With the controversy over the supposed identification of the grave of a “female Viking warrior”, known to archaeologists as Bj 581, continuing to rumble on, I thought I’d return to the subject once again. Judging by the online animosity directed towards those academic professionals questioning the tabloid interpretations put on the results from the archaeological site at Birka, Sweden, myopic ideology seems to be trumping scholarly scepticism. Historical context is under attack by a wilfully ignorant minority who insist that advanced notions of gender equality and opportunity also existed in the European Middle Ages. Notions hidden or excised by predominantly male chroniclers and writers.
While it is natural to seek reflections of our current selves in the lives and attitudes of our distant ancestors, projecting existing mores into the past simply corrupts our understanding of the long slow and frequently unfair story of human progress. Restoring the rightful and oft neglected place of women and girls in that record does not require one to resort to pseudo-histories or instructive fictions, however well-intentioned. It does a disservice to the countless generations who came before us to make their undramatic but necessary contributions and labours seem of lesser importance. Indeed this is simply a mirror image of the historical editing it claims to challenge, elevating the martial champions at the expense of the domestic ones.
For more on the genuine place of female warriors in a Medieval Irish setting, I can do no better than quote the historian Lisa M Bitel in her essential work, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland (1996, Cornell University):
Real women were lovers, wives, mothers and kinswomen to their men while in the sagas and histories shapeshifting raven goddess haunted the battlefields, dealing terror and bloodlust to men in combat.
Despite all sorts of limits on women’s authority and status and despite the very real and constant risk of violence to women, the men and women of early Ireland were fascinated by a veritable pornography of powerful females. Their stories of women warriors, war goddesses, and witches included everything modern pornographers offer their audiences… The early Irish were obsessed with arms-bearing women warriors in contest with men, otherworldly dominatrices demanding sex from handsome heroes, insolent queens ordering soldiers around, or – best of all – any of these ill-humoured females being beaten in combat or sexually subdued by other warriors.
…tale-tellers cast their stories of women warriors in the pre-Christian past, whereas magicians, werewolves, and necromancing hags continued to haunt the Christianising Middle Ages. Women warriors rampaged through narratives and mythological histories but rarely entered either the secular or religious legal material.
Hags with magic were real to the early medieval Irish; women warriors were not.
The sexy warrior woman whom Christian authors recalled from the pagan past retained some of the goddess’ powers and some of the hag’s ferocity and sexuality. Like the princesses and the badb, who disguised themselves as hags, female warriors were cross-dressing symbols of sex and politics not historical representations of real fighting women. Nevertheless, Celticists and romantic-historians have sought vainly for the militants’ historical origins in the scrolls of prurient Greek and Roman ethnographers. But the theme of aggressive, militaristic Celtic women is too formulaically pervasive in classical literature to be very credible. Romans and Greeks wanted an upside-down world for the barbarians, who frightened and fascinated their sophisticated neighbours, and a standard ingredient in such a world was the manly warrior woman.
Mis and badb had no historical ancestresses. In neither pagan or Christian times did Irish women go to war against men.
While I would not entirely discount the possibility of some women taking up arms, in desperation or by choice, during Ireland’s Celtic or Iron Age centuries, or even in the Early Christian or Medieval era, there is very little reason to doubt Bitel’s broad analysis of the period. Females – when not aristocratic leaders in their own right – supported their male kinsmen when they went to war, materially or emotionally. Those occasions when women themselves stood on the battlefield were extraordinarily rare, whatever their political or social standing. And Medieval Scandinavia was much the same.