It’s interesting how little people care about history unless new inspiring evidence is found of it, especially when it comes to historical women redefining gender roles.
In a discovery that has gone viral, there appears to be new evidence that Viking women were warriors and even “high-ranking officers,” leading men into battle against their enemies instead of sitting at home sewing clothes for their husbands and raising children. I saw several different articles about this new finding and many friends and former professors sent me other articles (I’m apparently everyone’s token Viking enthusiast friend), but Roman mosaics in Britain excepted, why do so many media outlets care so passionately about a Viking woman instead of other historic findings?
People don’t care about Leif Eriksson. I doubt many Americans have ever even heard his name. But it has been proven that he was the first European to discover AND settle in North America, centuries before Christopher Columbus. The United States even recognizes this with a Leif Eriksson Day (though far overshadowed by Christopher Columbus Day), and they presented Iceland with a statue of Leif Eriksson in honor of his discovery. It sits in front of the much-Instagrammed Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.
You may have heard of L’Anse aux Meadows, the discovered Viking site in Canada (because I repeat, Vikings actually settled in North America, even if it didn’t last long), but did you know that they uncovered another Viking site only last year? If you listen to Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast (which I highly recommend), you may have heard about it, but I only saw a couple of articles about the discovery. This finding is further proof that Leif Eriksson and his fellow Vikings actually settled in North America years before Christopher Columbus was even born, so it isn’t insignificant in the least.
But Leif Eriksson was overshadowed once again—this time by an unknown woman’s grave. However, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. I’ve written about the danger of people leaping to conclusions before, and it appears that it’s happened again. While there may have been female Viking warriors, there isn’t strong evidence that this Viking woman was actually a “high-ranking officer” or even a warrior. University of Nottingham professor of Viking studies Judith Jesch burst everyone’s bubbles with an article going through the “evidence” from the grave site and contesting it all. I highly encourage you to read her analysis in full, but here’s a quick summary of some of her points about the authors who published the “evidence” that the grave site was for a female Viking military officer:
The authors listed on the article don’t include a language specialist, even though it starts with referencing “’narratives about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men’, and concludes with a quotation from an Eddic poem in translation.” The authors even referenced one of Jesch’s books but not the book where she actually writes about women. The authors also make a lot of references to “historical records” without specifying which ones they’re talking about.
The authors pretty much decide that this Viking woman is a high-ranking officer based on what she was buried with. The grave contained “’a full set of gaming pieces’ which apparently ‘indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy’” and “’the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics.’” There isn’t even any conclusive evidence that men buried with those items were military leaders.
This gravesite was actually excavated over a century ago and things weren’t labeled well, so the female Viking bones may not have even been buried with all those items. Someone even commented on Jesch’s article that there was a third femur found with this woman’s bones, but the authors just ignored it. There were also no signs of harm to the bones, which means she was either one heck of a warrior who never got injured, or that she wasn’t a warrior at all.
So the authors assumed this female Viking was a military leader without any actual evidence and they ignored evidence that didn’t go along with their theory. Like many people today, they leapt to conclusions, and everyone was eager to agree that this woman was definitely a military leader because that suited a contemporary narrative, not a historical fact. This doesn’t mean that people in the future won’t find hard evidence that female Vikings could be military leaders, but you can’t “confirm” that this Viking was a military leader quite yet. Even if there weren’t female Viking warriors, women in Viking times were actually well-respected and enjoyed many rights and freedoms; they could divorce their husbands, own land, and could even have government representation. Women like Freydis and Gudrun had a significant impact on their societies, even if they didn’t lead troops into battle.
But people don’t seem to care about these women. They want a warrior who “blew [gender roles] out of the water” and destroyed the patriarchy with her sword (even though if there are female Viking warriors, they were riding into battle with men). Why can’t we celebrate women in the past who changed their worlds with their strength and wit but not necessarily with swords? Protests may not have lasting effects, but women simply doing their jobs can. We’re still learning about Marie Curie’s scientific discoveries and Rosa Parks’ brave act of defiance today, and neither of those women used swords; they just used their intelligence and strength of character.
So before Disney goes and makes a movie about a Viking warrior princess, people need to learn the actual history and not cling to poor evidence. If anything, Disney should make a movie about the many ordinary women in history who changed society without weapons. I would watch that.
Image: The History Channel