Viking Pendants Suggest Ritual Gender Roles, New Study Says
A new study has been conducted on mysterious Viking pendants found in Denmark (by the dozens) and as far afield as Russia and England. These figurines were created in bronze, are roughly inch-long, and depict long-haired women wearing crested helmets while carrying shields and swords. The pendants have been dated back to more than a thousand years – the height of the Viking Age.
The dictionary defines iconography as ‘the visual images and symbols used in a work of art or the study or interpretation of these’. “Viking-Age iconography is mostly studied through stone sculpture and carvings and through metal dress accessories, which are often poorly contextualised finds”, write Professors Pieterjan Deckers (lead author and archaeologist at the Free University of Brussels), Sarah Croix, and SØren M Sindbæk in the new study published in the journal Medieval Archaeology .
The three classes of so-called Valkyrie Viking pendants. Source: Pieterjan Deckers, Sarah Croix & SØren M Sindbæk/ Medieval Archaeology
Inverting Traditional Gender Norms
They are referring to the notion that, traditionally, Norse women were not buried with weaponry and armor, and hence the assumption always had been to go into Norse mythology and associate them with the sagas and myths, terming them Valkyries. A Valkyrie is one of a host of female figures who choose those who may die in battle and those who may live. “The mythical warrior women ancient Scandinavians thought were responsible for transporting slain warriors to the afterlife,” as per a report published in National Geographic defining Valkyries.
- Medieval Finnish Warrior Was Non-Gender Specific, Study Finds
- Thousands of Artifacts Emerge from Lost Ancient Viking City of Sea-Masters
The study, however, busts this notion. Instead, they argue that the Valkyrie pendants and figurines are representations of actual women who played a vital role in Viking ceremonies and festivals. They also argue that the armed female figurines are part of a larger set of ritual objects which subvert traditional gender-roles, particularly in Viking-era Europe, opening up a Pandora’s box. Interestingly, warrior women are juxtaposed with what the authors refer to as figurines of the ‘gripping man’ – seen gripping his locks of hair - who transgressed social and cultural boundaries around rigid male identity.
Virtual reconstructions of the casting mold impression of the ‘gripping man’. (Pieterjan Deckers, Sarah Croix & SØren M Sindbæk/ Medieval Archaeology )
The Viking Pendant Workshop at Ribe, Denmark
The research was conducted after the 2017 discovery of an early 9th century AD jewelry workshop at a trading outpost called Ribe on Denmark’s western coast. This coincides with the rise of the Vikings, who were seafarers, traders, pirates, and raiders from the late 8th century to the beginning of the 11th century, extending their reach across much of Western and Northern Europe.
The purported ‘jewelry workshop’ was discovered by archaeologists from the Danish Aarhus University, who found over 7,000 fingernail-size clay fragments in the tiny workshop! They concluded that they had stumbled upon a medieval assembly line from the Norse era wherein artisans would “carve a single figurine, then press each side into clay to make two-sided molds. Melted bronze was poured into the clay molds, which were broken and discarded after the metal cooled”. This model was used to make hundreds of copies of the pendants or figurines.
Precursors and parallels for the ‘riderless steed’ motif found on Viking pendants and figurines at Ribe. (Pieterjan Deckers, Sarah Croix & SØren M Sindbæk/ Medieval Archaeology )
The Oseberg Tapestry and the Ambiguity of Gender
This same workshop was not just churning out female figurines, but more everyday depictions – wheels, horses, the ‘gripping man’ tugging his hair, amongst others. This was the first evidence that the representation of the female figurine was not mythological. The second were the similarities with the Oseberg Tapestry – dated to 834 AD, this is one of the only visual representations that survived from the Viking Age.
- History of the Vikings: All You Need to Know
- Viking-Era Jewelry: Revealing an Intricate Cultural History of the Ancient Norsemen
This 1,200-year-old embroidered cloth depicts a ritual procession and ceremony wherein we find wheeled carts, horses, women carrying weapons, and people wearing horned helmets or animal costumes – a lot of these figures bear resemblance to the molds at the Ribe Viking pendant workshop! What can also be deduced, according to Professor Sindbaek, is the prominence of women during these rituals, figures who were central to the home.
Details from the Oseberg tapestry fragments, showing the performance of rituals involving armed women and other visual elements represented in the mold fragments from Ribe. Images by Stig Saxegaard in cooperation with M Vedeler, Museum of Cultural History UiO. (Pieterjan Deckers, Sarah Croix & SØren M Sindbæk/ Medieval Archaeology )
Away from the home, these figures were also depicted with weaponry and fighting armor. The women are depicted holding shields and swords, but also wearing antiquated helmets and long dresses. Obviously, this is an allusion to the melting away of traditional gender roles, according to the researchers, as it isn’t possible to go into combat wearing long dresses - suggesting great degrees of gender ambiguity.
This is also a reinforcement of modern gender theory that argues that gender is a performed socio-cultural construct. It also bodes well for future research and scholarship, moving away from fixed binaries and definitions that have for a long time been unable to see beyond the prism of male and female. “It’s an important reminder that we can’t assume ideas about gender roles are fixed or permanent. Male and female roles have been changing and differ from one culture to another”, concludes Croix.
Top Image: Researchers believe 1,000-year-old Viking pendants may represent ritual gender ambiguity. Source: Nejron Photo /Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
Curry, A. 2021. Viking ‘amulet factory’ discovery forces rethink of enigmatic artifacts . Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/viking-amulet-factory-discovery-forces-rethink-enigmatic-artifacts.
Deckers, P., Croix, S., Sindbaek, S. 2021. Assembling the Full Cast: Ritual Performance, Gender Transgression and Iconographic Innovation in Viking-Age Ribe. Medieval Archaeology, 65. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00766097.2021.1923893.