The appeal of the Viking warrior women story was an element of my first response to the popular reception of the 2017 article about Bj581. I argued that this is a focal point of many fantasies and aspirations for women as ‘powerful’. I identified the ‘myth-busting’ nature of the story, the identity politics dimension, as well as the valorisation of martial identities in Western society, and quite possibly white ‘northern’ societies.
More specifically, Dr Simon Trafford has expanded significantly on my thoughts in a fascinating new blog-post on the long-term history of fantasising Viking warrior women in 19th, 20th and early 21st century media. He then identifies two specific aspects of the current need to create female manifestations of Viking hypermasculinity in our popular culture: the feminist population of human history with female versions of the most extreme stereotypes of the barbarian, and the exponential rise of female superheroes. These points squarely link to the appeal of Viking warrior women, and Lagertha specifically in the TV show Vikings, as both readily accepted ‘historical’ realities and as super-heroic meme-ready icons. In this context the Birka Bj581 Viking-period chamber grave story is the material manifestation of Lagertha’s historicity. He concludes that this is: “the result of a perfect storm of factors that have created a large and diverse but highly appreciative audience for competent, sexy, deadly Viking warrior women.”
What I or others haven’t yet commented on is the influence of the TV show Vikings – the principal locus of the visualisation of warrior women through its principal character Lagertha, but also a range of others – on the physicality and visuality of both violent martial elite hypermasculinities and hyperfeminities. Specifically, I argue this is manifest through the escalating ceremonial and martial use of face-adornment – blood, tattoos, cosmetics and other substances as masks, linking martial, and ceremonial dimensions of elite identity in the show’s version of the Viking Age.
As much as effective weapon-use, Vikings visualises a warrior’s beauty as central. Make up maketh woman-warrior it seems, making them sexy, scary, powerful and otherwordly. Some of the ideas are inspired by Viking period sources: we know that hair & cosmetics were strategies of articulating social and religious identity in the period. However, much of the detail is artistic license of the show’s creators.
Our discussion begins with a non-gender specific theme: the use of blood in ceremonial contexts with and without a martial dimension. Human and animal blood of sacrificial victims is also smeared over faces and bodies. This is done presumably to initiate the slayer as officiants, and to integrate them into the sacrificial act of communication with the spirit world and the pagan gods. In Season 1, King Horik presides over animal and human sacrifices at Uppsala and paints blood onto his cheeks. Jarl Borg and Rollo are sprinkled with blood by a priest before going into battle at the outset of Season 2. Bjorn slays a captive warrior as a sacrifice to the gods, thanking them for victory in battle against Jarl Borg in Season 2. Lagertha then oversees a cow’s sacrifice as a fertility rite in Season 3, the blood is poured all over her, she paints her own face with it, and then she leads others in casting the remaining cow’s blood across the fields.
In addition, during seasons 1-4 of the TV show, both elite male and female characters increasing display cosmetics and eyeliner in particular. All free women do this. For men, this is most prominent with Floki, seemingly it is an material expression of his distinctive and otherworldly nature: his cosmetics set him apart socially, sexually and spiritually, linked to his specialist craft as a ship-builder as well as as an elite warrior.
In ceremonial contexts cult-leaders and priests bear full face paint too, masking their appearance and setting them apart from others. We are shown shaved-headed priests with full face paint first in Season 1 at Uppsala and we meet them later in Season 4 in multiple scenes, as here at Queens Aslaug’s funeral. In this scene, the musicians at the funeral also seem to wear face paint.
A significant development of this use of face paint is to extend it from priests and ritual specialists to the secular elites presiding over ceremonies. Ragnar dons striking gold, red and black face-paint as chief officiant at Yol in Season 4, denoting his cultic role in the fire ritual.
Queen Aslaug also bears striking red and black face paint whilst performing her role as a volva and entering a trance state. Face-paint we can suppose denotes both priests and male and female elites performing roles as cult leaders: in the show then, elaborate face paint is worn for specific occasions only, for people serving as intermediaries with the supernatural.
Toning it down a bit, Lagertha in Season 4 performs a human sacrifice with her cheeks and bottom lip adorned with gold paint.
In Season 5 part 2, things go hyper-crazy and the supernatural association of face paint is made clear when King Ivar declares himself a living god and performs a human sacrificed dressed with a crown of raven skulls and full white face paint with red (blood?) running from his eyes. His queen, Freydis, goes down the same route.
Face-tattoos are also introduced from Season 4 as a distinctive feature of the elite warrior brothers Halfdan the Black and Harald Fairhair who come from elsewhere in Norway. Here, we find a specific link to martial elite status and facial transformation in a more permanent fashion, but also a sense of the variability in bodily practices, linked to different hairstyles too. Floki also gets a prominent runic tattoo on this head.
For warrior women, however, this tattooing isn’t adopted above their neck-line (for Astrid it spreads right up her neck). Instead, as mentioned above, striking cat eyeliner is a feature of women of free status: warriors or not.
The most significant difference, however, is for women who achieve the status of captains and queens: the cat eyeliner is prominent again but a full ‘modern’ cosmetic composition is presented: perhaps serving in the show as a visual short-hand for their premier female status.
Kathryn Winnick’s martial arts skills and versatile acting make her evolving role as shieldmaiden, earl and queen convincing. Yet, there is a significant new feature to the escalating cosmetics that appeared specifically and only at the end of Season 5 part 1, episode 10 – Moments of Vision: it serves to project the visual power of the elite Viking warrior woman. Linked to status, the supernatural but specifically to battle, we see for the first time face paint worn when going to war. Note: this was first aired only in January 2018. High-status women in battle now adorn themselves with striking face paint.
The Sami component deploy forest camouflage paint befitting their concealment tactics (in the show: not in historical reality). This might be seen as exceptional – as ‘not Norse’.
Most prominently, Lagertha wears a black mask over her eyes. This is terrifying and cat-woman superhero-esque. Enhanced by the contrast with flashbacks of her without face-paint from before the battle: Lagertha is first shown dressed like this as she strides into battle with her son and step-son. There’s no doubt that this is an adornment for the battlefield only.
I wonder if the inspiration for this is taken from earlier generations of Hollywood warrior women: including Keira Knightly as Guinevere in King Arthur (2004) and the dark eyeliner of Eva Green as Artemisia in 300: Rise of an Empire (2014). One might also cite a range of female super-heroes, but in a Norse context, Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) is the closest possible influence.
(See now comments below who have identified further viable warrior-women ancestors with this make-up in horror/sci-fi genres). Whatever the case, in Vikings this distinctive face-paint for Lagertha and other Viking warrior-women is a significant and recent development within the series, and is much more prominent than even Hela’s eyeliner in Thor: Ragnarok. It transform’s Lagertha’s appearance and takes face-paint out of the ceremonial context and into the realm of the elite martial woman for the first time. The black cat eyeliner also gives her a supernatural steampunk look which might be seen as linking Lagertha to the almost-mourning and ceremonial role of her in this battle. She slays her lover and she is seen in a vision fighting with skeleton warriors (like in Jason and the Argonauts).
Blacking Up Goes on Tour 1 – Legends of the Lost
Now here’s the really interesting part. For even though Lagertha in Vikings only takes on this particular ‘look’ in one episode, it has already started to go ‘viral’ as a media signature for all Viking warrior women. This is fascinating in itself, and shows TV dramas informing TV documentaries and other shows in a powerful and misleading fashion.
While I’ve been generally positive about the academic contributions to the first episode of Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox, I remain critical of the simplistic overall narrative supported and extended in no small measure by the re-enacted scenes of Viking martial activities. For this, there are two sets of evocative representations that flit on screen between interviews with academics.
The first you see back-lit by the sun in Scandinavian pinewoods: a man is passive while a warrior-woman wields a sword. Mysteriously, her face is made-up but difficult to immediately discern, until one realises her features are deliberately obscured in some way. With what? Then I realised! What is striking is that the LOTL warrior woman has Lagertha’s Vikings black face paint! It’s only seen fleetingly but it is evident, and aired within a year of the Vikings Season 5 episode 10! This is a direct Vikings transplant to LOTL – TV fiction to TV documentary!
A second scene is shown later in the episode in association with discussions of supernatural women. A night-time scene with torches shows a male warrior and a warrior-woman who again has matched Lagertha’s style exactly, in terms of a black face paint mask. So the re-enactors used, or director’s decision, is to make a striking visual link from Vikings to the kinds of women warriors envisioned in Fox’s programme.
Blacking Up Goes on Tour 2 – Doctor Who – Resolution
Vikings had only appeared in Doctor Who last in season 9 – The Girl Who Died (2015). They still had horned helmets and all warriors were male! Yet they were back (briefly but significantly) in the New Year special – Resolution – closing season 11 and they are transformed even in the brief scenes depicted!
What is different now from the Capaldi-era Vikings is that, rather than showing a girl aspiring to be a warrior with bravery rooted in intelligence and foresight, we have a short glimpse of full-blown warrior women as an integral part of Viking conflict culture. To reiterate, what is different is that now (a) Viking warrior women are there as one of three elite warriors who survive a 9th-century battle against a dalek, and (b) yep, she’s got Lagertha’s black face paint when going to face the dalek in battle! Later, when she’s off in ‘Siberia’ concealing the dalek fragment, she has removed her face paint, making it clear this is a specific battlefield aspect of dress.
The visual impact of television and its dramatic components tell the story more than anything a presenter says or experts waffle about. Overtly fictional and fantasy representations still convey a sense of a feasible mode of past human behaviour: the warrior woman. We now see the germ of how make up, as well as female weapon use, is being deployed as a visual signature of the historicity of the phenomenon. This isn’t about sexualising the warrior women primarily, but about creating a distinctive, memorable and intimidating appearance which helps to assert a distinctive feminine version of barbarian hypermasculinity that Trafford’s blog identifies. Most notably, this is a conversation between different TV programmes, not with anything historians or archaeologists can contribute towards. Now it seems, on TV, make up maketh the warrior woman!