Shieldmaiden

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Hervor dying after battle with the Huns. A painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo

A shieldmaiden (Old Norse: skjaldmær, Danish: skjoldmø, Norwegian: skjoldmøy, Swedish: sköldmö, German: Schildmaid) was a woman who had chosen to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. They are often mentioned in sagas such as Hervarar saga and in Gesta Danorum. Shieldmaidens also appear in stories of other Germanic nations: Goths, Cimbri, and Marcomanni.[1] The mythical Valkyries may have been based on the shieldmaidens.[1] The existence of shieldmaidens is heavily debated but scholars like writer Lars Magnar Enoksen[2] and scholar Britt-Mari Näsström[3] argue evidence for their existence, while scholar Judith Jesch disagrees citing lack of hard evidence.[4]

Historical accounts[edit]

There are few historical attestations that Viking Age women took part in warfare,[5] but the Byzantine historian Johannes Skylitzes records that women fought in battle when Sviatoslav I of Kiev attacked the Byzantines in Bulgaria in 971.[5] When the Varangians had suffered a devastating defeat, the victors were stunned at discovering armed women among the fallen warriors.[5]

When Leif Ericson's pregnant half-sister Freydís Eiríksdóttir was in Vinland, she is reported to have taken up a sword, and, bare-breasted, scared away the attacking Native Americans.[5] The fight is recounted in the Greenland saga, though Freydís is not explicitly referred to as a shieldmaiden in the text.[6]

According to the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, shieldmaidens fought on the Danish side at the Battle of Bråvalla, in the year 750.

"Now out of the town of Sle, under the captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hakon Cut-cheek came Tummi the Sailmaker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Webiorg was also inspired with the same spirit, and was attended by Bo (Bui) Bramason and Brat the Jute, thirsting for war...The same man witnesses that the maiden Weghbiorg (Webiorg) fought against the enemy and felled Soth the champion. While she was threatening to slay more champions, she was pierced through by an arrow from the bowstring of Thorkill, a native of Tellemark."[7]

Legendary accounts[edit]

Examples of shieldmaidens mentioned by name in the Norse sagas include Brynhild in the Volsunga saga, Hervor in Hervarar saga, the Brynhild of the Bósa saga ok Herrauds, the Swedish princess Thornbjörg in Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar and Hed, Visna and Veborg in Gesta Danorum.

Two shieldmaidens appear in certain translations of the "Hervarar saga." The first of these Hervor's was known to have taken up typically masculine roles early in her childhood, and often raided travelers in the woods dressed as a man. Later in her life she claimed the cursed sword Tyrfing from her father's burial site and became a seafaring raider. She eventually settled and married. Her granddaughter was also named Hervor and commanded forces against attacking Huns. Although the saga remarks on her bravery she is mortally wounded by enemy forces and dies on the battlefield.[8] Scholars Judith Jesch and Jenny Jochens theorize that shieldmaidens' often grim fates or their sudden return to typically female roles is a testament to their role as figures of both male and female fantasy as well as emblematic of the danger of abandoning gender roles.[8]

Brynhildr Buðladóttir[edit]

Main article: Brynhildr

Brynhildr of the Volsunga saga, along with her rival in love, Gudrun, provides an example of how a shieldmaiden compares to more conventional aristocratic womanhood in the sagas. Brynhildr is chiefly concerned with honor, much like a male warrior. When she ends up married to Gudrun's brother Gunnar instead of Sigurd, the man she intended to marry, Brynhildr speaks a verse comparing the courage of the two men:

Sigurd fought the dragon
And that afterward will be
Forgotten by no one
While men still live.
Yet your brother
Neither dared
To ride into the fire
Nor to leap across it."[9]

Brynhildr is married to Gunnar and not Sigurd because of deceit and trickery, including a potion of forgetfulness given to Sigurd so he forgets his previous relationship with her.[9] Brynhildr is upset not only for the loss of Sigurd but also for the dishonesty involved. Similarly to her male counterparts, the shieldmaiden prefers to do things straightforwardly, without the deception considered stereotypically feminine in much of medieval literature. She enacts her vengeance directly, resulting in the deaths of herself, Sigurd, and Sigurd's son by Gudrun. By killing the child, she demonstrates an understanding of feud and filial responsibility; if he lived, the boy would grow up to take vengeance on Brynhildr's family.

Gudrun has a similar concern with family ties, but at first does not usually act directly. She is more inclined to incite her male relatives to action than take up arms herself. Gudrun is no shieldmaiden, and Brynhildr mocks her for this, saying, "Only ask what is best for you to know. That is suitable for noble women. And it is easy to be satisfied while everything happens according to your desires.”[9] In her later marriages, however, she is willing to kill her children, burn down a hall, and send her other sons to avenge the murder of her daughter, Svanhild. In the world of the sagas, women can be both honorable and remorseless, much like the male heroes. While a shieldmaiden does not fill a woman's typical role, her strength of character is found in even the more domestic women in these stories.

Archeology[edit]

There have been uncovered graves of women containing weapons, but scholars do not agree how these should be interpreted.[10] Graves of Norse immigrants in England and chemical analysis of the remains suggested a somewhat equal distribution of men and women in the migration, suggesting husbands and wives. Some of the women were buried with weapons.[11][12][13]

In popular culture[edit]

While women warriors are a staple of fantasy fiction, they are not often referred to as shieldmaidens. Some who are include Éowyn in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and Thorgil in Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls trilogy.

In the 2013 TV series Vikings, the legendary Viking shieldmaiden Lagertha, played by Katheryn Winnick, is a principal character.

See also[edit]

References[edit]