By Beth Rogers
In part 2 of our 3-part series, this month we are taking another look at the concept of the valkyrja and other powerful female figures in Norse literature and their use by white supremacist figures. This time, we discuss examples of violent women in medieval literature, tamed by the men who would marry them.
According to Hilda R.E. Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1990), valkyrjur are “alarming and terrible creatures who have survived in the literature” despite possible efforts from poets to make them more dignified and less bloodthirsty in the later medieval period. This then, is why there is such a disconnect between the way the word “Valkyrie” is used today (usually a general term meaning “a strong, powerful woman”) rather than a reference to the blood-thirsty supernatural creatures that cared nothing for men and family, only for battle and their duty to select the finest warriors to fight in the last battle of mankind and the gods, as the women weaving blood and guts do in the poem Darraðarljoð.
The single-minded focus of the valkyrjur on this sacred duty is demonstrated perhaps no better than in Hákonarmál, a skaldic poem about the fall of the Norwegian king Hákon the Good (r. 934–961) at the battle of Fitjar. Though he fought valiantly, he dies in battle. Valkyrjur, who have been watching since the beginning of the poem, then come to the king and tell him that is is time to depart for Valhöll. Hákon asks why the battle turned out the way it did, the valkyrja, Skögul, responds that the valkyrjur gave him victory. Göndul, another valkyrja at the scene, replies that the forces of the gods have grown now than Hákon and his army are joining the Einherjar, the warriors chosen by Óðinn to fight at Ragnarök, the end of the world.
In her rallying speech for women to support the alt-right, Lana Lokteff says that “The women I’ve met in this movement can be lionesses, and shield maidens and Valkyries, but also soft and sensual as silk.” However, this statement of the threatening and the non-threatening is diametrically opposed to what the literature tells us about valkyrjur. Though they may marry and even support their husbands in the short term, they generally bring ruin upon their partners (which, to be fair, is a common enough fate for the husbands of any of the “strong women” of the Norse-Icelandic sagas, not just those who wed a valkyrja).
Helgakviða Hundingsbana I and II tells the story of the valkyrja Sigrún, who meets the hero Helgi. After informing Helgi that her father Högni has betrothed her to Höðbroddr, the son of king Granmar of the Hniflung clan, who Sigrún deems unworthy, Helgi agrees to help her out of this jam and assembles an immense host to ride to wage battle at Frekastein against the Hniflung clan, which is Sigrún’s own family. Helgi ends up killing her father. After the battle, Sigrún tells Helgi he will be a great ruler, and pledges herself to him. However, Helgi is eventually struck down by Sigrún’s brother in revenge for killing Högni.
In the Germanic Nibelungenlied, a story famously turned into an opera by Richard Wagner, the valkyr Prunhilt is tricked by Siegfried into marrying Gunther. Insulted, she refuses Gunnar his husbandly rights on his wedding night. Siegfried physically subdues her with enough force to crack her bones, taking the belt which signifies her feminine power, after which Prunhilt shares her husband’s bed again.
The Norse-Icelandic Völsunga saga tells the story of the same characters, where Prunhilt, here called Brynhildur, the valkyrja has displeased Óðinn by granting victory to the wrong man in battle. As punishment, Brynhildur is cast down from Valhöll and cursed never to have the thing she desires most: victory in battle. She meets Siegfried, called Sigurðr in the Icelandic version, and swears she will marry him because he is the best and bravest warrior (You can take the girl out of the valkyrjur, but you can’t take the valkyrjur out of the girl). As in the Nibelungenlied, Sigurð helps his best friend Gunnarr trick the maiden and she ends up married to the wrong man. Having made the oath to marry Sigurðr and broken it, however unwittingly, Brynhildur flies into a violent rage, swears revenge on the two men, and brings about their deaths with all speed. Clearly, it isn’t duty to her family or her husband which motivates her, but her own devotion to honor and her love of bloodshed.
“To govern her realm alone”
Saxo Grammaticus, whose Gesta Danorum we discussed last month, also had an example of the valkyrja-turned-wife who was still problematic. The character Lathgertha is introduced in Book IX, part 9, now immediately recognizable to fans of the TV show Vikings as the tough and determined first wife, Lagertha, of the hero, Ragnar Lothbrok. She is considered by many to be a valkyrja because the text says that she can fly, as valkyrjur do, riding down from Valhöll in shining armor to pick up the chosen warriors and convey them to the Hall of the Slain. Gesta Danorum says of her:
Among these had appeared Lathgertha [Lagertha], a skilled female fighter, who bore a man’s temper in a girl’s body, with locks flowing loose over her shoulders she would do battle in the forefront of the most valiant warriors. Everyone marvelled at her matchless feats, for the hair to be seen flying down her back made it clear that she was a woman. As soon as Regner [Ragnar] had laid his grandfather’s slayer in the dust, he made particular enquiries of his fellow-soldiers as to the identity the girl he noted in the vanguard; he confessed that his victory was due to her energy alone. (Gesta Danorum: The History of the Danes, ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson, 1996)
This Lagertha is quite different from the passionate wife of the television Ragnar. In this account, she disdains his overtures and only pretends to agree to marriage. When he was suitably bamboozled into believing he would soon have the object of his desire, Lagertha ordered a bear and a hound to be tied to her porch to protect her from Ragnar’s unwanted advances. Having defeated these animals, though, Ragnar then won the maiden and they lived for some time together and had two daughters and a son. However, Ragnar eventually fell in love with another woman and divorced Lagertha, In the end, Lagertha did come to his rescue during some messy rebellion with the Scanians and the Jutes, with her son and second husband at her side because, Saxo describes, “strong feelings of her former love,” still ran in her veins.
But lest we get the idea that Lagertha was a proper and true wife to either of her husbands, she returned from this battle and “stuck a dart, which she had concealed beneath her gown, into her husband’s throat, thereby seizing for herself his whole title and sovereignty.” This is clearly a character who refuses to be subjected to male authority and the gendered social roles of her culture. In fact, her part in the account ends with, “This woman, of the haughtiest temperament, found it pleasanter to govern her realm alone than to share the fortunes of a husband.”
Whoops. Soft as silk, indeed. Just watch your back, if you find yourself married to a valkyrja. I would advise you not to deceive her or generally make her mad at you, or you’ll end up with worse than a couple nights on the couch.
Next month, we’ll examine the enduring figure of the valkyrja in pop culture, including movies, video games and comic books.
Beth Rogers is a PhD student at the University of Iceland, where she works on the cultural significance of dairy products in the Middle Ages. You can follow her on Twitter @BLRFoodHistory
Top Image: 1913 drawing of Lagertha