Women – Key figures in medieval Sweden

In one section of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm representing the Viking period, Swedish women are represented in one individual display case by a great number of keys found in various archaeological digs. Keys are everyday and familiar objects, that any of us carry with us or use as a part of our daily routines. These seemingly mundane objects carried a lot more meaning during the Viking Age as the title of the display case already suggests: “The woman – a key person.”

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Viking-age keys on display at the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm.

In the Viking Age keys were a symbol of power. When a woman got married, she was given the key(s) of the house by her husband. They symbolized her new status as a married woman. She proudly wore the bronze keys in full sight on her clothing.

The Edda, an ancient book of Scandinavian mythology, clearly states that the key hanging on a chain belonged to the costume of women. When Thor’s hammer gets stolen by the giants, he disguises himself as a woman wearing a bridal gown with a bunch of rattling keys.

‘Let’s tie on Thor a bridal head-dress,
let him wear the great necklace of the Brisings.

‘Let keys jingle by his side
and women’s clothing fall down over his knees,
and on his breast display jewels,
and we’ll put a pointed head-dress properly on his head!’

The Poetic Edda, tr. Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 95.

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Key found in Birka, the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm.

The exhibition also displays a key (left) and other objects from the grave of a woman who died in Birka and who has been identified through these grave finds as ‘the princess from Birka.’ Birka was an important Viking trade centre between the 8th and 10th century and is regarded as Sweden’s oldest town.

Among the grave finds of the princess from Birka were some brooches shaped in the form of horses, rectangular brooches with inlaid enamel, a collection of glass beads, rock crystal, silver and the fragments of a Thor’s hammer ring. Seeing that jewellery you can just imagine the high status of the woman that they once belonged to. The Thor hammer ring provides a clue regarding her religious affiliation. She probably wore this ring to give her protection from the pagan deity Thor, who was known as the protector of mankind.

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Artist’s impression of ‘the princess of Birka,’ the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm

An artist’s impression of how the princess of Birka looked like in life (left in the picture) and a reconstruction of her interment (right in the picture). She was buried sitting upright surrounded by various grave goods. A comb, a knife, two whetstones, a case, a glass smoother, and a whalebone board were all retrieved from her grave. All these objects invoke the idea of a wealthy woman, a stately and noble lady.

A closer look at the drawing of the princess (left in the picture) shows the key hanging visibly at waist height. Notice also that the artist adorns her dress with a beaded necklace and two horse-shaped brooches. In her right hand, she is holding a glass smoother … ready to make a toast? All these items suggest that this woman had a high status and thus had power. Perhaps, she was a businesswoman in the medieval trade town of Birka.

The princess of Birka was not the only powerful woman in medieval Sweden. Another example of such a woman is the so-called ‘ruler from Öland.’

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Artist’s impression of ‘the ruler of Öland,’ the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm

The ruler of Öland’s grave was found in Köpingsvik on the island of Öland. This woman was a so-called völva, a pagan seeress. We know this because among this woman’s grave goods was an 82 cm long wand of iron with bronze details and a unique model of a house on the top. The noun völva means  ‘wand carrier’ or  ‘carrier of a magic staff.’ Furthermore, she was dressed in a  bear pelt. She was laid to rest in a ship together with both human and animal sacrifices, a practice that was not uncommon in that period. Slaves, so-called thralls, could be sacrificed during a funeral to serve their master, or, in this case their mistress, in the after life.

Ok inn síðasta dag boðsins var Unnr flutt til haugs þess, er henni var búinn; hon
var lǫgð í skip í hauginum, ok mikit fé var í haug lagt með henni; var eptir þat aptr
kastaðr haugrinn.

Laxdæla saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 5 (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1934), 13.

And on the final day of the feast Unnr [i.e. Auðr the Deep-Minded] was carried to the grave mound that was made for her. She was laid in a ship in the mound, and much treasure was laid with her in the mound, and after that the mound was closed up.

My translation.

The quote above, taken from Laxdæla saga, is a good example of the funeral of a wealthy and powerful matriarch, Aud or Unn the Deep-Minded. It illustrates both funeral practices discussed briefly above. Like the princess of Birka, Aud was buried with ‘much treasure,’ and similar to the ruler of Öland, Aud was ‘laid in a ship.’

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Reconstructions of Viking-age female clothes, the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm.

While the princess of Birka had power because of her status and wealth, the ruler of Öland had power because of her knowledge. It seems that knowledge and wisdom were held in higher regard, and, as such, the ruler of Öland would have the most authority. It appears that Aud possessed both. Laxdæla saga highly commended her for her wisdom and informs us that she was sought out for her sound counsel and could foresee her own death. Traits often associated with the völva. On the other hand, Aud had a fairly high status as the daughter of a Norwegian hersir (‘lord’) and the mother of one. Furthermore, she was married to Olaf the White, the first Viking king of Dublin. When these three men came to pass, she led her family, followers and slaves from Scotland to the safe shores of Iceland. As befitting a matriarch to her family, Aud arranged the marriages of her 6 granddaughters to powerful and noble men stretching from the Orkney and Faroe islands to Iceland. There, she took a vast piece of land to call her own. Once settled in Hvammur, she divided her land among her followers and freed slaves. Traits resembling those found in a businesswoman and a philanthropist.

 

As Aud and the other women’s stories illustrate, Viking-age women’s authority and power sometimes shows in small everyday artefacts—keys, for example, rather than a golden crown—and sometimes we have to look at their actions to recognize their potential. But these powerful women are scarce, both in literary and archaeological sources.

If you like to find out more about Viking-age women, do have a look at the online exhibition Viking Women constructed by the World-Tree Project. This project aims to provide an interactive digital archive for the teaching and study of the Vikings and as such as has a wide variety of interesting resources for both the Viking scholar and enthusiast alike.

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