Danish woman-warrior Alvild fought like a man and loved a man

Even in our age of intense commitment to gender equality, many societies still don’t give women equal opportunities to fight and die in wars. The long history of men-only military conscription continues to the present even in the United States. In ancient Denmark, however, some women reportedly rejected women’s privileged lives and became warriors, as tough or tougher than men-warriors. But Danish women-warriors might have differed from men-hating Amazon women-warriors. The ancient Danish woman-warrior Alvild loved a man — another Danish warrior named Alf.

Alvild was the daughter of Sigvarth, King of Götaland. King Sigvarth supervised his beautiful daughter closely to protect her from men amorously interested in her. He even gave her two poisonous snakes to be her pets and guardians. Within historical disparagement of men’s sexuality, men’s penises have been figured as snakes. In reality, men are much more enjoyable companions for women than are snakes. Nonetheless, King Sigvarth decreed that any man who attempted to get into Alvild’s bedroom and was repelled by the snakes would be decapitated and have his head displayed on a stake. That’s the ultimate form of castration.

King Sigard’s son Alf ardently loved Alvild. Alf had a muscular physique, a high spirit, and the allure of being a Viking / pirate. But he had even more attractiveness as a man:

He had been bestowed with remarkably beautiful hair, locks of such radiance that his tresses were thought to shine with silver.

{ Cuius etiam insignem candore cesariem tantus come decor asperserat, ut argenteo crine nitere putaretur. }[1]

Alf in this way wasn’t merely valued instrumentally, as have been so many men throughout history. Attempting to penetrate Alvild’s bedroom, Alf wrapped himself in a bloody animal pelt to encourage the snakes to attack him quickly and violently. He was ready to be attacked:

Grasping a bar of red-hot steel with tongs, he thrust it down the viper’s gaping throat and laid it lifeless on the floor. Next, as the other swept forward in a sinuous whirl, he destroyed it by hurling his spear between its open jaws.

{ torridam calibem forcipe comprehensam hiantis uipere faucibus immersit eamque exanimem prostrauit. Anguem deinde sinuosa uolubilitate prolapsum inter medios rictus telum iaculatus absumpsit. }

Of course, performing a heroic feat is never enough for a man to win a woman’s hand in marriage. Alvild’s father insisted that he would accept as a son-in-law only “a man whom his daughter had united with strongly and freely {in quem filia solidum optionis arbitrium contulisset}.”

Alvild’s mother prevented Alvild from taking Alf as her husband. Perhaps her mother was jealous of Alf’s attractiveness:

Since the young woman’s mother was the only one to grudge her suitor’s plea, she examined her daughter’s heart in intimate conversation. When Alvild eagerly praised her suitor’s handsomeness, her mother with scorn bitterly tore into her and said that she had lost all sense of shame and had been seized by the lure of his looks. She said Alvild had omitted judgment of his virtue, but gazing with an unprincipled mind, she had given herself up to his enticing figure with its allurements.

{ Cumque sola puelle mater proci uotum difficulter exciperet, mentem filie secreto perlustrat alloquio. Qua procum impensius ob nitorem laudante conuitiis eam acrius lacerat, quod elisis pudicitie neruis specierum illecebra caperetur, omissaque uirtutis censura adulantibus forme blanditiis lasciue mentis intuitum exhiberet. }

Alvild’s mother “led Alvild to despise the young Dane {Aluilda ad Danici iuuenis contemptum adducta}.”

valkyrie -- Viking woman warrior

Apparently displacing her passionate love for Alf, Alvild became a Viking woman-warrior. She became a leader of women and men in battle:

She began to be a ferocious pirate. Many young women of that devotion joined her company. Then by chance she arrived at a place where a band of pirates were mourning losing their leader, killed in battle. Because of her beautiful figure, Alvild was made the pirate chief, and she performed deeds beyond a woman’s excellence.

{ ferocem piratam agere coepit. Compluribus quoque eiusdem uoti puellis in commilitium adscitis eo forte loci peruenit, ubi piratarum agmen amissi bello ducis interitum deplorabat. A quibus ob forme pulchritudinem piratice princeps creata maiores muliebri uirtute res edidit. }

Ancient Danish women-warriors like Alvild undoubtedly faced the same dangers that men-warriors did and suffered the same incidence of violent death.

Seeking his beloved woman, Alf journeyed far and wide with his Viking band. One day off the coast of Finland, Alf discovered within a narrow gulf some ships in a harbor. These were Alvild’s ships:

When she caught sight of unfamiliar ships in the distance, Alvild with rapid rowing shot off to encounter them. She judged it wiser to burst upon an enemy than lie waiting for it. Although his companions were warning him not to confront more ships with fewer, Alf then responded that it would be shameful if Alvild heard that a few ships had shaken him from forward movement on his determined course. He said it wouldn’t be right for such an unimportant circumstance to besmirch the records of their great works. The Danes were not a little astonished when the beauty of the enemy presented itself with fine figures and fit limbs.

{ Que cum ignotas eminus puppes adesse conspiceret, prepeti remigio uelox in eorum defertur occursum, irrumpere hostem quam opperiri satius iudicans. Tunc Alf, prohibentibus sociis plures naues paucioribus attentari indignum respondit, ut Aluilde quis perferat paucarum puppium obiectu procursus sui studia deturbari, prefatus parue rei momento magnorum operum titulos respergendos non esse. Nec parua Danis ammiratio fuit, unde hostium corporibus talis forme decor tantaque membrorum aptitudo suppeteret.}

Shapely, lovely enemies can be deadly in war. Alf fought as men have long done:

When therefore the naval battle began to be joined, the young Alf leapt onto Alvild’s prow and, slaughtering all who resisted, forced his way up to the stern. His comrade Borkar struck off Alvild helmet. Seeing with his own eyes the smoothness of her chin, he realized that they shouldn’t be fighting with weapons but with kisses. They should lay down their hard spears and handle their foes with flattering services. Alf was overjoyed beyond expectation when he had presented to him the young woman he had sought indefatigably over land and sea despite so many perilous obstacles. Holding her more lovingly, he compelled her to change her manly attire to womanly. From that, she afterwards engendered a daughter Gyrith. In addition, Borkar embraced in marriage Alvild’s comrade named Gro. She gave birth from him to a son Harald.

{ Ut ergo naualem committere pugnam coeperunt, iuuenis Aluildae proram insiliens in puppim usque facta resistentium strage progreditur. Cuius comes Borcarus decussa Aluildae galea mentique eius lenitate conspecta animaduertit osculis, non armis agendum esse, telorumque rigore deposito blandioribus hostem officiis attrectandam. Igitur Alf, quam terra marique, tot obstantibus periculis, indefesso labore quaesierat, supra spem offerri gauisus, cupidius apprehensam uirilem cultum in muliebrem conuertere coegit; ex qua postmodum filiam Guritham procreavit. Sed et Borcarus Aluildae comitem, Gro nomine, matrimonio complexus filium ex ea Haraldum suscepit. }

This highly rhetorical passage shouldn’t be misinterpreted. Alf didn’t forcibly put new clothes on Alvild, nor did he force her to have sex with him. He took off his helmet. The beauty of his masculine presence, including the glorious radiance of his blonde hair, broke the hateful spell that Alvild’s mother had cast upon her. Alvild took off her clothes to regain the womanly attire (nakedness) that men find particularly attractive. She then embraced Alf in love as passionately as she had earlier fought men as a woman-warrior.

The story of Alvild and Alf has recently gained some archaeological plausibility. In particular, a group of scholars claimed to have proved the existence of a high-ranking Viking woman-warrior. Their scholarly article attracted massive public attention:

In the weeks following the online publication of our article, the research was covered by more than 130 international news agencies, and was discussed across some 2200 individual online accounts, accessed by millions of followers. Altmetric ranked our article as the forty-third most frequently accessed scientific paper of some 2.2 million published globally during 2017, and placed it at 265 of the 11.7 million outputs ever scored by them (as of early September 2018).[2]

Another scholar noted:

further discussion is especially important given the strong interest in, and even desire for proof of, the existence of Viking warrior women that is currently widespread in popular culture and even in large swathes of academe, and not just among undergraduates.[3]

Nonetheless, the scholars who scored massive public attention also claimed:

This level of interest took us by surprise and raises the important question: why did this one single grave generate such global attention? … We have not ‘gone looking’ for female Viking warriors.[4]

These scholars apparently made a major error in judging the impact of their work. Critiques of methodological failings in their article have had relatively little influence. Is the most powerful incentive in public debate about the existence of Viking warrior-women really “how many people apparently need that not to be so”?[5]

Viking warrior-women (valkyries) imagined in illustration made in c. 1900

Ardent public enthusiasm for the possibility of Viking warrior-women more than a millennium ago contrasts sharply with lack of public concern for gender inequalities in warfare today. In the U.S., a recent appellate court decision overturning a legal judgment against men-only military conscription attracted almost no public attention. Ukraine’s law preventing Ukrainian men, but not Ukrainian women, from fleeing from Russia’s brutal invasion has attracted almost no international concern. War remains institutionalized as violence against men. Overcoming the social injustice of vastly gender-disproportionate violence against men should be a priority for the public propaganda apparatus and for scholarly research within it. Delighting in the story of Alvild and Alf isn’t enough.

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[1] Saxo Grammaticus, Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum} 7.6.1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). For a freely available, online Latin text, Olrik & Raeder (1931). For a freely available, online English translation, Elton (1894). Davidson & Fisher (1979-80) contains nearly the same English translation for the first nine books of Gesta Danorum as does Friis-Jensen & Fisher (2015). Subsequent quotes from Gesta Danorum are similarly sourced from 7.6.1-8, unless otherwise noted.

Alvild has regrettably attracted little scholarly attention. Orgaz (2007) considers Alvild within today’s academic stereotype of medieval clerical culture.

Saxo Grammaticus asserted that the story of Alvild wasn’t unusual:

Once there were women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every moment cultivating soldiers’ skills. They didn’t want to allow the sinews of their valor to lose tautness and be infected by self-indulgence. Loathing a delicate style of living, they would harden body and mind with endurance and toil. They rejected all the fickle pliancy of women and compelled their womanly natures to act with a virile ruthlessness. They courted military expertise so earnestly that anyone would have guessed they had rejected their womanhood. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall and elegant tended to embark on this way of life. As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embraces, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill, and those they could have appeased with looks they attacked with lances.

{ Fuere quondam apud Danos foemine, que formam suam in uirilem habitum conuertentes omnia pene temporum momenta ad excolendam militiam conferebant, ne uirtutis neruos luxurie contagione hebetari paterentur. Siquidem delicatum uiuendi genus perose corpus animumque patientia ac labore durare solebant totamque foeminee leuitatis mollitiem abdicantes muliebre ingenium uirili uti seuitia cogebant. Sed et tanta cura rei militaris notitiam captabant, ut foeminas exuisse quiuis putaret. Precipue uero, quibus aut ingenii uigor aut decora corporum proceritas erat, id uite genus incedere consueuerant. He ergo perinde ac natiue conditionis immemores rigoremque blanditiis anteferentes bella pro basiis intentabant sanguinemque, non oscula delibantes armorum potius quam amorum officia frequentabant manusque, quas in telas aptare debuerant, telorum obsequiis exhibebant, ut iam non lecto, sed leto studentes spiculis appeterent, quos mulcere specie potuissent. }

Gesta Danorum 7.6.8.

Hetha and Visna were ancient Viking woman-warrior leaders. “Visna was truly a woman imbued with hardness and extremely skilled in deeds of war {Wisnam vero, imbutam rigore feminam reique militaris apprime peritam}.” Gesta Danorum 8.2.4-5. Some of these warriors reported as women may have been transgender persons. Moilanen (2022). On women-warriors in the Gesta Danorum, Lehto (2022) Ch. 3. On Viking women-warriors more generally, Gardeła (2021).

A rigid concept of a gender binary and the mythic, simplistic master narrative of patriarchy have promoted gross historical misunderstanding. The book blurb for Gardeła (2021) declares:

Until relatively recently, archaeologists and textual scholars had the tendency to weave a largely male-dominated image of this pivotal {Viking} period in world history, dismissing or substantially downplaying women’s roles in Norse society. Today, however, there is ample evidence to suggest that many of the most spectacular achievements of Viking Age Scandinavians — for instance in craftsmanship, exploration, cross-cultural trade, warfare and other spheres of life — would not have been possible without the active involvement of women.

Women, who in all reproductively successful societies have been intimately involved with men, deserve credit for men’s achievements. Without the active involvement of women, men wouldn’t even exist. Viking women, long less revered than Spartan mothers, are starting to receive credit for nurturing boys into “militarism” and “hegemonic masculinities.” Raffield (2019).

[2] Price et al. (2019) p. 182. The title of the original article, Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017), was “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics.” That’s literally ridiculous. Genomics can determine the sex category of particular bones. Genomics cannot “confirm a female Viking warrior.” The “results” abstract section stated:

The genomic results revealed the lack of a Y-chromosome and thus a female biological sex, and the mtDNA analyses support a single-individual origin of sampled elements.

The “discussion” abstract section jumped to a female Viking warrior:

The identification of a female Viking warrior provides a unique insight into the Viking society, social constructions, and exceptions to the norm in the Viking time-period.

Id. A scholar observed, “The article is open access and was clearly designed for maximum worldwide public impact, as indeed it proved.” Jesch (2017b). That seems to me a reasonable judgment based on the rhetorical structure of Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017), including its title.

BBC coverage of a woman buried with a cow in a fifth-or-sixth-century grave in Oakington (Cambridgeshire, England) attracted considerable attention. The BBC news article was originally inappropriately titled “‘Bizarre cow woman’ found in Cambridgeshire Anglo-Saxon dig.” For some analysis, Sayer & Walter (2016) pp. 8-11. These archaeologists advised fellow archaeologists to “engage the local community and the mass media.” Id. p. 22.

[3] Jesch (2021) p. 138. History is often deeply entangled in myth, but with reason one can meaningfully evaluate textual evidence. Consider, for example, histories that report Eleanor of Aquitaine and her ladies dressed as Amazons on the Second Crusade. For analysis, Evans (2009), condensed in Evans (2014) pp. 39-44.

[4] Price et al. (2019) pp. 182, 194.

[5] On claimed methodological failings of Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017), see e.g. Androshchuk (2018), Jesch (2017a-b), and Williams (2017b). Price et al. (2019), supplement, addresses these criticisms dismissively. Id. declared:

We feel no intrinsic need for there to have been a female warrior buried in the grave, nor for such individuals to have existed more widely. We simply find it interesting that this seems to have been the case. In the course of our research—and even more so after the 2017 publication — it has been enlightening to discover how many people apparently need that not to be so.

Id. p. 182, italicized “not” in the original. This claim to scientific disinterestedness seems to me to be undermined by the distanced poise of promoting rhetorical enlightenment: “it has been enlightening to discover how many people apparently need that not to be so.” While studies such as Androshchuk (2018) and Jesch (2021) may have failings, they seem to me no less scientifically disinterested than Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017) and Price et al. (2019). In terms of external interests, academia and dominant media today seem to me to overwhelming favor discovering the existence of female Viking warriors.

The scholarly arguments about Viking warrior-women show considerable ignorance of Baysian inference. Price et al. (2019) declares:

In our 2017 article — as its title indicates — we strongly followed the same military reading as has been proposed for Bj.581 by a long series of archaeological authorities, and for the same sensible reasons that are far from arbitrary. In doing so, we find no problem in adjusting for the new sex determination. To those who do take issue, however, we suggest that it is not supportable to react only now, when the individual has been shown to be female, without explaining why neither the warrior interpretations nor any supposed source-critical factors were a problem when the person in Bj.581 was believed to be male.

Id. p. 192. This suggestion of bad-faith reasoning is a poor substitute for basic understanding of Baysian inference. Bayesian inference is similarly ignored in Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017) p. 858, of which Williams (2017b) declares, “This caveat is necessary and I respect the authors for including it.”

Reasonable Bayesian inference consists of updating reasoned prior belief. Gardeła (2019) states that around ten Viking graves “can – with some caution – be regarded as the graves of women buried with actual weapons or objects that could be used in armed conflict.” How many such graves exist for men? Gardeła (2019), Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. (2017), and Price et al. (2019) don’t answer this question. The number for men is probably orders of magnitude higher than that for women. The sex of a warrior burial cannot simply be flipped without concern for this difference in base-rate incidence. Put differently, given artifacts from a flying animal, much more convincing evidence is needed to claim that it’s a flying cow than to claim that it’s a sparrow.

The Viking woman-warrior controversy indicates a lamentable state of scholarly debate. Price et al. (2019), Jesch (2017b), Williams (2017b). Scholarly work requires much more expensive investment than below-the-line comments on news sites. Nonetheless, such comments at least show some awareness of the base-rate issue in evaluating evidence for the existence of female Viking warriors. Those comments also indicate biased interests of dominant ideology and awareness of the social injustice of vastly gender-disproporationate violence against men. For an analysis of comments on the Viking woman-warrior story in the Daily Mail and the Guardian, Williams (2017a). Id. reports misogyny, but not misandry.

[images] (1) Valkyrie from Hårby: silver figurine (height 3.4 cm.) depicting a woman-warrior. Preserved in the Danish National Museum. Source images thanks to Gilwellian and Wikimedia Commons. Here are higher quality images of the valkyrie from Hårby. (2) Valkyries riding into the sky carrying a dead man. Illustration from Doepler & Ranisch (1900) p. 24. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Androshchuk, Fedir. 2018. “Female Viking Revisited.” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. 14:47–60.

Davidson, Hilda Ellis, commentary, and Peter Fisher, trans. 1979-80. Saxo Grammaticus. History of the Danes. Vol. 1 (English translation). Vol. 2 (commentary). Cambridge, GB: D.S. Brewer.

Doepler, Emil, illustrations, and Wilhelm Ranisch, text. 1900. Walhall: Die Götterwelt Der Germanen. Berlin: Martin Oldenbourg.

Elton, Oliver. 1894. The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: D. Nutt. Alternate presentation.

Evans, Michael. 2009. “Penthesilea on the Second Crusade: Is Eleanor of Aquitaine the Amazon Queen of Niketas Choniates?” Crusades. 8: 23-30.

Evans Michael. 2014. Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Friis-Jensen, Karsten, ed. and Peter Fisher, trans. 2015. Gesta Danorum = The History of the Danes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by John Lindow and by Lars Boje Mortensen.

Gardeła, Leszek. 2019. “Warriors, Warlocks, Widows: Women and Weapons in the Viking World.” Medievalists.net. Online.

Gardeła, Leszek. 2021. Women and Weapons in the Viking World: Amazons of the North. Havertown, PA: Casemate. Review by Terje Birkedal (alt source).

Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, and Jan Storå. 2017. “A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 164 (4): 853–60.

Jesch, Judith. 2017a. “Let’s Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again.” Norse and Viking Ramblings. Online post Sept. 9. 2017.

Jesch, Judith. 2017b. “Some Further Discussion of the Article on Bj 581.” Norse and Viking Ramblings. Online post Sept. 17. 2017.

Jesch, Judith. 2021. “Women War and Words: A Verbal Archaeology of Shield-Maidens.” Viking: Norsk Arkeologisk Årbok. 84 (1): 127-142.

Lehto, Ann. 2022. Traces of the Vikings: Saxo’s Gesta Danorum and the warrior culture of the Vikings. Master’s Thesis, University of Helsinki.

Moilanen, Ulla, Tuija Kirkinen, Nelli-Johanna Saari, Adam B. Rohrlach, Johannes Krause, Päivi Onkamo, and Elina Salmela. 2022. “A Woman with a Sword? – Weapon Grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Finland.” European Journal of Archaeology 25 (1): 42-60.

Olrik, Jørgen and Hans Raeder, eds. 1931. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta danorum. Hauniae, Levin & Munksgaard.

Price, Neil, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Torun Zachrisson, Anna Kjellström, Jan Storå, Maja Krzewińska, Torsten Günther, Verónica Sobrado, Mattias Jakobsson, and Anders Götherström. 2019. “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing Birka Chamber Grave Bj.581.” Antiquity. 93 (367): 181–198.

Orgaz, Juan Manuel. 2007. “Avlida, una Pricesa Goda ante el Espejo.” Medievalismo. 17: 41-64.

Raffield, Ben. 2019. “Playing Vikings: Militarism, Hegemonic Masculinities, and Childhood Enculturation in Viking Age Scandinavia.” Current Anthropology. 60 (6): 813-835.

Sayer, Duncan and Tony Walter. 2016,. “Digging the dead in a digital media age.” Pp. 367-395 in Williams Howard and Melanie Giles, eds. Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cited by pdf page number in online version.

Williams, Howard M. R. 2017a. “Viking Warrior Women: An Archaeodeath Response Part 3.” Archaeodeath. Online, posted Sept. 16, 2017.

Williams, Howard M. R. 2017b. “Viking Warrior Women: An Archaeodeath Response Part 5.” Archaeodeath. Online, posted Sept. 28, 2017.

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