The warrior is traditionally defined as a brave or experienced soldier or fighter. The necessary implication of war is insistent – present in the very root of the word. Modern conversation has attempted to alter this definition and give it a broader meaning, however it is important that as we work to reconstruct the ancient Germanic worldview, that we do not do so through the lens of anachronism. Heathenry has seen an upswing in the perpetuation of the false warrior culture, not only assigning the role an elevated consideration of worth, but assuming incorrectly that arch-heathen society was a society full of warriors and nothing but. This has presented itself in an explosion of self-titled shield maidens and berserkers and úlfhéðnar, men and women staking a claim to a title that they have not earned. In order to best understand why this is inappropriate, it is vital to first understand what those titles are, and what they meant for the people who held them.
On the surface, the concept of a berserker may seem enticing – a warrior whom no weapon can touch, a fighter who feels no pain, possessing almost supernatural strength. However, as we read the sagas, it is all too apparent that the berserkers were essentially slaves to violent impulses they could not control. In Egil’s saga, we see Egil’s father Skallagrim, lose control during a game he is playing with his son. Skallagrim is described as grabbing hold of Egil’s friend and throwing him down on the rocks so viciously that he dies, and then lunges for his own son.
All that saved Skallagrim from murdering Egil was the intervention of the woman who had nursed Egil as a baby. In saving Egil from the berserker rage of his father, she too was killed. This is the darker nature of the berserker; to fly into a rage so fearsome that no spear or weapon can kill you, but also so fearsome that you cannot tell the difference between an enemy and your own child, or servant. The berserkers were feared, and rightly so; a man capable of breaking frith in such a way is arguably only a step or two above nidthing – useful, but not wholly welcome.
Hrafnsmál describes úlfhéðnar as thus;
“Wolf-coats are they called, the warriors unfleeing,
who bear bloody shields in battle;
the darts redden where they dash into battle
and shoulder to shoulder stand.
’T is men tried and true only, who can targes shatter,
whom the wise war-lord wants in battle.”
Using these insights gleaned from the sagas, it is inarguable that the violence inherent in the berserkers and úlfhéðnar were tangible things, and not an abstract concept based on any kind of ‘warrior spirit’. Their deeds earned and afforded them these titles. One does not simply become berserker or úlfhéðnar without the blood of his enemies on his hands in a very literal sense.
Similarly, the shield-maiden has been misrepresented in modern popular culture. The notion of a woman, full of fire and standing equal to a man in the shieldwall, is certainly a glamorous one but it is also quite misleading. Tales of shield-maidens are few and far between, and certainly none of them tell of ordinary women who just happened to be warriors. Brynhildr Buðladóttir and Guðrún Gjúkadóttir are most often held up as the evidence that shield-maidens existed, however the existence of shield-maidens is not what is debated – only their prevalence. The rarity of their mention in sagas can lead us to reasonably assume that these warrior-women were not the norm, but rather the exception to the norm. This assumption can be further supported with the differential in grave goods between the genders. Weapons have been primarily found to be present in the graves of males, while jewelry and more domestic goods are found in the graves of females.
Modernly, these self-anointed titles are often accompanied by the rejection of what are perceived to be more “common” duties. Pop culture presents arch-heathen society as bands of warriors in constant conflict, with an equal ratio of women to men present in the shieldwall. It is with this misconception of heathen culture that many new people enter the folkway, with no thought given to the less glamorous but infinitely more valuable roles left out of music or television.
The diversification of labor is critical for any society to function, ancient or modern. If every heathen had been a warrior by trade, their societies would have fizzled and died within a few scant generations. Just as not every person in the present is a member of the armed forces, it would be silly to assume that every single heathen was a Viking or shield maiden. Many would have been farmers, growing food and raising livestock to feed themselves and contribute in a useful way to their community. We know this to be true not only from reasonable deduction, but from the laws that governed them; for a period of time in Iceland for example, a man could not be charged through the courts if he was not affiliated with a farm in some way. To view the culture of the arch-heathens through the scope of their warriors only is a disservice to the complex and vibrant social structures of the time.