Among the Vikings a Type of Warrior Woman

Today’s been interesting. We went to a symposium, hosted by the Jorvik Viking Centre as part of the 2019 Viking Festival (#JVF19), on the subject of Women and Power in the Viking World.

Several prominent academics came to speak to us (apart from one who spoke to us from Newfoundland but be reasonable that’s quite a distance when you’re busy) on various aspects of female influence in Norse (Viking) society. A society that’s traditionally regarded, and consistently represented in literature and pop culture, as the very pinnacle of hypermasculinity.

(Shades of Gilbert and Sullivan in there…)

But the question of the role of women in Viking culture is a vexed one. From the mid-nineteenth century when Victorian society got the idea that archaeological expeditions and excavations would bring treasure and adventure and romance, people have imagined among the Vikings a type of warrior woman — a ‘shield-maiden’, as they’re often called — a fierce fighting woman who could swing a sword as well as, if not better than, her brothers in arms.

The image has been remarkably persistent, woven into myths and legends about the Valkyries — the Choosers of the Slain, the wardens of Valhalla: these are the fearsome supernatural women whom Odin sends to determine battle outcomes and decide who among the dead would be worthy to join the All-Father’s army of Einherjar.

There’s also some influence, at least based on today’s talks, from stories of the legendary Amazons — the tribe or nation of warrior women spoken of in classical literature.

Obviously the warrior-woman image has always been popular, and remains so, through TV like Xena: Warrior Princess and movies such as Wonder Woman.

But there’s never been a lot of firm evidence that such figures ever existed outside of myth (Valkyries notwithstanding: we’re specifically talking about Humans here).

And then Bj.581 happened.

In 1889, archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe catalogued the grave of a high-ranking professional Viking warrior amongst numerous graves at a site called Birka, on the island of Björkö in Sweden. The dead man had been buried in a prominent location, and interred with numerous artifacts showing him to have been a war leader of some status. Bj.581 was the label given the individual burial, and for quite a long time nobody thought very much more about it. High-ranking warrior, buried in the right place with all the right kit, job’s a good’n.

In the 1970s, quiet questions began to be asked about some of the assumptions made about Bj.581, and in 2014 an osteological analysis indicated the skeleton seemed to be that of a woman. In 2017, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson et al published the results of a DNA test showing the skeleton was chromosomally female: the deceased had no Y chromosomes.

This triggered something of a rumpus.

The media went bugfuck, announcing the discovery of ACTUALLY XENA YOU GUYS SRSLY, while the academic world put itself through all sorts of contortions trying to explain away the new findings. If this was a woman, ran one line of argument, then the grave goods found alongside her can’t have been hers. There must have been another body in the grave (there wasn’t). The skeleton must have been misidentified (it hadn’t). She must have been looking after the equipment for her husband who’d already died and she was taking the stuff to the afterlife for him (it… what, though? I mean… what?)

Well, then, commentators said, perhaps this was a biological woman — but there’s no telling whether the person identified as female. She may have been a transgender man living as a warrior.

Now as a transwoman you’d think I’d be all about that one — but I’m under no illusions about the difficulty of getting people, even some academics, to accept the reality of gender incongruence even now, when there’s an Internet full of trans people telling the world that we’re really experiencing what we say we’re experiencing.

It’s remarkable that the notion of a female warrior is so hard even for academia to accept that they’d seek to conclude the presence of transgender people in Viking society* before they’d concede that this might simply have been a fighting woman.

I can sort of understand it. I mean, I do recognise that it’s a hell of a paradigm shift. But when the evidence tells you to go somewhere, you pretty much have to go there, even if it’s uncomfortable.

It’s also worth keeping in mind what Hedenstierna-Jonson and her team actually said, at least in their updated paper. Their ultimate assertion is, quite simply, that the Bj.581 skeleton id8 that of a woman. Which it is. Nothing else about the original analysis of the excavation has changed. All the attempts to disprove any claim beyond that (“This was a Viking Xena!”) are trying to debunk things the team aren’t claiming.

They simply make the point that none of the conclusions drawn from the grave goods and burial circumstances — that this was a high-status warrior, a leader and strategist — were considered anything less than firm, uncontroversial evidence when the body was thought male. But now it’s a woman, everything has to be questioned.

It’s a woman. A born woman. No, we don’t know if she identified as a woman, but there’s nothing to say she couldn’t have done. Yes, she was buried with all the accoutrements of a warrior of rank. What we therefore have at hand is a biological woman who was buried with all the accoutrements of a warrior of rank.

As far as I can tell, not being an expert on the subject, that’s all that’s being asserted — and to be honest it looks pretty difficult to argue with. But I wonder if the arguments don’t say more about our own society’s modern relationship with ideas of gender than they do about the Vikings.


(* For the record I think it highly likely trans people existed in Viking society, and indeed all through history all round the world. I’m of the view that whatever causes our condition seems to be physical, so it seems to me unlikely that it just suddenly started occurring in the last hundred or so years. How societies treated or recorded their trans people of course will vary.)

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