The Non-Mystery of Viking Women Warriors: Legends of the Lost Ep 2

So before we get into this, please understand we will not be critiquing this show based on Megan Fox’s looks, gender, sex, or her career before this, other than to say she is not a professional archaeologist or historian, has no formal schooling in the subjects she is speaking on and is not recognized as an expert in any capacity by the archaeological  or historical communities. That said, there is plenty here to criticize.

People who are familiar with shows like Scott Wolter’s America Unearthed will recognize the format here. After a long and flashy intro with plenty of stimulating music, Fox makes a claim that she will try to prove during the show, and then there’s lots of traveling and exciting music to accompany it. Unlike male-hosted shows, we don’t see Fox driving herself around or doing anything scientifical herself, but she’s also not claiming to be a forensic anything or pretend to have credentials she doesn’t. I will say that she’s cast in a near child-like role of barely interested host, asking lukewarm questions and repeating back what experts tell her.  However, she also doesn’t come off smug and angry and seems to at least tolerate the people she talks to.

Basically, the premises here is that Legends of the Lost needs a strawman argument for their second episode, (the fist is supposed to be about Stonehenge but I guess they played them out of order from some reason?) so they decided to create a controversy about Viking women, aka Norse women. The argument is, as Fox reminds us every 15 mins or so, is that History wants us to believe that Viking women were just passive submissive housewives who were ruled with an iron fist by their bloodthirsty patriarchal husbands. But Fox knows this can’t be true so she’s off to prove it…using actual history and archaeology that already says this isn’t true.

So first we head to the Midgard Viking Center in Borre, Norway.

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Here we meet Marianne Moen who is said be simply ‘archaeologist’. Dr. Moen is an expert on gender in archaeology, specifically focused on Viking age burials and gender in the Viking age.  She’s been producing work since at least 2011, which is important to understand since one of the claims of the show is there’s no research on women in the Viking age.

Dr. Moen shows off the very impressive reconstruction of a Viking mead hall. Moen is careful to tell us everything is a reproduction put together based on what we know about Vikings that we’ve learned archaeologically. Which is directly opposed to a later claim the show makes that “We know very little about the Vikings.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Fox, who apparently is going to compare everything to a tv or movie referenced, say the Mead Hall looks like “A really cool Game of Thrones set.” To which I say, Have you never seen Lord of the Rings! but let’s not start Geek Wars.

Moen tells us basically that the Vikings would describe themselves as peaceful people, and this wouldn’t have been inaccurate. We know from archaeological excavations that Vikings were like any other society at their time economically. They farmed, they crafted, they were above average tradespeople, and well yes, they had a reputation for raiding. Which leads us to a rather uncomfortable moment in the show when Moen tells us outside of Viking culture they were known for their raping and pillaging, to which Fox replies:

“Well, when you’re trying to conquer the lands it’s hard to do it in a kind and gentle way.”

And this basically sets the tone of the show. Even though it’s been shown and told to Fox that the Vikings weren’t just murder machines, this is the aspect she chooses to focus on. Which is a trait of the fringe that has always bothered me. This hyper-focus on violence and dominance, especially towards women. It colors the way they see everything historically and actually explains most of Fox’s misconceptions of the Viking past.

She moves through the show constantly talking about how “History tells us that women were subservient to men in Viking society” even though this is demonstrably not true. But for Fox and the fringe, it is true because they refuse to see the past in any other way than brutal and savage, male-dominated, where women and children play a role only as victims or prizes. Even when presented with evidence to the contrary, they cling to this image, because it’s necessary for other fringe narratives to be true.

This is evident when Fox says, “I think when most people think of the Vikings, myself included, we picture a very patriarchal society. Do you agree with that?”

And No, Moen doesn’t agree.

We cut to commercial to a flurry of epic music and return to the same with Fox telling us, “For decades many people have believed Viking women were just subservient housewives.” (Have you even read the Sagas?)

And now we move onto an actual controversy in archaeology, the Birka Warrior. From the abstract of the paper A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics, published in 2017:

“The objective of this study has been to confirm the sex and the affinity of an individual buried in a well‐furnished warrior grave (Bj 581) in the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden. Previously, based on the material and historical records, the male sex has been associated with the gender of the warrior and such was the case with Bj 581. An earlier osteological classification of the individual as female was considered controversial in a historical and archaeological context. A genomic confirmation of the biological sex of the individual was considered necessary to solve the issue. ” (Hedenstierna‐Jonson et al. 2017)

It is true that the Birka Warrior’s sex has been a topic of discussion for some time now, and being now genetically confirmed, has caused a stir academically. I mean yeah, there are a lot of people who seem to not be able to wrap their heads around the idea that one of the coolest Viking burials ever uncovered was for a woman. And yes, there have been a lot of laughable excuses offered up to explain why a woman would be buried with objects that were so clearly male. Yes, this is blatant sexism and yes it is occurring at the academic level. But this is not the simple “She’s a Woman” conversation Fox breaks it down as.

We know two facts about the Birka Warrior:

  1.  This is a Viking warrior grave, saying it’s anything else is frankly delusional. and
  2. The Birka Warrior is biologically female.

That’s it. Those are the facts.

“But the paper says she’s a woman!”

NO!

The paper said it was a biologically female person in the grave. We have no idea how that person was perceived or gendered by their society at the time, other than they were clearly revered as evidenced by their lavish grave. So, send me your hate, but thems the facts and that’s all I’m willing to say about it at this point.

This is where the weird not-sexist-sexism really begins to get noticeable. Fox goads Moen into making jokes about killing their husbands because they made at them. Because threats of violence against our spouses is funny! Haha…

This need to prove that women can be just as violent as men is weird. I mean it’s like the whole point of the show and it’s just fucking weird ok. Yeah, women can do just about any violent, cruel, mean thing a man can, but why is that so important to Fox and the show?

but anyway…

We’re on to Frojel, Gotland to see an active archaeology dig led by Dr. Dan Carlsson. This was apparently part of his field school that he leads up and you can go read about some of their finding on the site’s lovely website.

Carlsson tells Fox a little about the site and brings out a box of grave goods for her to look at. (props to Carlsson for not parading human remains on TV.) First, he hands her a lovely gold and silver box broach recovered from the woman’s grave, and Fox looks like he’d just handed her a dead cat. He tries to explain to her how this is a symbol of wealth and status and Fox looks like she couldn’t care less.

box borach.jpg

Then he hands her a piece of crystal and she gets this childlike awe about “it looks like magic!” It’s the first time we’ve seen her really show excitement, and it’s all about ‘magic’.

magic rock.jpg

Carlsson then tries to explain that there is a lot of evidence for trade in the graves he’s excavating, and he shows her a metal weight for merchant scales that was recovered in the woman’s grave. Fox’s mind is apparently blown. She reminds us that in her version of the past, Viking women were supposed to be home minding their families not off doing stuff, like making money.

Fox tries to stick it to Carlsson by telling him all he does is really just guesswork anyway so why can’t there be women warriors? Carlsson tries to politely explain that some people have preconceived notions about the past and that clouds the way they view things…

But now we’re on to Oslo, Norway, to the Viking Ship Museum to meet Leszek Gardela. Dr. Gardela is a researcher on the topic of Viking women with a heavy focus on women and weapons. He’s got a nice video explaining how grave goods are used to tell the apparent gender of the occupant here and talks about his current project,  Amazons of the North: Armed Females in Viking Archaeology and Old Norse Literature. He also has an interest in magical staves, which comes into play in a bit.

The first thing Dr. Gardela shows us is the truly impressive ship burial. Garela tells us that this burial held two skeletons, both woman. There were also a huge variety of artifacts found in the ship with the women, including weapons and an iron staff.

magic staff.jpg

There’s an interesting exchange here where Fox compares it to Professor Snape’s wand:

MF: “It’s like Professor Snape’s wand from Harry Potter”

LG: “Or like Gandalf’s staff,

MF: “Yeh…like Gandalf’s staff sure…

I’m just saying, what does she have against Lord of the Rings?

Now we cut away and Fox starts telling us stuff about magical staffs that I highly suspect came out of Gardela’s mouth and is not being attributed to him. She also 100% misses that ‘Volva’, what Norse female shamans are called, means ‘staff carrier’ or ‘bearer of the magic wand’ and shares the root word for the word for wand…its like where the whole concept of calling a magical staff a wand seems to come from and Fox just doesn’t even bring that up…it bugs me because it kinda shows how little research went into this episode.

She then completely mischaracterizes what Viking runes are, but I mean, most people don’t get that right. Still…it rankles.

Then she gets all creepy into the idea of a magic staff.

“Don’t you wonder who the first person was to decide that there was something magical about a staff and why? and maybe there was something magical about that first staff because they believed it?”

Gardela seems visibly uncomfortable with this conversation, probably because of how into it Fox seems. He tries to change the subject to Beserkers and I’m really supposed to believe that Fox has never heard of Viking Beserkers? Really?

This leads to a discussion about ‘magical herbs’ and the power of women that gave them unrivaled power on the battlefield, and I have a realization that … Megan Fox thinks magic is a real thing. Like really real, and she’s going to try and bend everything into something ‘magical’ in order to make it real.

Gardela tries to warn her that archaeology is always finding new things and looking at things differently, but we have to go to commercial break so meh…whatever…

We come back from the break to hear Fox, again, repeating this idea that women were just subservient housewives. She needs this to be true for this weird narrative of her’s to work (it’s not), and she’s decided that we need to turn to Viking Oral traditions to get to the truth of things.

We meet Maria Kvilhaug who is presented as a mythology expert. She basically sits down with Fox and tells her that women in the Eddas and Sagas are not painted as being “subservient housewives” and that there are several that are warriors, goddess, queens, volva’s and so on.

Now we’re off to meet a group of modern-day Volva’s, because this a religion and there are modern practitioners. There isn’t a lot to say here because this part is all about Fox going on a vision quest in the woods, and I mean…cool? But what does it have to do with proving her point that Viking Warrior Women are real?

So skipping this we go back to Oslo, Norway to the National Library of Norway to meet Kim Hjardar. Dr. Hjardar is an expert on Viking studies with a heavy interest in the Vikings at war.

For once, the amazing access to artifacts and history Fox has enjoyed this entire show seems to have some impact on her. As Hjardar shows her Byzantine accounts of Viking women warriors and shows her one of the oldest books to have accounts of same. Fox reads to us a passage from Saxo’s book. There’s an awkward moment when Fox tries to play the “I’m not like other women” card and then she gets flustered because “What’s frustrating to me is, what do we know about history for sure?”

megan fox reads to us.jpg

Hjardar tries to explain to her that history requires comparative sources to be considered valid. Fox then asks that if we have graves that show women with war goods that date to around the time Saxo was writing, then what does that means. Hjardar says that means that Saxo might have sources that convey objective truth. Fox looks unimpressed.

We then get treated to this voiceover, “Viking graves, Norse mythology, and now these texts are challenging everything we thought we knew about Viking women.”  No, these are literally how we know what we do about Viking woman, which is already everything you’re telling us. You are simply reporting what we already know and lying to make it sound like we don’t. *deep breath, deep breath*

Another commercial break and we’re back to hear Fox telling us ” I have discovered that Viking society isn’t the male-dominated patriarchy our history books have led us to believe. ” and yeah…I’m about done…This post is getting long.

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Ok, so we now meet Cat Jerman an archaeologist working on a Viking mass grave in England and she tells that of the ~300 individuals in the graves, 60 have turned out to be female. That’s about 20%. Also, this grave is full of people who have signs of violence from combat on their bones, so it’s pretty clear the females in the grave were there as fighters. Fox says some crap about women warriors changing everything and blah…at this point I get it, the show REALLY needs this to be true so they’re just going to keep repeating it till it is.

Then Fox says, “Were women part of the war machine or were they sent to the slaughter because they weren’t really respected warriors at all?” and again there’s a discussion about gender vs sex here but I don’t think Fox cares.

We’re taken to Saint Winstons’ Church because somehow it having very old catacombs answers the question of if women warriors were fodder or not.

We close with Fox again telling us “History books have said that Viking woman only adhered to conventional gender stereotypes”…actually they have clearly stated the exact opposite. Then “Human history is not written in stone.”

I mean…it kinda was for the Norse….(bad runestone joke).

In Conclusion:

If you’ve made it this far, gold star!

There was a lot of stuff in Legends of the Lost that bugged the crap out of me. But more, the show itself really bugged me. It’s almost the traditional formula of other shows like it, with one major expectation. Megan Fox is the first female face on these kinds if shows in my generation and it’s clear the directors wanted a certain image for her. In past shows, like America Unearthed, we’ve seen the male hosts be very active. They drive (a lot) they climb, they hike, they touch things, they examine things, they actively draw their own conclusions.

Fox is painfully not shown in this way. She’s taken places, told things, is very passive in her interactions with the professionals. It’s clear that Fox isn’t meant to be a driving force in the show, she’s meant to be a passive observer.  It’s a noticeable break from the formula, and I wonder if it will impact the show.

This one is also a little different because most of the on-screen authorities were actually authorities. They were also predominately women, which is a small miracle on its own.

Still, the show managed its own form of sexism, while trying not to be sexist, and it came off strange. Fox keeps bashing housewives like it’s something awful in favor of trying to push the narrative that a woman had to be masculine and violent to be respected. She missed entirely the story of the Volva’s and the merchant women, or that two well-respected women were evidently great leaders based not on their killing abilities, but quite possibly their perceived magical ones. She clearly never touched an Icelandic saga or the Poetic Eddas and so missed countless accounts of Viking/Norse women who were strong priestesses, guardians, goddesses, and mothers. She, and the show, had to make up a narrative of passive decorative women that doesn’t fit Viking lore in order to even have a show in the first place.

I know this is the only episode of the series that is going to be this palatable. Mainly because I know what the other topics area. I wish a topic like this hadn’t been handled in this way, because the life and activities of Viking and Norse women are very interesting, and there is a thriving body of work waiting to be tapped and tell all about them. The things Fox was able to get access too and see were amazing and wonderful, but it fell flat being shoe-horned into a very false narrative. Fox didn’t seem to appreciate the level of access she was given to artifacts and sites, only perking up when the possibility of magic was suggested.

But here were are, the first episode into the new Legends of the Lost, and we know what to look forward too.

 


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7 thoughts on “The Non-Mystery of Viking Women Warriors: Legends of the Lost Ep 2

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    1. I just got done having this discussion on Twitter and frankly this is an absolutely ridiculous argument against the Birka warrior. By this logic, why should we believe the male skeletons buried with swords, armor, shields and horses ever used them? It was all just decorative, so no male warriors ever existed because someone buried a baby with a sword and therefore every is null.

  1. Thank you very much for interesting post and fascinating observation on this episode!

    One remark, iron staff which was showed in this episode, was not discovered in Oseberg, but in boat grave 3 (Kaupang, Norway) [more info here: https://skaldic.abdn.ac.uk/db.php?id=30250&if=myth&table=mss%5D. Problem is that was not explained in the episode and edited in such way that this object seems to be part of the complex boat grave from Oseberg.

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