Vikings: Could a Real-Life Yara Ever Exist?

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Yara Greyjoy as portrayed by Gemma Whelan. Image: ©HBO Promotional Images.

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 .

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Lagertha in The Vikings, as portrayed by Katheryn Winnick © History Channel, linked via Wikia.

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?

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Yara commanding a longship. She told her father: “I’m going to pick the fastest ship in our fleet. I’m going to choose the fifty best killers on the Iron Islands. I’m going to sail up the narrow Sea all the way to the Weeping Water. I’m going to march on the Dreadfort. I’m going to find my little brother and I’m going to bring him home.”  ©HBO linked via Wikia.

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.

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Two high-status women wearing luxury clothing and aged approximately 55 and 70 were found in the Oseberg longship (housed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway). Image: Arnejohs on Wikipedia. Licensed via Creative Commons.

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

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A Viking spearhead would have been a “masculine” grave object. ©The British Museum.

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.

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A female Viking grave object: According to the British Museum, “This [silver] bracelet… would have been worn on the wrist by a woman, as a sign of high social status and wealth.” ©The British Museum

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.

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Balon Greyjoy makes his choices. ©HBO Promotional Images

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.

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High-status Vikings wore arm-rings like this gold one. For details, see here. (c) British Museum.

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.

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This nineteenth-century painting reimagines the death of the shieldmaiden Hervor. In the Norse sagas, Hervor became a shieldmaiden after her father died. Raised as a slave, she dressed, fought, and pillaged like a man. She even went by the male version of her last name. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, licensed through Creative Commons.

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

  1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagertha []
  2. “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 []
  3. Clover p. 15 []
  4. “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe” by Carol J. Clover in Representations p.4 []
  5. Don’t underestimate Viking women” by Arild S. Foss in ScienceNordic on January 2, 2013 []
  6. As described in the “Baugatal” (List of Rings) section of the Grágás – see Kings and Vikings and C. Clover. []
  7. Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700 1100 by P.H. Sawyer []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "Songs of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

14 Comments

  • Reply October 14, 2013

    KWolf

    Wasn’t there a Chinese female pirate that became so wildly sucessful the chinese government offered her a full pardon if she stopped pirating?

  • Reply January 4, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Yara made me think of the Grainne Ni Mhaille (who was Irish) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_O'Malley

    • Reply January 27, 2014

      Ray Feighery

      Somehow missed your comment before I posted mine. I asked GRRM that very question during Comic-Con as I indicated. A lot of the Ironborn politics are very Gaelic.

      • Reply February 2, 2014

        Watcher on the Couch

        That’s okay Ray F, – your posts are more in depth than my little link anyway. I don’t know if you are aware of the British documentary programme “Coast” from a few years ago. I know “Downton Abbey” [which I've never watched] and “Doctor Who” have crossed the Atlantic but I’m not sure which other shows have done so. I was watching a re-run of an edition of “Coast” on one of the “Yesterday” type channels recently and Neil Oliver, a presenter who has locks to rival Jon Snow, mentioned Grainne Ni Mhaille. I’m a bit of a historic whodunnit nerd so I love the “Sister Fidelma” by Peter Tremayne and “Mara of the Brehon” [sp?????] books by Cora Harrison. The Mara books have never to date mentioned Grainne but they deal with the west of Eire a littlebefore the British “takeover”.

        • Reply February 4, 2014

          Ray Feighery

          I think he’s just trying to avoid direct 1 to 1 comparisons out of concern that it will skew people’s perception of the story. Watcher on the Couch, I’m not familiar with those but definitely want to check them out!

          • February 5, 2014

            Jaime Adair

            I completely understand that. GRRM’s characters definitely aren’t based on any one character (nor are his plots based on one event). GRRM said once that he likes people to be holding their breath, fearing their favorite character truly is in jeopardy (nobody is safe). You can’t do that in historical fiction – that is, if everyone can find out what happens on Wikipedia, there’s no suspense.

            The other thing is that the way GRRM uses history is quite complex, and I think it would be tough to explain it in a sound bite in an interview. I have so much respect for his erudition and knowledge of history. Trying to analyze his work drives me to explore new areas of history. The depth of GRRM’s knowledge about the Fifteenth century amazes me. But, he knows quite a lot about other areas too.

        • Reply February 5, 2014

          Jaime Adair

          As far as I know, “Coast” isn’t in the US. I’d definitely remember a presenter with hair like Jon Snow. lol. I just picked up a copy of “Pirate Queen” by Judith Cook. I’ll have to check out the books you mentioned. They sound very interesting… Thanks for the tips!

    • Reply January 27, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      Also, Watcher on the Couch – thanks for this comment!

  • Reply January 27, 2014

    Ray Feighery

    As the Ironborn are not strictly Norse but Gaelic-Norse (Kingdom of the Isles) with some additional Celtic Irish political influences(9 Years War…) added a better comparison would be Grace “Graine” O’Malley who was a famous 13th Century Pirate and Queen of the Connaught from Ireland who commanded 100 ships. I got the chance to ask GRRM if she was an inspiration and he confirmed it.

    • Reply January 27, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      Ray, thank you, thank you, thank you – for sharing this comment. How exciting and cool! Did you ask him about any other historical figures or events?? Now that two people have noted the Grace O’Malley connection and GRRM has confirmed it, I’m definitely going to try to write an article about her. Frankly, I find Grace O’Malley absolutely fascinating.

      Please let me know if GRRM said anything else – that’s great information. Feel free to comment up here or email me. After spending hours doing the research for this blog, which I love doing, I have so much respect for GRRM and his truly vast knowledge of history. GRRM draws from so many areas it really pushes me to learn more and dig deeper.

      (BTW, I often try to search the web, Westeros.org, and other places to see if he has commented on any of his historical inspirations, but it is hard to track down everything he has said on the subject. So please let me know if you know of anything he’s said.)

      • Reply January 28, 2014

        Ray Feighery

        I’ve noticed he’s less likely to make direct comparisons in print but was fairly candid when I chatted with him briefly.
        I had already suspected the O’Malley connection as well as Celtic/Gaelic influences in the Ironborn ( I am of Gaelic Irish Ancestry)so I’ve gravitated toward them
        I said that I saw a lot of Celtic in the a ironborn and he nodded saying “Some Celtic and a lot of Viking” When I asked if Asha was influenced by Grace O’Malley? He said “Grainne? Oh Yes. We’ve had both a cat and a dog named after her!” So he’s clearly a fan!

        Historically the Isle of Man and Kingdom of the iles( sound familiar?) were populated by Norse-Gaels (or Hiberno-Norse) which were Vikings and Gaelic Irish who had intermarried. One of their Kings was “Harold the Black”.

        Ballon’s rebellion seems very reminiscent of the 9 years war where the Lords of zoster rebelled against England (and lost)

        • Reply January 29, 2014

          Jaime Adair

          Ray, thanks so much for sharing this. Seriously – I appreciate it.I definitely think I’m going to write an article about Grace O’Malley, (I started drafting it tonight, but it may take a while because I’d like to say something a bit more interesting than the standard stuff I could find on the web.) Grace and that whole period in Irish history with the Tudors are both so fascinating.

  • Reply January 29, 2014

    Jaime Adair

    I wonder why GRRM is reluctant to comment on the history in print. I could certainly see that he would be reluctant to try to explain the historical basis to people who don’t know about medieval history (because it is so complicated). In either case, very cool story about GRRM’s pets, your chat, etc.!!

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