«Birkebeinerne», painting by Knud Bergslien (1869)
'The Birchlegs', painting by Norwegian artist Knud Bergslien from 1869

The viking warrior – more than a warrior

The Viking myth personified: Rollo of Normandy, one of the characters in the TV series ‘Vikings’ with fellow warriors. Photo: History

"The warrior has the most emblematic role of the entire Viking era."

"If you close your eyes and say ‘Viking Age’, most will envision a warrior. A male warrior with an axe and shield, and of course, with a beard."

"We aim to expand this understanding and try to spread the research-based understanding of what the Viking Age is. To do this, we need to place Viking warriors within a broader cultural context, showing that they have multiple dimensions."

The words above belong to Marianne Moen, principal investigator of the Nordic research project Making a Warrior: The Social Implications of Viking Age Martial Ideologies.

She notes that the Viking Age is a phenomenon in popular science that lives its own life outside academia.

“The popular Viking Age is the one that everyone knows and relates to, and that is used actively as part of the cultural heritage in the Nordic countries. In the Making a Warrior project, our goal is to problematise this representation and try to convey the research-based understanding of what the Viking Age is. For us, it becomes natural to focus on the warrior, as everyone has an idea of this figure. This makes it also very important, as it is the biggest peg we have to hang the Viking Age on.”

Archaeologist: Project leader Marianne Moen is one of several archaeologists in the project, which also includes ethnologists, historians, and religion scholars.

Not a fixed identity

Moen describes their aim to analyse Viking warriors from a broader cultural context, examining the various roles these warriors played in their societies.

“Being a warrior was not a fixed identity. You're not born a warrior. Nor do you end life as a warrior unless you die in battle. You grew up as a child, then became youth, perhaps a husband, father, and farmer. Then you returned as a warrior, and later something entirely different. It's these transitions that are interesting and what we aim to analyze, and we believe this will contribute to a more nuanced portrayal of Viking warriors. Instead of clichéd and one-dimensional warriors, we can see how identities were fluid and changed over time.”

Moen emphasizes that this approach challenges a modern popular cultural trend.

“It's undeniable that far-right extremism has had a complicated relationship with the Viking Age. It comes in waves, and a long time after World War II, Viking warriors were not much discussed. Then, the Viking Age was more about processes, trade, and more peaceful activities. But in the last 30 years, this warrior myth has begun to re-emerge, partly with neo-Nazi groups using Viking symbolism, leading the academic world to respond with more focus and problematization. I find it a bit uncomfortable to address, but at the same time necessary.”

Political research

Moen stresses that this approach has a political dimension.

“I believe that my field, archaeology, is political – no matter how you look at it. And when I say this, many shake their heads. But it's a fact that the stories we tell about the past are actively used in society to support national narratives and identities. It's not necessarily wrong, but we must be aware that it happens.

“There's no doubt that cultural heritage is hugely important to people. And it's very political. And that comes with a huge responsibility. Because the stories we tell about the past automatically exclude other stories about the past. Thus, it becomes a political choice. In my career, I've had a very feminist approach to knowledge production, and I'm often asked if that isn't very political. And then the answer is 'Yes, but it's just as political not to be'. Whatever you do, when you produce knowledge about a shared past, you're making political choices all the time.”

Female warriors

Viking mythology often portrays a male-dominated Viking world. According to Moen, there's disagreement about the role women played in the Viking Age.

“It really depends on who you ask. But that in itself might be a clear answer. There are different views, and I believe that the understanding of women's roles has been nuanced over the last 40 years, but we're not done with that conversation, and we probably won't be for a while.”

The so-called Birka Woman was found with weapons in her grave on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren, west of Stockholm. She was buried in the mid-10th century and is often cited as an example of a female Viking warrior.

Viking warriors are often portrayed very macho, typically associated with men. At the same time, research suggests the existence of female warriors, the so-called shield-maidens. What can you tell us about them?

“There's no doubt that there are graves with female warriors. Not many, but they exist. It entirely depends on how you define 'warrior'. For instance, in Norway, there are several graves where women are buried with axes, often the type of axes that could be either a tool or a weapon.”

“At the same time, I'm quite convinced that there weren't as many of them as there were male warriors. It wasn't necessarily common, but neither was it unacceptable. But that in itself nuances the story of the Viking warrior. Suddenly, the longship isn't just full of men with beards. And that would have changed the dynamics and interactions within the warrior group. And that's one of the aspects of the warrior role we want to examine.”

Facts: Making a Warrior

Project: Making a Warrior: the Social Implications of Viking Age Martial Ideologies

Project leader: Marianne Moen, Section Manager at the Department of Archaeology, University of Oslo

Participants from Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden

Funded by NordForsk through NOS-HS Project Grants

Project period: 2023 – 2026