Shieldmaidens: myth or reality?

Shieldmaidens in the news

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Shieldmaidens are always a popular topic, as was shown by the furore around the study in the item shown here that demonstrated that nearly 50% of Viking migrants were female. The presence in History Channel's Vikings reinforces in people's minds that shieldmaidens existed, and the presence of weapons in women's graves has been taken to mean that some Viking women were actually warriors.

However, the evidence is disputed, and the presence of weapons in a grave does not necessarily mean that the person buried there was actually a warrior. It can alternatively be an indicator of their social status instead.

Nevertheless, an Old Norse word for a shieldmaiden 'skjaldmær' does exist, and they do feature in Old Norse literature, and in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum, so it can be difficult to know what to make of this. Given that they come to sticky ends or find their way back to female roles, it seems likely that they were objects of fantasy, whose role was also to act as a warning that people should not transgress boundaries.

It is possible that some Viking women did fight when necessary, but it is unlikely that shieldmaidens existed as regular warriors in a warband. Despite this, there are some archaeological artefacts depicting women with weapons and shields. These are usually thought to be Valkyries, rather than actual shieldmaides.