In Miklagaard – which some claim to have provided the visual cues for Asgard, the home of the Norse gods – it was possible for the Vikings to gain wealth and employment. Indeed, Vikings made up the vast majority of the Varangian Guard, protectors of the Byzantine Emperors between the 10th and 14th Centuries. During the early 11th Century, one of their number included Harald Hadrada, a name more famous for losing the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Other guards may have been more laconic – in an eave of the great mosque Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, for example, runic graffiti from the 9th Century says the equivalent of “Halfan was here”.
Kershaw’s findings are referenced in Dr Cat Jarman’s recent book River Kings, a sweeping, fascinating piece of archaeological detective work that explores these links further. The book begins with the discovery of an ornate bead found in a warrior’s grave dating back to the time of the “Great Heathen Army” in Repton, Derbyshire, and reverse engineers the journey back to its source in Gujarat, India. While Vikings may not have even made it to India, this underlines the notion that not only was the East open to the Norsemen, but it was an area with which they proactively and extensively engaged.
According to Kershaw, the Vikings’ movements in the East recast them as “part of a globalised network connecting empires”. Such a wide trading operation would require the support of entire societies, in turn suggesting a much more central role for women in this “raiding economy”. Kershaw notes that to now, “we’ve been resistant to the idea that women went with the Vikings to the West,” seeing this instead as “a male event”.
Yet the longevity of the Vikings would have been underpinned by the “almost industrial” work of women in creating sails, clothing, rope and other vital materials. While this may sound prosaic, it was integral to the Vikings’ success, and there is also the suggestion that women were more directly involved in seafaring, exploration, and warfare during the period. For example, Dr Eleanor Barraclough’s Beyond the Northlands traces the Vikings’ journey from the edges of the Holy Land to the Americas through the old Sagas. In doing this, she highlights a wide range of female protagonists, including Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir – known as víðförla (“well-travelled”) – a woman with “light chestnut coloured hair” and “huge eyes” who is credited with being the first European to give birth in North America. Gudrid would later take a pilgrimage to Rome following Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, and in Barraclough’s estimation, she is the “real hero of the Vinland Sagas”.
Alternatively, there’s the fierce Freydís Eiríksdóttir, who, when faced with indigenous attackers in the Saga of Erik the Red, “let down her sark and struck her breast with a naked sword”. Such a sight ensured the attackers “rushed off to their boats and fled away”. Albeit more tenuously, the Eddas include the Valkyrie, an elite force of women soldiers who select which of the Viking war-dead deserve to join them in Valhalla. Recently brought to life in the 2017 Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok, their presence perhaps presupposes the involvement of women in warfare.