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Sun Oct 27, 2013 at 06:00 AM PDT

Vikings: Women in Norse Society

by Jorybu

Guerber, H. A. - 1909
The Ride of the Valkyrs
John Charles Dollman - 1909 hat tip to Badjuh for the correction
Through most of the cultures throughout history, little is mentioned of the roles of women in society, and many of the records that do exist paint a picture of that society with limitations placed on women based on gender with little rights, or little room to accumulate power or wealth.   Yet the written records of the Norse provide a surprising contrast to that for a society where masculinity was revered above all.  In her article on Gender Roles in Viking society, Caitlin Larson, states that:
When reading these epic sagas and the myths we see women portrayed in a variety of ways.  Some Viking women went overseas and traveled with the men and took part in the killing, fighting alongside them, while others followed a more feminine role with an image of fertility and dedication to the home.
Brynhild was one such woman whose adventures were recorded in the Völsunga saga.  A woman so revered that she rested equal upon a bale with Sigurd, and who interacted with giants, and gods.  
After the death of Brynhild were made two bales, one for Sigurd, and that was first burned; but Brynhild was burned on the other, and she was in a chariot hung about with goodly hangings. And so folk say that Brynhild drave in her chariot down along the way to Hell, and passed by an abode where dwelt a certain giantess.  

Brynhild: “Nay, blame me naught,
Bride of the rock-hall,
Though I roved a warring
In the days that were;
The higher of us twain
Shall I ever be holden
When of our kind
Men make account

Despite the warrior characterization shown in the excerpt above, the majority of the text on Brynhild is with regard to her legendary wit, which she matches with the giantess throughout the tale. But Brynhild isn’t the only female in the saga renown for her ferocity and wit.  The tale of Gudrun gives mention of her own prowess.
Gudrun went down unto the sea whenas she had slain Atli, and she cast herself therein, for she was fain to end her life: but nowise might she drown. She drave over the firths to the land of King Jonakr, and he wedded her, and their sons were Sorli, and Erp, and Hamdir, and there was Swanhild, Sigurd’s daughter, nourished: and she was given to Jormunrek the Mighty. Now Bikki was a man of his, and gave such counsel to Randver, the king’s son, as that he should take her; and with that counsel were the young folk well content
Emil Doepler - 1905
Much as was the case with Brynhild, despite mention of slaying Atli, Gudrun’s council to her son, and thus her words and wit in motivating them for vengeance is the illustration provided of her power. This would also be a theme in the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, where the intelligence and wit of the female, beyond just her beauty,  was a quality that Ragnar sought in his second wife Áslaug.
The saga begins with the childhood misfortunes of Áslaug, daughter of Sigurðrthe dragon-slayer, a character introduced briefly as an infant in Völsunga saga…. Ragnarr’s men catch sight of Kráka, the foster-daughter of cruel and avaricious peasants living in southern Norway. Kráka is really Áslaug Sigurðardóttir (or Brynhildardóttir), brought there by her foster-father Heimir, who was murdered by the peasants for his treasure. Despite the peasant-woman’s attempts to hide her beauty, Kráka-Áslaug is astonishingly lovely, as Ragnarr’s men report to him. Ragnarr summons her to his ship; in an attempt to discover whether she is as clever as she is beautiful, he sets conditions as to how she must come to him:

“I want her to be neither clothed nor unclothed, neither fed nor unfed, and she may not come by herself nor shall anyone come with her’(Ragnars saga 1906–10, 124). Kráka fulfils his demand by going to Ragnarr’s ship, wearing a fishing-net and covered by her hair which extends down to her ankles. She is accompanied by her faithful dog, and has licked a leek whose smell is apparent on her breath.”

Much like Gudrun mentioned above, Áslaug would play a major role in the fame of her sons, as the motivation behind their own viking and their vengeance for the execution of Ragnar, who had he listened to his wise wife, Áslaug, would have not met his fate in the snake pit.  These are just a few examples of powerful women seen in the sagas, but there really are many more. While these records are an interesting example in their own right, the archaeological record provides evidence of women whose wealth and status were beyond what was expected in a male dominant society.  

Caitlin Larson writes that :

For those women who were buried as higher ranking individuals, the grave goods that they were buried with can help indicate what parts women were playing in the Viking culture. One of the most well-known and richest Viking ship burials is the Oseberg ship burial, which many people do not realize was a burial for a woman…. The idea of the ferocious Viking women is written all over the myths of the Vikings.

One such story is that of Fraydis who was said to be the daughter of Erik the Red, in which she travels to Vinland and stands and fights alongside her family (Jesch 1991). As well as the stories of the Valkyrie who fight with Odin as well as mortal men (Page 2004). In the archaeological record we see the appearance of women who were buried with weapons, although in very few. One example is the grave found at Gerdrup, Denmark, this particular burial contained the bodies of both a man and a woman both buried with knifes. The significant part of this grave is the presence of a spear with the female (Figure 5). This spear has been argued to have been used as a weapon, as well as seen as a possible staff used for magic purposes (Gardeła 2009).

These archaeological finds are important evidence that women in Norse society could through their acts move farther up the social order than possible in many cultures of the time.  These burials provide material evidence that the heroines of Norse society were not just stories from the oral tradition, but real women, who held real power derived from their own acts and skills rather than just from their lineage or marital status.  Ms. Larson’s article discusses the Norse burial practices and how the object buried with the person was indicative of his or her profession or skill at it.  A famous warrior would be buried with his weapons, and a particularly skilled blacksmith would be buried with his tools. The deceased would carry his or her status with them into the afterlife, which makes these findings all the more amazing.  This pre-christian tradition is important to note when taking into account the burial evidence Ms. Larson provides in her article, where a woman buried with a spear would be indicative of her battle prowess.  

Women in Norse society could also hold important roles within religious practices. Priestesses of the Norse religion were said to practice a form of magic called seiðr.  Magic was an area of Norse society that was the realm of women almost exclusively.  To understand this notion, one must understand the importance of masculinity to the Norse.   Males who were more masculine, were more revered, and free males who were effeminate would have been outcast or shunned.  Magic was seen as being innately feminine thus men practicing it would be taking on a feminine role, something that can be discussed more thoroughly in a future article.  Though, it is important to note, that while seen as a feminine art, Odin is said to have practiced magic as well.  

An excellent resource I have found in learning about Norse society is the Viking Answer lady website.  While not my preferred .edu source, her articles are very well cited.  On magic in Norse society she says this:

“Many of the most important cult practices of the pagan Norse religion occurred in the housewife's domain, where the woman of the house would act as priestess or gyðja (Steffensen, 191). From the time of the ancient Germanic tribes, women were revered by the Northern peoples as being holy, imbued with magical power, and with a special ability to prophecy, a reverence which endured in Scandinavia until the advent of Christianity…. It has been noted that women's magico-religious activities are always associated with their socially accepted and defined roles. Sometimes women's magic and religion reflect their domestic duties, while at other times magic and religion are the antithesis of a woman's socially expected role, acting as an outlet for rage and frustration but abhorred by the men who define a woman's role in their society (Geertz, 126-141). This is likewise true for magic in the world of the Norse woman. The woman of the Viking Age found magic in her spindle and distaff, wove spells in the threads of her family's clothing, and revenged herself on the powerful using the skills of sorcery.
In Ragnar’s Saga, Áslaug uses magic in this way by giving Ragnar a tunic that would make him invulnerable. At his wife’s request, Ragnar wore this tunic on his final voyage to England, a voyage that Áslaug warned him about taking, but the tunic was removed before he was put into the snake pit, thus the spells could not protect him from death.

Now that we have discussed women in roles of power, I feel it is important to discuss the role of women in the most common aspect of Norse life, the family.   While men held the power in society, women had more power in a marriage than one might expect.  Through threat of divorce, a woman could likely hold quite a bit of sway in a relationship.  Krause and Slocum of the University of Texas write:

Though a man might often consort with many concubines under one roof, the legal wife's status was ensured primarily by the 'bride-price' paid by her husband. This bride-price, as well as a gift given by the husband to his wife the day after the wedding, remained the property of the wife. Her father also supplied a dowry for the wedding, but this was repaid if the marriage terminated in divorce. A wife did not take the name of her husband, but generally kept her own patronymic, and was free to ally with either family if they fell into dispute. A wife was as free as a husband to seek divorce. The sagas tell of impotence, the husband wearing an effeminate shirt, and the woman wearing pants as grounds for divorce. The method of divorce was simple: gather witnesses, state the particular complaint, and the intention to divorce. The result seemed to carry no social stigma for either party.
So, while Norse society was primarily male dominant, there is evidence that women could take on a far more active role in warfare, seafaring, and religious practice than in many other European societies.  The sagas tell us of these women powerful in the ways of war and magic. Women who traveled as far as Vinland (believed to be modern day Newfoundland), and women whose wits were as sharp as their spears. While I wouldn’t  go so far as to say that Norse society was progressive in its views on gender, it is exceptional in its written account of heroic women, its archeological evidence, and its views of marital power.   The shieldmaidens of the sagas, as the burial records suggest, would have been extremely rare, but the average Norse woman in the household, would have held more sway through her ability to divorce, and accumulate wealth in the form of a repaid dowry and ownership of the bride-price than almost anywhere in the world. Moreover, men upon marriage handed over the keys literally and symbolically to the woman of the house.     One essay really can’t due this subject justice, so I will plan to explore this topic again sometime in the future, as I run across more evidence and scholarly articles.  

Sun Oct 20, 2013 at 04:00 AM PDT

Vikings: Gamla Uppsala

by Jorybu

Gamla Uppsala ca. 1934
Photo by Oscar Bladh
Ok, first I must admit something to you all.  I have been obsessed with History Channel’s Vikings series since it first aired.  Like most shows that come from Hollywood, it has many historical inaccuracies and uses creative license with both the characters and story of Ragnar Lodbrok. Yet it is finally a show about Vikings that includes information about their lives, religion, and warfare that is not low budget, or completely laughable.   I have written a couple of diaries on history here for Daily Kos, and history has long been my passion.  So, I have decided to start this weekly diary series, discussing the history of the Norse people, and all aspects of their society.  The topic for this first installment will be Uppsala.  

Uppsala, or more properly Gamla Uppsala in modern times, is an enigmatic place with a long history as being sacred among the Norse.  It is thought to be the site of an ancient Norse Temple to the Aesir.  Though, no archaeological evidence exists to back up historical texts regarding the temple.  One of the challenges for Archaeologists in excavating Gamla Uppsala is that much of the area was heavily farmed and the repeated plowing of land likely destroyed quite a bit of the archaeological record. Yet, many treasures have been found there.  

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Mon Feb 11, 2013 at 10:43 AM PST

Papal Resignations: A Brief History

by Jorybu

The surprise announcement by the Holy See this morning, left me stumped on the historical significance of a pope resigning.   I know there had been popes who had given up the office prior to Benedict XVI, but I was unsure of the situations that lead to those resignations.   I decided to explore the history of the events, and to write a diary on these histories to help put the pope's announcement in historical context.  Please follow me below the Kos papal seal for an exploration of the events that have historically lead to papal resignation.

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Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 08:56 PM PST

Why We Should Care About Richard III

by Jorybu

As someone who has always been in love with History, I was fascinated by the archaeological discovery, and subsequent confirmation of the remains of Richard III.  It probably consumed far more of my day than it should have, as I began to ponder the impact of the announcement and to learn about the details of his death.

Richard III has long been a historical sphinx, with questions surrounding his rise to power and his fall in battle to Henry Tudor on 22 August 1485 at the Redemore Plain as it was once called.  While the details of these controversies and the subsequent results of the death of Richard III are far more complex than I can explain in this diary, please follow me below the Kos royal seal so that we may explore some of these things together.  

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In his speech at The Villages yesterday, Paul Ryan attacked the President’s Medicare plan, while trying to convince seniors that his own plan was the solution to save Medicare.  In doing so, he used a qualifier that I had not heard so far this campaign, and I decided to research and fact check Paul Ryan about that claim.  

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Politics isn't just about ideas, or having the right idea.  It is about how you frame those ideas, and sell it to the American people.  Today, in Central Florida, Paul Ryan gave a speech to a Republican audience in The Villages, a 55+ retirement community on the borders of Lake and Marion counties.   As there was no official transcript of this speech, I had to listen and transcribe it myself to analyze the speech.  Follow me below the fleur-de-kos for my analysis.  

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Today, I found myself in a “discussion” with a right winger on Facebook regarding their attack on Obama over the $716 billion dollar figure Republicans are accusing Obama of cutting from Medicare.   I decided to attempt to explain it as best I could.   Follow me below the orange squiggly for my response:

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In the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election, I was one of Obama’s biggest supporters.   I donated several times to his campaign, I watched his rallies stream live on the internet, often staying up late at night to watch daytime events live since I was overseas.   I talked to everyone I knew about why they should vote for Democrats, and listened to their anger over the Bush administration, or their fears of a young charismatic President with little experience, only to talk to them about hope to sway them.  I argued with my Republican friends and family over the leadership qualities of Obama, and wrote diaries on Kos for the first time ever.  I even cried proudly on election night seeing the first black President give his victory speech.  

A lot has certainly changed in three years.   Now, I find myself becoming more and more apathetic about the 2012 Presidential election season.  I have watched my party cave again and again and again on almost every issue I held dear.  I was under the impression President Obama intended to implement his campaign ideas, not barter them away to pass a watered down version of the original legislation-- even before Republicans held the House.

I feel like the Republicans hold us hostage on almost every issue and we let them.  Our elected officials fail to get out the talking points, or fail to sell the ideas to the public properly.   I feel like every news article I read or every show I turn on I hear some Republican out there saying things like:

This is the Obama Downgrade

Rarely do I see the Democratic Party sell their talking points in the media.

Over the years my enthusiasm has seemed wash away with every watered down legislation that is absent of almost all progressive ideas. I see those same Republican friends and family excited about their candidates, and I wonder what happened to my own excitement.  I was a political junkie, but the repeated giving in I have seen from my party over the last three years has caused me to become more cynical than hopeful.  

I have waited for Obama to stand up to the republicans when we had the House and Senate, and push through a more progressive legislation--in fact, still I wait.   I hoped to see a strong Democratic Party as a result of winning the White House, but I find myself thinking we are weaker as a party than I have ever seen. I can’t help to think, that if I, a Democrat, as well as many of the Democrats I know are losing faith in our party to some degree, the appeal to independent voters might be less than before as well.   So, I am trying to think of what would get me excited about the party again, and I decided to write this diary to look for ideas.  

What would get you excited about the election again?  While I have nothing against Biden, would a new Vice Presidential candidate bring more appeal to the ticket in 2012?    What keeps you excited going into the next election?  My fear of some of the Republican candidates certainly makes me want to vote in more Democrats, but I can’t help but feeling I am just voting for the lesser of two evils, rather than a candidate I truly support and believe in.  


As has been widely reported, early voting began Monday morning in Florida.  Being from this state, and knowing the vast importance of the state to both campaigns, I have decided to try and breakdown these numbers to give a better idea of how the state may vote on November 4th.   According to the Florida Secretary of State’s office, "460,939 Floridians have voted early in Florida as of 8:40 a.m. Thursday morning (October 23rd)

That is 460,000 people waited the long lines at the early voting locations out of a total of 10,744,090 registered voters in the state of Florida; meaning that approximately 4% of the state has voted in only three days.  

Now a full county-by-county breakdown of early voters would take entirely too much bandwidth to compile, so I will instead try to address the major counties in the state, based on the population of the counties, which will give a fairly good representation of the entire state

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Over the past week and a half, the message of the McCain/ Palin campaign has sharply turned from issue-oriented to questioning the patriotism and character of Barack Obama.  It seems with each waking morning, I login into my computer and begin to fire up that complex series of tubes, and I log into my favorite news sites to discover another veiled question about Obama’s character has been tossed to a crowd at the newest campaign stop of either John McCain or Sarah Palin.  The news media has begun to question this tactic in past few days, and I have heard it argued by several republican strategists that this it is perfectly acceptable to try to play on the innate fears of those who are unsure about Barack Obama’s background, in hopes of turning this campaign around.  However, the media is not going far enough in their investigations into the potential  dangers of such rhetoric on an increasingly fearful population, or the potential dangers of firing up crowds with hateful thoughts about those that may be different from themselves.  Patriotism walks a fine line, and this line can easily be crossed without taking the proper care with one’s words.  Fear begets more fear, and a few unguarded words can turn one’s patriotism into nationalism, nativism, and even vigilantism.

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