Shieldmaidens in the news

By Morris Meredith Williams (1881-1973) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shieldmaidens in the news

Shieldmaidens feature in Old Norse literature, and in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum, so it can be difficult to know what to make of their historicity. 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. However, as the article linked to this image shows, they are still strongly lodged in the popular imagination. 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.

Valkyrie figure from Tjørnehøj

(c) Arnold Mikkelsen, CC-BY-SA

Valkyrie or shieldmaiden figurines

A small number of figurines and fibulae appear to depict shieldmaidens, but they are usually identified as Valkyries.

The Tjørnehøj figurine from Denmark is one such. It clearly shows a woman in a pleated dress carrying a sword and shield as if ready for battle. However, although it is referenced as a Valkyrie on Nationalmuseets website, as Judith Jesch discusses, the identification of these figures as either Valkyries or shieldmaidens is not a simple one, but it is probable that there was no habitual class of women warriors among the Vikings.

Valkyries and shieldmaidens are fantasies, even if some women almost certainly did pick up weapons to defend themselves when they needed to do so.