The Norse Mythology Blog just published a wonderful article connecting Tolkein’s Éowyn from Lord of the Rings to the traditional Shield Maidens in Germanic tribes. When Aragorn tells Éowyn she is not permitted to fight with the men, she has quite a bit to tell him about her own lineage from a house of warriors and “duty.”
MORE ARTICLES ABOUT WARRIOR WOMEN BELOW
Onna-Bugeisha (Female Japanese Warriors)
There is still much about the Ancient Norse People that we do not know, so much of our current information is an attempt to fill in the gaps (since the Vikings did not write down their history and the Christians destroyed much of their existing culture). History becomes a guessing game where modern day people impose their fantasies and longings upon the past. Some of these fantasies imagine a place where every woman is a blonde haired vixen with a pointy helmet and a chain-mail bra, smashing through the faces of her enemies with sword in hand. Fantasies on the other end of the spectrum paint a picture of a male dominated society where all men fought glorious battles and women existed as mere prizes to be won.
(Very practical battle armor)
The truth is much more nuanced. Not all men fought battles and not all women had a specific “role.”
Interpreting the past is like trying to sketch a picture of the Grand Canyon from space. You’ll never know the complexity of its contours and grooves unless you are in the Canyon itself. The history of the Ancient Norse people is complex. At the highest end you had women who commanded enough respect and honor to act as a link between man and the Gods (they were called Volvas). At the lower end you had captives won in battle (not as common as you might think, given that rape was only mentioned once in the Eddas).
Rather than listen to hype and stereotypes, the most historically accurate thing we can do is to look at the tales from the Eddas and Sagas, Folk Lore and the archaeological remains of skeletons. These sources show us that Norse Women did hold a respect and freedom in the Ancient Pagan world that declined as Europe became more Christian.
In day to day life, most women presided over the farm work, house work, weaving and childcare; they were also shown to do some business and commerce of their own (scales have been found in women’s graves).
However, there were also Female Skalds (Poets), Shield Maidens (female warriors) and Priestesses. Women also had rights that didn’t exist in other parts of Europe (such as the right to divorce their husbands and own land). Typically a male heir inherited the farm, but it wasn’t unheard of for a wealthy widow to take over an estate if her husband died and if she didn’t have grown sons to run the place.
There were also laws that penalized men for violence against women or from giving women unwanted sexual attention. In the case of marriage, most women did not have the right to choose their groom, he was chosen by the family, and the bride was usually married off between the ages of 12 and 15. However, a woman was allowed to call witnesses to divorce her husband for a valid reason: i.e. he couldn’t provide for the family financially or produce children. In the case of divorce, a woman could take back her personal belongings as well as young children (the older children either stayed with the father or mother depending upon the circumstances).
Here is a brief overview of things that you should know about women in Ancient Norse Societies as well as the prominent women in Norse Religion.
Associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, Seiðr (a typically female sorcery), war and death. She is also the most beautiful of all the Goddesses. Freya rules over the heavenly afterlife field Fólkvangr, and receives half of those who die in battle. The other half go to Odin’s hall Valhalla. She loves music, spring, flowers and is particularly fond of elves. She is the daughter of the Njord (God of the winds, sea and fire) and wife of the mysterious God Odur . Key among her possessions are the Precious Necklace of the Brisings and a cloak of feathers that changes the wearer into a falcon.
Like many of the Norse Gods, Freya is not an extreme of good or evil – rather she is a complex personality. She loves her husband Odur and yet sleeps with four different dwarfs in exchange for the beautiful necklace of the Brisings. Loki, who somehow knows about all scandals, ends up finding a way to reveal Freya’s infidelity to her husband. When Odur finds out, he leaves home and Freya cries tears of gold.
Frigg is the wife of Odin and queen of Asgard. Frigg is a prominent member of the Aesir Gods while Freya is a key member of the Vanir. Frigg is associated with aspects of motherhood and married life. She also has the powers of prophecy, but does not reveal what she knows.
Freya and Frigg are extremely similar. So similar, that some scholars argue that they are both descendants of a singular Germanic Goddess. Both Goddess names are associated with “Friday.” Both Goddesses have the power of divination. Freya’s husband Odur (or Od) is always away on journeys just like Frigg’s Odin. Also, both of these Goddesses have traded sex for jewelry. However, this is just a theory, so it cannot be taken as the final fact on the matter (The Frigg/Freya origin hypothesis).
Sun Goddess, Moon God
The sun from the south, the moon’s companion, her right hand cast about the heavenly horses.The sun knew not where she a dwelling had,the moon know not what power he possessed,the stars knew not where they had a station. (From the poem Voluspa).
In many pagan religions, the Sun is a God and the Moon is a Goddess. Yet in the Ancient Norse Religion, it is the reverse. The Sun Goddess is “Sol” (Old Norse) or “Sunna” (Old High German) and her brother Mani (Old Norse/Icelandic) is the moon. Sol drives the chariot of the sun across the sky each day. She moves very quickly because she is always pursued by the wolf Skoll. Sometimes he gets close enough to take a bite out of her (this is when eclipses happen). In Ragnarok, (the end of the world), Skoll eventually will swallow the sun.
In Norse society it was common for men to travel, whether it be exploring new lands, going viking (pillaging places) or trading. The Norse were renown for their ability as explorers and seafarers. While the men were off traveling, their wives sometimes traveled with them (as in the invasion of Eastern England), but usually stayed at home to supervise the affairs of the farm and the family.
Thus, the mother was a permanent fixture of life for the family: bright, renewing and life giving like the sun. The father was a more transient figure (because of his travels), waning and waxing in appearance like the moon. At least this is a theory that might explain the Goddess Sun/God Moon dynamic. The Sun Goddess and Moon God are similar fixtures in other nomadic cultures (such as the Mongolians for example).
Warrior Women: Shield Maidens and Valkyries
Valkyrie literally means “chooser of the slain.” The Valkyries were sent by Odin to pick up warriors that were slain on the battlefield.
The Love Goddess Freya was considered the greatest of Valkyries. She would ride onto the battlefield in a chariot drawn by two cats and choose half the slain to take back to her home in Fólkvangr. Odin received the other half of warriors in Valhalla.
Shield Maidens, on the other hand, are mortal female warriors. It was a rare opportunity allowed only to women who were exceptionally strong or fierce. In heroic poems some shield maidens have super natural powers, while others are beautiful daughters of kings. Did shield maidens actually exist in real life though? From historical evidence, it appears that they did.
The Historian Saxo gives the following account circa 1200 AD:
“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldier’s skills:
They put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill, and those they could have appeased with looks they attack with lances”. (Books 1-9) —Saxo Grammaticus, History of the Danes, circa 1200 CE.
When people talk about Norse Mythos, there is much focus on the Warrior Tradition: vikings, battle, Valhalla and so on. Yet there is little talk on the Shamanic aspects of Norse life. The Seiðr is a type of Norse magic that was most commonly performed by women known as (volver). Men also practiced Seiðr sometimes, but they usually brought a social taboo to themselves since Seiðr was considered a feminine activity. (For example, Odin learned how to practice the Seiðr from Freya, but was considered unmanly for doing so.)
The Seiðr was an activity in which the Seidwoman would fall into a trance and a choir of women would invoke the woman’s guardian spirit to come to her aid. In her trance, the Seidwoman could ask the spirits about future events such as the weather, battle, farming etc.
It is hard to be objective about the history of Pagan Europeans because so much information was destroyed when the Christians came to power. Also, many Norse and Celtic peoples kept records orally rather than writing anything down. Therefore, much of their history will be lost forever.
New Technology Corrects Gendered Assumptions
Yet new technology is helping to unearth ancient truths. The study of ancient burial sites is rapidly changing conceptions of the past. Up until recently, archaeologists assumed that any body buried with a sword and shield was male. Likewise, when a skeleton was found with jewelry, it was assumed that the body was female. But new practices in the field of Osteologically (the study of skeletons) have revealed that some of these “male skeletons” were actually female bodies buried with weapons and armor (male skeletons have also been found with female items).
The invasion of Eastern England is a notorious example, where either one half or a third of the invaders were found to be female. One of the female skeletons at this site was found buried with armor and weapons (Invasion of the Viking Women Unearthed).
The Oseberg Burial
The Oseberg burial is the richest viking burial ever found. Two women were buried on the Oseberg ship in 834 AD. One was in her 80’s and the other was in her 50’s. Because of the items on the ship, archaeologists are guessing that the older woman was either a Volva or a Queen. The Volvas were highly respected women in Norse Society who acted as the link between man and the Gods. Sometimes they even knew more than the Gods.
More Information About Ancient Norse Women
This article was my best attempt to give you an overview on the basics you should know about the life of Ancient Norse Women in both the realm of the mundane and the sphere of the mystical. Yet remember, we must have a nuanced approach to history. We cannot use generalizations to color in the pages of the past. The Vikings were an independent people who did not use police, guards or monarchs to run their society (not until the later years of Viking History anyways).
They were a self run Society that was controlled through the mechanism of the family and honor. Many women who couldn’t fight took on the role of instigators, and egged their husbands on to fight important battles that effected the family’s future. In chapter 116 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Hildigunnur incited her uncle Flosi to avenge the killing of her husband Höskuldr by flinging her husband’s bloody cloak onto Flosi’s shoulders. Clotted blood from the cloak rained down on Flosi. He responded, “Cold are the counsels of women.” Flosi later took revenge for Höskuldr’s death by burning Njáll and his family in their home (Hurstwic Society).
Other women took the role of ending fights that went on too long, such as the women who threw clothing onto the weapons of the men fighting in chapter 18 of the Vopnfirðinga Saga.
Unlike today, the individual was not the most important unit of society, it was the extended family. It was expected that both men and women contributed their strengths to the best of their natural abilities to preserve the honor and integrity of their kin. When a woman considered whether it was better to contribute her strengths by defending the family’s honor in battle, or staying home to oversee the farm: family and honor were the ultimate sum of the equation, not personal gain.
Therefore there were generally standards about what men did and what women did that developed over centuries of experience. Yet static laws were allowed to be broken if the exception was more beneficial than the norm. Odin learned the Seiðr (feminine magic) to benefit mankind even if it was taboo, and women occasionally left home to fight on the battlefield if that was the best use for an individual woman’s strength.
Yet it doesn’t matter whether a warrior fights their daily battles with a sword or broomstick, a true hero fights for someone or something – not themselves. Those of us in the modern age could learn a lesson from these Ancient Women.
Check out the link below for more information.
A comprehensive source with numerous links on Ancient Norse Women.
For the last 1,000 years of history it was believed that all druids were men.
Yet much new evidence is confirming that this just isn’t true.
Druids were part of a culture where women and men were equals in many aspects of life.
It’s hard to believe that there would be an exception in terms of religion.
This is a great article on Female Druids that gives more details: CLICK HERE
Ukraine is a country where many women experience daily oppression and get trafficked into Sex Slavery against their will. However, a group of women in the Carpathian mountains have taken matters into their own hands by grabbing a hold of swords and battle axes. These sword swinging warriors have declared complete autonomy from men. They have called themselves Asgarda and have revived the traditions of the ancient Scythian Amazons of Greek legend. They spend their time in the mountains learning martial arts and other life skills to empower themselves as women.
Check out the link below to see more on a tale of women “brandishing braids, battle axes and boxing gloves (Jenna Martin).”
(DISCLAIMER: I did not make this post as some kind of statement against men. This is a blog that is merely interested in people who embrace ancient traditions in modern times. For this group of ladies, they have found refuge in the traditions of their ancient Amazonian sisters. I respect whatever life style choice people choose for themselves.)
For the last 2,000 years of human history, the role of female spiritual leaders has been cast in shadow.
In this time we have seen a shift to Patriarchy in many of the world’s cultures.
Women who once provided a role as healers and diviners in the community
were accused of witch craft, heresy or other crimes to solidify the power of Male Priests.
The movie above shows a different story.
An ancient story.
The truth about women’s roles in spirituality and magick.
Both the Masculine and Feminine energies of the Divine are necessary in our lives.
One without the other provides for a grave unbalance.
“A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance!” ~ Amicus Marcelling
The women in Ancient Celtic society enjoyed rights that women in Greek and Roman societies did not have. A woman could own property, get a divorce, be a priest, a judge, a doctor, a poet, fight in battle and even own her own fighting school.
As Moyra Caldicott says in ‘Women in Celtic Myth’ . . .”one of the things I find so refreshing in the Celtic myths is that the women are honoured as much for their minds as for their bodies. The dumb blond would not stand much of a chance in ancient Celtic society.”
There was a specific class of warrior in Celtic society called a BAN-GAISGEDAIG. “BAN” meaning woman and “GAS” young warrior. These women would teach boys the arts of fighting and love. Some of the more famous warrior women were on Celtic Coins.
Here are a few prominent Celtic Women.
These are certainly not all the Celtic Goddesses. These are just a few that I found interesting.
I have no doubt that the shape shifting witch in Dragon Age was based off this Goddess. And yes, her name is usually mentioned with a “The.” Her mythic body is that of a bird or a woman. In the form of a falcon she will lead a hunter to his goal. Her cosmic body is that of a cloud with pathways leading from it. People are pulled down these passage ways by their desires and sins. She is also a teacher who gives one wisdom, by making them suffer through pain. You must sit in her black cauldron before you gain the wisdom you seek. Such are the trials of life. The best lessons are sometimes the hardest to learn. I would not want to end up on her bad side.
You’ll notice that on her left there is a spear and on the right there are leaves (I’m assuming to be made into some healing balm). The Celts had no problem with someone being a Goddess of healing and destruction. She was a Goddess who presided over warfare and also used miracles to heal people. Death and life were two intertwining forces that existed together for the Celts, you cannot have one without the other. Brigid was such a loved Goddess by the Celtic people that the Christian Church could not get rid of her. Eventually they just adopted her as a saint and called it a day.
She was a Goddess adopted by the Romans from the Gauls, who were an Indo European Celtic culture. The Romans were usually tolerant of another culture’s Gods, provided that said culture was willing to worship Roman Gods in addition to their own. The Roman empire itself had much syncretism, since they absorbed the beliefs of the people they conquered into their own repertoire. However, while the Romans worshiped Goddesses, they were not tolerant of the power that Celtic women had in their own societies. Eventually when the Romans took over Celtic territories, they subverted the prominent role that many women once had.
Boudicca was the Celtic Queen of the Iceni tribe. Since she was a woman, the Romans (living in a very male dominant society) did not take her very seriously. The Romans originally had friendly relations with her husband, the king of the Iceni tribe. Yet when he died, half of his land was given to the Romans as a token of goodwill and the other half was passed to his wife to rule over. The Romans decided that it was ludicrous that a mere woman could rule over anything and decided that it would be a cake walk to march in and take over her half of the land.
When the Romans succeeded in their conquest, they flogged the queen herself in public, raped her daughters and stole her land. The Romans underestimated the respect women had in Celtic culture – let alone the power of a queen. The Iceni people were furious at the humiliation of their leader. In vengeance Boudicca gathered an army of 100,000 against the Romans. She ended up burning 3 Roman towns to the ground and killed 70,000 people. What’s that phrase? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Her rebellion was eventually squashed by a Roman General. Yet for a Celtic leader living under Roman occupation, I think she still managed to kick copious amounts of butt. Not to mention that she at least had the courage to try.
Cartimandua was also a respected queen with much power among her people. But that is where the similarities to Boudicca end. While Boudicca was a rebel, Cartimandua was a loyalist to Roman interests.
She was the ruler of the Brigantes people in the 1st century from (43-69 AD) in what is now Northern England. She came to power during the time when much of Britain was under Roman rule. She formed a tribal conglomeration that was largely friendly to Roman interests. After concluding a treaty with the Roman emperor Claudius, she was faced with a series of Anti-Roman revolts by not only her subjects – but also from her ex husband Venutius. Talk about difficult exes! From 52-57 he tried to overthrow her twice by rousing anti-roman sentiment. Both times she managed to get enough Roman support to hold him at bay. Yet the third time was the charm when he managed to overthrow her in 69, taking advantage of Roman instability in the year of the “four emperors.”
THE BANDROAI (FEMALE DRUIDS)
Who were the druids? The druids were the religious leaders of the Celtic People in ancient times. They were a member of a type of priestly class. Julius Caesar wrote that the druids were responsible for organizing worship and sacrifices, divination, the judicial process and that they were exempt from military service. They were the philosophers, scientists, theologians and holders of sacred knowledge in their culture. Extensive training was required to become a druid and the training period took 19 years!
There is a misconception that druids were only male. Most of the Romans and Greeks who wrote about Celtic society may not have taken note of women in power, since the Romans and Greeks had a Patriarchal culture. This misconception continued into the 17th and 18th century when the Druid Reformation took place. The founders of this movement had a Romantic view of the druids and not very much historical evidence to work with. The Druid orders that were founded during these years were for men and men only.
Yet in the Celtic myth itself, there are mentions of females being involved in druidry, as well as other magical and religious functions.
The information below details female druids in myth and was taken from “The Female Druid” on Druidcircle.org:
- In the story of Fingin Mac Luchta of Munster, Fingin visits a Druidess every Samhain who would fortell the events of the coming year.
- The Second Battle of Moytura mentions two Druidesses who promise to enchant the rocks and trees “so they become a host and rout” their enemies.
- Prior to the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley, Mebd the Queen of Connacht, consults a Druidess named Fidelma who predicts the outcome of the coming battle with the Ulstermen. “How seest thou our host?” asked Medb. “I see the host all becrimsoned…” replied Fidelma.
- Dio Cassius mentions a Druidess named Ganna who went on an embassy to Rome and was received by Domitian, youngerson of the Emperor Vespasian.
- Pomponius Mela in De Chorographica speaks concerning nine virgin “priestesses” who lived on the island of Sena, in Brittany, who “knew the future.”
- The Historia Agusta which was written in about 400 A.D. by Aelius Lampridius mentions a Druidess foretelling the defeat of Alexander Severus. “Go forth but hope not for victory, nor put your trust in your warriors.”
- Then of course, there are the keepers of the eternal flame at Kildare, which was for a long time a pagan temple dedicated to the Goddess Brighid. The flame was tended by Druidesses and later by Christian nuns, in honor of Saint Bride.
In the modern practice of druidry today, there are a good number of women involved and while I don’t have a scientific figure, I would say that the druid community has a good representation of both men and women in their ranks.
For more information on Female Druids, read the following article “Female Druids” at the Magical Buffet.
Still Curious About Ancient Celtic Women?