No Viking Women Warriors

By Christopher Bjørnsen

In a research paper titled “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics”, and published in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Uppsala University archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson claims to have proven that there were women warriors among Vikings. 

Hedenstierna-Jonson’s very research is fundamentally flawed from a technical, historical, and cultural aspect, and her conclusions simply have no scientific or factual basis.

No Evidence Female Skeleton is Actually Linked to Warrior Grave

The entire study is based on the assumption that bones recently identified as those of a woman were found in a grave believed to be of a warrior. The grave, however, was excavated in Birka between 1871 and 1895, and no proper chain of evidence was maintained over the course of at least 122 years. As a matter of fact, the only element that connects these bones and the grave are identification materials on the storage bag that fit "the original 19th-century drawings and descriptions”.

This messy chain of evidence is actually referenced in another paper, titled “People in Transition: Life in the Mälaren Valley from an Osteological Perspective”, and authored by archaeologist Anna Kjellström, who also worked on the study with Hedenstierna-Jonson. She writes:

During the present analysis, it became clear that the osseous material and the contextual information given on the box or bag did not always match the data... there are bags of bones tagged with grave numbers that do not exist elsewhere. In other cases, there are unburnt bones in bags from graves documented and registered according to [archaeologist Erik] Arbman as "cremations" and bags which include the bones of several individuals while being documented as the grave of one person.

Without actual evidence that these bones were actually from a warrior grave, there shouldn’t even have been any speculation with respect to the background of what could very well be a random skeleton, let alone conclusions that the bones were those of a woman Viking warrior.

No Traumatic Injury on Bones

Of particular interest is also Hedenstierna-Jonson’s own disclosure that “no pathological or traumatic injuries were observed” on the bones, effectively unequivocally ruling out the possibility that the bones actually belonged to a warrior. 

Indeed, the very aspect of being a warrior inherently involves a combat element, and with combat come injuries, especially considering the fighting methods of the Viking age, including the handling of swords and other medieval weapons. As a matter of fact, even training as a warrior would have resulted in various wounds that would have been visible on the bones.

Even modern day warriors show signs of various trauma and injuries, despite exceptional military advances for body protection over the course of the last millennium, as demonstrated by a medical report for a Nordic special operation forces operator. 

Medical report for a modern special forces operator

Medical report for a modern special forces operator

With no sign of injury or any type of trauma on the bones, the subject of the study simply couldn’t have reasonably been a warrior, making Hedenstierna-Jonson’s conclusions preposterous. 

No Language Specialists in Study

None of the nine other authors of Hedenstierna-Jonson’s paper, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, and Jan Storå, has any advanced knowledge of norrœnt (Old Norse), let alone any expertise of the language.

The paper’s authors did not even accurately considered the expertise of actual language specialists they quote in their research, including Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham, chair of the international Runic Advisory Group, and president of the English Place-Name Society, who writes:

I would just point out that [Hedenstierna-Jonson and her team] primary reference to my work is to a semi-popular book published 26 years ago. I would have thought they could have made the slight effort required to read what I wrote on the subject of women warriors in a recent monograph (The Viking Diaspora 2015, pp. 104-7), a less popular and more considered work.

As a matter of fact, Judith Jesch goes even further in her critical review of Hedenstierna-Jonson’s paper and the team’s analytical process, by referring to their “sloppy thinking”.  

A lack of language expertise fails to take into consideration a historical and cultural context absolutely essential in understanding Viking society, and thus, the role of women.  

No Actual Women Warriors in Old Norse literature

Outside of brief and clearly mythical allusions to shield maidens and other woman warriors, in line with the myth of Loki turning himself into a mare to be impregnated by the stallion Svaðilfari and to later give birth to Sleipnir, Óðinn’s 8-legged horse, there is simply no reference to actual woman warriors in Old Norse literature. 

As Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham puts it: 

Women warriors and/or Valkyries and/or shield maidens (they are all often mixed up) are not just 'mythological phenomena' as stated by the authors, but relate to a whole complex of ideas that pervade literature, mythology and ideology, without necessarily providing any direct evidence for women warriors in 'real life.

Skaldic poetry in its various forms, drápa, flokkr, vísur, dræplingr, lausavísa and mansöngr, typically details the deeds of Norse warriors, yet, makes no reference to actual women warriors. 

Even the mythical Valkyries, often associated with war, are depicted as actually fulfilling the needs of slain male warriors rather than engaging in combat. Eiríksmol from Fagrskinna refers to “valkyrjur vín bera sem vísi komi” in norrœnt (Old Norse), which invokes Valkyries giving wines to the warriors who have arrived in Valhöll, and therefore sticking to typical domestic duties.

Eiríksmol from Fagrskinna. An Old Norse poem referring to fallen warriors going to Valhöll to be served by the Valkyries

Eiríksmol from Fagrskinna. An Old Norse poem referring to fallen warriors going to Valhöll to be served by the Valkyries

The one Ásynja associated with battle, Freyja, has no direct involvement with combat or actual warfare, and through her other persona, Frigga, she is even identified with marriage, motherhood, and domestic arts.

No Actual Women Warriors in European History

While Vikings interacted with many people and cultures throughout Europe, there is no record of women warriors anywhere on the old continent. 

The Bayeux Tapestry (230 ft long) tells the story of the events of 1064–1066 culminating in the Battle of Hastings. It only includes three women, an unknown fleeing woman, Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor and sister of King Harold, and Aelfgyva. None of these women are dressed for battle and therefore depicted as fighters, let alone warriors. 

Bayeux Tapestry excerpt showing Aelfgyva (second from right)

Bayeux Tapestry excerpt showing Aelfgyva (second from right)

Even Joan of Arc, a French national hero often associated with warfare, was never involved in actual combat and was merely a national symbol. 

The fact is, there simply isn’t any credible evidence of woman warriors in European history.

No “Gender Equality” in Viking Culture

While one gender was not considered superior to the other, men and women each had their role in Viking society. The role of women never was warfare or raiding, which remained the exclusive realm of men. As Annalee Newitz, Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica, accurately points out, “the overwhelming preponderance of evidence suggests that women in the Viking world were expected to run households, serve the men, and bear children.”

As a matter of fact, the very forces of nature make the artificial modern “gender equality” utopian paradigm simply unrealistic and impractical in an ancient culture. A woman simply cannot bear and take care of children, breast feed, look after the homestead, or even the men, if she is engaged in raiding and other combat activities.

Biological facts also stand in the way of woman warriors fighting men warriors at home or abroad. Indeed, the reality is, women simply are no match to a male warrior.

For starts, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have made women react to threats by tending and befriending, in stark contrast to men who respond by fighting or flighting. Higher levels of oxytocin further prompt women to seek kinship when exposed to an enemy, in contrast to men who enter competitive mode. 

Women also lack in sufficient levels the very hormone that is associated with aggression, muscle growth, denser bones, and other typical-male features essential for combat: Testosterone.  After all, women just don’t have a hypothalmic pituitary testicular axis.

Less white matter in women’s pre-frontal cortex also make them analyze dangers and situations slower than men. A thicker paretial section of the brain also means women cannot visualize multi-dimensional objects as well as men, making the dodging of swords, axes, and other medieval weapons quite challenging.

Women have 40% less muscle mass than men in the upper body, and 33% less in the lower body. They have less dense bones and weaker tendons and ligaments, as well as a weaker facial bone structure that doesn’t handle impacts, blunt force, and trauma to the face that well. With lower red blood cell counts, lower hemoglobin, and lower circulating clotting factor than men, women take longer to heal from injuries. A less evenly distributed blood flow in their body also makes women far more sensitive to environmental factors, including cold. The activation of the right amygdala in women’s brain even makes them more reactive to pain. 

With a larger deep limbic system than men, women are more sensitive to emotions. Women also synthesize serotonin slower than men, making them prone to far more severe PTSD and depression than men following traumatic events. 

Overall, biology, together with the inherent needs of a medieval society, make women simply unsuitable for combat.

No Viking Woman Warriors

Without rigorous scientific method, without language knowledge, without historical and cultural context, or essentially without facts or evidence, it is simply ludicrous to even remotely suggest that findings associated with the Birka grave relate to a woman Viking warrior, let alone prove the existence of woman Viking warriors.

Even assuming the remains were that of a woman, which has not been scientifically and reasonably established, burial with weapons does not imply warrior status, let alone prominent warrior status. As a matter of fact, it could be the contrary, as it was customary during the Viking age to bury slaves with weapons, so they could bring them to their dead owner in the afterlife.

Archaeologist Søren Sindbæk of Aarhus University asked Science News: "Have we found the Mulan of Sweden or a woman buried with the rank-symbols of a husband who died abroad?”. We very well may have. Or as archaeologist Davide Zori of Baylor University points out, "it's possible, albeit unlikely, that the woman's relatives buried her with a warrior's equipment without that having been her role in life."

Ultimately, finding bones buried with weapons simply does not even suggest, and even less so proves, the existence of women Viking warriors.

Judith Jesch further wrote on this matter: "I have always thought (and to some extent still do) that the fascination with women warriors, both in popular culture and in academic discourse, is heavily, probably too heavily, influenced by 20th- and 21st-century desires.”

In other words, the modern reference to women warriors in an otherwise hypermasculine Viking society is yet another revisionist attempt at rewriting history to accommodate the inclusive ideology of the day. It has no basis in reality whatsoever. 

Christopher Bjørnsen

Tromsø, Norway