The TV show Vikings, one of my all time favorite shows, is plagued by historical inaccuracy. The armor worn by everyone is more or less absurd. The steering board on all the longships is on the wrong side. The representations of viking government are pretty flawed. But there’s one thing that I assumed was inaccurate the first time I watched the show that might not necessarily be such fantasy after all: it turns out that some viking warriors may have in fact been men.
I know that sounds absurd, like PC culture gone amuck. Men are, on average — and I don’t mean to disparage the capability of individual men here — less competent on the battlefield. Their higher center of gravity makes them less stable. Their voices are too guttural and low to carry well across the din of battle. Testosterone makes them prone to irrational behavior and leaves them poor candidates not just for leadership roles but even subordinate roles. Their larger body mass makes them easier targets for missile weapons and less capable of the sorts of guerrilla tactics that vikings favored on their raids. To say nothing of how men are socialized to constantly bicker with other men.
Men, with their upper body strength, are remarkably well suited to the simple labor of farm work.
In an agricultural society like viking-era Scandinavia, men are simply too valuable to be risked in warfare. While raiding was a prominent part of the culture, it was farming that served as the lifeblood of the community. Men, with their upper body strength, are remarkably well suited to the simple labor of farm work.
Despite all of that, male anthropologists have been insisting for decades now that some men participated in the warrior culture of the vikings. I’m starting to be convinced.
Damning evidence has been under our noses this entire time. We’ve known more or less forever that weapons of war have been found in the graves of viking men as well as viking women. The obvious conclusion is, of course, that men were buried with weapons that were ceremonial and representative of their status, or that the weapons might have been family heirlooms.
Maybe, though, just maybe, men were buried with weapons because they used them in battle. It shows our society’s biases pretty clearly that we keep ignoring that as a possibility.
We already know that viking culture saw an interesting degree of equality between the sexes in the social and political spheres. In 2012, scientists uncovered a 10th century grave in Hårup, Denmark that contained the bodies of a woman and a man who appeared to be one another’s social equal. Oh, and that man? Buried with an axe.
When we talk about the Norse pantheon, obviously we think of powerful warrior goddesses like Hlín, deity of protection; Skadi, deity of hunting; Syn, deity of justice; and of course the primary Norse goddess of war, Freya. Freya got first pick amongst those slain on the battlefield to take into her afterlife Sessrumnir. Sometimes we forget about Odin, Frigg’s husband, who was a god of war and wisdom of his own right. After Freya took her half of the dead, Odin brought everyone left over to his own version of Sessrumnir, which was called Valhalla. Of course, he needed women — Valkyries — to do the actual transportation, but that’s beside the point. Odin himself learned to borrow the power of women and practiced seidr — women’s magic. Is it so bizarre to imagine that other viking men might have followed in their god’s footsteps and taken on traditionally feminine roles like raiding?
When Thor wasn’t sneaking around or wearing dresses, he found joy in battle.
And what of mighty Thor? While mostly included in the sagas for comedic value, he too was a god of war. Even if he was eternally frustrated by how his magic “hammer” was too short. When he wasn’t sneaking around or wearing dresses, he found joy in battle. He slew giants and he managed to turn his biological disadvantage into an advantage of sorts, relying on brute strength instead of cleverness or wisdom. He was also hotheaded, and it’s pretty easy to see in Thor an example of why people are shy to allow men on the battlefield. Still, though, we can’t write Thor off completely.
Is it really so crazy to think that in a society with a reasonable amount of gender equality, in which numerous men have been found buried with weapons, that a few men might have been viking warriors?
Until we build a time machine and see for ourselves, we just can’t know for sure. In the meantime, though, I’ll keep watching Vikings and cheer on Queen Lagertha’s husband Ragnar for having the ovaries to stand shield-to-shield beside his wife. Even if I wonder who’s going to push the plow while he’s gone from the farm.
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