In honour of Women’s History Month, this article will be a bit different from the other Norse mythology articles, because Shield Maidens really did exist in history. There are a lot of historical mentions, and links for further research, for those who want to learn more.
Who the Shield Maidens were A shield maiden was not some high-class title, only held by noble ladies. In fact, it was the brutal women who were honoured with the name. Any Norse girl could grow up to be a shield maiden. The only requirements were that she must know how to fight. Brought up holding a sword, shield maidens were taught combat, and to kill. Any cast of people in the Scandinavian clans could become one. It was almost expected that a farming woman should be able to defend her home, especially when her husband or father was away.
What we know about Shield Maidens The fact that shield maidens existed has been well known for most of their history. Written stories, archeological findings, and documented accounts from other sources have told us as much. The Vikings did not keep written records themselves. However, the English, French, Arabic, and other countries that they had dealings with, wrote about the Scandinavian raiders, giving us hints of how they lived. They tell us that Viking women were not only respected by the men, but equal to them. A woman could divorce her husband on her own terms, she was in charge of the household finances, and ran her home without her husband’s interference.
The debate on Shield maidens is just how much they truly partook in battles. A woman knowing how to defend herself is one thing. To voluntarily fight alongside their men in war is another.
It has not been until recent discoveries, has archeological evidence of a woman being a war hero has shown itself. In Birka, Sweden a typical Viking grave was uncovered. With the usual weapons, and spoils of war that the men were normally buried with. Except the skeleton they found was a woman’s. Although it is not proof of women generally joining wars and fighting, it does show that it had happened at least once. Supporting the documents, poems, and sagas that we already had access to, claiming women did fight alongside the men on occasions. If you want to learn more about the Swedish Viking grave, here is a link to a short video of a documentary about the shield maidens. https://youtu.be/eUrq3aYuGOw
The historical documents As mentioned above, there has been documented accounts of the Shield Maidens. The Gesta Danorum, translated into English means, Deeds of the Danes. It is one of the oldest documents found in Denmark in the 12th century, giving us the history of Denmark, and mentions shield maidens by name. You can read more about it, at the website below. Gesta Danorum | Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing - eBooks | Read eBooks
Then there is the Gothic poem Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks. (The Goth’s were a Germanic tribe, who had their own Viking tribes with the same beliefs as other Scandinavian Vikings). This document has several poems in it. Including the tales of the hero Hervor a woman who dressed like a man to lead her father’s clan. It has historical fixtures, that make historians believe that the poems could possibly be relating real events and people. If you wish to read the poems for yourself, follow the link below. Germanic Mythology: Texts, Translations, Scholarship
Shield Maiden and not ‘Sword Maiden’ Here’s a little piece of information you might have questioned at one point. Why were they called Shield Maidens, and not Sword Maidens? The answer is a simple one, you can use anything as a weapon. When learning to fight, the sword was the main tool any Viking could use, but they were also skilled in handling axes, spears, bows and hammers. Pretty much anything could be used as a weapon in a fight, and all the Vikings were trained to use them. While shields were special. To have your own shield was vital for every Viking, it was apart of their combat technics. For a maiden to have her own shield, means it was best not to mess with her.
Whether Shield Maidens actively participated in wars or only held off invaders from their lands, while the men were away, does not take away from how amazing these women were. They were as tough as their men. Able to work their farms, fight off invaders, and raise a family. Shield Maidens were something not normal for their time, something that even baffled their neighboring countries.
Article researched and written by Billie
All photos used are from these websites, unless stated otherwise.