Ride of a Valkyrie
September 10, 2017 2:04 AM   Subscribe

New DNA evidence uncovered by researchers at Uppsala University and Stockholm University shows that there were in fact female Viking warriors. The remains of an iconic Swedish Viking Age grave now reveal that war was not an activity exclusive to males – women could be found in the higher ranks at the battlefield.

The study was conducted on one of the most well-known graves from the Viking Age, a mid-10th century grave in Swedish Viking town Birka. The burial was excavated in the 1880s, revealing remains of a warrior surrounded by weapons, including a sword, armour-piercing arrows, and two horses. There was also a full set of gaming pieces and a gaming board.

In-depth information about the study can be found here.
posted by Too-Ticky (34 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Would someone please enlighten me about the two horses? Is there a possibility that they were somehow related to the twin-horse deities found throughout Indo-European mythologies?

Anyway I guess this should indicate pretty, I mean pretty high rank in the society. I don't see ordinary soldiers, women or men, could be entitled to a crazily expensive and possibly symbol-laden twin-horse burial.
posted by runcifex at 2:34 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]


The first lines in the introduction of the paper are a great summary of how women and their achievements get erased:
Already in the early middle ages, there were narratives about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men. Although, continuously reoccurring in art as well as in poetry, the women warriors have generally been dismissed as mythological phenomena.
"Oh sure, they've been talking about women warriors for ages, but that's probably like a metaphor for how tough the men were!"
posted by palindromic at 5:46 AM on September 10 [49 favorites]


> The first lines in the introduction of the paper are a great summary of how women and their achievements get erased
And this paragraph from the last section:
"Although not possible to rule out, previous arguments have likely neglected intersectional perspectives where the social status of the individual was considered of greater importance than biological sex. This type of reasoning takes away the agency of the buried female. As long as the sex is male, the weaponry in the grave not only belong to the interred but also reflects his status as warrior, whereas a female sex has raised doubts, not only regarding her ascribed role but also in her association to the grave goods."
posted by runcifex at 6:54 AM on September 10 [14 favorites]


That Vikings show has shown this for four seasons now; I am glad the researchers are finally catching up.

More seriously, while it's neat to read this piece, it's really about the persistent strength of cultural myopia that runs so deep that we can't see what is in front of our eyes. It makes me wonder what other major things we have been overlooking about past societies based on these kinds of assumptions and beliefs.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:05 AM on September 10 [12 favorites]


"Oh sure, they've been talking about women warriors for ages, but that's probably like a metaphor for how tough the men were!"

"Probably for ritual/religious use" strikes again!
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:07 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]


Oh cool. I made a post previously when they'd started looking more closely at the bones and been all "waitasec", but very cool to see DNA testing bear this out.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:20 AM on September 10 [1 favorite]


We have extensive written history documenting woman warriors in many societies since we first started writing things down; both straight up and women passing themselves off as men. It is so weird (and this is probably a simplification of the scientific consensus) that there would be hard core skepticism that any particular warrior grave would be that of a woman.

I wonder if it is related to a concept that Dan Carlin expounds upon that there is a tendency to think of historical people as "simple" and not nearly as clever as modern humans just because they didn't have the technology we have. Where if anything the pre modern world was probably pretty good at eliminating most people who weren't at least as clever and complicated as modern people.
posted by Mitheral at 7:38 AM on September 10 [16 favorites]


> "I wonder if it is related to a concept that Dan Carlin expounds upon that there is a tendency to think of historical people as 'simple'"

No, it's just sexism.
posted by kyrademon at 7:55 AM on September 10 [14 favorites]


Doesn't seem to be such a relevation - Leif Erikson's half-sister Freydis led Vikings into battle against native Americans.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 8:00 AM on September 10 [1 favorite]


Where if anything the pre modern world was probably pretty good at eliminating most people who weren't at least as clever and complicated as modern people.

There is a claim that standalone human intelligence probably peaked before the development of writing, if not language, as after that, you can offload a lot of your problem-solving, and after all, the brain is an expensive organ. And a society of people most of whom aren't too dumb can survive better than a population of very shrewd solitary individuals.
posted by acb at 8:12 AM on September 10 [2 favorites]


I wonder if it is related to a concept that Dan Carlin expounds upon that there is a tendency to think of historical people as "simple"

? you don't have to be dumb to charge into battle but you sure don't have to be smart either. The idea that women doing regular human activities requires a specially clever or crafty society or high intelligence level is one of the more pernicious and strange kinds of sexism -- like women's humanity might be real, but it's really hard to figure out, like a math problem, so only complicated people can do it. but that doesn't really make any sense.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:39 AM on September 10 [13 favorites]


Really cool, thanks! (Once again though, for the love of god don't read the comments on the phys.org article.)
posted by gudrun at 10:07 AM on September 10 [2 favorites]


Over the last 6000 years, war has become glorified / gorified. People like Alexander, Ghengis Khan, Cyrus, Caesar were not great. I think there were some other factors unknown in our history that caused us to feel the need to raise giant armies, but then I digress.

Most warriors were, had to be, village guards. People who watched the fields and gardens, and the corrals for horses and livestock. They were there to kill predators of all kinds that threatened the very local economies of villages, and later towns, when their defensive skills paid off , so that populations grew larger.

We tend to think of warriors as like today, or like recent European history of malfeasance on the part of royals, and landed lords, or conqueror types. When most likely it was local, personal, survival. This is kind of like the prepper role playing, only this was for real. Maybe more like ranchers tending their herds, with a rifle strapped to the saddle, or Native Americans tending their herds, with the weapons they used to do this. All sexes and youth and kids are able to pull this duty, either as skilled hunters, or look outs.

They were armed as best as able in the time, as they are today, considering factors of local regulation or no regulation, then cost and availability of arms.

One of my favorite memories from the area around Black Mesa, in Arizona, was this. I was on the road into Betatakin to view Anasazi ruins. Suddenly a herd of about 50 sheep were on the road, they came up from below. They were moving at at a trot, not a full run, and then behind them came a single, straight backed, beautiful by definition of the moment, Navajo woman on horseback, with a back pack, and she ran those sheep up the embankment right in front of me, and in a few moments they were gone, and the birds were singing again, and the slow wind was silently moving through my car.

I think this is the type of person buried with her horses. A capable, durable, fierce if need be individual, responsible for the property and lives of her people.
posted by Oyéah at 10:07 AM on September 10 [4 favorites]


So, she slept a lot?

Narcoleptic?
posted by Samizdata at 10:17 AM on September 10


Yes oyeah, in a small low resource community people are going to do what needs to be done, age and gender notwithstanding.
posted by fshgrl at 11:53 AM on September 10


"I wonder if it is related to a concept that Dan Carlin expounds upon that there is a tendency to think of historical people as "simple" and not nearly as clever as modern humans just because they didn't have the technology we have."

"We tend to think of warriors as like today, or like recent European history of malfeasance on the part of royals, and landed lords, or conqueror types. When most likely it was local, personal, survival. This is kind of like the prepper role playing, only this was for real. Maybe more like ranchers tending their herds, with a rifle strapped to the saddle, or Native Americans tending their herds, with the weapons they used to do this. All sexes and youth and kids are able to pull this duty, either as skilled hunters, or look outs."

"Yes oyeah, in a small low resource community people are going to do what needs to be done, age and gender notwithstanding."


WELP.

I was going to say that we were primarily dealing with a legacy of Victorian-era scientific sexism, but then people just went and made Mitheral's point. I wonder how long it will be before this "noble savage" BS will die out.

This woman was not some mere herder. She was not only a warrier, she was an elite in a stratified, sophisticated society. She was buried with a huge amount of wealth which would have been supplied by raiding and trade. So let's stop with this patronizing ignorance of her society that denigrates the complexity of her culture. They had massive trade networks, throughout pretty much all of Europe all the way down to Jerusalem. They were not a bunch of stereotypical subsistence farmers.

Come on, do some actual reading up on Viking culture before making statements like this, people!
posted by happyroach at 1:03 PM on September 10 [19 favorites]


> "She was not only a warrier, she was an elite in a stratified, sophisticated society."

Thanks for saying this, happyroach. Oyéah, I don't think you meant it to come off this way, but that really sounded like, "Oh, sure, women fought back then because they weren't WARRIOR warriors. Not like we think of warriors, obviously it couldn't have been like that. I bet she was more like a sheepherder. I saw a sheepherder once."
posted by kyrademon at 1:59 PM on September 10 [5 favorites]


I hope the popular coverage on this is accurate. I really want to see more analysis.
posted by waffleriot at 2:12 PM on September 10


(I mean, seriously. "The grave goods include a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior. Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy ... stressing the buried individual's role as a high-ranking officer." "... the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics." This woman was not watching the sheep.)
posted by kyrademon at 2:34 PM on September 10 [7 favorites]


Based on the sagas, which are admittedly from further west and a couple of centuries later, politically powerful women were not particularly common, but they weren't super-rare, either. Aud the Deepminded had to fight like hell for her position, but, once she established herself, people seemed willing to follow her without a lot of fuss, and other women in the sagas are clearly wielding power in their own right, not hiding behind a male relative or something. Viking Age Nordic society seemed pretty flexible and pragmatic, and, while hierarchical, not particularly stratified. This finding doesn't seem that outrageous to me (although I'm no expert).
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:14 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


I hope the popular coverage on this is accurate. I really want to see more analysis.

"Let's Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again" by Judith Jesch is well worth a read.
posted by velvet winter at 3:44 PM on September 10 [11 favorites]


I know a bit about Viking culture, and their prominence across the Atlantic to the West, and serving the rulers of Russia and Byzantium, as mentors. I by no means implied the Navajo woman is a subsistence type individual, as how would I know, there are some prosperous outfits up on that mesa, and people who come home with their PhDs to take care of elders in the summer.

Stratified, sophisticated society is not a positive necessarily. She was buried with great care, and respect.

I am sure there was a warrior class in Viking society, but in the end they defended their keeps, and the keeps of the upper organizers. I don't deny the fact of female warriors, female Viking warriors, there were women buried with seeming equality in several sites across the Mediterranean clear west to Stonehenge, north to the arctic and east to The Silk Road. They have found warrior women in Eastern European grave sites as well.
posted by Oyéah at 4:57 PM on September 10


She is a warrior, I have no problem with that.
posted by Oyéah at 5:08 PM on September 10


I'm a little irked about the emphasis on warriors in general, given how much more evidence we have for women routinely holding other social roles. Women were merchants, religious figures, political organizers and leaders, and scholars -- yet so much of the press coverage focuses on warriors, as if that were the only occupation that existed in the pre-modern world.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 5:35 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


Also, from the "Let's Debate" article linked above, a possibility that this entire publication may be moot:

"Interestingly, [in a previous publication on the same grave, another] author concludes that 'Whether these are not the correct bones for this grave or whether it opens up reinterpretations of weapon graves in Birka, it is too early to say' (the article was originally presented at a conference in 2013, not 2014 as suggested in the current article). This is because of problems arising from the fact that the graves were mainly excavated in the 19th century and there has been a certain amount of confusion regarding where various bags of bones came from."

The SI to the paper addresses this question briefly and suggests that the bones seem to have been properly identified (the coloration is identical, and the bones -- only two of which were sampled -- were all at some point labeled with "BJ 581"), but this statement nevertheless raises a red flag.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 5:45 PM on September 10


I'm a little irked about the emphasis on warriors in general, given how much more evidence we have for women routinely holding other social roles

There is a school of thought that only considers wars and maybe national-level politics True History. It's also rather annoying.
posted by ersatz at 11:41 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


All the diversions and digressions aside, she was a bad ass and probably terrifying to encounter in person.
posted by emjaybee at 1:14 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


From the "Let's Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again" article:
Was it possible, for example, for a biological woman to have been buried with a full 'warrior' accoutrement, even if she had not been a warrior in life? . . . The authors might have been better advised to keep this article to the purely scientific data, and leave the interpretation of it to other contexts which might have given them more space to reason more carefully.
Yikes. I sure am glad I don't work in this field. Attacking the leap from "woman buried surrounded by all the markers of a warrior, in a society with a long tradition of folk history describing female warriors" to "probably a woman warrior" sure seems like a mighty long stretch when reaching for things to criticize. (Whether 'warrior' is an inherently important distinction is a much harder question and one I don't know nearly enough to comment on.)
posted by eotvos at 1:29 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


*a police officer walks into a room where a man is standing over a dead body*

*the body is covered in stab wounds and is bleeding profusely*

*the man standing over the body is holding a knife that appears to be roughly of the same size and shape as the stab wounds*

*the knife and the man are both covered in blood*

The police officer says, "All right, drop the knife and put your hands over your head, I'm arresting you for murder."

The man scoffs and says, "The officer might have been better advised..."
posted by tobascodagama at 2:28 PM on September 11


This was covered previously on Metafilter. It was most interesting, it regards a Viking funeral on the Volga river, in the tenth century.
posted by Oyéah at 2:41 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


The article is exceptionally well laid out, esp. for something as scientifically rigorous as its subject. I would, however, like to learn more about the game they found.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 3:01 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


From Oyéah's link: Some of the most notable of them are at the Borre mound cemetery in Norway.

Random anecdote: Growing up, I used to walk the dog there. Often enough that the dog would get super-exited by the mere mention of the site's name. When I was a kid it was just a collection of mounds turned into parkland, with a plaque or two. Now there's a museum and visitor center and recreated Viking longhouse and whatnot.
posted by Harald74 at 11:55 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Not Viking but possibly their equally fascinating (to me) forebears who also has manificent female warriers who probably both drank wine and smoked weed were the Amazons and their Scythian friends
posted by adamvasco at 5:43 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]


I'm a little irked about the emphasis on warriors in general, given how much more evidence we have for women routinely holding other social roles.

Because this is very much a debate about gender, power, and status. Warrior elites, along with the wealth and power they wielded are roles commonly associated with men. There's long been a persistent strain of gender existentialism in the form of "Men do this, women do that" that limits the roles women are seen to have in societies, as well as their independent action and influence. For instance consider the paternalist comments here of "Oh gosh, she COULDN'T have been a real warrior, she must have been a sheepherder for her local village." Ignoring the fact that she originally wasn't from that area, and the wealth in the grave.

Also, unlike other social roles, debates about women membership in warrior elites ver much get into physical gender essentialism. You don't have people arguing that women simply lacked the physical strength to be merchants. And yes, I do see a parallel to the people who argue that women aren't represented in the tech world because of some innate physical difference, or that they lac the ability to be modern soldiers.

Seriously, do you actually think it was a coincidence that after the bones were discovered to that of a woman, suddenly doubts arose that the grave was actually hers?
posted by happyroach at 6:28 PM on September 17 [3 favorites]


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