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Thursday, January 11, 2024

Alfhild, the Viking pirate queen


They arrived at night, screaming and berserk, like a mad vision from the Book of Revelations.  Attacking with savage ferocity, they razed whole villages, slaughtered babies for sport, dissected captured leaders alive—from the back—and spread their entrails in an eagle pattern on the ground.  Arguably the finest seamen the world had produced, the Norsemen sallied out from Scandinavia, traveling vast distances over icy, storm-wracked seas, creating havoc and terror wherever they landed.

They rapidly became known as the dreaded “Vikings”—“sons of the fjords”—and their fine-lined oaken boats were called “longships.”  Between 70 and 100 feet long, the Viking longship was a double-ended, clinker-built craft of overlapped planks, iron-fastened and tightly caulked, yet flexible.  The sweeping bow was decorated with a snarling figurehead, often of a dragon or serpent.  There was only one bank of oars, for the sail was the important means of propulsion.  This was square, strongly sewn and beautifully decorated with bright silks and gold embroidery by Viking women.  The masts were often covered in gilt, and the rigging dyed red, and at the masthead there was a pedestal for a lantern. 

The oarsmen were also the warriors, and while rowing they hung their circular shields along the ship’s side for additional protection against wind and spray, enhancing the ferociously businesslike appearance of the craft.  Shields, when placed at the masthead, were used as signals too.  Such were the ships that breasted the rough Atlantic, and harassed the coasts of the British Isles and France, capable of penetrating hundreds of miles up rivers because of their shallow draft, and yet capable of freighting ten tons of loot back to Scandinavia, to be ceremoniously dumped at the feet of some king in his feasting-hall.   

These halls—often called “mead-halls,” though mead was in fact despised as a foreign luxury—and the celebratory feasts held within them were an important facet of Viking society.  The food was plain, being bread and un-garnished boiled meat accompanied by ale that was served in horns from a butt, but the etiquette was punctilious.  Despite the general drunkenness, shouting, fighting, and bone-throwing, men were seated with care, according to importance—and tales were told on an epic scale. 

While the diners listened raptly, their scops—or bards—told and retold the traditional sagas, adding and amending as they went, though keeping to a long-held form.  The narrative poem always began with a tribal history of the protagonist, often linking him to the great god Woden (Odin), and then this was followed by a stirring yarn which was amended according to whichever king or hero was being praised.  Kings were inevitably brave, generous, and just, and heroes could be recognized by their “fierce falcon eyes” and personal beauty.  Heroines, on the other hand, kept their eyes demurely lowered at all times, for it was well-known that a loose woman could seduce the strongest of heroes with one languishing glance.  Thus, according to the traditional formula, begins the epic tale of Alfhild, otherwise known as “Alwilda the Danish Female Pirate.”

The Alfhild saga was first recorded in the twelfth century by the Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus.  Very little is known about the author, save that he was a Dane, probably from Zealand, and that his family name—a common one—was Saxo.  The second one, Grammaticus, simply means “lettered,” and was endowed to him by a later biographer.  Written in Latin and finished shortly after the year 1200, Saxo’s Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”) totals sixteen volumes.  Alfhild’s narrative is in book seven.  In 1836 a Boston stationer, Charles Ellms, included an inaccurate summary of this tale in the first chapter of his Pirates Own Book, which purported to be a collection of “Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers.”  It was illustrated with a remarkable picture of “Alwilda” most unconvincingly attired in a version of eighteenth century dress—and that is the whole documentation of the saga of this warrior-princess.

“Hwæt!”—“Listen!”—is the conventional warning that a saga is about to begin.  It has an imperative sound, so that one can easily imagine the drunken diners in the feasting-hall obediently focussing on the scop, who, as silence falls over the great room, commences with the obligatory description of the genealogy and appearance of the saga’s hero, Prince Alf, son of Sigar. 

Sigar was a king who reigned over Denmark about the middle of the ninth century, and Alf, as was customary with heroes, “excelled the rest in spirit and beauty.”  Perhaps somewhat unusually, he “devoted himself to the business of a rover”—which meant that he was one of the many longship captains who ravaged the coasts of western Europe.   In other words, he was just another raider. As was common in the saga form, though, his hair was luminous, having such “a wonderful dazzling glow, that his locks seemed to shine silvery.” 

Then, the hero described, the bard promptly shifted to the heroine of the tale, who also adhered to convention—at the start, at any rate.  “At the same time,” wrote Saxo, “Siward, King of the Goths, is said to have had …

 a daughter, Alfhild, who showed almost from her cradle such faithfulness to modesty, that she continually kept her face muffled in her robe, lest she should cause her beauty to provoke the passion of another.  Her father banished her into very close-keeping, and gave her a viper and a snake to rear, wishing to defend her chastity by the protection of these reptiles when they came to grow up.  For it would have been hard to pry into her chamber when it was barred by so dangerous a bolt.  He also decreed that if any man tried to enter it, and failed, he must straightaway yield his head to be taken off and impaled on a stake

 Apart from the fanciful addition of the “viper and snake,” this was usual enough, heads on stakes featuring a lot in Viking literature.  Because capture-marriage happened so often—being part of the blood-feud ritual—kings’ daughters were very closely guarded.  Fathers and brothers would fight hand-to-hand for them, for princesses were important property, carefully kept to one side to be given as a reward to a hero, or to cement a political alliance.  It did not matter if the hero or the other king was already married, for polygamy was commonplace.  It was common, too, for the virtue of the heroine to be featured so prominently, for chastity was held in high regard.  If there was any doubt, the test of virtue was the pressing of the breasts until the nipples bled.  If no milk was admixed with the blood, the woman was considered falsely accused.  If someone imagined they saw a trickle of milk, then her nose was chopped off.

It seems that quite a few young men were willing to dodge the snake and the viper to court Alfhild, for there were a number of heads on stakes by the time Prince Alf took an interest.  Or, as Saxo phrased it, “Then Alf, son of Sigar, thinking that the peril of the attempt only made it the nobler, declared himself a wooer, and was told to subdue the beasts that kept watch beside the room of the maiden; inasmuch as, according to the decree, the embraces of the maiden were the prize of the subduer.”

At this stage of the story, Alf takes on some personality, demonstrating the stuff of which resourceful rovers were made.  He prepared himself by covering “his body with a blood-stained hide,” to work the serpents up into a mindless frenzy.  In one hand he held a pair of tongs gripping “a piece of red-hot steel” which he plunged “into the yawning throat of the viper,” and in the other, more conventionally, he had a spear, which he thrust “full into the gaping mouth of the snake as it wound and writhed forward.”

And so, in theory, Alf had gained the maiden’s hand.  Though her father, Siward, approved of the match, however, he had made the proviso that Alfhild should be happy about it—“he would accept that man only for his daughter’s husband of whom she made a free and decided choice.”  This is perfectly plausible, for in Viking society free women did have the right of veto, and sometimes even the liberty to find a fiancé on their own.  In sagas, however, it was as traditional for a woman to be complaisant about marrying the hero who had fought a strange battle for her sake, as it was for unsuccessful suitors to perish in nasty ways. 

If affairs had moved the way they usually did, the princess would have smiled demurely and assented to the match.  Prince Alf’s personal hygiene might not have been the best, for it was usual for Vikings to be flea- and lice-ridden, probably because of their furs—one lover bidding his love, “Maiden, comb my hair and catch the skipping fleas, and remove what stings my skin”—but, as we know, Alf’s luminous hair would have made the search tolerable.  And so, it is reasonable for the bard’s audience to have expected that Alfhild would present Alf with the usual maiden’s betrothal gift of a sword, and then that a ceremonious wedding would be followed by the usual noisy, drunken feast, complete with lots of bone-throwing.

A shock was in store for them, however.  Alfhild did not conform to tradition.  In fact, she demonstrated a rather startling character change.  Rather than agree to marry Prince Alf, she “exchanged woman’s for man’s attire, and, no longer the most modest of maidens, began the life of a warlike rover.” 

Somehow, miraculously, not only did she acquire the necessary seafaring skills, but she managed to recruit a crew of like-minded females, too.  A ship was gained by a stroke of luck, for Alfhild and her companions “happened to come to a spot where a band of rovers were lamenting the death of their captain who had been lost in war.”  According to the tale, the mariners “made her their rover-captain for her beauty,” but it is much more likely that she simply commandeered their ship—which, as it happens, was in accordance with Danish civil law at the time, one of the statutes declaring, “Seafarers may use what gear they find, including boat or tackle.” 

And thus Alfhild launched herself on the career of a raider, and “did deeds beyond the valor of women”—a most undomestic vocation.   Saxo Grammaticus, who had a remarkably Victorian approach to the different spheres of the sexes, certainly did not approve of it, breaking into his narrative to inveigh against women who, “just as if they had forgotten their natural estate,” preferred making war to making love, and “devoted those hands to the lance which they should rather have applied to the loom.”  Obviously, in the 250 years that elapsed before Saxo recorded this saga, Danish men had not only been Christianized, but had become opinionated as well.  

Vikings were not nearly so narrow-minded.   Their mythology included the valkyria—the great god Woden’s hand-maidens, who rode to battle in marvelous armor to decide who should live and who should die, and to escort the souls of heroes to his feasting-hall, Valhalla.   Woden himself did not jib at dressing up as a woman to get into the boudoir of a lass who had taken his fancy, and heroes were perfectly happy to accept the help of female warriors.  About 870 AD, just one generation after Alfhild’s time, Frey, the king of Sweden, slew the king of the Norwegians (another Siward), and put all his womenfolk in a brothel.  When Ragnar, the current overlord of Denmark, heard of this insult to his relatives, he went to Norway on a mission of vengeance.  When they heard that he was coming, the women dressed up as men, broke out of the brothel, and came to his camp to join his army. 

 Among them was Ladgerda, a famous valkyrie, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders.  All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman

 Incidentally, this saga followed convention.  Ragnar, understandably impressed, took to courting Ladgerda.  She set two beasts about her door in the usual obstacle course.  He speared one with one hand, strangled the second with the other, and caught her up in his arms.

Viking men did not mind boasting about beating women warriors, either.  An early female raider was Sela, “a skilled warrior and experienced in roving.”  Sela entered the literature when a fleet commanded by her brother Koll, who was king of Norway, was confronted by the longships of a hero named Horwendil, who wanted to formalize his ownership of Jutland.  Instead of commencing a naval engagement, the two admirals decided to fight it out in single combat on the beach of a nearby island—a thoroughly laudable arrangement that saved a lot of unnecessary bloodshed.  After a lot of chat in which they set the rules, they went at it.   Horwendil won, by the unexpected ploy of dropping his shield and wielding his sword with both hands.  First he chopped up Koll’s shield, and then he chopped off his foot, rendering him helpless.  Finishing off Koll was not enough to satisfy his bloodlust, however, so he challenged Sela next, managing to defeat and kill her, too.  

Other longship captains who had “bodies of women and souls of men” were Hetha, Wisna, and Webiorg.  Like Sela, this trio was perfectly happy to fight on land as well as sea.  Being strong and brave enough to fight on one’s feet was, indeed, was a prerequisite, for the design of Viking longships meant that naval battles could not happen in the open water.  Though perfectly capable of breasting the stormy North Sea, the boats were rather too delicately built for rams or catapults to be fitted, and they stove in rather easily, too.  And so, all combat had to be hand-to-hand, apart from short-range throwing of spears and axes. 

This happened to a formula, too. When two enemy longships came in sight of each other, the warriors would hold the boats still with their oars while the two captains leapt onto the forecastles and screamed insults at each other.   This was part of the “bear-sark” story, where warriors worked themselves up for the fight by bellowing, barking, and biting the upper rims of their shields until they foamed at the mouth.  Then, slavering with blood-lust, they would paddle alongside the enemy craft, grapple, and leap up and rush at each other with swords, axes, and clubs.  One famous hero, Arrow-Odd, went on record as grabbing up the tiller for use as a bludgeon.  The trick was not to stove in one’s boat while doing this, something that was impossible to avoid out in an open seaway.  And so, naval engagements had to happen in sheltered waters, or else, as with Horwendil and Sela, the dueling was relocated to a beach.

Obviously, in opting to abandon a soft, snake-guarded life at the palace to take on this kind of existence, Alfhild and her companions had accepted quite a challenge.  The Norsemen were consummate seamen, navigating by the sun, the stars, the tides, the ocean currents, and the migratory patterns of birds and whales, so the women had a great deal to learn.   Viking rovers were hardy, too, sleeping in leather sleeping bags with their weapons close to their hands.  This was usually on some deserted beach, their ships being drawn up on the sand and lashed together for safety, because longships were not well-designed for stretching out to sleep.  It was very difficult to cook in longships, too, so “strand-hewing”—or victualing with raw meat, which was eaten uncooked—was the rule.  Watches had to be kept around the clock, “uht”—the watch immediately after midnight—being considered the most dangerous.  There were dangers other than enemies, too, dragons and sea-monsters being particularly feared, as in the Icelandic hero Beowulf’s eald ­uhtsceaða, sede byrnende—“the ancient twilight foe, that vomits fire.”

Somehow, Alfhild managed.  She must have had some feasting-hall somewhere, even if it was some humble and secluded hut, for she and her companion valkyria would have had to have somewhere to recruit their strength, bury their treasure, and brag about their deeds.  Perhaps she even retained her own scop.  Like Viking men, she would have made light of all but the most serious wounds, keeping a faithful dog to lick cuts and gashes clean, but otherwise pretending they did not bother her.  She and her followers would have gone through some kind of blood “brotherhood” ceremony, pricking their hands until the blood flowed, and then pressing  the bloody palms together.  This ensured loyalty, for blood revenge was a serious duty, and were-gild would be extracted from foes who killed any of their number.  She would have had her chief officers—her “thanes”—created by ceremoniously holding out a sword by the blade, so that the new thane could take it by the hilt.

Coincidentally, about the same time in England, another princess, Æðelflæd, “Lady of the Mercias,” was equally active.  Daughter of Alfred the Great and wife of Æðered, the Alderman of Mercia and Governor of London, Æðelflæd was famous as a brilliant commander.  After her father’s death, she joined forces with her brother, Edward the Elder, to carry on the campaign against the Danes, proving herself to be one of the most capable generals of her age.  And so the two feisty warriors were on opposite sides.  If they ever encountered each other, however, it has not been recorded.  In fact, Saxo neglected to tell us anything at all about Alfhild’s roving.   It seems that she did very well, for by the end of the tale she had a whole fleet at her command.  It is what she did with her ships that is a mystery.

Perhaps she contracted herself out as a mercenary to some tribe in opposition to the Danes, or perhaps she had ambitions for a territory of her own.  She could have been a true pirate, preying on merchant shipping.  Not all Norse ships were battleships.  Peaceful sea-trade, in fact, was the Scandinavians’ major activity, furs, timber, amber, and Slavic slaves being carried to market in cargo ships called “knorrs,” to be exchanged for corn and foreign luxuries.   Whatever Alfhild did, we do know it annoyed the Danes, for a number of expeditions were sent out to quell this female nuisance.  

One of the parties was commanded by none other than Prince Alf.  After “many toilsome voyages in pursuit of her,” he finally tracked down Alfhild’s fleet in a “rather narrow gulf” in Finland.  Alfhild, who held the philosophy that attack was better than defence, immediately “rowed in swift haste forward.”  Alf’s men, on the other hand, believed that caution was the wiser part of valor, and “were against his attacking so many ships with so few.”  He, mindful of his reputation as a hero, paid no attention, meeting the charge head-on instead, and seizing one ship after another. 

Coincidentally, he was the one who boarded Alfhild’s ship, “and advanced towards the stern, slaughtering all that withstood him.”  Instead of losing her life, however, the Viking princess merely lost her anonymity, for Alf’s lieutenant, Borgar, struck off her helmet.  And, forthwith, “seeing the smoothness of her chin, [Alf] saw that he must fight with kisses and not with arms; that the cruel spears must be put away, and the enemy handled with gentler dealings.”

And so she lost her virginity, too, for Alf claimed what had been due to him ever since he had slaughtered her serpents.  According to Saxo, “he took hold of her eagerly, and made her change her man’s apparel to a woman’s; and afterwards begot on her a daughter, Gurid.”   In the meantime, presumably, he carried her onto his ship, and they forthwith set sail for Denmark—her last voyage, and without doubt an emotional one, for her probable fate was to be shut up in a palace again, away from the sight of the sea. 

 Þa wæs be mæste   merehrægla sum / segl sale fæst;     sundwudu þunede; / no þær wegflotan   wind ofer yðum / siðes get wæfde;   sægenga for, / fleat famigheals   forð ofer yðe *

* Then to the mast a sail, a great sea garment, was hoisted with ropes; the longship groaned as she breasted the waves, was not brown off her course by contrary gales, but lustily, foaming at the bows, skimmed forth.   Beowulf, lines 1905-09.