Women’s Rights in the Viking Age: a brief guide

March 29, 2011

Hollywood depictions, and a view of history based upon the propeganda of detractors gives us a view of Nordic culture in which thick headed jocks rape and pillage their way along the coastline, destroying everything in their path…

Looking at that depiction we may find it easy to assume that a woman’s place within that culture would be that of little more than that of a cheerleader or sex toy for the menfolk.

This depiction, as entertaining as it might, be, seems to be very far from the truth of the matter. In fact, much of what we understand of the Vikings from a modern perspective is created by historical propeganda. A trend that began during Tacitus’ time, and on into modern depictions based upon the writings of Christians who had a vested interest in painting heathens in a negative light.

Looking at the Sagas of the Icelanders, the closest thing we have to Viking culture’s own propeganda, we see a very different depiction. One which recent archeologists are able to confirm in trend, if not in actual correlation between tale and event, though in some cases, the longhouses depicted in certain locations have been found through archeological digs.

Now generally, the Sagas are treated as literary fiction. this is usually due to the trend of modern scholars to impose their view of reality on the cultures they examine. The sagas are full of supernatural events, which from a Heathen perspective could be considered as factual. Trolls, ghosts, and spells fill their pages as casually as storms, sword fights and fjords.

Whether we consider the sagas to be fictional or not, is irrelevant to matter at hand. what is more important is that we come to an understanding of the values of the culture that produced them.

With this in mind, lets take a look at the women in the sagas. A brief overview of their stories shows a completely different view of the role and rights of women than we see in the contemporary Arthurian legends, and other ‘romantic’ fictions produced by Christian Europeans.

Doing so for a moment leads us to the conclusion that the depiction we have of Viking women that is so common in modern film and fiction, is more a result of Roman and Christian cultures than it is a reflection of anything happening in the Heathen world.

The propaganda engines run back to Tacitus’ time. The ‘Germania’ of Rome covered everything north of the Rhine, meaning that many smaller tribes and nationalities were encapsulated by the term ‘Germanic’ in Tacitus’ writing. Combining his ‘Germania’ with contemporary archeology, we start to see the fallacy of Rome.

Rome considered all cultures which were not Roman, to be little more than ‘barbaric’. The word “barbarian’ summons up images of skin clad brutes who never invented soap dragging thier clubbed women off to their caves… It is an image modern cultures still use in new forms, to describe any culture who’s resources we wish to usurp. They are not democratic, so they are in need of ‘saving’ by a ‘more advanced’ society..

As in modern times, the Romans only advancement above the neighbors labelled as ‘barbaric’ was a professional army. While the Gauls, Dacians, Celts, and Germans had to take time off from farming and go into battle frenzies to save themselves from tyrrany, the Roman soldiers spent all their time training. They were professional killers. No other culture thought that that was a good thing…

Aside from this, the Romans were brutish, tyrranical, in a way we have seen through Romanized Europe ever since. Take the crusades, the Age of conquest, and modern attitudes towards the ‘Third World’ and you will see plenty of evidence of this attitude ever since. An attitude that other cultures are to be enslaved through military might and converted to the dominant way of thinking. In the modern era, this would be Capitalism and Democracy in the western world, and Chinese Comunism in the East.

When the Romans came across the working Combines of the Gauls, they couldn’t figure out how to use them and burned them.. it took Europeans as a whole over 1500 years to reinvent what the Romans destroyed.

Terry Jones, the Ex-Monty Pythoner, cum Historian, Sums up the process of Roman conquest quite nicely in his book/BBC series “BARBARIANS“. This rereading of history which is both thoroughly researched, and entertaining shows the archeological and historical truth of Roman brutality.

Only in Rome could you spend an afternoon watching people from othercultures being eaten by lions or hacking each other to death for your entertainment.

It seems that throughout the western world the role and rights of women were almost universally legally equal to those of men until Rome imposed their misogynistic attitudes on their neighbors.

Britain at the time was ruled by Queen Boudica, insulted by Roman soldiers and eventually killed after raising an army of followers and temporarily kicking the Romans off the island. They came back. Boudica was murdered, and the Britains enslaved.

It seems universally the case that the cultures that Rome labelled as ‘barbaric’ were in many ways much more advanced in terms of technology, social liberty, and philosophy than the Romans.

Germania, though the term encapsulates a number of tribes, seems to have been an ideal society for many of the people who lived in it. It seems almost a perfect model of a semi-socialist society, the ideals of which are still very present in modern Scandanavia.

Land was owned by the whole tribe. Each farmer was given a plot to farm for a season, and if you were ambitious enough to build something your neighbors didn’t have, then you built it for them. Each year, the plots would rotate.

Thinking of yourself as being better than your fellows was considered alien to the ‘germanic’ worldview. The philosophy was very egalitarian. After saving Germania from Roman invasions, by learning their war tactics and setting up an ambush, Armenius (Herman the German) had his girlfriend kidnapped by her Romanized father. He tried to raise an army to win her back, counting on his reputation as a hero. He was denied by the masses with the assertion that he was getting too big for his britches. A sort of “what makes you think your happiness is worth all our lives?”

The Garmanic tribes also had a very different concept of slavery than Rome. While a Roman freeman could have the power of life and death over his women, children, and slaves, A Germanic ‘Thrall’ was bound only to pay rent to their ‘master’.

Though several centuries separate Tacitus from the Sagas, a similar attitude is presented in both cultures.

Lets take a look at how women’s lives are depicted in the Sagas.

The most notable of Sagic women is Gudrun, the Far Traveller. She makes her way across more than one of the stories, though there is a little varience in her early life. In the saga of Lief Ericsson, she is saved from a  shipwreck off the coast of Greenland and makes her way to the new world, and later all the way to the middle east and back, before settling in Iceland. She is a landowner, and a Skorunger (‘fire poker’… A term of respect reserved for people with the ability to rouse the hearts of many).

In her book “The Far Traveller: Voyages of a Viking Woman“, Nancy Marie Brown describes a life of relative freedom among Viking women. Definitely so compared to say Guinivere’s treatment in the tale ‘Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart’ in which Lancelot rushes off to save the queen from a neighboring brute who has kidnapped her. Lancelot convinces the brute to release her, but then is cought in bed with her himself. The rest of the tale is a long description of all the posturing required for the Queen to have her name cleared.

Nothing like this occurs in the Sagas. Here we have women legally divorcing their husbands for not being able to please them in bed, for being useless around the farm, or simply because they didn’t love them any more. They travel and fight alongside their men, gather followings of warriors under the might of their fiery personalities, travel the world freely, and owning farmsteads themselves.

(A contemporary Christian woman on the other hand, would be bound to her husband until death and may even have been legally killed for speaking up about her unhappiness).

All this seems to infer a society where ancient women were free to live lives of self determination. Perhaps there were still situations in which arranged marriages led to unhappy dramas, however it seems that one of the chief values presented by the Sagas is in keeping the women happy. This is something which is not possible in non-egalitarian societies, or by being treated as property for father to trade to son in law for political or financial gain.

In Viking Society, virginity and illegitimacy were complete non-issues. In every case where infidelity in marriages arises in the Sagas, it seems as though the male is the one who bears the brunt of the blame, for not satisfying their women enough to keep them loyal. When women divorced their husbands, they got back their dowries, which could sometimes be as much as the value of a whole farm.

Birth control was also practiced. Several medieval sewars have been excavated over the years, and been found to contain semen filled sheeps intestines. It is also notable that when Iceland converted to Christianity under military threat from Denmark, that they asked only two conditions: that Heathens be allowed to practice their old religion in private, and that the practice of exposing unwanted babies to the elements be preserved. Of course, this may seem ‘barbaric’ to us now, but we can also think of it in the same way the abortion debate is waged today.

One of the most obvious examples of gender inequality in a society has to be its attitudes towards rape. It could even be argued that the urge to dominate another person with sexual violence is a sign of deep sexual insecurity. Males are a lot weaker than females, sexually. A woman can orgasm many times without becoming exhausted, while on average, men are not capable of this kind of stamina. There is also an inherent fear in men of losing their women to better men. From this perspective, the institute of marriage itself transforms from a partnership model, to one of subservience… a legal matter, if you will, placing the woman in the ownership of the man, through an agreed upon price negotiated with the father.

Rape in such societies has often been seen either as the woman’s fault, for ‘asking for it’, or an insult against the father or husband, as we see in Shakespeare’s rendition of Titus Andronicus. Rape makes the female livestock unmarketable in such a system, and she has no choice but to either avenge herself, or commit suicide out of shame.

The Roman and Greek myths are full of rapes. They give the impression that the Gods are like frat boys, drunk on soma, running on a ‘panty raid’ with all the magic of hermes’ date rape drugs… How many demi gods are conceived by Zeus by raping mortal women?

The same can not be said about the Norse Myths. In all the Eddas and Sagas, we see only one account of rape. Sure, there’s plenty of murder, and seduction, but even seduction is consensual, despite the lies that may have been told to woo the object of the seduction. Immoral, perhaps, but consensual immorality. The implication of seduction, is that you need consent in order for it to happen. The seducer creates consent through pretense, but rape ignores the rights of its victims altogether, implying that the victim is somehow not worthy of the right of self-determination.

In Grettir’s Saga, the military hero Grettir swims across a barely unfrozen sound to fetch coals. He collapses exhausted and naked on the far side, and is teased for the smallness of his penis by the servant girl of a nearby farm. He becomes incensed, and starts reciting dirty poetry at her. He ends up raping her in what Brown calls ‘a cheerful rape scene’.

This is extremely uncommon in the Sagas. There is plenty of sex, all over the place, but the curious thing about it is that it is almost universally initiated by the woman. in 40 major sagas, Grettir’s rape of the servant girl is the only time where the male initiates the sexual encounter. This fact alone is very telling.

Grettir’s actions also incited a series of later poems lampooning his behaviour, accusing him of sleeping with everyone’s wives, farmer’s sons, deacons, abbots, and cattle.

In fact, the ‘maiden in distress’ archetype is entirely missing from Nordic literature.

This is very far from a complete depiction, and it must not be ignored that life in Viking times was a constant struggle against the elements, wich much hardship for all, however I hope it has served to show the vast difference between the Heathen and Romanized views of Femininity.

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3 Responses to “Women’s Rights in the Viking Age: a brief guide”

  1. Purna said

    Great post! Really interesting. Thanks!

  2. Judith said

    Very interesting, thank you! I’d like to know more about the consequenses of rape, though, both in Roman culture and Germanic culture.

    • mattrisk said

      its hard to know for sure. there is ONE case in the sagas where a man rapes a woman.. one case…
      he emerges from a swim in the ocean, and she laughs at his small shrivelled penis, so he rapes her.

      the result is that there are more poems ridiculing this man than any other subject in icelandic poetry. not sure what the punishment would have been, though, but it does show a cultural attitude.

      as for Rome and Greece, stories like that of Titus Andronicus show the Roman attitude: that raping a man’s daughter is an affront to HIM, giving the father the right to vengeance, and that the female victim is expected to commit suicide to reclaim her honor. but this is off the top of my head, and i’d have to do more research.. or someone else perhaps can fill us in.

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