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, cultural, and biological 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.
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.
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”.
In fact, there are at least 26 different words in norrœnt (Old Norse) for “warrior”, 7 of which include a direct male suffix (“maðr”), and none of these terms, not even one, comprise a female element.
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 and Culture
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.
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.
The most compelling evidence against women warriors during the Viking age, however, comes from Jómsvíkingar (Jomsvikings), a war band from the 10th Century CE. These Vikings actually had a law that went much farther than not allowing women in combat. "Alls engi maðr skylde þar kono hafa innan borgar", which roughly translates in every day English to "Absolutely no woman is to be brought by any man into the fort", effectively banned the very presence of women among Jómsvíkingar on their land, forts, cities and compounds... and essentially among Viking warriors.
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.
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.
Sacred Texts from the Perspective of Men and Derogatory to Women
Ancient texts, including Konungsbók Eddukvæða, are from the perspective of men, with sections such as the Hávamál only referring to women in derogatory terms. This includes Stanza 84 ("Meyjar orðum skyli manngi trúa né því er kveðr kona því at á hverfanda hvéli váru þeim hjörtu sköpuð brigð í brjóst um lagit" which translates to "In the words of a maid noone should trust, nor in what a woman says, for their hearts were shaped on a potter's turning wheel, and fickleness placed in their breath"), Stanza 90 ("Svá er friðr kvenna þeira er flátt hyggja sem aki jó óbryddum á ísi hálum" which translates to "The love of women whom are deceitful in spirit is like riding a smooth-shoe horse on slippery ice"), Stanza 102 ("Mörg er góð mær ef görva kannar hugbrigð við hali" translating to "Many a good maid, if you look closely, is fickle-minded towards men"), Stanza 113 ("fjölkunnigri konu skalattu í faðmi sofa svá at hon lyki þik liðum" which translates to "you must not sleep in the embrace of a woman skilled in magic so that she locks you in her limbs"), or Stanza 118 ("Ofarla bíta ek sá einum hal orð illrar konu fláráð tunga varð honum at fjörlagi ok þeygi um sanna sök" translates to "Deeply bitten by the word of a bad woman I saw a man, her deceit crafty tongue was the death of him, and yet the charge was not true").
No “Gender Equality” in Viking Culture
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.”
Stanza 81 of the Hávamál also gives a good glimpse of how women were seen - at times merely as a domestic commodity - as well as the natural order of things in ancient Norse society: "At kveldi skal dag leyfa konu er brennd er mæki er reyndr er mey er gefin er ís er yfir kømr öl er drukkit er" which translates to "The day must be praised in the evening, a woman, when she is cremated, a sword, when it is proven, a maiden, when she is given away, ice, when it is crossed, ale, when it is drunk."
From a realistic perspective, 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.
Furthermore, the the worst possible insults for an actual Viking and warrior invariably involve being compared to a woman. Vagn Ákason is known to have said: "En eigi býð ek yðr með minna kappe, enn svá, at Sigvaldi jarlsson berist við oss, ef hann borir, ok sé hann úragr karlmaðr, ok hafi heldr manns hjarta enn berkykvendis", which roughly translates to "I challenge Sigvaldi jarlsson to do battle with us, unless he is a coward with the venomous heart of a woman rather than that of a man."
In Old Norse, the main insults also all revolve around comparing a man to a woman, or challenging his masculinity. "Sansorðinn" is used to describe an effeminate male demonstrably and willingly sexually used as a whore by one or more men. "Mare" means woman and is highly derogatory when used for a man. "Argr" refers to a coward, and emasculated as well as effeminate man.
Although women in Norse society enjoyed more freedom in contrast to the rest of medieval Europe which saw females like cattle or property, the fact remains that there still was no gender equality in an hypermasculine Norse culture defined by gender polarization.
Women Biologically Unsuitable for Combat
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. Moreover, women have thinner retinas and more P-cells best at analyzing colors and textures, in contrast to men having thicker retinas and larger M cells, better suited at tracking movement, an essential survival skills when confronted to a moving aggressor.
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 makes 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.