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April 13, 2012

Women Warriors in The Vikings -or- Brunhilde`s Bruisers

You won`t find horned helmets and busty sopranos flying over our fields of battle, picking the slain with a piercing top C, but our women warriors wield their weapons with the same fury and fatality as did their historic and legendary forbears.
The sagas present us with an array of angry, assertive women, bullying and shaming their menfolk into armed retribution for dishonour and mistreatment; we also learn of those who take matters into their own hands; Freydis, daughter of Eirik the Red, takes an axe to five women, whose presence is "inconvenient" [1]. Auðr, who wore breeches like a man, attacks Þórðr with a sword; he had divorced her to marry another woman [2]. Þórdis lunges with a sword at Eyjólfr from beneath a table; revenge for the killing of her brother. He is wounded. When her husband offers Eyjólfr compensation, Þórdis divorces him [3]. And there are more...
But these are women who turn to violence to deal with the frustrations of their daily lives. What of more military aggressors?
The most prolific source for references to women warriors is probably Saxo Grammaticus [4]. Like other "historians" of his period, the earlier books probably merge legend and history, but we cannot ignore the frequent mention of fighting women. There are both passing and general references to female warriors as well as specific mention by name of female vikings (pirates), skilled warriors and army commanders: Hetha, Visna, Rusila, Lathgertha... the list is long.
Celtic societies too, have a tradition of women sharing and leading the fighting. The renowned Red Branch warriors (male) of Ireland were sent for training to a female warrior. There is less of a known history among the Angles and Saxons, though early Saxon laws are said to have forbidden women from taking part in battle and in the 7th century, Adomnan, abbot of Iona was highly critical of fighting women. In the early 10th century, we do find Æthelflæd, eldest daughter of Alfred the great, organising a string of fortifications to defend Mercia from Northumbria and the Welsh, while leading an attack against the Viking centres at Derby and Leicester. Even the Viking citizens of York sent pledges of submission and loyalty, such was her reputation. We cannot be sure to what extent she took an active part in the combat, but she certainly proved an exceptional general.
Throughout history and all over the world, women have taken up arms in private and political struggles. Today is no exception. While probably more numerous on the field than in earlier times, our female warriors line up with their male co-combatants to re-enact the times when your enemy was at the most, a spear’s length away and you could see not just the whites but the blue, brown and green of his, or her, eyes.
Frania Juchnowicz is a member of Ormsheim and teaches in Leeds.
[1]Groenlendinga saga
[2] Laxdæla saga
[3] Gisla saga
[4] Gesta Danorum

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