By Beth Rogers
In our series so far, we‘ve discussed how ideas of the Norse valkyrjur have changed over time from the vicious, inhuman creatures of the original material to convenient imagery for the aspirational women of the alt-right. It‘s interesting to note that the valkyrjur have undergone a positive makeover, becoming shorthand in our modern world for strong women who support their loved ones without threatening their supremacy, whereas other classical characters such as the Greek god Hades have become inextricably linked with Satan in most pop culture depictions and have thus gone from a neutral character to, y‘know, evil.
Part of the positivity, including its association with strength and protection (what put the shield in shieldmaiden, as it were) is due to the rise of the valkyrie as a symbol of the Romantic and nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries across Europe. The earliest stirrings of Germanic pride can be traced to German composer Richard Wagner, whose most famous work is arguably “Ride of the Valkyries,” performed in the beginning of act 3 of Die Walküre, the second of the four operas that create Der Ring des Nibelungen, which was completed in 1874. Wagner is supposed to have begun working on the libretto and other music around 1848, even before Otto von Bismarck created the German empire in 1871. Wagner’s work, which celebrated a uniquely Germanic heritage, aligned perfectly with the changing view of a new, formalized Germany under Bismarck’s chancellorship. The 2002 book Art, Culture, and Media Under the Third Reich comments, “the music dramas of Richard Wagner especially had refocused the attention of the broader public on Germania. One result of this was the founding of many more or less overtly political associations.”
In 1905, members of the arts and academic community in Berlin would found the Richard Wagner Gsellschaft für germanische Kunst und Kultur (Richard Wagner Society for Germanic Art and Culture). It was renamed in 1913 as the Deutsch-Nordische Richard Wagner Gsellschaft für germanische Kunst und Kultur (German-Nordic Richard Wagner Society for Germanic Art and Culture). The objective for these organizations, according to their mandate, was to “assist Germanic art and culture to victory in its struggle against inartistic and culturally adverse endeavors in the larger circles of the German people and also in other Germanic countries.”
This early nationalistic pride would collide head-on with a host of other social, economic and polticial realities as Germany sought to recover from the devastation of WWI in the early 20th century. The morale of the country was low, and one of the things used to bolster it was pride in an ancient heritage, often exemplified by a strong woman ready for defend her people. The 1905 work below by Emil Doepler shows a stereotypical modern valkyrja; no longer a monstrous thing who weaves with guts and rides a snarling wolf, she is now an armored blonde woman on a horse. The change of mounts imbues her not only with a more accessible version of military nobility than the barbarian implications of the untamed, dangerous wolf. Mounted on her horse, she is surrounded by ravens and winged motifs (Wagner and that damn helmet!), giving the impression a soldier of agility, speed and readiness to fight, rather than an unsettling psychopompic figure ready to swoop down and pick up the chosen dead after the battle has ended, or serve the newly-arrived soldiers a cold beer in Vallhöll.
This, then, is the modern valkyrja, the one Lana Lokteff sought to bring to mind during her speech. It explains why Lagertha, the character on History’s Vikings, is not quite the murderous power-hungry woman described in the source material – though she stabs her husband for demeaning her at a feast, a male relative delivers the killing blow, setting her upon the throne alone. Oh, sure, she’ll kill plenty of people to achieve her ends or to protect those she loves … but she does it with honor. She is certainly not “just the wife,” but she fulfills the role of a wife and mother willing to do whatever is necessary for her family, and in later seasons, she is a queen struggling to protect her people. She, like other modern Valkyries, is both at once: “lionesses, and shield maidens and Valkyries, but also soft and sensual as silk,” as Lokteff puts it.
Valkyries exist in various forms across media, including Japanese manga, Bugs Bunny cartoons, video games and movies. It would be impossible to cover them all, and even difficult to trace the evolution of 19th century German-Nordic nationalism through the World Wars period to the alt-right of today. Other artists, such as Germany’s Rammstein, commented on their complex relationship with Germany’s history in the astounding video and lyrics for “Deutschland.” For those looking to do a deep dive into that era of history, a great place to start is Indy Neidell’s YouTube series The Great War, which covers the events of World War I and its aftermath week-by-week, from 1914 to 1923.
The only widely-known valkyrjur we haven’t touched on is the Marvel comics character, Valkyrie, created in 1970 by Marvel. (After Avengers: Endgame became the highest-grossing film of all time in July 2019, it seems to be an egregious oversight not to bring her up!) For the most part, Valkyrie’s original character arc was a hot mess of fantastical 70s sci-fi tropes you’d expect to find painted on the side of a bitchin’ van. But in general, the character remains true to the idea of the modern valkyrie: a strong woman with military skills who actively fights in battle, a woman of honor. In the 2017 movie Thor: Ragnarok, scenes of Valkyrie and her cohort in action look remarkably similar to Doepler’s 1905 drawing (though with the blessed absence of horned headgear).
It’s interesting to note, though, that these valkyries are part of the armed defense against the villain Hella, seeking to change the course of the battle – something that the valkyrja Brynhildur was punished for doing in Völsunga saga. In that story, Brynhildur tells the hero Sigurðr the story of how she disobeyed Óðinn and struck down the man he had chosen to be the victor in battle:
“I slew Hjálmgunnar in battle, but Óðinn stabbed me with a sleep-thorn in revenge and proclaimed that I should never have victory and that I would marry.”
The juxtaposition of being cast down from valkyrja status and immediately told to marry implies that a woman must be one or the other, not both. In essence, an ordinary female cannot be a proper valkyrja; marriage is a demeaning and disheartening reality to the character who loved and longed for victory most of all.
Like many characters of myth and folklore, the Valkyrie becomes what we need her to be, or what we would like her to be in a given time and place within culture. Perhaps that’s why some fans were incredibly excited that after 11 years and 23 films (with at least 8 more in production as of this writing), the Marvel Cinematic Universe will finally have its first LGBT superhero. The next appearance of the character on movie screens will be the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, recently announced at San Diego Comic Con 2019. It will feature not only the hard-drinking, hard-fighting Valkyrie, but Natalie Portman reprising her role in the series as scientist Jane Porter, who will take ownership of the legendary hammer Mjolnir, becoming the new Thor. Girl fight!
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