At Miklagaard – which some claim to have provided the visual landmarks of Asgard, the home of the Norse gods – it was possible for the Vikings to acquire wealth and employment. Indeed, the Vikings made up the vast majority of the Varangian Guard, protectors of the Byzantine emperors between the 10th and 14th centuries. In the early 11th century, one included Harald Hadrada, a name more famous for losing the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Other guards may have been more terse – in an eave of the great Hagia Sophia mosque in Constantinople, for example. , the 9th century runic graffiti says the equivalent of “Halfan was here”.
Kershaw’s findings are referenced in Dr. Cat Jarman’s recent book, River Kings, a fascinating piece of archaeological detective work that further explores these links. The book begins with the discovery of an ornate bead found in the tomb of a warrior from the time of the “Great Heathen Army” in Repton, Derbyshire, and reverses the engineering of the journey back to its source in the Gujarat, India. Although the Vikings may not even have arrived in India, this underscores the idea that not only was the East open to the Norse, but that it was a region with which they proactively and intensively engaged.
According to Kershaw, the movements of the Vikings to the East recast them as “part of a globalized web linking empires”. Such a large business operation would require the support of entire societies, in turn suggesting a much more central role for women in this “pillage economy”. Kershaw notes that so far, “we have resisted the idea of women going with the Vikings to the West”, seeing it more as “a male event”.
Yet the longevity of the Vikings is said to have been sustained by the “almost industrial” work of women in the creation of veils, clothing, ropes and other vital materials. Although it may seem prosaic, it was integral to the success of the Vikings, and there is also the suggestion that women were more directly involved in seafaring, exploration and warfare during this period. For example, Beyond the Northlands by Dr Eleanor Barraclough traces the journey of the Vikings from the far reaches of the Holy Land to the Americas through the ancient sagas. In doing so, she spotlights a wide range of female protagonists, including Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir – known as víðförla (“well-traveled”) – a woman with “light brown hair” and “huge eyes” who is credited with to be the first European to give birth in North America. Gudrid would later undertake a pilgrimage to Rome after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, and in Barraclough’s estimation she is the “true hero of the Vinland sagas”.
Alternatively, there is the ferocious Freydís Eiríksdóttir, who, in the face of native assailants in The Saga of Erik the Red, “dropped his sark and smote him in the chest with a naked sword”. Such a sight ensured that the attackers “rushed to their boats and fled.” Although more tenuously, the Eddas include the Valkyrie, an elite force of female soldiers who select war-dead Vikings who deserve to join them in Valhalla. Recently resurrected in the 2017 Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok, their presence perhaps presupposes women’s involvement in warfare.