By Beth Rogers
To begin a three-part examination of the concept of the valkyrie and other powerful female figures in Norse literature, this month we’re delving into medieval Scandinavia and the use of Norse symbols and figures by the alt-right. Next month, we’ll discuss more male fantasies (ooh, la la!) with shield maidens and maiden kings who simmer down when they’re properly married – unless there’s killing to be done, of course.
Two years ago, I and much of the rest of the world watched in horror as the “alt-right,” a term coined by Richard Spencer, an American white supremacist, took over Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11-12, 2017 for the Unite the Right rally. These protestors, which included white supremacist groups and militia organizations, had stated goals of unifying the American white nationalist movement and opposing the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from the park, a notion which had been gaining power since the Charleston church shooting in 2015. One counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, was killed and nearly 40 others were injured when a white supremacist rammed his car into the crowd.
Amongst other uncomfortable questions this event raised about the state of American society, it sent shockwaves through academic and historical reenactment circles due to the appropriation of certain medieval and Nordic symbols during the rally. Scholars such as Dorothy Kim at Vassar College and Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, took opposing views of the “inherent” white supremacy in the study of European history in a debate that raged all summer and into the fall across the internet.
By September 2017, Seyward Darby published an article titled “The Rise of the Valkyries” in the American publication Harper’s Magazine, focusing on a speech given by Lana Lokteff, a leader of the white supremacist movement, at the Identitarian Ideas IX Conference in Stockholm, Sweden, wherein she proclaimed the need for women to embrace the white supremacist cause. Four times, she mentions valkyrjur (English: valkyrie), a mythical Nordic figure, or skjaldmeyjar (English: shield maidens), women who fight beside men, in her speech, which is available to view on YouTube.
First, Lokteff tells her audience “shieldmaidens, the Vikings, right?” (10:02) must occasionally pick up their swords and fight in emergencies like the present, where she says, “our countries are being destroyed by Leftists and anti-whites.” Lokteff then comments, “This is the time for female nationalists to be loud. Why? Men! Women have a special power to inspire and motivate men. To give them a reason to fight. The woman makes the man. Contrary to what feminists say, the reason why European men built society is for their women and children. Yes, men want to be alpha men and show off to other men, but what really drives men most is women, and let’s be honest, sex with women. To get that all the time” (10:33-11:05). She then characterizes women in the nationalist movement, saying, “The women I’ve met in this movement can be lionesses, and shield maidens and Valkyries, but also soft and sensual as silk.” (11:35-11:41). Finally, she rallies women to the cause, invoking the idea of Norse shield maidens again: “In these times, us [sic] women must multitask and rise to new heights as the enemy strikes on every level. We have to be lovers, mothers, friends, teachers, and now shield maidens ready to go to battle” (13:18-13:32).
Something about these concepts, the skjaldmeyjar and the valkyrjur, continue to enchant popular culture. On this site, the confirmation of the warrior woman buried in the Viking Age grave Bj581 in Birka, Sweden, and the resulting clamor in pop culture and academia, was examined by Terri Barnes, causing the author to ponder, “What does it say about us that some need women who lived 1,000 years ago to be this way or that? Can we be who we want to be in our own historical context without needing them to have first provided justification?”
To this, I would add, in the case of the use of these Norse figures and symbols being used by the alt-right and other extremist groups, is it right and, does it fit? Do valkyrjur represent what the alt-right and those who write about the alt-right seem to think they mean? For most, a valkyrja is a straightforward concept. John Haywood’s Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age (2000) describes them simply as “[m]aiden warriors who dwelt with the high god ODIN in VALHALLA […] at Odin’s bidding, the valkyries rode into battle to carry the chosen warriors to Valhalla to give them their welcoming cups of mead.” This is described in the Eddic poem Gylfaginning: “þær bera enherjum ǫl” [“They bear ale to the Einherjur”]. In this image, then, we see the connection Lokteff was perhaps trying to make between fierce women and their ultimate service of men in traditional images like the cupbearer. According to Michael J. Enright’s entry in Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, a woman bearing a cup is a typical medieval image, used typically to show a “peculiar connection to the establishment of rank and to the public recognition of honor, an association otherwise furthered by the bridal presentation of a cup of liquor in rituals of marriage.” Enright further comments “such cup offerings may also be reflected archaeologically in certain types of vessels and artistic depictions, such as those on Viking Age picture stones from Gotland showing a female figure bearing a cup or drinking horn.” But is there more than propping up masculinity or serving the next shift at the heavenly bar on the valkyrja’s mind?
In Jenny Jochen’s 1996 Old Norse Images of Women, the author notes that valkyrjur form an important link between the human world and the afterlife: “Having withdrawn the heroes from human life, the valkyries continue to look after them in the divine world.” Skjaldmeyjar, too, had a similar role. They “provided men with powerful weapons, helped them in storms, inspired them to action, and encouraged them to greater efforts. … Unlike the mythological valkyries, the heroic shield-maidens entered relationships with mortal men: fathers, suitors, husbands, and lovers.”
An extreme view of the valkyrjur at work can be found in Chapter 157 of Brennu-Njáls saga. A man named Dǫrruðr, walking through the forest, witnesses a band of 12 figures who go into a women’s cottage. When he looks inside, the women are weaving at a terrible loom and singing a song. The poem, called “Darraðarljoð,” (“The song of Dǫrruðr”) includes these verses:
The warp is woven
with warriors’ guts,
and heavily weighted
with the heads of men.
Spears server as heddle rods,
spattered with blood;
iron-bound is the shed rod,
and arrows are the pin beaters;
we will bear with swords
our battle web.
Hild sets to weaving,
and Svanngrid and Svipul
with swords drawn.
Shafts will splinter,
the dog of helmets
We wind and wind
the web of spears
which the young king
has carried on before.
Let us go forth amongst the fighters
when our dear ones
deal out blows.
These verses identify these women, these ghastly valkyrjur, performing a perversion of “women’s work” in their weaving, creating a tableau of blood and guts as they choose those who will live and who will die at the Battle of Clontarf on April 23, 1014. In doing so, the women use items commonly associated with female duties to fulfill male obligations of vengeance and violence. These valkyrjur, or at least the ones described here, are not the ones you’d like to have bring you a beer, or if they did, they might throw it in your face before they stab you. The view of aggressive women dimmed even further over the course of the medieval period as social norms shifted and the Church gained power, changing what was considered “proper behavior” for women throughout Europe. In Saxo Grammaticus’ famous digression in Book VII of the Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes), the 13th century writer comments on Nordic “shield maidens.,” creating a rather off-putting portrait for the lonely male dreamer waiting for battle. These women, he writes, are most known for their preference of violence over sex: “These women, as it were, forgetful of their inborn condition, and placing rigor before enticements, yearn for war instead of kisses, and tasting blood, not kisses, they carry out the duties of arms, not love. Saxo underlines this idea by saying they put their energies “into killing, not into bed.”
Jenny Jochens concludes her analysis of female figures such as the valkyrjur and skjaldmeyjar by saying, “It is tempting to speculate that Viking men were forced by geography and the nature of their expeditions to be away from home and women far longer than other warriors and their Germanic cousins in particular. They may therefore have consoled themselves by fantasizing about women,” a relic of a time when ancient Germanic society “was dominated by kings, retainers, and their war activities.” Men’s fantasies of strong women who can be dominated – sexually or not – and changed from bloodthirsty creatures (valkyrjur) to strong, helpful partners (skjaldmeyjar) are drawing upon hundreds of years of rich tradition and storytelling in Nordic culture. As Ashley Mattheis comments in her 2018 article, “Shieldmaidens of Whiteness,” “The longstanding idea of women’s passive participation [in the alt-right] has led to a focus on white women’s utility as objects of propaganda for men’s radicalization. Here, Far/Alt Right propagandists use the idea of (good) white women being “raped” by non-white men or (bad) women (i.e., feminists and multiculturalists) participating in miscegenation as a basis for their arguments for white genocide and as a rallying call to unite and fight back.” Just like the mythic and literary figures of the valkyrjur and the skjaldmeyjar, the figure of the white woman may be just as subject to the same oversimplification, aggrandizement, appropriation and propaganda use by opportunistic modern-day speakers.
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: Valkyries depicted in the 1922 book Germaniens Götter, by Rudolf Herzog