It’s not hard to see why the goddesses of Norse Mythology were depicted as fierce women who could fight, raid, and ransack just as viciously as the men. From Freja, the goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility and war, to the Valkyries who presided over each battle deciding who would live, and who they would take to Valhalla: these women of myth were highly venerated. But while the myths lived on through centuries of Norse history, what about the ‘real’ Viking women.
Debate between historians has raged for centuries. With some stating that shieldmaidens were a myth, and others believing them to have existed: the conflict may finally resolved in 2017 when DNA testing revealed a body buried in the famous Birka grave was female.
But who were these female warriors, and were they really as high-octane and terrifying as the Viking legends suggests?
Perhaps the most well known of all the Viking warrior women of Norse sagas, Lagertha is most recognisable as the wife of Ragnar Lödbrook [portrayed by Katherine Winnick in Vikings]. But the story of Lagertha is a little different to the farmer turned shield maiden we see on the show.
Her story, as chronicled by the Danish historian Saxo, begins when the Swedish king, Frø, invades Norway. Having killed the king of Norway (Ragnar’s grandfather), Frø put the women of the late king’s family into work at a brothel. Hearing of this humiliation and degradation of his family, Ragnar summoned an army to avenge his grandfather’s murder. Many of those who were fighting at his side were the women that Frø had ordered abused.
At the head of these warrior women was Lagertha who was so fierce in battle that all who watched were amazed. Despite being dressed in men’s clothing, Lagertha’s long golden hair was loose and falling down her back showing that she was, in fact, a woman.
Unmatched in skill or bravery, Lagertha was instrumental in the defeat of Frø. In awe of her prowess, bravery, and courage, Ragnar found himself entirely enamoured with Largertha. While he wished to make her his wife, she seemed far less interested in marriage. In his pursuit of winning her hand, Ragnar was attacked by a bear and a hound that Lagertha had placed to protect her home. Having speared the bear, and strangled the hound, Ragnar won Lagertha’s hand. All was not happily ever after, however. Despite having a son and two daughters together, Ragnar divorced Lagertha upon his return to Denmark citing the fact that he was still upset about her setting not one, but two beasts upon him. Both Ragnar and Lagertha would remarry with Lagertha remaining in Norway.
The pair weren’t quite done with each other yet, though. As the civil war raged on, Ragnar asked Norway for support. Lagertha not only supplied 120 ships to aid her ex-husband, but as things looked bleak for Ragnar, Lagertha launched a counter-attack. Flanking the enemy Lagertha’s swift actions turned the battle in favour of Ragnar’s army.
Upon returning to Norway from the war that she just (almost single-handedly) won, Lagertha got into an argument with her second husband. Deciding that her life would be considerably easier if she ruled all of Norway alone, she stabbed him to death with a spearhead concealed in her dress and usurped his lands and title.
Sigrid the Haughty
Well earning her title, Sigrid the Haughty was the vicious vengeful widow of Swedish king Eric the Victorious. As Eric’s widow, Sigrid inherited a considerable amount of land and power from her late husband. As her son ascended to the throne, Sigrid began to receive offers of marriage from potential suitors. Aware that these suitors were interested more in her inheritance, and less in Sigrid herself, the queen sent a stark message to all potential suitors to let them know they might want to think twice before proposing.
The first suitor to regret seeking Sigrid’s hand was her foster-brother, Harald. In a bid to nip this new gold-digging trend in the bud, Sigrid had Harald and another wannabe suitor (Vissavald of Gardarik) burned to death. To ensure that the word about her view of new suitors would be known, Sigrid executed both men in the centre of the great hall following a huge feast. This was the act that would earn her the name Sigrid the Haughty.
Alas, as if the threat of being burned alive after dessert wasn’t fearsome enough to encourage men to give her a wide berth, Sigrid’s scorched earth approach didn’t end with Harald and Vissavald. The next suitor to seek Sigrid’s hand was Olaf Tryggvasson, King of Norway. Whether unaware of Sigrid’s already legendary history of dealing with inappropriate suitors, or just plain arrogant: Olaf agreed to marry Sigrid under the condition that she convert to Christianity. When Sigrid refused, stating that she wouldn’t accept a religion that wasn’t practised by her forefathers, Olaf struck Sigrid with a glove. Sigrid’s calm response to Olaf was simply to advise him that 'This will one day be the death of you'. Sigrid then went on to do what Sigrid did best: destroy him. We’ve all heard that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but Sigrid managed to go above and beyond to bring about Olaf’s downfall.
After his assault, Sigrid formed a coalition with the kings of Norway and Denmark going so far as to marry one of his long-time rivals, Svein Forkbeard. To make matters worse, Forkbeard had forced the marriage of his sister, Tyri, to his first wife’s father. Dismayed at the match, Tyri ran away and married Olaf instead. Between Tyri goading Olaf to get retribution for the forced marriage, and Svien and Sigrid’s pre-existing feuds with Olaf, it wasn’t long until tensions overran and there was all-out war.
Believed to be the biggest naval battle of Viking history, the ensuing Battle of Swold decided the future of Norway. Having been ambushed at sea by the King of Denmark, King of Sweden, and a Norwegian Jarl, Olaf threw himself overboard.
Freydís Eiríksdóttir was the daughter of Erik the Red, famed Viking explorer and founder of the first settlement in Greenland. Watching her brother, Leif Eiríksson, gaining infamy for his discovery of Vinland (now north-east America), Freydís decided that she wanted to reap the benefits of the new world too and joined an expedition. After surviving the journey across the Atlantic, Freydís and her fellow Vikings were met with a little more resistance from the indigenous population than they had expected. However, while the men around Freydís began to fall apart, she took charge in a slightly unexpected way.
Having just survived the perilous crossing of the Atlantic, the Vikings had set up camp. While taking in the surroundings of this new land where they intended to settle, the Vikings were set upon by the native population. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the attackers were using ranged weaponry that they hadn’t experienced before - sending the Vikings into a blind panic. Now thought to have been faced with slings or catapults, the men around Freydís began to flee in confusion. At the sight of the panic around her, Freydís (eight months pregnant at this point) bellowed, 'Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon, I know I could fight better than any of you.
Freydís then took the sword of a fallen comrade and proceeded to do something that would shock everyone in the skirmish into action. Ripping open her top to expose one of her bare breasts, Freydís shrieked whilst furiously beating her fist on her chest. Whether from sheer confusion or fright, Freydís’ war cry was enough to rally the men around her and send the attacking natives into a hasty retreat.
For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.