Fierce females – names of Iron and Viking Age women

Viking Age brooches from Tissø, Denmark. The motifs of women with shields, spears and on horseback are quite common. The woman in the middle, pulling her hair is a unique motif. Although not wearing weapons, she is also depicted as fierce and strong. Her grimacing face might indicate that she is performing a ritual, but it could also be an expression of grief. As the pulling of the hair resembles images of the Greek/Roman Aphrodite/Venus, it has also been suggested that this is an depiction of the goddess Freya. Photo from the National Museum of Denmark, Roberto Fortuna and Kira Ursem, license CC-BY-SA.

Before I wrap up the project, I want to address the really interesting theme of female names. I have been working on a paper about this since the beginning of the ArcNames project, but the subject just keeps growing.

In later years, there has been much discussion about evidence for armed women in the Viking Age and whether burials of women with weapons reflect real life shield maidens. This has been an especially hot topic following a 2017 paper about a woman buried with weapons in Viking Age Birka (an overview of the discussion with further references can be found in this post and several following it on Chester University professor Howard Williams’ blog). Meanwhile, the influx of metal detector finds from the latest couple of decades have provided us with ample iconographic evidence to suggest that the concept of women with weapons was well known. Since the late 1980s a growing number of brooches depicting armed females, some on horseback have appeared. The motif of women with weapons was not unknown before these finds started to emerge. They are for example seen on the Oseberg tapestries, but now we begin to understand how widespread this notion was. The brooches are usually called Valkyrie-fibulae. Valkyries, ‘chooser of the slain’ are mythological female creatures who helped the god Odin select the fallen from the battlefield in Old Norse literature. However, we do not know whether the images are meant to show Valkyries or real women. What they do tell us is that the armed female had a strong symbolic value in the Viking Age.

A theme that has not been considered much in relation to the debate about shield maidens and Valkyries is that of female names. This is strange because naming of women can contribute substantially to our understanding of the way females were seen in pre-Christian society. Just as male names reflect an ideology centered around the warrior, words related to battle and war are also prominent in female personal names. In the beginning of the ArcNames project, I met with UiB professor emerita Else Mundal to discuss female names. In  a paper from 2002, she has described how in Old Norse literature, ideals and perceptions of the character and abilities did not differ fundamentally for men and women respectively. This is especially reflected in male and female naming.


Left: Armed female from Hårby, Fyn, Denmark. Right: Armed female from Galgebakken, Jutland, Denmark, Photos from the National Museum of Denmark, John Lee, license CC-BY-SA.

Some technicalities about Germanic battle themed female names

Naming women with battle related words is not an exclusively Scandinavian phenomenon, it has deeper roots in Germanic naming traditions. Interestingly, the Germanic way of building female names differs from other Indo-European traditions for naming women. This requires some explanation: it is common in many Indo-European languages to find words related to battle and weaponry in both male and female names. This is particularly the case regarding the so-called dithematic namesnames that are composed of two word-elements from the general language. Indo-European male names with martial associations are generally considered to be modelled on poetical heroic epithets. The general opinion on female names with this type of word content is that they were a product of so-called “Movierung”. This is a term for gender transformation of a name, mostly feminisation of male names or of masculine second elements. For example, my own name Laurine is diminutive of Laura, a feminised form of male names such as Lavrans and Lars that are originally derived from the Latin male name Laurentius. A Classical example of a dithematic feminised name is the Greek name Andromákhê derived from the male name Andromákhos (man+fight/battle).

The Indo-European tradition of creating female names by transformation of male names is only partly continued in the Germanic languages. Instead, Germanic dithematic names are divided into male names with grammatically masculine final elements and female names with grammatically feminine final elements. This is a morphological innovation, which means that the female names were created on their own accord and were no longer mere reflections of male names. Next to a long range of masculine final elements with associations to war, we find two elements that are exclusively used as final elements in female names: Germanic *-gunþī and *-hilðī, Old Norse –gunnr and –hildr. These both mean ‘fight, battle’ and are among the most popular in both continental Germanic and Viking Age female names, and even very common in names today. As there are no masculine counterparts in other Indo-European languages and only weak testimonies to masculine equivalents in Germanic, these name elements are considered to be feminine from their point of origin.

If we look at Old Norse sources, many name elements are found in both male and female names. The second elements in the dithematic names were gender specific, so that our elements –hildr and –gunnr and others such as –unnr, ‘loved’, –dís, ‘goddess’, –frídr, ‘loved’ and –thrúdr, ‘strong’  could only work as second elements in female names, whereas they could still occur as first elements in male names such as Hildebrand and Gunnulfr. The element Gunn- is quite common in male names, but apart from this, not that many female second elements are transferred to male names. There is however a high amount of shared material between female and male first elements and some names even exist in parallel male and female forms where the female names seem to be formations on their own and not just derivations of male names.

Valkyries and female battle names

The late Swedish linguist and onomastic researcher Thorsten Andersson often discussed the battle related female name elements, and he believed that they must have a connection with the mythological concepts of Valkyries. Indeed, Gunnr and Hildr are even names of Valkyries in Old Norse literature. Though I agree with Andersson that there must be some relation, the nature of this connection remains unclear. As the relation between women and warfare has become more visible in the material remains in recent years, this question disserves closer attention. The main issue, if we are to investigate such a relation, is chronology. How old is the notion of Valkyries and how old are the battle themed female name elements? Investigating these questions sent me down a religious historical rabbit hole of which I have not reached the bottom yet. So here are just some loose thoughts.

Valkyries with names, Danish artist Lorenz Frölich, 1895. Public Domain.

We know the Valkyries from Old Norse mythology, but a similar concept, although more grim, is also found in Old English, the wælcyrge– and although this may be a product of Old Norse influence, it can also be an inherited Anglo Saxon concept. There is further evidence from the Germanic areas in Late Antiquity of minor female deities with battle connections. And indeed, the Valkyries also have some likeness to female battle demons in Celtic and Greek religion, so they may derive from a general European phenomenon. Likewise, the shield maiden has her real life and mythical counterparts in both the Classical and Celtic world. Yet, although the notion of fighting females and female war demons or minor deities therefore can be ancient, the depictions of women with weapons that are emerging from the Scandinavian soil are dated to the Viking Age. Pictures of women with weapons are not so common in Scandinavia in earlier periods. However, the use of war and battle themes in female names is often found in the Early Medieval Germanic world, of the 5.-7th centuries, where elements gunth, hild and sieg (victory) are among the most common among e.g. Goths and Franks. Some of the most famous examples are the Merovingian queens Fredegund and Brunhilda, who were caught up in a deadly feud in the 6th century.

Battle themed female names in Iron Age Scandinavia?

If we take a look at the Scandinavian personal name material attested in the Elder Futhark (Iron Age runes), it is difficult to identify the typical female battle themed names that are otherwise so common in other contemporary Germanic areas. This has two possible explanations: first, there are so few names preserved, and out of these only a very small amount are female names. Second, for many of the female names that end in –ō, we are even uncertain whether they actually represent local feminine forms or male forms in a West Germanic dialect. So, we have difficulties determining whether Eh(w)ō ‘horse’ on the Donzdorf fibula or Lethrō, ‘the leathery one’ on the Strårup neck ring, are male or female names. The same goes for Harisō, on the Himlingøje brooch, which, if female, is a feminized diminutive of a word meaning ‘warrior’ commonly found in male names.

Saralu or Sarlu, a female name on the Late Roman/Migration Period Årstad stone from Norway is a diminutive of the derivation a word *sarw-; of which we do not know the exact meaning. It is related to Gothic sarwa ‘weapon’, Old High German saro ‘armor, chainmail’, and Old Norse sǫrvi ‘necklace’.

An example of a transformed female name is Agilamundō, a feminisation of the male *Agilamunduz, (point/egg+protector) mentioned on the Late Roman or Migration Period Rosseland stone from Norway. She must have been powerful, as the rune writer, Wagigaz, tells us he is an erilaz, and her name is given in the genitive, meaning that he is either her son or an erilaz answering to her (erilaz seems to be a title for a religious/military leader who had knowledge about Runes).

Interestingly, there is also a case of a masculinization of a female name element, the only example we have of this element in the Scandinavian Elder Futhark inscriptions. The name Heldaz on the bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden is a masculinization of the feminine *hildī, ‘battle’ which indirectly tells us that  this element was also used in female names in the 5th century.

If we look at female names from pre-Christian Viking Age inscriptions, based on the division by Hanna Åkerström 2019, we find these examples (short forms not included):

Åsfridr, gods+love/protection

Ormhild, snake/dragon+battle

Ragnhild, advice/gods + battle

Thorvi/Thyra, Thor+vi (sacral/consecration)

Sigrid, victory+love/protection

Thjodborg, people+saving/help

Thorgunn, Thor+battle

Thorfrid, Thor+love/protection

Thjodvi, people+vi (sacral/consecration)

We now see especially the element hild well represented. We may also remark that there are many sacral words used as name elements.The Viking Age female names are in many ways more similar to the continental Germanic female names than the Iron Age names – the latter appear like a more diverse group. But the uncertainties regarding the gender of the ō-names makes it difficult to make any conclusions about the early material.

Male and female ideals in the Viking Age and into the Medieval Period

If we return to Else Mundal’s research, she stresses that although men and women had different social roles in society, they were measured by the same ideals of qualities and abilities. The male/female names with battle related content show that men and women shared the warrior ideology and that there were similarities in ideals and virtues between the male and female gender. To Mundal, the personal names, as well as Valkyries and shield maidens as literary figures reflect that the ideal woman was thought to possess the ideal male qualities and abilities. In contrast, traditional female roles and qualities were used as symbols of male weakness and cowardice.

Woman with drinking vessel, Klemensker, Bornholm Denmark. Photo by Roberto Fortuna and Kira Ursem, the Danish National Museum, license CC-BY-SA

The widespread Valkyrie motifs on brooches may reflect that the fierce woman was a popular ideal in the Viking Age, not only in literature. Another common female motif was an image of a woman with a drinking vessel – a beaker or horn, representing the equally important ideal of the female hostess and mistress of a household. These two ideals do not have to be oppositions, rather I think they represent two aspects of female leadership. And there may be evidence to show that these ideals of the strong female continued to be popular into the Christian Medieval era. When I met with Else Mundal to discuss female ideals and names, we talked about a Medieval ballad that I was taught as a child by my post-hippie era folk-music-playing parents. I have always loved this song, and my own 6-year old daughter also enjoys singing it loudly. The song, Stolt Signild, tells the story of a strong, independent woman who invites her brother to be a guest on her property. “She poured mead, she poured wine”, the song says, “she poured as long as the sun shone”. Later, on his way home, her brother meets his enemies and he blows a horn to call his sister. She hears it in her bed and bids her servants bring out her spear, sword and horse – all which have been stowed away and “not seen the sun” for many years. Now, she rides out and quickly kills all seven men that are attacking her brother.

In the song, Signild appears to be the head of the family and she acts as the main guardian of her kin (find links below). She embodies both of the female ideals of the Viking Age that come clearly through in iconography: the hospitable hostess pouring drink and the armed, strong, resolute woman. The shield maiden identity is related as a thing in her past, although she still possesses the skills of a superior warrior. 

The name Signild can be a compound of the elements sig, ‘victory’ and hild, ‘battle’ or a diminutive, Signelil, of the name Signy (victory+new). The ballad was printed in 1591, by the Danish historian Anders Sørensen Vedel, and in its form is probably Medieval, but according to my conversation with Mundal and the material presented here, the main character seems to reflect a female heroine stereotype that predates the Christian era. The motif survived in folklore and popular culture, for example in the ballad form, while the powerful, determined female was not so well represented in the Christian written evidence.

The Stolt Signild Ballad

Read the original 16th century text of Stolt Signild here Anders Sørensen Vedel: »Stolt Signild hielper sin Broder aff Døds Nød« fra Hundredevisebog (1591) (

To hear it sung, there are many different examples on Youtube, ranging from punk to modern indie-folk versions: stolt signhild – YouTube

The more traditional way of singing the song is as part of a chain dance, a tradition that was particularly kept alive in the Faroe Islands: Stolt Signhild (brot) – YouTube

Some references

I recommend the book Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons by Philip A. Shaw, 2011, for an introduction to early Germanic female deities.

A bit on female battle demons:

Matthias Egeler 2008: Death, Wings, and Divine Devouring: Possible Mediterranean Affinities of Irish Battlefield Demons and Norse Valkyries, Studia Celtica Fennica V (2008), 5–26.

Else Mundal’s paper:

Else Mundal 2002: Kvinnenamn og kvinnesyn i den norrøne kulturen. In: Bull, Tove, Mørck, Endre and Swan, Toril: Venneskrift til Gullbrand Alhaug. Det humanistiske fakultet. Universitetet i Tromsø. P. 128-132.