This is the first post in a series on the role of women in the Viking age. As this year’s summer blot is dedicated to Freya, the most radiant of the goddesses, we wish to start this series with a post on her representative on earth, namely the housewife (husfrue).
The Viking housewife
The word “frue” in modern norwegian comes from the word “Frøya”. “Hus”, of course, means “house”. Thus, “husfrue” was an honorary title in the viking age given to the Freya of the House. The húsfreyja would run the farm and those living on it, and the title should absolutely not be understood as a demeaning term. Being a housewife in the Viking age was hard labor, and highly valued in the community.
A housewife had the responsibility of everything happening between the four walls of the home. Most farms in Norse times had more than just one family, and the housewives had the “HR-responsibility”. In addition, they were to oversee farming, raising children, and cooking. Women had an important role in being hospitable diplomats when receiving visitors, which was no easy task. The hospitality shown could secure and nurture crucial political alliances. The húsfreyja also decided the seating of guests, which determined who was served first at the table and denoted hierarchy. Making careless decisions in the ranks of seating could lead to serious consequences. Thus, this particular task put women in position to execute direct and independent political power.
The role of the housewife was in fact so highly regarded that we have seen runestones raised in their honor. One runestone dedicated to the woman Óðindísa, reads:
“The good farmer Holmgautr raised this stone in memory of Óðindísa, his wife. No better housewife will rule the farm Hassmyra. Red-Balli carved these runes. Óðindísa was a good sister for Sigmundr.”
The Viking mother
Research suggests that women in the Viking age on average gave birth to a child every 30th month from they were fertile until menopause. In addition, the infant mortality rate was incredibly high, between 30-60 percent. The Norse daily life was incredibly hard, and it was expected that the woman should work just until birth, and start working shortly after birth. There was in other words no maternity-leave to speak of.
The Sagas point to women who give the concept “bear mother” a new dimension. The Icelandic woman Vigdis was with her husband and their relatives on an expedition to new, unknown territories in Iceland. Vigdis was heavily pregnant. Right before the group was going to cross a river, Vigdis realized she was going into labor. Vigdis told the others that they should continue walking, and that she would catch up. Vigdis took a break, gave birth, picked up her newborn, and continued the expedition.
The legendary Frøydis Eriksdatter , is another example. Frøydis was chased through the woods of Canada by “skrælinger”, or indigenous Americans, together with her male relatives. Frøydis was pregnant, and saw that her male relatives started to outrun her. She responds by grabbing a sword someone dropped, and turning to face the enemy. According to legend, Frøydis flashed one of her breasts, and beat her sword on it. This terrified the “skrælings” so much that they turned and ran terrified back into the woods. When Frøydis caught up with her male relatives, she gave them a well deserved dressing down for being such cowards.
About the author
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.