A shieldmaiden (Old Norse: skjaldmær, Danish: skjoldmø, Norwegian: skjoldmøy, Swedish: sköldmö, German: Schildmaid) in Scandinavian folklore and mythology was a woman who had chosen to fight as a warrior. They are often mentioned in sagas such as Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks and in Gesta Danorum. Shieldmaidens also appear in stories of other Germanic peoples: Goths, Cimbri, and Marcomanni. The mythical valkyries may have been based on the shieldmaidens. The historical existence of shieldmaidens is heavily debated, but scholars including Lars Magnar Enoksen, Neil Price, and scholar Britt-Mari Näsström argue evidence for their existence, while scholar Judith Jesch disagrees, citing lack of hard evidence.
There are few historic attestations that Viking Age women took part in warfare, but the Byzantine historian John Skylitzes records that women fought in battle when Sviatoslav I of Kiev attacked the Byzantines in Bulgaria in 971. When the Varangians (not to be confused with the Byzantine Varangian Guard) had suffered a devastating defeat in the Siege of Dorostolon, the victors were stunned at discovering armed women among the fallen warriors.
When Leif Erikson'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 Skrælings. The fight is recounted in the Greenland saga, though Freydís is not explicitly referred to as a shieldmaiden in the text.
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.
Examples of shieldmaidens mentioned by name in the Norse sagas include Brynhildr in the Vǫlsunga saga, Hervor in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, the Brynhildr of the Bósa saga ok Herrauðs, the Swedish princess Thornbjǫrg in Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar and Princess Hed, Visna and Veborg in Gesta Danorum.
Two shieldmaidens appear in certain translations of the Hervarar saga. The first of these Hervors 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. 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.
Brynhildr Buðladóttir and Guðrún Gjúkadóttir
Brynhildr of the Vǫlsunga saga, along with her rival in love, Guðrún Gjúkadóttir, 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 Gunnarr instead of Sigurðr, 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
To ride into the fire
Nor to leap across it.
Brynhildr is married to Gunnarr and not Sigurðr because of deceit and trickery, including a potion of forgetfulness given to Sigurðr so he forgets his previous relationship with her. Brynhildr is upset not only for the loss of Sigurðr but also for the dishonesty involved. Similar 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, Sigurðr, and Sigurð's son by Guðrún. 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.
Guðrún 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. Guðrún 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." 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, Svanhildr. 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.
Graves of women settlers containing weapons have been uncovered, but scholars do not agree how these should be interpreted. Norse immigrant graves in England and chemical analysis of the remains suggested a somewhat equal distribution of men and women, suggesting husbands and wives, while some of the women were buried with weapons. In a tie-in special to the TV series Vikings Neil Price showed that a Birka-burial excavated in the 1970s containing a large number of weapons and the bones of two horses turned out to be the grave of a woman upon bone analysis by Anna Kjellström.
In popular culture
While women warriors are a staple of fantasy, 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.
- Women in ancient warfare
- Women in post-classical warfare
- Women in warfare (1500-1699)
- Women warriors in literature and culture
- List of women warriors in folklore
- The article Sköldmö in Nordisk familjebok (1917).
- Enoksen, Lars Magnar, 2004, Vikingarnas stridskonst s 20, s286, s 295f och s 314 ISBN 91-85057-32-0
- Harrison, D. & Svensson, K. (2007). Vikingaliv. Fälth & Hässler, Värnamo. ISBN 978-91-27-35725-9. p. 71
- Thorsson, Ö. (Ed.) The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin Books, 1997.
- Elton, Oliver. "THE DANISH HISTORY, BOOKS I-IX by Saxo Grammaticus". Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
- Tolkien, Christopher. "The Saga of King Heidrik the Wise" (PDF). Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd. Retrieved April 22, 2013.
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- McLeod, Shane. "Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD". Early Medieval Europe. Wiley. 19 (3): 332–353. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00323.x.
- Vergano, Dan (July 19, 2011). "Invasion of the Viking women unearthed". USA Today.