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A recent discussion has arisen over the identification of the skeleton in grave Bj 581at Birka in Sweden as female. The grave contains several weapons and other items associated with ‘warrior’ burials and has, until now, been interpreted as a high-ranking male warrior. DNA analysis shows that the skeleton is certainly female. Opinion in the academic world is divided on whether this means that the woman was a warrior herself, and the wider implications for the existence (or not) of female warriors in Viking society. Gareth Williams, Curator of Early Medieval Coinage, British Museum

In Scandinavian folklore a shield-maiden is a female warrior. Shield maidens are mentioned sporadically in sagas such as The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek and Saga of the Volsungs but perhaps the most notable account is from the Gesta Danorum, a late 12th/early 13th Century work by Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus. This account describes the legendary Battle of Brávellir, a battle thought to have taken place around AD 770 between Sigurd Hring (King of Sweden) and his uncle, Harald Wartooth (King of Denmark). Among those who fought for Harald were 300 shield-maidens led by Heð.

Now out of the town of Sle, under the captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hakon Cut-cheek came Tummi the Sailmaker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Webiorg was also inspired with the same spirit… In the same throng came Orm of England, Ubbe the Frisian, Ari the One-eyed, and Alf Gotar. Next in the count came Dal the Fat and Duk the Sclav; Wisna, a woman, filled with sternness, and a skilled warrior, was guarded by a band of Sclavs: her chief followers were Barri and Gnizli. .. The maidens I have named, in fighting as well as courteous array, led their land-forces to the battle-field. Thus the Danish army mustered company by company.

Gesta Danorum

The authenticity of this account and the very existence of shield-maidens is debated. There have been archaeological finds and grave goods (such as the Birka female warrior in Sweden) to support the argument that women were fighters but there is no consensus on how to interpret these finds.