Yara (Asha in the books) is an amazing symbol of female power, but was she based on real life? Would a Viking-esque culture ever have a woman commanding a fleet of ships?
At first glance, Yara seems like she might be a sophisticated version of the female super hero/warrior trope – a female powerhouse created to please a modern audience with no historical basis. If that is what George RR Martin had done, that would have been fine. After all, Game of Thrones is fiction and it should be entertaining. Yet, despite what one would assume, Yara has a strong historical basis in Norse legend.
Balon Greyjoy, the uncompromising battle-hardened raider, trusts Yara’s military leadership over that of his unfamiliar heir, Theon. In late medieval England, such a scenario would have been unheard of. Theon’s reaction exemplifies the late medieval mentality:
When Balon Greyjoy informs Theon that Yara will lead what is presumably the proposed attack on Robb Stark’s enemies, Theon protests, “She can’t lead an attack!”
“And why not?” Balon asks.
Theon turns to Yara and exclaims, “You’re a woman!”
Balon points out that Yara took over his eldest son’s ship after Ned Stark killed him: “She’s commanded men. She’s killed men. She knows who she is.”
Yara is collected, clever, and supremely competent. She tested Theon when he arrived in the Iron Islands, at Lordsport, by not revealing her identity – and she knows how to make an entrance. Yara may be a princess, but she is not the passive creature in the Disney-pink henin.
Yara and Real Life Female Viking Warriors
Surprisingly, Yara’s role as a warrior isn’t completely inconceivable. Viking folklore and mythology speak of shieldmaidens – women who chose to become warriors and fought alongside men. While these are just myths, chronicles mention women fighting in some Viking battles and some historic women are recorded as being shieldmaidens.
Lagertha, first wife of the famed Viking Ragnar Lodbrok (d. c. 840-65), was reputedly a shieldmaiden. (Lagertha is depicted in Michael Hirst’s The Vikings.) Historians note, however, that Saxo’s chronicles of Lagertha may be blended with tales of Norse deities1 .
Having a shieldmaiden character like Yara is in keeping with the larger epic fantasy tradition – notably The Lord of the Rings – which George RR Martin has frequently stated he admires.
Did Women Ever Lead Raids or Command Ships?
While it seems far-fetched that a woman in the male-dominated Viking culture may have led raids like Yara does, there are historical records that they did.
Norse women may have led real pirate-style Viking raids, such as the ones on England and Ireland. For example:
According to the medieval Irish text, The War of the Irish with the Foreigners , a “red girl” commanded a Viking band in Ireland and invaded Munster in the tenth century.
At the Oseberg burial site, archeologists uncovered a longboat with two women buried in it – the traditional burial style for powerful warrior king or chieftain. Archeologists like Marianne Moen believe this boat likely contained a powerful woman ruler and her servant2 .
Historians note that “fierce and imperious” women appear in Norse literature so often and with such consistency that they must have some real-world basis.
Archaeologists like Marianne Moen note that Viking gender roles may be a good deal more nuanced and complex that we might think. “To assume that Viking men were ranked above women is to impose modern values on the past, which would be misleading,” warns Moen.
Women Who Became Powerful
It seems that in Viking culture women became powerful when they were “exceptional” – when they could transcend the loathed state of powerlessness and, specifically, lack or loss of volition3 . Women with the will and the means to assume agency in their own lives may have become powerful. Such women had to possess the right combination of wealth, status, physical capabilities, and force of personality for, in all likelihood, the time, place, and probably her goals. Like many medieval cultures, women were more likely to be powerful – both legally and socially – when they were widows. But, widowhood was not a prerequisite to power. Women could inherit land and some came to hold sizable tracts.The Norse legends tell tales of women in assertive roles – funding voyages and imparting violence. A woman was the primary backer to one of the major Scandinavian expeditions to North America. Not only did this woman travel to North America, that winter, she pushed her husband to slay some of the men in the party and she axed their wives to death.
Even beyond death, graves attest to the capabilities of exceptional women. While the Norse usually buried women with “female” objects like spinning tools, archaeologists have found significant numbers of women buried with “male” grave goods, such as weapons, carpentry tools, and hunting equipment4 .
Some grave objects reveal more nuanced gender roles. According to Moen, “There have also been cases of male graves with beads and woven cloths, and women were sometimes buried with smaller weapons, for instance arrowheads. Generally it is fairly obvious what constitutes male or female objects, but the lines were sometimes blurred”5 .
Yara: Balon’s Surrogate Son
After Balon’s sons, Rodrik and Maron, die fighting in the Greyjoy Rebellion (against Robert Baratheon) and Theon becomes the Stark’s hostage, Balon makes Yara into his surrogate son. He gives her own longship and encourages her to raid. To give Balon his due, in spite of his numerous faults, he’s quite egalitarian.
When Balon decides to invade the North, he gives Yara a fleet of thirty ships to raid the Deepwood Motte but gives only one ship to Theon for the inglorious training task of raiding fishing villages. The message is clear. Gender aside, Yara has replaced Theon as Balon’s heir – if not legally, at least functionally. Competence, not title or gender, is the decision point.
Recorded Norse laws about blood feuds6 imply and document that people saw sole-surviving daughters, like Yara, as surrogate sons.
In medieval Scandinavia, if somebody killed a family member, the family had the right and duty to avenge the murder. Families could avoid blood feuds if the murdering family paid financial compensation to the bereaved in the form of silver rings7 .
Normally men wreaked the vengeance (or extracted the ring payment) – they were higher in the order of precedence. For families with only daughters and no sons, however, the law required the (presumably eldest) daughter to exact vengeance or receive payment. The Icelandic people called such daughters the “ring lady.” By law, this daughter functioned as a surrogate son until she wed. As historian Carol Clover comments about the Norse perspective: “Better a son who is your daughter than no son at all.”
Norse legends are stuffed full of tales of “maiden warriors” – unwed brotherless daughters who, after their fathers died, behaved, functioned, and even dressed like men. Given the relatively scant records of Norse peoples, it is hard to say how often such maiden warriors actually existed. If there is any truth in these legends, and it certainly seems possible there was, Yara’s masculine warrior uniform is very realistic.
Once Theon returns, Balon has the choice of a male heir or his “surrogate son” Yara. When he selects Yara to lead 30 ships, it is a testament to what matters to him: values over gender.
Above all, Balon wants to return to the Old Way – the old world, traditional Ironborn ways in which he was the king of an independent Iron Islands. Balon cares more for culture and adherence to his values (the “iron price” not gold or diplomacy) than gender-based expectations. Although it feels unfair to Theon, Balon chooses the child who embodies these values, Yara, over Theon — his male, but now foreign, heir.
By Jamie Adair
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagertha [↩]
- “Don’t underestimate Viking women” by Arild S. Foss in ScienceNordic on January 2, 2013 http://sciencenordic.com/don%E2%80%99t-underestimate-viking-women [↩]
- Clover p. 15 [↩]
- “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe” by Carol J. Clover in Representations p.4 [↩]
- “Don’t underestimate Viking women” by Arild S. Foss in ScienceNordic on January 2, 2013 [↩]
- As described in the “Baugatal” (List of Rings) section of the Grágás – see Kings and Vikings and C. Clover. [↩]
- Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700 1100 by P.H. Sawyer [↩]