COOKING the tea, sweeping the floor and killing the enemy with a swift spear thrust to the gut - it's all in a day's work for your average Viking woman. Possibly.

Mythology provides us with powerful portraits of Viking shield-maidens. The Valkyries, who feature in many Scandinavian legends, are said to have lived with Odin in Valhalla, home to the souls of brave warriors. Their job was to ride into battle to carry the chosen back to Valhalla for welcoming cups of mead.

Viking sagas also tell of women taking up arms. Freydis, daughter of Eric the Red, is supposed to have killed five women with an axe, while, in the Laxdaela Saga, other equally fierce women are reported to have carried swords to revenge themselves on wrongdoers.

But are these anything more than exceedingly grim fairytales?

Jane Stockdale, events and festivals manager for York Archaeological Trust and co-ordinator of next week's Jorvik Viking Festival, would like to believe that women were at the centre of the battlefield action.

"There is not much evidence of women going into battle," she said. "Some sagas from the 11th and 12th centuries talk of women on the battlefield, dressing in men's clothes and learning how to fight. But no one is sure where legend and myth ends and truth begins."

Saxo Gammaticus' History of the Danes, written in about 1200, contains evidence of female warriors and army commanders, including Hetha, Visna and Rusilla. And there was a Saxon law forbidding women from taking part in battle, suggesting that there were women slugging it out in the first place to warrant a law.

"Some Viking women have been found buried with swords next to them," said Jane, who is preparing to take part in a battle re-enactment at the Eye of York on Saturday, February 21. "This might be indicative of a life on the battlefield, or it might mean their husband was a famous warrior."

Women in the Viking age were undoubtedly powerful off the battlefield. They had control of the home while their husbands were away, and were responsible for the keys to their property, strongbox and resources. They also retained property rights when they were married and, if the marriage was unsuccessful, had the right to a divorce.

"Both Viking and Anglo Saxon women lived very emancipated lives," said Richard Hall, deputy director of York Archaeological Trust. "They ran the place when their chap was off causing mayhem. It was only with the coming of Christianity that women's emancipation took a considerable step back."

While he admits that common sense dictates that women played a pivotal role in Viking society, he is not convinced they took up arms.

"We know there were women and children travelling with Viking royals," he said. "Whether they were their wives or some dolly they picked up along the way is unclear.

"Archaeology always reflects the times in which it is being done. We have equality in everything now, so we want to see that reflected in our finds. To be honest, if I was transported back to the Viking age I would be surprised to see an army of women. There is no real evidence to support it."

This does not necessarily indicate that Viking women were demure little flowers. They might not have been fighting the enemy on foreign soil, but they were probably clashing swords back home.

"There is enough evidence to suggest that Viking women were strong and would defend their rights," said Jane. "They were certainly involved in domestic disputes, taking up arms to defend their families and property."

She will be raising her own sword and running into battle with about 20 women from the re-enactment group Regia Anglorum at the Eye of York as part of this year's Jorvik Viking Festival. Only the wealthy wore helmets and protective mail, so her only real protection will be a shield.

"No one ever wore a horned helmet," said Jane, answering a question she has obviously answered a thousand times. "That's a myth started by the Victorians."

She has taken part in a re-enactment before and describes it as an "intense experience", one which she is very keen to repeat.

"I'm really looking forward to it," she said. "It feels dangerous, in a good way. You are so close to your opponent you can literally see the whites of their eyes.

"The re-enactment groups take it very seriously, and the women are right there in the thick of it with the men. To be honest, the men usually shove the women to the front, like the Viking version of cannon-fodder."

The Vikings were known for their skill with swords, spears and axes. They would shower their enemy with spears before rushing in to fight hand-to-hand.

"Skeletal evidence shows they had very well developed muscles in the shoulder area from wielding heavy swords and axes," said Jane. "You have to be pretty strong just to hold the shield, never mind fight at the same time.

"We will be doing some training on the morning of the battle, learning how to use our weapons safely and how to keep the shield wall intact. But if I'm honest I think the most important thing for me to learn is when to run away."

Lots of women are involved in the living history side of re-enactment. They are interested in how the Vikings lived off the battlefield as well as on: how they cooked, how they ran their home and how they raised their children.

"Members of Regia research things scrupulously and know every detail of Viking women's life in the home," said Jane. "But for some that's not enough. They want to get out there on the battlefield and fight."

"They are up for it," Richard concluded succinctly.

Updated: 10:11 Tuesday, February 10, 2004