The History Of The Vikings: Were Shield Maidens Like Lagertha Even Real?

The Viking shield maiden, Lagertha

Lagertha the shield maiden [Image via Morris Meredith Williams (1881-1973) | Public domain | Wikimedia Commons]

UPDATED: 14 September, 2017

Lagertha, is known as one of the mightiest of all Viking shield maidens. She managed to not only lead a band of successful maidens into battle, but she does it at a time in history when women were usually oppressed under the rule of the patriarchy.

However, how accurate is this part of Viking history? For those who have learned everything about Lagertha and her shield maidens from History Channel’s Vikings, just how true is that world?

Are shield maidens even real? What about Lagertha?

Let’s have a look into whether, historically, shield maidens like Lagertha even existed.

Always be Yourself Lagertha

[Image via History/Rachel Tsoumbakos]

LAGERTHA: MYTH OR REAL?

Before we get to the question of whether shield maidens existed during the Viking era, let’s have a look at their supposed leader: Lagertha.

When delving into the world of the Vikings, many eventually land on the romance between Lagertha and Ragnar. They also get caught up in the fact that Lagertha is a very strong and independent woman for her time.

The Shield maiden, Lagertha, and the Viking, Ragnar, as seen in History Channel's 'Vikings'

The shield maiden, Lagertha, and her love affair with Ragnar has captured the imagination of this generation thanks to History Channel’s ‘Vikings’ [Image via History Channel]

However, Lagertha’s story is short, and fractured, only being found in one small section of a book written about the Vikings back in the 11-12 century. When Saxo Grammaticus set out to write the Gesta Danorum (also known as The History of the Danes, or, The Deeds of the Danes), he did so under instruction from Absalon, the Archbishop of Lund. Saxo was Danish, so regardless of the fact he was also Christian, what he was trying to do was write down the history of his country, Denmark.

Lagertha’s story starts and ends in the ninth book of the Gesta Danorum. It deals directly with her involvement with Ragnar after he rescues her from a life of prostitution and ends when she kills her third husband and rules in his stead.

Most of her story deals with her relationship with Ragnar, but, a large part of it also deals with the fact she is a shield maiden. When she is first introduced, Saxo refers to her as a “skilled amazon.”

“Among them was Ladgerda [Lagertha], a skilled amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All-marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.”

Was Lagertha really a valkyrie, not a shield maiden?

The shield maiden, Lagertha, has been suggested as being based on the valkyrie, Thorgerd [Image via Jenny Nyström | Public domain | Wikimedia Commons]

After this event, Ragnar asks around about Lagertha and establishes, that, although she had been placed into a life of prostitution, she was actually of noble standing. He also declares that their victory hinged entirely on Lagertha’s battle skills.

However, many scholars are not even sure Lagertha really existed. The problem with the stories of the Vikings is that they were an oral traditional. not only were they not recorded by the written word until decades — or centuries — later, oral traditions tend to be malleable, changing over time.

Some scholars suggest Lagertha’s story in the Gesta Danorum was based on a story Saxo had heard about the fabled Greek Amazons.

Alternatively, it is also possible Lagertha was a retelling of a story about the Viking valkyries. The valkyries appeared in battle, picking those who were the strongest and most fearless to join Odin in Valhalla. There are some sections of the Gesta Danorum involving Lagertha that lend itself to the valkyries myth. Many times Lagertha is seen deciding the fate of a battle, indicating she could be held responsible for who lived and died, much in the way the valkyries were.

So, Lagertha could have been a mythical being, not a real human at all. Perhaps, Saxo mixed her story up with that of Ragnar’s. Because, even the validity of Ragnar as a man has been brought into question by scholars.

At this point in time, considering Lagertha only exists in one version of the Vikings sagas, it is likely she never existed at all. Or, if she did, it is possible she existed as only a very localised story that Saxo had heard, but few others had. Alternatively, he may have amalgamated stories, or used mythology from differing cultures to create Lagertha’s story.

Were shield maidens even real?

[Image via Saxo Gramaticus; tr. (Danish) Frederik Winkel Horn; illus. Louis Moe, (1898) | Public domain | Wikimedia Commons]

SO, DOES THAT MEAN THAT SHIELD MAIDENS AREN’T REAL?

Actually, considering Saxo may have gotten his story about Lagertha mixed up, the fact that he mentions female warriors, or shield maidens, could be an indication they existed.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, Christian women were repressed compared to today’s society. Women had their jobs and they were expected to stay at home and tend to the family.

However, Saxo mentions that Lagertha is a warrior. he also mentions that she is involved in many battles between warring factions. Even if he took Lagertha’s story from the Greek Amazons or that of the Viking valkyries, the fact still exists that he mentions that Lagertha is a shield maiden.

Saxo also does this without very little personal opinion on her skills. While he may mention that she might be just a maiden, he does not criticise her abilities within the story. So, it is possible that he is writing this down with the assumption that the Danish Vikings were okay with their women joining the battlefront.

Along with Saxo, many of the other sagas make mention of female Viking warriors and of shield maidens. So, while Saxo may be the only one who mentions Lagertha specifically, it seems likely that Viking women were able to fight among the men during battles.

One way to find out if Saxo was telling the truth about shield maidens or not, is to have a look at the archaeology.

Most of you have probably come across an article or two claiming new archaeological evidence now proves that shield maidens actually exist. However, these articles, while mostly true, also hold some untruths as well.

Were shield maidens even real?

[Image via Andreas Bloch | Public domain | Wikimedia Commons]

LET’S HAVE A LOOK AT WHERE THESE NEWS ARTICLE ORIGINATED FROM

A study conducted by Shane McLeod of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Western Australia and featured in the Early Medieval Europe Journal (you can read his work here) suggests that there were more women migrating with the first Viking invasions than first suggested. Many media outlets reported this as meaning that there were more female Viking warriors than previously thought. However, this may not, necessarily, be the case.

The study stated the following.

“Women may have accompanied male Vikings in those early invasions of England, in much greater numbers than scholars earlier supposed. Rather than the ravaging rovers of legend, the Vikings arrived as marriage-minded colonists.”

This statement indicates that women accompanied Viking men, not that they fought alongside them. In fact, it suggests they might have merely brought their wives along for the journey, planning to settle down for good in the new lands they explored.

Further archaeological evidence also suggests that maybe there were not as many women migrating as first suspected.

“There is some archaeological evidence for early Norse female settlement, most obviously oval brooches, but this evidence is minimal. The more difficult to date evidence of place names, personal names, and DNA samples derived from the modern population suggests that Norse women did migrate to England at some stage, but probably in far fewer numbers than Norse men.”

The new study found that a new examination on a Nordic burial in England suggests that prior sexing of bones believed to be Viking in graves was based more on grave goods and not on osteological sexing which is more reliable. Osteological sexing involves measuring bones and the distance between them to determine sex.

“Many of the identified Norse burials were discovered at a time when osteological sexing was not undertaken and burials were often sexed according to grave-goods, a practice which is highly problematic.”

The study did an analysis on a small number of bodies at a gravesite in Repton, England. Fourteen individuals were reassessed, six of these were female, seven were male and one was unknown.

“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. This result of almost a fifty-fifty ratio of Norse female migrants to Norse males is particularly significant when some of the problems with osteological sexing of skeletons are taken into account.”

This study is small, so further reassessment of Viking burials will certainly have to be undertaken in the future to identify whether the Repton burial was an anomaly or not.

Along with this study, new research published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology titled, “A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics,” suggests a burial site of a Viking warrior as belonging to a female corpse.

Birka Sweden study on female Viking warrior Photo credit Evald Hansen

[Image credit: Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of grave Bj 581 by excavator Hjalmar Stolpe; published in 1889 (Stolpe, 1889)]

This burial, in the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden has been suspected since the 1970s to contain a female figure. However, thanks to a male gender identity bias based on a long-held belief that grave goods are a good indicator of skeleton sex, many scholars believed the bones belonged to a male Viking warrior.

“A first osteological analysis done in the 1970s identified the skeleton as a female, but this could not generate further discussion as the skeleton could not securely be associated to a context. When the sex identification and a proper contextualisation was made, and set in relation to the objects (Kjellström, 2016), questions were still raised if the martial objects in the grave mirrored the identity of the deceased. Similar associations of women buried with weapons have been dismissed, arguing that the armaments could have been heirlooms, carriers of symbolic meaning or grave goods reflecting the status and role of the family rather than the individual (Gardeła, 2013). Male individuals in burials with a similar material record are not questioned in the same way.”

Recent osteological sexing along with DNA testing have identified this grave site in Birka as belonging to a female warrior who was at least 30-years of age. It also suggests she was likely of Scandinavian descent. However, it could not be implicitly confirmed she was from Sweden even though she was buried there.

While this news is exciting, Judith Jesch, a professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham, and an author of the Viking Age who has researched this point in time for many years suggests the analysis could contain faults.

Jesch recently posted a post on the latest journal and points out several faults within it. At one point she even questions the validity of the original osteological sexing. It is well worth reading her post, “Let’s Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again,” to gain further insight to the original study.

So, therefore, whether Lagertha was truly a shield maiden or not, is still open to interpretation. Considering Saxo described Lagertha as a woman who fought in battles alongside men, I suspect people did observe this as occurring during battles. Saxo makes no reference to how unusual it was Lagertha fought among the Viking men, so, at that time, it could be considered a normal event, to some degree. Saxo also describes her as a shield maiden, indicating it was likely a term in common use, especially to describe Vikings.

Personally, I like to think shield maidens existed, however, until more studies are done concerning the re-sexing skeletons found in Viking grave sites, I am currently still being optimistic in this assumption.

What do you think, are shield maidens real? let me know what you think by commenting below!

If you want to read more about Lagertha and whether or not she was a shield maiden, you can do so in my new book, Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar. All the details are below.

Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha and Ragnar by Rachel Tsoumbakos Cover art

© Nejron | Dreamstime.com (Cover design by Rachel Tsoumbakos)

VIKINGS: THE TRUTH ABOUT LAGERTHA AND RAGNAR
(A historical retelling of the ninth book of the Gesta Danorum)
Book #1 in The Truth About series

Release date: Sunday, October 15, 2017
Genre/s: Historical fiction, romance, Vikings, fictions, nonfiction
Available: Amazon/Amazon Unlimited
SPECIAL PRE-ORDER Kindle Price: $0.99 (Normally $3.99)
Print Price: TBA

BLURB

Lagertha was known to be one of the wives of the famous Viking, Ragnar Lodbrok. But did you know they first met each other at a brothel? And just how long did their marriage last? Was Lagertha really the revered shield maiden we see her as today? ‘Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar’ aims to unravel all these secrets.

Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar is so much more than a history book though.

In Part One their story is brought to life with a historically accurate retelling. Part Two then explores the historical facts surrounding this story.

Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar aims to discover just how much of what we know of the shield maiden, Lagertha, and the famous Ragnar Lodbrok in popular culture today is actually true.

The Truth About series explores the historical fact from present day fiction in regards to the Vikings and other key historical figures that existed in the Viking era.

PRE-ORDER NOW ON AMAZON!

'Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar' Footer

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About mrszoomby

When I'm not writing, I'm training for the zombie apocalypse.
This entry was posted in Books, History Channel, Myrddin Publishing Group, New Novel, New Release, Rachel Tsoumbakos, The Truth About Lagertha and Ragnar, Vikings, Vikings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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