View Full Version : The Status of Women in Norse/Viking Society

Saturday, March 4th, 2006, 03:20 PM
Female Vikings?

Could women be Vikings? Strictly speaking, they could not. The Old Norse word vikingar is exclusively applied to men, usually those who sailed from Scandinavia in groups to engage in the activities of raiding and trading in Britain, Europe and the East. But some Vikings stayed behind in these regions, and Scandinavian colonies were also established in the North Atlantic (Faroe, Iceland, Greenland).

Women could and did play a part in this process of settlement. Iceland, for instance, was uninhabited, and a permanent population could only be established if women also made the journey there. In regions with an established indigenous population, Viking settlers may have married local women, while some far-roving Vikings picked up female companions en route, but there is evidence that Scandinavian women reached most parts of the Viking world, from Russia in the east to Newfoundland in the west.

Most journeys from Scandinavia involved sea-crossings in small, open ships with no protection from the elements. Families heading for the North Atlantic colonies would also have to take all the livestock they would need to establish a new farm, and the journey cannot have been pleasant. The Viking colonists settled down to the farming life in their new home, or established themselves as traders and became town-dwellers. Both farming and trading were family businesses, and women were often left in charge when their husbands were away or dead. There is also evidence that women could make a living in commerce in the Viking Age. Merchants' scales and weights found in female graves in Scandinavia suggest an association between women and trade, while an account of a ninth-century Christian mission to Birka, a Swedish trading centre, relates the conversion of a rich widow Frideburg and her daughter Catla, who travelled to the Frisian port of Dorestad.

Viking women in England

The 'great Danish army' that criss-crossed and conquered much of England in the 860s and 870s probably had camp-followers, although these need not have been Scandinavian women. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that a Viking army operating in the years 892-5 was accompanied by women and children, who had to be put in a place of safety while the army fought and harried. But this army arrived in England after raiding on the continent and at least some of the women may have come from there. The first Viking settlers who turned their swords into ploughshares are unlikely to have had Scandinavian wives.

However, place-names and language suggest that there was considerable Scandinavian immigration into those areas of England controlled by the Viking invaders, later known as the 'Danelaw'. Although the nature and extent of the Scandinavian immigration is contested by scholars, the most convincing explanation of the evidence is that there was a peaceful migration of Scandinavian families to parts of the north and east of England throughout the tenth century. Recent finds of large numbers of low-grade, Scandinavian-style female jewellery, particularly in Lincolnshire, have been taken to show the presence of Scandinavian women there in the tenth century. These finds correlate well with the distribution of Scandinavian place-names in the same region: taken together, the evidence does suggest a significant Scandinavian presence.

There was a further significant influx of Scandinavians into England during the reign of Cnut in the 11th century. These new, higher-class immigrants left their mark in London and the south, areas not previously subject to Scandinavian settlement. The rune stone from St Paul's, London, with its fragmentary inscription which tells us only that it was commissioned by Ginna (a woman) and T-ki (a man), shows two Scandinavians asserting their cultural affiliations at the heart of the English kingdom.

Scandinavian immigration

Scandinavian immigration had a greater impact on the more sparsely-populated areas of the British Isles, especially the Northern Isles and the Hebrides. In these rural and maritime regions, the settlement pattern is less like England and more like the Scandinavian colonies of the North Atlantic, with the difference that there were indigenous populations (such as the Picts) to contend with. Whether these were driven out or whether they reached some accommodation with the incomers, the place-name evidence is compatible with an almost total Scandinavian takeover of Orkney and Shetland.

Pagan graves provide plentiful archaeological evidence for early Scandinavian settlement in Scotland, and for female settlers. Two graves from Orkney show us two very different women: the young, stout and wealthy mother of newborn twins from Westness, and the high-status, elderly woman from Scar, buried in a boat along with a younger man and a child, a matriarch, perhaps even a priestess of Freya.

While the Northern Isles are completely Scandinavian in language and culture, the Viking-settled areas in and around the Irish Sea had a more varied population. The rich female grave from the Isle of Man, popularly known as the 'Pagan Lady of Peel', shows a woman with almost wholly Scandinavian affinities, but the 30 or so Christian runic monuments of that island reveal a much more mixed picture. These are basically Celtic crosses with some Scandinavian-style decoration, including mythological scenes. The inscriptions are in runes and Old Norse, but the personal names (both Norse and Celtic) and the grammatically-confused language suggest a thoroughly mixed community. At least a quarter of these monuments commemorate women, mostly as wives, though a stone from Kirk Michael appears to be in memory of a foster-mother, and the inscription notes that 'it is better to leave a good foster-son than a bad son'.

Daily life

The mythological poem Rígsţula, written down in medieval Iceland, accounts for the divine origin of the three main social classes. But it also gives us a snapshot of daily life in the Viking Age. The woman of the slave-class wears 'old-fashioned clothes' and serves bread that is 'heavy, thick, packed with bran... in the middle of a trencher', with 'broth in a basin'. The woman of the yeoman class wears a cap and a blouse, has a kerchief around her neck and 'brooches at her shoulders', and is busy with her spindle, 'ready for weaving'. The aristocratic woman is just busy preening herself: she wears a blouse of smooth linen, a spreading skirt with a blue bodice, a tall headdress and appropriate jewellery, and has very white skin. She serves silver dishes of pork and poultry on a white linen cloth, washed down with wine.

The archaeological evidence shows that women were often buried in their best outfits, including a pair of oval brooches of gilt bronze, which held up a woollen overdress worn with a linen underdress. Many spindle whorls have been found, as most women would have been engaged in spinning and other textile production much of the time. A Viking Age spindle whorl from L'Anse aux Meadows (in Newfoundland) is evidence that women also reached the New World.

The standard Viking Age house was rectangular and had just one room, in which everything took place around a central hearth. This house type has been found from Sweden in the east to Newfoundland in the west, in both rural settlements and in towns such as York and Dublin. As in most traditional societies, women spent much of their time indoors in such houses, cooking, making clothing and caring for children and the elderly, but they would also have had responsibility for the dairy.

Women of influence

Most women's lives were bounded by hearth and home, but they had great influence within this sphere. The keys with which many were buried symbolise their responsibility for, and control over, the distribution of food and clothing to the household.

Some women made their mark through exceptional status or achievement. One of the richest burials of Viking Age Scandinavia is that of the Oseberg 'queen', buried in a very grand style with a richly-decorated ship and large numbers of high-quality grave goods in 834. Later in that century, Aud the 'deep-minded' lived a veritable Viking Age odyssey. The daughter of a Norwegian chieftain in the Hebrides, she married a Viking based in Dublin and, when both her husband and son had died, took charge of the family fortunes, organising a ship to take her and her granddaughters to Orkney, Faroe and Iceland. She settled in Iceland, distributing land to her followers, and was remembered as one of its four most important settlers, and as a notable early Christian.

The Christianisation of Scandinavia in the 11th century gave women new roles, which are reflected in the rune stones from this period. On the Dynna stone from Norway, Gunnvor commemorates her daughter Astrid with pictures of the Nativity, while the Stäket stone from Sweden commemorates Ingirun, who went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Queen Emma sums up the cultural connections of the Viking Age. Her father was Duke Richard of Normandy, descended from its Viking founder Rollo, while her mother is said to have been Danish. Emma was married to two kings of England, the English Ćthelred and the Danish Cnut, and was the mother of two more. With Cnut, she was a great patron of the Church, and after his death she commissioned the Encomium Emmae, a Latin account of Danish kings in England in the 11th century, ensuring that her portrait was included in the manuscript.

Source (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/women_01.shtml)

Saturday, May 24th, 2008, 02:49 PM
Women in Norse Society

Although our sources of information are limited, it's clear that the roles of men and women in Norse society were quite distinct. Norse society was male dominated. Each gender had a set of expected behaviors, and that line could not be crossed with impunity. I think it just as unlikely that a man would weave cloth as that a woman would participate in a Viking raid. Women did not participate in trading or raiding parties (although they clearly participated in journeys of exploration and settlement to places such as Iceland and Vínland). Women's responsibilities were clearly defined to be domestic. Members of either sex who crossed the gender line were, at very least, ostracized by society. Some cross-gender behaviors were strictly prohibited by law. The medieval Icelandic lawbook Grágás (K 254) prohibits women from wearing men's clothes, from cutting their hair short, or from carrying weapons.


On one hand, a woman was, by law, under the authority of her husband or father. She had only limited freedom to dispose of property belonging to her. She was prohibited from participating in most political or governmental activities. She could not be a gođi (chieftain). She could not be a judge. She could not be a witness. She could not speak at ţing (assemblies).


On the other hand, women were respected in Norse society and had great freedom, especially when compared to other European societies of that era. They managed the finances of the family. They ran the farm in their husband's absence. In widowhood, they could be rich and important landowners. The law protected women from a wide range of unwanted attention. Grágás (K 155) lists penalties for offences ranging from kissing to intercourse.

The first few chapters of Laxdćla saga tell the story of Unnur djúpúđga (the Deep Minded), who was already widowed when she left Norway for Scotland with her father and son. When they, too, were killed, she felt that she had to leave Scotland and join the remainder of her family in Iceland. She arranged for a ship to be built, gathered her family and followers, and sailed for Iceland. Once in Iceland, she claimed land, settled there, arranged for a farm to be built, and then ran the farm. Over the years, she gave away portions of her land holdings to supporters, and arranged marriages for her daughters. In sum, Unnur took over all the responsibilities normally held by the husband. When she died, she was laid in a ship in a burial mound, an honor normally reserved only for the most powerful and wealthy men.
The day to day responsibilities of women included: food preparation and serving; housekeeping and laundry; child care; milking and dairy chores; and clothes making, from spinning and weaving to cutting and sewing. The dividing line between men's and women's responsibilities typically was located at the doorway to the house; women were in charge of everything indoors while everything outdoors was the responsibility of the men.
Most of the Icelandic family sagas are about men and probably were written by men. Women tend to play only minor roles, but those roles are varied. In general, the female characters are strong. The female characters in the sagas are praised for beauty, but more frequently for their wisdom. Many of the character traits regarded as positive in men (such as a sense of honor, courage, and a strong will) are also regarded as positive traits in women.
Laxdćla saga covers over a century in the lives of families living in the Dalir region around Breiđafjöđur in western Iceland. However, much of the saga focuses on the life of Guđrún Ósvífsdóttir and her various loves, and the story might be described as a soap opera. As an old woman, Guđrún was asked by her son which man she loved most. Guđrún answered (chapter 78), "I was worst to him whom I loved most."
The handling of the subject matter and the moral undertones of the saga have convinced some scholars that the author of this saga was a woman.



One common role of women in the sagas is as an inciter. The goading scene is a classic in the saga literature. Women frequently goaded men to act, to take revenge, when the men might otherwise have been content to do nothing. The women are much harder than the men, even more eager to protect the family's honor. Perhaps this is due to the woman's passive role, which prevented her from acting herself.

In chapter 116 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Hildigunnur incited her uncle Flosi to avenge the killing of her husband Höskuldr by flinging her husband's bloody cloak onto Flosi's shoulders. Clotted blood from the cloak rained down on Flosi. He responded, "Cold are the counsels of women." Flosi later took revenge for Höskuldr's death by burning Njáll and his family in their home.

In chapter 48 of Laxdćla saga, Guđrún, the wife of Bolli, incited her husband and her brothers to take revenge on Kjartan, Bolli's beloved foster-brother. For Bolli to kill his foster-brother would be a despicable act, but Guđrún pulled out all the stops, saying to the men:
"With your temperament, you'd have made some farmer a good group of daughters, fit to do no one any good or any harm. After all the abuse and shame Kjartan has heaped upon you, you don't let it disturb your sleep while he goes riding by under your very noses, with only one other man to accompany him. Such men have no better memory than a pig. There's not much chance you'll ever dare to make a move against Kjartan at home if you won't even stand up to him now, when he only has one or two others to back him up. The lot of you just sit here at home, making much of yourselves, and one could only wish there were fewer of you." A woman might use the threat of divorce as a means to goad her husband into action. Divorce was relatively easy and could result in severe financial burdens on the husband.

Women sometimes took the opposite tack, moderating or stopping fights in progress. This was sometimes accomplished by throwing clothing on the men's weapons as they fought, for example in chapter 18 of Vopnfirđinga saga. Ţorkell chased Bjarni to Eyvindarstđir, and began to fight. (The farm as it appears today is shown to the right.) Eyvindur learned of the fight near his hayfield wall. While the women threw clothing on the men's weapons, Eyvindur went between the men with a wooden pole to separate them.


Women are shown being skilled in magic. In general, this was considered evil, such as the magic used by Ţuríđur against Grettir in Grettis saga. Women were sometimes killed for using magic. Working magic was considered womanly. It would be unseemly for a man to use magic or to benefit from magic. Ţorbjörn was thought to be base and cowardly by taking advantage of Ţuríđur's magic to kill Grettir. But when the magic was used for good, a woman was admired, such as Ţorbjörg in Eiríks saga rauđa. During a time of extreme famine, she foretold the fate of the community at a feast in her honor.
Among the weaker female characters in the sagas are old foster-mothers, maidservants, and gossips.
Unwanted attention from a man towards a woman was forbidden in Norse society. In chapter 24 of Kormáks saga, it is said that while walking in the street, Kormákr saw Steingerđr sitting. He sat down next to her, talked to her, and then gave her four unwanted kisses. Ţorvaldr saw this and drew his sword, but other women intervened before he could strike. Kormákr was fined two ounces of gold, a very substantial sum of money. Later, while at sea, Kormákr sailed his ship close enough to Ţorvald's ship to strike at Ţorvaldr with his tiller. Ţorvaldr fell, stunned. Steingerđr, who was on board Ţorvald's ship, took the helm and steered broadside into Kormák's ship, capsizing it.
It was considered shameful in the extreme to harm a woman, and examples in the sagas of such violence are rare. In chapter 48 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Gunnarr, in a fit of rage, slapped his wife Hallgerđr in the face. He did this when he discovered his wife had stolen food from a nearby farm during a famine. (Theft was abhorrent in Norse society.) Hallgerđr said she would remember that slap and pay him back.

Some years later, in chapter 77, Gunnarr was attacked in his home by vengeance seekers. He kept the attack party at bay with a shower of arrows from his bow. When his bow string was cut by one of the attackers, he asked Hallgerđr for two locks of her hair in order to make a new one.
"Does anything depend on it?" she asked.
"My life," replied Gunnarr.
"Then I remind you of the slap you once gave me," and she refused to give him the hair.
"Each has his own way of earning fame," said Gunnarr.Gunnarr was eventually overcome by the attackers and killed.
Women were excluded from these kinds of attacks on a household. It was a grave dishonor for a man to injure a woman, even accidentally, in an attack on a household. And if, for instance, a house were going to be burned to kill the occupants, women and children were allowed to leave without injury. In chapter 129 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Flosi invited the women and children to leave Njál's house after it had been set afire. Many chose to leave, but Njál's wife Bergţóra refused, saying that in marriage, she promised to share the same fate as her husband. They both perished in the fire.


Another example comes from chapter 32 of Gísla saga Súrssonar. Eyjólfur, along with eleven of his men, met with Auđur to convince her to betray the location of her outlaw husband, Gísli, in exchange for money. Auđur took the purse full of silver, pretending to accept his offer. She struck Eyjólfur across the face with the purse, drawing blood, which was a mortal insult. Auđur said, "Take this now for your cowardice and your shame." Eyjólfur commanded his men to kill her on the spot, but Hávarđur stood up to him, saying, "Our expedition has gone badly enough without this disgraceful deed." Eyjólfur conceded, and Auđur was left unharmed.

The photo shows the ruins of Auđ's farm at Geirţjófsfjörđur, where this event took place.

Even mild or playful violence against women was unacceptable. When one of Helgi's men threw a snowball at Ţórdís (Droplaugarsona saga chapter 10), Helgi chastised him, saying, "It's foolish to make physical attacks on women, and there's no ill-luck that's not home-bred."
An exception to this exclusion was the violence against women during Viking raids. Women were routinely carried off as booty to be sold as slaves. An example is Melkorka from Laxdćla saga. Daughter of an Irish king, she was taken captive when she was 15 years old. Purchased by Höskuldur in Norway, she became the mother of Ólafur Höskuldsson (Olaf the Peacock). The medieval law book Grágás (K112) sets the purchase price for a concubine, a bondwoman used as a bedfellow.
While not directly discussed, the stories imply that rape of women took place as part of the typical violence of a battle or raid. On the other hand, contemporary histories (such as the Annals of St-Bertin)suggest that Vikings were much less likely to commit rape during their raids than other European raiders of that time, such as the Carolingians.

Rape is not commonly depicted in the sagas. One incident that has been interpreted as a rape is described in chapter 75 of Grettis saga. Grettir swam to shore during the night and entered the farmhouse at Reykir (shown to the right as it appears today). It was after the household had gone to bed, but Grettir knew he would be welcome there. In the night, his bedclothes fell off of him. In the morning, the first to rise were the farmer's daughter and a housemaid (griđkona). They saw Grettir lying naked, and the servant commented on how poorly endowed he was between his legs, running over to take a closer look and roaring with laughter. Grettir grabbed her and pulled her on to the bench while reciting two verses of scurrilous poetry. The servant cried out loudly, and the farmer's daughter left the room. What happened next is not related by the saga author, except to say that after the servant left Grettir, she did not taunt him again.



One final episode from the sagas serves to illustrate several of the attributes discussed in this article. In chapter 18 of Eyrbyggja saga, Ţorbjörn and his men arrived at Ţórarinn's home, Mávahlíđ (left, as it appears today) to search for horses which they believed were stolen by Ţórarinn. Since the search was illegal, Ţórarinn forbade a search and attacked Ţorbjörn's party.

The fighting was fierce. Several men were wounded, but it seemed that one of Ţorbjörn's men, Oddur, could not be harmed by the weapons.
Ţórarinn's wife, Auđur, and the other women on the farm threw clothing on the men's weapons to break up the fight. Ţorbjörn and his followers departed.

After the fight, a severed hand was found. Ţórarinn thought that it was a woman's hand. He went into the house to find his wife in bed. He asked Auđur if she had been hurt, but she told him not to fuss. Then he saw that it was her hand that had been severed.
Outraged by this violence against his wife, Ţórarinn and his men chased after Ţorbjörn. Again, a battle raged, and Ţórarinn and his men were able to kill all but one of the men in Ţorbjörn's party. Only Oddur escaped, because, once again, weapons refused to harm him. He ran away from the battle.
Subsequently, Ţórarinn learned that Oddur was responsible for severing Auđur's hand. Oddur's mother, Katla, was a sorceress. It was she who used magic to make Oddur's tunic invulnerable to weapons. Ţórarinn led a party to the farm where Oddur was staying. Again, Katla used magic, this time to prevent Ţórarinn from seeing Oddur. Ţórarinn's mother told him what precautions to take against the magic. Ţórarinn returned to Oddur's farm and put a bag over Katla's head to prevent her from using magic. He seized Oddur and hanged him for being a party to magic and for his cowardice. Katla cursed them all, and they stoned her to death for being a sorceress.


Gorm the Old
Sunday, May 25th, 2008, 06:45 PM
I do not recall that Egil Skallagrimsson was criticised for his use of magic against King Eirik. It is related in the Heimskringla that Egil erected a nidhstang bearing a horse's head pointed toward Norway which he used to direct a curse at King Eirik and his court.

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009, 08:07 PM
Heh, it's funny to look in a thread and see your family among the people pictured.

Another thing is the notion of "evil" magic. It should be noted that the idea of "good" and "evil" didn't enter Norse conciousness before the christianization.

Friday, July 22nd, 2011, 04:53 PM
Viking women accompanied their male partners to Britain in far greater numbers than had been previously thought, a study has shown.
Almost half of all bodies in burial grounds researchers examined were those of women - with some carrying swords and shields.

The numbers show that not only were the Vikings accomplished fighters but also the marrying kind who made sure their men had company.
The Norsemen invaded Britain in 900AD and in a series of raids hacked monks to death and stormed a priory in Lindisfarne.
But examination of 14 burial mounds found that it was not just the menfolk who came over.

Of the 14 studied, six were women and seven were men, with one not set indistinguishable.
The researchers came to their conclusion by examining objects found in the graves and looking at isotopes from their bones to identify where they were born.
The bones were also examined for signs of which gender they belonged to - previous studies had just assumed that because the body had a knife near it it was a man.
One burial site at Repton Woods near Derby, for example, was identified as female even though the remains of three swords were recovered.

‘These results, six female Norse migrants and seven male, should caution against assuming that the great majority of Norse migrants were male, despite the other forms of evidence suggesting the contrary,' the report says.
‘This result of almost a fifty-fifty ratio of Norse female migrants to Norse males is particularly significant when some of the problems with sexing of skeletons are taken into account.’
The study was written by Shane McLeod of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Western Australia.
He said: ‘An increase in the number of finds of Norse-style jewellery in the last two decades has led some scholars to suggest a larger number of female settlers.
'Indeed, it has been noted that there are more Norse female dress items than those worn by men’.
Previous studies have also confounded our expectations that the Vikings were bloodthirsty warmongers.
A paper published in 2009 claimed the Norsemen were 'model immigrants'
who lived side-by-side in relative harmony with the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic locals.
After the initial - inevitably violent - conquest, Vikings became an integral part of social and political life in Britain and Ireland between the 9th and 13th centuries.
Earlier this year, researchers also revealed that a cold snap in Greenland may have driven out the Viking settlers from the island.
Scientists reconstructed temperatures by examining lake sediment cores in west Greenland dating back 5,600 years.
Their findings indicated that earlier, pre-historic settlers also had to contend with vicious swings in climate on icy Greenland.


Friday, July 22nd, 2011, 05:34 PM
The saxon who wanted to stay free moved upwards to Denmark and Norway, around 800 and later. Then Harald Fairhair started his tyranny and the one's with saxon heritage most likely moved on to Iceland and England.

When northern saxons met Anglo-Saxon the customs and language might stilll have been very similar, which means, there should not have been big difficulties to live side by side.

Monday, August 22nd, 2016, 02:26 PM
Another thing is the notion of "evil" magic. It should be noted that the idea of "good" and "evil" didn't enter Norse conciousness before the christianization.

Huh? The concept of black magic doesn't depend on Christian dualism.

Monday, August 22nd, 2016, 02:58 PM
Now its good to refute leftist lies and misconceptions, and some of them are outright lies, about our own ancestors. But that text above is slightly misleading to appease modern sensibilities. Women could and would assume male-like autonomy for legal purposes, which has nothing to do with gender bending or feminism today, but its odd the text of Dagna's overlooks this.

Does it have anything to do with those swords in few Scandinavian women's graves? Possibly. There are still older, common Indo-European ideas involved that still survive in the Caucasus. Armed women - though not necessarily combatants - play an important part in Germanic and Indo-European mythology. For example they played a role in warrior's initiation.

Not trying to say the information is generally wrong. Only that things are a bit more complicated and important things got left out.

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017, 08:52 AM
Don’t underestimate Viking women

The status of Viking women may be underestimated due to the way we interpret burial findings.

“To assume that Viking men were ranked above women is to impose modern values on the past, which would be misleading,” cautions Marianne Moen. She has been studying how women’s status and power is expressed through Viking burial findings. Her master’s thesis The Gendered Landscape argues that viking gender roles may have been more complex than we assume.

Exploring new perspectives of Viking society is a theme which also will be the focus of the forthcoming Viking Worlds conference in March 2013, where Moen is a member of the organising committee.

Skewed interpretation

Our assumptions of gender roles in viking society could skew the way we interpret burial findings, Moen points out. She uses the 1904 excavation of the Oseberg long boat to illustrate the point. Rather than the skeleton of a powerful king or chieftain, the ship surprisingly contained two female skeletons.

“The first theories suggested that this must be the grave of queen Ĺsa mentioned in Snorri’s Ynglinga saga, and that the other skeleton was her slave servant,” says Moen. Ĺsa Haraldsdottir was the mother of Viking king Halfdan the Black.

However, later carbon dating revealed that the buried ship was from around 834 AD - a date which made this theory unfeasible. But the idea of a queen mother and her servant became persistent amongst archaeologists.

Powerful Oseberg women

”Since the Oseberg mound contained two women, the burial site has been analysed as a unique find, without reference to similar sites. The finding is very similar to the Gokstadskipet long boat, which is regarded as the grave of a powerful and influential king. So why isn’t Osebergskipet regarded in the same way?” asks Moen.

“There are several indicators that these women were powerful in their own right – but by defining one of them as a queen it is implied that her significance was due to who she was married to or had mothered.”

Using literary sources

And although we accept that some Viking women may have had a role as religious figures (as a ‘volve’) performing rites, we do not accord them the corresponding power they would have had in a society where religious and political power was intertwined, Moen argues.

“Our perception of religion’s influence in the society is based on texts written hundreds of years afterwards, by men from a different and more misogynistic religion.”

Moen feels many archaeologists have put too much emphasis on historical texts, such as Snorri Sturluson’s sagas.

“As archaeologists we have to base our analyses on archaeological material. Historical material do have some value, but only as secondary sources.”

Identifying male graves

The fact that far more graves of men than women have been found from this era has also been seen as an indication that men were more powerful. But it might not be that straightforward to identify a grave as male or female, Moen suggests.

Usually archaeologists have to rely on artefacts to gender identify a grave, due to a lack of human remains. But the presence of male objects (such as swords, shields or spears) or female objects (jewellery, fabric and weaving artefacts) does not conclusively prove the gender.

“There have also been cases of male graves with beads and woven cloths, and women were sometimes buried with smaller weapons, for instance arrowheads. Generally it is fairly obvious what constitutes male or female objects, but the lines were sometimes blurred.”

Prominent female graves

Added to this, the larger metal objects usually found in male graves are more likely to be discovered after hundreds of years - while smaller female objects such as brooches (and hence, female graves) can remain undetected.

“If it is the case that women belonged to the private sphere of the home and men were in the public sphere of society, this should be reflected in the burial landscape,” Moen points out. But in the Kaupang area she has studied, female graves are side by side with male graves – and just as prominent.

Victorian ideals of domestic women

“Since the Viking era became an important part of building Norwegian national identity in the 19th century, early archaeology was influenced by Victorian ideals. The contemporary ideals of women belonging to the home and men being out in the public was imposed on Viking society,” says Moen.

“The domestic role of Viking women may have been less limited to the private sphere than it is today. The large estates were contemporary seats of power, and the woman of the house had the keys. How private or public this role was should be interpreted outside our own cultural context.”http://sciencenordic.com/don%E2%80%99t-underestimate-viking-women