By Jackson Crawford, University Of Colorado, Boulder
Women who fight in the sagas are known, in Old Norse, as shieldmaidens. A shieldmaiden is not supernaturally empowered, but she is an otherwise normal woman who chooses an unconventional life for a woman: the life of a warrior or a raider. However, one really does not have firm evidence that female warriors were a real phenomenon in Old Norse culture, nor for the reality of historical men who were considered berserkers.
Saga of Hervor and Heidrek
The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek is a famous tale that largely concerns the shieldmaiden, Hervor, and her favorite son.
The story begins with a young girl, born to a widow in the mythical kingdom of her grandfather. This girl, given the name Hervor, grew up quickly into an exceptionally strong woman, and one with an exceptionally strong desire to do evil. She was known to participate in archery contests and fencing, and when she was banned from doing this, she went into the woods with weapons and robbed travelers.
She became such a menace that she had to be captured by her grandfather and his army, and she was brought home resentful and angry.
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Daughter of a Berserker Warrior
One day, when she was heaping abuse on some slaves working at her family’s estate, one of the slaves turned to Hervor and told her that she was no higher than them. The only reason why no one had ever told her about her father was because he was a low-born slave who had lain with her mother.
Hervor was infuriated. In Norse culture, an insult that demeans one’s social class is almost as bad as a sexual slight. Hence, Hervor went before the ruler, her maternal grandfather, and demanded the truth about her father.
He was unable to endure that his own granddaughter believed that her father was a slave, and so he told her the truth: She was the daughter of the great berserker warrior, Angantyr, buried far away on the magical Danish island of Samso. This island was the same island where Odin was supposed to have lived as a witch. It was strongly associated with magic, the undead, and weird happenings.
Tyrfing: The Magical Sword
Hervor, overjoyed, also knows by reputation that Angantyr, her father, must have been buried with his famous magical sword, named Tyrfing. She resolves to go to the magical island of Samso and retrieve that great sword from her father’s burial mound.
She asks her mother to make a set of men’s clothes for her. She binds up her long flowing hair, and ties it under a helmet, and puts on a full suit of men’s armor. She takes on a man’s name in this disguise, and sets sail with a company of unwitting Vikings.
After the obligatory period spent pillaging, she has her company make their way to the island of Samso, where none of the other Vikings are willing to land as the island is a domain of the undead. When Hervor rows there herself in a small boat, forsaken by her companions, she encounters a sheepherder on the island.
Angantyr, Hervor’s Zombie Father
The sheepherder, shocked to see a stranger walking alone, tells Hervor to go to whatever house she’s staying in before the grave mounds open. But before he’s done saying it, an eerie fire is seen to glow in the distance, and the cowardly sheepherder runs away from it while Hervor makes her way straight to it.
Sure enough, she finds the grave where her father and his berserker brothers were buried after their last battle. She goes to its opening and calls out to her father and demands his sword, Tyrfing, as her heirloom.
Now, her dead father, a zombie, greets her silently at first, but she continues her beratement. She calls Angantyr just a ghost, and she threatens to curse him unless he gives up the sword.
Finally, she cajoles him into answering, and he lies at first. He says that the enemies who buried him and his brothers took their weapons. But, Hervor sees through this deception.
Angantyr tries to intimidate his daughter by stoking the flames in his grave. Nonetheless, Hervor responds over the surging flames in the grave:
You cannot burn
those flames so bright at night
that the fires will
This woman’s heart
will never tremble,
even if she sees a ghost
stand before this door.
The zombie, Angantyr, accepts now that his daughter is determined to make away with the sword, but he continues dissuading her with a few more arguments. He tells her it’s cursed, that it will be the death of everyone in her lineage. None of this dissuades her.
Thus, she ultimately takes the sword but Angantyr leaves her with another warning:
You do not know it, but
you lost in this matter,
fully doomed woman.
Why do you rejoice?
of your family, girl,
if you can believe it.
The Cursed Sword
Hervor leaves the magical island, traveling in a passing ship, and for a brief period stays in another kingdom as—almost unaccountably—the chess advisor of its ruler. One day, while whispering strategy in his ear, another man is lured by the sword in Hervor’s scabbard and draws it to take a closer look.
This is the curse on the sword Tyrfing, though Angantyr did not spell it out so explicitly: when it is drawn, it must kill before it is returned to its scabbard.
Consequently, Hervor kills the man who drew her sword and runs out. In the end, Hervor returns home to her grandfather’s kingdom and resumes her life as an ordinary noblewoman.
Common Questions about Norse Shieldmaidens and the Saga of Hervor and Heidrek
A shieldmaiden is not supernaturally empowered, but she is an otherwise normal woman who chooses an unconventional life for a woman, the life of a warrior or raider.
When Hervor reaches the island, she encounters a sheepherder.
The curse on the sword Tyrfing is that when it is drawn, it must kill before it is returned to its scabbard.