It is a sad truth that until recent generations, most women have been obscured from history.
In patriarchal societies with histories written by men about men, we often lose sight of the roles of women, grand and humble.
This is also true of Viking history. Even the stories of the goddesses are lost.
For example, surviving versions of the Ragnarok prophecy record the fates of most of the male deities and giants, down to Hel’s guard dog Garm. But the fates are none of the female goddesses are recorded.
This historiographic tendency makes the Viking women who did manage to make a name for themselves in the history books even more impressive.
They must have been magnificent indeed.
Let’s celebrate ten of these women with very short notes on how they made a name for themselves in history.
Lagertha is famous as the woman that saved the great Ragnar Lothbrok, twice.
She was one of a group of women that volunteered to fight alongside him to avenge the death of his grandfather. She is said to have turned the tide of the battle with her ferocity.
Ragnar was understandably smitten, and the two married for a brief period. But it seems that Lagertha was unwilling to leave her own lands to follow Ragnar to Denmark, and the two separated.
But later, when Ragnar needed help to quell a civil war, it was Lagertha that came to his aid with 120 ships or fearsome Vikings, which she led herself.
First half of the 10th century
Thyra was the wife of King Gorm the Old of Denmark and the mother of Harald Bluetooth.
She is said to have been just as ferocious as her husband on the battlefield and the real brain behind the throne (her husband not generally considered to be very intelligent).
On at least one occasion she is described as leading the warriors of Norway in an expedition against the Germans.
There is a memorial stone for Thyra at Jelling in Denmark, which describes her as the Pride of Denmark.
Second half of the 10th century
Sigrid, also known as Sigrid the Proud, was the wife of the Swedish king Erik the Victorious. When he died, she decided that rather than marry quickly to secure a new king for the country, she would rule alone.
Sigrid was courted by both Harald Grenske or Norway and Vissavald of the Kievan Rus Vikings. But rather than give up her power, she invited both men to her hall, got them drunk, and then burned down the hall with them inside.
This, apparently to discourage any future suitors.
Nevertheless, she did eventually marry Sweyn Forkbeard to gain his connections and power. She used these to get revenge on Olaf Tryggvason, who had slapped her in public when she refused to convert to Christianity. She was able to orchestrate the Battle of Svolder, in which Olaf was killed.
End of the 10th century
Freydis was the daughter of Erik the Red and the sister of Lief Erikson, who is credited with the Viking discovery of North America.
After Leif set up a camp in Vinland, a number of his brothers and other Vikings also led expeditions to the new land.
Freydis wanted the same success and prestige as her brothers, so she also organized an expedition to the new land.
While there, she is said to have shown ferocious bravery.
One night, when a group of natives attacked the Viking camp, while the other Vikings are said to have run off in shock, Freydis stayed behind and fought of the natives single-handedly while seven months pregnant (though much of her success was down to the natives’ shock in seeing her).
However, Freydis also has a reputation for being underhanded. She is said to have often gone back on her word, and even to have accused her business partners of rape in order to justify having them killed and keeping their share of the booty.
Whether these latter stories are true, or Freydis has simply been vilified over time as a woman who broke social norms, we will never know.
When her husband died in North America, Gudrid married his business partner Thorfinn Karlsefni and worked with him to establish the first permanent Viking settlement in the new world.
Their son, Snorri Thorfinnsson, was the first European child to be born in North America.
7th – 8th Centuries
Aud Ketilsdottir, also known as Aud the Deep-Minded, was the daughter of Ketil Flatnose of Norway. She went with her father to Scotland when he was forced to flee the wrath of Harald Finehair
When her father and all her other male relatives were killed in Scotland, she took her life into her own hands. She gathered a group of Vikings and sailed to the Orkneys and then on to Iceland, which she explored before creating a settlement.
She was the queen of her territory in Iceland until her dying day, and her men were so loyal that none of them would marry without her approval so as not to risk her position.
Mythological, pre-6th Century
Brynhild may have been a mortal woman with an elaborate story, or a Valkyrie struck down by Odin for disobeying his orders and commanded to marry a mortal man.
Brynhild said that she would only marry the bravest of men, who knows no fear. So, she imprisons herself on a mountain within a ring of fire, sleeping, and waits for a man brave enough to claim her.
The famous and brave warrior Sigurd, having killed the dragon Fafnir, passes through the ring of fire and awakened the sleeping Brynhild.
But Sigurd decides that he still has too much to do and leaves Brynhild with the promise to return. She agrees to wait for him, saying that she will only marry the man brave enough to pass through the fire.
But while Sigurd is away, he is magically given amnesia and forgets all about Brynhild, and finds himself engaged to another woman.
Nevertheless, Sigurd unwittingly returns to the ring of fire for a second time. Unable to claim Brynhild for himself, he magically takes the face of his friend Gunnar, who is too scared to pass through the fire. Brynhild, still in love with Sigurd, is unwilling to marry Gunnar, but must keep her word.
When Brynhild learns of the deception, she seeks her vengeance and tricks her husband Gunnar into orchestrating the death of Sigurd. But her love for Sigurd means that this breaks her heart, and she decides to kill herself by joining Sigurd on his funeral pyre.
First half of the 10th Century
The Viking women of history were not only warriors, but also poets. Jorunn is one of the few known female Skaldic poets.
She lived in Norway during the 10th century and wrote a piece called “Biting Message” that tells the story of the conflict between Harald Finehair and his son Halfdan the Black.
Also known as Ranghildr, Hildr was the son of the Jarl of Trondheim. When her father was banished by Harald Finehair, she composed a Skaldic poem to appeal for his pardon. Unfortunately, she was not successful.
Gunnborga is the only known female Viking Runemaster. She was responsible for the Halsingland Rune Inscription 21 in Sweden.
While the stories of these Viking women survive, millions of others have been lost to history. Wives, mothers, warriors, and witches, there is much about the lives of these women that we will never know.
What do you think of these famous Viking women? What would you most like to know about the lives of Viking women?