The historical contributions of women are infinitely more than their marriage dowries, or birthing sons that would go on to do great deeds. Of these historical contributions, arguably the most fascinating are those of "shield maidens," or women who accompanied men into battle with shield, sword, and spear. These warrior women have captured the imagination of generations, and are present in numerous forms of media.
The facts to support the actual historical relevance of shield maidens are overwhelming. Recently, Shane McLeod of the University of Western Australia decided to reevaluate the way academics studied Viking remains. In this study, McLeod focused on a Norse settlement of conquest, known as "the Danelaw," in Eastern England. Traditionally, the bones gender was discerned by merely an observation: if the remains were buried with a shield or weapons, they were classified as male. If the remains of the immigrant were buried with a Norse style oval necklace and various sorts of jewels, they were classified as female. McLeod reexamined 14 corpses by using osteopathic methods to discern what gender the corpses were, as opposed to looking at what the body was buried with. The results were astounding. Six of the fourteen burials were female, seven were male, with one body being indeterminable. In addition, women were buried with weapons. These corpses were originally thought to be male. To quote the article:
"...(d)espite the remains of three swords being recovered from the site, all three burials that could be sexed osteologically were thought to be female, including one with a sword and shield..."
Although a margin of error exists with any osteopathic study, McLeod's research provides compelling evidence that women warriors traveled in long-ships beside men, and accompanied them in battle and conquest.
Shield Maidens have long been present in myth and fiction regardless of the historical context. Of these, arguably Lagertha, Hervor, Valkyries, Éowyn, and the women of House Mormont are most prevalent.
Lagertha is a main character in the History Channel dramatic series entitled "Vikings," solely because she is featured prominently in Saxo Grammaticus' chronicle of Danish History. Lagertha is most likely the Latin equivalent of her true name, Hlaðgerðr. Lagertha's warrior prowess is well documented by Saxo, with him writing:
"Ladgerda, a skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All-marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman."
Lagertha is instrumental in battle, and fights alongside her husband, the legendary Norse king, Ragnar Lodbrok. Although the marriage would not last, Lagertha was continually depicted as a savvy and capable warrior, even after her divorce from Ragnar. The best example of this is in a battle which occurred after Lagertha had divorced Ragnar, and remarried another warlord. Lagertha essentially saves the day for Ragnar's forces by orchestrating a successful counter attack against Ragnar's enemies. Saxo recounts:
"Ladgerda, who had a matchless spirit though a delicate frame, covered by her splendid bravery the inclination of the soldiers to waver. For she made a sally about, and flew round to the rear of the enemy, taking them unawares, and thus turned the panic of her friends into the camp of the enemy."
After this battle, Lagertha quarrels with her current husband. Lagertha then promptly slays him with a spearhead that she had concealed within the recesses of her gown. Lagertha usurps her former husband's royal line, and rules on her own in lieu of ruling beside him.
Hervor is a Viking woman who, according to legend, avenged her Father's death with a magical sword, and then lead her fellow Vikings into pillage, plunder, and glory. Hervor's sword, Tyrfing, was allegedly dwarf forged. One nick of Tyrfing's blade would result in instant death. The sword was originally buried with Hervor's Father. Hervor claimed that the sword was her birthright, and reclaimed it, overcoming supernatural obstacles along the way. Hervor, after wielding Tyrfing, eventually married and birthed children. Hervor's eldest son inherited Tyrfing after his Mother hung up her mail. Little is known about what happens to Hervor after she retires from battle, but some later accounts exist of a Valkyrie named Hervor. Hervor may have been raised to demi-goddess status after her epic deeds.
Valkyries are the choosers of the slain in Norse mythology. Valkyries are women clothed in helmets and carrying spears, Valkyries decide who to take to Valhalla, a great hall filled with the most distinguished of warriors of the Viking dead. Going to Valhalla is a great honor, as the spirits there are housed with Odin, the principle God of the Norse people.
Éowyn, who is also known as Lady of the Shield-Arm, is a principle character in J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional saga, entitled The Lord of the Rings. Éowyn is a member of the House of Eorl, who rule the Kingdom of Rohan. When we first encounter Éowyn, she is tending to her Uncle Théoden. Théoden is King of Rohan (also known as King of the Mark). At the time of the War of The Ring, Théoden had been suffering from false counsel (and possibly poison) from his advisor, Gríma Wormtongue. Unbeknownst to Théoden, Gríma was employed by Saruman the White, who was in turn bound to the main force of evil in the novel, Sauron. Théoden is freed from the influence of evil by the most hideously epic fictional character ever, the wizard Gandalf. In turn, Éowyn is freed from caring for Théoden.
Éowyn longs for the glory of battle, and refuses to stay in her "proper place" as a lady. When Aragorn, the future High King of all men, mansplains to Éowyn that her duty is with her people, Éowyn counters:
"Too often have I heard of duty....But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse. I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?"
Éowyn takes her life and her fate into her own hands in a future battle. On the Fields of Pelennor, Éowyn adopts the alias Dernhelm and disguises herself as a man. In addition, she takes along Merry, a hobbit that was told that he should be left behind. Éowyn, as Dernhelm, fights by Théoden's side. When Théoden is struck by the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl, Éowyn and Merry rush to his aid. While Théoden lies beneath his mount, Snowmane, Éowyn squares up against the Witch-king. The Witch-king laughs at Éowyn, as he believes she is a man.
"'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!'
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.'"
In this quote, Éowyn proves that she belongs on the battle field.
Éowyn rips off her helm, revealing her long golden hair, and stands fast.
"A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes."
Merry then stabs the Witch-king in the leg with a Dagger of the Westernesse, a legendary blade created for battle against the Witch-king. However, it is Éowyn that delivers the killing blow, stabbing the Witch-king in the void where his face might be. Although Éowyn suffers a permanently debilitating blow to her shield-arm, it is a woman that brings down one of the most notorious and deadly forces in Middle Earth. Éowyn, while recuperating from the battle, meets Faramir, a wise man of nobility from Gondor. They marry and Éowyn lives out the rest of her days happily by his side.
Women continue on the war path in fantasy novels in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Women from the region of Dorne are notoriously trained in combat, but are not exactly typical shield maidens. To find a woman of the shield maiden archetype, readers have to look North, to Bear Island and House Mormot. House Mormont rules Bear Island, which is located in the Bay of Ice, off of the coast of the North. The members of House Mormont are sworn to the Starks of Winterfell, and are one of the oldest and noblest houses in the entire region. The gate of the great hall of House Mormont of Bear Island features a large carving of a woman covered in bear skins, holding an axe in one hand, and suckling a babe in another. This tradition of warrior women is practiced by the ladies of House Mormont to the present day events of the series.
House Mormont is currently lead by a woman, the matriarch of the family named Maege. When Robb Stark calls families loyal to him to arms, Maege and her heir, her daughter Dacey, march on the war path to his aid, armed with maces and clothed in mail. Both women prove themselves to be capable warriors, with Dacey fighting alongside Robb in every major battle. Dacey is eventually killed at Robb's side at the Red Wedding. Maege is spared this fate, as she was sent by Robb on a mission to contact the crannogmen (other allies of House Stark) at the Neck.
Upon Dacey's death, Alysane, Maege's second oldest daughter, rises as heir to House Mormont. Alysane is unwed, but has two children. Alysane claims that the father of her children is a bear and that she is a skinchanger. Regardless of her supernatural abilites, Alysane is an effective warrior, and leads the soldiers of House Mormont in a raid against the Ironmen in a surprise attack in Deepwood Motte. Alysane captures and burns all of the Ironmen's ships, while successfully holding hostages for ransom. Alysane Mormont is currently sworn to Stannis Baratheon, as Stannis recaptured Deepwood Motte and bestowed it back to House Glover. Alysane is still on the warpath, and is one of the assigned guards of Asha Greyjoy.
The location of Maege and two of her daughters, Jorelle and Lyra, is currently unknown. Maege's youngest daughter, Lyanna, age ten, is currently on Bear Island. Lyanna exemplifies the spirit of the female Mormonts when responding to a letter Stannis wrote, asking Bear Island for fealty. Lyanna responds back, in her childish hand:
"Bear Island knows no King but the King in the North, whose name is STARK."
Shield maidens can be found throughout history and fiction. Although shield maidens are undoubtedly noninclusive (the term is almost solely used to describe white women), they are none the less fascinating examples of women shirking traditional patriarchal gender roles. Women in history have not only died in a torrent of blood in childbirth. Women in ancient times have also died from the blood they have shed on the battlefield. This historical tradition also inspired legends and fictional characters of women dressed in mail. A women's place is not in the home. A women's place is wherever she sees fit, regardless if that includes a baby at her breast, or a sword in her hand.
AmandaOfHappiness is a MA student of Women's Studies on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. When she is not reading horror or fantasy, she is mulling over how she would rather be in Scotland. She can be reached at AmandaOfHappiness@gmail.com