Like many people I’m absolutely enthralled by History Channel's The Vikings, but as usual I can’t just enjoy the show I have to know if there are any facts behind the fiction. Unfortunately after days of research I’ve come to realize that I’ll probably never know if Ragnar Lothbrok, and his wife, Lagertha, were real because the Scandinavian people of the Viking age left no written records.
The accounts we have of Ragnar come mainly from The History of the Danes written by Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th century. Scholars disagree as to whether Ragnar really existed. Some say there is historical fact behind the legend, others state that he is a composite of many kings. And if the experts don’t know, how can I? But if I had to guess I’d say there was some truth behind the myth.
My reasoning lies with another Viking, Leif Erikson. For centuries it was believed that the saga describing Erikson’s voyage to Vineland was merely a myth and had no basis in fact, and yet in the early 1960’s Norwegian explorer, Helge Ingstad, and his wife, archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered proof that the Vikings had, in fact, sailed to North America, and had settled at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
So maybe we can look again at the evidence, take for example, the idea that shield-maidens existed only in myth. My common sense tells me that in a warring society, there must have been women who were proficient with the sword. They would have to be, especially when you consider that the men were gone for long periods, raiding. It’s human nature to protect your home and family no matter what your gender.
Like most pagan peoples the Norse buried their dead with grave goods, so one could assume that shield-maidens were buried with their swords. Once again it’s not that straightforward. Marianne Moen in the January 2013 article Don’t Underestimate Viking Women, says
“There have also been cases of male graves with beads and woven cloths, and women were sometimes buried with smaller weapons, for instance arrowheads. Generally it is fairly obvious what constitutes male or female objects, but the lines were sometimes blurred.”
It seems that archeologists have assumed gender roles based on their own skewed perception rather than the facts. In 1904 a grave ship containing the skeletons of two women was found. Instead of assuming that this was the burial of powerful women in their own right archeologists assumed it was the wife or mother of a powerful man. But could this in fact have been the burial of a Lagertha-like character? Maybe. In the same article Moen also says
“To assume that Viking men were ranked above women is to impose modern values on the past, which would be misleading,”
The experts are now re-examining the evidence, hopefully with fresh eyes. Perhaps one day soon we will have a better glimpse into the the real lives of the Vikings.