Women of power in the Viking Age

One of the things about trying to understand the Cailleach is an attempt to understand the role of women in ancient societies that may have had something to do with the Cailleach. Thus, this article, written by Marianne Moen and titled, “Women in the Viking Age then and now,” caught my attention rather quickly. The article, to briefly summarize, suggests that perhaps the greater degree of sexist and chauvinistic thinking toward women exists now, among archaeologists (and thus the cultures they operate from and within), rather than during the Viking Age. Moen raises some very valid examples of how many are misinterpreting the available evidence in order to fit Viking Age Scandinavian society into a gender framework that it quite likely doesn’t belong within.

At one point, I felt like Moen might have been suggesting that men did not hold the ultimate power in Viking Age society, that it was shared equally with women (this is not, in fact, what she said – it just seemed like it during my first reading of the article) – this would be contradicted by the existence of kings, particularly those kings responsible for the conversion of their people to Christianity; which seems to have largely taken place due to political and economical advantages, at least at the level of the ruling elite. I don’t flinch at all when it comes to the idea that Scandinavian women during the Viking Age were more than meek housewives, content to see to the day-to-day order of the household. Oh, I believe they did this; but I have also come to understand that women did a great deal more than this. At the religious level, it would seem one of the very few beings credited with being able to outwit Odin is his wife. At least two goddesses (one Vanir, the other Jotun) were associated with battle. And, in all honesty, these are based from the stories recorded by Christians for Christians – who knows what from the actual body of religious stories was withheld by the chroniclers at the time? From the Tune Stone, for example, we can see that women in pre Viking Age Scandinavia also had rights and freedoms that would continue into the Viking Age … this interests me because it does support the idea that women could hold real power among the people who existed in Scandinavia before the Viking Age.

At the same time, though, it should be remembered that the decision to convert at the national level was made by men in what must have ultimately been a patriachy. I cannot see any Heathen woman from that period, growing up with the relative equality in society that no other Christian, European woman dared to dream of, would vote to embrace a religion that would relegate them to a level of chattel (especially considering that this same religion sets up the conditions in the Victorian Era that the author cites as the basis for current sexist views in Scandinavian archeology). I certainly cannot see any of the ‘stronger’ women from that society committing themselves to something like this. What this suggests to me is that, although Scandinavian women in the Viking Age did enjoy a much greater degree of equality than what many scholars would have us believe, the society itself still awarded the highest powers to the men in nearly all cases. Or, perhaps the state-level conversions represent the culmination of a gradual trend toward patriarchy?

Considering my thoughts about a connection between Odin and the Cailleach, I think this supports the possibility that the early peoples living in northern Europe, not just the British Isles, may have regarded women as being much more equal to men in society than what would eventually become a more patriarchal attitude that may or may not have been influenced by the advent of Roman expansion and, eventually, Christian proselytizing. To survive the harsh conditions of northern Europe at the time, it’s conceivable that people living there would have had to pull together and work in partnerships. As is later evidenced by the Viking Age, effective leaders could either keep their people alive, or lead them to their deaths in the middle of a dark winter or poorly chosen battle – leadership roles would have been more sensibly chosen by virtue of ability and experience, rather than gender. Also a note for modern scholarship: while it is true that the number of discovered burial sites for the upper class contain more men than women, it is also true that just because it hasn’t been discovered doesn’t mean it does not exist … and as Moen points out, the burial sites for powerful women, who left behind wealthy family members (because someone has to pay for the ships, boats, slaves and other grave goods) have already been found.

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