A friend of mine recently asked me who the coolest Viking lady was. I got so excited thinking about this, that I decided to write an entire blog post about cool Viking ladies who really float my long-ship. I have also put a handy reading list at the bottom, where you can find the best versions of all the sagas/poems I mention.
Please note: a number of these ladies probably didn’t exist or weren’t strictly Vikings (as they didn’t all do the raiding thing), but they are all medieval Norse people!
My favourite non-historical cool Viking lady has to be Hervör, who is one of the protagonists of The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek and of the poem The Waking of Angantyr.
Hervör wore men’s clothing and adopted the male name Hjörvard so she could go raiding and pillaging with impunity, which is pretty darn cool. The most impressive part of her story takes place in The Waking of Angantyr, in which Hervör sails her crew to a haunted island to retrieve her father’s magic sword, Tyrfing, from his grave mound. There is an epic stand-off between Hervör and the ghosts of her father and uncles, in which they tell her repeatedly that a woman could not wield a sword as mighty and dangerous as Tyrfing. I won’t spoil the ending, but honestly, it’s a great read.
Unn the Deep-Minded
This one is an actually-probably-historical cool Viking lady, and probably my all time favourite. Although not strictly a Viking (as she didn’t go a-raiding), Unn, sometimes called Aud just for confusion, was a bad-ass old Norse lady (and Old Norse lady). After the death of her husband and all her sons, Unn had a ship built and sailed from the Hebrides with a crew of men under her command to Iceland, where she founded a successful settlement and became a respected female chieftain. She was probably pretty elderly by Viking standards when she did this, as its recorded that she married off a load of grandchildren at various points along the journey. Also ‘the Deep-Minded’ is such a great epithet. You can read more about her in The Saga of the People of Laxardal, in which she is a founder of one of the main settlements.
This is another legendary female warrior who probably didn’t really exist. Brynhild was a Valkyrie, who are mythological beings, sort of like immortal war angels, who fall in love with particular warriors and protect them in battle.
Brynhild was also the first love of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, who you might have heard of, and is an important character in The Saga of the Volsungs – the saga about Sigurd and his family. This Valkyrie was a stone-cold badass. After Sigurd is tricked into betraying her and falling for another woman, Brynhild stabs Sigurd while asleep in bed next to his new bride, and then flings herself onto his burial pyre so they can be together for eternity. Admittedly, it’s not the kind of heroism you would want to emulate, but it is a pretty cool story. Don’t cheat on Valkyries, even if you are cursed by a witch: it never ends well. There is also a great poem about Brynhild’s death called Brynhild’s Journey to Hell, where she stops on her way to the underworld to argue with a giantess about the appropriateness of her reaction to Sigurd’s betrayal. Surprisingly, she comes out of the debate looking quite reasonable.
Gudrun was Sigurd’s second love and the above-mentioned bride in bed with her new husband when he is stabbed to death by his ex. So, Gudrun’s mother bewitched Sigurd to make him forget Brynhildr and fall in love with Gudrun, who he then marries. Once Sigurd is killed by Brynhild, life becomes pretty shit for Gudrun, as she and Sigurd actually had quite a good relationship. She is forced to marry a guy called Atli (who is probably meant to be Atilla the Hun!), who happened to have killed her entire family earlier in the story. Now, here is where Gudrun shows some bad-assery of her own and really sheds light on the kind of women Sigurd tended to go for. Unlike Brunhild, Gudrun decides to play the long game in terms of her revenge on the man who has pissed her off. After being married to Atli for a bit and having had two kids with him…she kills both her sons, has them baked into pies and then serves them to her husband. Still not yet satisfied, she then burns down his mead hall to kill everyone instead before attempting to drown herself. It’s all pretty ghastly. However, there are also couple of really quite romantic poems attributed to Gudrun about her grief over Sigurd’s death in the Poetic Edda (basically the definitive collection of Old Norse legendary poetry). Really, this is about as romantic as Old Norse poetry gets.
My love of Freydis rests on a single scene that appears in one version of her story. Freydis was the daughter of Erik the Red, famous for founding the Viking settlement in Greenland, and the sister of Leif Erikson, thought to be the first European to discover America, so she was probably a historical person. She appears in both Erik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders. In both stories, she is the only woman in a group of Greenlanders who discover and settle North America, but her portrayal is pretty different in each.
I really like her in Erik the Red’s Saga. When she is eight months pregnant, the camp is attacked by Native Americans. Lots of the men are frightened of them and their strange weapons, but Freydis tells them all to stop being cowards. She then whips out her tit and slaps it repeatedly with a sword, screaming nonsense, which terrifies the attackers so much that they flee.
However, for the sake of fairness, I should mention that in the Saga of the Greenlanders, she is a pretty dreadful woman who murders the wives of her business partners with an axe while they’re sleeping, basically because she gets jealous of their longhouse.
This Gudrun was probably a historical person and is one of the main characters of The Saga of the People of Laxardal, in which Unn the Deep-Minded also features.
Gudrun is famous for being the most beautiful woman in Iceland and is married four times in total, with all her marriages ending in unfortunate circumstances. The central drama of the saga is a love triangle between Gudrun and a pair of foster brothers, Kjartan and Bolli, that divides Laxardal.
Gudrun prefers Kjartan out of the two brothers – since while both brothers are pretty great, Bolli is just slightly less impressive than Kjartan. However, Kjartan ends up going on a Viking expedition and leaving Gudrun at home and she is deeply unimpressed. To get back at him, she marries his foster brother, Bolli. This decision leads to the death of quite a large number of people.
Cool Norse Lady Reading List
The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek – available in PDF form here
The Waking of Angantyr, The Lays of Gudrun, Brynhild’s Journey to Hel – all in this translation of the Poetic Edda
The Saga of the People of Laxardal – in this really epic compilation of the Sagas of Icelanders
Both Erik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders can be found here, in the Vinland Sagas