The Role of Women

[ Swedish Amulets of Female Figures ]

Swedish Amulets of Female Figures, Four small amulets showing women in long dress and shawls from Sweden. The first one also has a necklace. She appears to be wearing a jumper over a pleated dress with a train. All have elaborate hairdos, although the last one may be wearing a cap. This figure is carrying a drinking horn and probably represents a valkyrie. the amulets are of bronze and silver; the largest is 3.2 cm high. From left to right they are from Tuna, Uppland, Statens Historiska, Stockholm #10035 Birka, Uppland,Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm [2 and 3] # Bj968 Köping, Öland, Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm #128 , ATA, Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm 10035, Bj968,128

Our knowledge of the role and status of women in Norse society comes from three sources: archaeological finds, medieval literature and laws, and runic inscriptions.

The Icelandic sagas portray an interesting gallery of independent-minded females. Many have interpreted this to show that Viking women were fiercely independent, fully equal to men. But if one reads between the lines, it is clear the real situation differed. The role of women was to marry, produce children, and be mistresses of the household. Marriages were arranged by the fathers or other male relatives, (although the consent of the prospective bride was often sought), and were more about family alliances than love matches, though love often entered into the pacts as well. In "Erik the Red’s Saga", for instance, Gudrid had to obtain the permission of her father-in-law, Erik the Red, to marry Thorfinn Karlsefni [in the "Saga of the Greenlanders" she had to ask Leif], although at the time she was a widow. Widows otherwise seem to have enjoyed more freedom of choice than unmarried women.

Women did not enjoy the same legal status as men. A woman did not inherit as much as her brothers (in some regions not at all if she had brothers). She could not bring a case to the Þingi unless a man undertook the prosecution on her behalf. Remarkably, a woman could file for a divorce, although only for specific reasons. More remarkable yet was that in the case of a divorce, she would be given back the dowry she had brought into the household at the time of the marriage.

There is other evidence that women were not considered as valuable as men. Infanticide, the killing of newborns, was practised almost exclusively on females. Sons were considered of greater value for increasing land holdings, riches, and honour. Daughters had to be married off and provided with dowries. Raising fewer females also meant that fewer babies would be born in the future, saving the household from having too many mouths to feed. This practice was maintained even after Christianization.

Gender roles were clearly defined. Women cooked, cleaned, and did most household chores. They made the clothing for everyone. Production of clothing involved all stages, beginning with the planting and harvesting flax for linen, and nettles and hemp for other types of cloth, as well as raising lambs, sheep, and goats for wool. The fibres had to be spun, woven into cloth, and cut and sewn into garments. The significance of this role is evident in burial patterns. Tools for carding wool and heckling flax, spinning, weaving, and sewing are found almost exclusively in female burials. Women also attended certain farm chores such as milking, haying, and care of the animals.

The women we hear about in the sagas were predominantly from the aristocracy. They were mistresses of large households with many workers, servants, and slaves. They held the keys to the pantries and store rooms, controlling all the household supplies. They probably supervised the heavy work rather than doing it themselves, although they may have led by example. In large households the mistress was assisted by a housekeeper.

With so many men being away on Viking campaigns or trade voyages, it became common that the day-to-day running of a farm or estate was left to the wife of the owner, thus increasing her authority. Rich pagan burials of women, although not as frequent as those of men, show that at least some women yielded significant influence.

We do not know much of the lives of female servants and slaves who frequently took care of the children. Egil Skallagrimsson had a female slave working for him who had been his fostri, or nanny, when he was little. Likewise, we know next to nothing about women in small households, such as the wives and daughters of tenant farmers or small freeholders.

But we can tell that in religious matters women were highly regarded, as evident in the Edda. The name itself may mean ‘great-grandmother.’ In "Erik the Red’s Saga" the pagan rites undertaken to stop a famine are led by a woman, with the help of Gudrid. When Christianity came to the Norse world, women seem to have been more open to Christianity than men. It is not a coincidence that the first church in Greenland was built by Thjodhild, wife of Erik the Red and mother of Leif and Thorsten.


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