Sunday, June 19, 2016

New Light On the Viking "Valkyrie" Figures

Reconstruction of Birka grave 581
(image from Neil Price's
April 2016 presentation)
One thing that I find frustrating about my study of Viking costume is the lack of useful detail in Viking period art.  Of course, in every period artists suppress or distort certain details while clearly rendering others in order to achieve various artistic effects.  But Viking art is not representational in the way that late medieval or early modern art is, and it can be difficult to tell what types of features the lines, circles, and zigzags that appear on the clothing worn by the figures in brooches and pendants are meant to depict.

Of interest with regard to the interpretation of female figures in Viking Age art in general and the "valkyrie" figures in particular is the lecture in the embedded video by Neil Price, Ph.D. (The conference took place in Spain last April, and the introduction is in Spanish, but the lecture itself is in English.) Dr. Price is with the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University in Sweden.

The lecture recorded in the video at the right is about Viking Age depictions of women, including but not limited to women wielding or carrying weapons. In his lecture, Dr. Price compares three different types of female figures that appear in Viking Age jewelry and carvings--all of which are typically called "valkyries".  The types are: 1) figures in long robes with knotted ponytail hairstyles, usually holding out a drinking horn; 2) figures in long robes with ambiguous hairstyles, holding a big round shield and a sword; and 3) brooches showing two figures--one on a horse with long hair and weapons and one standing in front of the horse with a shield. Dr. Price observed that we do not know that all of these figure types were intended or understood by the Vikings to depict "valkyries".  He also observed that in Old Norse, the names given to valkyries in the sagas are words for the horror and chaos of battle, suggesting that valkyries were seen primarily as terrible goddesses of battle and not as brave shieldmaidens or horn-bearing women welcoming the brave dead to Valhalla.

Silver terminal for cap found in Birka grave 581.
Photo from the Historiska Museet, Stockholm.
The most interesting part of the lecture (starts at approximately 28:19) involves a very recent re-analysis of the skeletal remains of Birka grave 581. Four different osteologists independently concluded that the skeletal remains in grave 581 are those of a woman, which suggests that that grave is the final resting place of a woman who was not only buried with many weapons, but was dressed like a Viking man, complete with a hat with a dangling point ornamented with a silver terminal (see the image to the left) and "poofy pants".

Detail from the Oseberg cart.  Wikimedia Commons
 (photo by Annie Dalbéra, Paris, France)
Dr. Price is convinced that the woman in grave 581 was a warrior and was buried dressed as a man.  From listening to his lecture, I received the impression that his conclusion was not based upon fabric remains (he does not mention that there were any, and in any event the study of textile remains is not his specialty) but from the other contents of the grave.  Most of the grave goods of Birka 581 are war equipment: they include a sword, a shield, a spear, an axe, a long fighting knife, a bow (with a full quiver of arrows) and, significantly, two horses.  Dr. Price found the presence of the two horses particularly important because professional warriors needed to have multiple horses, in the event one horse was too exhausted for battle when it was time to fight. In addition, grave 581 contains a silver cone-shaped object typically interpreted as the terminal of a "Santa Claus" style cap, which has been associated by scholars and reenactors with men. (A copy of the grave reconstruction image that Dr. Price used in his lecture is reproduced at the top on the left.)

Although Dr. Price's conclusions arise from art analysis and skeletal analysis, they have a number of implications for Viking Age clothing, including, I think, the following:
  • Some women--possibly not many, but we have no way to tell how many--were professional fighters who dressed as men.
  • The different types of female images in Viking Age art may represent women with different societal roles, and cannot be assumed to represent a single style of female costume.
  • The figure with the long necklace and the short skirt/tunic/kilt on the Oseberg cart (shown above--see the figure on the far left) may well be a woman.  I had been skeptical about this interpretation before, but the osteological findings from Grave 581 tend to support it.
  • The common practice of sexing graves by examining the grave goods alone (e.g., presuming graves with tortoise brooches and bead strings are female and grave containing weapons are male) needs to be reexamined.  Dr. Price commented to this effect in his lecture.
It will be difficult to abandon the practice of using jewelry and weapons to sex graves because many Scandinavian Viking Age graves simply do not contain sufficient skeletal remains to allow a determination of sex, but if we are to determine how women and men lived and dressed during the Viking Age, we need to obtain as much information from the evidence we have as possible, and seek not to rely upon easy assumptions.  In any event, the grave 581 skeleton reminds us that we have far to go in our attempts to reconstruct Viking culture.


  1. The more we learn about Viking culture, the more we realize we don’t know. I love Neil Price’s work, and I hadn’t seen this lecture so thank you very much for posting it.

    Looking at the kind of evidence discussed in this post makes me wonder whether the Vikings had a concept of gender identity a bit like we do today.

    1. I'm glad I've added to your knowledge base, Stella; that's one of my objectives with this blog.

      As for the Vikings concept of "gender identity", I don't think that they organized the idea that way. I *do* think they had a concept that there are different societal roles (warrior, merchant, volva, lady of the house) and rules as to which genders could take which roles under which circumstances. The thing that Grave 581 shows us is that we really don't know what those rules were.

    2. Your blog is an awesome learning resource.

      Maybe it’s not just a question of knowing what the rules were, but also contexts where the rules did or didn’t apply.

    3. Thanks for the compliment!

      And I believe that you're quite right. Not knowing the contexts in which the rules did or did not apply is a large part of the reason for our knowledge gaps about Viking society.