Roles of Pre-Christian Germanic Women


The following began as a paper that I wrote as an undergraduate in 2001. I have made a few updates as new research has become available, but this is an organic document. I have used this as the basis of workshops that I have given at a few different Heathen gatherings throughout the country. I wanted to make it available so that the folks who are interested can dig in and use it as a springboard for their own research and spiritual growth. Don’t be too surprised when this posting changes, as I said it is an organic document and I hope to update it even more. I also want to begin a discussion about what this information means to us as modern Heathens. But know this now, our female ancestors were powerful women, equal to, but different from, men. Please leave comments, let me know what you think. I only ask two things: 1) that if you use this paper in your own research, please cite it properly (shoot me a message at [email protected] and I’ll give you the proper citation), and 2) that any comments made be respectful.


Throughout the majority of our collective history, men have been the primary contributors to written history. Therefore, the majority of early histories are based around wars and great leaders. Historians until recently largely ignored the women who helped build the great societies of the world. This is particularly true in cultures that were either illiterate or preferred to have an oral tradition of storytelling and history. The Germanic culture that dominated the majority of northern Europe falls into this last category.

Although the Germanic tribes are primarily remembered from two major historical periods, the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England and the Viking raids throughout Europe, there were many different tribes that ranged all over the continent. And though they are usually recalled as barbarians, the Germanic tribes all had highly sophisticated societies. Women were major contributors to this society. Roberta Frank explained the aggression of the early Germanic tribesmen:

What, after all, was the point of the institutionalized male violence celebrated by the skalds, those excessive vendettas and duels, that piracy and harrying, if women were not watching you, constantly comparing you to Alf the Stout or to Snorre Gore-Fang?[1]

This paper will attempt to demonstrate how women in pre-Christian Northern Europe helped shape a distinctly unique culture through social, economic, and religious influence. These women not only played a traditional role as wives, mothers, and homemakers, but they also owned property, defended their homes, went raiding, and traded goods. They had an almost equal social standing with men and significantly contributed to the economic and religious welfare of their communities.

This paper will be presented in five sections. The first section will demonstrate the variety of roles that the goddesses of the Germanic tribes fulfilled. The second section will show the importance of holy women in pre-Christian society. The third section will demonstrate the significance of the housewife in Germanic society. The fourth section will show the less traditional role of the female warrior. The fifth section will demonstrate the importance of women as pioneers in foreign lands.

I will not be exploring the lives of women from Finland. The Fins had a completely different culture and language than the Germanic peoples, since they are a Uralic people while the Germanic tribes are Indo-Europeans. I will also not explore the roles of women in the Celtic culture. Neither of these cultures are germane to the proof of my paper and would cause me to digress into issues unrelated to my thesis.



The pantheon of gods and goddesses that the Germanic peoples worshipped were not all powerful, omnipotent beings. They were much more like regular people than one might think. There is speculation that the gods/goddesses were developed as a form of ancestor worship. They each had a good and a bad side and made mistakes, just as those who worshipped them did. There were two tribes of gods in the ancient Germanic pantheon. The Æsir were gods of battle, action, and change, and the Vanir were gods of fertility, prosperity, and family.[2]  There were also the Etins (giants) who were forces of chaos and destruction. Although there does not seem to have been a cult devoted to the Etins, there were marriages between some Æsir/Vanir and a few Etins.[3]

It is recorded that there was a war between the Æsir and Vanir. To ensure peace, hostages were exchanged. The Vanic god Njord and his children Freyr and Freyja (twin brother and sister) were sent to live in Asgard, while the Æsir send a few of their number to live with the Vanir.[4]

There were also many spirits that were important to the Germanic peoples, such as the spirits of ancestors and those of the land and sea. It is essential to remember that there was no certain way in which people worshipped the gods/goddesses in ancient times. Each town might have a different patron and cult than the one next to it. The importance of studying the goddesses and honored spirits in a paper such as this is to show not only what the Germanic women thought of their deities, but also what they themselves might aspire to be.

The Norns were the weavers of fate (ørlög) in the Germanic belief system. There were three of these women, Urdhr, Verdhandi, and Skuld. The concept of time was different for the Germanic tribes than for the Greco-Romans, where our modern view of time comes from. The Germanic peoples viewed time as ‘that which is’ (Urdhr), ‘that which is becoming (Verdhandi), and ‘that which should become’ (Skuld), rather than past, present, and future. Paul C. Bauschatz explains this concept:

…This temporal scheme makes two points about Germanic time that are not apparent to us.  First, time is binary, not tripartite. It divides into past, and nonpast, not into past, present, and future. There are no explicit references in early Germanic materials to a concept like the future. Events that seem to us to be future-oriented turn out, when carefully examined, to refer directly to the interaction of the past with events of the nonpast, of that which has occurred with that which is in the process of occurrence…. The second point: within the binary time system, the past is constantly increasing and pulling more and more time and events into itself; it alone has any assured strength and reality. Because of this, time is ever-changing, growing, and evolving….[5]

There are references in the Eddic poems Voluspa and Helgi Hundingsbani[6] and in Njal’s Saga[7] which make direct links between Norns weaving the fates of people. Therefore, spinning and weaving have always been associated with destiny and knowledge of things to come. These are jobs normally done by women, as well as the pouring of drink and risting of staves, which the Norns did too. Women, in general, had an inherent mystical aura surrounding them due to these duties.

Frigg was the wife of Odin, chief of the gods, and was a very powerful goddess in her own right. She was the goddess of marriage, childbirth, spinning,[8] and of the home. Frigg lived in her own hall in Asgard (home of the gods) called Fensalir. Frigg was the embodiment of what a queen should have been. Frigg gave counsel to her husband about important issues; she tried to ensure that peace is achieved through her diplomacy; she was protective of her children;[9] and she was generous with gifts. Frigg had foreknowledge of all events, but rarely said or did anything to change the course of fate.[10] Many handmaidens, that may have been different aspects of the goddess herself, attended Frigg.[11] Snorri Sturluson wrote of the Frigg and her handmaidens:

The highest is Frigg. She has a dwelling called Fensalir and it is very splendid. Second is Saga. She dwells at Sokkvabekk, and that is a big place. Third is Eir. She is an extremely good physician. Fourth is Gefiun. She is a virgin, and is attended by all who die virgins. Fifth is Fulla.  She too is a virgin and goes around with hair flowing free and has a gold band around her head. She carries Frigg’s casket and looks after her footwear and shares her secrets…. Seventh is Siofn. She is much concerned to direct people’s minds to love, both women and men….  Eighth Lofn: she is so kind and good to pray to that she gets leave from All-father [Odin] or Frigg for people’s union, between women and men, even if before it was forbidden or refused…. Ninth Var: she listens to people’s oaths and private agreements that women and men make between each other…. She also punishes those who break them. Tenth Vor: she is wise and enquiring, so that nothing can be concealed from her…. Eleventh Syn: she guards the doors of the hall and shuts them against those who are not to enter, and she is appointed as a defense at assemblies against matters that she wishes to refute…. Twelfth Hlin: she is given the function of protecting people whom Frigg wishes to save from some danger…. Thirteenth Snotra: she is wise and courteous…. Fourteenth is Gna: she is sent by Frigg into various worlds to carry out her business. She has a horse that gallops across sky and sea, called Hofbarpnir….[12]

Another goddess that is associated with the home and women is Frau Holda/Berchta. She was only known in Germany. In the north, she was known as Holda (trans. ‘The Gracious’) and in the south as Berchta (trans. ‘The Bright’). She was the goddess who gave flax (the plant from which linen is made) to human kind. She also ensured that spinners finished their work before the Yule holiday. In Germany, Frau Holda would give gifts to good children and punish naughty children at Yule, aspects later given to Santa Claus. It was also said that when Frau Holda shook out her feather bed, snow would fall on earth.[13]

Freyja was the most powerful goddess after Frigga. As one of the Vanir, she was primarily concerned with fertility, love, magic, and death. Freyja was married to a man named Od (possibly Odin) who left her and never returned. She searched the world for him. Where her tears fell on land they turned to gold, where they fell in the sea they became amber. Afterwards Freyja was known to have numerous love affairs, never again marrying. She spent a night of pleasure with each of the four dwarves who crafted Brisingamen, a beautiful necklace that became the symbol of her power, in exchange for the necklace. Freyja lived in a hall called Folkvangr where half of the battle-slain are sent to spend eternity. She picked these particular warriors from the battlefield herself. When Freyja came to Asgard, she taught her magic to the Æsir.

Freyja’s mother was most likely her father’s sister, Nerthus. It has been speculated that Njord and Nerthus may have been the same deity, but that different tribes may have changed its gender. The names Njord and Nerthus are identical etymologically. In the Eddic poem Loki’s Quarrel, Loki says to Njord, “I won’t keep it secret any longer; with your sister you got that son, though you’d expect him to be worse than he is.”[14]

The worship of Nerthus was first recorded by Tacitus in 98 CE. His descriptions of the ceremonies surrounding her cult were very detailed. Nerthus was the Mother Earth. She was worshipped by tribes living near the sea in northern Germany and the islands of Denmark.  Her temple was tended by her high priest. Within the temple, Nerthus’ chariot was kept. When her priest felt her presence, he road around the land with her (her idol) in the chariot. During this time everyone had to put away their weapons and all thoughts of battle. Before she was returned to her temple, slaves bathed Nerthus and her chariot in a sacred lake. Afterward, the slaves were killed and sunk in the lake as sacrifice.[15] This could account for the number of bog bodies found in this region.

Skadi was a giantess who came to Asgard armed for battle after the Æsir killed her father. She demanded compensation for his death and agreed to not kill anyone if they made her laugh and let her marry one of the gods. Loki made her laugh by tying one end of a rope to a goat’s beard and the other end to his testicles. The two pulled each other back and forth squealing loudly, which made Skadi laugh. Then Skadi got to choose her husband, but had to pick him by only seeing his feet. She chose the prettiest feet hoping for Baldur, but got Njord instead. They were married, but it was an unsuccessful union. Njord, being a god of the sea and ships had his home, Noatun, on the seashore, while Skadi’s home, Thrymheim, was in the mountains. She soon left Njord to go home where she skied and hunted with her bow.  In addition to a good laugh and a husband, Odin also took her father’s eyes and threw them into the sky to become two stars.[16]

A later addition to the Germanic pantheon was Hel. She was the queen of Niflheim, the realm of mist and cold. Anyone who died of sickness or old age went to her hall. She may have been altered by Christian historians and folklorists into a demonic creature since she is described as being half beautiful and half corpse-like. In Snorri’s version of the Baldur story, he is sent to Hel’s realm after he dies. She welcomes him with a glorious feast, more like a queen than a demon.[17] Hel’s hall was probably seen in a much better light by the pagans than later Christian authors would have people believe. Hel was as powerful as any of the other gods/goddesses. This was apparent when she refused to let Baldur leave her realm when asked by the Æsir, and they did not try to force the issue.[18]

Of course, no topic on Norse goddesses and feminine spirits would be complete without the Valkyries. The word Valkyrie literally translates into “chooser of the slain.”

It is said that the Norn, Skuld, was said to have been one of their numbers.[19] This seems very appropriate since she is the one who cuts the thread of life. The Valkyries’ job was to fly over battlefields and choose those who were to die, or to give victory to those whom Odin had chosen to win.  They then led this host of warriors to Asgard where they were divided between Freyja’s Folkvangr and Odin’s Valhalla.  The Valkyries then served mead to the einherjar in Valhalla.[20]  These warriors were privileged enough to be able to fight in glorious battle all day, and be resurrected in time to feast and drink all night.[21]

There are several other goddesses that are mentioned in Eddic tales, but not much is known about them. Idun was the wife of Bragi.  She was the keeper of the golden apples, which gave the gods their immortality.[22] Nanna was the wife of Baldur and died of grief soon after his death.[23] Sif was the wife of Thor. She had long blond hair, which Loki cut off while she slept. When Thor threatened him, Loki had dwarven smiths make Sif a living wig of real gold.[24] Her hair has been interpreted as representing golden grain.[25] Trude was the daughter of Thor and Sif. Her name means mighty and she helps serve warriors (the einherjar) in Valhalla.[26] Gerd was an Etin-maid that Freyr fell in love with and eventually married.[27] Sigyn was Loki’s wife. She held the bowl to catch the snake venom that dripped onto her husband’s face after he was bound by the other gods for his part in the murder of Baldur.[28]



Although the Germanic tribes are remembered for their macho brutality, there were usually women in the background guiding them toward these endeavors.  In the 1st century CE, Tacitus noted the Germanic respect for women’s knowledge:

…they conceive that in woman is a certain uncanny and prophetic sense:  and so they neither scorn to consult them nor slight their answers.  In the reign of Vespasian of happy memory we saw Veleda treated as a deity by many during a long period; but in ancient times also they reverenced Aurinia and many other women – in no spirit of flattery, nor as if they were making goddesses.[29]

The woman, Veleda, that Tacitus mentions in the previous quote, he also wrote about in his History. She was a völva, a prophetess, who lived in a tower on the River Lippe, where only her relatives could speak with her in order to venerate her in the eyes of the common people. She had the distinction of being an arbiter in tribal conflicts, even between the Germanic tribes and the Romans.[30]

This early tradition of respecting women’s wisdom in political affairs is echoed centuries later in mid-10th century Exeter Book “Maxims I”:

A king should pay bride-price for a queen with rings and goblets. Both must first and foremost be free with gifts. The chief must have a warlike spirit; his fighting force must always be increasing. The woman must thrive, loved by her people; she must be light-hearted, absolutely discreet; big hearted in giving horses and treasures. At the ceremonial banquets, she must at all times and places first greet the king in the presence of the assembled retinue, quickly proffer the first cup to her lord’s hand. Also she must know what advice to give him, as joint mistress and master of the household together.[31]

Further evidence of women being highly respected for their divination abilities can be found in Eirik’s Saga. The story tells that there had been a famine in Greenland. A völva named Thorbjorg was traveling to different farmsteads to attend feasts, particularly of those who wanted to know about their future. The way that Thorbjorg dressed, the seat that is provided for her and the food that she requested at the feast are all specifically noted due to her position and their peculiarity.[32] The next day she had a special song sung by the women of the farm that helped her fall into a trance. Thorbjorg then was able to see spirits that she claimed were summoned by the singing. She then told the people that the famine was soon to end and answered private questions that many of the farm folk asked. The saga reveals that most of what Thorbjorg prophesied came to fruition.[33]

According to Dr. Stephan Grundy, an expert in Northern European religions, mothers or foster-mothers performed most of the magic that is recorded in the sagas for their sons.[34] This may have been a matter of literary fantasy on the parts of the saga writers, but it does show that the people of the time believed that women used their powers in protective ways.



This subject must be prefaced with an explanation of the social class structure of the Germanic peoples. At the top of the social ladder, there were the nobles. These were the chieftains, the wealthy and powerful, and the highly respected leaders of the community. Next were the rest of the free people. These were usually farmers, fishermen, traders, craftsmen, warriors, and anyone else who was freeborn. Lastly were the slaves. These could be people who were born into slavery, kidnapped from other countries and sold into slavery, or a person who sold themselves to repay some debt. When the role of the housewife is discussed, it is the freeborn woman that is being referenced.

The modern idea of a housewife is very different than the housewives of early Northern Europe. The housewife in early times was supposed to completely control the inner workings of her home. This was much more that merely cooking and cleaning. The politics of marriage were well defined.

The hopeful groom-to-be would ask the woman’s protector, usually her father or brother, for permission to marry. It seemed to be improper for the father to seek a groom for his daughter, a suitor was suppose to present himself, or send a representative, to ask to marry the woman in question. The father would then ask his daughter her opinion.[35] If she liked the idea, the father would then set a bride price for the suitor to meet. This was not, as it may seem, that he was selling his daughter, but it was the suitor’s compensation for taking a working member of the family away. This is the engagement portion of the wedding, which was essential for a legal marriage. If a slave or concubine were being bought, then no bride price was paid. The engagement set the rules for inheritance, the wedding itself revolved around the theme of sex and procreation.[36] Whether or not the bride was a virgin was of little consequence. Virginity and illegitimacy were not really important to the ancient Germanic mindset.[37]

The more prominent family (usually the woman’s) would then throw a wedding feast that could last around three days. Here the father would give his daughter to her husband along with her dowry. The dowry was her money and property, not the new husband’s. After the feast, the couple would then go to a room or cabin set aside for them to consummate the marriage, while their friends and family would sing dirty songs and drink outside the door.

Other than reproductive purposes, women were often given in marriage as frith-weavers (or peace-weavers). If there was a feud or war going on between two tribes or families, a marriage between children of the combatants was usually one part of the solution. When a Germanic woman married, she became part of her husband’s family.  Therefore, she had to leave her kin and clan to go live with her new husband’s family, often under hostile conditions. Although she had been made a member of her husband’s clan, if the peace was broken the woman usually sided with her family and went back home.[38] As Marianne Moen states in her thesis, The Gendered Landscape: A discussion of gender, status and power in the Norwegian Viking Age landscape:

Ruling the home need not equate to a hidden or passive role merely because that is the common value coding of such a role in recent western society. It could mean a platform for power and influence on a different, but equivalent level available to men.[39]

The woman’s role as frith-weaver not only applied to her role between tribes, but also within her own household. Beowulf’s Queen Wealtheow gave a brilliant example of how this was accomplished. After Beowulf had cut off Grendal’s arm and had seemingly killed the beast, a rumor began to circulate in Hrothgar’s court that he was going to adopt Beowulf and make him his heir. Just the rumor was enough to provoke animosity between the Geats and the Danes. During the feast given in honor of Beowulf, Wealtheow gave the mead cup first to her husband, Hrothgar, and advised him to honor the Geats, but to leave his lands to his nephew. She then gave drink to Beowulf, along with many wonderful gifts and bade him always be their friend and wished him luck on his adventures in his own land. Wealtheow’s subtle maneuver was enough to diffuse the tense situation, which could have easily lead to bloodshed.[40]

The most important job of the housewife, other than being a mother and companion, was to provide clothing and food for her household throughout the year. When the couple got married, the husband gave the keys to the house and the storage sheds to his new wife. She was responsible for provisioning the food out to the household and making sure that enough food was stored to last through the long northern winter. It was also the lady of the house’s responsibility to make sure that enough yarn was spun and fabric woven to clothe the household for the year. There were usually several women who did this, since many freeborn people worked for richer people and were part of their household.

The job of textile production was relegated to women from a very early period. The reason for this, according to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, is that women were given tasks that were relatively safe and easily interruptible so that they could care for their small children. It is only logical that women were the primary caregivers of small children, since the children were reliant on their mothers’ milk. It would have been illogical for a baby to have been gone hunting with its mother, since quiet, patience, and speed are necessary to and kill animals, not to mention the danger involved with hunting. Therefore, spinning, weaving, and cooking were delegated to women, as well as other household chores that let them stay close to home. These were also tasks that could (should) have been performed with each other’s help, such as setting up a loom for weaving, or sewing garments.[41]

Not only did women make fabric for their family, but also to sell. As the Germanic tribes slowly began to Christianize, the last vestiges of paganism resided in the far north. This later period of paganism corresponds to the ‘Viking Age’ (793-1066 CE).  This is the period that Scandinavians began to explore the world for new lands to settle, to establish extensive trade routes, and to harry and plunder anyone not strong enough to defend themselves.  It was during this period that fabric production became commercial. Long before the industrial revolution, the ladies of Iceland produced so much fabric that it became a form of currency. Icelandic woolens were even taken to the mainland and traded for things unavailable (like wood) at home.[42] This was probably the reason for such high bride prices later in the Viking Age, since each woman was a significant contributor to the family’s wealth.

Women throughout the Viking world also participated in trade. Many female graves excavated in Hedeby, (originally in Denmark, but presently in Germany), Birka (Sweden), Kaupang (Norway), the three largest Viking Age trading centers, and in other trading centers throughout Europe have included scales used to weigh silver. Judith Jesch makes this point evident:

The great rivers of Russia leading eventually to Byzantium were an important multinational trading area where Swedish vikings played their part. Among the burials of clear Scandinavian type near the large trading centres of Staraya Ladoga, Yaroslavl’, Smolensk, Chernigov and Kiev we find a considerable number of women’s graves…. A study by Anne Stalsberg of 99 Scandinavian graves dating from the late ninth to the late eleventh century in Russia reveals that 60% contained women, while 55% contained men (some contained both)….Moreover, the fact that at least 19% of the weights and balances found in Scandinavian burials belonged to women suggests that women were involved in the trading activities that took place.[43]

When women were not busy spinning, weaving, trading, and tending children they enjoyed more leisurely activities. The idea of fidelity and monogamy that was embraced by the converts of the Christian church was not that important to their pagan predecessors. In the Eddic poem Loki’s Quarrel, Loki comes to a party hosted by the sea god, Ægir, that he was not invited to. Loki then berated all of the gods and goddesses present. Every one of the goddesses he claimed had slept with either himself or some other god who was not their respective husband. During Loki’s tirade, Njord tried to quiet him by saying, “That’s harmless, if, besides a husband, a woman has a lover or someone else….”[44]

The gods were not the only ones who did not believe in monogamy. According to Jenny Jochens, the only real purpose behind legal marriages in pagan days was to simplify the lines of inheritance and reduce the number of children that parents were responsible for leaving property to, since illegitimate children had no right to inherit.[45]

Several of the Icelandic Sagas tell of men having mistresses or concubines. For instance, in Njal’s Saga, Njal has an illegitimate son, Hoskuld Njalsson, who was around the same age as his legitimate sons. When Hoskuld was murdered, his mother, Hrodny, went to Njal’s house to tell him what had happened. She pushed her way inside the house and went into Njal and Bergthora’s bedroom. Hrodny then asked,” Are you awake? …Get up from my rival’s bed and come outside with me.  Bring the woman and your sons too.”[46] Even though this may sound like there was hostility between the two women, it was Bergthora that shamed her sons into avenging their half-brother.[47]

Jenny Jochens makes the point of how open the Nordic peoples were about multiple sexual partners:

Tacitus’s suggestion of polygyny among Germanic chieftains is amply confirmed for pagan nordic kings. Around 900 the Norwegian Haraldr Fairhair, for example, is said to have dismissed nine mistresses before marrying the Danish princess Rahmhildr. More common was “resource polygyny,” to use a term favored by anthropologists to indicate a system in which powerful men dispose of several women. The kings’ sagas make it clear that from the ninth century to the mid-thirteenth century all kings were adulterous and almost all contenders between Óláfr helgi (St. Óláfr) in the first half of the eleventh century and Magnús Hákonarson in the late thirteenth century were illegitimate.  Marriage bigamy of King Haraldr the Hard-Ruler (hardrádi) in the mid-eleventh century: in addition to Ellisif, the wife he had acquired in Russia, he married the Norwegian Þóra after his return…. Even the most casual reading of Sturlunga saga makes it clear that few prominent men lived in monogamous marriage; most added concubines (frillur) openly to their wives or established informal unions with official mistresses (fylgikonur)….[48]

Of course if a woman was unhappy in her marriage, the husband tried to leave the country with her property, she was sexually deprived, or if her husband was abusive, she could easily divorce him. Divorce usually consisted of the divorcer calling witnesses and proclaiming themselves divorced. Women often used the threat of divorce (and them leaving with all of their property) as a means of getting their way or inciting their husbands to action. Once divorced, the the woman would go home to her family with all of her dowry or in cases of abuse half of the marital assets. She was allowed to control her property independently from then on and could remarry.[49]

It seems that the women who were most respected and the most independent were older widows. Since they were no longer able to bare children, they no longer had to worry about the hindrances of marriage. They usually lived with a family member, most notably one of their sons. It was easier for a woman to have control of her family’s financial and social world if she had no male relatives. For instance, Unnr the Strong-Minded lost her father and son in Scotland. She then moved her remaining family to Iceland. Her son had left six daughters that Unnr began finding husbands for. She married one off in Orkney and another in the Faroes. The rest she found good husbands for in Iceland. She is listed in Íslendingabók (under the name of Auđr Ketillsdottir) as one of the four most important settlers in Iceland.[50] She was a woman wielding both wealth and power in man’s world. Unnr’s initiative and perseverance made her a very highly respected person throughout Icelandic history.

Even back on the continent, older women seem to have been highly respected as well. According to Birgit and Peter Sawyer, by the 11th century women were becoming a larger part of the population of Scandinavia because they were living longer lives. In the era between 3rd-4th century and 10th-11th century, the grave goods found in women’s graves became richer as the women’s ages increased. On the contrary, the graves of men were more richly furnished when the ages of the men were relatively young, and the graves became more scantily furnished, as the men grew older.[51] This observation is compounded with the fact that both the largest silver horde found in a chamber burial (Hedeby)[52] and the richest and most elaborate ship burial (Oseberg, Norway)[53] ever discovered were in women’s graves.



From the earliest recorded Germanic marriage ceremony through the Viking Age, women were able to bare arms in combat along with their male counterparts. Tacitus wrote of the Germanic wedding ceremony:

As for dower, it is not the wife who brings it to the husband, but the husband to the wife. The parents and relations are present to approve these gifts – gifts not devised for ministering to female fads, nor for the adornment of the person of the bride, but oxen, a horse and bridle, a shield and spear or sword; it is to share these things that the wife is taken by the husband, and she herself, in turn, brings some piece of armour to her husband. Here is the gist of the bond between them, here in their eyes its mysterious sacrament, the divinity which hedges it.  That the wife may not imagine herself exempt from thoughts of heroism, released from the chances of war, she is thus warned by the very rites with which her marriage begins that she comes to share hard work and peril; that her fate will be the same as his in peace and in panic, her risks the same.[54]

There are two Germanic female war leaders that stand out in the early histories of Europe. The first of these was left nameless, only being called ‘the Island Girl’. The second was one of the most successful military commanders in English history, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

The Island Girl was the first Anglo-Saxon woman ever written about. Procopius, an official of Emperor Justinian’s court recorded her exploits, while he wrote about the Gothic War of 535-552. The Island Girl led a large band of warriors from Britain to the mainland to avenge herself.[55]

The king of the Varni, Hermegisclus, had sent a proposal of marriage from his son, Radigis, to the Island Girl (the English king’s sister), along with a large sum of gold as the bride price. She accepted the offer and the gold, thereby sealing the marriage deal.[56]

In the meantime, Hermegisclus saw an omen of his death and made Radigis promise to marry his stepmother, Hermegisclus’ new bride Theudechild. Hermegisclus did die and Radigis married Theudechild, sister of the Frankish king. He then sent a message to his fiancé telling her that the marriage was canceled, but telling her to keep the gold.[57]

Her pride and honor wounded, the Island Girl gathered a warband and sailed to the mouth of the Rhine. She then had a fortification built and made that her headquarters. She sent a couple of expeditionary forces out to reconnoiter and find Radigis. After the Anglo-Saxons had defeated the Varnian army, they eventually captured Radigis, tied him up, and brought him back to camp. By this point he was shaking with fear. The island girl asked him why he had broken the engagement and he began begging for mercy and acting very un-kingly. She sent Theudechild home to her family and married Radigis. Even though he probably was not as heroic a husband as she probably wanted, the Island Girl had gone to war over the matter.[58]

The second great female Germanic war-leader should have been better remembered, had her family not attributed her accomplishments to her brother. King Alfred the Great had re-won much of Britain back from the Danish invaders in the 9th century. His oldest child, Æthelflæd, he married to Æthelred, the Ealdorman of West Mercia. These lands had never fallen into Danish hands, so the marriage of the two families ensured a strong alliance against the Danes.[59]

King Alfred died in 899, leaving his son Edward in control of Wessex and his son-in-law as an ally. The two worked well together until Æthelred’s health began to fail in 909. Edward commanded the Mercian forces from 909-910, in war against the Danes. Then in 911, Æthelred died. From then on, Edward relied on his sister to rule Mercia and command the Mercian troops.[60]

In order to unite the two British kingdoms into one, Æthelflæd never took the title of queen although that is basically the role she played. She took instead the title ‘Lady of the Mercians’. While in control of Mercia, Æthelflæd built or restored many strongholds to defend the countryside. And while Edward was fighting his way east, Æthelflæd covered her brother’s left flank and held the western lands. After eight years of savage fighting when the Danish kingdom of York sent a promise of allegiance, it was sent to Lady Æthelflæd, not her brother.[61]

There are a number of women who are recorded as actual warriors. Saxo Grammaticus wrote:

…There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’skills; they did not want the sinews of their valour to lose tautness and be infected by self-indulgence. Loathing a dainty style of living, they would harden body and mind with toil and endurance, rejecting the fickle pliancy of girls and compelling their womanish spirits to act with a virile ruthlessness. They courted military celebrity so earnestly that you would have guessed they had unsexed themselves. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall and elegant embarked on this way of life. As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure, aimed conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill, and those they could have appeased with looks they attacked with lances.[62]

In this work Saxo recorded the names and deeds of many female fighters. For brevity’s sake, their stories will not be related in this paper. Among them are Alvild, Lathgerda, Hetha, Randolin, Rusila, Sela, Stikla, Vebiorg, and Visna. Many of these women warriors left home and took up arms to save their chastity; they are usually termed as ‘shield-maidens’. Others decided to challenge kinsmen for the throne, while others merely liked to fight. Suffice it to say that all of Saxo’s fighting women either ended up dead, or in the marriage bed.[63]

The Icelandic sagas name several women who took up the sword as well. The best known of these is Hervör. When her father, Angantýr, and eleven uncles were killed in battle, she dressed as a man and spent time as a highway robber. She eventually became part of a pirate crew. When their boat sailed close to the Danish island of Samsey, where her father had been buried in a mound, she goes ashore to reclaim his sword. She wakes his ghost and makes him give his sword to her. Later Hervör married and had a son, Heidhrekr, who became the father of the Swedish royal dynasty and avenged his grandfather’s death.[64]

Another woman who took up a sword was Freydis Eiriksdottir, Lief Eiriksson’s illegitimate sister. After her brother had discovered Vinland (North America), Freydis and her husband, Thorvard, decided to go on an expedition with some other men to see if Vinland could be settled. They sailed west and found a nice place with plenty of game and wild foodstuffs and spent the winter there. One day the following spring, they began trading with the Skrælings (Native Americans). A bull broke out of its pen and scared the Skrælings, who jumped in their boats and rowed away.[65]

Three weeks later they attacked the Greenlanders’ settlement. The Greenlander men were nearly surrounded by the Skrælings and retreated so that they could fight with their backs to a cliff wall. When Freydis saw them retreating she yelled at them to stop and fight, then she tried to run after them. She could not keep up because she was pregnant. Freydis soon found herself surrounded by the enemy. She grabbed a sword off the ground next to one of her dead friends, took one of her breasts out of her dress, and slapped it with the sword. The sight of this crazed pregnant woman terrified the Skrælings so badly that they all retreated.[66]

The most popular way for women to promote violence was by instigating feuds. Njal’s Saga relates the story of Hallgerđr and BergÞora. These two strong-willed women began a feud that lasted throughout the whole saga. At first they were sending slaves to kill each other’s slaves, and by the end Njal, BergÞora, and their sons are burned alive in their home.[67]

Women were not only inciters of feuds, but also the judges of men’s fighting abilities. In Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla: The Lives of the Norse Kings, King Harald Fairhair sent messengers to propose to the daughter of King Eric or Hordaland called Gyda. She refused to marry him because she said that he did not rule enough land. She went further to challenge him to put all of the small kingdoms in Norway under his rule.[68] From that point on, Harald swore to not tend his hair until he had won all of Norway (he was called Shaggy Harald for a while). He eventually conquered Norway and made it one kingdom, and then he and Gyda married.[69]

Women’s judgment of men’s fighting abilities is also illustrated in Egil’s Saga. At a feast Egil was to sit and drink with the daughter of his host. When she came to take her place she told him that he should get up and move because she only wanted a real man, a warrior, as her drinking partner. He then related his fighting prowess, so she sat and they drank together and enjoyed the feast.[70] Like the above quote in the Introduction says, what would be the real point in men going out of their way to be macho, if women were not there to praise their efforts and cheer them on?



Archeological excavations have uncovered the graves of Scandinavian women in all the places that their men went to conduct peaceful trade.[71] As has been previously explored, women traded down the Russian rivers, they settled in Iceland, Greenland, and even ventured to Vinland.

There is sufficient evidence to say that men often intermarried with the native peoples that they encountered. However, there is also proof that many northern women left their homelands to settle a new area or go on trading missions. This may have been especially true of unmarried women. Birgit and Peter Sawyer wrote that while married couples had distinct gender related roles, unmarried women, widows, and women with no close male kin had to take on male responsibilities.[72]

Other than archeological excavations, the best way to find where women settled (and more importantly, where they were primary settlers) is through the annals and chronicles of their contemporaries. To do this, Scandinavian names have to be looked for from the places we know that the Norse settled.[73] According to Judith Jesch:

Domesday book, compiled for William after his conquest of England, records for much of the country the ownership of land as it was in the time of his predecessor, Edward, providing invaluable material for the study of both personal and place names in eleventh-century England. In it we find female landowners bearing names of Scandinavian origin. These names are most numerous in the eastern half of the country, particularly Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. This is precisely where, as we know from other evidence, there was a substantial settlement of Scandinavian immigrants.[74]

Although women generally settled in a second wave of immigration, usually due to the fact that the first wave was of warriors who seized the land, the settlement of Iceland was nearly automatic.[75] Iceland had no indigenous people to fight or displace. Iceland was primarily settled during the reign of King Harald Fairhair (860-930 CE) due to his campaign to subjugate all of Norway.[76]

Ari Thorgilsson wrote Íslendingabók (‘the book of the Icelanders’) in the 1120s. He probably helped to contribute to Landnámabók (‘the book of the settlements’) as well. These two books are the history of the settlement of Iceland. They list heads of households and important settlers. As has been previously stated, Unnr the Strong-Minded (listed as Auđr Ketillsdottir) was one of the four most important settlers of the island. These books also list the names of 13 other women who were first settlers of an area. Some of these had accompanied their brothers or sons on the trip and claimed their own land. Others started out with their husbands who then died on the voyage to the new land. One woman in particular, Ásgerđr Asksdóttir, left Norway after her husband was killed. She took her children and her half-brother with her, all under her protection. This is evident when later the brother claimed land “with her consent”.[77]


In conclusion, I have demonstrated that women in pre-Christian Northern Europe helped shape a distinctly unique culture through social, economic, and religious influence. These women traveled throughout the world, from Russia to North America, trading, settling, and defending what was theirs. They had a social standing that, if not equal to their male counterparts, exceeded men’s especially as they grew older and more respected.

I think that the women in pre-Christian northern Europe proved that although the members of each gender have definite advantages/disadvantages that the other does not, women can accomplish anything they set their minds to. Even in a male dominated society, these early women were able to live, love, and fight as they wished.

If this paper had been longer, I would like to have included more literary examples and more archaeological evidence. Of course, the archaeological record is growing every day. New techniques in archaeology allow better preservation of excavated materials, and computer imagery allow us to see what a village, such as Birka, would have looked like in its heyday.


[1] Birgit and Peter Sawyer, Medieval Scandinavia: From Conversion To Reformation Circa 800-1500 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 195.

[2] E.O.G. Turville-Petre, Myth And Religion Of The North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson, 1964), 156.

[3] H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods And Myths Of The Viking Age, originally published as Gods And Myths Of Northern Europe (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1964; reprint, New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1996), 30.

[4] The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3-13; also, E.O.G. Turville-Petre, 156-165.

[5] Paul C. Bauschatz, The Well And The Tree (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982), 141-142.

[6] The Poetic Edda, 3-13, 114-115.

[7] Njal’s Saga, trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (London: Penguin Group, 1960), 349-351.

[8] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, vol. I, 4th ed, trans. James Steven Stallybrass (George Bell and Sons, 1883; reprint, Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1976), 302-304.

[9] Frigg knew that her son, Baldr, was going to be killed.  She went to everything in all the world and made them swear to do Baldr no harm.  Everything, that is, except mistletoe which she though was too harmless to hurt anyone.  Loki later found this out and used mistletoe to murder Baldr. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 48-49.

[10] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 21.

[11] Ibid, 29-30.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales (Garden City: Guild America Books, 1812 and 1815; reprint ?), 216-218.

[14] The Poetic Edda, 91.

[15] Hilda Ellis Davidson, Roles Of The Northern Goddess (London: Routledge, 1998), 57; also, E.O.G. Turville-Petre, 171.

[16] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 23 and 61.

[17] Ibid, 50.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 31; also, The Poetic Edda, 8.

[20] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 31; also, The Poetic Edda, 50-60 .

[21] The Poetic Edda, 50-60.

[22] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 86.

[23]Ibid, 49.

[24] Ibid, 96-97.

[25] Kveldulf Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1993), 56-57.

[26] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 31, 72-73, 85-86, 120.

[27] The Poetic Edda, 61-68.

[28] Ibid, 95-96; also, Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 48-52.

[29] Cornelius Tacitus, Aricola Germania Dialogus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914; reprint, 1980), 141-143.

[30] Cornelius Tacitus, The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus, Book Four: The Rhineland Recovered (http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/tacitusc/histries/chap16.htm), 2000.

[31] “The Exeter Book,” in Peace-Weavers And Shield-Maidens: Women In Early English Society by Kathleen Herbert (Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1997; reprint, 1999), 26-27.

[32] “Thorkel invited the prophetess to his house and prepared a good reception for her, as was the custom when such women were being received.  A high-seat was made ready for her with a cushion on it, which had to be stuffed with hens’ feathers…. She was dressed like this: she wore a blue mantle fastened with straps and adorned with stones all the way down to the hem.  She had a necklace of glass beads.  On her head she wore a black lambskin hood lined with white cat’s fur.  She carried a staff with a brass-bound knob studded with stones.  She wore a belt made of touchwood, from which hung a large pouch, and in this she kept the charms she needed for her witchcraft.  On her feet were hairy calfskin shoes with long thick laces which had large tin buttons on the ends.  She wore catskin gloves, with the white fur inside…. Later that evening the tables were set up; and this is what the prophetess had for her meal: she was given a gruel made from goat’s milk, and a main dish of hearts from the various kinds of animals that were available there.  She used a brass spoon, and a knife with a walrus-tusk handle bound with two rings of copper; the blade had a broken point.” The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery Of America, “Eirik’s Saga,” trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (London: Penguin Group, 1965), 81-82.

[33] The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery Of America, “Eirik’s Saga,” 82-83.

[34] Stephan Grundy, “Maiden, Mother, But Never Crone: The Role of the Older Woman in Norse Literature,” in Medieval Mothering, ed. John Carmi Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler (New York: Garland, 1996), 223-238.

[35] It was of utmost importance that both parties were of equal social standing and similar wealth.  If one of the people felt that they were marrying beneath themselves then the marriage would probably result in divorce or worse. See Njal’s Saga, trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (London: The Penguin Group, 1960), 57-59.

[36]Michael J. Enright, Lady With A Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy And Lordship In The European Warband From La Tène To The Viking Age (Dublin:  Four Courts Press, 1996), 77-79; also, Jenny Jochens, Women In Old Norse Society (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1995), 20-22.

[37] Nancy Marie Brown, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2007), 66-67.

[38] Jenny Jochens, 55-61.

[39] Marianne Moen, The Gendered Landscape: A discussion of gender, status and power in the Norwegian Viking Age landscape (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011), 46; also, Elisabeth Arwill-Nordblad, Genuskonstruksjoner i Nordisk Vikingatid: Forr och nu. (Gothenburg: Gotarc Gothenburgh Archaeological Press, 1998), 47.

[40] Beowulf, trans. by Seamus Heaney (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), p. 83-87; also, Michael J. Enright, 2-10; also, Kathleen Herbert, 30-31.

[41] Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995), 29-30.

[42] Jenny Jochens, 141.

[43] Judith Jesch, Women In The Viking Age (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1991; reprint, 1996), 36.

[44] The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 90.

[45] Jenny Jochens, 21-22.

[46] Njal’s Saga, trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (London: The Penguin Group, 1960), 213-214.

[47] Njal’s Saga, trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (London: The Penguin Group, 1960), 213-214.

[48] Jenny Jochens, 31.

[49] Jenny Jochens, 54-60.

[50] Judith Jesch, 79-80, 194-195.

[51] Birgit and Peter Sawyer, 192; also, Judith Jesch, 13, 28-45.

[52] Judith Jesch, 35.

[53] Ibid, 31-34.

[54] Cornelius Tacitus, Aricola Germania Dialogus, 159.

[55] Kathleen Herbert, 8-10.

[56] Ibid, 9.

[57] Ibid, 10.

[58] Ibid, 10-12.

[59] Ibid, 18-20.

[60] Ibid, 20-21.

[61] Ibid, 22-23.

[62] Saxo Grammaticus, The History Of The Danes: Books I-IX, trans. Peter Fisher, ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson, originally published in two volumes (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1979 and 1980; reprint, 1999), 212.

[63] Ibid, 83, 150, 210-212, 226-227, 238, 241-242, 246, 280-281.

[64] Kveldulf Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1993), 132; also, “The Waking of Angantyr” in The Elder Edda, trans. Paul B. Taylor and W.H. Auden (London: Faber and Faber, 1969; reprint, 1973), 101-105.

[65] The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery Of America, “Eirik’s Saga,” 99.

[66] Ibid, 99-100.

[67] Njal’s Saga, trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (London: The Penguin Group, 1960).

[68] Snorre Sturlason, “The History of Harald Hairfair,” in Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings, ed. Erling Monsen, trans. A.H. Smith (Cambridge: W. Heffer, 1932; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990), 44.

[69] Ibid, 45-46, 57.

[70] Egil’s Saga, trans. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (London: Penguin Group, 1976), 110-111.

[71] The graves of Scandinavian women can be easily distinguished due to the large ‘tortoise’ broaches that they wore.

[72] Birgit and Peter Sawyer, 195.

[73] Judith Jesch, 75.

[74] Ibid, 76.

[75] Of all the places that Viking men pillaged in continental Europe, there has only been one Scandinavian woman’s grave discovered, and that was in France.

[76] Judith Jesch, 79.

[77] Judith Jesch, 79-83.