Historical PerspectiveReconstruction

Women in Heathenry: What We Find Beyond the Literature [Republished]

by Olivia Hamilton

Many times the fictitious tales of the sagas conflict with the surviving legal codes and archaeological evidence giving us a hazy picture of reality for women in historical heathenry.  This does not mean we put away the stories of heroic women and erase them from our lore.  Just because there is a conflict between the sagas, legal codes and archaeological evidence does not mean we ignore the literature.  None of this should imply that women like those in the stories did not exist, because they very likely did.  We just have to keep in mind that “well behaved women seldom make history”1 which means we have been left little evidence of the ones who followed the rules.  In the Reconstructionist approach to heathenry if we do not attempt to look at multiple sources in history, we are creating gaps in knowledge that may not exist.  In order to gain a full understanding of why our ancestors practiced things in the manner that they did, then we must examine the guts as well as the glory, especially in a subject that is vaguely scrawled across the pages of the past like women’s roles.  There is evidence of gender roles in ritual historically and without the examination of those rituals or the context in which we find them, then we are leaving gaps in meaning which defeats the purpose of what the movement is attempting to accomplish.  We cannot confine ourselves to sagas and Eddas or we miss massive amounts of material lending us insight to marriage, birthing rights, daily roles, and gender roles that may or may not have affected the holy.

Expanding past the literature gives us a wider insight into daily realities.  While some of those realities are hard to stomach by modern heathens, they are realities all the same.  One of those realities is, in some ways, Christianity did bring what would modernly be labeled as freedoms to the North that did not exist before.  In Norway and Iceland a woman did not have a voice in her marriage.  It was arranged by her father and the bridegroom and his family and indeed she may never lay eyes on him until their wedding day.2 Christianity brought the right, and indeed demanded the brides consent, or more specifically the absence of “no”, in order for a marriage to take place.3  There was also no minimum age to marry and we can see an example of this in the Grágás as to the special provisions granted for women widowed and engaged under the age of sixteen.  Women were defined by their marital status as maiden, wife or widow opposed to men who had no status designated to them through marriage or lack of.4 To dismiss this as irrelevant is to deny basic household dynamics and division of power that dictated rituals, such as the right to the life of a child and the naming of those that survived.

By combining the literature with the legal codes we can get a bigger picture of the “right to life” which in turn, lets us piece together assumptions of naming rituals.  Gleis outlines the ritual of leaving the child on the floor until the father picks up the child, acknowledges it as his own, and names it.5  Unless he does, the child will be exposed, taking the right to choose a child’s life from the woman.  Norwegian law states that every child must have a father and both Norwegian and Icelandic law allowed for the “torture”6 of a pregnant woman in order to gain the name of the father or demanding the name from the door while the woman was in labor.7  Working under the fair and supported assumption that the church did not outlaw most practices that did not go directly against early Christian doctrine and our knowledge of early Christian doctrine, we have a good idea of what was pagan practice and what was Christian influenced.8 What the church attempted to take over was the right to decide life, not the father, which in the end changed very little in how they practiced their births.9  By accepting the roles and rights of women, we have a fair understanding to an important rite of passage; a name.

None of this is to say that women had no rights or were utterly passive.  The Norse, Iceland and the Anglo-Saxon10 clung to their right to divorce so fiercely that the church stopped trying to abolish it and simply tried to control it.  The legal codes are peppered with detailed inheritance and divorce laws outlining what a woman held the right to as her own. For example in the laws of Aethelbert in Anglo-Saxon law, a woman could leave with child and still maintain half of the property.  In the sagas we can see where women maintained their entire dowry, giving us an instance where the sagas match up with believable reality.  A woman could not complete her divorce without a man, as she could not speak at Thing, but she could initiate one with nothing more than a witness before the era of the church came into play and not much more even after the church took up supervision of divorce.  The Grágás outline the many reasons that a person could get a divorce, making it still relatively easy to obtain and the ability for a woman to take her property with her and back to her family made it a viable threat.

What we have is undeniable evidence that shows women were considered socially unequal by our terms, but that did not mean that they were not extremely liberated compared to the Greeks and Romans or that they held no sense of balance at all.  What we would consider a gender divide in labor, our ancestors did not, again supporting the importance of context.  For example, in a Denmark cemetery of 320 graves, 85 were male, 73 were females and 162 could not be determined, through bones or grave goods.11  What they found was that there were a higher percentage of objects such as weapons and riding equipment in male graves and arm rings and spindle whorls in woman’s graves12 but that does not mean that all named objects were not found in the both male and female graves, only in a higher percentage of a specific item for a specific gender.  For example, cooking equipment was found in both male and female, but in 26% of female graves opposed to 16% in male and agricultural equipment was found in 50% of female graves opposed to 36% of male though there was a difference in the specific type of equipment per gender.13  Women were also found buried with weights and balances, a strong indicator that women were allowed to participate in trade.14  Women were also able to own and sell property in some cases. She was also allowed to inherit property, and according to the Grágás inheritance section could come directly into her inheritance, even before the age of 16 which was the legal age for a male.  Generally women were married and their husband gained control of that property, or her male guardian, but she maintained ownership of it.15  While none of this remotely supports modern equality, it does not support total submission either.  There are some realms that belonged to women alone such as cup bearing in liquor rituals 16 and incitement or whetting.17 When we look at the sources on these topics we can see a clear formula for these rituals and the fact that it was left solely to women to fulfill these roles in a socio-religious context that seems to be largely ignored in heathenry.

It is not that there is no value in the literature because that would be blatantly untrue and damaging.  That is only to say that it cannot and should not be taken at face value.  These amazing examples of poetry and lore were not meant to be historical documents, but as pieces of art and entertainment with small glimpses into the world the writer wished to convey.  These are stories of heroes and nobility, which is not reflected in or representative of the common man or in real life.  The literature plies us with stories of queens, warriors, and valkyries of incredible worth and power that ruled the world in glory and fame; however when we examine the literature alone, we miss vital pieces to the puzzle that has been left to us.  The high ratio of men to women in the literature gives us an even smaller window to view women in historical heathenry and that is before we pick apart the heavy Christian influence and additions.  That is not to say we do not have a great deal of material to learn from, including the literary sources.  It only says that in order to gain a real grasp on our ancestral sisters we must broaden our scope significantly in order to see the dynamics that influenced rituals and rights of women in historical heathenry and in turn can get a better grasp on ritual and life itself.


Enright, Michael.  Lady With a Mead Cup, Portland: Four Courts Press, 1996
Clover, Carol. “Hildigunnr’s Lament” Cold Counsel: Women in Old Norse Literature and Mythology, 2002
Jesch, Judith. Women in the Viking Age. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1991
Jochens, Jenny. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995
Rivers, Theodore John. “Widows’ Rights in Anglo-Saxon Law.” The American Journal of Legal History 19, 1975


[1] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in regards to Puritan funeral practices.
[2] Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society (1991) page 17 supported with sagas and legal code analysis
[3] This is a place where the sagas and literary sources deviate with legal codes and surviving correspondences between missionaries and bishops. In the Older Borgarthing Christian Law, if a woman says no than the marriage cannot go forward and specifically states if she remains silent that is to be seen as consent.  Looking at the evolution of older codes versus the new ones we can see where the accepted practices in marriage evolved with Christianity and away from pagan ideals. See Jochens chapter 2 in which she discusses marriage practice in detail
[4] Theodore John Rivers, “Widows Rights in Anglo-Saxon Law” The American Journal of Legal History  (1930)
[5] Paul Gleis, “Teutonic Families”. Jochens also examines in detail the cross referencing of literary material and legal codes to rebuild the ritual surrounding ritualistic naming even outside of the introduction of Christianity.
[6] pina hana in the Icelandic, translation Jochens
[7] The name would be demanded from the door while she was in labor and if the name was audible to those near or at the door the child was named as a “half father” and was responsible for the financial aspects until a month after birth. If she failed to rename the father then the child was placed in slavery and fines were paid to the king according to Norwegian laws. In Icelandic laws, the woman not only had to name the father but where they met and when the child was conceived.
[8] There are many places in the legal codes where the order to not do something is very telling of what was done before the decree and in some instances it is declared pagan outright.
[9] Through years of attempting to ban the practice of infant exposure, the church instead made rules surrounding it. While the church demanded a child live, it was only long enough to be baptized at the church and then buried alive “until it is dead” as well as several other grim practices toward unwanted children as seen in the Norwegian laws.
[10] The Anglo-Saxons are mentioned sparingly in this essay for several reasons. The Anglo-Saxon’s converted nearly 400 years before the Norse and Icelandic and the analysis of Christian influence on these laws would take more than the scope of this essay allows. They should not be ignored as a viable part of heathen studies, but deserve a more detailed examination than available here.
[11] Judith Jesch Women in the Viking Age (1991) page 13
[12] Ibid page 14
[13] Ibid. page 20-21
[14] Ibid page 21
[15] Most ideas of what women were and were not allowed to own can be gleaned by both the legal codes on inheritance, marriage, and surviving wills across the Norwegian, Anglo-Saxon, Frisian and Icelandic.
[16] Micheal Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (1996)
[17] Carol Clover “Hildigunnr’s Lament” Cold Counsel: Women in Old Norse Literature and Mythology (2002)

Bob the Sane

Bob the Sane has been kicking around heathenry for more than 3 decades. Originally from New Mexico, he now lives in Indianapolis with his 4 children, 3 dogs, 2 cats, and 1 awesome wife. He espouses a tribalist heathen philosophy, which rejects the need for large national organizations in favor of small tribal units and communities. He is (in)famously outspoken on numerous topics, and considers things like the "universalist vs. folkish debate", racism, and homophobia to be incredibly silly, if not downright counterproductive.

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