Viking women

Last week I taught the Vinland sagas to my summer session students, and just finished grading their essays about them this morning. Almost everyone focused on the character of Freydis, with several of the students making broad generalizations about "women in the sagas" based on her character. So although the course is a literature survey, and not a course on the Vikings, I felt compelled to at least give a few comments on women in the Viking and early medieval period. The students had somehow gotten the impression (probably from The Saga of the Faeroe Islanders, which we also read) that women in the Viking Age were really degraded (I guess I did not emphasize enough that its misogynistic attitude probably reflected the view of its medieval redactor).

So today I launched into a mini discussion of the non-saga evidence we have about the role of women, and ended up talking a lot about Eddic poetry, especially the heroic poems that comprise the latter half of the Poetic Edda.

Of course those poems are not a perfect reflection of the role of women either, and in fact seem to be more metaphors for our psyche than accurate cultural reflections. Afterall, Gunnar gets through the wall of flame not because of his skill as a warrior, but because he has no fear.  The fact that a beautiful woman is trapped on the other side is an allegory for reaching ones objective, and is not necessarily an indication of typical gender dynamics. Rather the lesson is that we all have to face our fear, straight on.

Just the other day I was correcting someone who was spouting that tired cliche of Vikings being scared of falling off the edge of the earth. I said, nope, they were not a culture defined by fear, for neither the women, or the men.


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