Maiden warriors in Old Norse Literature
By Francesca Zappatore
Thesis, University of Bologna
In the Old Norse literature, the term ‘shieldmaiden’ (Skjaldmær in Icelandic) tends to be used with reference to a Viking woman warrior, who decided to take up arms in battles and whose temper is equal to the most ardent and brave men.
The literary sources which narrate the deeds of these women are not completely historically reliable: hence, many scholars affirm that shieldmaidens never existed in the Viking medieval society. Nonetheless, Carol Clover sustains that “collective fantasy has much to tell us about the underlying tensions of the society that produced it.” Therefore, the intrinsic value of this literary figure needs to be understood regardless of its actual existence. For Clover, the archetypal shieldmaiden has to embody two essential qualities: she has to be an unmarried young woman and she has to dress and arm herself like a man. The freedom that derives from the absence of marriage ties is indispensable for a maiden to become what she wants to be. Saxo Grammaticus, a medieval Danish historian, describes hundreds of shieldmaidens in his chronicle Gesta Danorum (The Deeds of the Danes) but he as well as many other medieval sources, also asserts that the women warriors’ emancipation ceases the moment they get married.
Several legendary shieldmaidens inspired countless modern cultural products, from Richard Wagner’s character Brünnhilde in the three-act opera Die Walküre, to Lagertha, the female protagonist in the on-going TV series Vikings. Kathleen M. Self problematizes the issue of the woman warrior’s representation in contemporary media, claiming, “She usually has an exaggerated feminine form, her large breasts and hips contrasting with a small waist”. The modern icon of a shieldmaiden is a hyper-sexualized and erotic image which refuses to take into account Clover’s indispensable feature of masculinity.