Famous Viking Women


Viking culture had been greatly influenced by women. Women were important to Viking society for multiple reasons. The most obvious of these are biological reasons and gender roles fulfilled. But there have been instances in both literature and mythology of extraordinary Viking women. Much of the deeds of these women are surrounded in myth, some of the women are myths themselves. The evidence of these women's existence is in the form of historical sources such as sagas, annals, literature, and poetry. These sources depict the famous Viking women in the light of the author and oftentimes in fictional legends. However, their names have survived to this day and they are important in understanding Viking and Medieval Scandinavian culture.

Unn the Deep Minded

Also called Aud the Deep Minded, Unn was a daughter of Ketil Flatnose. Unn's husband, Olaf the White, and her son, Thorstein the Red, were both kings and they both died in battles around the same time. She then marries off her daughters to Orkney nobility and heads to Iceland. Unn claimed a great amount of land in Iceland. She acted as the head of her family since the patriarchs had died. She is the first great matriarch of Viking nobility in Iceland. This was uncommon for women in this time. She had a great amount of influence in Iceland, she gave away land to her kinsman, settlers, and freed slaves. This can be seen as charitable acts but the conflicts and inheritance disputes that comes from these gifts cause grief throughout her region of Iceland. Half-brothers or foster brothers clashed three times in conflict in the community. With the conflict between Kjartan and Bolli we see the disintegration of Ketil Flatnose's line. Gudrun, the woman Bolli and Kjartan are in conflict over, is also from the line of Ketil Flatnose.[1] Unn appears in Eirik the Red's saga as well, which shows the great span of her and her family. It tells more detail of Olaf's (called Oleif here) death in Ireland and the betrayal of Thorstein in Scotland. Her story is associated with the founding of not only Iceland but Greenland. Eirik the Red was exiled from Iceland for murders he had committed. The region he was removed from was a northwestern region, around the area of Unn the Deep Minded, but Eirik was born after Unn's death.[2] Unn the Deep Minded was wise in her actions and deserving of the name Deep Minded. She is important because of what she managed to accomplish as a woman as well as her unique bending of the gender roles in Iceland. Also, it is her descendants that give us the stories of the sagas, making her an important character and relevant to the major events in the sagas.

Gudrun Osvifrsdottir

A descendant of Unn the Deep Minded, Gudrun is a major character in the Laxdæla Saga. She is one of the roots to the conflict between brothers Bolli and Kjartan and the most important one. She has her dreams interpreted by a man named Gest. He interprets that these dreams are a reflection of her future marriages. She will be married four times, divorced or widowed for various reasons. She is highly regarded as the most beautiful woman around and it seems that she is in love with Kjartan and that they will be married one day. Her first marriage is to Thorvald, with whom she is unhappy. It is recommended to her that she make him wear a shirt that is cut too low so that she will have grounds to divorce him. She does this and she divorces him. Her second husband, Thord Ingunnarson divorced his wife on similar grounds (her wearing breeches) to be with Gudrun. He was attacked by his ex wife in his sleep, but managed to survive. However, he drowned at sea. It seems that she and Kjartan can finally be together, but Kjartan is leaving for Norway and he refuses to take her with him. This makes her upset. Kjartan serves under Olaf Tryggvason in Norway and when he returns Bolli has married Gudrun and Kjartan has a wife of his own. Gudrun instigates conflict by being passive aggressive with Kjartan's wife, possibly stealing her headdress wedding gift. She instigates conflict between the brothers by pressuring Bolli to fight Kjartan over the issue. Bolli finally gives in and reluctantly goes after and kills Kjartan, which brings great grief to Kjartan's family, especially his father. Bolli is later killed by men avenging Kjartan's death and Gudrun has one more husband to go.[3] She important because she is vital to this entertaining saga, but she also exemplifies how women persuaded men and made their political and social impact in Viking culture.

Emma of Normandy


Source: http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Ee.3.59/bytext

Emma of Normandy was the queen of England during Anglo-Saxon rule. Her husband was King Æthelred the Unready and was
Æthelred's second marriage. Upon Æthelred's death in 1016, Cnut of Denmark conquered England. Cnut took Emma as his second wife in an effort to show legitimacy of his reign.[4] During Cnut's reign, he became king of Denmark, England, and Norway, creating a North Sea Empire. This made Emma the Queen of Denmark, England, and Norway collectively. Her role in the North Sea Empire, especially in England was large. Two of her sons, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor would later become the king of England. They were each from a different husband. Two of her stepsons, Harald Harefoot and Edmund Ironside, also became kings of England. They were also each from a different husband. Her grand-nephew also became king of England, William the Conqueror. King Edmund fought against his stepfather Cnut in a failed effort to take control of England. The marriage of Cnut and Emma allowed for the safety of her sons by Æthelred. But only sons of Cnut and Emma could rule England which made Harthacnut the heir upon Cnut's death. Harthacnut was busy in Denmark when Cnut died, so his brother, Harald Harefoot, claimed England in his stead. It was not until Harald died that Harthacnut finally became king of England. Neither Harald Harefoot nor Harthacnut had a long reign in England. After their deaths, the English went back to their old dynasty with the son of Æthelred and Emma, Edward the Confessor, as king.[5] Emma's impact as queen of England under the reign of two different dynastic kings is important because it sets up the events of 1066. She shapes the English throne for over 60 years, making her a very important Viking woman.

Sigrid the Haughty

external image 220px-Sigrid_and_olaf.jpg
Source: http://home.online.no/~olhov/olavtry.html
Sigrid the Haughty and Olaf Tryggvason.
By Erik Werenskiold
From the 1899 Norwegian translation of Heimskringla. Public domain in the United States because it was published before 1909.

Sometimes called Sigrid the Proud, Sigrid was the Queen of Sweden. Later, she became the Queen of Denmark and England collectively. She is most well known as the force behind the demise of Olaf Tryggvason. Her first husband was Erik the Victorious, the king of Sweden. After his death, she was courted by Olaf Tryggvason. The condition of their marriage was that she would have to convert to Christianity, which she refused to do. Olaf struck Sigrid in the face and broke off their engagement, leaving her extremely resentful towards him.[6] Her second husband was Sven (also spelled Svein or Sweyn) Forkbeard, who was king of Denmark and later king of England. She continually urged Sven to go to war with Olaf under the excuse that Olaf married Sven's sister without his permission. Sigrid manipulated Sven (much like Gudrun manipulated Bolli in the Laxardal Sagas) by saying things like "None of your ancestors would have stood for that." Pressured by Sigrid, Sven finally gave in. He allied himself with his brother-in-law, King Olaf of Sweden and Earl Eirik against Tryggvason.[7] The Confederation against Tryggvason greatly outnumbered his forces at the Battle of Svold, but he fought valiantly nonetheless. Upon realizing that there was no hope for victory, Tryggvason dove off his flagship, the Long Serpent, into the sea. He was never seen again after this battle and it is widely believed that he drowned in the sea. Some believed he survived, but either way, he never returned to Norway.[8]
  1. ^ Smiley, Jane. The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin. 2000. "The Saga of the People of Laxardal."pgs. 270-272.
  2. ^ Smiley, Jane. The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin. 2000. "Eirik the Red's Saga." pgs. 653-656.
  3. ^ Smiley, Jane. The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin. 2000. "The Saga of the People of Laxardal."
  4. ^ McDonald, R. Andrew and Somerville, Angus. The Viking Age: A Reader. University of Toronto Press. Toronto: 2010. "Knut the Great and the North Sea Empire." p. 447.
  5. ^ Sawyer, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press. New York: 1997. pgs. 176-177.
  6. ^ Sawyer, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press. New York: 1997. p. 229.
  7. ^ McDonald, R. Andrew and Somerville, Angus. The Viking Age: A Reader. University of Toronto Press. Toronto: 2010. "Olaf Tryggvason at the Battle of Svold. pgs. 204-206.
  8. ^ McDonald, R. Andrew and Somerville, Angus. "Olaf Tryggvason at the Battle of Svold. pgs. 210-214.