They So Desperately Want To Believe In Female Viking Warriors

History isn’t, it is. That is, we never do get a retailing of what happened, we get a projection of our current concerns onto those of the past. As here with the existence of female Viking warriors.

Sure, no doubt some existed. Nelson’s navy had recorded examples of women who went to sea and fought as men. Sir Pterry’s Monstrous Regiment is an extended – and very good – riff off the true stories of women who joined the colours for this and that reason. But there’s a hell of a difference between agreeing that some did and that it was the norm:

Think of a Viking warrior and you probably imagine a fearsome, muscular, bearded man. Well, think again. Using cutting-edge facial recognition technology, British scientists have brought to life the battle-hardened face of a fighter who lived more than 1,000 years ago. And she’s a woman.

The life-like reconstruction, which challenges long-held assumptions that Viking warrior heroes such as Erik the Red left their women at home, is based on a skeleton found in a Viking graveyard in Solør, Norway, and now preserved in Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. The remains had already been identified as female, but her burial site had not been considered a warrior grave “simply because the occupant was a woman”, according to archaelogist Ella Al-Shamahi.

Well, OK. An example. And yet Eric the Red and all that. Well, we do in fact know that more men than women moved off into the new settlements. For we know more about the genetic endowment of Iceland than we do about any other place on the planet:

Genetic evidence shows that most DNA lineages found among Icelanders today can be traced to the settlement of Iceland, indicating that there has been relatively little immigration since. This evidence shows that the founder population of Iceland came from Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia: studies of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes indicate that 62% of Icelanders’ matrilineal ancestry derives from Scotland and Ireland (with most of the rest being from Scandinavia), while 75% of their patrilineal ancestry derives from Scandinavia (with most of the rest being from the Irish and British Isles).

This is consistent with the blokes sailing off and picking up some more or less willing women along the way. When we study the genes of the Danelaw here in the UK we get largely similar results. More blokes than birds turned up. This is also fairly normal for historic “migrations”. Everyone coming at the same time – the Goths, Visigoths etc – is the unusual.

We have other more indirect evidence. The viking migrations were at least in part driven by population pressure. Which means that some goodly portion of the women were breeding hard, not something that is logically consistent with going off awarrioring. Given child death rates back then – a quarter before their first, half before their fifth birthday, a 15 to 20% chance perhaps of dying in childbirth over a lifetime – to create that sort of pressure an adult woman needs to be pregnant or lactating most of her fertile life.

Sure, there will be examples of female warriors. But it’s a leap too far to say that it was the norm, or the modal experience.

Among other skeletons in the new research is the Birka Warrior, which was unearthed in Sweden over a century ago, surrounded by a stash of weapons, including arrows. Until recently, it was assumed to be the remains of a man, but science has proved that it was female.

Al-Shamahi said that she “could have been a military commander”, although some experts still resist the idea that women could have been such warriors.

While she acknowledges that women risked being overpowered in hand-to-hand combat, she argues that they could have been long-distance killers, firing deadly arrows from horseback, making them “an equal match for men”.

Umm, really? Had a look at a Viking bow? A Viking horse? You don’t shoot those sorts of long (actually flatbows not longbows but they’re still long) from the back of a pony.

And all this before we think about the fact that Vikings did wear clothes – which must be spun and woven – eat food – which must be cooked – and all that. Even at best only a tiny portion of women would have had the time to go pillaging.

They so desperately want to believe, don’t they? But then that’s what history is, not us illuminating the past but projecting our desires onto it.

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Leo Savantt
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Leo Savantt

Why not rewrite medieval history? After all we are rewriting the present and recent history, men become women over night, the weather is getting warmer, the 1930s warm period never happened, Hitler wasn’t a socialist and we are not in an ice age.