The Shetland Islanders have held spectacular fire festivals celebrating their islands’ Scandinavian Viking heritage for over a century, but this year will herald the first female Chief Viking in Shetland history. Primary school teacher Lesley Simpson, 49, of Bigton is preparing to hoist her shield for tonight’s South Mainland Up Helly Aa procession, during which she will take the principal role: that of Guizer Jarl (Chief Viking), figurehead of the entire festival.
The event is one of several spectacular torch-lit processions held across the Shetland Islands annually. Simpson’s victorious procession at the head of a 400-strong mixed-sex Viking horde will be a far cry from the main Up Helly Aa festival; the latter, held in the capital city of Lerwick, does not allow female participants. But the BBC reports that women have been playing a more substantial role in festivals held in the islands’ smaller communities.
The Shetland Islands are a subarctic archipelago squished between Great Britain and Norway. Officially Scottish, the hundred-or-so islands are as close to Norway as to Aberdeen. In the early 8th and 9th centuries the Vikings travelled to the islands looking for land and stayed on as rulers for the next half millennia—swapping, quite literally, the sword for the plowshare. Certain Norse customs survive on the islands despite the intervening years of Scottish rule, and the Up Helly Aa celebrations were begun in the 1880s, as a means of keeping the Viking influence alive.
The South Mainland celebration at which Simpson will make her norm-defying appearance is the newest of the Shetland festivals, according to The Shetland Times. The festival’s website explains that this evening’s festivities will involve “a series of visitations, culminating in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a galley made each year.” The pyromania is followed by hours of performing and dancing.
Despite choosing to impersonate the fearsome-sounding Aud the Deep Minded, Simpson told the Times that issues of gender equality and female emancipation have not been foremost in her mind. Instead, the headteacher of Dunrossness Primary School said that she empathized with the formidable woman’s propensity for bossiness and forward thinking.
Aud appears in several of the Norse Sagas. Born in 834, she fled from Norway to escape a tyrant and ended up marrying Olaf the White, King of Dublin. After Olaf died in battle, the resourceful Aud built a longboat, assembled a crew of twenty men, and proceeded to command them fearlessly. She eventually traveling to Iceland, and is considered one of the country’s major founders. “I’d love to have met her,” Simpson said.
According to Shetland News, the festival committee ruled in 2009 that both men and women were eligible to become Guizer Jarl. Simpson has known since 2010 that she would be taking the top spot. “It has been a long build up, five years of knowing that this was going to happen, five years of people talking to me about it and wishing me the best with it and it is going to be a wonderful day,” she told Scotland Now. She will attend the procession in true Viking warrior style, complete with axe, shield and armour.
The first female Guizer Jarl comes at a time when our understanding of the role of Norse women is being radically revised. Last December, scientists conducted DNA analysis that gave the lie to the previously accepted stereotype of male-only Norse raiding parties. Instead, maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA taken from Viking graves suggested that Norse women were heavily involved in the establishment of Viking settlements across Britain and the North Atlantic.
“It seems to support the view that a significant number of women were involved in the settlement of the smaller isles, which overrules the idea that it just involved raping and pillaging by males going out on a rampage,” professor Erika Hagelberg of the University of Oslo told The Independent. In fact, it has even been suggested that Viking women may have been as prominent and as powerful within their respective communities as the men-folk — a thesis that, if proven, would turn the traditional understanding of Norse women as idealized domestic females on its head.
Perhaps Aud the Deep Minded was not such an isolated case after all. And hopefully Lesley Simpson won’t remain one for long.
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