Were Women Warriors Real?

Many of you have seen the recent conclusions of DNA testing affirming that a 9th c burial at Birka, Sweden with weaponry was indeed that of a woman. It is an exciting and eye-opening report. Let’s consider what these weapons might really mean for our understanding of our fore-mothers.

This grave, known as Bj581, is one of 3,000 known burials at Birka, an important Viking-era trading post. Birka was abandoned in the early 10th century, as rising land levels made the water channels to it unnavigable. (Rising land levels, you may question? Yes. The Polar ice cap that extended all over Scandinavia in the last great Ice Age was so vastly thick and heavy that the land is still rising in many areas – as Gotland is, in the Baltic.) Thus the site of what was once a thriving trading post at Birka was left relatively untouched; traders could no longer reach it on their ships. The grave Bj581 was a particularly rich one, and has been well documented. All except for its inhabitant.

Two scientists making careful study of the remains have finally established the sex of the inhabitant of Bj581. A rigorous examining of the skeletal remains of pelvic bones and jaw by bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellström at Stockholm University pointed firmly towards a female verdict. Then at Uppsala University archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson extracted two types of DNA from the bones. This burial was indeed that of a woman.

Reconstruction of the Birka grave site

This reconstruction of the grave site shows how the woman may have originally looked.
(Þórhallur Þráinsson ©Neil Price)

It is certainly true that faulty attributions of grave inhabitants have been made over the centuries. Lacking complete skeletons (or in the case of cremation burials, any skeletons) grave goods could lead archaeologists and scholars to false ends. (The Birka find, though quite complete, was excavated in the late 1880’s). If cooking implements were found, an assumption of a female grave might be made, completely overlooking the fact that male traders and raiders had to self-cater, and carried these things with them. The Birka grave held a sword, battle axe, spear, shield, arrows, and two sacrificed horses (mare and stallion, so they might increase in the afterlife) – and the body of a woman. (Also, on her lap – signifying her role as tactician, or as a more playful touch – gaming pieces from tæfl, a strategy board game you might recall from the Saga.)

Another interesting fact is that she was quite a tall women by her standards – 5’5”. A mass grave site in England of Danish warriors and their Danish wives – victims of contagion – tells us the average Danish Viking was about 5’7”, and his wife 5’1”. So this women, of about 30 years of age, so nobly sent to the afterlife, was rather a commanding figure at her height.

Was she a true warrior? It is certainly not impossible. Other weapons and artefacts of kingship have been found in women’s graves in the past. We have (not always reliable) accounts from Christian historians, Saxo Grammaticus for one, who about the year 1200 shares the story of the woman warrior Lagertha, eventually wed to and divorced from Ragnar Lodbrok, who with a number of other fighting Danish women, Saxo compares to Amazons.

Why would a woman be buried with such weapons, if she was not using them? One must remember the tremendous material value and ritual significance of weaponry, in both Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture. Even onlookers were aware of this; the Roman historian Tacitus, in his report Germania, notes that woman not only could receive weaponry as a dowry, but were expected to preserve and protect it for coming generations. (We see a glimpse of this in Modwynn, the Lady of Kilton, where in Silver Hammer, Golden Cross she presents her dead husband’s war-kit to her grandson, Ceric.)

So who was this woman, buried in Birka, with such great war trappings, fully worthy of a hero? It is tempting to imagine her as one who wielded these weapons with honour and courage, and with success.

But let us temper our enthusiasm for this vision with the grim realities of warfare, and the physiological differences in size and strength between men and women. If it is true that the bodies of dead women warriors were found amongst Germanic tribes warring against the Romans, they were likely fighting out of real desperation, and were not normal troops. Woman just can’t fight in hand to hand combat with men and have any real chance of survival.

Woman Warrior Burial Birka

Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of the grave by excavator Hjalmar Stolpe, published in 1889.
Illustration courtesy Uppsala University

The great levellers are archery, and horses. (This, in fact, is where the formidable Amazons come in.) Men and women fighting each other with bows and arrows on horseback is a much fairer contest. Women on horseback with bows can inflect great damage on ground troops, as it is hard to withstand repeated onslaughts of arrows; one can’t advance, and one can’t open the body enough to fling a spear, if the enemy comes within range.

We may never know how the Birka Woman used her weapons, but I admire her for having them. But I myself shall be astride my horse, bow in hand…

{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Jeff Cochran February 8, 2018, 11:05 pm

    I have just finished book 6. I like Gwen, read the last half of the book ( Silver Hammer Golden Cross)
    As slow as possible, not wanting the saga to come to an end! Such a great read!

  • Jennifer Jensen December 26, 2017, 7:42 pm

    Thank you for posting! As a woman who has taught martial arts and self defense courses, I can tell you that a lack of size and brute strength can be compensated for with careful training and tactical skills. I completely disagree with your comment Octavia, “Woman (sic) just can’t fight in hand to hand combat with men and have any real chance for survival”.
    There is also that ability some people have to cast their personal safety aside and fight with ferocity and deadly precision. Sidroc recognized this himself the day Godwin killed Yrling, and knew he was lucky not to have fought him. 🙂
    I would love to know more about our tall 5’5″ lady, especially from a forensic pathologist/archaeologist. Please everyone post any links you come across.

    • Octavia Randolph December 27, 2017, 12:58 am

      Thank you for a smart and informed comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece on the inhabitant of Bj581. I will be writing more on this topic soon, and possibly presenting a talk as well – I’ll let you know.

      As far as martial arts skills, of course I agree that a highly trained female martial artist can take down a strong and skilled male warrior. But hand to hand combat such as was fought in the ninth century with spear and sword is not kendo. Much of it truly was height, weight, focused aggression, and brute strength to keep swinging that sword, keep blocking with that shield. Very few women will be able to overcome a man in such limited circumstances. We must also lay aside for the moment acts of almost superhuman strength that women, men, and even children have been recorded doing under extreme duress. These instances are real, but are not fighting under normal battle conditions as were experienced in a shield wall.

      (Berserkr possession, such as came over Godwin in his lust to revenge Gryic’s blinding, is yet another manifestation of “superhuman” fighting power…The added dimension of utter disregard for one’s own safety, coupled with severely contorted faces, animal cries and gurglings, would have transformed such warriors into something very like demons – a most formidable foe to have to face.)

      Another thing to keep in mind is the role played by different physical types in early medieval warfare. Smaller men, weaker men, youths and boys did “lighter work” – they flung light weight spears, hurled stones in slings, and were archers (of more, below), oftentimes “softening up” the ranks of warriors in the shield wall before the two sides met. (You will recall an instance of this under Prince Eadward’s command in Silver Hammer, Golden Cross.)

      But add archery – and the mobility of horses – and everything changes. Archery is a level playing field. A man can draw greater bow string weight than a woman but the flight of his arrow is no longer nor more accurate! Give me 30 good equestriennes who are excellent archers and I will face any 80 heavily armed thegns (or Danes)…

      • Evelyne de Haviland January 16, 2018, 2:25 pm

        Thank you so much for this article, Octavia Randolph! I was very glad to hear Jennifer J. bring up this subject of the ferocity and training in martial arts and how tactical training in combat would also have bearing on hand to hand combat with a man of greater size and strength. I too was thinking along these same lines and noticed many times in the Circle of Ceridwen Saga that although Sidroc refers to Ceridwen as ‘Shield-Maiden’ he also lectured her on becoming involved in the fighting as she did while trying to defend herself upon the ‘Idrisid’ ship (in Book 3~The Claiming), appealing to her, that due to her size and musculature, not to mention the fact that she was not trained, she should not try to enter the fighting. Sidroc admired her for her ferocity and courage, but also counseled her on the fierceness and brutality of men in battle. (Especially of that time) I will say archery definitely levels the playing field, however, it still takes great strength and accuracy and a great deal of practice to be really good at it! ( I did see the archers set buried in the grave with her). The longbow of the Native American Indians with whom I was brought up here in Western Montana is a good example of the strength needed to be a good archer. It’s not just with archery, but I believe with training a woman can yield a sword with great accuracy and cunning as well, albeit not with the same strength of a man of greater stature.

        I believe women have gone to battle and fought in nearly every culture. This is such an interesting topic. So many examples come to mind! Again, thank you for this enlightening article. Please let us know if anything else has been found out about who she was?

  • Holly Hartman Cornish September 22, 2017, 2:45 pm

    Thank You soooo much for this illuminating article! I am an American of Swedish Descent… My Great-Grand Maternal Family, immigrated in the late 1870’s… From Timmervik, Sweden.. (Last Name of Johnsson) Denouncing the King of Sweden in the early 1880’s for American Citizenship… (where our Name was changed to Jacobson) They were Miners who came to reside in the Coal Mining territories of Pennsylvania… Where my Grandmother met My Paternal Grandfather… He and his Brother owned the only store in the tiny Town of Antrim, PA… He also ran the Post Office, handled the Pay for the Blossburg Coal Company and drove the stagecoach up to the Mining Camps, (a 7 mile trek on switchbacks up the Mountain, literally infested with Timber Rattlesnakes!!… this stagecoach trip was called the “Leetonia to Cedar Run”) There, they Met, and eventually they Married… I know MUCH of my Grandfather’s lineage.. but little of her Swedish History. I am to Understand that there are Many Family still in the Timmervik area… But the last correspondences stopped after the First World War… I would LOVE to find my Relatives and try to touch Base… My American Cousin, is a Professor at the University of Sweden… But, if I am to understand correctly, never attempted to look them up… Long Story Short, I Love Your Books and your articles, all Your research and the History is Amazing!!! Kudos!!!

  • Alienor Warisan September 18, 2017, 2:18 am

    Dear Octavia,
    Thank you for such an interesting article! I studied Archaeology many years ago and I’m still stunned by many things from the past which can be found. And they tell great tales from their era despite they don’t speak anymore. But thanks to you, they have a voice!
    From Alienor

  • Joyce Hazlerig September 17, 2017, 10:14 pm

    A wonderful and realistic look at the grave find! Very thoughtfully written as always. Thank you so much

  • Judi September 17, 2017, 4:40 pm

    Ocatavia, I think this could be the basis for another one of your novellas like Ride! I enjoyed it so much! This is fascinating information! I would often think back on my female ancestors while raising my family. I would remind myself No Complaining doing my everyday chores as they had been made so easy by modern day appliances and conveniences! 🙂

  • Sharon DeMarco Schneider September 17, 2017, 1:03 pm

    Hello again Octavia,
    Loved reading the article about the warrior women found in the grave in Sweden!! It so fits in your stories!!
    Hoping you include her in your next book!! # 7 that I am so looking forward too!! I am being patient!!

  • Lona Boudreaux September 17, 2017, 9:35 am

    Thank you, Octavia, for sharing this with us. Since genealogy has been a hobby of mine for 50 years, I always want to know more and more about someone’s life especially when a skeleton this old is found. I think of all the past wars, diseases and just plan hard life people experienced and yet I am here, alive in 2017. How did my ancestors survive when others didn’t?

    • Octavia Randolph September 17, 2017, 11:35 am

      Lona, a profound point, indeed. If you are of European descent, your ancestors survived the ravages of multiple plagues, including the Black Death, which killed one third of Europe’s people in the 14th c… Anyone walking the Earth today is the result of the hardiness – and good fortune – of our fore-mothers and fathers!

  • Diana September 17, 2017, 7:30 am

    Fascinating!! Will be waiting for updates on her and the condition of her remains. Did she have skeletal signs of battle? Had she given birth? The condition on her weapons. What a story this woman holds!

  • Carolyn West September 16, 2017, 8:24 pm

    Sounds like an interesting therory. Hope to hear more

  • Clyde Dotson September 16, 2017, 6:18 pm

    Very interesting. But then the stories of the Valkyries had to be based on something. Also consider Boedica of the Celts in England.

    • Kris Rushlow September 16, 2017, 9:50 pm

      as well as Freyda Eiriksdottir..a definite warrior..and from an excellent lineage

  • Nancy Weaver September 16, 2017, 6:07 pm

    Love this, thank you, very interesting.

  • Peggy Helminiak September 16, 2017, 4:18 pm

    I would be interested in reading what a forensic anthropologist thought of this. Was there battle damage to the skeleton? Were the weapons ceremonial or actual battle weapons? Were they sized for a woman? Do the muscle and tendon insertions on the bones indicate robust muscling? Have they done a reconstruction of her body based on the skeleton? Any descendants still living? Will definitely keep an eye on developments!

    • Kris Rushlow September 16, 2017, 9:52 pm

      they have done DNA and its definitely a woman..Thor news website has an good article on this

    • Octavia Randolph September 17, 2017, 7:56 am

      “Any descendants still living” is what interests me most, Peggy… I want to know if this 30 year old was a mother, which she almost assuredly was. Therefore we can consider her descendants, walking amongst us today…

  • Kate Wolf September 16, 2017, 4:05 pm

    Interesting, thank you!

  • Kaye September 16, 2017, 4:01 pm

    Sounds like this could be the basis for another book for you!

  • Judith Bancks September 16, 2017, 3:46 pm

    This is intriguing. How we wish she could tell her tale, who she fought for….family, king, or fortune huntress? It is wonderful to have this proof that women of the tenth century were as active in defending and preserving their rights and leaving. behind these fascinating artefacts to prove their place in our history of strong women.
    Thank you Octavia.

  • Jeff Deese September 16, 2017, 3:44 pm

    Fascinating – I saw this on the web the other day and then found it on your site as well. I agree she could have actually been a warrior. Woman can be as fierce as men – especially if defending their kin. Your point about archery is well taken. The ability to strike from a distance is the great equalizer – and if she was a defender of a fixed point ( a fortified trading location) then she could also have been a well respected warrior/leader.
    I’ve had several women bosses in the past that I respected more than some of the men on the job.
    Enjoying your books and website – Jeff

  • P.J. Steinlein September 16, 2017, 2:27 pm

    I find this so interesting and exiting. As a 60 year old 20 year Air Force veteran who was in a field mostly held by men, ( aircraft maintenance ). We worked twice as hard for half the recognition. We felt we had some of the women warrior blood of old that kept us fighting for our place in a “mans world” love stories and histories of strong women characters. Maybe a book out of this historic find?

  • Kim Meseck September 16, 2017, 2:14 pm

    Fascinating! And, buried with her weapons and two horses. Thank you for sharing. Sharing with our two daughters who are in their early 30’s.

  • Gwen Carrier September 16, 2017, 1:59 pm

    This is very interesting, thank you so much for sending it to me. Just wondering if you are going to write another series, I am on book six and have to read it slowly because I don’t want it to end. I am also watching the series, The Last Kingdom, which is similar to your series. I do hope you are writing another series because it is hard to find books about the Danes ,Saxons etc

    • Kaye Bonato September 27, 2017, 12:26 am

      Having found DNA from Denmark I love the world you have made so real for me. Not boring history but living breathing people who I came to care deeply about as if they were my own ancestors. Thank you.

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