The “Beer-bowl’s goddess”:
Women in Icelandic Mythology and Sagas


1. How Norsewomen’s Behavior May Have Been Influenced by the Sagas
2. Women’s Roles in Norse Society
3. Helga the Fair: Vapid and Subservient
4. Aud: Loyal, Yet Independently Strong
5. Freydis: A Man Trapped in a Woman’s Body
6. Christian Women in the Vinland Sagas
7. Frigg and Freyja
8. The Valkyries
9. Conclusion

How Norsewomen’s Behavior May Have Been Influenced by the Sagas

While the Icelandic Sagas have served many historical and literary purposes for modern scholars, it is interesting to consider how they must have influenced the audiences of the original stories, back when they were passed on orally. We today are mystified by the independent, warrior-like women who stand out in the sagas, but how were they perceived back then? Did the women who heard the sagas aspire to be like these fearsome women, or did they instead model their behavior after the more passive, loyal women who rely on men to undertake the bloodthirsty killings so stereotypic of Viking warriors? There were many factors that must have influenced how Norsewomen acted, most notably including the examples set by women in the sagas and the characteristics valued by pagan or Christian religions. Perhaps these women were not as influenced by stories as we are today by the media industry. However, it is not a far leap to presume that Norsewomen emulated those women whose actions were esteemed in the stories, or that those women who acted in unsuitable ways and were punished in the sagas were meant to be examples for Norsewomen of how not to act. Based on the Icelandic sagas and Norse mythology, it can be insinuated that women in this ancient society were expected to be obedient and submissive to men to a certain degree; however, those women who broke this role occasionally were also celebrated for their Viking traits. This shows that Icelandic society did not impose such harsh, sexist notions about gender roles as modern societies do.

Women’s Roles in Norse Society
Examining the women of the Icelandic Sagas is particularly interesting because “they depict ordinary women. Not only the Icelandic heroines of the family sagas, but also women in the historical sagas and other historical materials are wives, daughters, or widows of farmers, busily involved with the everyday tasks of running the household.” Readers can interpret that this means the women kept to their own domestic sphere, separated from the men’s political, war-like sphere, or, as some scholars have done, interpret that the women’s roles in the sagas were altered by the Christian monks who set the stories down in writing two centuries after their occurrences. These scholars maintain that the negative attitude toward women in the sagas “is a purely literary motif deriving from clerical misogyny and the ubiquitous stereotype of Eve.” Even if this is the case, females in the sagas are still considerably more independent than any women elsewhere in Europe at this time. While they were very excluded from the Althing and had “no legal or judicial responsibilities; they could not witness, nor prosecute directly in law,” Norsewomen found ways to influence their men. There are many women in the sagas “who prosecute their lives in general, and their sex lives in particular, with a kind of aggressive authority unexpected in a woman and unparalleled in any other European literature.” Women could request divorce and withhold sex from their husbands when they are displeased, and they quite often did. The sagas and myths show women who choose to take advantage of these freedoms in varying degrees, implying that women were not all taught to act in the same way, and they could alter their behavior to be as submissive or assertive as they wished.

Helga the Fair: Vapid and Subservient

In The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue, Gunnlaug falls in love with Helga the Fair, who represents a very compliant female. As a character, Helga is never developed beyond being described as beautiful by all of the men in her life who could profit from her marriage. The absent narrator spends two sentences describing her beauty, a feat which is not replicated in any other saga. As children, Gunnlaug and Helga “quickly took a liking to each other,” but Helga’s approval of their marriage betrothal is never sought; she simply accepts her father’s wishes, even though he himself does not entirely approve. Helga shows the same submission when her father marries her to Hrafn instead, despite her claims that she loves Gunnlaug. The only rebellion Helga shows within her marriage to Hrafn is denying him “intimacy” after meeting with Gunnlaug a few times. And though she is the only basis for their conflict, Helga does nothing to mediate between Gunnlaug and Hrafn in their duel over her love. Were she as cunning as women in some of the other sagas, Helga certainly could have found a compromise, or even taken her fate into her own hands by finding a means of killing Hrafn. Instead, she impassively waits to see which one will be killed by the other, and when both die, she is forced to marry another man. So what moral could a typical Norsewoman hearing this tale glean from it? Helga’s situation at the end is certainly not enviable, and while it is not at all implied, perhaps women listening determined that Helga should not have been so subservient, because a person cannot get what they want in life by relying solely on others. On the other hand, perhaps Helga was meant as a model of obedience. It is not outlandish to suppose that the Christian monks who wrote these tales down wanted the Icelanders to value peaceful submission, and therefore made the most beautiful Icelandic woman one who refused to take her fate into her own hands.

Aud: Loyal, Yet Independently Strong
Aud, Gisli Surrson’s wife, presents a better role model for Norsewomen. Aud is incredibly loyal to Gisli, obedient to his wishes, and yet she is able to hold her own in his absence. For instance, when Eyjolf offers Aud silver pieces in exchange for knowledge of Gisli’s whereabouts, Aud strikes him, and then taunts him about being hit by a woman. She says, “ ‘There was never any hope that I would render my husband into your hands, you evil man. Take this now for your cowardice and your shame, and remember, you wretch, for as long as you live, that a woman has struck you.’ ” Females would have admired Aud for many of her qualities: she is incredibly supportive of her husband even in his exile, she is a foster-mother, and she is a strong, independent woman after many years of marriage. Gisli Sursson’s Saga reinforced characteristics in wives that The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue did not; Aud is a much more admirable female character than pitiful but beautiful Helga, and in a society where Egil Skallagrimsson, an incredibly ugly man, could be renowned as the greatest warrior, beauty obviously did not count for as much as personality and behavior.

Freydis: A Man Trapped in a Woman’s Body
While Aud represents the middle ground between being submissive and independent within marriage, Freydis in the Vinland Sagas represents the most vicious, warrior-like female in the sagas. She is bloodthirsty and manic; in The Saga of the Greenlanders she drives her husband to kill all of their companions one winter, and when he balks at also killing the women, Freydis picks up her axe and proceeds to slay them all . Unlike other women who urge their husbands or sons to take revenge or kill those who have wronged the family, Freydis takes it upon herself to do what even her husband will not. In Eirik the Red’s Saga Freydis, while pregnant, scares off a group of natives by “smacking the sword” against her breasts while the men from camp cower. Based on the positive reaction to other women’s masculine actions in the sagas, one would think that Freydis would be most revered. However, she is chastised in the stories for behaving in such a manner, which would not reinforce Norsewomen to act in similar ways. Again, it is possible that the Christian monks were appalled by Freydis’ behavior and hoped to stop the spread of such antics by inserting social disdain for Freydis’ character. Freydis’ actions are otherwise difficult to decipher, but Carol Clover describes her theory that the Vikings had a different interpretation of sex and gender than in modern times; instead of seeing females as the weaker sex, there was simply a distinction between strong and weak, regardless of gender. In this way, Freydis is more powerful than her husband or brothers. Perhaps Freydis was meant as a kind of warning—she is a cautionary tale, informing women hearing this tale how far they can go before their actions will be condemned by their society in general. Clover’s theory explains a lot about male actions in Norse society, as well:
Not only losable by men, but achievable by women, masculinity was a kind of double jeopardy for the Norse man. He who for whatever reason became a social woman stood, to put it crudely, to find himself not just side by side with a woman, but under her, and, again, it may be just that ever-present possibility that gives Norse maleness its desperate edge.

Freydis represents a contradictory female in the sagas, one who possibly pushes her independence too far, and Norsewomen probably learned from her that they needed to be careful and not exert too much freedom within their marriages, in order to be accepted.

Christian Women in the Vinland Sagas
Scholars have debated about the representation of Christian women in the sagas. Some claim that women were more resistant to the conversion, but two women in The Vinland Sagas appear to contradict this notion. Gudrid and Thjodhild embrace the conversion to a greater degree than their male relatives, and remain independent within marriage while still following their husbands’ wishes. Gudrid in Eirik the Red’s Saga is asked by a sorceress to participate in a pagan ceremony, and she at first refuses based on her new faith, but eventually relents. Thjodhild, the wife of Eirik the Red, builds a church to pray at, and “after her conversion, Thjodhild refused to sleep with Eirik, much to his displeasure.” Gudrid, Thjodhild, and Aud all take pilgrimages to Rome as widows, which is quite an independent trek for a woman in the eleventh or twelfth centuries. These Christian women were less reluctant to convert than their husbands, enforcing the idea that “the conversion period was everywhere a time of great freedom for women…It was only later, as the Church became institutionalized, that women's freedom was curbed and the traditional stereotypes for gender roles reasserted themselves.” The monks again may have altered these sagas to encourage conversion, but the women still retain that degree of autonomy which is so crucial to their roles as wives and mothers in other sagas.

Frigg and Freyja
In addition to the sagas, the behavior of Norse women may also have been influenced by the female goddesses, especially before the conversion to Christianity. The two main goddesses, Frigg and Freyja, represent figures of motherhood and sexuality, respectively. Frigg is married to Odin, but she represents more of a mother than wife, and upon becoming a mother, all of her sexuality is essentially transferred to Freyja. Freyja becomes incredibly promiscuous: “as a symbol of love and sexuality, Freyja was intended for male consumption: sexually experienced through marriage but without a mate, she was beautiful, rich, and free to travel.” This transference seems to suggest that upon becoming a mother, a woman cannot be sexual, and this idea may have held some serious weight during the pagan era in Scandinavia. Women in marriage often withheld sexuality when they were displeased with their husbands, but if they believed that their main duty was to be a mother instead of a figure of desire for their husbands, they certainly would have changed their behavior to reflect this notion.

The Valkryies
The Valkyries are the other major group of female mythological beings. The Valkyries seem to have had two purposes which are not entirely congruent with each other: serving fallen male warriors beer at Valhöll, and fetching warriors from life to bring to the underworld, similar to grim reapers . While both of these tasks involve doing Odin’s bidding, the Valkryies who stand at battles and decide the fates of men seem much more fearsome than those who simply wait in Valhöll for the next man who calls for a beer refill. These figures then, again, represent the contradictory expectation for women to be fearsome, yet also compliant and obedient to male wishes. The fact that the Valkryies were not re-interpreted by the Christian monks suggests that Icelandic men did in fact wish for their women to embody both of these elements, long before the concept of Christian female deference to males encountered Norse custom.

It is hard to say with conviction just how all of these different sources would have influenced the behavior of an average Norsewoman. Some of these stories, particularly the sagas, might be very different today than they were when they existed as oral tradition, because Christian monks tinkered with the sagas in order to decrease the influence of paganism and insert Christian morals. Scholars have suggested that many of the elements of the sagas which seem fair to us today, especially the father asking his daughter’s consent before marrying her off, were added in, in hopes that such rituals would catch on in Christian Europe. However, one can surmise that Norsewomen listened to these stories and based on the consequences that befall certain women due to their actions, altered their behavior in order to fit the social norm. This is very similar to how women today might decide to behave in certain ways after watching a movie where a female is rewarded or punished for actions she undertakes. The overarching impression Norsewomen must have gleaned from the sagas and mythological females was that there is a medium, where a female can be submissive to men, be loyal wives, and yet still be independent and even violent, if a situation calls for it. Women were not meant to act like Freydis does, undertaking bloodthirsty male roles, but were rather meant to be strong figures who men could rely on to stand on their own if necessary. This is quite different from our gender expectations today, because even though women are expressing their desire to be equal with men, females still secretly rely on males to be strong and protect them if necessary. Many modern women could not stand up to Eyjolf as Aud does, with such strong conviction and fearlessness, and this is perhaps because our societies have built up different expectations for females. People are shaped by the cultures they are surrounded by, and the Norsewomen were stronger than modern females simply because they were raised to believe that they could be, and therefore they were.


Works Consulted
Clover, Carol J. Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe.
Speculum 68.2 (1993): 363-387. Google Scholar. Accessed 25 Apr. 2008 <>.

Gronlie, Sian. ‘No Longer Male and Female’: Redeeming Women in the Icelandic Conversion
Narratives. Medium Ævum 75.2 (2006): 293- 320. EBSCOhost. Washington State University Lib. Accessed 25 Apr. 2008 <>.

Jochens, Jenny. “The Medieval Icelandic Heroine: Fact or Fiction?” Sagas of the Icelanders. Ed. John Tucker. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.

Jochens, Jenny. Old Norse Images of Women. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001.

The Sagas of the Icelanders. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

(Footnotes not included)

By McKenzie Mohler
Expected Graduation: May 2011
Major: English Education
Hometown: Highlands Ranch, CO

While reading various sagas over the course of this semester, the contradictory actions of the Norsewomen always fascinated me, and in doing the research for this paper, I really wanted to understand what would drive these women to act in such different ways. I found many explanations, and while many of these contradicted even each other, I blended together elements of each theory and used my own imagination to guess how Norsewomen would have received stories about other women and goddesses, and how they would have altered their own behaviors according to the stories they heard and the morals they derived from them.

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