Women of the North: Honor and power in Viking society


Women in the Viking age were, like men, concerned with honor. An insult to the housewife was just as bad as an insult to the man of the home. Insults in the Viking ages were no negligible matter. An attack on a person’s honor was an attack on the whole bloodline, and was often avenged with death. In Norse societies, people traced their bloodlines bilaterally, meaning the mother’s and the father’s sides were equally important. Having an honorable bloodline was very important, and the honor of the bloodline was in many ways the social capital of the Viking age. 


Norse history contains many examples of how our ancestors defended and assured the honor of their bloodline. Several Viking age women, often widows, made sure their sons had swords and ships so that they could engage in Viking raids. This is very clear in Egil’s saga, where Egil recites a kvad recounting his mother urging him to strive for greatness: 

Njal, Bergthora and Thord Karisson Decide to be Burned Alive. Illustration for Njal’s Saga by August Malmstörm (1829-1901)
Njal, Bergthora and Thord Karisson Decide to be Burned Alive. Illustration for Njal’s Saga by August Malmstörm (1829-1901)

“Thus spoke my mother;
Meant you are to buy
A boat with splendid oars
Embark on raids with Vikings

Stand up in the prow
Steer your noble ship
Onwards to the seaport
Slay foes left and right”

Some of the most brutal and epic Norse sagas are intimately connected with female honor and vengeance. One example is Njåls saga, where an astonishing number of people have to pay with their lives as a consequence of the noble woman Bergthora insulting another noble woman. Bergthora chooses to burn to death together with her husband, rather than leaving him to die, and she is honored greatly for this decision.


The word “volve” comes from a Norse word meaning “stave”. Some graves from Norse times show women buried with a special kind of stave. It has been postulated that this stave likely was used to trap spirits, whom the women called by using “galder” – a magical type of song. 


The volve was very powerful, and thus also feared. The sagas give an example of a volve who is visiting a chieftain’s hall, and is given the high seat to sit in, which was then considered one of the greatest honors at the time. 


Groa och Heid (the prophetesses Groa and Heid) by Carl Larsson - Völva Norse mythology
Groa och Heid (the prophetesses Groa and Heid) by Carl Larsson (1853-1919)

Volves are not only mentioned in Norse literature, but also by our southern cousins in Europe. Both the Roman historian Tacitus and the Greek adventurer Pythias speak of these feared and mystical female creatures in their texts. In fact, the volves were active participants in war, and their “galder” and magic was highly regarded by the army. 

The volve is one of the most mystical phenomena we know of from Norse society. These women walked unhindered between our world and the spirit world.

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About the author

Norse Tradition

Norse Tradition is a Norwegian non-profit organization working to promote and convey the rich Norse spiritual tradition. We regularly host lectures, private training and rituals, and retreats centered around seasonal celebrations. We work according to a reconstructive method based on Indo-European syncretism. This means that in order to better understand the Norse heritage and tradition, we see it in the light of its roots in the proto-Indo-European culture.

We do not practice historical reenactment, nor do we intend to invent a modern spiritual practice spiced with Norse words and symbols; we transmit a living tradition. All lectures and rites by Norse Tradition are founded on recognized academia or historical sources of Norse, Vedic, Anglo-Saxon, Greco-Roman, or other Indo-European origin. We are thus not innovators; what we teach and practice has ancient roots. 

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