Before there was Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey, Babe Didrikson Zaharias or Joan of Arc, the toughest female in history was … Brynhild of Birka? Yes, the legends of the female Viking may be true as DNA tests on the remains in the Swedish grave of what was considered to be a high-ranking Viking warrior show that this Eric was an Erika and the sword, arrows and other artifacts buried with her honored her rank and heroics on the battlefield. (FYI – her name is not known but ‘Brynhild’ would be appropriate since it’s an actual Viking girl’s name meaning ‘fighter in chain mail’.)
According to a new study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, the grave containing this 10th century skeleton was discovered in Birka, Sweden, in the 1880s and was assumed to be the remains of a Viking male. In addition to the skeleton, sword and arrows, the grave contains the skeletons of two horses and what appeared to be a game board and game pieces that were believed to have been used in planning battle strategies – things that only a military leader would have.
But a woman? Archeologist and study co-author Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of the Uppsala University in Sweden knows what you Viking fanatics are thinking (or possibly hoping):
“What we have studied was not a valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to be a woman.”
In Norse mythology, the valkyries (which means ‘chooser of the slain’) are females who pick which warriors will die in battle and which of the dead will accompany them to Valhalla. The valkyries were also believed to hang out with the living warriors, especially the battle heroes. Hedenstierna-Jonson says the DNA analysis shows that this tall warrior (5 feet 6 inches/ 1.67 m) was a real woman who died in battle in her 30s. While there have been a handful of Viking women found buried with swords before and many researchers doubted that women were ever Viking warriors, this is the first that can truly be identified as both a warrior and a leader, as Hedenstierna-Jonson points out (with just a hint of archeologist snark):
“This image of the male warrior in a patriarchal society was reinforced by research traditions and contemporary preconceptions. Hence, the biological sex of the individual was taken for granted, Our results caution against sweeping interpretations based on archaeological contexts and preconceptions.”
While this woman’s battles are over, the battle to prove that there were more female Vikings continues, since skeptics have questioned whether the bones in the DNA analysis were the same ones from the grave.
Perhaps Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson should start taking names and call in the valkyries.