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Pulling the Strings: The Influential Power of Women in Viking Age Iceland
By Kendall M. Holcomb
Honour’s Thesis, Western Oregon University, 2015
Introduction: Icelandic women during the Viking Age managed households, raised their children, tended to the animals, and wove the cloth, along with a host of other duties overlooked by their male counterparts. These women were the unacknowledged strength within their societies. Through an examination of the culture that surrounded female Vikings in pre-Christian Iceland, historians present a more thorough understanding of the roles that these women played. This is especially evident in the study of female influences employed within pre-Christian Icelandic society. The women of Viking Age Iceland exercised power through their management of household and familial interactions, maintaining influence within a publicly male-dominated society.
Medieval Iceland was the home of Norse settlers from approximately 870 AD. The Era of the Viking Age began with their first overseas raid in 793 AD, at the monastery in Lindisfarne, in the kingdom of Northumbria. Northumbria is now a part of northern England and south-east Scotland. During their travels, Norsemen discovered Iceland for themselves in the 9th century. Originally settled by Irish monks, known as the papar, Iceland became inhabited by more Vikings as time went on. The majority of the ‘good’ land along the coastline was taken up by the Vikings within thirty years of settlement. As the monks did not appreciate the rowdy and non-Christian lifestyle of the Vikings, their migration to Iceland effectively ejected the monks from the island. A common school of thought among scholars is that the very first Norse settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, and that he arrived in Reykjavík where he built a homestead in 874 AD.
One of the most notable of the early Norse settlers in Iceland, however, was a woman named Unn the Deepminded. Found in Laxdæla Saga, Unn was the daughter of the powerful Ketil Flatnose, who fled to Scotland, rather than submit to Harald Finehair. After the passing of Unn’s male relatives in Scotland and Ireland, Unn sailed with her followers to Iceland. Throughout her story, she is portrayed as a woman of good standing who did what she thought was best for herself and her family Like Unn, women during the Viking Age held power that focused on interpersonal relationships within their communities and families.