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The Elusive Warrior Maiden Tradition: Bearing Weapons In Anglo-Saxon Society

Deborah J. Shepherd

Society for American Archaeology Meeting, Seattle, Washington, 1998.

Northern societies of the pre-Christian period have left us plentiful images of women aswarriors in surviving legends. It has nonetheless been difficult for scholars to believe that theimages are founded on social fact or reflective in any way of actual past experience. The heroiccontexts of women warrior stories lead many to subscribe to psychological explanations for thepopularity of the story type. Clearly, the idea of the woman warrior does not conform with the Western Christian worldview. However, it originates in a culture considerably earlier than that of the medieval writers of Christian Europe who would find the idea fantastic. Recently, somearchaeologists and historians have begun arguing for the possibility of women in early societies occasionally fulfilling social roles perceived by us as “male.” Archaeologically, skeletal remains from graves containing weapons have in a few instances been found, after expert osteologicalanalysis, to appear in all likelihood to be biologically female. This paper will explore the existing evidence for the reality of the “warrior,” or weapon-bearing, female primarily in Anglo-Saxonand Viking cultures. Special attention will be paid to archaeological data. The social meaning of bearing weapons in these pagan societies will also be examined through literary sources and cultural analogy, and the logical possibilities for women to participate in “warrior culture” will be considered.

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