the last one to know of her husband’s decision to divorce her so that he can marry Guðrún, which he does on a spurious claim of transvestism, but, as described in Chapter 2, she takes furious, violent and socially sanctioned revenge for his cowardly behaviour towards her. Sagas depict the divorce process as an abrupt one, and, if instigated by the husband, a wife could find herself cast out of her home with little notice. As mentioned in Chapter 2, Þórhildr is told to leave the wedding feast in Njáls



saga because she criticized her husband Þráinn’s creepy behaviour, and she is never heard of again. Perhaps this precariousness results in the seemingly over-defensive behaviour married women tend to display at anything approaching a slight to their husband’s status. While unpleasant to many other characters, most notably Hallgerðr, Njáls saga’s Bergþóra is faultlessly loyal to her husband and family, refusing to abandon him when their farm is burned down in what might be a literary echo of women voluntarily dying with their husbands (see Chapters 2 and 6). As a result, she is enduringly labelled as a drengr (person of honour) – a word usually reserved for brave men.131 Disparity in status is another root cause of unhappy marriages:  when a woman is given by her greedy family for a handsome bride price to a rich man she considers socially beneath her, it usually doesn’t go well. The proud Guðrún in Laxdæla finds herself married off for money at the age of 15 to a local man who is rich but unimpressive, and though she is not above spending her husband’s money, she is unable to move past her sense of superiority towards him. At one point, they quarrel about her excessive spending, and he slaps her for her insubordination, the classic saga motif heralding the end of a marriage. The following spring, after two years of marriage, she initiates a divorce by tricking him into wearing a woman’s shirt, mirroring her future husband Þórðr’s dishonest measures towards Auðr. Moreover, Guðrún receives half of her husband’s property thanks to her father’s shrewd negotiating of the marriage contract at their betrothal, making her a rich woman. Marital discord doesn’t necessarily lead to divorce – often people carry on in unhappy marriages and some women even have affairs with their lovers in flagrant defiance of their husbands. For other couples, jealousies run high, fuelled by competition between the two spouses or the threats posed by ex-lovers and potential rivals. In the preamble of the mythical poem Grímnismál, even the normally respectable Frigg argues with her husband Odin about which of their human protégés should become king.132 Concubines are the source of wives’ seething resentment and anger, and one woman’s foster-mother is perceived by her husband to divide her loyalties, prompting the wife to set her up in another home.133 A couple’s distaste for each other’s personal qualities is another recurring reason for the absence of love and respect. In Eyrbyggja saga, a young widow

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named Þuríðr, the sister of the protagonist Snorri goði (chieftain), is given in marriage for the second time to a rich neighbour named Þóroddr. Before the marriage, the saga makes no mention about her attitude towards the groom or whether she was given the opportunity to withhold consent, but it is clear from the start that she is dissatisfied with her lot. During her first marriage, Þuríðr is rumoured to carry on an extramarital affair with Björn, a local heart-throb and her old sweetheart, and even though her new husband asks him politely to give her up after the wedding, they continue their relationship. Next, the husband and four of his men ambush Björn, but they are clearly no match for him: Björn effortlessly kills two of his attackers and hurts Þóroddr. Þuríðr gives birth to a son, Kjartan, who is brought up as her husband’s child, but everyone knows that Björn is the father, and Þóroddr doesn’t have the guts to confront or divorce his wife. Some years after Kjartan is born, Björn returns to Iceland after a period of outlawry, and he and Þuríðr immediately resume their flirting, naturally renewing the rumours about them. It takes Snorri’s quiet work behind the scenes to put an end to his sister’s scandalous relationship once and for all. When Þóroddr dies, Þuríðr is finally rid of a husband for whom she never had any respect either as her social equal or as a man. But since Norse laws permitted wives to instigate divorce, why didn’t she just leave her marriage? This might seem puzzling, given Þóroddr’s lack of character and her attraction to Björn, but there are several issues to consider. Þuríðr is described as having expensive tastes, and although this could be a sexist narrative trope as a shorthand for a woman’s refusal to be submissive and compliant, the fact that Þóroddr has ample funds makes the marriage somewhat palatable if her alternative is to live as a dependent widow in her brother’s home. As we can see from Þuríðr’s story, the sagas suggest that in rural Iceland, women had very few options to make their own incomes and lives, whereas as a wife, Þuríðr has – in theory – some independent economic means, however limited. Second, there are political considerations: she is an upper-class woman and the sister of a magnate forever keen on increasing his power, so the pool of appropriate husbands is limited. Þóroddr is a free farmer and her brother Snorri’s loyal supporter, and it is clear from the latter’s involvement that he would not back his sister if she wanted to divorce, since it is in his political and economic interests to keep



Þóroddr on his side. Third, Björn offers Þuríðr no alternative: he doesn’t jump to propose when she becomes a widow for the first time despite their previous romantic attachment, and when he returns from his stint abroad, he clearly hasn’t developed plans to enable her to divorce her husband and marry him instead. Despite Björn’s charms, Þuríðr understands that he isn’t the marrying kind, so she is stuck with Þóroddr. Eyrbyggja saga shows that realistically, regardless of what the law said, women were often forced to accept that family interests and economic concerns overruled their desires. Although a marriage without love is a sad fate, the most serious consequences of marriage breakdowns are death. Norse heroic poetry takes marital discord to its extremes, relaying long, heated arguments between Brynhildr and Gunnarr, who had wooed her in the disguise of Sigurd the dragon-slayer, the greatest of heroes. Brynhildr had vowed to marry only the man brave enough to ride the wall of flames which encircled her, and when she discovers that Gunnarr is merely an impostor, she understandably sees her marriage as a sham. Furious and hurt, she threatens Gunnarr with divorce if he doesn’t kill Sigurðr, now his sister Guðrún’s husband and sworn brother, for betraying her, and after Sigurðr’s murder, the episode ends with another furious quarrel in which everyone points the finger at the defensive Brynhildr. The poems in the heroic cycle of the Edda explore the tensions between marital ties, sibling relationships and the bonds formed between men when they swear loyalty to each other, and their authors do not all agree on which of these should come first.134 Brynhildr’s right to demand vengeance for the crime committed against her is pitted against the ‘men-first’ attitude of the society around her, which does not seem to allow for women’s separate sense of honour. That there are so many competing interests and values at play suggests that the Norse poets and audiences who engaged with the Nibelung narrative were intensely preoccupied with these themes in real life, too, and had vast differences of opinion on the types of gendered behaviour represented in the poems. Many of the most captivating Norse saga heroines have elements of Brynhildr in them. Njáls saga’s Hallgerðr certainly shares with her a strong sense of self-worth in the face of jibes and put-downs, and both figures are demonized for insisting on defending their own honour when it conflicts with that of their spouse. All of Hallgerðr’s three marriages are dramatic and she gets

Adulthood, Married Life and Divorce


into arguments with her husbands, who punish her for her defiance by slapping her on the cheek, acts quickly followed, in the first two cases, by their death at the hands of her foster-father Þjóstólfr (see Chapter 1). Her third marriage, to Gunnar, is enormously turbulent: their problems are prompted by his betrayal of her at a notorious feast held soon after their wedding at the home of his friend Njáll and his wife Bergþóra. When the latter’s son and daughter-in-law arrive to the party, Bergþóra abruptly tells Hallgerðr to get out of her chair and make way for the other woman. Although Hallgerðr protests, Bergþóra asserts her authority by refusing to step down. Humiliating and insulting her guest, Bergþóra thus signals that she considers her own family higher in status than Gunnar’s. Never one to take the diplomatic route, Hallgerðr responds by commenting on Bergþóra’s warty fingers, making a veiled reference to female nymphomania. They begin to squabble and Hallgerðr tries to enlist Gunnar’s support, which is understandable, given that an attack on her status is, by extension, an insult to him:  ‘there’s little use to me in being married to the most manly man in Iceland if you do not avenge this?’135 This plea to defend her honour makes sense if read through the lens of heroic ideology, which is partly characterized by hypersensitivity to insults and the intense need to avenge them, but it seems that to Gunnar, it is inappropriate for women to engage in status competition – it’s for men only – and he angrily retorts that he is not going to be his wife’s ‘goading-fool’. At this moment, Hallgerðr, who’s been treated badly by her father and husbands all her life, loses the earnest hopes she had clearly harboured, however naively, for her marriage to Gunnar. She has the awful realization that husband places more importance on solidarity with his friend Njáll than standing up for her, and this revelation comes as a severe blow. After his betrayal, Hallgerðr seems to give up on being honourable. She engages in a petty feud with Bergþóra and hurls insults at her sons, and in a time of privation, she sends a servant to steal cheese from another farm. When Gunnar realizes that he is eating stolen food, he slaps his wife on the cheek in front of the entire household; as we know by now, a slap is the harbinger of death. Some chapters later, at the saga’s tragic climax, Gunnar’s bowstring breaks during an attack by his enemies. When he asks her for a strand of her hair to replace it, Hallgerðr now has her revenge. She refuses him, saying, ‘I’ll now recall that slap you gave



me and I don’t care whether you hold for a long or short time.’136 Even though fixing his bow might not have realistically helped Gunnar  – he was totally cornered by his enemies at this point – this vindictive act signals Hallgerðr’s rejection of her husband when he needs her support the most. Gunnar dies a heroic death and is mourned by many. His mother is full of anger and blames Hallgerðr, whose only remaining appearance in the saga shows her exchanging vulgar insults with Njáll’s son Skarphéðinn, leaving readers with a rather undignified image of her. Hallgerðr’s refusal to help her husband has passionately divided readers for centuries  – many see her as an evil harpy whose vain arrogance and selfishness lead to the innocent Gunnr’s death (looking past the fact that he would never have survived the attack anyway), but others sympathize with her as a battered woman who is consistently failed by the men around her.137 Regardless of who is to blame, the act of withholding her hair is Hallgerðr’s reclamation of her subjectivity and self-worth. By making it the crucial item that she withholds in the moment of Gunnar’s need, the saga author brings their story full circle, back to their first meeting at Þingvellir, when his desire for Hallgerðr was ignited by her locks. Gunnar’s lack of prudence in marrying her was arguably the origin of his downfall, and although neither of the couple can be entirely blamed or excused for their terrible marriage, the episode leaves us wondering whether things could have been different. What if Gunnar had been a kinder and more loyal husband? And what if Hallgerðr hadn’t been so volatile? The saga offers no easy answers, but it does tell us that the Icelanders kept alive the debate conducted in the heroic tradition in the previous centuries about how to balance the conflicting demands created by marriage and close male friendship. Unable to live with the grief and betrayals she endures, Brynhildr commits suicide after her lover Sigurðr’s death by stabbing herself with a sword. On her way to Hel, she meets a giantess who berates the dead woman for her past sins, correctly accusing her for having blood on her hands. The giantess – somewhat puzzlingly, considering her own marginalized position – offers the conservative view that ‘it would befit you better to be at your weaving than to be going to visit another woman’s man’.138 The image of a woman tethered to her textile work rather than being out ‘visiting’ men is employed to juxtapose Brynhildr’s unconventional life and behaviour with the norm, what is fitting and proper

Adulthood, Married Life and Divorce


for women. Despite her extraordinary characterization as a valkyrie early in her life, one suspects that this line could have been flung around a great deal in the Viking Age: Norse literary sources are bursting with images of unruly, proud, loud, bossy, bold, assertive, argumentative, smart women who do not stick to their quiet weaving. Some are stigmatized, others admired, but whatever the case, these literary women did not appear out of thin air. The story of the Viking Age often seems to be a story of men – male warriors, male kings, male seafarers and explorers, male settlers, male farmers, male gods and male jötnar – but when we look beneath the exterior, we see women everywhere. They’re marching with the Great Army, they’re among the settlers in Iceland and Greenland and the explorers in Newfoundland, they’re on the runestones in Sweden and Denmark and the political scene in Norway, and they are vital, active characters in the myths and legends. In fact, the Viking Age wouldn’t have been possible at all without the contribution of women  – their labour and expertise yielded the sails that set the ships in motion and clothed the Vikings for their expeditions. They ran farms and raised children, keeping entire households prosperous, often without their husbands. And these children went out into the world and achieved great things in turn. It is therefore no coincidence that Norse literature has some fascinating maternal images. The next chapter will turn to motherhood and the relationships between children and their mothers seen from their perspective.


4 Pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood

Somewhere on the eastern shores of North America just after the turn of the first millennium, a young, heavily pregnant woman slowly and arduously makes her way through a forest. She is attempting to keep up with her companions, a band of explorers who’ve come from hundreds of miles across the sea, but despite her delicate condition, no one waits for her, and she soon falls behind. Her compatriots are running as fast as they can in desperate flight from an attacking band of natives. Two of them lie slain on the forest floor already, men with whom she has lived and worked in close quarters for the past winter in this unfamiliar place far away from home. The woman knows that her pursuers are ruthless, and realizing that she is out of options, she turns to face them. Perhaps an instinct to protect her unborn child brings out the fight in her, or perhaps she’s a tough person who’d do this under any circumstances – whatever the case, she has everything to gain and nothing to lose. She sees a sword lying by one of the bodies, and, snatching it up, she takes her bare breast out of her tunic and slaps it on the blade. Fortunately, for her, this move has a startling effect on the natives. Although they far outnumber the expectant mother, something about this strange sight alarms them and they return to their canoes, paddling away as quickly as they had arrived. The woman escapes the attack unscathed and manages to find those of her companions who got away unharmed, and they soon set sail home, never to return to this dangerous place in the west that they called Vinland.1



The woman in this story is Freydís Eiríksdóttir, daughter of Eiríkr ‘the Red’ and half-sister of Leifr Eiríksson, the Viking credited with ‘discovering’ North America in the year 1000, when his ship was blown off course on the way from Norway to Greenland. According to the saga, in the wake of Leifr’s thrilling discovery, a group of about 160 Norse people made their way west to Vinland, now believed to be Newfoundland, the island off the eastern coast of Canada. Vikings were avid explorers and settlers: for the previous two hundred years, they had left their homelands in Scandinavia in droves to establish permanent settlements all over the North Atlantic, in the British Isles, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland. But this time it was different. Their project in Vinland was abandoned after only around three years, marking the end of Viking expansion to the west. Why did it fail? It probably wasn’t because of the extreme conditions: although these would-be pioneers had considerable trouble with food shortage and bad weather, that was nothing new. Rather, the saga ascribes the failure of the new proto-colony chiefly to the hostility of the indigenous population, for while the Vikings had certainly engaged in skirmishes with the natives in the British Isles, their settlements there hadn’t been failures.2 This time, however, despite initial friendly encounters in which the newcomers and inhabitants traded goods, relations turned sour and the natives drove the Norse away. Remarkably, despite the Vikings’ reputation as fierce warriors, the only person who makes any real effort to resist the attack is the pregnant Freydís, whose swollen belly and visibly strained movements enhance her courage in juxtaposition to her fleeing male compatriots. The saga’s account of Freydís’s stand against the skraelings, as the natives are referred to, is written over two hundred years after the Vikings explored the New World. In this episode, the author uses a familiar trope from the saga repertoire. Like many other female characters, Freydís berates the fleeing men for their unmanliness, declaring that if she had a sword, she’d fight, words which are meant to spur the men on to action. On the other hand, the act of slapping the sword on her bare breast could be a detail borrowed from Classical narratives about the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women who famously removed their breasts so as to be able to carry shields, throw javelins and shoot from bows.3 Like in Saxo’s stories about

Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood


shield-maidens, the portrayal of Freydís hovers somewhere between fascinated admiration and fear, even repulsion, of her violent femininity. Nevertheless, her advanced pregnancy, as well as the absence of actual fighting – she only brandishes the sword – sets her apart from shield-maidens, juxtaposing her physical vulnerability with her warlike behaviour. Norse artefacts found on the lands of North American peoples suggest that there was some cultural contact between Amerindians and Vikings, probably mainly for trade, but they were hardly substantial or long-lasting. Although the Christian saga author takes many liberties in depicting Vinland as a version of Paradise, with self-sown fields of wheat and vines growing wild – hence the name ‘Vine-land’ – the saga’s explanation for why the colony failed might well be correct.4 Nor is it impossible to believe that the explorers would have brought women along on their expedition. Groups of Norse explorers and settlers traditionally included women, and since they had very limited ability to plan or limit pregnancy, many of them would undoubtedly have been expecting or caring for infants. In fact, another heroine in the saga, Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, gives birth to her son Snorri in the New World, making him the first European child to have been born on this continent.5 Freydís’s bold portrayal needs to be taken with a grain of salt: realistically, a single woman on the brink of giving birth wouldn’t be much of a threat to a band of fearsome warriors, no matter how bravely she acted. Rather, the saga author was in some way preoccupied with Freydís as a mother-to-be, making her pregnant body the deciding factor in what makes the natives run away. Other sources display the same ambivalent attitude to mothers: they are not only proud, nurturing and protective of their children but also maintain high expectations towards their sons and daughters, displaying ruthless or even cruel attitudes when necessary. Children are expected to put their family’s honour and status above their own hopes, or even to risk their own life to satisfy the ambitions of their relatives, and it often falls to the mother to remind them of these norms. Norse mothers are neither saints nor monsters, but they are often cast as the enforcers of a rigid ideology that makes merciless demands on people for the sake of honour.



Fertility, pregnancy and childbirth Women’s lives in the Viking Age were to a large extent characterized by their reproductive capacities. Sexually active and fertile women were likely pregnant, suffering miscarriages, healing from childbirth and/or nursing for much of their life between puberty and menopause – if they managed to survive for that long. They lived through these life events, along with associated aches, pains and anxieties, without modern medicine. Historians estimate that women in Norway in the Viking Age had a child every thirty months, give or take, and the rate is likely to have been similar elsewhere. Colder periods had a detrimental effect on general health and it seems to have led to shorter intervals between children, so the more miserable the weather, the more strain it was on women’s bodies and souls, since these poor babies were also more likely to die prematurely.6 Nonetheless, conceiving a child was not a given and people must have experienced infertility:  the heroiclegendary Völsunga saga tells a story about a queen struggling to get pregnant. After years of failing to conceive, the goddess Frigg finally answers the king and queen’s prayers for a child. Beyond praying, there is not much evidence for how the Norse dealt with this situation, but folk beliefs and scattered references in later medieval sagas suggest that herbs and plants were used to increase sexual desire and fertility as well as help women in labour.7 Either way, the lack of contraception and effective fertility aids probably made many women desperately unhappy. Frigg and her husband Odin help the couple in Völsunga saga by sending the queen an apple, which is also the fruit that helps the gods stay young and sprightly (see Chapter 6). But the pregnancy is a strange one: it lasts for six years and when it is time to deliver the child, the queen is unable to give birth, becoming increasingly ill. She eventually asks for the baby to be cut out of her, and the newborn boy – the future hero Völsungr – is said to have kissed his mother as she died. Childbirth is a perilous affair in all societies without modern hospitals, both for the mother and baby, and infant mortality for most of human history was high. Scholars have estimated the rates in the Viking Age at anywhere from 30 per cent to 60 per cent, not far from the average numbers in nineteenth-century (pre-industrial) Iceland.8 A woman buried in

Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood


Westness, Orkney, with an infant who was probably her newborn baby, bears witness to the scores of women who died as the result of giving birth or related complications.9 Characters with the nickname ‘the unborn’ in Njáls saga and Landnámabók have been hypothesized as having been born via caesarean section, just like Macbeth’s Macduff is said to be ‘none of woman born’, but these could have referred to the child having been born prematurely, ‘unborn’ meaning ‘not carried to term’.10 All we know for certain is that pregnancy and childbirth were full of danger for both mother and child. How was the birthing process in a time without modern pain medication and technology? In literature, women are shown to help each other to give birth, and judging from these sources, midwifery was a specialized skill. Landnámabók relates that a certain Muirgeal, an Irish bondswoman of royal descent, was bought by Auðr (or Unnr) the Deep-Minded and freed on the condition that she care for Auðr’s granddaughter with the same devotion as she had taken care of her former mistress and baby, which seems to have been born prematurely.11 Muirgeal is said to be well-versed in magic, and since magic work could include healing, less mysteriously, the methods referred to here may have included the use of herbal remedies, charms and runes. The nornir, the beings who shaped each person’s fate, were also able to help in childbirth:  the eddic poem Fáfnismál (The Lay of Fáfnir) describes these figures as ‘bringing children forth from their mothers’.12 Although it seems likely that the procedures surrounding childbirth were mainly the business of women, it is notable that spells for healing and protection, including spells specific to birth, are sometimes taught to men. The valkyrie Sigrdrífa, identified as Brynhildr in Völsunga saga, teaches Sigurðr the dragon-slayer a long list of runes for various uses, including bjargrúnir, helping runes: Helping-runes you must know if you want to assist and release children from women; they shall be cut on the palms and clasped on the joints, and then the dísir asked for help.13 Sigurðr is never shown to use any of the runes he is taught, but according to several rune catalogues in eddic advice poetry, knowing a charm that could



help women in childbirth was considered important enough to mention along with other runes. These include those giving victory in battle, protecting against poisoned ale, healing wounds, ensuring good sailing weather and making people amenable to you. It seems likely, therefore, that helping women give birth was a practical skill that everyone, both women and men, ought to know in emergencies. Men were presumably invested in the welfare of their wives and children and would want to know what to do if needed. The mobile lifestyle of the Vikings reinforces this hypothesis. One Icelandic saga relates a brief story about a birth that takes place when a mixed group of Norse settlers are on their way to the Vatnsdalur valley in Northwestern Iceland. Vigdís, the wife of their leader, is pregnant, but when they are about to cross a river, she announces, ‘I will remain here for a little while because I feel an illness upon me.’14 Vigdís proceeds to deliver a baby girl, Þórdís, right there by the river. After the birth, a nearby hill is named after the girl and after an unspecified time, the group moves on. Vigdís’s travelling in this unsettled land, either on foot or riding a horse, during late-stage pregnancy, her apparent lack of recovery time, and the matter-of-fact way in which her birth story is related, may all be shocking to a modern reader and suggest that the husband showed little care for his wife and infant daughter. But pregnancy and childbirth were a much more mundane occurrence in premodern times, and most people could probably not take much time off from supporting themselves and their families.15 Most women probably worked until the last possible moment and they had to get back on their feet soon after giving birth, especially if they were holding up a whole group of settlers on their way to take land. We are not told who helped Vigdís give birth but perhaps her husband was among those who attended her, using bjargrúnir to speed the baby on its way.

The importance of mothers Norse mothers breastfed their infants and there is evidence going as far back as Tacitus’s Germania showing that nourishing your baby in this way was normal.16 Isotope analysis shows that Norse mothers may have nursed their child for twelve to eighteen months, and according to Icelandic law codes,

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mothers had the right to keep their infants with them until they had been weaned.17 Breastfeeding is rarely addressed directly in sagas unless there is something unusual about it, but Flóamanna saga features an astonishing scene, set in Greenland during a period of extreme cold and food shortage, in which an otherwise masculine father, Þorgils, is able to nurse his infant son. The boy’s mother had been brutally murdered, and her baby was found in her arms, suckling his dead mother’s breast. As the boy needs to be fed, the desperate father – a recent convert to the Christian faith – takes a knife and cuts into his nipple. At first, blood seeps out of the wound, but after a while, he lactates pure milk for his son and the boy is saved. Scholars have noted similarities between this account and medieval Christian ideas about the maternal Christ, whose blood nourishes his flock of believers.18 Although male lactation has been known to happen in extreme situations such as the one in which Þorgils finds himself, the saga’s many other connections to Christian literature place it in an obviously devotional literary context.19 Most importantly, however, the narrative presents breastfeeding as normal: unusually, the father is able to take on the role and physical capabilities normally restricted to women, and the episode depicts Þorgils’s instinct to nourish his child in a positive light. Þorgils’s experience of taking his wife’s physical role is transformative: he subsequently declares that he now understands why mothers love the children they have breastfed more than anyone else.20 Norse culture clearly recognized the emotional impact of experiencing motherhood, and the belief that mothers loved their children gave rise to the proverb-like phrase in a poem in Grettis saga, ‘Best er barni móðir’ [A mother is best to a child].21 Although nursing mothers were presumably busy multitaskers, this extensive time must have allowed for mother–child bonding, and despite their general reticence in discussing characters’ emotions, there are many instances in Norse sagas and poetry that implicitly or explicitly depict strong maternal love. In one saga, a mother even wastes away and dies from grief after her children, aged 3 and 5, are killed by an unbalanced neighbour who was irritated by their antics.22 A runestone raised in Rimsø in Denmark in the late ninth century by a certain Þórir in memory of his mother laments that her death is the worst misfortune a son could suffer.23 We never learn his mother’s name, but Þórir’s willingness



to acknowledge the blow of losing his mother makes clear how important they were in their children’s lives. Mothers bestowed love and care on their children, and they were also partly responsible for their maintenance: we can assume that mothers clothed and fed their children, taught them to behave socially and to carry out basic household skills. They also gave their family ties to their children: apart from gender, family was probably the single most important aspect of a Norse person’s identity.24 The Norse had a bilateral social structure, which meant that people traced their ancestry both on their father’s and mother’s side – both lines were important. Keen interest in genealogy is evident from even a cursory glance at the Icelandic sagas, which often indulge in long disquisitions about the family trees even of minor characters, and memorial inscriptions on runestones no less suggest that people were at pains to trace complicated family connections on both sides (see further Chapter 5).25 This was partly a pragmatic issue: keeping track of your cousins could help determine inheritance disputes or ensure survival in a sprawling feud of the sort that the sagas relate, that is, if the relatives cooperated. The emphasis on making blood ties manifest is also evident from naming practices. The Scandinavian tradition of patronyms or metronyms  – calling children the daughter or son of their father or mother, rather than a family name  – has its origins in the Norse way of describing people, and this tradition is still alive in Iceland today, as is evident from my own last name, which simply means that I’m the daughter of Friðrik. As now, most people in the Viking Age seem to have defaulted to referring to people by their father, but there are examples of metronyms from sagas, Landnámabók and runestones, and the mythological figure Loki is frequently referred to as Laufeyjarson, the son of Laufey. This more unusual way of referring to children after their mother could have been the result of her higher social status compared to the father – Loki is presumed to be the son of a goddess and a male jötunn – but another explanation is the father dying when the child was unborn or young.26 Although the Norse word móðurmál (mother tongue) doesn’t appear in written sources until late in the medieval period, children must generally have learned language from their mothers, given their closeness in the first years. Some Viking communities were ethnically mixed, so many Viking children

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may have been bilingual or spoken a non-Norse language  – Sámi, Irish, Scottish Gaelic or Old English – as their mother tongue. This goes both for Scandinavia and the Viking diaspora: late-Viking-Age urban communities in Scandinavia included many migrants, the Vikings emigrated extensively to the British Isles, and settlement-era Iceland probably had a substantial Irish female population.27 Laxdæla saga relates an anecdote about language acquisition, featuring the enslaved Irishwoman Melkorka, who was bought by Höskuldr at a slave market in Sweden and brought to Iceland. Melkorka’s coping mechanism against her enslavement and rape is to become mute, and she doesn’t talk for several years. During this time, Melkorka bears her master a son, Óláfr (later nicknamed ‘the peacock’), and one sunny day, Höskuldr finds the two of them in a secluded hollow, speaking Irish. Now that she’s been found out, Melkorka begins to talk, confessing that she is the daughter of the Irish king Mýrkjartan and was captured at the age of 15. Höskuldr is very impressed by her illustrious ancestry, but, never the sharpest tool in the shed, he foolishly goes straight to his wife Jórunn (mentioned in Chapter 3) and boasts about his concubine’s royal status. Jórunn becomes angry, the indignity of her husband’s fawning over the slave-woman being too much for this proud lady to bear, and a squabble between her and Melkorka ends in fisticuffs soon after. Neither woman can be blamed for feeling disgruntled – Jórunn’s hurt and jealousy is understandable, but after all, Melkorka didn’t choose to become Höskuldr’s slave. At any rate, Höskuldr sees that the prudent solution would be to give Melkorka and Óláfr a farm of their own, and they move out. Years later, Óláfr, now a young man, is in need of money so that he can do what young, upper-class men in the sagas must do to make their name: travel abroad. When Höskuldr refuses to give him money, Melkorka, who had presumably purchased the clothes and weapons Óláfr had already acquired, sees no option but to marry Þorbjörn, the man who manages her farm. Þorbjörn is hardly a match worthy of her, but, as he promises to fund Óláfr’s trip, she bites the bullet for her son’s sake, saying, ‘I’ve had my fill of people calling you the son of a slave-woman.’ Óláfr’s journey is arranged, and when he is about to set sail, his mother gives him a gold ring that she claims she got from her father and tells him, ‘I’ve now done all I can to help you. I’ve also taught you to speak Irish, so that you’ll be able to speak to people anywhere you make land



in Ireland.’28 Not only has she given her son the material means with which to break into the Norse-Icelandic upper class, but she has also equipped him with another gift: his mother tongue and identity. When she refuses to speak, Melkorka protests her enslavement with silence, but furthermore, she uses her native language as a strategy to carve out some level of selfhood and dignity towards her son, giving him the ability to communicate with his relatives and social equals in Ireland moreover. In Melkorka’s character, we can observe that speaking and not speaking could provide scope for resistance in this stratified, multi-ethnic settler community where Old Norse was the language of the ruling class, and people of Irish descent were subservient.29 Although Melkorka’s royal background has an undeniable element of wish fulfilment about it, the character functions as a reclaiming of the Irish identity that some of the settler population brought with them to Iceland. Melkorka’s send-off of Óláfr is also indicative of the role that mothers have in their children’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. Sagas indicate that when they were on the cusp of manhood, mothers in the upper layers of society outfitted their sons with weapons, armour, men, warships, money and other assets, especially if their father was deceased. The shield-maiden Hervör (discussed in Chapter 2) asks her mother to prepare her for the Viking life ‘as you would your son’, and in Egils saga, the boy Egill composes a famous verse in which he boasts that his mother has promised to acquire a Viking ship for him when he is old enough.30 Impressively, Ásta Guðbrandsdóttir, the mother of the king’s son Óláfr Haraldsson, pretender to the Norwegian throne in the early eleventh century, gives Óláfr a fleet of warships and a force to man them. As he is only 12 years old, she puts his foster-father Hrani in charge of the enterprise until Óláfr is grown up.31 Óláfr, whose father was killed before he was born by his political enemies, goes harrying all over the place, from Lapland in the Arctic to Frisia on the northern coast of Europe, and westwards to England, and he adopts the title of ‘king’ even though, the narrator notes, he doesn’t rule any lands (yet). One wonders whether the young boys buried with a complete warrior kit (see Chapter 2) were sent to the afterlife with the weapons that their mother had intended to give them when they came of age, had they lived. It follows that royal women probably also instilled gendered and class-based behaviour in their sons, who were expected to be ruthless against their rivals.

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Ásta is described as an imperious woman who is fiercely ambitious on her son’s behalf. When he returns after a period of Viking raids, Ásta gives Óláfr a magnificent welcome and tells him that it would be better if he becomes king of all Norway and die young rather than be like his feeble stepfather, her second husband.32 He is the petty king Sigurðr sýr (his nickname means ‘pig’), a calm, unambitious and somewhat parsimonious man who just wants to have a peaceful life on his farm instead of ruling. To his chagrin, Ásta actively cultivates Óláfr’s assertiveness, arrogance and contempt for authority, and she also holds an extravagant feast in his honour to welcome him back to Norway and launch his political career.33 To make the feast a success, some versions of the story show Ásta leveraging her networks and political nous to get all of the most powerful and important people in the region to turn up and witness the splendid display of rank and wealth that she puts on display on behalf of her son.34 The reciprocal maintenance responsibilities of mothers and children entailed that children inherited their mothers if they had any property and vice versa (also discussed in Chapter 1); the laws probably varied, but mothers in Iceland were only fifth in line to inherit their child. Some historians warn that the legal provisions concerning women’s rights to property do not automatically mean that Norse society was egalitarian, and they point out that although women had these rights, we shouldn’t assume that they were free to do whatever they wanted with their assets. Rather, they see laws about women’s property as the likely result of powerful families wanting to funnel the clan’s assets through women, preventing property inherited by daughters and sisters from being taken over by their husband or his family.35 This is perhaps an overly pessimistic view: women’s scope to determine their own economic affairs seems to have varied and it was possible for them to achieve some degree of autonomy in these matters, depending on family dynamics and the wider political situation. Historical reality did not always align with what should have happened – laws were not the only factor that had an impact on property matters and they routinely went unenforced (as they are today). A widowed mother seems to have had the strongest chance of resisting and maintaining their economic independence against her male relatives, hopeful suitors and local magnates – all of whom may have tried to involve themselves in a woman’s affairs. Using



her children’s future interests as leverage, she had some chance of resisting efforts to bully her into releasing her assets to someone else.36 In order to stand her ground, a woman also needed to be assertive, resourceful and clever, but if the sagas are anything to go by, many Norse women had those qualities in abundance. Material assets and family status weren’t the only things passed on from mother to child:  personal qualities, too, were seen as inherited, and there was a belief in the distinctive nature of people in the same family. We can recall Hrútr’s attribution of Hallgerðr’s ‘thief ’s eyes’ as an implicit judgement of her mother’s family (see Chapter 1), and the extraordinary qualities of the Vatnsdælir family are passed down the female line to the protagonist of Grettis saga, the impressive but troubled hero Grettir Ásmundarson. Grettir and his father have a dysfunctional relationship throughout his youth: Ásmundr prioritizes hard work on the farm, trying his best to ensure stability and security for the household, while his son is an entitled layabout who thinks that tending animals and carrying out other menial tasks is beneath his dignity. There is no love lost between the two and when the teenaged Grettir leaves home to make a name for himself abroad, his father refuses to outfit him with weapons and other kit that the sagas lead us to believe young men of his station are usually given in these circumstances. At this turning point in Grettir’s life, his mother Ásdís, a descendant of the Vatnsdælir, pulls him aside before he boards the ship. She expresses mortification about his father’s miserly sendoff and presents him with an impressive sword that she pulls from underneath her cloak.37 The weapon is a family heirloom which had belonged to her grandfather Jökull and his fathers before him, and it had brought victory to many of the heroic men in the family, which, according to legend, had mixed Norwegian-giant ancestry. The scene conveys the sense that Ásdís isn’t only outfitting her son with a sword but also trying to pass on the strength and success of her ancestors. Grettir, who is much more similar both in temperament and physique to his mother’s family than his father’s, later uses this sword to complete feats that bring him great fame and fortune. But after being cursed by Glámr, a malevolent revenant he fights, the hero’s luck turns for the worse and he spends the rest of his days as a social outcast. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to

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understand that Grettir’s failure to make the normal transition of saga heroes from moody, lazy teen to upstanding free farmer, after the traditional rite of passage of going on Viking raids, has something to do with the sword. The father resists transferring his status and authority to his son by withholding all the normal signs of paternal approval, but although the mother intervenes and tries to compensate by giving him the quintessential symbol of patriarchal authority on her own, Grettir’s psyche is irrevocably scarred. His maternal ancestors’ physical strength and forceful personalities, and the antisocial traits that come with them, are rather a hindrance than a help in the rural society of post-settlement Iceland. In the saga of Grettir, the mother figure embodies destructive elements within each man that he needs to leave behind in order to become a fully accepted and productive member of the community.38 Throughout the saga, Grettir reveres his mother, who dotes on him in turn, and Ásdís continues to support her son long after he has alienated most other people. When, as an outlaw, he sets off on his journey to the island Drangey in Skagafjörður, the lonely island where he eventually dies, the sorrowful Ásdís is powerless to prevent her son’s fate. She gives him advice – obviously futile, since Grettir’s story ends in tragedy – about what to beware of but simultaneously laments that she will never see him again. Her image as the grieving, remorseful mother evokes the mythological Frigg, who tried to make all of creation promise not to harm her son Baldr – as the mistletoe that ended up killing him was too young to swear an oath, she was unable to prevent his death and spent her remaining days weeping.39 After Grettir’s death, arguably caused by the curse of his enemy’s foster-mother (see Chapter 6), Ásdís receives fulsome praise from the saga’s narrator, and she is said to have been held in the greatest esteem by the local community until her death.40 The image of the doting, loyal mother is also observed in Egils saga, where another mother, this time a surrogate one, does manage to protect her son from harm, though at the cost of her own life. Following an episode in which the 12-year-old Egill and his friend compete against Skallagrímr in a ball game, Egill and his father clash terribly. Skallagrímr’s mood tends to become violent after dark, and when the sun begins to set, he goes into an uncontrollable berserk rage and kills the friend. Fearing that he will also kill the young Egill, his foster-mother, the bondswoman Þorgerðr Brák, attempts to



protect him by coming to the boy’s rescue, but Skallagrímr attacks her instead. Fearing for her life, the heroic Brák flees to the sea and begins to swim away, but the father murders her by throwing a boulder at her. Her death provokes Egill’s immense anger and grief, and he avenges his foster-mother by killing his father’s steward. The rock which allegedly sank poor Brák can still be seen just off the coast of the promontory Borgarnes in West Iceland, and the strait between this rock and land is named Brákarsund (Brák’s swim). The reputation of both Brák and Ásdís is still going strong today: they are commemorated with a plaque at Borgarnes and Bjarg, Ásmundr and Ásdís’s farm in Northwest Iceland, and tributes have been paid to both women in modern poetry and plays, showing the admiration with which these maternal figures have been regarded through the centuries.41 The protective instinct that brings out the mother’s determined strength is brought out in the riveting story of Ástríðr, the mother of King Óláfr Tryggvason, and her impressive efforts to keep herself and her son safe. After her husband Tryggvi is killed by his rival Harald ‘Greycloak’, a son of King Eiríkr ‘Bloodaxe’ and Queen Gunnhildr, the pregnant queen must find a way to survive. Early written sources claim that Ástríðr fled to Orkney by ship, but Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla recounts a different and much more gripping version: Ástríðr was carrying King Tryggvi’s child. She had herself transported out onto a lake and hid there on some small islands and a few people with her. There she gave birth to a child. It was a boy. … There she hid herself during the summer, but when night became darker and day began to get shorter, and the weather to get cooler, then Ástríðr set out and [her foster-father] Þórólfr with her, and few people, only travelling through settled districts when they could keep hidden at night, and met no one.42 Ástríðr manages to reach safety at her father’s home, but soon after, Gunnhildr instigates a manhunt for her and the boy, knowing that they are a threat to the precarious rule of her own clan. When Ástríðr’s father gets wind of Gunnhildr’s approaching search team, he organizes for his daughter to go to his friend in Sweden, where he thinks they will be safe, but she must first make another close escape at night, disguised as a beggarwoman with her baby. En route, they are helped by various strangers, and at one point, she hides in a tangle of reeds so

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as not to be discovered by Gunnhildr’s thugs. After a long and arduous journey, Ástríðr and her son finally reach safety in Sweden. This exciting story pits the two mothers against each other, Ástríðr attempting to protect her newborn son while Gunnhildr hounds them mercilessly. Although the queen’s actions can be explained, if not excused, by her ruthless efforts to keep her and her sons’ hold of the throne, the narrator’s admiration is undeniably on Ástríðr’s side. She goes to astonishing lengths to escape the queen’s clutches and in the course of her long ordeal, she displays physical fortitude, shrewdness and bravery. Ástríðr’s feat was so renowned among Norwegians that she was still being praised hundreds of years later in the saga of the thirteenth-century king Hákon Hákonarson, whose mother, pregnant with Hákon, was also forced to make a dangerous escape from her husband’s enemies.43 Needless to say, the political upheavals in the Viking Age claimed the lives of scores of men. Although a leader and his faction gained dominance, they were never safe and many were violently unseated after shorter or longer periods. This struggle for domination was compounded by the number of possible contenders for the throne: as we saw in Chapter 3, kings sometimes had children with many women, none of whom had the undisputed primary right to succeed the father. In addition to his own brood, the sons of a ruler’s sister sometimes joined the fray, in which case their mothers sometimes actively supported them.44 Gunnhildr was trying to fend off threats to the rule of her adult sons, and so, too, the aristocratic Hildr Hrólfsdóttir becomes an intercessory figure on behalf of her Viking son, Hrólfr (known as Walking-Hrólfr or Rollo in other sources). Although everyone who wanted to get ahead in Viking Age politics engages in violence at some point, Hildr’s son arguably crossed a line when he went raiding not abroad but in Víkin in South-Eastern Norway, the region in which coastal power centres including Borre and Kaupang were located. He did this against King Haraldr’s explicit ban and understandably, Hrólfr’s defiance of his orders enraged Haraldr. As a consequence, Hrólfr was outlawed. Attempting to restore her son into society, Hildr went to the king’s assembly and performed a skaldic verse to Haraldr: You frame my father’s namesake and force him on the wolf ’s road.



You hound the high-born hero. How, lord, can you allow this? I warn you, ‘ware warrior! Wolf-deeds reap warfare. The lupine lad may lust for his former lord’s livestock.45 Hildr’s verse describes her son as a fierce, even savage, wolf, asking King Haraldr in disbelief why he risks such an antagonistic move against Hrólfr when it may come back to bite him. Continuing the wolfish imagery, Hildr declares that her son ‘will not be gentle with the ruler’s herds’, meaning that Hrólfr will be brutal towards Haraldr’s people, but although she clearly wishes to present Hrólfr as a threatening force, it is unclear whether her warnings should be taken seriously or if they’re simply a mother’s attempt to save face against the scandal of her son’s outlawry.46 Either way, Hildr’s speech in such a formal setting was enabled by her social position: she was the daughter of an earl and married to Rögnvaldr, earl of Mæri, King Haraldr’s great friend and supporter. As an aristocratic wife belonging to the top tier of society, she has more access to the king than most people. She tries to leverage her rank and personal connections to advance the cause of her son and though Hrólfr is never seen in Norway again, the narrator’s assertion that he became an earl in Normandy and counted William ‘the Bastard’ (William the Conqueror’s nickname in Norse sources) among his descendants bestows considerable prestige on Hildr and her family. Hildr isn’t the only example of a woman participating in a Viking Age assembly. Ástríðr Óláfsdóttir, the bold girl we met in Chapter 2, speaks at a parliament some time after the death of her husband King Óláfr in the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Ástríðr, who was around 30 years old at the time, returned to her native Sweden after Óláfr’s death and, according to Heimskringla, she subsequently helped rally political support for the king’s 10-year-old son Magnús, whose mother was Álfhildr, King Óláfr’s concubine. Even though Magnús was illegitimate and not Ástríðr’s natural son – the royal couple only seem to have had a daughter, not eligible for the throne – she calls an assembly and gives an eloquent speech to Swedish magnates. The queen promises Magnús and his

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faction all the troops and wealth she has at her disposal in his bid to regain power in Norway, and promises her countrymen friendship and support if they do the same. Thanks to Ástríðr’s active support of Magnús, the Swedes are persuaded to join his cause, and soon after they arrive in Norway, the prince ascends the Norwegian throne.47 It is uncertain how far we should trust a saga written approximately two hundred years after the event it purports to describe, but the account is supported by several verses in Ástríðr’s praise, embedded in Snorri’s prose account. These verses are regarded as genuinely dating to the Viking Age and therefore considered more trustworthy evidence for the saga’s version of Magnús’s ascendancy. The poetry, composed by the Icelandic court poet Sighvatr, a special favourite of Ástríðr’s, voices what is likely the highest and most extensive praise showered on any woman in Heimskringla, and they describe Ástríðr’s impressive rhetorical skill, political competence and godliness – comments on her beauty or housewifely skills are notably absent.48 We will repay splendidly with our praise Óláfr’s daughter, to whom the most victorious stout prince was married, for an abundance of bright treasures. A massive army from the land of the Swedes attended the assembly at Hangrar in the east, when Ástríðr proclaimed the cause of Óláfr’s son. She could not have dealt, fully decisive, better with the daring Swedes even if the very energetic Magnús had been her son. She was the main reason, with the mighty Christ, that King Magnús could gladly take up all the inheritance of Haraldr. Generous Magnús has Ástríðr to repay



for her bold deed, and we are glad for that, it gave the friend of men (Magnús) a broad realm. She, a deeply decisive woman, has helped her stepson in such a way as few others would; I make true words to the lady’s glory.49 After thanking Ástríðr for her patronage, the poet attributes Magnús’s success mainly to her wisdom, sound advice and boldness, though he also pays tribute to the divine support of Christ himself. To be virtually equal to God’s son is astonishingly high praise but Ástríðr’s achievement is not that surprising if we consider her powers of persuasion when she arranged her own marriage to King Óláfr (see Chapter 2). Other episodes preserve still more stories about Ástríðr’s assertive personality, depicting her as proud and competitive with her husband for the praise of skalds. Though many of the medieval written accounts of the queen seem to be coloured with the literary brushes of creative authors, it is clear that she was remembered as a talented woman who wielded significant power because of her intelligence, boldness and charisma, and, most importantly, her skills as a public speaker and politician.50 Significantly, the saga does not describe Ástríðr as power-hungry or out of bounds when she is getting the Swedes to do what she wants, most likely because she acts on behalf of her stepson. Nor does the saga allow us to see very far beneath the surface and what might have motivated her to throw her support behind Magnús, whereas the sagas generally suggest that mothers and stepmothers had a lot to gain on a personal level from their sons’ success. Queen mothers often seem to have their own entourage or retinue and the ability to participate in politics, either formally at assemblies or behind the scenes, so their status was as good as or perhaps better than that of royal wives and daughters. They couldn’t be sidelined as easily as other women by being divorced or married off, for one thing, at least if they played their cards right. The legendary Ragnars saga loðbrókar, which draws on some of the same legends as Saxo’s History (see Chapter  2), depicts Áslaug, the secret daughter

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of Sigurðr the dragon-slayer and the valkyrie Brynhildr, as so invested in her sons’ success that she takes up weapons herself. Áslaug is married to the Danish king Ragnarr loðbrók (Hairy Breeches), who had two sons by his first wife Þóra. When her stepsons die in battle against a Swedish king, her husband is absent on another foreign military mission, and it is up to Áslaug to guard the family’s honour. Meanwhile, at the battle, one of the stepsons utters a verse as he lies dying, lamenting that he has no mother to grieve him after his death. But there is something to comfort him: he claims he is certain Áslaug will not be indifferent to his killing. Just before the stepson gives up the ghost, he sends his messengers back home with a ring and instructions to recite the poem to his stepmother, effectively challenging her to be a true mother to him. Áslaug receives the news of her stepsons’ death sitting on the throne, combing her hair, but we ought not to let her decorous appearance deceive us. She promptly reveals her bellicose nature by declaring that she ‘will not hesitate to encourage vengeance for them as if they were my own sons’, and her subsequent revenge campaign demonstrates that she is a worthy successor of two of Norse legend’s foremost heroic characters.51 The queen incites her own sons by Ragnarr to travel and fight the Swedish army, which includes a terrifying magic cow called Síbilja. Although they are at first reluctant, the willingness of her youngest boy, who’s only a child, shames the rest of them into going. Changing her name to the more warlike Randalín (Goddess of the shields), their mother joins them in battle, leading part of the army against the Swedes. Perhaps this is the legend told on one of the Gotlandic picture stone, depicting a female figure holding what seems to be a banner or torch and leading a land army against a group of warriors on a ship which faces them (Figure 5). At any rate, in their victory, the Danish army, led by Randalín and her sons, gain glory by killing the malevolent cow and the Swedish king. Although she loses both her husband and her natural sons in the course of the saga, Randalín/Áslaug is seen to cry only once in her life. Shedding a single tear – hard as a hailstone and blood red – she cries it for her stepsons. Áslaug’s grief subverts every cliché about evil stepmothers, suggesting that she feels their loss on an emotional level as well as a social one. The narrator comments little on the relationship between Áslaug and her stepsons while they are alive, but the queen’s tear and her determination to involve her natural sons in avenging their half-brothers makes it clear that she understands



the dynasty’s success as depending on cooperation between family members. There is no room for jealous intra-family rivalry and competitiveness, whether between Ragnar’s sons by his first and second marriage or the older sons and their stepmother, and Áslaug ensures that her own (biological) sons make the right choice.52 All of the preceding accounts are about mothers and their sons, but what about the relationship between mothers and daughters? This imbalanced focus on boys is determined by the sources: there are simply many more male figures in Norse texts than female ones, and saga authors are much more interested in the relationship between mothers and sons than daughters, so there is much less evidence for the latter. However, a few runestones were raised by daughters in memory of their mothers and mothers-in-law and though such memorial stones are largely erected for sociopolitical reasons, this act can also conceivably express affection and pride. A few, if brief, literary examples of maternal feelings towards daughters can be located. As discussed in Chapter  1, the most prominent of these is perhaps the love expressed by Guðrún towards her daughter by Sigurðr. The young, white-haired Svanhildr is carefully clothed and adorned before her wedding by her mother, who mournfully describes her harrowing execution (based on trumped-up charges of adultery) as her ‘hardest sorrow’. Like Áslaug, she demands vengeance by pressuring her sons to take up weapons.53 On the other side of the coin, the wistful verse in Bárðar saga spoken by Helga – adrift in Greenland – suggests her longing for home and an unnamed maternal figure. Helga lists the mountains, rocks, hills, promontory and beach she can see from her foster-mother’s doorstep and expresses a longing to be back there.54 Although most of the poem describes the landscape as it looked from the doorstep of her family’s farm, the plain words that frame it – ‘How happy I’d be … at my foster-mother’s door’ – describe the feelings of a woman who longs for the happiness and security of her childhood, before her traumatic experience of landing in Greenland and the sexual exploitation to which she is subjected by Skeggi. The saga does not reveal the identity of Helga’s fostermother, but she is likely to be her stepmother Herþrúðr, her father’s second wife.55 It would certainly fit the pattern set elsewhere, where stepmothers don’t let the feelings of rivalry or resentment towards stepchildren propagated in stereotypes take hold of them.

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It is telling that the saga in which this verse is preserved, Bárðar saga, is not counted among the most traditional or worthy Icelandic sagas: it is unusual in its attention to the perspective of people who are a little different and don’t succeed that well in settlement-era Iceland. Helga never marries and is always out of place, but she does become a mother, of sorts. After a lifetime of sorrow and living on the margins of society, she arrives one day at the home of her former lover Skeggi and takes his daughter’s newborn son with her. The baby, Gestr, is said to be her half-brother, the product of a shameful extramarital relationship between her father Bárðr and Skeggi’s daughter Þórdís, and thus he is also the grandchild of her former lover. Helga is allowed to raise the child, perhaps in compensation for her treatment at the hands of Skeggi and her consequent marginalization, but even though she returns her foster-son to Þórdís when he is 12, Gestr, like Grettir, becomes a slayer of trolls and revenants who never integrates into the higher social stratum to which his mother belongs. Unlike Grettir, he converts to Christianity at the behest of the Norwegian Viking king Óláfr Tryggvason, but his father Bárðr is so dismayed at this betrayal of his roots that he puts a curse on Gestr, and within hours, he dies in his baptismal robes. Though she makes a man out of him, Helga is never again permitted into polite society, and we last see her at a Yule feast among trolls in the mountains, signalling her exclusion from a world in which men consistently failed her. The mother’s love that Helga bestows on Gestr is no less passionate than that of Grettir’s mother Ásdís, but the fact that both their sons are unconventional heroes who fail to further their family line suggests anxieties about excessive maternal dominance. In this line of reasoning, boys will never manage to take up their father’s social position if they don’t break away from their mother’s influence, and although the material, military and political help a mother provides is valuable, these stories suggest that her emotional hold over the boy needs to be severed.

The abject mother Unlike the mothers we met in the previous section, not all women gave their children unconditional love, protection and support. No one who has read



Laxdæla saga can forget how its heroine Guðrún carefully grooms her sons through childhood only to compel them, with chilling, brutal authority, to avenge their father, who was killed when the younger of the two was still in his mother’s womb. Guðrún is a complicated figure:  intelligent, charming, beautiful, eloquent and generous  – the most excellent woman ever to live in Iceland according to the saga narrator – but she is also elitist, mean, selfcentred, petty and deceitful. Guðrún’s experiences shape her outlook and behaviour, and as she grows older, she acquires a chip on her shoulder, feeling that she never got the kind of life and status she deserved. As a young woman, she was married without her consent to the first suitor who asked for her hand, a completely unimpressive local farmer, and her second husband Þórðr, whom she acquired through devious methods (discussed in Chapter  2), dies soon after the marriage. The moment she meets Kjartan, the golden-boy grandson of the Irish concubine-princess Melkorka (and the half-brother of Hallgerðr), Guðrún considers herself finally to have found a worthy partner. As she is now a widow, the path seems clear for Kjartan to sweep her into his arms, but although they had spent many an afternoon flirting as they bathe in the natural hot springs near her home, he instead leaves for Norway with his fosterbrother Bolli to gain fame and fortune. In Norway, Kjartan has a flirtation with the king’s sister and seems to nurture what turn out to be ill-founded hopes of marriage into the royal house. When he hasn’t returned to Iceland after three years, the time Kjartan had asked Guðrún to wait for him, his foster-brother Bolli, who’d always been the sidekick in their relationship, doesn’t hesitate to snap Guðrún up. Bolli had always pined after her but never stood a chance against his genetically superior foster-brother until now, when things have turned sour. Although she is deeply reluctant, Bolli coaxes her into marriage by telling her about Kjartan’s affair with the princess, arousing her jealousy and vindictiveness; still single, Kjartan returns a year later and finds Guðrún taken. He shows no reaction and immediately marries Hrefna, a local girl of good family who, despite her respectable pedigree, pales in comparison to the excellent Guðrún. Before long, the bitterness between the two former lovers begins to erupt at various gatherings and feasts, escalating into a feud characterized by mean-spirited insults, theft and, finally, a siege of Bolli and Guðrún’s farm. Kjartan has the

Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood


exits to the outdoor toilets blocked and people have to relieve themselves indoors, which, we can surmise, is the ultimate act of humiliation. Guðrún is hellbent on revenge, not just for the blocking-in but for Kjartan’s original sin of refusing to let her come with him to Norway. The bitterest, most devastating blood feud is set in motion. Guðrún utters the irrevocable words, goading Bolli and her brothers to kill Kjartan, and they must do what she says or suffer the agonising shame of being labelled unmanly. They ambush Kjartan, who, when confronted by his foster-brother, throws away his weapons and lets Bolli pierce him through with a sword rather than defend himself. Kjartan dies, saint-like, in his foster-brother Bolli’s arms. But vengeance does not wait for long – more blood will be shed. Honour demands that Kjartan’s friends and family kill Bolli in return, and nine of them attack him at dawn in his shieling and slay him. During the killing, Guðrún kneels by a nearby brook washing clothes – again, she is doing women’s work while men are doing the killing – and though the narrator doesn’t say a word about what she felt, the image of water flowing through the peaceful valley while Bolli’s blood drips onto the shieling’s floor underscores Guðrún’s exclusion. After Bolli’s death, Helgi Harðbeinsson, one of the killers, wipes the bloody spear he had driven through his victim on Guðrún’s shawl and announces the slaying. Guðrún smiles but says nothing. The look on her face seems to have an unnerving effect on the men, however, and they understand that it doesn’t signal the joy or friendly disposition that such expressions are usually meant to convey.56 It prompts Helgi’s prophesying his own slaying: ‘something tells me that my own death lies under the end of that shawl.’57 What does Helgi mean by this prediction? Although we have not been told much about Guðrún’s appearance, we could hypothesize that either Guðrún herself, who is, after all, ‘under’ the clothes, will physically kill him. But there is an alternative: she could be visibly pregnant and Helgi would, in that case, be saying that her unborn child will be his killer, years down the line. As we later find out, the latter suggestion is the correct interpretation – in blood feud, vengeance can loom for years if people are willing to keep it alive. Unlike Breeches-Auðr, the woman whose husband she stole (see Chapter 2), Guðrún doesn’t take up weapons herself to avenge Bolli’s murder, but her bloodcurdling smile signifies her absolute certainty that she will exact revenge in the fullness of time.



One day thirteen years later, Guðrún calmly lays out the clothes in which Bolli was killed – the clothes that were made bloody while she washed others in the brook. She summons her sons, 12 and 16 years old, to look upon the blood-stained garments, and makes the matter-of-fact, pithy announcement that the time has come to avenge their father. The mother waits for the words to sink in. Her sons are shaken: at first, they refuse to comply, but after a sleepless night filled with the unbearable feelings of grief and shame elicited by the ‘goading words’ their mother had spoken, they resolve to carry out what she wants.58 Despite their youth and unhardened spirit, the teenaged boys successfully exact revenge, killing Helgi and others who participated in Bolli’s slaying. Helgi’s electrifying pronouncement about his own death years earlier arguably alludes to the role that women play in keeping the never-ending violence of blood feud going. It gives the sense that a killing can be committed by two people, the one who does the deed and the one who orders it done – a sword cannot hurt anyone if it’s not wielded, and similarly, the killer seems to be regarded as the tool of the inciter. Helgi is speaking from experience:  one woman was present at Bolli’s murder, Kjartan’s mother Þorgerðr, who was thus Bolli’s foster-mother. Þorgerðr is explicitly presented as the instigator of his murder, egging her surviving sons on both before and during the event by calling their manhood into question, and praising them after Bolli is dead. The saga raises the question whether these men are puppets, their mothers being the active agents and driving force behind these killings. The chapters featuring these two infamous goading scenes in the saga’s main manuscript have the headings ‘Of Þorgerðr Egilsdóttir’ and ‘Of Guðrún’, suggesting that the book’s fourteenth-century scribe, at least, saw the women as playing a fundamental role in violence.59 The harrowing story of Guðrún, Kjartan and Bolli, fuelled by jealous insecurities and old resentments, is realized in such intense clarity by the saga author that it is hard not to be affected by the senseless killings that ensue. Even though we know that these are characters on a page, they are so skilfully rendered by the author that one cannot help but feel that they might have lived and breathed and felt the things that drive them to such calamitous measures. The saga draws on the rich narrative tradition of Germanic heroic legend, which was transmitted all across Northern Europe in the early Middle Ages,

Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood


successfully transposing the characters and narrative paradigms from the glorious courts of Burgundy and the Rhineland to Viking Age Iceland. The love triangle of Sigurðr the dragon-slayer, Guðrún Gjúkadóttir and the valkyrie Brynhildr, who is also manipulated into marrying the second best, is the model and inspiration for Laxdæla saga’s tragedy, and although the setting in the even more distant, legendary past is less realistic, this foundational narrative is no less powerful an exploration of envy, ambition and betrayal. There are many correspondences: for example, like Laxdæla saga’s Guðrún, Brynhildr goads her husband Gunnarr to kill Sigurðr, his foster-brother, when she finds out that she has been cheated out of marriage with the latter, though her child by Sigurðr, the warrior-queen Áslaug, has a very different trajectory from the sons of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. On the other hand, as in Laxdæla, domineering mother figures are everywhere in the Völsung legend. These mothers determinedly goad, bully and threaten their children, who are powerless against their mothers’ actions, and some of them even kill their offspring in turn. Guðrún Gjúkadóttir personally murders two of her children and sends two more to their certain death (as mentioned in Chapter  1). Rivalling Guðrún in cruelty, Signý, the paternal aunt of Sigurðr the dragon-slayer, has four of her five children killed. At a young age, Signý is married against her will to Siggeir, a Swedish king, and it soon emerges that her wariness of her suitor is warranted. Soon after they marry, despite her repeated warnings, Siggeir leads her father into a trap and kills him, capturing all ten of her brothers. He leaves them tied up in the forest to be eaten by a terrifying she-wolf, believed by some to be Siggeir’s shape-shifting mother, but Signý manages to save one of her brothers, Sigmundr, by having her servants smear honey on his mouth. When the wolf smells the sweet honey, it pauses to lick it off instead of eating Sigmundr right away, but because of the wolf ’s pausing, he manages to capture it by the tongue and kill it. Sigmundr goes into hiding, while his sister Signý returns to her home and evil husband. Perceiving in due course that her young sons by Siggeir are so feeble that they will never be of use, she orders them killed and disguises herself in order to sleep with Sigmundr. Their union results in a worthier son, Sinfjötli, who is an utter sociopath and killing machine. At 10 years old, he and his father sack the court of Siggeir and Signý, setting fire to the buildings and preventing the



king from exiting the royal hall. Signý is offered safe passage, but she refuses to save herself, giving the reason that she has committed terrible crimes. From inside the burning hall, she confesses her grave sins: she has killed her children for their lack of stern character, tricked her brother into having sex with her and organized the demise of her husband, and after coming clean, Signý walks into the fire and burns to death.60 Like mother, like son. Years later, Sinfjötli, too, intentionally walks into his own death, prompted by a mother figure. His stepmother Borghildr, whose brother he had recently killed, gives him a poisonous drink at the memorial feast, and though he knows it to be lethal, her taunts of cowardice are too much to bear and he downs the drink. In the legendary world in which these characters operate, it’s more important to die a heroic death than to live a long but unremarkable life, and although this setting seems too bizarre and fantastic to have much bearing on the reality, the consistent characterization of mothers as utterly ruthless is echoed in the behaviour of royal mothers. We can recall Ásta, the mother who wanted her son, Óláfr Haraldsson, to die on the throne rather than live a long, happy life as a minor aristocrat, though she is admittedly nowhere near as extreme as the heroic Signý. How do women become so vicious that they are prepared to throw their children and stepchildren to the dogs if it serves their purpose? The answer seems to lie in the upbringing they receive from their own mothers. Guðrún is the cause of her sons’ death, but she, her husband Sigurðr and brothers Gunnarr and Högni are frequently the pawns of the ambitious Gjúkung matriarch Grímhildr – introduced as a hard-minded woman – in her dogged efforts to secure beneficial political alliances. Wanting to acquire the heroic and fabulously wealthy Sigurðr for her own family, Grímhildr serves the hero a drink of forgetfulness to make him lose memory of his betrothal to Brynhildr. She also ensures that the lure of the glamorous Gjúkung court becomes too beguiling to resist. Seeing even more chances to consolidate the family’s status, she pushes Gunnarr to propose marriage to the valkyrie-princess Brynhildr, sister of Atli the Hun, a marriage that would create bonds with a family even richer than the Gjúkungar. Grímhildr stops at nothing to reach her goals: she is said to know magic and she uses this knowledge to teach Gunnarr and Sigurðr to change shapes, which enables them to dupe Brynhildr. Moreover, her magic

Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood


potion is ostensibly what makes the latter forget and consequently break his oath to Brynhildr, marrying Guðrún instead. When Brynhildr discovers the deception, all hell breaks loose, and in the ensuing screaming match between her and Gunnarr, she correctly identifies Grímhildr as the mastermind behind the whole plot. Though Brynhildr blames her husband for marrying her under false pretences, she also accuses his mother: ‘I have evil to repay to Grímhild as well. There is no woman worse or more cowardly than she is.’61 Though it is easy to sympathize with the bereft Brynhildr, her mother-in-law’s scheming is ultimately no different, from one point of view, to the attempts made by other royal women to secure the prosperity and domination of their family. The drink of forgetfulness and magic spells attributed to her exonerate the men for their part in letting Brynhildr down. Perhaps we can imagine Sigurðr, like Kjartan, to become too besotted with the delights of courtly life at the Gjúkungar to remember his true love who faithfully waits for him, and there is little honour regarding his part in the deception of Brynhildr, but for some reason, it is convenient to portray these young men as the passive pawns of a conniving woman who dispenses with morals and ethics in her efforts to raise the status of her family. Despite the terrible fallout of these events – Sigurðr’s murder and Brynhildr’s suicide – Grímhildr is not done with her children. After giving Guðrún some time to grieve, she tries to bribe her into marrying Atli, a cruel man and the brother of Brynhildr, the woman who caused her husband’s death. Guðrún rejects the bribes, but like for Skírnismál’s Gerðr, subsequent threats of being without a respectable spouse break her will.62 The marriage is an ill-fated one: Atli wants to get hold of the dragon’s hoard of gold that Guðrún’s brothers acquired when they killed Sigurðr, and to that end, he invites his brothers-inlaw for a visit. Guðrún and the wives of Gunnarr and Högni try to prevent them from going, but by then it’s too late – they would be seen as cowards for turning back – so they ride to Atli’s court. Their brother-in-law immediately has the brothers attacked and captured; Högni’s heart is cut out while Gunnar is fettered and thrown in a snake pit. He tries to lull the snakes into sleep by playing a harp with his toes, but one snake slithers to him and sinks its fangs into his heart, ending his life. In Oddrúnargrátr, this snake is identified as their shape-shifting mother, who thereby plays an active role in eliminating



the Gjúkungar clan and Guðrún takes care of the rest when she kills her sons by Atli, as discussed in Chapter 1. The cycle of monstrous mothers has come full circle. The Völsung legends are at times stomach-churning, feeling more akin to a trashy splatter film than anything as highbrow as Wagner’s Ring cycle, the famous sequence of operas inspired by these epic tales. The legend’s mothers play no small role in the deluge of blood that is spilled in the course of this narrative cycle, manipulating people behind the scenes, administering poison or inflicting gruesome violence. In these frightening image of monstrous motherhood, we have come as far as possible from Oddrúnargrátr’s sympathetic representation of a woman suffering through childbirth, and the protective, nurturing impulses displayed by others. By figuring mothers as monstrous snakes and child murderers, these narratives pose the question where to draw the line when it comes to the pursuit of vengeance, and how far a woman can take her ambition on behalf of her sons and family before it backfires. Atli’s serpentine mother draws a link between her and the dragon Fáfnir, whose hoard fuels the ferocious competition between the characters, implying the destructive potency of the mother’s desire for power and status when it is achieved through her children. That the Norse literary tradition has such a rich array of cruel, even savage, mothers may go some way to explain why the author of Eiríks saga rauða uses the figure of Freydís, an expectant mother, to rationalize why the skrælingjar run away from her. When push comes to shove, no one was prepared to be as brutal, vicious and fearless, as a mother.

5 Widows

Read! Geirmundr married Geirlaug in her maidenhood. Then they had a son before he drowned. And then the son died. Then she married Guðríkr … Then they got children. And one maid lived; she was called Inga. Ragnfastr of Snutastaðir farm married her. Then he died, and thereafter [their] son. And the mother [Inga] inherited her son. Then she married Eiríkr. Then she died. Then Geirlaug came to inherit from Inga, her daughter. Þorbjörn Skald carved the runes.1 This brusque story – which is little more than a string of names and events – was inscribed in the late Viking Age on the surface of the so-called Hillersjö stone, a flat rock situated near a farm by that name on an island in Lake Mälaren, north-west of Stockholm. The message, which swirls and interlaces around the stone’s surface within the body of a serpent, mentions unusually many people for a runic inscription, and it is one of the longest written texts that anyone who lived in the Viking Age left behind. It tells a complicated story that begins with Geirmundr and the young Geirlaug marrying and having a son. Alas Geirmundr drowned, making Geirlaug a widow, but his death was only the first of many losses she would suffer. The inscription goes on to trace further remarriages, children and passings, most importantly that of Geirlaug’s daughter, Inga, but, as the stone tells us, Geirlaug ended up inheriting almost the entire cohort of people mentioned. The Hillersjö stone is only one of several in the area connected to this family. Inga, the daughter, had an impressive four stones inscribed in memory of her first husband Ragnfastr on their farm in Snutastaðir (later shortened to Snottsta), and yet another stone found inside the walls of a local church preserves a fragmentary inscription carved



Figure G  Runestone U 29 in Hillersjö, Uppland, Sweden. Photo:  Ofeig. CC BY-SA 3.0.

in memory of her husband Eiríkr, adding a fifth stone to Inga’s legacy. The stones have been standing in the Swedish landscape ever since, and although the bright colours with which they were once painted have long faded, the names of these eleventh-century Swedes are still alive a millennium later. The inscriptions and the stones on which they are carved give us a fascinating glimpse of lives and deaths in a powerful Swedish family in the Viking Age. If anyone had later written a saga about them, it would no doubt have been eventful. Although we only get the barest of bones about their lives, the stones and their inscriptions tell us a fair amount about Viking Age society, at least in the Uppland province in Sweden, which is Scandinavia’s richest runestone region. First, the details about inheritance seem to corroborate laws written down much later, both there and all the way over in Iceland, which state that women could own property and inherit their children. In fact, these stones have been regarded as legal documents that codified the transfer of assets following someone’s death, although in a different media from what we



are used to.2 Second, it suggests that the sponsors were literate in the runic alphabet, which was used for a multitude of practical and esoteric purposes in the Viking Age and long after. Third, the very existence of the stones shows that the women associated with their carving were ‘movers and shakers’, so wealthy that they could afford to hire proficient rune masters and, in some cases, skilled labourers to transport and insert these monuments into public space, discourse and memory. The Hillersjö inscription is particularly insistent, beginning with an exhortation to passers-by to read and interpret the runes, but even those who could not read the letters probably learned what the stones said. Their graphic design and decorative features – which are, in this case, in the elegant Urnes style, with delicate, elongated lines and stylized animals – and their sheer physical presence would have prompted people in the neighbourhood to remember and tell the family’s story every time they passed the stone.3 The ubiquity of widows in written sources  – whether sagas or runic inscriptions – suggests that in addition to the generally tough living conditions, gendered labour practices and the widespread use of violence meant that men were more likely to die an untimely death than women. Some never returned from Viking expeditions abroad, others died in accidents, storms, blizzards, skirmishes or blood feuds, and, as we learn from the Hillersjö stone, yet more received a watery grave. The intensely private, personal experience of losing your loved ones, and one’s public existence, intersect in runestones and their inscriptions. These monuments are so much more than the content of the short texts carved onto them, giving us all kinds of insights into laws, women’s roles and religious beliefs, cultural practices surrounding death and memory. Ultimately, the monuments left to us by Inga and Geirlaug confirm the volatility of life in the Viking Age, even for people who were comfortably off.

Mourning, lament, whetting The minimalistic inscriptions carved on behalf of Inga, Geirlaug and numerous other women in Scandinavia and further afield in the Viking diaspora record family relationships, the order in which people died and occasionally their



accomplishments, but they rarely tell us how their sponsors felt about their loss. On the other hand, Norse heroic poetry is intensely preoccupied with the way women react to death, and their grief has many facets. Although many of these widows display ‘normal’ emotions such as shock or sadness, a widow’s intense longing for her dead husband manifests itself in an unexpected way in the story of the valkyrie-princess Sigrún, told in the second of the two so-called Helgi poems (Helgakviða Hundingsbana II). Sigrún is able to hover over her favourite warrior Helgi in battle and bring him luck, but when she becomes his triumphant lover in the human world, she appears to lose her powers.4 After this transition, she holds less of an attraction for Helgi:  like any ambitious Viking warrior, his ultimate goal is to die with glory and get into Valhalla, not to be tethered to a woman in this world. Although the lovers spend a period of happiness together, this conundrum catches up with them before long. Earlier in the story, Sigrún had spurned the husband that her family chose for her in favour of Helgi, and to restore the family’s honour, her brother tracks the couple down and kills him. Now neither a valkyrie nor the wife of a hero, the widow Sigrún’s heavy grief and incessant weeping over her husband keeps Helgi in a liminal state between death and the afterlife. Unable to join Odin’s army in Valhalla, Helgi returns to his burial mound to get Sigrún to release him from her heart, claiming that her tears scorch his chest. His arrival from the realm of the dead overjoys Sigrún, but more disturbingly, it also provokes her immediate sexual desire. When she realizes that he has returned, the widow describes her longing to kiss Helgi’s bloody corpse: Now I am so glad, at our meeting, as are the greedy hawks of Odin

hawks of  Odin: ravens

when they know of slaughter, steaming flesh, or, dew-gleaming, they see the dawn. First I want to kiss the lifeless king, before you throw off your bloody mail-coat; your hair, Helgi, is thick with hoar-frost, the prince is all soaked in slaughter-dew.5 slaughter-dew: blood



The story has been full of glamour and heroics until now, but when the former valkyrie morbidly compares the attraction she feels towards his blooddrenched body to the anticipation ravens experience when there is ‘steaming flesh’, that is, corpses, to be had, her desire undeniably evokes necrophiliac attraction, and she appears more disturbing than seductive. Sigrún makes up a bed for Helgi in the mound and anticipates passionate trysts with her undead hero, but although he notes her shining beauty, Helgi only enjoys the embraces of his wife for a few hours. Before the cock crows, he rides to Odin’s hall with his men, never to return, and soon after, Sigrún dies from grief. Attributing Sigrún with sexual desire for the dead hero takes the concept of the valkyrie as the warrior’s lover to its logical, if macabre, conclusion, but the poem additionally conveys the message, also expressed in the story of Guðrún’s sorrow, that it is damaging to resist working through grief. The killing of Sigurðr the dragon-slayer, who is betrayed by his wife’s brothers, is a calamitous event for his widow, and the beginning of Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Poem of Gudrun) describes Guðrún as ‘on the point of collapsing’, intent on dying, ‘impassioned’ and bursting from grief.6 She seems alternately unable to contain her emotions and determined to die, suggesting some degree of self-awareness in the midst of her despair. Thus, it is not clear to what extent she is in control of herself, but to the onlookers’ alarm, she ‘did not weep or strike her hands together / or lament like other women’ at the news of her husband’s death. Worried at Guðrún’s failure to behave in the expected way, her sister Gullrönd forces her to look at Sigurðr’s lifeless, blood-stained body, and this provokes a new reaction: Guðrún turns red and falls apart in a puddle of tears, describing herself as ‘little as a leaf / among the bay-willows now the prince is dead’.7 Guðrún’s sadness and feelings of vulnerability now that she is without a husband are easily understood. Sigurðr’s death takes place when Guðrún is still young, and as mentioned in Chapter 1, it is the first of many for her. Guðrún’s mournful lines in Hamðismál, spoken at the end of her life, when she has lost most of her relatives, poignantly articulate the thoughts of a sorrow-weary widow: I have come to stand alone like an aspen in the forest my kinsmen cut away as a fir’s branches, bereft of happiness as a tree of its leaves.8



This forlorn stanza conjures a lonely image of Guðrún as a tree, now bald – her children were the boughs and leaves that formed an intrinsic part of the organism, rather than separate plants.9 When read alongside the runic inscriptions, Guðrún’s self-perception as the proud trunk from which the branches grow gives us reason to believe that Viking women thought of themselves as the pillars of the family in their own right. In Laxdæla saga, Hrefna, the wife of Kjartan – an otherwise lacklustre character – dies from grief after the loss of her husband, who is killed in a feud with his former friends (see Chapter  4).10 Although this is an unusually extreme reaction, perhaps reflecting the stress of bereavement, becoming a widow is understood as a momentous event in written sources. Unlike Hrefna’s dutiful dying, Guðrún ‘did not weep or strike her hands together / or lament like other women’, or in other words, she did not behave ‘normally’.11 The poem therefore suggests that whatever her actual emotions, when a Norse woman first heard of her relative’s death, she was expected to demonstrate her grief to others through standard, culturally recognized expressions of lament. If the woman’s husband (or other male relative) had been killed, it was also considered appropriate – by some, at least – for a widow to incite other men in the family to take revenge. This double role is fictionalized in the sagas’ many goading scenes, in which women perform their grief and simultaneously berate men for cowardice, using bloody props in order to compel them to take action.12 Mealtimes have a special place in the literary representation of blood feud. The convivial act of honouring one’s guest by sharing a meal and conversation turns into an acrid confrontation between a bereaved woman and a kinsman whom she considers obligated to avenge her slain husband or relative. These archetypal goading scenes set at the table are not uncommon, but by far the most elaborate, stylized and effective of these is found in ­chapter 116 of Njáls saga (composed in the late thirteenth century), relating Hildigunnr Starkaðardóttir’s goading of her uncle Flosi in the wake of her husband Höskuldr’s killing. The background to the goading is harrowing: one morning, Hildigunnr wakes up from a frightening dream and subsequently discovers the mutilated, blood-drenched body of her husband Höskuldr in a field near their house. Instead of showing signs of shock or grief, she takes his cloak and rubs it on his body, soaking it through with the blood flowing



from his many wounds. We subsequently learn that Hildigunnr has a specific purpose in mind for the cloak: it becomes the focal point of a carefully executed goading ritual she performs later in the saga, one which shares features with other scenes and is thus based on a common narrative tradition. News of Höskuldr’s death travel fast, and when Hildigunnr’s uncle Flosi, whom she chooses as the man most duty-bound to avenge the slaying, arrives to deal with the matter, she welcomes him and invites him into their home, which she has had decked out specially in his honour. Though Flosi is suspicious of her lavish preparations and complains that his reception is unnecessarily formal, he sits down and they speak quietly for a considerable time. We are given no information about their topic of conversation but earlier, the narrator related that Flosi intends to gather a large number of people to attend the alþingi and sue Höskuldr’s killers for compensation. For that reason, it seems likely that they are discussing possible courses of action. Everything seems normal, or as normal as can be following the violent death of a fine young man, except that Hildigunnr is said to emit a ‘cold laugh’. This laugh is as sinister as Guðrún’s smile (see Chapter  4) and fulfils the same narrative purpose. More death is around the corner. Now it’s time for the meal, and we know from the laughter and the eerie atmosphere that something explosive is about to happen. Flosi knows this, too, and he displays a sort of desperate defencelessness, throwing the torn napkin he is given – a tell-tale sign of Hildigunnr’s intention – on the floor and cutting himself a new one from the tablecloth. Hildigunnr is offstage, and the tension is palpable. And suddenly, Hildigunnr’s hvöt (incitement ritual) descends on him with the force of a landslide. Hildigunnr hasn’t shown much of an emotional reaction after her husband’s death, but now, she walks into the room with her hair loose, wailing and crying, and demanding to know what Flosi is going to do about Höskuldr’s slaying. Flosi, seeing how contrived the performance is, responds that he will forcefully pursue the case to the fullest extent of the law and seek a settlement with the killers. This is not the answer Hildigunnr wants, and she hisses that her husband would have avenged Flosi, were their roles reversed. But Flosi steadfastly refuses to commit to any such measures. Hildigunnr now sees that more pressure is needed, so she deals him the final blow. Pulling out her prop, Höskuldr’s bloody cloak, Hildigunnr places it over



Flosi, and she utters a chilling speech that looks very much like a legal formula, owing to features such as alliteration and doublets and the formal charge: This cloak, Flosi, was your gift to Höskuldr, and now I give it back to you. He was slain in it. In the name of God and all good men I charge you, by all the powers of your Christ and by your courage and manliness, to avenge all the wounds which he received in dying – or else be an object of contempt (níðingr) to all men.13 The import of Hildigunnr’s invocation and ‘regifting’ of the cloak is momentous. If Flosi doesn’t avenge Höskuldr, he is a níðingr, no man but a wretch who transgresses all moral and sacred values. Hildigunnr’s performance and the horrendous threat of being cast as a níðingr are effective. Flosi lets rip a litany of slurs against her, he turns alternately red, ghostly pale and blue, and he leaves in a huff. But the shame proves to be unbearable. A tense legal drama ensues at the alþingi which ends with Flosi’s rejecting compensation from the killers, a series of bad omens and finally the terrible burning of Njáll’s farm, in which many innocent people are killed. Readers and critics have long been fascinated by Hildigunnr’s actions in this vividly realized episode, and opinions have been dramatically divided as to how it should be interpreted. Some argue that the character is simply doing what was expected of Norse widows. The difference between her calm and controlled demeanour on Flosi’s arrival, in contrast to the emotionally charged behaviour during the goading, suggests that she has planned her actions beforehand and then performs the incitement according to its traditional format. The widespread appearance of similar, though less baroque, scenes in eddic heroic poetry and sagas suggests, for these scholars, that in real life, bereaved wives were expected to demonstrate grief through the types of lament we find in literature. While male relatives should endure their sorrow in silence, critics have posited that it was seen as normal for a woman to wail and weep with her hair loose, as distinct from their normally tidy hairstyle, signifying their emotional torment. Another part of this formalized pattern was to praise the dead husband and insist on revenge by reminding other male family members of their reciprocal bonds to the victim and their role, as men, to enforce the vengeance imperative. Such interpretations find support by comparing



Norse practices to other honour cultures, where, following the death of a kinsman, women perform dirges for the dead and behave in ways that strikingly resemble the Norse tradition. These sagas and poems have reached us in their thirteenth-century form, but a reference to lament in an inscription in eddic metre, carved on a Viking Age runestone standing in Bällsta in Uppland, Sweden, bolsters this line of argument. It states that ‘Gyrid / loved her husband. / So in a grátr / she will have it mentioned’.14 The word grátr, from gráta (to weep, to mourn), also appears in eddic poems in which women lament their dead husbands, so the inscription can be interpreted as referring to a distinct, culturally recognized form of mourning that can be securely traced back to the Viking Age.15 Crucially, what’s at stake in these literary representations is the deceased’s, and – by extension – the family’s, name and public standing. Although vocalizing your feelings may have been understood as helping the grieving process along, that was not the main point of a formal lament. It was a speech act (words that have the force of an act), spoken by a person who has the authority to do so, and directed at a specific audience.16 Its main function was to demand restoration of the family’s honour, only achieved, according to the heroic ethos, by blood vengeance. As many sagas suggest, even if the men did their best to withstand attacks on their lives and property, a family’s status in the brutal, violent culture of Viking Age Scandinavia could be extremely precarious. Given women’s lack of feasible alternative options of ensuring their safety, such as prosecuting antagonists or fighting themselves, their common strategy to encourage or compel their male kin to be physically aggressive is understandable. Other analyses of goading scenes in sagas focus on the gender dynamics between the grieving woman and the men to whom she addresses the incitement speech. Some critics argue that goading was a way for women to participate in dealings that were usually exclusively within the realm of men, giving them some, however limited, role in blood feud.17 Scholars on the opposite end of the spectrum reject the idea that women had any control over men in real life, pointing out that the lament-goading ritual makes a scapegoat of the speaker and attributes the responsibility of perpetuating blood feud to women who goad, rather than the men who kill.18 They consider the literary motif an invention by misogynistic writers who seek unfairly to absolve



the male characters they so admire from the terrible violence they commit. This is correct up to a point, but according to this theory, medieval authors try to rationalize inexplicable decisions such as the one made by King Óláfr Tryggvason, who went to the battle of Svöldr with eleven ships against his enemies’ seventy, by blaming it exclusively on his wife Þyri’s egging. There is no reason to deny that saga authors probably had different perspectives on the senseless killings they wrote about, and some of them had perhaps observed women fan the flames of feud by insistent goading of their male relatives. It is worth asking, however, whether a saga audience would have accepted uncritically that men had no choice but to comply, whatever the situation. Did King Óláfr really have no alternative but to bring down his kingdom and walk into his death just because his wife taunted him about his manliness? Hardly. For this reason, although the motif of the goading woman may be used to rid the men of any blame, it is impossible to see the enactors of bloodshed as entirely faultless within the internal logic of the sagas. If we look at blood feud and war more broadly, many men manage to engage in these acts all by themselves without needing to be goaded, and some even seem eager for violence. Moreover, bloodshed and killing as a literary theme is much more complicated than following a direct cause-and-effect pattern from women goading to men killing. Importantly, many women try to prevent their husbands from taking up weapons (see, e.g., Jórunn in Chapter 3), and women are even credited with settling disputes between men, so the idea that women unquestioningly adopt the role of egging the men on to violence is unsupported in the corpus as a whole.19 It’s impossible to recover what exactly happened in the historical record, and the reality was probably complicated and varied. But we must also keep in mind that whether women’s lament and goading had a historical background or not, these women are, after all, fictional characters, the product of an active imagination. Women like Fóstbræðra saga’s Sigurfljóð (see later in this chapter), who goads two men unrelated to her to kill someone outside of a feud situation, show that aspects of the incitement scene – in this case, accusations of cowardice and lack of masculinity – can be appropriated by a clever author and incorporated into a different situation for their own narrative ends. A literary approach also highlights that in some ways, goading scenes transcend cultural



and historical context, exploring universally relevant issues. Medieval writers clearly found juxtaposing the two genders as the embodiments of violence and legal measures to be an effective way to talk about the psychological impulses that battle for dominance within all humans, what Freud called the id and the ego. Reading the sagas from this perspective, anger, revenge and destruction could be seen as being represented by the woman, while the man epitomizes the ‘civilized’ version of the self. This is an idealized image, one that doesn’t let our baser impulses gain control but pursues peaceful solutions to conflict instead.20 In other words, the background to women’s goading has many facets. There may be a historical reality behind the motif of incitement speeches, but once they have been worked into a literary text, they have the potential to tell us all kinds of things about Norse culture and the human psyche. Just as authors differ in how they realize this figure on the page, so too did people’s opinion probably vary as to the causes of violence, the ways of dealing with the slaying of a kinsman, the experience of loss and the relationship between widows and their male relatives.

Widows, remarriage and politics Apart from the debilitating grief and the need to restore honour that losing one’s spouse could trigger, becoming a widow was also a blow in practical terms. Losing a husband could leave the woman and household vulnerable to outside forces of many kinds. Many men died in the political campaigns that accompanied the larger structural changes in the Viking Age, when petty kingdoms were consolidated to fewer and larger centres of power, and many of these events are narrated in the kings’ sagas. The authors of these sagas generally had limited or no interest in what happened to the widows left behind after some important man or another dies, nor did they delve into the finer grains of inheritance issues – their focus was political. The sagas of Icelanders are richer in this regard and many of them lay bare the challenges of becoming a widow. In Egils saga, we meet a woman who is widowed twice in the space of a few years, and each time she loses a husband, she is hastily pressured into a new marriage. According to the saga, this woman, Sigríðr Sigurðardóttir, grew up



in the late ninth century in Sandnes on the island Alsta in Northern Norway, a breathtakingly beautiful place dominated by a dramatic mountain range. As with the runestone women, we don’t get to know much about her – what kind of person she was or what she looked like – except that she was the only child of Sigurðr, the wealthiest man in the region. Sigríðr was therefore a Viking Age heiress and stood to inherit a large estate. As usual with female characters in sagas, we first encounter Sigríðr when she has just been betrothed to a young man named Bárðr. The son of a magnate from around one hundred kilometres south of Alsta, this Bárðr is the best friend of Þórólfr Kveld-Úlfsson, the protagonist Egill Skallagrímsson’s paternal uncle, and the two friends become King Haraldr Fairhair’s retainers. Distinguishing themselves as capable warriors, the young men are soon brought into the king’s inner circle and they seem to have a bright future ahead of them, but within a couple of years of his marriage to Sigríðr, Bárðr is mortally wounded in a battle. In his dying moments, he tells King Haraldr that he wants his property, wife and son to be handed over to his friend Þórólfr, ‘for I trust him best of all men’, and the king agrees to the arrangement.21 Soon after, Þórólfr sails to Bárðr’s home to announce his friend’s dying request and we learn how his widow reacts: Sigríðr heard the news and took her husband’s death as a great loss, but since she was already well acquainted with Þórólfr and knew him to be a man of distinction and a good match for her, and since the king had ordered it, she and her friends decided that she should marry Þórólfr if her father did not oppose the idea. After that, Þórólfr took all the duties there, including the king’s tax-collecting.22 Although the narrator pays lip service to some brief sadness at losing a husband, Sigríðr’s decision to enter a marriage with Þórólfr is presented as based on an unsentimental, level-headed assessment of the situation. Since her husband died in warfare, not feud, there is no lost honour to restore, no one to goad into taking revenge. Whoever wrote Egils saga is generally not very interested in women’s perspectives, so it’s typical that a huge event in Sigríðr’s life – becoming a widow and remarrying – is dealt with briskly. It’s clearly not important to give an insight into the widow’s point of view: what she might have felt about her husband’s death, Þórólfr as an individual, her



own vulnerability and lack of alternative options or remarrying anyone at all so soon. Rather, the narrator is primarily concerned with explaining how her husband’s death pertains to the transfer of property and status from one man to another, and Sigríðr is treated like any other chattel. But power is fickle:  Þórólfr falls out of favour with the imperious King Haraldr, who arrives at his home one night with a retinue and kills his former friend, burning his estate to the ground. Sigríðr and other women are given safe passage and she returns to her patrimonial estate in Alsta, a second-time and even wealthier widow, now that her father is also dead. However, Sigríðr is not independent for long. Seeing an opportunity to seize her assets for his own use, King Haraldr announces to one of his retainers that in reward his loyal service, he will receive Þórólfr’s property and wife, and once again, the lucky groom hurries to Sigríðr’s home to announce the king’s decision. The narrator goes on to relate matter-of-factly that ‘Sigríðr felt she had no choice but to accept the king’s will’, and they marry.23 The couple are said to have two children but Sigríðr is now out of the saga. Both of Sigríðr’s remarriages are contracted under pressure from the king, but while her second marriage doesn’t seem to be an entirely terrible fate – Sigríðr at least knows Þórólfr to be a fine man – the third one is not entered into willingly. Even worse, the announcement is sprung on her after the traumatic experience of losing her husband and home in an ambush, and now that her father has died, Sigríðr had no other male relatives to protect her or arrange an alternative marriage. The account of Sigríðr’s remarriages suggests that even if she already had children, a widow of good social and economic standing was no has-been. She was a hugely attractive match for a single man, at least if she was still fertile, and, consequently, she could easily become the pawn of third parties. This pattern emerges in other texts, too, where the woman’s family often fulfilled the same role as King Haraldr in Egils saga. In the last chapter, we saw how Grímhildr bullies Guðrún into her second marriage with Atli, observing fresh opportunities in marrying off her widowed daughter to a desirable suitor, though more usually, brothers and fathers organized women’s remarriages. We can also recall Eyrbyggja saga’s Þuríðr, the sister of the power-hungry Snorri goði: he marries his sister to a rich but relatively low-born suitor keen on raising his social status (see Chapter 3), and this



is related with even less concern for the woman’s feelings than in Egils saga. Saga literature is littered with examples of young widows remarrying without giving consent and as with first-time betrothals, the woman’s perspective is often enough irrelevant. Although these particular characters are fictional, the manner in which their stories are related is often casual and offhand, and reflect the common attitude that a woman’s remarriage being decided by a third party, whether a family member or a ruler, was a fact of life. The recurring cultural constraints that the characters face in the sagas suggest that their fates are the expected result of the politics and social structures of the Viking Age. According to law codes, widows were technically supposed to be able to reject suitors, but as we have seen in the stories of women like Sigríðr and Þuríðr, this might not have been feasible in practice. In the harsh dynamics of Viking Age society, a woman’s property and person could be appropriated and redistributed by the winner for their own ends. In Sigríðr’s case, the marriage is politically expedient to the king – he can use her, or, more precisely, her vast property and social status, to reward an underling for his service and ensure his future loyalty, and she has no choice but to comply. It is unlikely that a male relative would have had the ability to stand up to the king, regardless of his feelings, and indeed, Sigríðr’s father is not mentioned as being involved in the episode relating her second marriage to Þórólfr. Thus, despite owning substantial property and belonging to the highest social rank, many widows were likely not free to determine their own lives in any real sense.

The realities of widowhood The external pressures widows experienced could be enormous, according to sagas, but widows often remarried of their own volition, too – more often than not for pragmatic reasons rather than romantic ones. Running a household was no picnic to begin with, but though a widow could hire male servants to supervise and carry out work, without a male head of household to take care of legal matters or defend the honour of the womenfolk, she could be at a serious disadvantage. This is apparent in many sagas, but Fóstbræðra saga (The Saga of



the Sworn Brothers) is notably preoccupied with the defencelessness of widows against male aggression of various kinds, and it features a succession of female characters whose problems stem from this issue. The widow Gríma has no man on her farm except a lowly slave, Kolbakr, and her teenaged daughter is easy prey for unscrupulous men (see also Chapter 2). The daughter, Þórdís, is visited regularly by the young poet Þormóðr, a well-known ladies’ man, and when the neighbours’ tongues begin to wag, Gríma firmly tells him to marry Þórdís or else stop coming. Although he presumably understands the danger posed by his visits for the daughter’s honour, Þormóðr – bored at home with no one to admire him – holds off for the briefest of pauses before resuming his visits. He’s too self-centred and entitled to be concerned about the welfare of others and Gríma is unable to stave Þormóðr off. The widow, now at her wits’ end, is forced to resort to magic to get rid of this menace: she enchants Kolbakr with her spells and sends him off, sword in hand, to ambush Þormóðr. Kolbakr succeeds in hurting him badly, a scar that takes months to heal, and since he is unable to avenge the wound, Þormóðr comes out of the affair with both a mangled arm and a diminished reputation. Before Þormóðr recovers, Gríma releases Kolbakr from bondage and secures him safe passage on a ship heading to Norway, bribing the captain to take the fugitive and using her magic to create favourable wind. We can’t but admire the resourceful Gríma for her victory over the scoundrel Þormóðr, but her use of magic highlights her lack of options. In a real-life situation, she would have been unable to do anything to protect the daughter, whose reputation would almost certainly have been lost. This saga puts across a proto-feminist message, encouraging its audience to sympathize with unprotected women who have no effective ways of dealing with predatory men.24 Magic is a powerful tool in the saga’s imagined setting, and the bribes suggest that having ready money is an important issue for women if they are to have agency in a world stacked against them. Another woman in this saga, Sigurfljóð, identifies one more option:  goading. She is introduced as a wise and well-liked woman who lives on her own in the unhospitable Jökulfirðir (Glacier Fjords), a subset of inlets in the northernmost part of the Icelandic West Fjords. Her neighbours, a father and son, are, to the contrary, the least popular people in the region, owing to their thuggish behaviour:  they go



around stealing food and property and beating up anyone who tries to stop them. The province’s chieftain, Vermundr, is supposed to maintain law and order, but he allows the two to run rampant and accepts their bribes in return for looking the other way, thus failing the common people who put their trust in him. Sigurfljóð is among those who suffer the most as a result of the pair’s thuggery but when the saga’s protagonists, Þormóðr and his mate Þorgeirr, get caught in snow storm and ask the widow for shelter, she spots a golden opportunity to solve her problems. First, she tries asking the two friends nicely to go and rough up the bullies, but they shirk from the request. Next, Sigurfljóð taunts the young men by suggesting that they are afraid: ‘You think yourselves great fighting men while you are bullying crofters, but you grow fearful when a real test of manhood is before you.’25 With this speech, she pushes all the right buttons. As the narrator relates at the beginning of the saga, the sworn brothers emulate themselves on the brave Viking heroes of yore, so when aspersions are cast on their courage, it’s bound to yield a reaction. For the community depicted in the saga, the sworn brothers’ aggressive model of masculinity, with its hypersensitivity to insults to one’s manliness, clearly belongs to a very different context. These people in the saga are simple farmers trying to eke out a living in the harsh conditions of subarctic Iceland and they have no room for boys who fancy themselves members of a Viking retinue instead of acknowledging who they really are: country boys. However, while more sensible men might resist letting themselves be manipulated, Sigurfljóð is able to use the sworn brothers’ misplaced identity to her advantage. Her taunts have the desired effect: the two of them immediately leap up, fetch their weapons, lumber over to the neighbours’ house and before long, they have killed the troublemakers. Sigurfljóð is free of her oppressors. Although her troubles have been solved, Sigurfljóð has not said her last word against the patriarchy. She travels to Vermundr’s estate across the fjord and announces that his cronies have been slain by the sworn brothers. The chieftain reacts angrily but she slaps him down immediately, delivering a searing rebuke in which she addresses his failure to protect the community and the greater good:



Some would say that they [the sworn brothers] have not killed your men but done this slaying for you. Who else should punish crimes such as plundering and robbery, if you, as chieftain of this district, choose not to? It seems to me that Þorgeirr and Þórmóðr have carried out a task that you should either have carried out yourself or employed someone to do, and you would understand what I mean if you weren’t blind.26 In this monologue, Sigurfljóð voices severe criticism of Vermundr’s corruption to his face. It’s an astonishingly critical speech and you’d think would land her in trouble, but, ever the strategist, before he can say a word in response, Sigurfljóð pours three hundred pieces of silver into Vermundr’s lap. Proving himself, once again, a corrupt and immoral leader, the chieftain accepts the bribe, they part on good terms and the saga’s action moves back to the sworn brothers’ antics elsewhere. Sigurfljóð is out of the story but her character makes a strong impression as a shrewd woman who finds clever ways within the limited scope available to change her situation for the better. In a way, her victory is pure proto-feminist wish fulfilment, and it expresses the fear, frustration and anger that we can imagine many would have felt in a social order stacked against the weak. Sigurfljóð and Gríma come across as two of the most sympathetic characters in the saga, and their methods of solving problems are vindicated, since neither of them suffers negative consequences. Fóstbræðra saga is a radical text which voices strident criticism of gender and class oppression, especially a legal system that fails women. While the saga was written in the thirteenth century and no doubt responds to issues that were of concern to its contemporary audience, the chieftain system, the machismo and the violence that are pierced through in the saga were institutions that reached far back in Scandinavian history. The disenfranchised status of the widows and other independent women depicted in this saga can thus probably be regarded as in some way representative of women’s experiences earlier in time. In the Norse literary corpus as a whole, speech, especially goading and taunting, frequently proves to be women’s only way to achieve any kind of agency, but no other text uses the motif as pointedly to expose the injustice of women’s powerlessness.



Successful widows This chapter has, so far, outlined the decline in fortune that could have resulted from losing a husband, but was widowhood all doom and gloom? Contrary to these examples, it seems that in some circumstances, widows were no worse off or even thrived after the death of their husbands. Another woman from the circle of formidable runestone-raising matrons in Uppland, the twicewidowed Estrid of Täby made a strong impact on her family and community. Her life clearly had its ups and downs, and she raised several runestones in memory of her first husband Östen, her three sons and her second husband, Ingvar, with whom she lived on the farm Hargs bro (Harg Bridge). After Ingvar’s death, Estrid moved back to Täby, where she had been Östen’s young wife and raised a family, and where her descendants from her first marriage lived. Despite her advancing years, Estrid kept busy. One of her projects was to improve the neighbourhood’s infrastructure: her achievements as a bridgeand road-builder were celebrated on yet more runestones commissioned by her grandson, the magnate Jarlabanki.27 Estrid died at a grand old age – probably over 60 – and she was buried next to the two runestones commemorating the first husband, Östein, and their son Gag. The weights in her grave indicate that she was an active businesswoman in the province’s bustling trade sector (which would have been boosted by the improved transport system), and a key and trinket chest indicate ownership of expensive items worth locking up.28 Judging from her grave goods, the runestones she raised and the inscriptions about her, it appears that Estrid had both the authority and material resources needed to get things done. Social status also helped: Estrid may have been the goddaughter of Estrid, queen of Sweden (the stepmother of the bold Ástríðr who becomes queen of Norway), which, if correct, means that her family moved in royal circles. We do not know into which religion Estrid was born – Christianity was still new in the mid-eleventh century, when she was young. But the large crosses on the stones she commissioned, framed by bands with runic inscriptions, proudly declare her Christian faith as an adult.29 In the very first decades after the conversion, it was not uncommon for wealthy widows to make their mark by funding new bridges over brooks, rivers and marshes. This is especially



true for the Uppland and Södermanland regions of Sweden, where women are mentioned far more often on runestones than in other Swedish provinces.30 Their sponsorship is usually declared on an inscription carved on a stone near the bridge, along with a dedication to the relative in whose memory the bridge was built. However, not a woman to worry about modesty, a certain Ingerun, daughter of Hord, had no scruples about dedicating her bridge to herself.31 Runic inscriptions commissioned by women in the eleventh century typically also featured a prayer for the soul of their relatives, and such prayers could be iterated even more powerfully through visual art. Images on the magnificent Ramsund carving, chiselled onto a flat rock near Eskilstuna in the Södermanland province, have been interpreted as salvational: the carving features scenes from the Norse legend about Sigurðr the dragon-slayer, encircled by a large band of runes. At first glance, though, its prosaic text seems to have little to do with the heroic imagery. The text declares that ‘Sigríðr, the mother of Alríkr, daughter of Ormr, sponsored this bridge in memory of Hólmgeirr, the father of her husband Sigröðr’.32 But the art, featuring snapshots from Sigurðr’s youth, gives the inscription added meaning. Eddic poetry and sagas tell us about Sigurðr’s entire life, from his birth, childhood and education, to slaying the dragon, and especially the misfortune that the creature’s gold brings. The stone’s images, however, only depict the moments when Sigurðr learns the language of birds and his epic feat of piercing the dragon through with his sword. On the surface, this heroic narrative hardly seems appropriate material to illustrate a stone whose inscription places it within a firmly Christian memorial context, and it is perhaps also difficult to see how a story revelling in a male hero’s exploits would have appealed to a woman. However, the exclusive depiction of Sigurðr’s youth and dragon-slaying suggests that the artist casts the hero as a Norse St Michael, who, in Christian iconography, is often depicted as a warrior slaying a dragon that represents the Devil. The images on the stone commissioned by Sigríðr serve as visual prompts to complement the text, affirming the inscription’s theme of salvation, which seems to have been an important motivation factor for her.33 Sponsoring decorated and inscribed stones, roads and bridges cemented a widow’s status in this world, and the inscription kept their name and that of their relatives alive for eternity, but as the Ramsund stone reaffirms, there was also a spiritual dimension



to this act. By inscribing a faith-based inscription and imagery, these women were constructing a metaphorical bridge to Heaven for themselves and their loved ones to secure their soul’s salvation, in addition to the physical bridges they had built in their neighbourhood. The practice of integrating beliefs with bridge-building had its roots in heathen times, when people used to throw swords and other weapons into the water next to bridges and piers as sacrifices to the gods, but the ancient custom of bridge-building was adapted to a new belief system by these (seemingly) pious widows.34 These women clearly had enough disposable income to fund their projects, but the mobility that many people seem to have achieved in the Viking Age would have brought women independence in other ways, too. If she left her home region behind for a new life, chances were that fewer people could try to push a woman into marrying again. One such lady was Frideburg, a welloff tradeswoman who lived in Birka in the mid-ninth century, around two hundred years before Estrid was active in Uppland, further east on the lake. Ansgar, a Christian missionary from Germany, undertook a missionary trip to Sweden accompanied by his disciple Rimbert, who wrote an account of the journey. Swedes did not generally convert to Christianity for another 150 years or so but there were a few inhabitants who were already Christian. The treatise praises a certain Frideburg as most devout, but what’s more interesting – from the perspective of women’s history – is her apparent independence and affluent lifestyle.35 Frideburg, to whom the account refers as a matrona (wife of a free man), is clearly widowed at the point they meet as no husband is ever mentioned, but she has an adult daughter named Catla, a name that also appears in the sagas.36 The text does not divulge much information about Frideburg’s secular life, such as her origin or trade, but we learn about the gifts she donated to churches in Dorestad, a Frisian town that was an important node in the Northern-European network of emporia in the Viking Age. Because of her generous donations, this widow had some kind of connection to Dorestad, but it is unclear how. We don’t know whether Frideburg or her husband (or both) were native Scandinavians, though their daughter’s name appears elsewhere in Norse sources, and we are left with the knowledge that the widow was rich enough that her donations to churches overseas were worth mentioning. We can also surmise that Frideburg stayed single after becoming a widow. Perhaps



living in a trade town gave her relative anonymity and distance from interfering relatives or other busybodies, or perhaps no eligible suitor presented himself. Although Frideburg may have been involuntarily single, her detailed directions about what to do with her assets suggest a forceful personality; it is equally likely that Frideburg was able to live her life exactly the way she wanted. Steely determination is certainly an important factor for success elsewhere in the sources: women seem to have managed all sorts of achievements through sheer tenacity despite practical and social obstacles. According to one saga author, among the most impressive feats achieved by any Viking woman was Unnr the Deep-minded’s escape from her home in Scotland, followed by land-taking in West Iceland. Unnr’s family had come to the British Isles from Norway, and Unnr married the Viking war-king Óláfr hvíti (the white), who was a king in Dublin before he was killed in one of the never-ending wars of the period.37 When Unnr – referred to as Auðr in some sources – is introduced in Laxdæla saga, she has already lost her husband to war and violence has broken out anew, this time between the Norse and the Scots. Her son Þorsteinn dies in this upheaval, and it seems likely that Unnr and her family will be captured by the enemy. But Unnr is resourceful and she manages to get a ship built – and presumably a sail woven or purchased – in secret, and sails off to Iceland with a large following and whatever movable property they could muster. The narrator assures us that ‘people say it is hard to find another example of a woman managing to escape from such a hostile situation with as much wealth and so many followers. It shows what an exceptional woman Unnr was’, and Unnr’s character as a brave and determined woman is consistent throughout the many written sources that mention her.38 As mentioned in Chapter  2, Unnr married off two of her granddaughters to magnates in Orkney and the Faroe Islands on her journey, and soon after arrival in Iceland, she settled in the Dalir district in the West, building a farmstead at Hvammr, which remained a seat of power into the high middle ages. We don’t know how long she lived after settling, but she is the undisputed leader and sources depict her as reigning supreme in the Dalir. She doles out smaller tracts to her male followers, some of whom she also releases from enslavement, and continues to arrange the marriages of her descendants (see also Chapter 6). Although



her land-taking is narrated in a somewhat different way from many of the prominent male settlers, Unnr’s character suggests that women were seen as capable of leadership, especially if and when circumstances demanded.39 Although we have by far the most detailed narratives about Unnr out of all settler women, she was not unique. Evidence from place names suggests that some of the settlers who came over to England from Scandinavia during King Cnut’s reign in the tenth century were independent women, and Landnámabók mentions thirteen women without husbands taking land or receiving a subsidiary tract from a male colonizer in Iceland.40 Some of them do not set off as single: a certain Þorgerðr loses her husband on the journey to Iceland from unspecified causes and another man is allegedly killed by King Haraldr’s representatives right before his family set sail to settle in Iceland, leaving his wife Ásgerðr Asksdóttir and their children to fend for themselves.41 The absence of a consistent pattern in the representation of independent settler women is itself intriguing, and it suggests that to the twelfth- and thirteenth-century compilers and redactors of Landnámabók, these were no folkloric figures but historical people about whom they tried to preserve as much information as they could gather from local memory. Although independent women settlers were few, the sources suggest that becoming one was usually the result of personal circumstances rather than a subversive nature. The idea of the successful woman farmer even spills into the mythology: on his travels in Jötunheimar (Jötnar-land), Thor stays with the jötunn-woman Gríðr, who graciously gives him hospitality, helpful advice and three excellent objects that compensate for the magic hammer, girdle and gloves that have been stolen from him.42 However, a handful of the thirteen women stand out from the rest of the group for their associations with the supernatural. One of them, Þuríðr spákona (seeress), is mentioned in Landnámabók only to say where she lived, but her nickname suggests that she was able to prophesy; in Vatnsdæla saga (The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal), she performs magic.43 Another two women are given fuller descriptions, and both have a mysterious talent always to provide plenty of food, which must have been considered very impressive given how difficult it was for most people to get adequate nourishment. Þuríðr sundafyllir (Fjord-Filler) from Hálogaland in Northern Norway  – a place commonly associated with legendary giants, the Sámi and magic – is magically able to fill



the sea with fish, and after she moves to Bolungarvík in the West Fjords, she takes payment in sheep from local farmers for making the same thing happen there.44 The other is Geirríðr, also from Hálogaland, who settles on a farm in the densely populated Álftafjörður on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. She builds her farmstead on the well-travelled coastal route which lies between the sea and the mountain, and builds a reputation as a generous hostess whose table is always heaving with things to eat.45 Geirríðr habitually sits on a stool outside her house, inviting whoever passes by to come in and have a meal. Although we are not explicitly told that she uses supernatural powers to come by her bountiful supplies of food or lure people into her home, she has a magic-wielding granddaughter of the same name in Eyrbyggja saga who must have learned her tricks from her grandmother (see Chapter 6).46 Elsewhere in Landnámabók, an identical description is attributed to a woman named Þóra, whose husband left her because of all the guests and went to live on a farm on the southern side of the peninsula.47 The common wording as well as Þóra’s independent living situation suggests that in contrast to the settler women mentioned previously, these women’s representation is based on a common literary convention. As Geirríðr and her sisters understand, food is the essence of life and it is, incidentally, also one of the few currencies at their disposal. Like the widows in Fóstbræðra saga, both women find some way to subvert their marginal position and get access to news and people, circumventing the usual channels such as local assemblies and prestigious social gatherings. They conspicuously display their resources outside of normal feasting situations and attract travellers into their house instead of issuing invitations in advance with the support of male relatives. These actions suggest that these women have identified a covert way to gain influence and status in a society that normally excludes them from power. Þuríðr the Fjord-Filler, too, recognizes that controlling an important source of food – or at least giving such an impression – gains her status, and she uses the mystique surrounding her origins, and what may be understood as a Sámi ethnicity, to her advantage. In the context of food and hosting, it is notable that many literary texts show men being tricked into drinking poisoned mead, eating stolen cheese or, more abjectly, committing acts of cannibalism (as in Chapter 1), suggesting pervasive cultural anxieties surrounding the woman’s domain, where men seem to experience themselves as on the



back foot. The pithy references to woman settlers in Landnámabók only give us a small window into what seems to have been a multi-ethnic and dynamic settler community where marginalized women nevertheless tried to participate in society. Though the information about them is scant, even the briefest of descriptions can be unpacked to reveal a little more of what the lives of Norse widows in those first few decades of Iceland’s settlement might have been like, although filtered through centuries of oral tradition as well as the perspectives of Christian scribes. The Norse cultural memory had space and esteem for a woman’s enterprising spirit. Although they provide less scope for individual expression, runestones sponsored by women, and/or commemorating them, suggest the same. Some widows experienced anger, sadness and loneliness, and they were undoubtedly forced to accept reduced circumstances  – materially, legally, politically – when their husbands died. They were fiercely invested in seeing some kind of public validation of their family’s status, whether by insisting on vengeance or erecting public memorials. But the sources indicate that the death of a husband was not the be-all and end-all of life. As a widow, you could certainly still make your mark on the world and achieve smaller or greater victories, for yourself and on the behalf of those who put their well-being in your hands. In the next and final chapter, we will look at how women fare in the last phase of their lives, and how they depart into the next world.

6 Old age and death

Then spoke Thor: ‘Small as you say I am, just let someone come out and fight me! Now I am angry!’ … Next there came into the hall an old crone. Then Utgarda-Loki said that she was to have a wrestling match with Thor of the Æsir. There is not a great deal to be told about it. What happened in this match was that the harder Thor strained in the wrestling, the firmer she stood. Then the old woman started to try tricks, and then Thor began to lose his footing, and there was some very hard pulling, and it was not long before Thor fell on to the knee of one leg. Then Utgarda-Loki went up, told them to stop the wrestling, and said this, that there was no point in Thor challenging any more people in his hall to a fight.1 The extraordinary wrestling match between Thor, the mighty god of thunder, and Elli, his host’s old nanny, appears in the myth about Thor’s visit to the jötunn Utgarda-Loki, told in depth in Snorri’s Edda. In Utgarda-Loki’s hall, Thor and his companions grapple with several challenges  – lifting a cat, running a race and eating and drinking contests. These tasks should be easy but, much to Thor’s surprise and frustration, they lose all of them. It later turns out that Utgarda-Loki didn’t play fair:  before the visitors depart, he admits to trickery. The opponents in the running and eating challenges were personifications of thought, which moves quicker than the body, and fire, which will ravage anything in the blink of an eye. The drinking horn went all the way to the sea and could thus not be emptied, while the jötunn’s optical illusions made the Midgard-Serpent (Jörmungandr), which encircles the mythical universe, look like a cat. When Thor tried to pick up the creature, he was unwittingly trying to undo the snake’s grip on the entire world, and



it’s no wonder that Utgarda-Loki became anxious when Thor managed to lift one paw off the floor. But the most difficult of the opponents was Elli – whose name means Old Age – a figure that no one can beat in the end. Thor’s losing the wrestling match conveys the undeniable truth that ageing and death is a natural part of life. It is an immutable fact of nature, in the same way that fire will burn everything in its path and the sea will never dry up. Although no one wants to become old and lose their looks and faculties, the myth tells us that we must accept our mortality. Both the Edda and an older Norse poem entitled Haustlöng (Autumnlong) preserve another myth about ageing, the story about the goddess Iðunn’s abduction. Iðunn – whose name means ‘ever young’ (or something similar) – is not a prominent figure in Norse mythology, but she has the important job of keeping the gods young and sprightly by giving them magic apples from her casket. The main myth in which she appears is precipitated, like many others, by Loki getting himself into trouble with a jötunn, the powerful Þjazi, who threatens to kill him. In exchange for his life, Loki must lure Iðunn out of Asgard and into the Þjazi’s custody. When Þjazi has taken the goddess as his hostage, the gods soon begin to turn old and grey.2 They must recover Iðunn and her apples urgently or – one presumes – they will die. Given that the gods are constantly killing jötnar, Þjazi’s strategic goal is surely to cause the gods’ demise:  by stealing their source of youth and reproduction, they won’t last for long. The terrified gods pressure Loki into rescuing Iðunn, and Þjazi, who furiously follows them to Asgard, ends up being brutally killed. From the gods’ point of view, order is restored: they get their youth back and Þjazi’s designs on Iðunn, and thus their entire existence, is thwarted. In this myth, the gods’ ageing can be read as a metaphor for the inability to regenerate and reproduce, and Iðunn appears more as a concept  – the personification of the life force and rejuvenation  – than a figure with distinctive character attributes. Understandably, the effects of her absence are devastating. Human society needs women’s reproductive powers to replace itself, and when that is strategically taken away by an enemy, the effects are immediate and devastating. Judging from these two myths, old age – the state of diminishing life and the inability to further one’s line – was truly one of the biggest fears in Norse culture.

Old Age and Death


That the Norse figured both the end and the giver of life as women – one old and frail but unexpectedly strong, the other fertile but vulnerable – is also consistent with their belief in an all-feminine authority over these spheres (see Introduction). The old crone’s victory over the god of thunder is representative of a wider strain in Norse sources that presents older women as having a commanding presence, sometimes manifested through an aggressive sexuality. Women were concerned with maintaining physical ability even though wrestling matches are usually not the way in which this is represented – a weak body prompts a weakened social position. Women’s consistent characterization as intelligent and wise takes on a new dimension when they are old – their lifetime of experience bestows respect, but their memory of things in the distant past and knowledge of the future often appears uncanny or sinister. They are also able to control things beyond the human realm, whether to protect or harm, and even in death, their presence is felt in strange interactions that trigger fear in people.

Life in old age Women and men were equally likely to reach old age in the Viking Age if they lived similar lives.3 But how old is old? This life stage is a complex, socially constructed phase that varies from culture to culture, and it can be defined by several factors: the person’s chronological age in years; social age, that is, how old or young the person is perceived and might feel themselves; and a person’s actual physical and mental condition, that is, their ability to function, especially to work.4 These criteria may not always overlap perfectly but since women married and had children much younger than today, and their lifestyle was more stressful for their bodies than now, anything over the mid-forties was probably considered ripe old age. Some people reached even greater years. Grágás has a provision for that, stipulating that once a person has reached 80, they are not allowed to get married or dispose of their assets without the consent of their heirs.5 Eighty is clearly the point of extreme old age and the law seems to be concerned about protecting the interests of the person’s heirs. This is particularly crucial with



regards to men, who are, in theory, still able to reproduce at that point. The law removes an old person’s autonomy, barring them from doing what they wish with their property, and this effectively puts them back into a similar legal position as a minor below the age of 16, except that they have no prospect of their status changing. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in law, other motivations behind such drastic measures could be dementia or the bitterness, anger and depression that sagas suggest old people often develop.6 There are few examples of women doing anything dramatic with their property before death, but legend has it that in his last years, the Viking Egill Skallagrímsson buried his chests of silver somewhere in the vicinity of Mosfell farm near Reykjavík, taking the secret of the location of the silver to his grave.7 Egill’s selfishness suggests that the laws were intended to prevent people from making irreversible decisions such as disposing of their money or disinheriting their children in a diminished state of mind. Vis-à-vis the law, chronological age matters more than the individual’s actual condition, which can obviously vary hugely between individuals. Whatever the law, though, sagas indicate that old age did not automatically make people lose their authority and dignity. The respect with which high-ranking old women were often regarded resonates strongly through the Icelandic narrative corpus, most memorably in Laxdæla saga’s account of the last days in the life of Unnr the Deep-Minded. We recall from Chapter 5 that she behaved like a monarch in her small kingdom after she settled in Iceland, handing over land and arranging marriages. When her years advance, she fights to keep her dignity until the last: Old age was tightening its grips on Unnr. She was not up and about until noon and retired to bed early in the evening. No one was allowed to consult her from the time she went to bed in the evening until she was dressed the next day. She replied angrily if anyone asked after her health.8 Unnr keeps a tight control of her image, making sure that no one sees her in a less-than-perfect state and refusing to lend credibility to murmurs about her failing health. Knowing that she is not getting any younger, Unnr decides to leave her estate in good hands, announcing to her grandson Ólafr that it is

Old Age and Death


time to marry. He acquiesces immediately, telling her that ‘the only wife I take will be one who will rob you of neither your property nor your authority’, a statement that amounts to a declaration of deference to Unnr on behalf of his as-yet non-existent wife. Women like Unnr may be the models for Game of Throne’s matriarch Olenna Tyrell, who ruthlessly orchestrates her family’s dealings with other prominent rulers and negotiates the marriage of her granddaughter Margaery.9 Both Unnr’s and Olenna’s authority to do so is accepted on the strength of their perceived intelligence, ancestry and social standing, but no less importantly, as the oldest member of the family. The following autumn, Unnr holds a splendid feast, inviting a large number of friends from near and far. Again, she behaves like an undisputed leader: at the party, she announces that she bequeaths her property to her grandson, a speech which also transfers her position of authority to Ólafr. After her announcement, Unnr withdraws to her chamber, and the groom later finds his grandmother dead, sitting upright in her bed, presumably satisfied that she has left her affairs in good order. The narrator approvingly evaluates her sitting position as a mark of ‘how well Unnr had kept her dignity to her dying day’, and she is given a stately ship burial. The intersection of age, gender and class in Unnr’s portrait is intriguing: the saga author clearly understands that status is not only achieved by doing things like taking land and holding feasts, but that the aura of power needs to be embodied at all times. In a culture that prizes youth and fears old women like the mythical Elli, there is no scope for even a hint of the mental or physical frailty that might come with age. Even in death, Unnr casts herself as a ruler, and that is how the saga author wanted her to be remembered.10 The dignified position of old women is further illustrated by Viking burials. On the sandy shores of Sandey in Orkney, a small, low-lying island with expansive views of the sea and sky, a woman in her seventies, along with a tall man in his thirties and a 10-year-old child, lay buried in a boat. The old lady was interred along with a few treasures: an old, gilded brooch – perhaps a family heirloom  – an exquisitely carved whalebone plaque for smoothing fine garments (Figure 14), a comb, a sickle, a weaving sword, shears and two spindle whorls. Even though these people were relatively well off, the woman’s skeleton shows a lifetime of textile work: marks on her pelvis indicate that she



sat long hours with her legs crossed, probably spinning, which was why her fingers eventually became arthritic.11 Perhaps she used the plaque to smooth some of the garments she made, and she might have been in the habit of humming a tune or telling her children and grandchildren stories from Norse mythology, such as the one about Thor’s struggle with Elli. The care with which her relatives laid her and the other two people to rest suggests how much her family and neighbours esteemed and respected the old woman. The motif of the grand old lady is contingent on her high social class, however, and women further down the social ladder often appear in the sagas’ background, trotted out only to fulfil a plot function. The discomfort triggered by older women moving out of their narrow role is most clearly articulated through their sexual desire for younger men, often much younger than they are. For some reason, Eyrbyggja saga is particularly preoccupied with this theme, featuring at least two older women who have designs on young men. In one case, the episode begins when Þórgunna, an immigrant from the Hebrides, gets work at Fróðá, the farm of Þuríðr and Þóroddr (who are discussed in Chapter  3). Despite her advancing years, she proves to be surprisingly tough and hard-working, and she is given an extensive description as a well-built woman, both big and tall and very stout, with dark eyebrows and narrow eyes, and a full head of chestnut hair. She was generally wellmannered and she went to church every day before starting work, but she was neither cheerful nor normally very talkative. It was general opinion that Þórgunna must have reached her sixth decade, but she was still a very vigorous woman.12 Þuríðr has a son, Kjartan, who is around 13 or 14, and Þórgunna soon takes to the boy, but when her interest is not reciprocated, it is said to bother her. The saga next relates a strange episode referred to as the ‘Wonders of Fróðá’, a series of spooky events beginning with a rainshower of blood that falls when Þórgunna is haying, followed by her death from an unknown illness. In the subsequent months, more strange supernatural visions appear to the farm’s inhabitants, including a moon on the wall of the living room and a seal’s head popping up in the fireplace. What’s worse, Þuríðr’s husband Þóroddr drowns

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in the nearby fjord along with a crew of five, and his ghost is seen outside the house before anyone knows he is dead. After enlisting the help of his uncle, Snorri goði, as well as the powers of the church, Kjartan is able to end the hauntings, and he grows up to become the successful master of the farm with Snorri’s support. The episode seems to be partly about Kjartan’s transition from adolescence to adulthood, and this change is in direct opposition to Þórgunna’s presumably postmenopausal age. The hauntings, which stem from her disruptive persona, function as his chance to prove his worth and secure the approval of his uncle, who disapproved of his sister Þuríðr’s adulterous relationship with Björn, Kjartan’s likely father.13 However, the saga author could probably have achieved this without the inclusion of Þórgunna’s character, and the preoccupation with her (alleged) old age, which is at odds with her physical ability to work, her beautiful hair and general vigour, is intriguing. It is not clear whether she is sexually attracted to Kjartan or if she is meant to be drawn to him for some other reason, but while Njáls saga normalizes Þráinn’s lechery towards a 14-year-old girl (see Chapter  2), Þórgunna’s interest in him is clearly a contentious issue. Today, both girls and boys of that age are considered children, and from that point of view, we can sympathize with the discomfort regarding Þórgunna’s attraction. But within the internal logic of the sagas, it reveals a gendered double standard for the way that the sexuality of older people is treated. Not all older women are stigmatized for their sexuality: as an ageing but still attractive widow, the queen mother Gunnhildr has several affairs with strapping young men half her age. Medieval authors depict this aspect of Gunnhildr’s personality both positively and negatively. In Njáls saga, the gregarious queen is intimate with Hrútr, but when he lies to her about having a fiancée in Iceland, she becomes jealous and puts a vindictive curse on him which ends up ruining his marriage (see also Chapter 1).14 The same relationship occurs in Laxdæla saga, but there, she simply fusses over her lover while he remains at court. When Hrútr sails for Iceland, she gives him a gold ring, storming off from the pier to hide her regret at his departure, but otherwise they part on good terms.15 However, the hostility towards older women’s sexuality is overt in Eyrbyggja saga’s depiction of the witch Katla, a widow who lives with her adult son at Holt, a small farm a few kilometres east of Fróðá,



and across the river from a third farm, Mávahlíð. Katla is attractive but not well-liked, and her son is a scoundrel. Their neighbour, the widow Geirríðr of Mávahlíð, is knowledgeable in magic but not otherwise described. Katla seems to loathe Geirríðr, and when a young man called Gunnlaugr begins to visit the latter to receive lessons in magic, she makes a jibe to him as he passes by her farm that he must be going there to ‘stroke the old woman’s groin’, a euphemism for having sex.16 He denies the accusation and points out that she can hardly accuse Geirríðr of ageing, old as she is herself, a retort that provokes Katla no end, since the subtext is Gunnlaugr’s rejection of her own sexual interest. Gunnlaugr continues his visits to Geirríðr but one night, she asks him to stay until the next day, ‘because it’s a night of much spirit-movement and many a witch wears a fair face. You don’t strike me as lucky-looking now’. Gunnlaugr naturally insists on going home, and later, he is found lying unconscious outside his house, his shoulders scratched to the bone and bleeding. Initially, Geirríðr is blamed for the injuries, accused of having ‘ridden’ him, presumably in the shape of some other creature, and Gunnlaugr’s family sues her for damages. The case evolves into a large-scale feud between neighbours, in whose course several people die or are grievously injured, including Geirríðr’s daughter-in-law Auðr, who loses her hand (see Chapter 3), and Geirríðr’s son Þórarinn has to leave Iceland for the rest of his life. After these violent events, Oddr, who carries much of the blame for the ignominious treatment of Auðr, is apprehended, and Katla confesses to the crime of ‘riding’ Gunnlaugr, that is, putting harmful spirits onto him, as well as hiding her son. She is stoned to death along with Oddr, cursing all and sundry before she dies, and Katla exits the saga as a cartoon villain. After Geirríðr was sued, the feud escalated very quickly through no effort on Katla’s behalf, but Gunnlaugr’s humiliation of her is arguably the spark that started it. Queen Gunnhildr gets away with her affairs because of her social status, but a lower-class woman wanting to express or enjoy her sexuality seems to have made people feel uncomfortable, at least by the time the sagas were written. Once age really begins to take hold, old crones become completely asexual, and their roles are more limited. Many characters in the sagas care for their lower-class foster-mothers, and, in a time long before nursing homes and the

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social safety net, this suggests that the Norse took seriously their duty to provide the elderly with a home. But these women have an ambiguous status, often functioning as Cassandras whose prophecies and warnings are dismissed as nonsense. In Njáls saga, a sequence of bad omens appears just before the great burning of Bergþórshvol, Njáll and Bergþóra’s farm, which builds up the foreboding feeling that a terrible tragedy is about to occur. Several people have disturbing visions of the environment shaking, a malevolent male supernatural creature is heard uttering a prophetic verse, and Sæunn, an old woman who lives at Bergþórshvol, makes a prophecy of doom.17 Sæunn is the fostermother of Bergþóra, and the summer before the burning, she frequently nags the sons of Njáll about a pile of weeds that lies by the farm building. She predicts that the weeds will be set fire to and cause the death of Njáll and Bergþóra, and begs Njáll’s sons to remove it, but they laugh her off and dismiss her as senile. As the narrator notes, however, many of Sæunn’s predictions came true, and indeed, at the end of the summer, a large force of men led by Flosi – spurned on by Hildigunnr’s incitement speech (see Chapter 5) – attack the farm and burn it, killing many of its inhabitants. The episode tells us little about Sæunn as a character, though her presence communicates that Bergþóra takes care of her old nanny. The prophecy’s main function in the saga is to contribute to an escalating sense of dread in the lead-up to the burning, and to illuminate the characters of Njáll’s sons, at least Skarphéðinn, who is notoriously macho. He was never likely to pay heed to an old servant woman, and he dismisses Sæunn’s pleas to remove the weed pile, drily answering that if this event is fated to happen, there is no point in doing anything to prevent it. Skarphéðinn is cast in the stereotypical mould of heroes from sagas and legends, men who walk into their death rather than show signs of weakness by heeding warnings. The Sæunn episode thus uses the old woman as a foil to give us an insight into the thought process of a man who buys into a version of the stark Viking mindset, privileging honour over life. The harrowing burning of Bergþórshvol, which kills around a dozen people, is told in excruciating, nauseating detail. The saga author is brilliant at creating a sense of inevitable doom, but the episode also leaves us with the impression that the wisdom of old women is nothing to be scoffed at. This belief is underscored in Eyrbyggja saga’s portrayal of Þóroddr, a well-off farmer and



staunch supporter of Snorri goði, and his old foster-mother. She was known for her foresight when she was younger, though, as usual, her projections are rejected as foolish ramblings when she grows old. Þóroddr gets a prized calf, Glæsir, born of a cow that had grazed in a pasture where the ashes of the vengeful ghost of Þórólfr ‘Lame-Foot’ (bægifótr), one of the settlers in this area, had blown. This Þórólfr, who died as a cranky old man, had fiercely haunted his descendants and neighbours until they took his unrotted body from its grave and burned it. Some of Þórólfr’s evil spirit is in the calf now, and when the foster-mother hears the animal’s lowing, she recognizes that it is possessed. She makes several unsuccessful attempts to warn her foster-son, who first downplays her warnings and then pretends to have slaughtered the calf, but, hearing the awful bellows of the animal as it grows older and stronger, she continues to warn of what will come. Finally, Þóroddr promises to kill it, but not until the autumn, when it has been fattened up in summer pasture. The foster-mother protests, but to no avail, and upon hearing Glæsir’s eerie sounds yet again, she utters a verse stating that the bull will show Þóroddr his grave. But her foster-son doesn’t budge. Her next verse is even more ominous: Often you treat her as mad when the treasure-seat stirs her tongue,

treasure-seat: woman

but I see wound-tears

wound-tears: blood

on your bloodied trunk. This bull will be your killer because it has begun to turn in fury against men. Gerd of the ringing gold sees that.18       Gerd (goddess) of the  ringing gold: woman In the persona of the old foster-mother, the poet emphasizes the importance of the ‘stirring of her tongue’, that is, her words, despite Þóroddr’s dismissal of her, and thus the old woman refutes the gaslighting to which she is subjected by him. Conversely, she emphasizes her knowledge of the future and Þóroddr’s death, twice describing this knowledge as ‘seeing’ what will come. The nameless foster-mother’s poem presents Þóroddr with a disturbing vision of himself,

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covered in blood, not unlike the valkyries’ chants in Darraðarljóð, though she’s less gleeful than anxious. The poet’s choice of the word for blood in this vision, bengrátr – wound-weeping – is revealing. As discussed in Chapter 5, the word grátr often refers to a specific poetic genre for women’s grief and lament, but in this image, it evokes the purpose and performance of this poetic form: as a woman cries tears when expressing her grief, his body seeps out its life force, weeping red tears of blood. As is only to be expected, Þóroddr dies soon after, gored to death by the bull. The animal subsequently runs into a nearby bog and is never seen again, nor does the foster-mother make another appearance. Although she is unable to avert disaster, her ability to perceive what others cannot see and make predictions about the future relates her to Norse prophetesses, seeresses and valkyries, and once again, we witness the fateful connection between women and death in Norse culture, though in the prosaic setting of an Icelandic farm.

Magic workers The ability to know the future is not always a good thing: the goddess Frigg knows all fates though she never divulges them, perhaps because they are full of doom.19 Norse sagas and poems feature a range of female characters who have the ability to see far ahead:  ordinary women who have the kind of sensible foresight that is simply one form of intelligence, clichéd fostermothers predicting doom, and the so-called völur (sing. völva), professional prophetesses whose knowledge is sought after and prized.20 In mythological sources, völur are likely dead, and they are probably of jötnar origin; this is the case for the speaker of Völuspá, whom Odin visits in his efforts to find out more about Ragnarök. Völur join the ranks of female supernatural beings that have power over some sphere that the male gods do not, but their role is less extensive than that of the valkyries or goddesses. The prophetic ability of women carries over to the more realistic sphere of the sagas, but since the information that seeresses possess often has no bearing on their own existence, they tend to function as plot devices rather than active characters in their own right. Prophetesses thus function in a similar way as Elli, reminding people of their



own mortality. Male characters sometimes actively reject the prophecies told to them by seeresses, perhaps because to be told of their future highlights that there are some things beyond the power even of the greatest heroes. Others actively approach these women, often in desperation, so when people are positively disposed towards them, prophetesses function as soothsayers or perhaps some kind of ‘life coach’, boosting people’s confidence and reassuring them that things will turn out alright. In Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga, a saga recounting the legendary history of Scandinavia, the goddess Freyja is said to teach the other gods a taboo form of magic called seiðr, which can be used to reveal the future, but also to harm others.21 While magic is a fairly common occurrence in sagas, the word seiðr is not very widespread and not all magic is seiðr, but judging from the sources overall, the purpose of this particular form of witchcraft seems consistent with this twofold description. The practitioners of such magic in the sagas are not a homogenous group:  it includes both men and women, and they are often marginalized in some way – poor, foreign, low class or sexually deviant. In some sagas, using magic becomes a way for a disenfranchised character to gain the agency that is unavailable to them otherwise (within the saga’s reality).22 The most striking and extensive representation of seiðr by far is Eiríks saga rauða’s description of a ritual performed by the prophetess Þorbjörg lítilvölva (Little Prophetess), who travels around the Norse colony in Greenland to deliver predictions about the future.23 Þorbjörg seems to be very old, both physically and culturally, and we gauge from the saga that heathen belief and its rituals are on their way to become a relic of the past. The Greenlanders suffer a long period of privation, and although they are made of strong stuff, their spirits eventually begin to falter. A  certain farmer in the area, Þorkell, recognizes that his people need reassurance so they do not lose hope completely, and he invites Þorbjörg to visit his farm. The assembled household receive the völva with the utmost respect, leading her to a special high seat with a pillow stuffed with feathers. Once the seeress is satisfied with her welcome, she prepares the seiðr ritual, asking for help to chant the verses necessary so that the spirits can be summoned. At first, no one confesses to knowing the verses, but when it

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looks like the ceremony is going to be called off, Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir, who is staying at this farm, admits that she learned the songs as a child. As we recall from Chapter 3, Guðríðr was a devout Christian, and although she is reluctant to engage in this ritual, she gives in at the urging of her host, who, after all, is in a position to throw her out of the home. Guðríðr chants the songs so beautifully and competently that everyone is stunned by her talent. Consequently, the ceremony is a success:  the spirits with which Þorbjörg communicates give good tidings about the future, and she conveys the news to the audience. The household members recover their cheer and soon after, the weather improves and the period of hardship is over. During the ceremony, everyone was told their individual prophecy, and Guðríðr received a particularly positive one: Þorbjörg tells her that ‘from you will be descended a long and worthy line. Over all the branches of that family a bright ray will shine’.24 The episode’s function in the saga, whose earliest extant manuscript dates to around three hundred years after the conversion, is to highlight Guðríðr’s holiness regardless of her dabbling in pagan magic. One can surmise that saga audiences at the time of writing had some anxieties about their forefathers’ non-Christian beliefs, but as the saga’s epilogue relates, Guðríðr’s descendants were bishops, and while they could not completely cover up the past, they may have wanted to create a family history of exceptional Christian devotion going all the way back to the conversion era. The episode juxtaposes the heathen religion and the Christian one, but instead of pitting the two against each other, it expresses a recognition that the old beliefs are an undeniable part of history. The benign prophetess is no sinister witch or phony fortune teller – she is treated like a dignitary and her expensive costume and refined behaviour reinforce her respectability. However, she is old, and Guðríðr is young. Although the two women part on friendly terms, the old woman represents a disappearing way of life, while Guðríðr embodies the future. However, we also encounter less friendly magic workers. Grettis saga, a very late saga which nevertheless bears many similarities to older tales, features a particularly malevolent example, where the sorcerous agency of an old woman is the final blow for Grettir Ásmundarson, the saga’s unfortunate hero. After a glittering career as a young man, Grettir’s luck takes a sharp turn for the worse when he fights the revenant Glámr, who lays a curse on him, and for his



crimes, he ends up as an outlaw living on the island Drangey in Skagafjörður, North Iceland (see also Chapter 4). Most of his friends and family have abandoned him at this point, and a sum of money is promised to whoever manages to kill him. Þorbjörn öngull (Hook), a local farmer and long-time antagonist of Grettir’s family, becomes obsessed with conquering Grettir, but, unable to get to him on the island, which has steep cliffs on all sides, Þorbjörn enlists his ancient foster-mother Þuríðr’s help. The foster-mother, who is introduced as knowing the old pagan ways, takes on the challenge, and after sailing to the island to observe Grettir, she determines that he has the look of an ill-fated man. She subsequently performs a magic ritual, carving runes on a log of driftwood, reddening it with her own blood, chanting spells and walking around the log anticlockwise. The ritual is represented as a harmful act, and though the spells the she chants are not reported, she ends with a curse – ‘let everything harm Grettir’ – making her evil intent explicit.25 The log drifts to the island and when Grettir tries to chop it up for firewood, his axe slips off it, making a wound in his leg. The wound becomes gangrenous and the infection brings him to the brink of death, making it easy for Þorbjörn Hook and his men to finish him off when they are finally able to access the island’s only passable ascent. In his dying moments, Grettir utters a verse blaming Þuríðr for his demise: ‘Now that tough hag / … has wrought a spell on the tree / that sheds flaming battle-swords (= Grettir)’, making it clear that the curse was what really brought him to death.26 When Grettir’s death is reported, people are taken aback that, regardless of the outlaw’s past crimes, Þorbjörn went to such despicable lengths as to commission a sorceress to do away with Grettir, and he becomes a hated figure. For the old woman’s part, she was not motivated by her own malicious feelings towards Grettir but perhaps rather loyalty and a protective instinct toward her foster-son, positive qualities that the saga author leverages in the portrait of Þuríðr. As Grettir’s only worthy enemy, the character might also be inspired by the myth about Elli, telling us that even great heroes are neither invincible nor immortal. A number of Viking women’s graves have been interpreted as those of real völur. These graves – containing long iron rods, spits or pokers that are believed to have been the symbol of the völva’s authority  – are rare relative to more ‘ordinary’ women’s burials, but they are found in many places in

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the Viking world. Sometimes they are lavishly furnished with fine jewellery, clothes and other high-end items, suggesting that the buried woman had a prominent position in society. Although some of these metal objects seem to be cooking implements, and others may have been poles to hold lamps, the practical function of a few of these mysterious rods is less obvious and they have yielded a range of interpretations. Some critics argue that they should be categorized as measuring sticks that were used in trade to measure units of fabric, but others have associated them with staffs in written sources such as Eiríks saga rauða, where a stick with a metal knob decorated with gems is part of the völva’s costume.27 The word völr means staff, so the word völva could refer to a woman who had a staff, and it would then stand to reason that a prophetess would be buried with an emblematic symbol of her role and authority. The grave of a woman buried in a blue, gold-embroidered dress in Fyrkat, Denmark, is one of these mysterious staff burials. It contained a woman laid to rest in a carriage wagon with a variety of fine grave goods, including a slightly bent iron rod with a spear-like blade on one end and a ring that could be used to hang the item on the other. Some of the grave’s other goods were equally intriguing: a chair-shaped amulet, perhaps to symbolize authority, two ox-horn drinking horns, perhaps for ritual toasts, and traces of a leather pouch containing seeds of the henbane plant (Hyoscyamus niger), a highly toxic and hallucinogenic substance that might have been used for medicinal or magical purposes.28 As we lack explicit information about the meaning and function of grave goods, such graves can only be interpreted by making conjectures about the most likely scenario. However, there is one Viking Age visual representation of possible völva, carved on a stone slab found in Kirk Michael on the Isle of Man, a Norse colony in the Viking Age (Figure 15), depicting a human-like figure wearing a trailing dress and holding what looks like a staff, though it might also be something else, for example, a branch of angelica. The image’s stylistic features, including the pointy face, are strikingly reminiscent of other female figures in Viking Age art (see Introduction), and it is tempting to contextualize it within that iconography, especially considering that Freyja was supposed to have practiced seiðr. Moreover, in Peel, only ten kilometres south of Kirk Michael, a high-status woman was found buried with an iron staff, wrapped in a piece



of cloth with goose feathers, perhaps an entire wing.29 Also in the grave were shears and needles – perhaps signifying a role in textile production – a knife and comb, a magnificent necklace and a mysterious miniature pestle and mortar set (Figure  16). The ‘Pagan Lady of Peel’, as she is often referred to, passed away in around 950 ce, and she was thus a contemporary of the Fyrkat woman, though it is impossible to know whether she was a Norse heathen or perhaps a local Manx woman who married a Viking settler and adopted his customs. It is hard to say whether Eiríks saga rauða’s elaborate description of Þorbjörg’s outfit has any bearing at all to historical reality, and the saga author may simply have made it up, pulling details from Norse mythology and other sources they knew to add flair to the story. It has also been suggested that they based it on a Sámi shaman they may have seen or heard of.30 These different hypotheses about magic workers in Viking society are based on piecing together discrete evidence from sources that are either far removed from heathen times and have been filtered to us through several centuries as well as the vagaries of Christian scribes, artistic representations or objects with multiple possible functions that cannot speak. The role of women in ancient rituals and religion is impossible to recover, but if the völva played a role in Norse pre-Christian culture in some form, then these mysterious staff burials seem to reflect a dignified social status rather than the more ambiguous one of the sagas.

Death The myth about Elli reminded the Norse of their mortality, but sickness and death is likely to have been a much larger presence in their lives than most of us can begin to fathom. The Pagan Lady of Peel was plagued by rickets in her life and her mobility was likely severely restricted owing to her deformed legs, though her cause of death is unknown.31 Several saga women die from grief, either collapsing on the spot when they receive news that their husband has died or wasting away over a period. In reality, some women also must have died in accidents and natural disasters, or as the victims of domestic violence, local feuds and warfare. But there is one cause of death that is perhaps

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less expected. Appearing primarily in heroic legend, we find shocking cases of women’s suicide, which, although rare, is still more frequent than male suicide. Women commit suicide for two reasons:  out of shame and anger or, the more prominent reason, to accompany their husband to the afterlife. The expectation that elite women follow their husband in death – willingly or not – sometimes referred to as ‘suttee’, seems to have been present in Norse culture, and although we don’t know how common it was, scholars have speculated that graves in which an elite man and woman were buried together reflect such a custom.32 In mythology, the idea of a woman following her husband in death is exemplified in Snorri’s Edda, where Baldr’s wife Nanna is introduced only so that she can dutifully perish from grief when her husband is accidentally killed. Nanna’s body is placed on the funeral pyre next to Baldr’s, and when Odin’s messenger visits the couple in Hel, Nanna sends him back to Asgard with gifts for the goddesses.33 Signý, the intractable queen we met in Chapter 4, decides to die with her husband, Siggeir. She does so despite her many reasons to disdain him: she was married to him against her will, considers him inferior, and he murdered her father and nine of her ten brothers. Proudly proclaiming her role in his downfall, the queen is nevertheless not prepared to leave her husband to die alone. When the king’s hall has been set on fire, she walks into the burning building, declaring, ‘I ought to die now with King Siggeir by choice, as I lived with him by force’, and she is consumed by the flames.34 Similarly, Guðrún intends to die after the death of her second husband Atli and their two sons (see also Chapter 1). After she has speared Atli through in his bed, Guðrún sets fire to the hall and walks into the sea holding a big rock with the aim to drown herself.35 The parallels between her character and Signý’s are unmistakable, but Guðrún is not fated to die yet: the waves carry her to the city of King Jónakr, who becomes her third husband, and her life enters a new cycle of death and revenge with the killing of her daughter Svanhildr. Years later, after Guðrún has sent her sons to their death in Guðrúnarhvöt, she orders a funeral pyre to be built so that she can finally achieve her desire to die. After a lament for her first husband, Sigurðr, her daughter Svanhildr and her brothers Gunnarr and Högni, Guðrún cries out to Sigurðr to come for her, and thus to honour a pact they had made long ago that they would be together in death: ‘Bridle, Sigurd, the dark-coloured, shining horse, / the swift-footed



charger—let it gallop here.’36 Guðrún is not alone in intending to join Sigurðr in the afterlife, however:  her rival Brynhildr might already be there. Earlier in the Völsung legend, Brynhildr, who had considered herself betrothed to Sigurðr after their exchange of oaths when they first met, ordered a funeral pyre to be built for herself next to his. Feeling utterly betrayed by his failure to honour their betrothal, and his tricking her into marrying Gunnarr instead, she commands her husband to kill Sigurðr. Brynhildr also regards death as a way out for herself: once Sigurðr has been killed, she spectacularly stabs herself in the heart and we later find out that she believes she will meet him on the other side.37 In Helreið Brynhildar, the dead Brynhildr quarrels with a giantess she passes on her way from the funeral pyre, and in this last defence of hers, she claims that the two of them will live together in Hel’s hall.38 These poems express a belief that husband and wife (or lover) will be joyfully reunited in death, and the primary motivation for both women’s suicides is the hope and anticipation of a happy existence with their man after death.39 Suicide is also the last resort for women who feel unable to go on living, not because they long to be in the afterlife with their spouse but because he has committed a crime against them. The largely pithy and matter-of-fact Landnámabók relates a brief story about a man called Illugi and his wife Sigríðr. Without consulting his wife, Illugi decides to exchange homes with a certain Hólm-Starri, which entails that they swap not only property, farms and cattle but also wives. This bizarre decision is not explained or rationalized at all by the narrator, and it is also represented as incomprehensible to Sigríðr, who proceeds to ‘hang herself in the temple because she couldn’t bear the change of husbands’.40 Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks depicts another suicide by hanging, that of Helga, the wife of Hervör’s son Heiðrekr. When Heiðrekr attacks his father-in-law’s kingdom and kills him, Helga’s shame and fury at her husband’s violation of familial bonds drives her to hanging herself in a dísarsalr, the temple of the dís.41 In the rare cases when men commit suicide, they do so by falling on their swords, and women’s suicide by hanging in temples is, by comparison, an extraordinary act, reminiscent only of Odin’s self-sacrifice in Hávamál, when he hangs himself in the tree Yggdrasill to acquire knowledge from a sphere beyond death.42 It is difficult to explain these two suicides committed by women, which seem to be motivated by very different reasons to

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that of Odin, and the sources are extremely disparate: the former text is a treatise about the settlement of Iceland, while the latter is a legendary saga about Vikings, shield-maidens, battles and a talking corpse. It is notable that in both of these strange stories, the women die in temples, and since the eleventhcentury German historian Adam of Bremen claimed that Swedish heathens sacrificed both humans and animals by hanging, one wonders whether these stories preserve echoes of human sacrifice, though making these women go into death willingly.43 On the other hand, from the women’s point of view, we can gauge that their anger and shame at their husband’s dishonourable behaviour is seen as too much to bear, and taking their life gives these characters a chance to restore their own honour in some way by exercising agency, even if it is in death. The dís temple might be understood as being dedicated to Freyja, and although these sources are difficult to interpret with any secure footing, it’s tempting to speculate that women’s suicides are in some ways to be regarded as motivated by their desire and hope to join Freyja in the afterlife instead of living in shame in this world.

Funerals and burials Viking mortuary practices were far more varied than in contemporary Western society. Like us, the Norse practiced both cremation and inhumation, but people were interred in much more varied ways than now (see Chapter  2). Sometimes people were buried with their dogs or horses, and multiple-occupancy graves also occur, not to mention mass graves dug after violent attacks.44 Even the poor usually brought something along for the afterlife  – a comb or a knife, perhaps  – and stylish, expensive outfits and grave goods were customary until the conversion to Christianity, when burial outfits were pared down to a simple shroud. It’s impossible to know what went on during Viking funerals in terms of movements, spoken words and the performance of music (singing or with instruments), but grave goods suggest that, for the elite, rituals surrounding death were likely high-profile affairs, characterized by a self-conscious, conspicuous display of wealth and values.



As we have seen, becoming a wife and taking responsibility for a household bestowed various forms of power and authority on women in Norse society. Since Viking graves were often extremely well furnished, transitioning to the afterlife may have been imagined as going to a new place or to reside in their grave, where the dead would need various tools, clothes and jewellery. Burial customs varied by region: for example, Icelandic and Norwegian women were relatively frequently buried with horses and horse equipment, but this practice is unknown in Denmark. Graves can be isolated, in a cluster or a part of cemeteries, which, in the case of urban settlements like Kaupang and Birka, can count several hundred or thousand graves, and some were marked with a stone, perhaps with a runic inscription on it.45 Uniquely, graves in Gotland were marked by picture stones depicting a variety of mysterious patterns, scenes and figures, but this local tradition may partly be shaped by the natural conditions on this island, which is rich in easy-to-carve sandstone. The Norse generally seem to have made an effort to bury both men and women with as much honour as they could muster, but although there are many graves worthy of mention, the most impressive Viking Age woman’s grave is without a doubt the magnificent Oseberg ship burial, located in Vestfold on the coast of southern Norway, approximately one hundred kilometres south of Oslo. This ship, covered with a mound, was the final resting place of two women, one very elderly, probably in her seventies, and another who was in her fifties.46 Ever since the thrilling discovery of this find in 1903, critics and the public have debated their identity. Some have argued that the older one was the Viking queen Ása, who appears in Ynglinga saga as a formidable ruler who murders her husband, but other suggestions include a priestess, a local landowner or a völva.47 The inscription ‘Sigrid owns me’ carved in runes on one of the grave goods, has been mooted as recording one of the women’s names, though the object could also have been acquired second hand or been deposited by a mourner at the funeral.48 Recent studies of the Oseberg burial have tended to be more cautious than earlier ones, since it is not known for sure whether one woman accompanied the other in death, or  – since there is nothing to suggest that there was a significant discrepancy between them in social status – whether both women were being equally honoured in this burial.49 Both of them had had a comparatively good life, subsisting on a

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luxurious diet and wearing fine, embroidered clothes, trimmed with silk. The older lady, who suffered from severe arthritis, even had bespoke leather shoes for her ailing feet. It is thus not clear what the relationship between the two occupants of this grave was, and what their status and roles were in reality – all we know is that their mourners wanted to make a resounding statement with their burial. The Oseberg funeral would have been a spectacle that lasted for days, perhaps incorporating ceremonies and rituals on deck or around the ship. The two women were buried with a vast number of animals – fifteen horses, four dogs and an ox – that were sacrificed for them, and they were also given every single object a woman could wish for in the afterlife. Fine cooking utensils and exotic tableware were provided for meals, a delicately crafted tapestry and lamps made the space comfortable, and they could continue to work, using a range of textile tools, including a loom and small tablets of antler for high-end weaving. If they needed other transport that sailing to and/or within the realm of the dead, a horse-drawn cart or, in winter, a sleigh would spirit them away. The dead women could perch on a painted, throne-like chair or luxuriate on a bed with bedcovers, untangle their hair with combs and eat from the chests filled with extravagant food. Every single item on the ship was produced to the highest standards, with only the finest craftsmanship on display, and almost every surface of wood was carved in intricate detail, featuring sophisticated geometric patterns and stylized animal motifs, such as snakes, birds and cats. The clinker-built ship itself, though not the largest Viking ship ever found, was beautifully crafted, and it was ready for a distant journey, since the textile remains of a sail were found. The Oseberg burial is on par with or richer than several male burials in the same area, and though the grave goods are highly gendered, the barrow, once covered, makes a similar visual impression as the graves of what were probably kings. Judging from the staggering cost of the burial, and the prominence of the gravemound in the landscape, we might interpret one or both of the women as an exceedingly important and highprofile figure. Perhaps she was a ruler – a chieftain or monarch – or they both were; at any rate, the funeral seems to have been on par with modern royal funerals in terms of pomp and circumstance. Moreover, the mound would have kept the dead woman’s reputation in the cultural memory for generations,



and her descendants or successors to power may have broken into it to try to bolster their own claims to rulership.50

The afterlife We have very little secure knowledge about what the Norse believed would happen after death, but if life, fate and death all come by women, it logically follows that the afterlife, too, is the realm of female figures. The sea goddess Rán catches those who drown into a net and receives them in her oceanic hall, but in Snorri’s Edda Hel is both the name of the place where most people go when they die – that is, everyone who departs on account of sickness or old age  – and its mistress.51 The etymology of Hel in Old Norse (and English) seems to go back to a Proto-Germanic form of the verb hylja (to cover).52 The word may originally have simply referred to being in the grave, a place covered by earth, but the concept subsequently developed into a complex set of images and ideas about what happens after death. According to Snorri, Hel is the daughter of the jötunn-descended Angrboða – literally meaning ‘the one who bodes sorrow’ – and Loki, the notoriously slippery figure whose ancestry is half-jötunn, half-god. Snorri describes Hel as unattractive, her face ‘downcast’ and ‘fierce-looking’, and her body half-flesh-coloured and half-black – evoking the appearance of decomposing flesh. Her hall is overwhelmingly gloomy.53 In the eddic poem Baldrs draumar (Baldr’s Dreams), however, Hel appears as a welcoming hostess, and her realm is figured as an impressive and cosy Viking hall, fitted out with textiles and surrounded by a wall and a gate, reminiscent of a Viking farmstead or manor. When Baldr dies and goes to Hel, she makes sure that the floors are covered with straw, the mead is brewed and the walls are appropriately decorated.54 This comforting representation of the realm of the dead is more easy to believe than Snorri’s, which may be influenced by the Christian Hell, a place of eternal suffering. Even though not everyone might have received the welcome given to the god Baldr in the pagan Hel, the Norse would hardly have tried to promote the idea that most people’s afterlife would be horrible. The struggles of ordinary life – gruelling physical labour, injuries, cold, malnutrition, illness

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and diseases, violence, and for women, multiple pregnancies, miscarriages and childbirth – took their toll on people’s bodies, and death was a much closer presence than we can begin to fathom. The effects of these living standards made their mark, and excavated Viking Age skeletons often reveal signs of misery, including severe arthritis, tooth damage and loss, leprosy, birthrelated deaths, domestic violence, the lack of nourishment and chronic sinus infections.55 Since in Norse beliefs, people go to Hel because of how they die – on account of these physical trials – rather than as punishment for their sins, it makes sense, then, that Hel should be a comforting place, providing respite from the suffering of this life. And it follows that at the helm was a generous, welcoming woman. As mentioned in the introduction, the eddic poem Grímnismál states that the goddess Freyja receives half the slain in her hall Sessrúmnir, and in Egils saga, Egill’s daughter Þorgerðr refers to her death as joining Freyja.56 Both of these references suggest that the goddess played an important role in the Norse conception of the afterlife, but unfortunately very little evidence has survived for these beliefs. Apart from Hyndluljóð’s mysterious reference to Freyja’s shrine, we have little written evidence of how people what shape her worship might have taken.57 However, if we widen the scope to female deities in general, a handful of legendary sources mention the dísablót (sacrifice to the dísir). If we are to believe these sources, the dísir celebration seems to have been a religious festival which took place at the change of seasons, in the early winter and perhaps spring.58 How does that relate to Freyja? In Snorri’s Edda, one of the goddess’s epithets is Vanadís, the dís of the Vanir. According to mythological sources, the Vanir and the Æsir were two separate tribes of deities, and Freyja originally belonged to the former group while Odin, his wife Frigg, his sons Thor and Baldr, and a few more were members of the latter. Early on in the mythological timeline, a war broke out between the two groups, after which Freyja, her brother Freyr, and their father Njord came to the Æsir as hostages as part of a peace settlement. The dísir are appear to be female supernatural beings or minor goddesses that give or withhold life, protection and prosperity. In another tale in Flateyjarbók, a young man dies after being attacked by nine dísir wearing black, while nine more dísir in white fail to prevent the attack, and scattered references in other written sources suggest



a dual role as the guardians and takers of life.59 Like the valkyries, the dísir have control over death and come to take those whose time it is to die. Sörla þáttr draws a line between these figures and Freyja: here, the goddess is Odin’s partner (no mention is made of his wife Frigg), and when he gets hold of her wonderful necklace Brísingamen, he holds it ransom unless she acquires him a fresh batch of einherjar. To get back the necklace, the goddess takes on the name of Göndul (who is usually known as a valkyrie, see Introduction) and stirs up a decades-long war by pitting two kings against each other, thus exchanging dead warriors for her treasured necklace. It is doubtful whether to put too much stock in such a late source, but its author clearly drew on a store of traditional motifs associating war, death and the feminine. The worship of Freyja in Viking Age Scandinavia is frequently borne out in place names that incorporate her name, such as Frölunda (Freyja’s Grove) and Frøihov (Freyja’s Temple), providing hints of evidence for a widespread cult, while there is only one place name for Frigg, Odin’s wife in written sources, in Scandinavia.60 The epithet Vanadís suggests, then, that in some parts of the Norse world, Freyja might have been some kind of high dís ruling over the minor dísir, perhaps as Odin supposedly governs the valkyries, and that people prayed and sacrificed to this collective of beings, believing they would go to their realm in the afterlife. The dísir and valkyries seem to have been mediating figures that went between the gods and the humans who worshipped them, perhaps in a similar way to how saints and the Virgin Mary are intercessors that go between the Christian god and believers. Considering this cluster of evidence for the worship of female beings, some experts in the history of religion argue that Freyja was the original, and most important, goddess of the Germanic tribes and that she presided over all aspects of life and death.61 There is significant overlap between the properties of Freyja and the dísir, and those of other female supernatural beings – valkyries, fetches (fylgjur) and the so-called nornir – but as has become clear, this gathering of supernatural beings have some power over the beginning of life, fate, well-being and death. Scattered references to Frigg, Freyja, nornir and dísir suggest that some of them can help with fertility and provide protection (see Chapter 4). In Völuspá, the nornir are female figures that sit at the Urðarbrunnr well under the world tree Yggdrasill and decide the fate of each individual by carving it in runes onto

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a piece of wood. In one of the Helgi poems, they fly, fastening the strand of fate, which they plied from several life threads, to the sky.62 Nornir also protect the life of their protégés, whether or not they want it: in the eddic poem Guðrúnarhvöt (The Whetting of Guðrún), Guðrún, who has tried to commit suicide, expresses her anger at the nornir for ‘their unyielding protection’ when her attempt to kill herself fails.63 Thus, the nornir can directly work against an individual’s agency if they have other plans. As should be clear by now, despite different labels, the sources do not always make a clear distinction between different supernatural female beings that have the power to help their human followers, and that is to be expected, since on one hand, the belief system was not made standard and uniform by a centralized body such as the Catholic Church and it would have varied from one community to another. On the other hand, although folk belief may have lingered in Norse cultures after Christianity was officially accepted, the sources were written down by Christians living two centuries or more after the conversion. Freyja seems to morph from a woman to valkyrie in Sörla þáttr, Skuld is both a name for a norn and a valkyrie, who, like dísir, are able to cause death, and Frigg, seeresses and nornir know the future. Tracing and trying to separate precisely what each of these figures do can become an exercise in splitting hairs. The bottom line is that Norse people probably consistently conceptualized supernatural beings with power over spheres normally beyond human reach, whether the afterlife or an imagined parallel universe, as female.

The Undead In Chapter 2, we became acquainted with the saga trope of the animated corpse (Old Norse draugr or sometimes haugbúi, which means mound-dweller), in Hervarar saga figured as a zombie-like revenant that can converse with the person who invades its burial mound. There are no narratives about anyone breaking into a mound inhabited by a woman such as the ones buried in the Oseberg burial, but dead women didn’t always rest in peace, at least not in the imagination of Norse people. Female revenants behave differently from male ones, who are often hostile to the living; Eiríks saga rauða even imagines



the inappropriately lusty women we know from Eyrbyggja saga in this undead state. When Guðríðr is still a young woman in Greenland and married to her first husband, Þorsteinn Eiríksson, a contagious disease breaks out among the household at their homestead. The other wife, Sigríðr, become delirious from the illness, and has a vision where everyone who has died from the illness so far, as well as Guðríðr’s husband, appear outside the farmhouse. That night, she expires, and her body is put in a coffin, but Þorsteinn is still breathing. Hours later, he complains that the dead Sigríðr has been trying to get into his bed all day, and her husband is sent for to come and take care of his zombie wife, who is sitting on the edge of Þorsteinn’s bed. The ghost of Sigríðr is vanquished by driving an axe into her chest, but Guðríðr’s husband also succumbs to this plague, joining the crowd of dead people that Sigríðr had seen. The episode ends with the dead Þorsteinn whispering into his widow’s ear that he wants to be buried in a consecrated cemetery, and despite the immense challenges of trying to dig a grave in the arctic tundra, the narrator reports that his body was transported to a church with a burial ground.64 If the prophetess was brought into the saga to illuminate Guðríðr’s piety and reconcile the old faith with the new, the story about the couple’s final exchange is included to reassure the audience that the Greenlanders did their utmost to follow the church’s teachings and traditions despite adverse conditions. We are not told whether poor Sigríðr was a bad Christian, which would perhaps explain her restlessness in her coffin and lustful advances towards Þorsteinn, but her body is taken to be buried with his, and we can be safe in the knowledge that any inappropriate sexual desires were put firmly in the ground. Sigríðr and Eyrbyggja saga’s Þórgunna exchange roles in life and death. While the latter had lusted after a young man when she was alive, she behaves in a perfectly Christian way as a revenant, though strangely, she does so naked. Þórgunna becomes ill after a few weeks in Iceland, and her last wish is to be buried at the newly established cathedral at Skálholt, hundreds of kilometres away in southern Iceland. Probably afraid of flouting a dead person’s request, Þuríðr’s husband Þóroddr arranges for her body to be transported there after her death, and on the way, Þórgunna makes a final appearance. Her pallbearers had stopped at a certain farm for rest, and when the farmer and his wife meanly deny them hospitality, Þórgunna gets up from her bier and goes to the

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kitchen, where she makes such a racket that the pallbearers become terrified, but she appears moments later with a meal for them. This shames their hosts to such an extent that they immediately repent and offer as much food and hospitality as they can muster.65 This is a bizarre episode, but Þórgunna going to such lengths as to rise from the dead to provide food for the men taking her to the cathedral’s cemetery again underscores the importance of Christian burial. Such episodes are perhaps underpinned by ancients belief that the dead wouldn’t stay in the ground unless precautions were taken:  the presence of large, heavy boulders in some Viking women’s graves – particularly those that might have been seen as deviant – might be intended to keep them firmly in place.66 In Laxdæla saga, a völva visits a young woman in a dream, expressing dismay that a church has been built over her grave. She complains that the repentant tears of the newly devout Christian Guðrún burn her bones, and they are promptly exhumed and dug down far away from any roads or paths where people were likely to pass. Meanwhile, Guðrún, now an old woman and ‘burdened with grief ’, reflects on her life and choices, admitting to her son that there was one man who held a particular place in her heart, but ‘though I treated them the worst, I loved them best’.67 Many have assumed that her burden of grief stems from her conflict with Kjartan, whose killing she ordered, but every reader must decide for themselves to whom she is referring, if it is any one person. Guðrún ends her life as a devout anchoress (a type of hermit nun), and the saga gives us the sense that she finally makes peace with her mistakes and the harm she has done to others. She dies in old age, buried at Helgafell, and today, tourists can go to the graveyard there and imagine themselves visiting her grave. Guðrún’s portrait as an old, sad woman is the antithesis to Unnr, who remained steely to her last, strong and unbending like Elli. But in their different ways, both characters embody the Viking woman, at least those of the freefarmer class. One stayed at home while the other travelled widely, but their divergent stories show that women were profoundly affected by the external circumstances of the Viking Age, whether struggles for political supremacy or the new opportunities the period brought. Both these characters are intelligent, charismatic and admired, and they have complicated, sometimes strained,



relationships with their husbands or other people in their lives. Though we can assume that both were married without their consent when young in marriages arranged by their fathers, these women’s confidence grows in the course of their lives. They both become wives, mothers and then widows, their husbands and other male relatives ending up as victims of senseless, brutal violence, whether on a small or large scale. In old age, they refuse to yield their dignity, despite a failing body and decades of emotional trauma, and they boss their children or grandchildren around with love but determination, and we rarely see a crack in the proud, determined personas they project, whether as young women or elderly matriarchs. As Estrid of Täby, both women also experienced a period of religious change: in one version of Unnr’s story, she is said to have converted to Christianity, leaving the old gods behind for a spiritual world in which her soul would be saved.68 This momentous transition from old to new ways was a prominent theme with saga authors, who often used old women to represent aspects of the pagan past. And when it was time, a heathen Viking woman would metaphorically lose the fight to the old nurse, Elli, and go on to the next world – or perhaps it wasn’t so much a fight as the loving embrace of a grandmother? But their runestones, gravemounds and heirlooms were still with the living, prompting them to keep their names and reputations alive.


In Laxdæla saga, the supersession of heathenism by Christianity is symbolized with the völva’s bones being moved far away to the wilderness; she is gone, though not quite forgotten. Her reburial is a literary motif intended to reassure a thirteenth-century Christian audience that their heathen ancestors’ souls would have a chance at salvation, but the two possible völva figures whose graves are mentioned in the previous chapter lived in times of change, too. The Fyrkat woman died around the time of King Harald Bluetooth’s conversion to Christianity, and the Pagan Lady of Peel was buried in a Christian cemetery, though she may not have been a convert herself. Heathen Vikings often seem to have lived harmoniously with Christians, but nevertheless, the culture wars surrounding the conversion must sometimes have been intense, provoking mixed feelings about the future and the past. A  poem attributed to Steinunn Refsdóttir, preserved in Njáls saga, is a bombastic attack on the Christian missionary Þangbrandr, whose ship had been wrecked on his way to Iceland, and the poet boasts that her patron god Thor, who – she alleges – caused the ship to wreck, is far superior to Christ, whom she dismisses as feeble.1 However, the saga relates that very soon after, the country adopted the new faith, and the safe distance in time and benefit of hindsight gave Christian saga authors scope to explore what they imagined their ancestors to have thought and felt about the changing belief system. A poem by the Icelander Sighvatr Þórðarson – the poet who so ably praised Ástríðr Óláfsdóttir (see Chapter  4)  – composed soon after the official conversion in Norway, describes women the poet encounters on his travels in



Sweden as conservatively clinging on to their old gods, but despite this claim, many Norse women embraced Christianity in the Viking Age.2 The first church in Greenland was purportedly built by a woman, Þjóðhildr, the wife of Eirik the Red, and the saga relates that she distanced herself from her husband when he was reluctant to follow suit and relinquish the old religion.3 Swedish runestones, too, reflect the waning of the heathen gods:  Christian inscriptions on this quintessentially Viking Age phenomenon suggest that women frequently turned their devotion to the Virgin Mary.4 Viking art is another indication of the way that people adapted their beliefs:  a picture of Mary Magdalene by Jesus on the cross carved on a stone cross in Gosforth, Cumbria  – an area where the Vikings settled  – represents her in the same style and holding a similar vessel to Sigyn, who is on another side of the cross, tending to her husband, the bound Loki. The artist thus drew a connection between the two women and their loving, self-effacing care for these men, showing that Norse myths continued to be useful even though people stopped worshipping the old gods.5 By the late eleventh century, Scandinavia had developed towards state formation, and the church had established itself as one of the pillars of society. Though war remained an intermittent presence in the domestic political arena, there were no more Viking journeys abroad, and for most people, life became more stable, and perhaps more rigid. Some aspects changed and some remained: textile technology and the loom – by which women spent so much of their lives – stayed the same in many places until hundreds of years later, when horizontal looms were introduced, but there was less continuous need for sails compared to the intense Viking activity that had caused a surge in demand for textiles previously.6 Women no longer sponsored runestones after the eleventh century, but in the period that followed, many of them cultivated an interest in literature and were even involved in the production of manuscripts.7 Such activities enabled them to commission (or write) texts and influence their culture: Queen Eufemia of Norway (c.1280–1310) was a major patron of the arts, and Laxdæla saga was likely composed for a circle of women who had lost husbands and kinsmen in the horrors of civil war in Iceland.8 The stories of Viking women appealed to these women living in the thirteenth century, over two hundred years after the Viking Age ended, and they contributed



to keeping these tales alive for posterity. And, like the medieval Icelanders who wrote the sagas, we mirror ourselves in the Vikings. We exoticize them, but upon closer examination, it emerges that we have surprisingly many things in common with the Vikings: like them, we are also living in a time of shifting gender roles, migration, fluctuating economies, new media and technology, and the global flow of goods – a time in which the world changes rapidly and unpredictably. Although we live dramatically different lifestyles, many of the more existential concerns with which we are preoccupied would have been familiar to a Norse person. Today, a millennium after the Vikings lowered their weapons, sailed their magnificent ships to harbour and retired from their adventures for good, their stories provide rich material for countless artists and storytellers, who offer us new perspectives on ancient material through the mediums of film, television, photography, visual art, music, theatre, radio, re-enactment or living history projects. Shield-maidens and queens based on legendary Norse heroines are the central characters in popular television shows, making no excuses for their strength and ruthlessness. Richard Wagner’s 1870s operatic masterpiece The Ring of the Nibelungs, featuring heroines based on the eddic characters Brynhildr and others, sells out in opera houses around the world; one opera, Die Walküre, opens with the rousing prelude The Ride of the Valkyries. This famous piece has taken a life of its own and it is used to dramatic effect in new contexts, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), a film that explores the horrors of the Vietnam War. This unforgettable scene, depicting a military attack on a peasant village, layers the chopping sounds of helicopters, exploding missiles and rattling machine guns onto Wagner’s anthem; the scene prompts us to draw connections between modern warfare and the propagandist valkyrie figure, who is still able to conjure a glorified, stylized idea of war, despite its grim realities. New operas and theatre productions of Norse narratives appear intermittently, for example, the Royal Opera House’s 2019 adaptation of Francesca Simon’s 2016 novel The Monstrous Child, which narrates the story of Hel as a young woman who’s in love with the god Baldr. Norse supernatural women grip other types of audiences, too:  Hollywood’s Marvel franchise continues to churn out its riveting films about Thor, and its third installation, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), centres on a fight between the god



and his sister Hela, while the 2018 video game God of War draws extensively on Norse mythology, making valkyries difficult antagonists that must be overcome to complete the game. The epic themes of many Norse texts are clearly well-suited to be adapted in a variety of media and genres, to tell new stories which tap into contemporary preoccupations, whether regarding femininity, violence or other issues. Vikings are so well known in popular culture that there is even a comedy television series called Norsemen, produced by NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) and Netflix. Inspired by modern sitcoms such as The Office, the series uses deadpan humour and absurdly anachronistic corporate language to make its audience laugh. It parodies the clichéd stereotypes of the bossy Viking woman and the hypermasculine male Viking, and in so doing, it asks whether the Vikings were perhaps just ordinary human beings, each with their own everyday problems, trying but often hilariously failing to live up to prescriptive gender roles and dominant cultural models.9 In this sense, the show hits the nail on its head. The mass of information from the Viking Age can, from one point of view, be seen as the very opposite of exciting and heroic, reflecting a life of mundane, repetitive menial work. But at the same time, Viking women’s burials, whether the astounding Oseberg ship burial or more humble graves in places now considered marginal  – Orkney, the Icelandic West Fjords, Northern Norway and along the Volga river – open our eyes to the variety of women’s experiences, authority and idiosyncratic beliefs. Norse laws are the sophisticated products of societies in which women had, at least in theory, considerable rights, and though some parts of them upheld women’s unequal status, society recognized women’s humanity and sought to ensure their welfare. The wonderful, complex portraits of women in literature depict them not as caricatures or the binary opposites of men but as individuals, whose multifaceted identities and life experiences shape who they are. And, runestones raised a thousand years ago by women are still standing, weathered but stalwart witnesses to their determination to take up space in their world. Life for Viking women may not usually have been characterized by the exciting battles and political intrigues we see on screen, but those figures aren’t pulled out of thin air either. A culture with a narrative tradition and collective imagination that produced poems like Darraðarljóð must have been driven by women who ‘decided’.

Further reading Norse sagas and poetry The Poetic Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. A collection of anonymous poetry about Norse myths and legends, starting with Völuspá, which narrates the history of the world from beginning to Ragnarök and beyond. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1992. A  handbook about Norse mythology and poetics written in the early thirteenth century by the Icelandic magnate and antiquarian Snorri Sturluson. The Saga of the Volsungs, with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Völsunga saga and Ragnars saga loðbrókar), translated by Jackson Crawford. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2017. Two sagas which relate the ancient heroic legends partly told in the poems in the Poetic Edda. A cycle of narratives about glory and hubris, greed and intrigue, betrayal and death, love, grief and vengeance. Njal’s Saga, translated by Robert Cook. London: Penguin, 2001. The epic saga about the tragic fates of several families in Viking Age Iceland, exploring love, friendship, jealousy, resentment, social and gender hierarchies, violence and reconciliation. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, ed. Robert Kellog. New York: Penguin, 2001. A  selection of some of the best-known sagas of Icelanders, including several of the sagas that feature extensively in this book, and it contains introductions, maps and other helpful supporting material. These sagas tell the stories of families that set off from Norway to settle

Further Reading


in Iceland to seek a new life, and follow the dramatic fortunes of their descendants across several generations. Comic Sagas and Tales from Iceland, edited by Viðar Hreinsson. London:  Penguin, 2013. A  volume that includes Fóstbræðra saga (The Saga of the Sworn Brothers), featuring sagas that play around with the conventions and clichés of the more epic texts. Icelandic Histories and Romances, translated by Ralph O’Connor. Stroud:  Tempus, 2006. Several less discussed but intriguing sagas, including Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss. The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise (better known as The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek), translated by Christopher Tolkien. London:  Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1960. Available on The saga about the legendary shield-maiden Hervör and her family, following their dramatic lives through several generations of conquest and war. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes. 3 vols. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011– 15. Available on A  collection of thirteenth-century sagas, with skaldic poetry embedded into the prose, narrating the thrilling history of Norway and Sweden from its mythical origins through the turmoil of Viking Age wars up to the twelfth century.

Books about Vikings and their culture Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. A comprehensive and engaging introduction to the Vikings. The Viking World, edited by Stefan Brink with Neil S.  Price. New  York:  Routledge, 2008. A  large volume with overview chapters about a large selection of themes, written by experts in different fields of Viking studies. Judith Jesch, The Viking Diaspora. Abingdon:  Routledge, 2015. An authoritative and up-to-date account of the Vikings’ migration across the islands of the North Atlantic, the Baltic and the East.

Further Reading


Carolyne Larrington, Norse Myths:  A Guide to the Gods and Heroes. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. A lively introduction to Norse myths and legends, with plenty of images of Viking Age and later depictions of mythical-legendary scenes. Vésteinn Ólason, Dialogues with the Viking Age, translated by Andrew Wawn. Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1998. An accessible introduction to the sagas of Icelanders, their cultural background, socio-historical context, prevalent themes and artistry. Steven Ashby and Alison Leonard. Pocket Museum: Vikings. London: Thames & Hudson, 2018. A richly illustrated and wide-ranging introduction to the Vikings told through their artefacts.


Notes Introduction 1. Njal’s Saga, ch. 157, 305. 2. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 31. See also The Sayings of Grímnir (Grímnismál), st. 36, in The Poetic Edda, 53. 3. Þorbjörn hornklofi, ‘Haraldskvæði (Hrafnsmál)’, st. 1‒2, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1, 94. 4. The Lay of Sigrdrifa (Sigrdrífumál), st. 2, in The Poetic Edda, 163. 5. Njal’s Saga, ch. 157, 304‒5. 6. Poole, Viking Poems on War and Peace, 141. 7. Seeress’s Prophecy (Völuspá), st. 31, Grímnir’s Sayings, st. 36, both in The Poetic Edda, 7, 53. 8. Snorri’s source is probably The Sayings of Grímnir, st. 36, in The Poetic Edda, 53. 9. Kenning index, ‘The Skaldic Project’,; Bragi inn gamli (the Old) Boddason, ‘Ragnarsdrápa’, in Poetry from Treatises on Poetics 1, 39. 10. Tindr Hallkelsson, ‘Hákonardrápa’, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1, 347. 11. Eyvindr skáldaspillir Finnsson, ‘Hákonarmál’, in Poetry from the Kings’ sagas 1, 186. 12. Quinn notes that in a thirteenth-century treatise on poetry, Óláfr hvítaskáld Þórðarson states that the kennings ‘valkyrie or giantess of the shield’ refer to an axe, meaning that a weapon is metaphorically compared to a valkyrie; see ‘The “Wind of the Giantess” ’, 224. 13. The Poem of Volund (Völundarkviða), st. 1‒4; The Poetic Edda, 98‒9. The prose passage before the poem identifies the maidens as valkyries but it could be the scribe’s addition. See also Hljóð and her crow shape in Völsunga saga, in The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, ch. 2, 3. 14. Ibid., 24; The Sayings of Grímnir, st. 14, in The Poetic Edda, 50. 15. Reykjavík, The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, GKS 1005 fol.



16. Hyndla’s Song, in The Poetic Edda, 245‒51. 17. To this end, in the less rancorous mythical poem Hárbarðsljóð, the insults and boasts that fly between the two speakers are not all taken at face value by the recipient; see, e.g., Vésteinn Ólason, introduction to Hárbarðsljóð, in Eddukvæði, 1:205. 18. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, 67‒9, 112. 19. See, e.g., Winroth, Conversion of Scandinavia. 20. Jesch, Viking Diaspora, 4‒8. 21. Eriksen, Architecture, Society, and Ritual, 43–7. 22. Introduction to Medieval Writings on Secular Women, ed. Van Houts and Skinner. 23. Krzewińska et al., ‘Genomic and Strontium Isotope Variation’, 2730–8. 24. Although the so-called classical Íslendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders) have been seen as having more verisimilitude than others, and therefore better sources for the ‘reality’ they reconstruct, I regard them as equally literary as sagas featuring trolls such as Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, hence the inclusion of such sagas in my analysis. 25. See, e.g., Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, ‘Becoming “Old”, Ageism and Taking Care of the Elderly in Iceland c. 900–1300’, 227–9.

Chapter 1 1. The Whetting of Guðrún, st. 15, in The Poetic Edda, 228. 2. The Greenlandic Lay of Atli (Atlamál in grænlensku), st. 82‒83, in The Poetic Edda, 221‒2. 3. The Saga of the People of Laxardal (Laxdæla saga), in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, 324‒5; Jochens, ‘Old Norse Motherhood’, 202. 4. ‘Ibrāhīm ibn Ya’ūb on Northern Europe’, in Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, 163. 5. The Whetting of Gudrun, st. 7 and 9, 227. 6. See, e.g., Hedenstierna-Jonson, ‘She Came from Another Place’; Thedéen, ‘Who’s That Girl?’; Gräslund, ‘Barn i Birka’. 7. Mundal, ‘Barn skal eigi lata dœya handa millim’; Lawing, ‘Place of the Evil’. 8. Ari Þorgilsson, Book of Icelanders, 9. 9. ‘Ibrāhīm ibn Ya’ūb on Northern Europe’, 163; Eriksen, ‘Don’t All Mothers Love Their Children?’. 10. The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue (Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu), in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, ch. 3, 563‒4.



11. Winroth, Age of the Vikings, 162. 12. Gräslund, ‘Gud hjälpe nu väl hennes själ’. 13. The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, ch. 3, 564‒5. 14. Welinder, ‘Cultural Construction of Childhood’. 15. See, e.g., Wicker, ‘Selective Female Infanticide’, 205–21. 16. Mejsholm, ‘Gränsland’; Zoëga, ‘A Family Revisited’; Gräslund, ‘Barn i Birka’, 164–71. 17. Thunmark-Nylén, Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands, vol. 3.2, Text, 428. 18. Price, ‘Passing into Poetry’; Owen and Dalland, Scar, 59; Gräslund, ‘Barn i Birka’, 168. 19. Laws of Early Iceland, K§95, 1:159. 20. Mejsholm, ‘Gränsland’, 104–8; Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, 82. 21. Mejsholm, ‘Gränsland’, 111–16. 22. Waugh, ‘Language, Landscape’, 236‒7. 23. Coleman, ‘Kvinnenamn’, 289–322. 24. Laws of Early Iceland, K§128, 2:29. 25. Ibid., K§128, 2:30. 26. Ibid., K§118, 2:6, 2:8. 27. Ibid., K§122, 2:12‒16. 28. Ibid., K§128, 2:31. 29. Ibid., K§141, 2:46; K§129, 2:34. 30. Hansen, ‘Fosterage and Dependency’, 83‒4. 31. Gunnar Karlsson, ‘Barnfóstur’, 38‒9, 50‒1; Laws of Early Iceland, K§90, 1:154; see also K§141, 2:46. 32. Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Ástin á tímum þjóðveldisins’, 65. 33. Hansen, ‘Fosterage and Dependency’, 78‒9. 34. Eirik the Red’s Saga (Eiríks saga rauða), in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, ch. 3, 655; Víglundar saga has an example of a girl being sent to learn crafts – perhaps weaving or sewing – with a neighbour woman famous for her textile skills, ‘Viglund’s Saga’, ch. 2, 412. 35. Mitchell, ‘Magic as Acquired Art’, 132‒52. 36. Gunnar Karlsson, ‘Barnfóstur’, 43; Karras, Slavery and Society, 91, 94. 37. Gunnar Karlsson, ‘Barnfóstur’, 42‒3; ‘The Saga of Finnbogi the Mighty’, ch. 3, 222.



38. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 21, 310. 39. Helga Kress has noted the sexual undertones of the Hallgerðr–Þjóstólfr relationship; see ‘Fyrir dyrum fóstru’, 96. 40. ‘The Saga of the People of Fljotsdal’, ch. 10, 394. 41. Owen and Dalland, Scar, 157. 42. The List of Rig (Rígsþula), in The Poetic Edda, 238–44. 43. Hedenstierna-Jonson, ‘She Came from Another Place’, 90–101. 44. Thedéen, ‘Who’s That Girl?’, 85. 45. Gräslund, ‘Barn i Birka’, 175; Callow, ‘First Steps towards an Archaeology of Children in Iceland’; Lillehammer, ‘A Child Is Born’, 99; Gardeła, ‘What the Vikings Did for Fun?’; McAlister, ‘Childhood in Viking Dublin’. 46. McAlister, ‘Childhood in Viking Dublin’, 88‒94; Gräslund, ‘Barn i Birka’, 171‒5. 47. McAlister, ‘Childhood in Viking Dublin’, 97. 48. Moen, ‘Challenging Gender’, 179. 49. Graves Bj.463 and Bj.846, ‘Björkö - gravfält’, Historiska museet, http://mis.historiska. se/mis/sok/birka.asp?sm=10_7. 50. The Saga of Bard the Snowfell God (Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss), in Icelandic Histories and Romances, ch. 7, 198. 51. Njal’s Saga, ch. 8, 18. 52. Ibid., ch. 1, 3‒4. 53. Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Troublesome Children in the Sagas of Icelanders’, 10‒11, 21. 54. The Sayings of the High One, st. 84, in The Poetic Edda, 23. 55. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 33, 328‒31. 56. Laws of Early Iceland, K§128, K§141, K§118, 2:32, 2:46; 2:8. 57. Gutalag: The Law of the Gotlanders, 30.

Chapter 2 1. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 5, 279; The Book of Settlements, S§95‒97, §107‒108/H§82‒84, 52‒5. 2. The Legendary Saga of King Olaf Haraldsson, ch. 46, 43.



3. Ibid., 44; Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, 100‒3. 4. Njal’s Saga, ch. 34, 56‒7. 5. Jochens, ‘Consent in Marriage’, 142–76. 6. Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, 29. 7. Ricketts, High-Ranking Widows in Medieval Iceland and Yorkshire, 68. 8. Sigurðarkviða skamma (Short Poem of Sigurd), st. 37, in The Poetic Edda, 182. 9. Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, in Sturluson, Heimskringla, 1:191; Njal’s Saga, 164. 10. För Skírnis (Skirnir’s Journey), st. 23–36, in The Poetic Edda, 60–3. 11. Larrington, ‘ “What Does Woman Want?” Mær and munr in Skírnismál’. 12. Bryggen N B257 M, see Knirk, ‘Love and Eroticism’, 226. 13. Mitchell, Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages, 54. 14. Larrington, Norse Myths, 93–4. 15. First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, st. 18, in The Poetic Edda, 112. 16. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 23, 314. 17. Bandlien, Strategies of Passion, 33–40, 156–65. 18. Njal’s Saga, ch. 10, 19. 19. Thrym’s Poem, st. 13, in The Poetic Edda, 95. 20. Ari Þorgilsson, Book of Icelanders, 8. 21. The Saga of Bard the Snowfell God, ch. 7, 198–9. 22. The Book of Settlements, M§28, 56. 23. Jochens, ‘Illicit Love Visit’. 24. Gisli Sursson’s Saga, in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, 501. 25. Kormaks Saga, chs. 6–9, ‘Kormaks Saga’, 187–94. 26. Bandlien, Strategies of Passion, 70–4. 27. Egil’s Saga (Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar), in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, ch. 73, 141. 28. See, e.g., Harbard’s Song (Hárbarðsljóð), st. 20; Sayings of the High One, st. 161–163, both in The Poetic Edda, 68, 35. 29. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, 162–71; Sigurðardrápa by Kormákr, see Sturluson, Edda, 68. 30. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, 164–5.



31. Blatt, Saxonis Gesta Danorum, vol. 2, Indicem verborum, 611. The translation by Peter Fisher gives ‘obstinate’ but when the same word is used to describe a male character, the translation is ‘stubborn’. 32. Bryggen B39 and Oslo A36, see Knirk, ‘Love and Eroticism’, 220. 33. Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, ‘Stanzas about Haraldr Sigurðarson’s leiðangr’, sts. 1–3, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2, 150–2; see Frank, ‘Why Skalds Address Women’, 73. 34. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 1:55. 35. Frank, ‘Why Skalds Address Women’, 67. 36. Rǫgnvaldr jarl Kali Kolsson, ‘Lausavísa 15’, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2, 592. 37. Jacobs, ‘Hon stóð ok starði’, 148–68. 38. Spurkland, Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions, 103–6. 39. Gräslund, ‘Barn i Birka’, 161–9; Pedersen, ‘Kaupangs kvinner’, 167–85. 40. Fagrskinna: A Catalogue of the Kings of Norway, 58. 41. Frank, Old Norse Court Poetry, 21. 42. See, e.g., poems by women poets collected in part I of Straubhaar, Old Norse Women’s Poetry. 43. Jesch, ‘Jórunn skáldmær’, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1, 143–9. 44. Straubhaar, Old Norse Women’s Poetry, 13–14. 45. Straubhaar, ‘Ambiguously Gendered’, 265. 46. Sturluson, The Uppsala Edda, 104. 47. Gisli Sursson’s Saga, ch. 18, 524. 48. Gisli Sursson’s Saga, ch. 37, 68; The Saga of the People of Eyri, in Gisli Sursson’s Saga and the Saga of the People of Eyri, ch. 13, 86. 49. Straubhaar, Old Norse Women’s Poetry, 14. 50. Jesch, ‘Women, War and Words’, paper given at the Richard Hall Symposium in York, 24 February 2019. 51. Laws of Early Iceland, K§90, 1:148. 52. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 35, 335. 53. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 55, 57. 54. Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib, 41. 55. Mhaonaigh, ‘Date of Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib’, 354–77; Downham, ‘ “Annalistic Section” of Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib’, 144–7.



56. Raffield et al., ‘Male-Biased Operational Sex Ratios’, 316; Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle, ‘Repton and the “Great Heathen Army”, 873–4’. 57. Hedenstierna‐Jonson et al., ‘Female Viking Warrior’. 58. Price et al., ‘Viking Warrior Women?’, see especially the online supplementary material. 59. Björkö grav Bj.581, 60. Hedenstierna‐Jonson et al., ‘Female Viking Warrior’; Price et al., ‘Viking Warrior Women?’. 61. Trafford, ‘Hyper-Masculinity vs Viking Warrior Women’, 11 January 2018, hyper-masculinity-vs-viking-warrior-women-pop-culture-vikings-and-gender/. 62. Williams, Archaeodeath, 14 September 2017, https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress. com/2017/09/14/viking-warrior-women-an-archaeodeath-response-part-1/. 63. See, e.g., Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar; Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, ch. 5. 64. Evans, Men and Masculinities in the Sagas of Icelanders, esp. 11–15; Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women, ch. 5. 65. The authors of the Bj.581 study acknowledged this possibility in their subsequent article published in 2019; see Price et al., ‘Viking Warrior Women?’. 66. Pollard et al., ‘Sprouting Like Cockle amongst the Wheat’. 67. Hedenstierna‐Jonson et al., ‘Female Viking Warrior’; Gardeła, ‘Amazons of the North? Armed Females in Viking Archaeology and Medieval Literature’, 420. 68. Introduction to Oakeshott and Peirce, Swords of the Viking Age. 69. Smith et al., ‘Tangled up in Blue’, 122; Owen and Dalland, Scar, 57‒8. 70. Price, ‘Dying and the Dead’, 257–73. 71. Härke, ‘ “Warrior Graves”? The Background of the Anglo-Saxon Weapon Burial Rite’; Williams and Sayer, ‘ “Halls of Mirrors”: Death and Identity in Medieval Archaeology’. 72. Gräslund, ‘Princely Child in Birka’; Batey and Paterson, ‘Viking Burial at Balnakeil, Sutherland’. 73. Moen, ‘Challenging Gender’, ch. 8 and 9. 74. Kristján Eldjárn, Kuml og haugfé, 386. 75. In addition to the Bj.581 grave, there are two graves, one in Southern and one in Northern Norway: C22541, Nordre Kjølen, see Mørck, ‘Nordre Kjølen’; and T20248, Aunvollen, see ‘Unimus: Universitetsmuseenes arkeologiske gjenstandssamliner’,


212 For analysis of these graves, see Leszek Gardeła’s forthcoming book. 76. Gardeła, ‘Amazons of the North?’, 397–8. 77. Mørck, ‘Nordre Kjølen’. 78. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, 149; Shippey, Laughing Shall I Die, 68–78. 79. Hernæs, ‘C 22541 a–g. Et gammelt funn tolkes på ny’; Holck, ‘Antropologisk kommentar ved lege’; see also references in Price et al., ‘Viking Warrior Women?’, online supplementary material, 12. 80. Price, ‘Passing into Poetry’; Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, 489; see also burials in Oseberg in Norway; Repton, Derbyshire, UK; Mammen, Denmark; Scar, Orkney, to name a few. 81. Clover, ‘Maiden Warriors and Other Sons’. 82. ‘The Wergild Ring List’, in Laws of Early Iceland, K§113, 1:181. 83. Sif first made a brief appearance in Issue 102 ‘Journey into Mystery’, March 1964, but she became Thor’s sidekick in Issue 136 of Thor, January 1967, making this her first manifestation in a warrior role. 84. Saga Heiðreks konungs, ch. 4, 10. 85. Torfi Tulinius, Matter of the North, ch. 4. 86. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, 337, 477, 557, 633. 87. Ibid., 559. 88. Ibid., 551. 89. Introduction to Danish Folktales, Legends, and Other Stories, ed. Tangherlini, 13–14; Jesch, Women in the Viking Age, 178. 90. Jesch, Women in the Viking Age, 178. 91. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, 639. 92. Saga Heiðreks konungs, 37–8; Burrows, ‘Enigma Variations’, 206. 93. Kopár, ‘Eddic Poetry and the Imagery of Stone Monuments’. 94. Helmbrecht, ‘ “A Man’s World” ’, 83‒90. 95. Snorri claims in his Edda that the goddesses Frigg and Freyja both own feather cloaks that other deities can borrow, though only the one belonging to Freyja appears in poetic sources and seems, for that reason, to be authentic; see Ingunn Ásdísardóttir, Frigg og Freyja, 198. 96. Danielsson, ‘Masking Moments’.



97. Mannering, Iconic Costumes, ch. 1, 5 and 7; Gunnell, Origins of Drama in Scandinavia, 47, 60–3; Jesch, Women in the Viking Age, 127; Ingstad, ‘Interpretation of the Oseberg-Find’, 144. 98. Gardeła, ‘Myths in Metal’, 28–31.

Chapter 3 1. Eirik the Red’s Saga, ch. 3, 655. 2. Ibid., ch. 14, 674. 3. The Saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendinga saga), ch. 8, in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, 651–2. 4. Hedenstierna-Jonson, ‘She Came from Another Place’, 96; Hedenstierna‐Jonson et al., ‘A Female Viking Warrior’; Frei et al., ‘Tændernes tale – om Trelleborgs vikinger’; Hall et al., Anglo-Scandinavian Occupation at 16–22 Coppergate, 680. 5. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 24. 6. See, e.g., Sørheim, ‘Three Prominent Norwegian Ladies with British Connections’, 22‒5; Kristján Eldjárn, Kuml og haugfé, 311. 7. Oddrun’s Lament (Oddrúnargrátr), st. 3, in The Poetic Edda, 199. 8. Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, st. 25, 132; Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 49; DR 284. 9. Winroth, Age of the Vikings, ch. 4. 10. Nylén et al., Tuna i Badelunda, 1, 42; Kristján Eldjárn, Kuml og haugfé, 115–19; Sørheim, ‘Three Prominent Norwegian Ladies with British Connections’, 28, 33. 11. Christensen et al., Osebergdronningens grav. 12. Wallace, ‘Norse in Newfoundland’, 20; Kershaw, Viking Identities; Wallace, ‘Norse in Newfoundland’, ch. 5. 13. On Norse-Sámi intermarriages, see Storli, ‘De østlige smykkene fra vikingtid og tidlig middelalder’. 14. Tacitus, ‘Germany’, in Agricola and Germany, ch. 7, 41. 15. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 55. Historians consider these women to have been Scandinavian, but the Vikings also married local women. See, e.g., Wyatt, Slaves and Warriors, 127. 16. Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle, ‘Repton and the “Great Heathen Army”, 873–4’. 17. Jarman et al., ‘Viking Great Army in England’.



18. A text about the Viking attacks on Paris in the ninth century mentions a Norse woman who was with the army demanding special water to make bread; see Viking Attacks on Paris, 82–3. The garrison area in Birka was probably the site of textile production; see Thorin, ‘Weighing the Evidence’. 19. Viking Attacks on Paris, 34–5; Tacitus, ‘Germany’, ch. 7, 41. 20. Näsström, Freyja, 139; see also Price, The Viking Way, 319. 21. The Saga of the Greenlanders, ch. 8, 651. 22. Winroth, Age of the Vikings, 159. 23. ‘Samnordisk runtextdatabas’, Uppsala University, samnord.htm, U 605. The runestone is lost but drawings of it have been preserved. All subsequent references to Scandinavian runic inscriptions are taken from this database. 24. Hs 21 Jättendal; Br Olsen 194. 25. Källström, ‘Mästare och minnesmärken’, 213‒16; Gräslund, ‘Runstenskvinnorna ännu en gång’, 469‒70. 26. Ashby, ‘With Staff in Hand, and Dog at Heel?’ 27. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 7‒8, 282‒3. 28. Downham, ‘Religious and Cultural Boundaries between Vikings and Irish’, 25‒7. 29. Stalsberg, ‘Visible Women Made Invisible’. 30. Skre, ed., Things from the Town, 95‒6. 31. The Saga of the People of Eyri, ch. 50, 166. 32. Glørstad, ‘Sign of the Times?’, 37‒9. 33. Winroth, Age of the Vikings, 175. 34. Skre, ‘Viking-Age Economic Transformations’, 18‒19. 35. Winroth, Age of the Vikings, 176–7. 36. Jørgensen, ‘Introduction of Sails to Scandinavia’. 37. Óttarr svarti (the Black), ‘Hǫfuðlausn’, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1, 747. 38. Andersson, ‘Textile Production in Scandinavia during the Viking Age’. 39. Thomsen, ‘Kvinder og klær’; Ingunn Ásdísardóttir, Frigg og Freyja, 233–5. 40. Andersson, ‘Textile Production at Birka’. 41. Owen and Dalland, Scar, 58. 42. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 2:128, 2:141.



43. Nørgård, ‘Store og små sejl – tidsforbrug ved spinding og vævning’. 44. Andersson, ‘Textile Production in Scandinavia during the Viking Age’, 49; Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 2:130–2. 45. Thomsen, ‘Kvinder og klær’, 220–1. 46. Ramstad, ‘Bjørkum’. 47. Cartwright, ‘Shimmering Cloth, Like the River by this Path’. 48. Loftsgarden et al., ‘The skeid and Other Assemblies in the Norwegian “Mountain Land” ’. 49. Sørheim, ‘Female Traders and Sorceresses’, 116. 50. Gisli Surson’s Saga, ch. 9, 509–10; The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 49, 372. 51. The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, st. 3–4, in The Poetic Edda, 110. 52. Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, 120–1. 53. ‘The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People’ (Bjarnar saga hítdælakappa), ch. 12, 269; Karras, Slavery and Society, 79. 54. The Song of Grotti (Grottasöngr), in The Poetic Edda. 55. See, e.g., The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 13, 290. 56. Gisli Sursson’s Saga, ch. 13, 516. 57. ‘The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People’, ch. 13, 273. 58. Zoëga, ‘A Family Revisited’; Eriksen, Architecture, Society, and Ritual, 78. 59. Eriksen, Architecture, Society, and Ritual, 59–62. 60. Orri Vésteinsson, ‘Patterns of Settlement in Iceland’, 16–17. 61. Hägg, Kvinnodräkten i Birka; Smith, ‘Ethnicity’, 126. 62. Thunem, ‘Med rynket front ‘. 63. Mannering, Iconic Costumes, 48, 67. 64. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 34, 332–3; Laws of Early Iceland, K§155, 2:69–70. 65. Smith, ‘Ethnicity’, 127; Mannering, Iconic Costumes, 8–13. 66. Ewing, Viking Clothing, 42–3. 67. Rogers, ‘Fibres and Dyes in Norse Textiles’, 82–3. These textiles date to the thirteenth century but the Norse in Greenland are likely to have used the materials at hand in the Viking Age as then. 68. Smith, ‘Ethnicity’, 129; The List of Rig, st. 29, 242.



69. Wamers, ‘Insular Finds’, 42; Heen-Pettersen and Murray, ‘An Insular Reliquary from Melhus’, 71–2. 70. ‘Björkö - gravfält’, grave Bj.515. 71. Vedeler, Silk for the Vikings; Pritchard, ‘Textiles from Dublin’, 233; Østergård, ‘Textilfragmenterne fra Mammengraven’. 72. Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, 163. 73. Mannering, Iconic Costumes, 116. 74. Thedéen, ‘Who’s That Girl?’, 83. 75. Rannveig Þórhallsdóttir, ‘Fjallkonan’. 76. Sikora, ‘Finglas Burial’. 77. Smith, ‘Ethnicity’, 127–8. 78. Thedéen, ‘Who’s That Girl?’, 83. 79. Glørstad, ‘Homeland – Strange Land – New Land’; Downham, ‘Coastal Communities and Diaspora Identities in Viking Age Ireland’; Smith, ‘Ethnicity’, 130–2; Lee, ‘Costumes and Contact’. 80. Smith, ‘Ethnicity’, 130; Owen and Dalland, Scar, 60–72. 81. Arcini and Frölund, ‘Two Dwarves from Sweden’; Arwill-Nordbladh, ‘Viking Age Hair’. 82. The sources for these images (e.g. picture stones, golden foils, tapestries, figurines) are stylized representations of gender and could conceivably represent male or ambiguously gendered individuals. The figures probably represent the elite and may have a ritual context, so the hairstyles may not be representative; see ArwillNordbladh, ‘Viking Age Hair’; Danielsson, ‘Masking Moments’. 83. Ewing, Viking Clothing, 52–3. 84. Eichhorn-Mulligan, ‘Contextualizing Old Norse-Icelandic Bodies’, 200. 85. Njal’s Saga, ch. 33, 53. 86. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 96–97. 87. Clunies Ross, ‘Þórr’s Honour’, 48–76. 88. Auður Magnúsdóttir, ‘Frillor och fruar’, ch. 2; Auður Magnúsdóttir, ‘Kingship, Women and Politics in Morkinskinna’, 83–106. 89. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 1:69 90. Ibid., 1:68–9. 91. Raffield et al., ‘Male-Biased Operational Sex Ratios’.



92. Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, ‘Stanzas about Magnús Óláfsson in Danaveldi’, st. 4, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2, 1:91; Winroth, Age of the Vikings, 230–1; Whaley, ‘Fury of the Northmen and the Poetics of Violence’, 83. 93. Auður Magnúsdóttir, ‘Kingship, Women and Politics in Morkinskinna’. 94. Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, 32. 95. See, e.g., The Saga of Grettir the Strong, ch. 75, 169–70. 96. Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes, vol. 1, ch. 4. 97. Agnar Helgason et al., ‘mtDNA and the Origin of the Icelanders’; Krzewińska et al., ‘Mitochondrial DNA Variation in the Viking Age Population of Norway’. 98. Njal’s saga, ch. 25, 98, 44, 168. 99. Auður Magnúsdóttir, ‘Frillor och fruar’, ch. 2. 100. Karras, Slavery and Society, 75. 101. Laws of Early Iceland, K§118, 2:5; The Earliest Norwegian Laws, 108; Thrym’s Poem (Þrymskviða), st. 30, in The Poetic Edda, 96. 102. Thrym’s Poem, st. 30, 97; Laws of Early Iceland, K§118, 2:5. 103. Ibid., K§118, 2:5. 104. Sanmark, ‘Women at the Thing’, 85–100. 105. Riisøy, ‘Eddic Poetry’. 106. Clark, Gender, Violence and the Past, ch. 2, see esp. 54–6, and ch. 6; Evans, Men and Masculinities, ch. 2. 107. Orri Vésteinsson, ‘A Divided Society’. 108. Vs 24. 109. Laws of Early Iceland, K§152, 2:66. 110. Ibid., K§152, 2:66–7. 111. Pantmann, ‘The Symbolism of Keys in Female Graves on Zealand during the Viking Age’, 76. 112. Ibid., 80. 113. Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Viking Friendship, 22–6. 114. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 77; The Lay of Sigrdrifa, prose between st. 2 and 3, in The Poetic Edda, 162; Simek, ‘Rich and Powerful’; for women proffering drink in Völsunga saga, see The Saga of the Volsungs, ch. 10, ch. 20, ch. 24, ch. 26, ch. 32, 18, 36, 44, 48, 60, 66. 115. Enright, Lady with a Mead Cup, ch. 1.



116. Eriksen, Architecture, Society and Ritual, 52–5. 117. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, 25–45. 118. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 9, 19, 284, 302. 119. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, 43–4. 120. The Saga of the People of Eyri, ch. 18, 94. 121. Gisli Sursson’s Saga, ch. 32, 548. 122. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 52. 123. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 2:267–75; Sigvatr Þórðarson, ‘Lausavísa 26’, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1, 732. 124. Wamers, ‘Insular Finds’; Nockert, Tuna i Badelunda, 1. 125. Sanmark, ‘Women at the Thing’, 95. 126. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 1:115. 127. Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, 163; The Earliest Norwegian Laws, 82. 128. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 23–4. 129. Laws of Early Iceland, K§149, K§158, 2:63–4, 2:77, 2:272. 130. Kjellström, ‘Domestic Violence in the Middle Ages’. 131. Njáls saga, ch. 20, 36. 132. Grímnir’s Sayings, in The Poetic Edda, 47–8. 133. ‘The Saga of Finnbogi the Mighty’, ch. 3, 222. 134. Quinn, ‘Precarious Ties’. 135. Njáls saga, ch. 35, 57. 136. Njáls saga, ch. 77, 128. 137. Jón Karl Helgason, Hetjan og höfundurinn, 64. 138. Brynhild’s Ride to Hel (Helreið Brynhildar), st. 1–2, in The Poetic Edda, 187.

Chapter 4 1. Eirik the Red’s Saga, ch. 11, 670–1. 2. Jesch, Viking Diaspora, ch. 3. 3. Wolf, ‘Amazons in Vínland’.



4. Larrington, ‘Undruðusk þá, sem fyrir var’. 5. Eirik the Red’s Saga, ch. 12, 672; The Saga of the Greenlanders, ch. 6, 647. 6. Benedictow, ‘Milky Way’, 51; Guðný Zoëga, ‘A Family Revisited’. 7. Auður Ingvarsdóttir, ‘Margkunnugar konur’, 167. 8. Guðný Zoëga, ‘A Family Revisited’; Welinder, ‘Cultural Construction of Childhood’. 9. Kaland, ‘Settlement of Westness, Roysay’, 314. 10. Njáls saga, ch. 19 and 113, 35, 190; Macbeth IV.1; Ingvarsdóttir, ‘Margkunnugar konur’, 169. 11. The Book of Settlements, S§96/H§83, 51. 12. The Lay of Fafnir (Fáfnismál), st. 12; Groa’s Chant (Grógaldr), st. 7; both in The Poetic Edda, 155, 257. 13. The Lay of Sigurdrifa, st. 9, in The Poetic Edda, 163. 14. The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal (Vatnsdæla saga), in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, 211. 15. Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, 80. 16. Tacitus, ‘Germany’, ch. 20, 48. 17. Benedictow, ‘Milky Way’, 25; Laws of Early Iceland, K§128, 30; Helgi Þorláksson, ‘Óvelkomin börn?’, 84; Richards et al., ‘Stable Isotope Palaeodietary Study of Humans and Fauna’; Mejsholm, ‘Gränsland’, 111‒16. 18. ‘The Saga of the People of Floi’, ch. 23, 291; Grønlie, Saint and the Saga Hero, 190. 19. Grove, ‘Place of Greenland in Medieval Icelandic Saga Narrative’, 36; Grønlie, Saint and the Saga Hero, 182‒96. 20. ‘The Saga of the People of Floi’, ch. 29, 299. 21. The Saga of Grettir the Strong, ch. 17, 34. 22. ‘The Saga of Finnbogi the Mighty’, ch. 29, 248. 23. DR 114. 24. Jesch, ‘Women and Identities’, 274. 25. Gräslund, ‘Gud hjälpe nu väl hennes själ’; Gräslund, ‘Systrarna Tora och Rodvi’. 26. Johannessen, ‘Var hann kendr við móður sína’. 27. Jesch, Viking Diaspora, 91‒3; Krzewińska et al., ‘Genomic and Strontium Isotope Variation; Agnar Helgason et al., ‘mtDNA and the Origin of the Icelanders’. 28. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 20, 305.



29. Evidence from runic inscriptions and place names suggests that Norse settler communities in the British Isles were also bilingual; see Jesch, Viking Diaspora, ch. 4. 30. Saga Heiðreks konungs, ch. 4, 12; Egil’s Saga, ch. 7, 63. 31. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 2:3–4. 32. Ibid., 2:28. 33. Davídková, ‘Óláfr and the Queens’, 11. 34. Snorri Sturluson, Den store saga om Olav den hellige, 69–70. 35. Gunnar Karlsson, ‘Kenningin’. 36. Ricketts, High-Ranking Widows in Medieval Iceland and Yorkshire, ch. 4 and 6. 37. The Saga of Grettir the Strong, ch. 17, 33. 38. Poole, ‘Myth, Psychology, and Society in Grettis saga’. 39. The Seeress’s Prophecy, st. 34, in The Poetic Edda, 8; Kaplan, ‘Once More on the Mistletoe’. 40. The Saga of Grettir the Strong, ch. 69, ch. 84, 158, 191. 41. Egil’s Saga, ch. 7, 63; for the exact location of Brákarsund, see 42. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 1:137. 43. Sturla Þórðarson, Hákonar saga Hákonarsaga, vol. 1, 176. 44. Jochens, ‘Politics of Reproduction: Medieval Norwegian Kingship’. 45. Straubhaar, Old Norse Women’s Poetry, 12. 46. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 1:71–72. 47. Ibid., 3:7. 48. Jesch, ‘In Praise of Ástríðr Óláfsdóttir’, 6. 49. Sigvatr Þórðarson, ‘Poem about Queen Ástríðr’, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1, 646–9. 50. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, 103–4. 51. The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, in The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, 108. 52. Larrington, ‘Stjúpmœðrasögur and Sigurðr’s Daughters’. 53. The Whetting of Gudrun, st. 1–8, The Lay of Hamdir (Hamðismál), st. 2–8, both in The Poetic Edda, 226–7, 230–1. 54. The Saga of Bard the Snowfell God, ch. 5 (the translation of fóstra is based on philological arguments made in Kress, ‘Fyrir dyrum fóstru’, 76–9).



55. Ibid., 89. 56. Sif Rikhardsdottir, Emotion in Old Norse Literature, 127. 57. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 55, 381. 58. Ibid., ch. 60, 388. 59. Reykjavík, The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, AM 132 fol., 183rb and 185vb. 60. The Saga of the Volsungs, 14. 61. Ibid., 55. 62. Second Poem of Gudrun, st. 34, in The Poetic Edda, 195.

Chapter 5 1. U 29. Translation adapted from that in the database, spelling is normalized. 2. Sawyer, Viking-Age Rune-Stones, ch. 4. 3. Zilmer, ‘Viking Age Rune Stones in Scandinavia’; Fuglesang, ‘Swedish Runestones of the Eleventh Century’. 4. First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani (Helgakviða hundingsbana I), sts. 15, 30, 54, 56; Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani (Helgakviða hundingsbana II), prose sections on 129‒31, 133, sts. 14‒15, 29; both in The Poetic Edda, 110‒18, 128‒37. 5. Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, st. 43‒44; in The Poetic Edda, 135. 6. The First Poem of Gudrun (Guðrúnarkviða I), st. 1–3, 5, 11, in The Poetic Edda, 172–3. 7. Ibid., st. 19, 174. 8. The Lay of Hamdir (Hamdismál), st. 5, in The Poetic Edda, 230. 9. Larrington, Store of Common Sense, 170. 10. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 50, 374. 11. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, ‘Gerðit hon’. 12. Clover, ‘Hildigunnr’s Lament’. 13. Njal’s Saga, ch. 116, 195. 14. U 226. 15. Harris, ‘Bällsta Inscription and Old Norse Literary History’. 16. Austin, How to Do Things with Words.



17. Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, ch. 6. 18. Jochens, Old Norse Images of Women, ch. 7 and 8. 19. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, ch. 1. 20. Anderson, ‘No Fixed Point’. 21. Egil’s Saga, ch. 9, 18. 22. Ibid. 23. Egil’s Saga, ch. 22, 37. 24. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, ch. 2. 25. ‘The Saga of the Sworn Brothers’, ch. 4, 15. 26. Ibid., ch. 5, 17. 27. U 136 (for her husband Östein), U 137 (with Östein, for their son Gag), U 301 (for her husband Ingvar and his son Ragnvald), U 101 (with Hemingr and Jarlabanki for her sons Ingifastr and Ingvar), U 143 (with Jórunn for her son Ingvar), possibly U 147 (with Jórunn for Ingifastr and Ingvar). 28. Andersson and Boije-Backe, ‘Jarlabankeättens gravplats vid Broby bro’, 33–4; Winroth, Age of the Vikings, 159. 29. Winroth, Age of the Vikings, 158. 30. Gräslund, ‘Gud hjälpe nu väl hennes själ’, 225. 31. U 605. 32. Sö 101. 33. Bertelsen, ‘Sigurd Fafnersbane sagnet som fortalt på Ramsundsristningen’, 5–32. 34. Gräslund, ‘Gud hjälpe nu väl hennes själ’, 227; Lund, ‘Thresholds and Passages’. 35. Vita Anskarii auctore Rimberto, 44–6. 36. Scribal variation in the manuscript spellings of Catla (as Cathle and Clathle) may suggest that the continental scribes are unfamiliar with the name. 37. Eirik the Red’s Saga, ch. 1, 653. Eiríks saga rauða and Landnámabók refer to this figure as Auðr but I use the name Unnr here to avoid confusion. 38. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 4, 278. 39. Clunies Ross, ‘Land-Taking and Text-Making in Medieval Iceland’, 177. 40. Jesch, Women in the Viking Age, 75‒8; Callow, ‘Putting Women in Their Place?’. This number does not include the named and unnamed women who arrived in a group of settlers with their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons or in some other context. 41. The Book of Settlements, S§316, M§6, 122, 129.

Notes 42. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 82. 43. The Book of Settlements, S§49/H§36, 34, The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, ch. 44, 263. 44. Ibid., S§145/H§116, 69‒70. 45. Ibid., S§86/H§74, 47. 46. The Saga of the People of Eyri, ch. 8, 79. 47. The Book of Settlements, S§75, 39.

Chapter 6 1. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 44. 2. Ibid., 60. 3. Guðný Zoëga, ‘A Family Revisited’. 4. Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, ‘Becoming “Old”, Ageism and Taking Care of the Elderly in Iceland c. 900–1300’, 229–33. 5. Laws of Early Iceland, K§126, 2:25. 6. Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Specter of Old Age’. 7. Egil’s Saga, ch. 88, 82. 8. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 7, 281. 9. Benioff and Weiss, ‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO, 2013–14), seasons 3 and 4. 10. Vanherpen, ‘Remembering Auðr/Unnr djúp(a)uðga Ketilsdóttir’, 73. 11. Owen and Dalland, Scar, 57‒8. 12. The Saga of the People of Eyri, ch. 50, 167. 13. Kanerva, ‘Role of the Dead in Medieval Iceland’, 44. 14. Njal’s Saga, ch. 6, 13. 15. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 19, 301. 16. The Saga of the People of Eyri, ch. 15, 89. 17. Njal’s Saga, ch. 125, 214 18. The Saga of the People of Eyri, ch. 63, 192. 19. Loki’s Quarrel, st. 29, in The Poetic Edda, 85. 20. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, ch. 2.




21. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, 1:8. 22. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature, ch. 2. 23. Eirik the Red’s Saga, ch. 4, 658. 24. Ibid., ch. 4, 659. 25. The Saga of Grettir the Strong, ch. 79, 176–7. 26. Ibid., ch. 80, 180. 27. Gustin, ‘Of Rods and Roles’; Price, Viking Way, 132‒66. 28. Pentz et al., ‘Kong Haralds vølve’. 29. Holgate, Pagan Lady of Peel, 10‒12. 30. Ólafur Halldórsson, Grænland í miðaldaritum, 389‒95. 31. Holgate, Pagan Lady of Peel, 11. 32. See references in Chapter 2, note 75. 33. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 49‒50; Mills, ‘Grief, Gender and Mourning’, 139. 34. The Saga of the Volsungs, 13. 35. The Whetting of Gudrun, prose preamble and st. 13, in The Poetic Edda, 226, 228; The Saga of the Volsungs, 79. 36. The Whetting of Gudrun, st. 19‒20, 228‒9. 37. A Short Poem about Sigurd (Brot af Sigurðarkviðu), st. 47, 183. 38. Ibid., 189. 39. Mills, ‘Grief, Gender and Mourning’, 192‒3. 40. The Book of Settlements, S§41, 32. 41. Saga Heiðreks konungs, ch. 7, 26. 42. Sayings of the High One, st. 138, in The Poetic Edda, 32; The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, ch. 23, 225. 43. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 207–8. 44. Price, ‘Passing into Poetry’; Kjellström, ‘Urban Farmer’, 59‒65, 83. 45. Price, ‘Passing into Poetry’, 124. 46. Holck, Skjelettene fra Gokstad og Osebergskipet, 37, 67. 47. Christensen, Osebergdronningens grav; Price, Viking Way, 115. 48. N 138; Winroth, Age of the Vikings, 92. 49. Moen, ‘Gendered Landscape’, ch. 4.



50. Ibid., 42–3. 51. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 95, 27. 52. Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes, vol. 1, 251. 53. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 27. 54. Baldur’s Dreams, st. 7, in The Poetic Edda, 236; Larrington, ‘Loki’s Children’, 548. 55. See, e.g., Guðný Zoëga, ‘A Family Revisited’; Sundman, ‘Bihåleinflammation’; Sundman and Kjellström, ‘Signs of Sinusitis in Times of Urbanization in Viking Age– Early Medieval Sweden’. 56. Egil’s Saga, ch. 79, 151. 57. The Song of Hyndla, st. 10, in The Poetic Edda, 246. 58. Näsström, Freyja, 103‒4; Gunnell, ‘Season of the Dísir’. 59. The Tale of Thidrandi and Thorhall (Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls), in Icelandic Histories and Romances, 179‒84; Bek-Pedersen, Norns in Old Norse Mythology, 41‒8. 60. Ingunn Ásdísardóttir, Frigg og Freyja, 99‒107. 61. Näsström, Freyja, ch. 4. 62. The Seeress’s Prophecy, st. 20; First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, st. 3, in The Poetic Edda, 6, 110. 63. The Whetting of Gudrun (Guðrúnarhvöt), st. 13, in The Poetic Edda, 228. 64. Eirik the Red’s Saga, ch. 6, 663–4. 65. The Saga of the People of Eyri, ch. 51, 170. 66. Gardeła, ‘Buried with Honour and Stoned to Death?’ 67. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, ch. 76, 421. 68. Book of Settlements, S§110, 55.

Epilogue 1. Njal’s Saga, ch. 102, 177–8. 2. Sigvatr Þórðarson, ‘Austrfararvísur’, st. 5, in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1, 590. 3. Eirik the Red’s Saga, ch. 5, 661. 4. Gräslund, ‘Gud hjälpe nu väl hennes själ’. 5. Bailey and Cramp, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture in England, vol. 2, Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire North-of-the-Sands, 100–4.



6. Smith, ‘Thorir’s Bargain’. 7. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, ‘Konungs skuggsjá [The King’s Mirror] and Women Patrons and Readers in Late Medieval and Early Modern Iceland’. 8. See, e.g., Bandlien, Eufemia; Guðrún Nordal, ‘Konurnar í Sælingsdalstungu’. 9. Helgaker and Torgersen, ‘Vikingane/Norsemen’, NRK/Netflix, 2016–17.

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Index Abbo of Saint-Germain 78, 214 n.18 Adam of Bremen 187, 224 n.43 Adwick-le-Street, UK 77 Alfred, Anglo-Saxon king 77 Æsir, mythological tribe 3, 169, 191 Álfhildr, concubine of King Óláfr Haraldsson 132 Álfífa, queen of Norway 107–8 amulets 58, 70, 89–90, 183 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 57, 77–8 Angrboða, mother of Hel 190 Apocalypse Now 199 Arctic 13, 81, 126 Ari Þorgilsson, author 45 art (visual) 8, 68, 76, 92, 163, 183, 198 Urnes style 147 See also figurines, picture stones, Oseberg tapestry Ása, legendary queen (Ynglinga saga) 188 Ásdís, mother of Grettir (Grettis saga) 128–30, 137 Asgard, realm of the Norse gods 3, 8, 100, 170, 185 Áslaug, wife of Ragnar loðbrók (Ragnars saga loðbrókar) 134–6, 141 Ásta Guðbrandsdóttir, mother of King Óláfr Haraldsson 126–7, 142 Astrid, girl commemorated on the Dynna stone 52–3 Ástríðr Óláfsdóttir, queen of Norway 38– 40, 42, 51–2, 132–4, 162, 197 Ástríðr, mother of King Óláfr Tryggvason 130–1 Ástríðr, sister of King Óláfr Tryggvason 42 Atli, King of the Huns 19–20, 51, 143–4, 157, 185

Auðr djúpúðga, see Unnr Auðr Vésteinsdóttir, wife of Gísli (Gísla saga) 28, 104–5 Auðr, nicknamed Bróka-Auðr (Laxdæla saga) 57, 71, 109–10, 140 Auðr, wife of Þórarinn (Eyrbyggja saga) 104, 176 Baldr, Norse god 48, 76, 129, 185, 190–1, 199 Baldr’s Dreams, see Baldrs draumar Baldrs draumar 190 Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss 31–2, 45, 136–7, 208 n.50, 209 n.21, 220 n.54 Bárðr, father of Helga (Bárðar saga) 32, 137 Bárðr, husband of Sigríðr (Egils saga) 156 Battle of Clontarf 1–2 beauty (female) 4, 33, 50, 92–3, 102, 133, 175 Bera, mother of Egill (Egils saga) 126 Bergþóra, wife of Njáll (Njáls saga) 110, 113, 177 birds 7–8, 68–9, 189 Birka, Sweden 13, 31, 52, 62, 75, 81, 84, 89, 164, 188, 214 n.18 grave Bj.581 58–60, 63–4 Bolli, husband of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir (Laxdæla saga) 85, 138–40 Book of Settlements, see Landnámabók Borghildr, stepmother of Sinfjötli (Völsunga saga) 142 Borgný (Oddrúnargrátr) 51–2 Brák, foster-mother of Egill (Egils saga) 129–30 breastfeeding 26, 27, 64, 84, 87, 120, 122–3 male 123 bridge-building 162–4



Brísingamen, Freyja’s necklace 8, 10, 90, 192 Britain 1, 14, 15, 75, 91, 96, 106, 118, 125, 165, 220 n.29 See also Adwick-le-Street, Repton, York Brynhild’s Ride to Hel, see Helreið Brynhildar Brynhildr, legendary heroine 4, 41, 51, 69, 76, 112, 114, 121, 135, 142–3, 186, 199 burials 16, 22, 25, 30–1, 34, 58–64, 68, 75– 6, 80, 84, 88, 91, 99, 108, 126, 173–4, 182–5, 187–9, 194–5, 200 with weapons 58–64, 211 n.75 cannibalism 20, 167 Canute (Knútr), Danish king 107 Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones) 107 charms and spells 43, 47, 106, 121–2, 143, 159, 182 See also curses, magic child exposure 22–5 childbirth 119–22, 191 clothes 85, 87–88 Codex Regius 9, 19 concubinage, concubines 43, 45, 94–7, 110, 125, 132 cross-dressing 59–60, 87 curses 42–3, 106, 109, 128, 129, 137, 175, 181–2 See also charms and spells, magic Darraðarljóð 1–5, 78, 85, 179, 200 death 7, 11, 63, 112–14, 139–42, 147–51, 153–7, 170, 173–4, 177–9, 184–93 Denmark 15, 50, 91, 99, 107, 115, 183, 188 Funen 69 Fyrkat 183–4, 197 Hedeby 13, 21, 23, 52, 75, 84, 89 Jutland 66 Mammen 212 n.80 Ribe 13, 75 Rimsø 123 Trelleborg 75 dísir 121, 186, 191–3 divorce 27, 32, 40, 57, 74, 87, 95, 108–12

draugr (revenant) 65, 128, 137, 187, 193–5 Draupnir (Odin’s ring) 42 dreams 24–5, 34, 51, 102, 103, 150, 195 drinking horns 100–2, 142, 170, 183, 217 n.114 Dublin 1, 13, 77, 91, 165 Dynna picture and runestone 52–3 economic status 14, 23, 25–7, 31, 39, 76, 81, 95, 97–9, 111–12, 127, 157, 164–5, 188 Edda, prose treatise about Norse mythology 3–5, 8–10, 93, 100, 170, 169, 185, 190–1, 201, 212 n.95 eddic poetry 4, 19, 22, 54, 112, 136 education and learning 9, 28, 31, 121, 124, 142, 147, 167, 181, 207 n.34 Egill Skallagrímsson 43, 47, 106–7, 126, 129–30, 155–8, 172, 191 Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 43, 47, 106–8, 126, 129, 191 Eirik the Red 32, 118, 198 Eirik the Red’s saga, see Eiríks saga rauða Eiríkr ‘Bloodaxe’, Norwegian king 105–8, 130 Eiríks saga rauða 28, 73–4, 144, 180–1, 183–4, 193–4 Elli, mythological figure 169–70, 173–4, 180, 182, 184, 195–6 emotion 22, 24, 29, 39, 44, 51, 123, 110, 114, 130, 136, 139, 148, 150, 161, 172, 185–7 emotional trauma 32, 46 See also grief and mourning Estrid of Täby 162–4, 196 ethnicity 14–15, 74, 77, 94, 124–6, 167–8 Eufemia, queen of Norway 198 Eyjólfr ‘the grey’ (Gísla saga) 104–5 Eyrbyggja saga 80, 104, 110–12, 157, 167, 174–8, 194 Fáfnismál 121 Faroe Islands 37, 75, 118, 165 fathers 20, 24, 26–7, 30, 32–5, 37, 39, 41–8, 51, 65, 95, 109, 110, 123, 124–30, 137–8, 140, 157–8, 186, 196

Index feasts 40, 84, 94, 97, 100–1, 109, 113, 127, 137, 142, 167, 173 fertility 14, 91, 157, 171, 120, 192 feud 11, 18, 103, 107, 113, 124, 138–41, 150, 153–4, 176 figurines 68–70 First Poem of Gudrun, see Guðrúnarkviða Flateyjarbók (Book of Flatey) 9, 10, 191 Fljótsdæla saga 30 Flóamanna saga 123 food 81, 84, 85, 99, 113, 160, 166–7, 170, 189, 195 in burials 61–2 fornaldarsögur 56, 64–5, 70–1, 187, 202 Fóstbræðra saga 47, 154, 158–61, 167, 202 foster-relationships 27–30, 35, 110, 129–30, 136, 140, 176, 182 Freydís (Eiríks saga) 118–19, 144 Freyja 3, 7–11, 18, 45, 68–9, 70, 76, 180, 183, 187, 191–3, 212 n.95 Freyr, Norse god 42–3, 191 Frideburg, a widow in Birka 164–5 Frigg, goddess 110, 120, 129, 179, 191–3, 212 n.95 Game of Thrones 64–6, 71, 107, 173 Geirríðr, settler in Snæfellsnes, Iceland 167 Geirríðr, mother of Þórarinn (Eyrbyggja saga) 176 gender identity 14, 31, 59–60, 62, 65, 68, 71 Gerðr, a jötunn girl (Skírnismál) 42–3 Germania 77, 78, 122 Gesta Danorum, see History of the Danes Gísla saga Súrssonar 27–8, 46, 55, 85, 86, 104 Gísli Súrsson 27–8, 46, 55–6, 104 Gjúkungar, legendary dynasty 4, 19, 141–4 Glæsir the calf/bull (Eyrbyggja saga) 178 goading 78, 105, 107, 113, 139–41, 150–5, 159, 161 God of War 200 goddesses 8–11, 45, 76, 90, 93–4, 96, 98, 100, 105, 120, 124, 170, 179, 180, 185, 190–2, 212 n.95 Göndul, valkyrie 5–6, 192


Gosforth, Cumbria, UK 198 Gotland, island in the Baltic Sea 15, 25, 31, 34, 35, 188 See also Hunninge, Norrkvie. Grænlendinga saga 73, 79 Grágás 25, 35, 87, 99, 109, 171 grandparents 26, 29–30, 37, 40–1, 86, 92, 172–3, 196 Greenland 13, 18, 32, 73–5, 88, 115, 118, 123, 136, 180, 194, 198, 215 n.67 Grettir Ásmundarson 128–9, 137, 181–2 Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar 123, 181–2 grief and mourning 22, 32, 51, 54, 114, 123, 130, 135, 137, 140, 148–52, 155, 179, 184, 185, 195 Gríma, widow in the West Fjords (Fóstbræðra saga) 159, 161 Grímhildr, matriarch of the Gjúkungar (Völsunga saga) 142–3, 157 Grímnir‘s Sayings, see Grímnismál Grímnismál 5, 8, 110, 191 Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir (Eiríks saga and Grænlendinga saga) 18, 28, 73–4, 79, 119, 181, 194 Guðríðr, foster-daughter of Gísli (Gísla saga) 27–28, 104 Guðrún Gjúkadóttir 4, 19–22, 112, 136, 141–4, 149–50, 157, 185–6, 193 Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir (Laxdæla saga) 29– 30, 34, 85, 109–10, 138–41, 151, 195–6 Guðrúnarhvöt 21–2, 185, 193 Guðrúnarkviða 149 gullgubber 15, 87 Gunnar, husband of Hallgerðr (Njáls saga) 40, 93, 113–14 Gunnarr Gjúkason 4, 19, 51, 112, 141–3, 185–6 Gunnborga, rune carver 79 Gunnhildr, Norwegian queen 54, 105–8, 130–1, 175–6 Gunnlaugr, young student of magic (Eyrbyggja saga) 176 Gunnlaugr ormstunga (Gunnlaugs saga) 50–1 Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu 24, 50–1



Gunnvör, raiser of the Dynna stone 42 Guta lag 35 Gyða (Heimskringla) 50, 95 hair 4, 15, 66, 68, 92–4, 113–14, 135, 136, 151–2, 174–5, 189, 216 n.82 Hákon ‘the good’ Haraldsson, king of Norway 6, 108 Hákon Hákonarson, king of Norway 131 Hákonarmál 6 Halldís, foster-mother of Guðríðr (Eiríks saga) 28 Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir (Njáls saga) 29, 33–4, 40, 44, 93, 110, 112–14, 128, 138, 208 n.39 Hamdir 20–1 Harald ‘Greycloak’ 130 Harald Bluetooth, king of Denmark 197 Harald Fairhair, king of Norway 50, 54, 95, 131–2, 156–7, 166 Harbard’s Song, see Hárbarðsljóð Hárbarðsljóð 94, 206 n.17 Haustlöng 170 Hávamál 33, 102–3, 186 Hebrides 77, 80, 174 Heiðrekr, son of Hervör (Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks) 186 Heimskringla 40, 50, 83, 130, 132–4, 202 Hel, mythological figure 186, 190–1, 199 Hel, place in the afterlife 114, 185–6, 190–1 Hela (Marvel character) 200 Helga Bárðardóttir (Bárðar saga) 32, 45–6, 136–7 Helga Þorsteinsdóttir (Gunnlaugs saga) 24–6, 50–2 Helga, a suicide (Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks) 186 Helgi Harðbeinsson (Laxdæla saga) 139–40 Helgi poems 148, 193 Helgi, legendary hero 43, 148–9 Helreið Brynhildar 76, 114, 186–7 Herdís, granddaughter of Guðrún (Laxdæla saga) 29–30 heroic legend 4, 19–22, 38, 41, 43–4, 51, 69, 76, 112, 114, 121, 135, 136, 141–4, 148–50, 157, 163, 185–6, 193, 199

Herþrúðr, wife of Bárðr (Bárðar saga) 136 Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks 65, 67–8, 126, 186–7, 193, 202 Hervör, shield-maiden 65, 126, 186 Hetha, shield-maiden (History of the Danes) 66 Hildigunnr, wife of Höskuldr (Njáls saga) 41, 150–2, 177 Hildr Hrólfsdóttir, mother of Göngu-Hrólfr 131–2 Hillersjö runestone, Sweden 145–7 History of the Danes 47–8, 64, 66–7, 70, 118, 134 Hljóð, legendary figure 205 n.13 Holmgautr, farmer in Hassmyra, Sweden 98 Hólm-Starri (Landnámabók) 186 horses 6, 7, 22, 25, 42, 58, 62, 68, 75–6, 185–6, 187–9 Höskuldr Dala-Kollsson 32–3, 40, 44, 103, 125 Höskuldr, husband of Hildigunnr (Njáls saga) 150–2 Hrafnsmál 4 Hrefna, wife of Kjartan (Laxdæla saga) 138, 150 Hrungnir, jötunn 8, 100 Hrútr Herjólfsson 32–4, 79, 93, 103, 109, 128, 175 Hunninge, Gotland 102 Hyndla, mythological figure 9–11 Hyndluljóð 9–11, 191 Hyrrokkin, mythological figure 76 Hæsten, a Viking 77–8 Högni Gjúkason, legendary figure 19, 142–3, 185 Iceland 13, 18, 32, 34, 37, 40, 42, 45–6, 62, 77, 79–80, 86, 88–92, 96, 97, 100, 106, 111, 115, 118, 120, 124–6, 129, 130, 137, 141, 159–60, 165–6, 168, 172, 182, 187, 197–8 Bjarg 130 Bolungarvík 167 Borgarnes 130 Brákarsund 130

Index Drangey 182 East Fjords 89 Fróðá 80, 174–5 Hvammr 165 Keldudalur 86 Skálholt 194 Skógar 92 Snæfellsnes 73–6, 167 Vatnsdalur 122 West Fjords 159, 167, 200. Iðunn, goddess 11, 170 Illugi, farmer in Iceland (Landnámabók) 186 infant mortality 25, 120 infanticide 20, 22–5 infertility 120 Ingerun, raiser of a runestone 163 Inghen Ruaidh (Red Maiden), woman warrior 57 inheritance 26, 63, 65, 97, 109, 124, 127–8, 145–6, 155–6, 172 of the royal throne 108 Ireland 1, 3, 13, 29, 57, 80, 126 Isle of Man 77, 79, 183–4 Íslendingabók 23, 45 Jerusalem 74, 75, 79 jewellery 22, 31, 34, 80, 88–92, 99, 183, 188 Jófríðr, mother of Helga (Gunnlaugs saga) 24 Jónakr, husband of Guðrún Gjúkadóttir 185 Jórunn mannvitsbrekka (Laxdæla saga) 102 Jórunn skáldmær, a poet 54–6 Jórunn, wife of Höskuldr (Laxdæla saga) 103, 125, 154 jötnar, mythological figures 3, 8–10, 42, 45, 75, 86, 96, 100, 109, 115, 124, 166, 169, 170, 179, 190 Katla (Eyrbyggja saga) 175–6 kennings (in poetry) 6–7, 54, 58, 205 n.12 keys 31, 90, 99–100, 162 Kirk Michael picture stone, Isle of Man 183 Kjartan Óláfsson (Laxdæla saga) 29, 85, 138–40, 143, 150, 195


Kjartan, son of Þuríðr (Eyrbyggja saga) 111, 174–5 knowledge 9–11, 28, 54, 82, 84, 102–3, 142, 171, 176, 178–9 Kormákr, poet 46–7 Kormáks saga 46–7 L’Anse aux Meadows 13, 77 Lagertha (Vikings) 64 Landnámabók 46, 166–7, 187 land-taking 165–7 Lathgertha (History of the Danes) 66–7 laws 14, 16, 18, 20, 21, 23, 25–8, 35, 41, 56, 63, 74, 96–7, 99, 109, 111, 122–3, 127, 146, 158, 171–2, 200 Laxdæla saga 21, 29–30, 34, 37, 85, 109–10, 138–41, 151, 195–7 Lay of Fáfnir, see Fáfnismál Lay of Skírnir, see Skírnismál Legendary Saga of King Olaf Haraldsson 38–9 legendary sagas, see fornaldarsögur Leifr ‘the lucky’ Eiriksson 77, 118 Lincoln, England 13 List of Rig, see Rígsþula literacy (runic) 79, 102 Lokasenna 10, 94 Loki, mythological figure 8, 93–4, 105, 124, 170, 190, 198 Loki’s Quarrell, see Lokasenna longhouses 13, 83, 101 love: romantic 4, 41–2, 50–1, 67, 110, 141, 143, 148–9, 153, 195 maternal 19, 21–2, 123–4, 135–7 paternal 44, 123 in foster-relationships 28–9 grandparents and grandchildren 30, 196 magic 28, 43, 47, 106, 121–2, 143, 159, 179–84 Magnús Óláfsson, king of Norway 132–4 manuscripts 9, 17, 35, 198, 221 n.59 See also Codex Regius and Flateyjarbók Margaery Tyrell (Game of Thrones) 173 marriage 24, 31, 40–1, 44, 97–8 and age 34



betrothal 38–44 brideprice (mundr) 24, 40–1, 97 consent 41–4, 138, 156–7, 186 marital discord 108–15 weddings 97 as a valkyrie’s punishment for disobedience 4 See also divorce Mary Magdalene, biblical figure 198 Mary, biblical figure 198 masculinity 48–50, 96, 123, 154, 160, 177, 200 medicine 121–2, 183 Melkorka, an Irish bondswoman (Laxdæla saga) 29, 43, 97, 125–6, 138 memory drinks 9, 100, 142 Midgard-Serpent 169–70 Miklagarðr (Istanbul) 75 misogyny 10, 98, 106, 153 Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer 8, 45, 70, 97, 166 Monstrous Child, The 199 Muirgal (Irish bondswoman) 121 Mörðr (Njáls saga) 32 names 5, 26, 124, 135, 170 and gender 59, 64–5 nicknames 55, 57, 73, 102, 121, 125, 127, 132, 166 patronyms and metronyms 24 place names 15, 130, 166, 192 and social status 30. Nanna, wife of Baldr 185 Njáls saga 1–2, 29, 32–4, 40–1, 44, 51, 93, 97, 109–10, 112–14, 121, 128, 150, 175, 177, 197 Njord, a god 109, 191 nornir (mythological beings) 121, 85, 192–3 Norsemen (TV series) 65, 200 Norway 15, 23, 38–9, 50, 55, 63, 75–7, 79, 80, 95, 97, 105–8, 115, 118, 120, 126, 127, 133, 138–9, 156, 159, 162, 165, 188, 197, 198, 200 Alsta 156 Bergen 43

Bjørkum 83–4 Borre 131 Dynna 52–3 Hálogaland 166–7 Kaupang 13, 52, 75, 84, 131, 188 Sognefjord 83–4 Trøndelag 108 Vestfold 188 Víkin 131 nursing and healing 47, 78, 102, 121–2 Oddr, son of Katla (Eyrbyggja saga) 176 Oddrún (Oddrúnargrátr) 51–2, 76 Oddrúnargrátr 51–2, 76, 143–4 Odin 3, 4, 6–10, 10, 42, 45, 47–8, 58, 94, 100, 110, 120, 148–9, 179, 185–7, 191–2 Odindisa, housewife in Hassmyra, Sweden 98 Óláfr ‘the peacock’, son of Melkorka (Laxdæla saga) 43, 125–6 Óláfr ‘the white’, king in Dublin 165 Óláfr Eiríksson, king of Sweden 38–9, 133 Óláfr Haraldsson, king of Norway and saint 38–9, 51, 82, 83, 126–7, 132–4, 142 Óláfr Tryggvason, king of Norway 42, 130, 137, 154 Óláfr, grandson of Unnr djúpúðga 172–3 Olenna Tyrell (Game of Thrones) 173 Orkney 30, 37, 77, 92, 105, 121, 130, 165, 173–4, 200 See also Scar Oseberg burial 68, 76, 91, 108, 188–90, 193, 200, 212 n.80 Oseberg tapestry 68–9, 76, 189 Óttarr, protégé of Freyja 9–11 Paris (Viking siege of) 78, 214 n.18 Peel, Isle of Man 183–4 picture stones 15, 53, 68, 83, 100, 102, 135, 163, 188, 198, 216 n.82 See also Dynna stone, Kirk Michael stone, Ramsund stone pilgrimage 74, 79

Index Poem of Völund, see Völundarkviða Poland 13 pregnancy 24, 25, 64, 87, 96, 120–2, 130, 131, 139, 191 property ownership 26–7, 41, 46, 63, 71, 97, 99–100, 110, 127, 146, 156–8, 165, 172–3 prophecies 47, 139, 166, 177–81, 193 queens 11, 54, 64, 105–8, 130–5, 141, 162, 175–6, 185, 188, 198–9 Ragnar loðbrók, legendary king 66–7, 135–6 Ragnarök 3, 48, 94, 105, 179, 201 Ragnars saga loðbrókar 134–6, 201 Ramsund stone 163 Rán, sea goddess 190 Randalín (Ragnars saga loðbrókar), see Áslaug rape and sexual assault 42, 46–9, 94, 96, 125, 176 Reichenau monastery, Switzerland 79 religion 8, 11–12, 15, 23, 25, 45, 74, 79, 81, 97, 137, 147, 162–4, 171, 180–1, 184, 187, 190–6, 197–8 Repton, Derbyshire, UK 58, 78, 212 n.80 Ride of the Valkyries 199 Rígsþula 30, 86, 88, 92 Rimsø runestone 123 Rindr/Rinda, mythological figure 47–8 Ring of the Nibelungs (operas) 144, 199 rituals 23, 26, 28, 34, 58, 61–4, 101, 106, 151, 153, 164, 180–2, 187, 189, 216 n.82 royal women 38–40, 105–8, 126–7 rulership 13, 35, 66, 98, 105–8, 131, 173, 188–90 runes 15, 16, 31, 43, 47–8, 79, 102, 121–2, 145, 147, 163, 182, 188, 192 runestones 15, 18, 24, 79, 98, 115, 123–4, 136, 145–7, 153, 156, 162–3, 168, 196, 198, 200 Rus 13, 75 Rusla, shield-maiden (History of the Danes) 66


Rögnvaldr, a poet 50 Rögnvaldr, earl of Mæri 132 Rök runestone 18 Saga of Bard the Snowfell God, see Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss Saga of Gísli Sursson, see Gísla saga Súrssonar Saga of Grettir the strong, see Grettis saga Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, see Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu Saga of Ragnar lothbrok, see Ragnars saga loðbrókar Saga of the Greenlanders, see Grænlendinga saga Saga of the People of Eyri, see Eyrbyggja saga Saga of the People of Fljotsdal, see Fljótsdæla saga Saga of the People of Floi, see Flóamanna saga Saga of the People of Laxa Valley, see Laxdæla saga Saga of the Sworn Brothers, see Fóstbræðra saga sails 76, 81–3, 115, 165, 189, 198 Sámi 13, 14, 77, 125, 166–7, 184, 213 n.13 Saxo Grammaticus 47–8, 64, 66–8, 70, 118, 134 Sayings of the High One, see Hávamál Scar, Sandey, Orkney 30, 92, 173–4, 212 n.80 Scotland 2, 37, 62, 165 Seeress’s Prophecy, see Völuspá seiðr (a type of magic) 180–1, 183 servants 8, 14, 24, 26, 32, 42, 86, 88, 96, 113, 141, 158, 177 Sessrúmnir, Freyja’s hall 3, 191 sexuality 10, 42–3, 50–1, 106, 148, 175–6 shield-maidens 11, 38, 56–7, 59, 64–71, 119, 126, 187, 199, 202 ships 6, 13, 49–50, 54, 61, 76, 80–3, 115, 126, 135, 165, 173, 188–9 Síbilja the cow (Ragnars saga loðbrókar) 135



Sif, goddess 93–4 Sif, Marvel character 64, 212 n.83 Siggeir (Völsunga saga) 141, 185 Sighvatr Þórðarson, poet 133–4, 197 Sigmundr, legendary figure (Völsunga saga) 141 Signý, legendary heroine (Völsunga saga) 141–2, 185 Sigrdrífa, valkyrie 4, 69, 100, 121 Sigríðr of Sandnes (Egils saga) 155–8 Sigríðr, revenant in Greenland (Eiríks saga) 194 Sigríðr, a suicide (Landnámabók) 186 Sigríðr, sponsor of the Ramsund picture and runestone 163 Sigrún, legendary valkyrie 43, 148–9 Sigurðr ‘sýr’, stepfather of King Óláfr Haraldsson 127 Sigurðr the dragon-slayer 4, 19, 100, 112, 114, 121, 135, 136, 141–3, 149, 163, 185–6 Sigurfljóð, widow in Jökulfirðir (Fóstbræðra saga) 154, 159–61 Sigyn, wife of Loki 105, 198 Simon, Francesca 199 Sinfjötli, legendary figure (Völsunga saga) 141–2 Skaði (mythological figure) 75, 109 skaldic poetry 5–7, 49–50, 52–5, 68, 96, 131–2, 178, 202 Skarphéðinn, son of Njáll (Njáls saga) 114, 177 Skeggi (Bárðar saga) 32, 46, 136–7 Skírnir, mythological figure 42–3, 47 Skírnismál 42–3, 47, 52, 143 Skögul, valkyrie 5, 6 Snorri goði, chieftain (Eyrbyggja saga) 111, 157, 175, 178 Snorri Sturluson, author 3–5, 8–9, 40, 94, 130, 133, 180, 190 Snorri’s Edda, see Edda Snottsta, Uppland, Sweden 145 social status 14, 25–7, 30–1, 41–2, 44, 176–7 Song of Hyndla, see Hyndluljóð

St Michael 163 Steingerðr (Kormáks saga) 46–7 Steinunn Refsdóttir, poet 197 stepmothers 134–6, 142, 162 suicide 114, 143, 184–7 attempted 193 Svanhildr, daughter of Guðrún Gjúkadóttir 19–20, 22, 136, 185 Sweden 13, 15, 18, 24, 38–9, 50, 69, 75, 76, 79, 84, 90, 98, 101, 102, 108, 115, 125, 130–2, 145–6, 153, 162–4, 198, 202 Aska 90 Hassmyra 98 Hillersjö 145–7 Klinta 101 Mälardalen 108 Sanda 81 Sibble 69 Sigtuna 13, 15 See also Birka. Sæunn, foster-mother of Bergþóra (Njáls saga) 177 Sörla þáttr 10, 192–3 Sörli, son of Guðrún Gjúkadóttir 20–1 Sörli’s Tale, see Sörla þáttr Tacitus, see Germania Tale of Thidrandi and Thorhall, see Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls textiles 3, 13, 31, 52, 78, 81–8, 189, 198, 215 n.67 silk 30, 89, 189–90, 198 See also work Thor (comics and films) 64 Thor, Norse god 8, 166, 191, 197 Thor: Ragnarok 199 Thrond, legendary warrior (History of the Danes) 66 Thrym’s Poem, see Þrymskviða toys 31 trade 12–13, 16, 31, 52, 58, 62, 77, 79, 80–2, 90, 118–19, 162, 164–5 travel 9, 12, 13, 38, 45, 58, 65, 74–80, 122, 130, 160, 180 Tryggvi, king of Norway 130

Index Unnr (also called Auðr) djúpúðga (the Deep-Minded) 18, 37, 121, 165–6, 172–3, 195–6, 222 n.37 Unnr, daughter of Mörðr (Njáls saga) 32–3, 109 Utgartha-Loki, jötunn 169–70 Valhalla 3, 148 Valkyries 1–7, 18, 43, 58, 67–70, 76, 100–1, 115, 121, 135, 141–2, 148–9, 179, 192–3, 199–200, 205 n.13 Vanir, mythological tribe 3, 191 vengeance 18, 20–2, 112, 135–6, 139, 144, 152–3, 168 See also feud Vermundr, chieftain (Fóstbræðra saga) 160–1 Víglundar saga 207 n.34 Viking Age 11–15 Vilborg, poet 55 Vinland 73, 114–19 Völsunga saga 4, 19, 69, 120, 201, 205 n.13 Völsungr (Völsunga saga) 120–1 Völundarkviða 8 Völuspá 5, 9, 179, 192, 201 völva (pl. völur) 179–81, 183–4, 195 Wagner, Richard 144, 199 Die Walküre 199 war 1–6, 11, 57, 77–8, 165 weapons 4–7, 11, 56–65, 68, 83, 125–6, 128, 135, 139, 164 Whetting of Guðrún, see Guðrúnarhvöt women warriors 56–64 Words about Hákon, see Hákonarmál Words of the Raven, see Hrafnsmál work 13, 16, 79, 81–7, 98–99, 174–5, 114 crafts 16, 79 textile work 2, 4, 6, 8, 13, 16, 31, 52, 62, 81–4, 114, 173–4, 189, 207 n.34, 214 n.18 Yara Greyjoy (Game of Thrones) 64–66 Ynglinga saga 180, 188 York 13, 75, 105–6


Þangbrandr, missionary 197 Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls 191, 225 n.59 Þjazi, jötunn Þjóðhildr, wife of Eirik (Eiríks saga) 32, 198 Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, a poet 49 Þjóðrekr, legendary figure 17 Þjóstólfr, foster-father of Hallgerðr (Njáls saga) 29, 44, 113, 208 n.39 Þóra (Landnámabók) 167 Þóra, wife of Ragnar loðbrók 135 Þórarinn, son of Geirríðr (Eyrbyggja saga) 176 Þorbjörg lítilvölva (Eiríks saga) 180–1, 184 Þorbjörn öngull (Grettis saga) 182 Þorbjörn, father of Guðríðr (Eiríks saga) 73 Þórdís Súrsdóttir (Gísla saga) 55–6 Þórdís, daughter of Gríma (Fóstbræðra saga) 159 Þorfinnr karlsefni (Eiríks saga) 73–4 Þorgeirr (Fóstbræðra saga) 160–1 Þorgerðr Egilsdóttir 43, 140, 191 Þorgerðr, daughter of Hallgerðr (Njáls saga) 40 Þorgerðr, mother of Höskuldr (Laxdæla saga) 79–80 Þorgerðr, settler in Iceland (Landnámabók) 166 Þorgils, man who breastfeeds his baby (Flóamanna saga) 123 Þórgunna, immigrant from the Hebrides (Eyrbyggja saga) 80, 174–5, 194–5 Þórhildr, wife of Þráinn (Njáls saga) 40, 109–10 Þorkell, farmer in Greenland (Eiríks saga) 180–1 Þormóðr, poet (Fóstbræðra saga) 47, 159–61 Þóroddr, husband of Þuríðr (Eyrbyggja saga) 111–12, 174, 194 Þóroddr, owner of Glæsir the calf/bull (Eyrbyggja saga) 177–8 Þórólfr bægifótr (Eyrbyggja saga) 178 Þórólfr Kveld-Úlfsson 156–8 Þórólfr Skallagrímsson (Egils saga) 106 Þorsteinn Egilsson (Gunnlaugs saga) 24

252 Þorsteinn, husband of Guðríðr (Eiríks saga) 194 Þorvaldr Ósvífrsson (Njáls saga) 44 Þráinn, lecherous old man (Njáls saga) 40, 51, 110, 175 Þrymr, jötunn 8, 45 Þrymskviða 8, 10, 45, 97, 99 Þuríðr spákona (Landnámabók) 166 Þuríðr sundafyllir (Landnámabók) 166–7

Index Þuríðr, foster-mother of Þorbjörn öngull (Grettis saga) 182 Þuríðr, rune carver 79 Þuríðr, sister of Snorri goði (Eyrbyggja saga) 80, 111–12, 157–8, 174–5, 194 Ømund, legendary king (History of the Danes) 66

Figure  1  Flateyjarbók (the Book of Flatey), Reykjavík, Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, GKS 1005 fol. Photo: Jóhanna Ólafsdóttir. By kind permission.

Figure 2  A necklace with over one hundred beads and nineteen fish-shaped pendants, found in a girl’s grave in Norrkvie, Grötlingbo, Gotland, Sweden. Photo:  Gabriel Hildebrand. Swedish History Museum. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Figure 3  The Saga Oseberg ship. Photo: Ole Harald Flåten. Oseberg Vikingarv and Ole Harald Flåten. By kind permission.

Figure 4  Norsemen’s Frøya. The warrior woman Frøya, played by Silje Torp. From the Norwegian TV comedy Norsemen (NRK and Netflix, 2017–). By permission.

Figure 5  Stora Hammars stone I, Lärbro parish, Gotland, featuring several panels with mythological motifs. Photo:  Bengt A.  Lundberg/Riksantikvarieämbetet. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Figure  6  Gilded silver pendants with niello inlay found in Tissø, Kalmergården, Zealand, Denmark. Photo: Roberto Fortuna and Kira Ursem. National Museum of Denmark. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Figure 7  A watercolour image by Mary Storm reconstructing what the tapestry found in the Oseberg ship might originally have looked like. Photo: Eirik Irgens Johnsen. Museum of Cultural History, Oslo, Norway, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Figure 8  Drawing by Sofie Krafft of one of the fragments of the Oseberg tapestry. The figures in front of the horse may depict valkyries. Museum of Cultural History, Oslo, Norway, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Figure 9  Hunnestad stone, DR 284 from the Hunnestad monument. Photo: Hedning. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Figure  10 Runestone Hs 21, Jättendal, Hälsingland, Sweden. Photo:  Bengt A. Lundberg/Riksantikvarieämbetet. CC BY-SA 2.5.

Figure 11  Melina Beck in reconstructed Viking dress. Photo: Ash Thayer. By kind permission.

Figure  12 A  set of woman’s jewellery found in Aska, Södermanland, Sweden. Swedish History Museum. CC BY-SA 2.5.

Figure 13  Picture stone from Tjängvide, Alskog Parish, Gotland, Sweden. Now in the Swedish History Museum. Photo: Berig. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Figure 14  Whalebone plaque decorated with dragons found in Scar, Orkney. Photo: Crown Copyright HES.

Figure  16 A  reconstruction of a woman’s grave in Peel, Isle of Man. Artist: Mirosław Kužma.

Figure  15 Figure in a trailing dress on carved stone no.  123, Kirk Michael, Isle of Man. Photo:  Leszek Gardeła. By kind permission.