POSSIBILITY, PROBABILITY AND PROOF OF SHIELD MAIDENS
The authenticity and literal existence of shield maidens has become a more popular topic in many quarters lately because of their appearance in Michael Hirst’s fantasy that purports to be the literal facts. Unfortunately, the proposed existence of shield maidens is probably just as remote as many other of the “facts” presented by the show.
Their existence is based to a great extent upon fable, mythology and not a little amount of the allocation of modern thought to actions of a previous day. Any of the appearances of valkyries and mortal shield maiden n the popular literature of the time appear to have little if any relevance to what actually transpired.
I have no great hope that this small essay will cause people to see the light and to change their ideas, but I am still filled with a quixotic desire to note a few points.
The very worth of the woman might be seen as a two-edged sword. For example, there was a thirty percent chance that a woman would die in childbirth, so women were important parts of the culture and necessary for its perpetuation. As Roland Williamson notes, this percentages does not lend credence that the safety of such a vital part of the culture would be endangered by having them engage in warfare. The deaths of men in battle set a higher premium on a higher birthrate and the replacement of lost males, and one would have been reluctant to endanger this replacement by sending the woman out to battle.
On the other hand, it appears that many cases of exposure were of female babies because they did not contribute to the work force and were simply another mouth to feed. However, most exposures were done by the lower classes and consisted of women who were not members of the warrior class to begin with. Exposure was tolerated but not seen as a good action a the time even though it might have been necessary for the family. For example, if we look at the Saga of Þorstein Oxfoot, where Þorstein , a son of Egil Skallagrimsson, wants a daughter to be exposed simply because of her action in a prophetic dream, and the man’s wife, Jofrid, chastised him, saying, “Your words are unworthy of a man of your standing. No one in your easy circumstances can see fit to let such a thing happen.”
There have been some observations that the graves of some women contain weapons and that this is evidence that shield maidens were real, but this totally ignores the fact that some graves of pre-pubescent children contained weapon as well, not smaller, child-sized practice copies but full-sized swords, other weapons and such things as a full-sized key (symbol of the grown woman’s authority in a house). Using the logic these people use, there should be a bunch of toddlers on the field as well! It is much more likely that the weapons were seen as valuable artifacts rather than indication of warrior status!
Of course, there was the very real likelihood that the females of the time were tutored in the use of weapons alongside the males. This was not because they were expected to be shield women, but because they were in charge of the homes and were expected to be able to organize and to probably participate in home defense when the men were away. We see many instances of this happening in the sagas and other writings—including Freydís Eiríksdóttir’s familiarity with swords from the Greenlander’s Sagas—while there are no eye-witness accounts of the existence of sword maidens!
(The supposition that this would lead to a feeling among the females of “I’m just as good as the men, so I’m going out on the field” owes its existence to applying a modern mindset upon an early period in my opinion and is therefore of little validity.)
If you have encountered any period eye-witness accounts of shield maidens, I would love to hear of them! Until then, I have to relegate them to the fantasy files!
For additional points and facts, see Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History. Cannot agree with all the interpretations and conclusions, but a rich source of valuable trivia!