Vikings & Spartans: Women in a Militaristic Culture

Throughout history, the more militaristic culture is, the more it tends to value feminine power.

I had this epiphany when a friend and I were discussing how some people – in particular, some readers of fiction – are absolutely convinced that ancient women were treated poorly, with no rights, and spent all of their time barefoot and pregnant popping out babies. Everyone acknowledges a handful of exceptions – Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc – as just that: exceptions.

There is this idea that history is a “march of progress” that authors sometimes run afoul of. I once wrote a bronze-age fantasy novel where I mentioned three-story buildings, and readers were convinced that this was impossible, despite the fact that some of the most ancient buildings we know of – like Sumerian ziggurats – were sometimes upwards of seven stories. The mere mention of a sewage system inspires most readers to assume post-Roman technology, even though Mesopotamians had clay sewer pipes six thousand years ago.

Despite the assumptions of Renaissance thinkers, civilization did not, in fact, begin with Classical Greece and Rome.

A map of the Levant with Natufian regions across present-day Israel, Palestinian territories, and a long arm extending into Lebanon and Syria

In fact, the earliest civilizations began on the eastern side of the Mediterranean in the Levant region.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this phenomenon, because it’s ubiquitous and sites like Rejected Princesses and Medieval POC do a more comprehensive job of demonstrating this than I can here. It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into all the ways that history is filled with examples of strong women and cultures that allow women power. Still, it is that phenomenon that inspired my thoughts on the relationship between a warlike culture and female power.

Four Examples

Women in Sparta were so powerful that Athenian Greeks castigated their enemy’s “feminine greed” and prophesied that its powerful women would lead to the city-state’s downfall. 

The Norse, through they were certainly a militaristic culture that raided and pillaged, were comparatively unlikely to commit rape. European women lost power as a result of the Renaissance and move away from Feudalism, a system in which “running a household” was a lot closer to “administering the kingdom” than “cooking and cleaning.” While yes, female professionals in Medieval Europe spent a lot of time on child-rearing tasks, as is unavoidable in any society without good access to baby formula and birth control,  they were able to do a lot more than women during the Renaissance. At least, Christian women.

Jewish women like Licoricia of Winchester, by contrast, were comparatively powerful during the Middle Ages.

Even the Tuareg of Africa, a militaristic culture renowned throughout their history as mighty and respected warriors, have matrilineal descent and a history of powerful women. 

Oh, and the Amazons? They were real.

Ancient Greece

The militaristic climate in Ancient Sparta led to women having a higher social value than their Athenian counterparts. — The Enigma of Spartan Women

In a lot of ways, the founders deliberately modeled American society on Ancient Athens. My district’s curriculum uses Greece to teach about different forms of government, and it’s always Athens that we teach as the birthplace of democracy (although this is … arguable. The history of democracy is beyond the scope of this post, but there is evidence that pure democracies existed in Latin America before the Columbian era, and some evidence that democracy in Greece didn’t originate in Athens, either.) 

When I teach about the Peloponnesian War, I’m supposed to teach my students to compare and contrast egalitarian Athens, with its grand philosophers and golden age, with the Spartan oligarchy by contrast being fairly brutish. When Greece is taught in schools the lessons are, by necessity, vastly oversimplified… and in some ways deliberately manipulated.

The American system of democracy was very deliberately modeled in Athenian government, so as a society we’re mostly unwilling to take a hard look at what life in Athens was like for most people. We hear about the slave revolts in Sparta leading to the Peloponnesian War, but often fail to mention that the Athenians also practiced slavery.

Washing table at the mines of Laurion

In turns out that Athenian men were happy to force other people to mine the silver they used for trade.

We hear about the brutish training regimen Spartan children underwent, and how weak Spartan children were left on hillsides to die. Our movies show the harsh values that tell Spartan soldiers to win or die trying. It’s only recently that we’ve started to teach children about how common female infanticide was in ancient Athens. Yet we don’t spend much time thinking about the way Athenian women weren’t educated, the incredible restrictiveness of women’s lives, or Socrates’ terrible relationship with his wife.

The point is not to demonize Athens, but rather provide context for just how radically feminist Sparta seems by contrast.

As part of a distinctly militaristic culture, Spartan men were involved with the military. They served until well into their middle age — retirement was at age 60. As such, Spartan were unable to leave their women to languish, uneducated and underutilized the way Athenian traders did. Spartan educated its girls and boys, though separately. This separation, though, often meant that the girls were more literate, because they spent proportionally less time mastering physical pursuits. Spartan women were, however, expected to exercise and be healthy, because healthy women produced healthy children. Barred from wearing makeup, the Classical world considered them naturally beautiful.

A warrior culture must prioritize health and fitness.

In this painting by Maarten van Heemskerck Helen, queen of the Greek city-state Sparta, is abducted by Paris, a prince of Troy in Asia Minor.

Helen of Troy was widely considered one of the most beautiful women in the Classical world. She was also Queen of Sparta.

Because Spartan men were so often off at war, Aristotle reports, 2/5ths of Spartan land was owned outright by women. Spartan women, unlike Athenian women, inherited property from their parents. Spartan women married later than Athenian women, often in their early twenties. Leading Athenian philosophers like Aristotle were convinced that it was the power of its women that would ultimately lead to Sparta’s downfall, because he felt that women are naturally more greedy than men.

In fact, Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War at the height of the Athenian “golden age,” refused to outright destroy Athens despite Corinthian demands, and didn’t fall from power until Thebes allied with Persia and took control of Greece.

Vikings

The friend who inspired this post, Jerry Quinn, has written a book set in the Viking era of Norse history. It’s the true story of a Frankish princess who killed Viking kings, which means I hear a lot about Scandinavian legal codes from the 900s.

Although a lot of Viking law was handled orally, we do have some written evidence about the era.

Legal codes tell us a lot about a society. For example, unlike many contemporaneous societies, the Norse of this time allowed women to initiate a divorce and required that a man divorced for wrongful conduct pay her alimony. Wrongful conduct in this context was pretty broad, but included physical abuse, abandonment or even cowardice. Norse men were absolutely forbidden from rape, or even giving women milder forms of unwanted attention like kissing without permission. More importantly, there is evidence that sexually harassing behaviors were rare in Norse society despite the militaristic culture, probably rarer than they are even in ours.

Yet Vikings had difficulty finding wives, probably due to a combination of polygamy and female infanticide. Female children were often exposed, probably due to limited resources for dowries. The situation seems to be the opposite of Athens; women were respected in Scandinavia, so why kill infant girls? Resource limitations is the only reason that makes sense to me.

Vikings certainly disrupted the European coasts and waterways in search of loot. Still, it’s no surprise that in a militaristic culture like theirs, men were expected to go armed. They had to be prepared to fight, even the ones who were in a position to focus on farming. Others defended trading caravans or raided for a living. Young men formed “military brotherhoods” (read: gangs) and raided for food, money, and women. Scandinavian men were hardly alone in this, though, and Viking raids weren’t as bad as the Carolingian raids that also occurred frequently at this time in history. Vikings were less prone to rape (though they did sometimes kidnap women) and the sorts of destruction one sees in modern sports-related riots,

The early Vikings especially tended to target churches instead of towns. Most of the chroniclers who describe Viking raids were monks. I’m sure this had nothing to do with the Vikings’ bloodthirsty reputation.

This isn’t an accident. Viking culture, like many militaristic cultures, prioritized honor. I suspect that they were more likely to see women as people than the Carolingians. Women in Scandinavia ran businesses, and those who lived in town were often skilled textile workers. Due the Scandinavian climate, farming involved proportionally more animal husbandry than planting crops. Herding, milking goats, plucking (not shearing) sheep, feeding pigs, and raising chickens are not tasks that require a great deal of strength. Women were left in charge while men went exploring, trading, and raiding — sometimes for years.

There is biological evidence of relative equality between the genders: teeth enamel and femur lengths were relatively equal between men and women. In less equal societies — like Athens — women get worse food and fewer opportunities for exercise.

Tuareg

The Tuaregs are nomadic Berbers from the Sahara Desert. They are mostly herders and traders, though their reputation is very much that of a militaristic culture. The Fremen of Dune are based on their lives and culture. Many live in Mali, but like the Kurds who serve as America’s allies in the Middle East, and the Basques currently fighting for autonomy in the Pyranees region, they are spread across many countries.

Like Carthage, founded by Elissa of Phoenicia (better known as Dido), the Tuareg originated from a woman leading them to a new homeland. Tin Hinan’s influence and power is not unique to Tuareg history. Inheritance is matrilineal, women choose their own husbands and own their own property that their husbands cannot touch. Though the Tuareg are nominally Muslim, it is common for Tuareg women to have male friends. It is men who take the veil.

Artist's representation of Tin Hinan, an ancient queen of the Hoggar

Tin Hinan is another great example of a powerful woman leader Western scholars were sure was mythical… until they found her tomb.

Like the Fremen — the single most militaristic culture in the Dune series — the Tuareg are notable warriors. When Imperialism-induced poverty drove young Tuareg men to Libya, the Libyan leader Qaddafi specifically recruited the Tuareg his military. In the modern day, this led to Tuareg men being disproportionately experienced in warfare.

In the pre-Colonial era, the Tuareg dominated Saharan trade. Like the Vikings, they were not beloved by their neighbors; they gained a reputation for robbing the caravans they were supposed to be protecting. Their evident habit of sometimes launching  surprise attacks on their allies led one 1920s scholar to describe them as “mendacious.” If a militaristic culture is aggressive, they certainly count. They were known to be brutal warriors, honorable in their own way and according to their own customs. Baron Rennell, a British Major-General who fought in WWI, reports that Tuareg women were incredibly free not only compared to other North Africans and Muslims, but British women as well.

Scythians

The Scythians (900 BCE – 200 BCE) were, like the Mongols (1206-1368 CE) and the Huns (370-469 CE), horse-based nomads from the central plains of Eurasia. Most of our records about them come from the Greeks, but just because Amazons show up in Greek mythology doesn’t mean that they weren’t real. Though stories may have been exaggerated, archaeologists have a way of proving that history becomes myth.

In this frieze from the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae, Amazons charge the Greek army. They are winning until Achilles slays the Amazon Queen, Penthesilea.

In the Greek myths, Amazons were respected enough to be considered the equals of even heroes like Achilles.

Although there’s a lot we don’t know about the Scythians, since we haven’t found much in the way of writing or art from them the way archaeologists have evidence of more sedentary, agricultural societies, we do know that they buried women with weapons — and that many of their women bore battle-scars. The thing about subsistence living is that everyone contributes or the tribe can’t survive. When survival is dependent on horses and small, powerful bows, testosterone has a smaller impact on prowess.

Women in the Mongolian Empire had high status compared to their Persian and Chinese counterparts. They could own property and had a voice in politics. Toregene Khatun (the Great Empress) ruled outright and had at least one powerful female advisor and several female governors. This is at least partially because during the time of the Mongol Empire, many men were off at war. But Mandukhai Khatun, who reunited the Mongol Empire in the 1470s, faught even when she was pregnant. It wasn’t just the absence of men that allowed for this.

Unfortunately, modern Mongolian women have it pretty rough. Then again, modern Mongolia isn’t a particularly militaristic culture anymore.

In Our Lives

The American Icon of Rosie the Riveter was born in WWII-era America. While their men were off at war, American women stepped up and did “masculine” work. They excelled — until the men came home. CE Murphy has a great urban fantasy novel set in this era that does a nice job of showing what it must have felt like for a lot of those women — emotions that ultimately led to Second Wave feminism

Over the century that the Kurds have fought for independence,  the women of Kurdistan have sought equality. Over a third of the Kurdish fighters are female (over twice the percentage of women serving in the American military, despite America’s technological advantages). Kurdish women have been fighting in Middle Eastern wars since at least the 1800s. In autonomous Kurdish regions, gender equality is enshrined in law. There are more women in Kurdish government than in the United Kingdom. This, despite being geographically surrounded by some of the most gender-restricted countries in the world.

Lady Adela (center), ruler of Halabja, meeting with Major Soane in 1919.

Many photos of Kurdish women focus on the warriors, but Kurdish politicians are equally if not more impressive. Lady Adela ruled one of the biggest Kurdish tribes in the 1910s and 1920s.

Misogynists like to crow about their “manliness” and warrior spirit and strength. They imagine that they share something in common with the cultures media tells us have the strongest, most “alpha” men. They are, frankly, ignorant (and awful). From a historical perspective, misogyny is negatively correlated with reputation for battlefield strength.

It’s something to consider the next time I’m developing a fictional warrior culture. Or, you know, talking to a neo-fascist.

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing books that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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5 Responses

  1. Kassandra says:

    Such a great article! I’m going to do some more research into Viking law and culture for my next book. Any suggestions?

    • Eleanor says:

      Thanks! I’ve asked Jerry to swing by and comment in more depth, but I would start with JSTOR. Access is wide open right now because of COVID-19.

    • Jerry Quinn says:

      There’s a number of free resources that should get you started. First, read through two sources Eleanor linked above: Hurstwic and Viking Answer Lady. Both are excellent and full of references to full text academic sources. There’s also several youtube channels I’d recommend: Extra Credits History, Kings and Generals, Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen, and Voices of the Past. I donate to all their patreons because I use them so heavily. In particular, I strongly recommend donating to Voices of the Past because he specialises in obtaining full-text original sources and reading them out loud. Original sources are frequently very difficult / expensive to access because they’re kept in some museum or university library, are not transcribed online in your language, and one has to both fly there and present relevant academic credentials to be allowed in. I’m all for him being funded to do that legwork for me. Finally, I recommend subscribing to the mailing list of The Longship Company, a nonprofit that operates a recreated viking ship off the coast of Maryland.In addition to a lot of mundane minutae coordinating voyages, the members are all enthusiasts who are first to know about any new archaeological discovery or academic analysis, and will immediately forward links to the list.

  2. Corinne says:

    Very interesting! I always thought that all cultures treated women the same: uneducated, illiterate, good only for wives and mothers. The discussion about Spartan women, especially, is very interesting. My current WIP is a fantasy with a country loosely based on eighteenth-century France, but I’ve got another series planned with a completely original culture that I like to call a feminist Lord of the Rings lol, and that culture definitely treats women as equally competent to men–the only time they’re not allowed to pursue battle training is when they’re pregnant. Otherwise, they serve in the royal military and have positions of power, just like men.

    • Eleanor says:

      Oh, I’m glad I was able to expose you to a different perspective, then! There’s actually a ton of evidence that a variety of ancient cultures treated women well at different times. Egyptian women for example owned their own businesses, could own and sell property, and serve as witnesses in court cases.

      A lot of the literature is just really, really biased. For example, consider this statement from Wikipedia: “Few ancient civilizations enabled women to achieve important social positions. The same is true for ancient Egypt. There are only very few examples of women as high officials. Only very few women made it into the highest office, that of Pharaoh. One example of a woman in a high state position is Nebet who became vizier in the Sixth Dynasty. The vizier was the highest state official, second only to the king.”

      Then consider if we wrote about the modern day the same way. “Few modern countries enable women to achieve important social positions. The same is true for modern America. There are only a few examples of women as high officials. No women made it to the highest office, that of President. One example of a woman in a high state position is Clinton, who became Secretary of State in the 2010s. Secretary of State is the third-highest official of the executive branch of the federal government of the United States, after the president and vice president.”

      Would you still think that women in Egypt had it so much worse than we do?

Let me know what you think!