Powerplay: A Viking Woman’s Triumph Over Her Abusive Husband

Halvdan_Svartes_saga-Tittelfrise-Gerhard_Munthe
A woodcarving from the Saga of Halfdan the Black

Viking women were strong. Their culture allowed them more freedom and social mobility than other societies in their day, and more responsibility was given to them in terms of the ownership and defense of the land. Yet often the women were, like their Christian neighbors, wronged by men; abused by husbands who regarded their wives as trophies in war. But the Vikings have many tales cautioning such men from doing harm to women. In particular, the Ynglinga Saga offers a poignant tale of caution in which one woman triumphed over her husband in a power play worthy of Game of Thrones.

It begins with an ambitious young man named Gudrød (also known as Guthröth) who inherited a petty kingdom in Norway around the turn of the century in 800 A.D. His father, Halfdan the Generous, had been a fair, albeit unassertive ruler who had spent most of his life raiding far-off lands. He died upon returning home from such an expedition from a “malady” and was buried in a mound at a place called Borró. Upon ascending the throne, his son Gudrød began immediately setting into motion his ambitious plans. He first married a girl named Alfhild, daughter of King Alfar of Alfheim. Through this marriage, Gudrød gained control of “half of Vingulmark” which is presumed to be a rather significant swath of land in the Oslofjord. Together they had a child, Olaf, and shortly after his birth Alfhild died. There is no mention as to the facts surrounding her death—perhaps it was another malady, perhaps murder. Gudrød certainly had the motive for murder. No sooner as she had died, he began negotiating with king Harald Granraude (the Red Beard) to marry his daughter, Asa, and in so doing acquire more land in the Oslofjord. Harald refused this offer.

Harald’s refusal gave Gudrød precisely the excuse he needed to initiate war with his neighbors. He attacked King Harald in a surprise assault at night and killed both Harald and his son Gyrd. He kidnapped Asa, forced her into marriage, and within a short time they had a son named Halfdan (later to be know as Halfdan the Black, who father Harald Fairhair, first king of Norway), who was presumably the product of repeated raping. But the new queen was displeased with her treatment with her new husband. In fact, she hated him for what he had done.

During an evening banquet at a neighboring farm, Gudrød drank himself into a stupor and stumbled to the edge of the water in the fjord to relieve himself. He was struck through the chest with a lance and “stumbling fell by Stiflu Sound.” When his men investigated the murder, they found it had been committed by Asa’s servant, and when asked about her involvement she, “did [not] conceal that is was done at her instigation.”

Gudrød’s men could not by law exact revenge on Asa, for she had not done the act of killing her husband. The servant, it is written, was killed on the spot. Asa returned to her father’s lands to raise her son and established herself as the ruler of those lands. Gudrød’s eldest son, Olaf, managed Gudrød’s lands until Halfdan came of age.

In the end, Asa triumphed over her husband. She had him killed with no consequence to herself, and lived in peace as ruler in her native lands. She raised a son who later consolidated his father’s lands as well as defeated his brother’s enemies to create a unified kingdom of Vestfold.

Asa’s power play is a central plot element in the novel The Line of His People.

For more on the Ynglinga Saga, you can read it HERE.

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