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Princess and Viking
By Cindy Vallar

In the late twelfth century, Saxo Grammaticus penned a sixteen-volume history entitled Gesta Danorum, Deeds of the Danes. Little is known about this Danish historian and poet, but his family probably lived in Sjaelland – Saxo, a family name, was common to the region. He was an educated man, for “Grammaticus” meant “the learned.” Since he wrote in Latin, he had some connection with the Church, yet historians believe he was more likely a cleric than a monk.

              Art: The Pirates Own BookVolume seven of Gesta Danorum contained a story of a Goth princess who became a pirate. While studying the writings of ancient authorities, Olaus Magnus (Olaf the Great) read about Alfhild. In 1555 this exiled Swedish scholar and bishop incorporated her tale in his Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, History of the Northern Peoples. Almost three hundred years passed before anyone else included Alfhild in a book on pirates. That man was Charles Ellms, a stationer who lived in Boston. Alfhild appeared in the first chapter of The Pirates Own Book (first published in 1837), but since Ellms relied on Magnus’ version, rather than consulting Saxo’s book, the account contained inaccuracies. The picture that accompanied the text showed Alfhild clad in garments reminiscent of Ellms’ time period, rather than hers.

None of these accounts appeared until long after Alfhild died, for she lived during the ninth century. She was the daughter of Siward, King of the Goths. “She continually kept her face muffled in her robe, lest she should cause her beauty to provoke the passion of another.” A woman’s virginity was highly prized in this time period, and being a princess, Alfhild might one day become the wife of someone with whom her father wished to form an alliance. For these reasons, Siward “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….” Her father also let it be known that “if any man tried to enter it [her chamber], and failed, he must straight away yield his head to be taken off and impaled on a stake.” (Saxo Grammaticus in Druett, 32-33)

It would take a brave man indeed to venture past such formidable guardians or endure death just for a beautiful maiden, but many young men tried. All failed until Prince Alf, son of King Sigar of Denmark, deemed the task worthy of his attention.
Then Alf…thinking that the peril of the attempt only made it 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. (Saxo Grammaticus in Druett, 33)
Neither Alfhild’s protectors nor Alf’s potential fate should he fail seemed to bother the prince who “excelled the rest in spirit and beauty.” How could this feat be any more difficult than what he did for a living? He “devoted himself to the business of a rover.” In other words, he was a Viking, and raiding, pillaging, and plundering were dangerous business. (Saxo Grammaticus in Druett, 32)

Aside from his handsome looks, Alf possessed intelligence that Alfhild’s previous suitors lacked. First, he swathed “his body with a blood-stained hide” to make the serpents act wild and contrary to their nature. He also grabbed a pair of tongs with one hand and in the other, a spear. The tongs held “a piece of red-hot steel,” and when the viper opened its jaws, Alf rammed the tongs “into the yawning throat of the viper.” He thrust the spear “into the gaping mouth of the snake as it wound and writhed forward.” Having slain both guardians, Alf won the challenge and awaited his prize – the fair maiden Alfhild. (Saxo Grammaticus in Druett, 33)

Siward thought Alfhild’s marriage to Alf would be a fine union, but he wanted his daughter to be happy.
He would accept that man only for his daughter’s husband of whom she made a free and decided choice. (Saxo Grammaticus in Druett, 34)
That Siward made this stipulation wasn’t unusual. Norse women had the right to refuse a prospective suitor, but the sagas traditionally portrayed a maiden as being agreeable to wedding the hero who risked life and limb for her. So everyone expected Alfhild to agree to the match and present Alf with the customary betrothal gift, a sword. After all, what’s not to admire in a man as handsome as she was beautiful and who was adventuresome and smart?

Conforming to societal expectations apparently went against Alfhild’s beliefs, for instead she dressed herself in masculine garments and went to sea to plunder and pillage. Or as Olaus Magnus put it:
For she so much preferred a life of valour to one of ease that, when she might have enjoyed the pleasure of royalty, drawn by a woman’s madness she suddenly plunged into the hazards of war. Her determination to stay chaste was so steadfast that she began to reject all men and firmly resolved with herself never to have intercourse with any, but from then on to equal, or even to surpass, male courage in the practice of piracy. (Druett, 35)
Saxo never explained how Alfhild managed to become a successful pirate, for she lacked all the skills necessary for successful seafaring and fighting. She somehow acquired the knowledge to operate a boat, to navigate by the sun and stars, the landmarks known to all mariners, the tides and currents, and the migratory patterns of birds. She and her crew, also women, learned to wield swords and axes. When they “happened to come to a spot where a band of rovers were lamenting the death of their captain who had been lost in war,” Alfhild succeeded in getting them to choose her as their new captain.

LongshipThere are no accounts of her exploits, but the Danes sent several expeditions to stop her plundering, which implies she was successful in her new career. Prince Alf led one of these hunts, and by the time he tracked her to a narrow gulf in Finland, Alfhild commanded a fleet of vessels that numbered more than he did. Even though he and his men were outnumbered, Alf chose to attack. They conquered boat after boat until he finally boarded Alfhild’s vessel. He “advanced towards the stern, slaughtering all that withstood him.” Borgar, Alf’s lieutenant, struck one pirate’s helmet and it tumbled to the deck.
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. (Saxo Grammaticus in Druett, 39)
When Alf realized who the pirate was, “he took hold of her [Alfhild] eagerly, and made her change her man’s apparel to a woman’s; and afterwards begot on her a daughter, Gurid.” Borgar also married, taking Alfhild’s second-in-command, Groa, to wife. After this, Alfhild disappeared from the historical record. (Saxo Grammaticus in Druett, 39)

Did Alfhild really exist? We don’t know. Feminist historian Nanna Damsholt, who studies medieval Danish women, doesn’t believe Alfhild ever lived. She and other warrior women are merely creations of men’s minds.
As images, I think they have meant a lot to people to whom these stories were told. So I think they are important not as examples of real persons but as impressive fictional characters. People in the Middle Ages did not distinguish as we do between myth and history. (Stanley, 79)
Saxo Grammaticus interrupts his story about Alfhild to let readers know that she forgot the traditional role women played in Norse society, that she “devoted those hands to the lance which they should rather have applied to the loom.” (Druett, 37) His account is biased toward the beliefs and Church preachings of his time period, rather than hers. After all, he wrote about her 250 years after the fact, and she lived prior to when the Norse became Christians. Also, when the male pirates selected Alfhild to lead them, Saxo says they did so not because of her skills, but because of her beauty. This blending of fact and fiction leads many historians to question the truth of Alfhild, yet genealogists who study the lineage of Scandinavian kings have confirmed that many of the people portrayed in the Norse sagas did live.

Could Alfhild have been a pirate leader? It’s possible. Queen Aud – proclaimed King of Dublin after the death of her husband, Olaf the White – led a navy that went to Iceland. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Alfred the Great’s daughter was a brilliant commander who campaigned with her brother against the Danes. So perhaps Alfhild did exist, but her story was embellished with the telling.

For additional information on Alfhild, I recommend the following:
Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates Across the Ages edited by Jo Stanley. HarperCollins, 1995.

Druett, Joan. She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea. Simon &
Schuster, 2000.

Ellms, Charles. The Pirates Own Book: Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers. Dover, 1993.

Historical Female Pirates

Klausmann, Ulrike, Marion Mienzerin, and Gabriel Kuhn. Women Pirates and the Politics of  the Jolly Roger. Black Rose Books, 1997.

Lorimer, Sara. Booty: Girl Pirates on the High Seas. Chronicle Books, 2002.

Ossian, Rob. Pirate’s Cove: Alvilda

Rogozinski, Jan. Pirates! Brigands, Buccaneers, and Privateers in Fact, Fiction, and Legend. Facts on File, 1995.

Selinger, Gail. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates. Alpha Books, 2006.
Sjoholm, Barbara. The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea. Seal Press, 2004.

© 2007 Cindy Vallar
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