Fighting, viking-women style!

Posted on 20. Nov, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

 

Eiríksstaðir. Front of a Viking woman. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber from Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Norse women tend to make people think of either of two things first: either a stoic-looking linen-clad lady who does nothing besides carrying horns of mead and popping out heroic babies, or a shield-maiden in a skimpy armour. Both images are wrong, but because they answer to two romantic ideals it’s easy to see why they’re as popular as they are.

An Icelandic noblewoman was by no means helpless, yet she was not usually a warrior type either. Going to a battle was not something that was a source of honour for women, which is why you’ll always see a fighting woman have some other motive behind her actions. She may be forced to fight, her husband may be in danger, she’s blinded by anger and gets a chance, these are three reasons I can easily think of off the top of my head for those rare few women that take up arms (on one occasion a whole ship – one lady decided to avenge an earlier attack on herself by sailing her ship onto the attackers’ one, capsizing it).

These cases were treated as unusual. Typically women used what actually was considered a source of honour for Norse women: their wits, strategic thinking, clever manipulation and a technique that is usually referred to as whetting, a way of talking one’s male family members into fighting mood. It was often used in situations where the men seemed none too eager to break an armistice for the sake of revenge.

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Guðrún smiled at Halldor by Andreas Bloch. Halldor has just murdered Guðrún’s husband and is wiping the murder weapon on her clothes, but she merely smiles back at him, already knowing how she’ll avenge her husband. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Because of our modern view whetting is often seen as a sign of evilness, yet back in the day it was actually a way of preserving family honour. It was only done to encourage the men to avenge the death of a family member which, if left unavenged, would tarnish the whole family’s name. It did not matter whether someone’s death was avenged right away or many years after but it still had to be done at some point while people still remembered the case. A whole family could sink in society if they let a member of theirs be killed without retaliation, the men who decided to follow certain noblemen might begin to change sides if they felt theirs was the weaker one, not to mention that a family that was seen as unable to defend itself was an easy target for attacks. A woman who failed her part in these matters risked losing far more than just her own face.

So was that all they did – hid behind their male relatives’ backs, nagging all the while? Far from it. A noblewoman could also command her own warriors as Hallgerður and Bergþóra did in Njáll’s saga, where a disagreement eventually spiraled into an endless vendetta. Both women sent their slaves, servants and allies to attack the other’s side in turn, causing one of the lengthiest and bloodiest family wars of the sagas. This was also no doubt the way women defended their homestead while the husbands were away.

This of course relied a lot on what type of people were left in the house with the womenfolk: in Grettis saga the attackers outnumbered the house-carls, and what even worse, arrived with the precise idea of attacking the ladies of the house. It was therefore only due to Grettir’s quick thinking that the attack was thwarted. Though the Medieval noblewoman might not be helpless she was not always safe from harm either, which brings me to the next point, the myth that “Medieval Norsemen/vikings never harmed women”. They did, sometimes even targeting women as in the above example, but fact is that attacking a free woman was both illegal and not seen as a honourable thing to do. Likewise most warriors would always avoid killing children, because harming one did two things: it set the whole family after your life and gave you a reputation as a coward… but children still did occasionally die during battles.

The Valkyrie’s Vigil by Edward Robert Hughes. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

What about the shieldmaidens then? Alas, they’re largely a myth, possibly based on valkyries. In Iceland it was even illegal for a woman to carry a sword. They could own swords of course, swords were powerful status symbols that could be kept for one’s own children or be given away as priceless gifts, but to use one was strictly forbidden. There are a few exceptions in the sagas but nowhere near enough to make shieldmaidens a thing – if anything, a female warrior was such a rare occurrence (though most likely a few did exist) that she was most definitely written about, therefore perhaps making shieldmaidens seem more common than they actually were. Gesta Danorum (link) may not always be a reliable historical source…

But what about women who actually did fight? Let’s look at these unusual ladies in the next post!

By the way, the article circling around the internet about grave finds supposedly proving the existence of female warriors is a hoax. Sadly, because it would be pretty awesome if it was true! The material it’s based on does not say anything about warriors though, just settlers, and though you might find a sword in someone’s grave it does not mean the person ever used said sword, merely that they owned it. Deciding that a female with a sword was a warrior is just the other side of the coin of modern ideas colouring the past, where the other side is to mark every single sword-grave as a male one.

Other posts in this series:

Fighting, viking-style!

Fighting, viking-style!

Posted on 11. Nov, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

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Vikings fighting… I can’t begin to count how many movies get this one entirely wrong. There’s the age-old mistaken idea that Norsemen were some kind of mindless frothing-at-the-mouth barbarians, that fights mostly consisted of swords hitting swords, Hollywood-esque spins in the heat of a battle and a weird conviction that Medieval Norse warriors somehow had some kind of a moral code – most battles had any number of men attacking any number of men for example, often trying to overpower an enemy known to be a great fighter with numbers.

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Gunnar with a romanticized atgeir, a long-bladed Icelandic glaive. In reality they looked a bit different…

First of all Norsemen did not just blindly charge into a fight. They wore many types of armour, each type exceedingly well-suited for keeping the wearer as safe as possible while also giving them a free range of movement, or as much as was needed for a particular style of fighting (a war field is an entirely different manner than a one-on-one duel, for example). In large battles every warrior would likely have been wearing some, an assumption I base on the fact that berserkers were said to fight naked or just “in a shirt”, without armour, and were considered insane by most.

Safe to say viking era Norsemen’s armour really was easy enough to move in. Gunnar af Hlíðarendi comes to mind easily, a man who could even somersault while wearing full battle gear.

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Axe-throwing – you gotta start young! :D

Swords in movies are highly overrated. Most of the men would not be using one, if they even owned one, as their first choice of weapon. An atgeir (= a very Iceland-typical spear/glaive), a more continental type of a spear or a long-handled axe would have been a better choice because it put some distance between the wielder and their opponent, spears having the additional bonus that they can be thrown as well. Then again spears also had a minus side. If you didn’t hit your target he was likely to pick it up and return it to sender, pointy bit first.

But why pick only one weapon? A sword and a shield is just one possible combo. How about two axes, a long-handled one and a short-handled one? A battle axe and a sword? Atgeir and a bow? A spear with an extra sword dangling from the wrist? All of the above combos can be found in sagas! Let’s also not forget that a shield could be used for far more than just a defense: you could throw it at someone, distracting them or injuring their legs. You could try to fool your opponent into lifting theirs in front of their field of vision for that split second it takes to spear them. You could even make a man’s own shield his bane: Grettir defeated a raging berserker by waiting until he bit the top of his shield* and then kicked the bottom of it, crushing his skull.

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Gunnar using his atgeir to spear his opponents, lift them up and throw them in the river below. He was also simultaneously composing poetry.

If you for some reason did fight with a sword the last thing you’d want to hit with it was a long piece of metal such as somebody else’s sword. Dents, dulling, even the whole sword bending out of form, swords were often damaged in a fight so the aim was to minimize the damage and to kill the opponent as fast as possible. Forget about lifting the sword high above your head to deliver a blow because that leaves the entire side open. A shield in the way? It was better to try to go around it than hit straight to it.

Finally, for all things holy, spinning in a fight is the silliest Hollywood idea ever. You can guess what would have happened if you turned your back to a skilled opponent in a battle. Medieval Norse warriors saw nothing wrong in sticking you in the back or ambushing you in any way of their liking, so trusting the other side to not fight dirty would send you to Hel’s home rather fast.** Medieval Norse men used any means possible when they were going to kill someone: they could attack from behind, hide in the toilet, hide in a bush for a, heh, bush-ambush***, pick up a rock to throw that at the opponents face, throw clothes over the opponent, pull his trousers down, yank his head back by hat, beard or hair, or to even sneak up to him while he was preparing for some private time with his wife.

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Consider running.

Speaking of women, they were just as bad an opponent if not worse since they could easily command a large number of men: their own household, family members and servants. Some took this even further and picked up weapons themselves, but I’ll talk about the ladies’ fighting methods more in the next post – just trust me on this, you would not want to meet any of them in a fight either.

 

* Berserkers bit their shields. I don’t know why but it seems to have been a thing that they did.

** Hel’s home, only great warriors go to Valhalla or Sessrúmnir. Dying out of gullibility is probably not something Óðinn or Freyja look for in a man.

***I’m so sorry.

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Hulda recommends:

Want to see Medieval Norsemen fight using many of the techniques and weapons mentioned in this post? Check Viking Fighting Moves from the Sagas, a series of videos that are choreographed according to saga references and often use several different sagas to form an entire fight. My own favourites are 2, 3, 5 and especially 6 because it shows many moves we would now consider unfair. Another great one is Sword Fighting as It Was for the Vikings (link) because it demonstrates why Hollywood fighting is so useless in close combat.

Skugga-Baldur, or Blue Fox; a book by Sjón.

Posted on 31. Oct, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

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Did you ever read a translation of a great book that, while a good one, was lacking a key element simply because some part was entirely untranslatable? Or even better – ever read the translated version and felt a bit smug in the knowledge that you had that key element already in your back pocket and were therefore miles ahead of other readers that were relying on the translation?

Blue Fox by Sjón, or Skugga-Baldur as its name is in Icelandic, is a book so amazing that I wish that if you could in all your life read only one Icelandic book it would be this one. It’s quite short by amount of text but the language itself is poetic, packed so full of meaning that every short burst of text deserves the reader’s full attention. It won’t take long to read but after you’re done I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt like re-reading it right away with all the knowledge that you gathered on the way. It’s simply magical, and I hope those that have read it before won’t bop me over the head for making that silly pun. :D

Skugga-Baldur tells the story of three people at the end part of the 1800’s Iceland. There’s father Baldur Skuggason, a local priest, wealthy and well respected within the community. There’s the herbalist Friðrik B. Friðjónsson who originally came to Iceland only to tie some loose ends and never planned to stay, also known as Grasa-Friðrik (= Grass-Friðrik). Lastly there’s Hafdís Jónsdóttir, a woman whose fate begins, carries on and seals the story. Allt breytist – ekkert hverfur: everything changes – nothing disappears.

In fact her appearance into the story is nothing short of suspicious when all details are put in place. She’s found on board a ship that seems like it has no crew in it what so ever, all alone, chained to a wall and heavily pregnant. There are no details on who she is and where she came from, and of course poor Hafdís herself cannot exactly explain what happened to her for reasons that later on become clearer. Not even the ship can be identified properly, it’s old and worn and only the letters “… Der Deck…” on its side and “V… …r ….ec…” on the other can be read. I’m assuming the fans of classical literature to be jumping up and down at this point and yes indeed, I share the suspicion of the ship’s origin and the reason it’s sailing alone.

She gives birth soon after and kills the child, and is then found by Friðrik who promises to watch after her and let her stay with him. Hafdís is not her real name either for the simple reason that people don’t seem to understand her when she tells them her name. Instead she gains a new official name, which coincidentally means “sea goddess”, but for most of the time the reader will know her by another one – Abba.

(As an additional detail calling someone Jónsdóttir or Jónsson is akin calling someone “Smith”, a name that tells you absolutely nothing of the person carrying it, often used for people whose parents were not known. If you come across a Jón Jónsson in historical records chances are that either that really was his name, or, that his real name was not known and he was written down with the Icelandic equivalent of John Doe.)

These three people whose fates twine among each other’s in complex and cruel ways are each unpredictable in their own style. Not one of them is quite what they seem to be in the beginning and the reader soon finds out that innocence is something that’s hard to measure and that you’ll only lose it if you let it go, and similarly that humans can sell each other really cheap. Naturally there’s also a fox in the story, but what and who the fox represents is also a surprise.

What about the part that I mentioned right at the beginning? The untranslatable piece that withholds a key element from anyone who doesn’t know Icelandic, nay, Iceland itself well enough?

It’s the title. Skugga-Baldur is no blue fox although it’s understandable why the translator chose the title they did. Skugga-Baldur is a monster of Icelandic lore, half cat and half fox, a beast that’s as smart as a human, capable of plotting your death even after you’ve first managed to kill it. It’s powerful, ruthless, eats pretty much anything that it can catch and can, according to some myths, kill you by looking at you. You don’t have to meet its eyes as with basilisks, all that’s needed is that it sees you there and you’re a goner. Its looks are something straight out of uncanny-valley where you don’t quite recognize what you’re seeing but know by instinct alone that you want to be far, far away from it immediately. It’s knowing this that will set you the story in a completely different, merciless light and tell you something else, something different and far more rich in content than to those who lack the information. Know the beast and how it operates and you won’t be fooled by it because, alas, most people who read the English translation will be.

More about Skugga-Baldur and its equally awful half-sibling Skoffín here.