Life in the time of
a Viking shield maiden
In my collection of sensual short stories, the “Tales of Freya”, we encounter quite a number of Viking warriors, naturally. But one couple stands out: it’s Aldaith and his fierce shield maiden Nyssa. She is exotic and an exceptional character – and a rare sight for the time: a female fighter. The two of them have three stories in my collection to span their fighting- and love-life together. You can watch them meet in a river after battle, then how their relationship deepens and turns their lives around, and in the end their grave is found and the story of their last battles uncovered by archaeologists.
So much for the romance and fighting.
In this post I want to look at what a day in their life could have been like, and especially for the rare woman among the fighters. Nyssa, the shield maiden, was surely a possibility as recent research suggests, but she also wasn’t the norm. A woman’s place was at home, not in the shield wall. The more fun it was to write her as the tempting and strong-willed fighter who can take on any man. She spends her days training with the guys, getting bruised and defeating some. I’m assured by reenactors that female fighters can indeed win any duel if they’re fast and agile enough. So her sensual duel in “Bonds” (found in the “Tales of Freya”), where she defeats the stronger but slower Aldaith, is kind of accurate.
So what else would these warriors have been doing, a thousand years ago? Tied to a chieftain by oath, but able to leave and earn a living with someone else if they wanted to?
To begin with, the chieftain would call the warriors in, they would form a temporary band, swear oaths, present their weapons, and board the dragon boats, headed to wherever the next campaign should take place. So far so good.
Let’s say our warriors went to that lovely lush island where the Anglo-Saxons lived, sailed or rowed up a convenient river, taking turns at the oars, hours on end. Nyssa would have rowed just the same as the men. Comradeship was everything. At some point, they would have decided on a place to set up camp. The shipmaster would make them beach the boat or moor in a flat but sheltered place. They would hop ashore and light fires – if they dared, weapons always close to hand in these hostile surroundings. They would know exactly what to do to stay undiscovered; they would know their rank and duties.
And they would have been hungry! Some men might go off to plunder a nearby farmstead for the night-meals. Some would take up watch to protect the band, others would go spying to make sure they stayed ahead of the enemy.
Their few belongings were in chests on board the ship. They surely carried the most valuable items on their bodies – and there would have been guards on the ships to protect their belongings.
Ashore, around the fires, the warriors prepared the food. And after days of rowing the ship, they needed calories! They might have cooked or unpacked something the Ribe Viking Centre calls “Ship’s biscuits”: smoked pork is diced and fried on a hot pan. They added chopped onion and mixed it with whey, salt, barley flour and wheat meal, then made the dough into balls and then into flat breads. Those biscuits were again baked on a dry pan until they were dry and hard – and therefore preserved for many weeks of raiding. Our shield maiden wouldn’t have been the one cooking just because she was a woman! She was equal, a comrade, and men had to know how to cook to survive travelling anyway.
Some men might open their knapsacks and take out any sort of fish, meat, preserved with salt, dried, or smoked. They had lamb sausages, butter and cheese, honey, dried fruit and nuts. They also loved eggs in brine (called Solæg), and of course breads: rye loaves, crispbread. Bread would mostly be flat and unfermented to keep for months.
Most of this would have been prepared at home or in a base camp before heading off, transported in saddle bags, knapsacks, or in the chests and baskets aboard. (here’s an amazingly authentic video by Hands on History to see what travel food preparation could have looked like:
So once everyone was fed, had drunk their beer or whey, sung and wrestled, they’d have gone to sleep ashore or on board, maybe under the taken down sail to protect them from the English weather. We remember: Viking ships had no shelter at all. The men and women explorers and fighters were at all times confronted with the harshest elements, be it in a lovely calm estuary in northern France or the roaring Atlantic on their way to Iceland and beyond.
Were I a chieftain then and had a day of battle ahead, I’d have ordered my men to not stay up too late. I’m sure our Nyssa would have snuggled up to her Aldaith under their blankets, for some much needed warmth and consolation in the hours before reaching the battlefield. Their swords would have been within reach, and men will have patrolled at all times. The couple might have watched across the fire as restless comrades sat long into the night to tend to their weapons and talk the fear away.
Maybe their chieftain’s voice would lull them to sleep … explaining at length the battle tactics for the following day – or the location of the nearest promising monastery. I’m not sure how long our couple would have listened … or if they would have liked some bouncy cuddles to counter the tension. It sure wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows if they did. Maybe my psychology is right that some hot physical contact was a relief and distraction, a reassurance before they locked shoulders on the battlefield at dawn. Never knowing if they would survive – or if one or both of them would be collected by the Valkyries the next night.
To find out what happened in Aldaith and Nyssa’s last battle, you should refer to their last story “Battles” in the “Tales of Freya” ;-)
Additional source: Ribe VikingeCenter
Tales of Freya
A collection of sensual short stories set in the Viking Age
In a world of crackling fires and rough landscapes, long winters and bloody raids, the immediacy of life and death ignites undeniable passions. Warriors and monks, healers and housewives – all follow the call of their hearts and bodies to indulge in pleasures that may forever change their lives.
In this collection of adult bedtime stories, Sarah Dahl pulls back the curtain of history to depict the erotic lives of Viking men and women. Amid the stark landscapes of fjords, forests and snowcapped mountain peaks, her characters search for love and passion. Dahl authentically illuminates the sensual side of a world of battle and plunder in an alluring collection perfect for every lover of gritty Viking romance.
Sarah Dahl lives on the edge of the rural German Eifel and writes historical fiction (novels and short stories) primarily set in the Viking age. She was an editor in several German publishing houses and managed a translation agency. The magic of writing re-entered her life at UCD Dublin, where she sat in J.R.R. Tolkien’s office every day, while working on the ‘Dictionary of Hiberno-English’. Tolkien’s spirit must have done something to her creative muscles – it sure wasn’t the bland view from his office. She became a full-time writer soon after and still works as an editor, translates, and coaches new authors. She is interested in everyday life in bygone centuries and the human stories that may have occurred behind the hard, historical facts. Her author page is: sarah-dahl.com. You find her newsletter at: https://mailing.sarah-dahl.com.