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loki

Shieldmaidens and Skjoldmø

The following was posted by Rig Svenson on Facebook.


A shieldmaiden was a woman who had chosen to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. Something about a woman who wields a sword well that so appeals to me.The Grágás or Grey Goose Law is the name given to the laws which were used to govern the Icelandic Commonwealth until some where around 1262-1264CE. It consisted of six sections, the fourth of which was “The Wergild Ring List”. Wergild, was the reparation paid by an individual to compensate a family or clan for theft, injury or death. The revision of these laws of 840CE makes various provisions, including for the payment of Wergild by Skjoldmø. The nearest translation of Skjoldmø is “Shield Girl”, but it is important that we do not confuse them with the popular fantasy figure of the “Shield Maiden” (think Opera's Brunhilde) but rather honed professional warriors, given rights, privileges and status of their own within Norse Culture.



A shieldmaiden was a woman who had chosen to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. Something about a woman who wields a sword well that so appeals to me.The Grágás or Grey Goose Law is the name given to the laws which were used to govern the Icelandic Commonwealth until some where around 1262-1264CE. It consisted of six sections, the fourth of which was “The Wergild Ring List”. Wergild, was the reparation paid by an individual to compensate a family or clan for theft, injury or death. The revision of these laws of 840CE makes various provisions, including for the payment of Wergild by Skjoldmø. The nearest translation of Skjoldmø is “Shield Girl”, but it is important that we do not confuse them with the popular fantasy figure of the “Shield Maiden” (think Opera's Brunhilde) but rather honed professional warriors, given rights, privileges and status of their own within Norse Culture.

At the age of about 12 years or so, The fittest and strongest girls, those who could compete in strength and speed with their male counterparts, were given the choice to become Skjoldmø, which entailed them leaving aside the traditional life of a woman and instead, to learn to take a trade and to fight. The Grágás was amended to extend to them the rights to hold a hall of their own, to be held accountable for themselves in the form of Wergild, and the right to take a husband (subject to being able to afford to keep a housewife to run their hall and to attend to her husband's domestic needs).

In Hrolfs saga Gautrekssonar, the only child of King Eirikr of Sweden is Thornbjorg, who "spends her girlhood pursuing the martial arts". Her father provides her with men and lands; and she adopts male dress and name (Thorbergr) and is known as king. (quoting “Maiden Warriors and Other Sons”) These girls were often from noble families (such as Freydis Eiriksdottir, who voyaged to America with her Father Eirik the Red. She and her brother Lief both commanded ships on this voyage) and that was likely to do with the environment of their birth (adequate food, warmth, etc.) being far more conducive to their growing to be strong and healthy. Certainly most of those mentioned by name as captains, were from noble families, but then, so were most of the men.

In many sources, not least the story of Auðr, we hear of these warrior women wearing “breeches like a man” and it is certainly likely that the Skjoldmø took the trouser as a practicality. Certainly they would have worn similar armour to their male counterparts and used similar equipment and weapons. Finds that bear this out include:A Spear and knife found in the graves of two women in Heslerton, North Yorkshire (dating to 450-650CE) and a Woman's burial (circa 500CE) with dagger and shield just outside LincolnSaxo Grammaticus, in his “History of the Danes” in around 1200CE wrote:

"There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers' skills."

He goes on to discuss these women in some detail and was clearly fascinated by them. However, he also appears to have been quite the fan of classical literature and this is betrayed by his tendency to mix the Norse tales he was told with Greek Amazon myths. For those who may be interested, Birgit Strand discusses this in depth in her book “Women in Gesta Danorum”.

We know that life was hard for all those who went “a viking” - the climate, high-stakes living etc are all well known and documented, (there are even sources that detail some of these women going “a viking” while heavily pregnant) but these women appear to have embraced and thrived upon the lifestyle and indeed, it is difficult to read Norse or even Anglo Saxon history without tripping over at least one of many of these warriors mentioned. Some notable names include:

Aethelflaed (also known as “The Lady of Mercia”) daughter of Alfred the Great, Freydis Eiriksdottir, Gurith, Alvid's daughter, Hervor (who later adopts the name Hervardr while seeking vengence for her father), Hethna, Kahula, Olga, widow of Igor of Russia, Queen Aethelburgh (destroyer of Taunton), Queen Gudit, Rusilla, Salaym Bint Malham, Sela, Stikla, "The Island Girl" of Procopius' history of the Gothic War of 535-552 CE, Thordis, Thyra, Queen of Denmark, Vebiorg, Visna, Wafeira

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