Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Sword-Girl

Most Vikingologists will already be aware of the small metal figurine (apparently it's silver) found by a detectorist last year on the island of Fyn in Denmark, and depicted on Martin Rundkvist's Aardvarchaeology blog earlier this month (from where I have 'borrowed' the photo, taken by Jan Hein). It is there described as a 'valkyrie' and indeed the figure, as far as I can tell from the photo, has long hair and is wearing a long dress with an apron (?), while carrying a shield in its left hand and holding a drawn sword in its right. I say 'its' because I do think we always have to reserve judgement, and I was amused to see that the first comment on Martin's blog post asks whether we are sure it isn't a man. Good question. Having said that, it looks fairly female to me, so let's go with the idea that it does indeed represent a valkyrie, that enigmatic figure who plays a wide variety of roles in Old Norse literature and mythology. The interesting question is, how to link the various material 'valkyries' found in recent years with their literary sisters. Now there's a fruitful topic for some aspiring student...
 
One thing that struck me about the Hårby figure is that it is holding a sword, as is the one on another, rather indistinct, brooch from Jutland also pictured in Martin's blog (where I do think there is a greater chance the figure is intended to be male). For some reason, I had always had it stuck in my head that swords were very much a male weapon, and that valkyries, when armed, were armed with shields and spears (the latter a weapon particularly associated with Odin), as well as protective armour, but not swords. I'm not sure where I got this idea from, though probably from st. 15 of Helgakviða Hundingsbana I. There, the valkyrie Sigrún arrives with some of her mates in the middle of Helgi's battle with Hundingr, and they are said to have helmets, blood-spattered mailcoats, and shiny spears. Later on, in st. 54, the valkyries are said to be 'helmet-creatures'.
 
But clearly I wasn't paying that much attention, since there is in fact a valkyrie-kenning sverðman 'sword-girl' in a poem I once wrote an article about. Oops. The poem is Hallvarðr háreksblesi's Knútsdrápa (to be published next month, edited by Matt Townend in vol. I of Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages). There, the valkyrie-kenning is embedded in a raven/eagle kenning ('gull of the sword-girl'), but the sword is clearly there. There is at least one other valkyrie kenning with a sword-word as a determinant in a Viking Age poem, so the connection exists, even if it is not especially common.
 
Finally, I did wonder whether this detectorist find was genuine - it's almost too good to be true. But archaeologists I have asked seem to have no doubts. It will be great to read a detailed analysis of it some time. In the meantime, it provides lots of food for thought in the emerging discipline of valkyrieology.

17 comments:

  1. Very interesting! Now that you have commented on the sword, could you also say something about her(?) clothing and hair style? How do these fit in with existing evidence from art, archaeology, and literature?

    Yours ever, Betshilda

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  2. Thanks Betshilda, but I did say 'there's a fruitful topic for some aspiring student...'! If I have any clever thoughts about her clothing and hair, I'll share them, but none spring to mind at the moment... It's also hard with just the photograph.
    Yours,
    V.

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  3. I was there when Morten find the valkyrie, it was on one of my fields wher we have a lot of other good finds from.
    the valkyrie i truly the real deal, the national musseum i Cph, will come whit a post near the 1. marts,

    This is not "just" a other viking relice, this is bigger.

    Jacob Sietam

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  4. Hello Viqueen,

    I've seem to be quite a few comments by archaeologists here and there that suggest that the tendency automatically to identify Scandinavian furnished burials which contain swords as those of men is not necessarily advisable. (Actually, I thought I'd once read something by /you/ on this -- are you sure I haven't?).

    I've never made a systematic collection of these references, and I can't remember most of them, but (at the risk of teaching a wise professor to suck eggs...) there are examples in Shane McLeod, 'Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse Migrants to eastern England up to 900 CE', Early Medieval Europe 19 (2011), and Anne Sofie Graslund, 'The Position of Iron Age Scandinavian Women: Evidence from Graves and Rune Stones', in Gender and the Archaeology of Death (2001), pp 81-99

    If I remember rightly, there may have been some interesting stuff on this kind of thing in Hans Bolin, ‘The Absence of Gender’, Current Swedish Archaeology 12 (2004), 169-85

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    1. Thanks, Jonny, you're right one should always question one's assumptions, though I don't think there are any unassailable examples of women buried with swords (as opposed to other weapons, which are a bit more likely). I find Shane's article too speculative in many ways, it's quite a jump from 'there was nothing to prevent a woman from being buried with weaponry' to finding one buried with a sword. I confess I haven't read that particular article by Anne-Sofie and may have missed some Scandinavian evidence. Certainly, for Britain and Ireland, Stephen Harrison's work suggests that the distinction between 'weapon burials' and 'jewellery burials' is pretty clearly that of gender.
      In any case, burials are one thing and valkyries another. I was looking for unequivocal evidence of a literary association of a valkyrie with a sword and have found only those mentioned above, the first one of which is only one possible reading of the poem, though it is the one chosen for the edition which is out this week.
      But, as I said, there's a great topic for someone there...

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    2. Hi Jonny. By chance I happened upon Gräslund's article which I hadn't read at the time of writing to you and once again, I cannot find any mention in it of Viking Age women buried with swords. At the same time I find this twaddle on the internet (with no references, of course):
      http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/these-cant-be-women-they-have-swords/
      Bah. Humbug.

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    3. P.S. though if you follow the link in the above article, it takes you to another internet site, which seems to derive (at god knows how many removes) from McLeod's article, which I do remember was widely reported at the time.

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  5. Sorry for the garbled beginning to that last comment... Yes, of course you're right about the difference between women who happen to have died and the 'choosers of the slain'. But it is rather nice, isn't it, that we have a few examples of high status women accompanied by flashy swords in their graves when we're trying to assemble what we can about the imagery of these little brooches. After all, it's easy to suppose that the valkyries had a monopoly on the Norse imaginings of women with weapons because of the few textual references we happen to have, and interpret these brooches accordingly; but they may have been only element in a far more complex set of cultural expressions.

    Apart from the Gerdrup burial in Denmark [it /was/ you who wrote about it!] the other one I was trying to remember was the C11th Finnish one at Suontaka Tyrväntö in Tavastland, in which a woman's grave was furnished with two very classy swords alongside its other goods: one with silver decorations, one with bronze. There are some nice pictures about on the web.

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    1. Not sure where you're getting those 'examples of high status women accompanied by flashy swords' from. Gerdrup has a spear (now that is valkyrie-like!) not a sword. I'm not familiar with the Finnish one but I'm not sure how relevant C11th Finland is in this context. I've looked it up on the web as you suggested. There appears to be only one sword (the 'silvery' one pictured is a replica) and I note especially the following comment:
      'It should be noted that the sword is officially classified as "loose find". The woman's grave was partly disturbed and this sword was found from the mixed soil at edge of the woman's grave. (Actually I think it was found in the bucket of an excavator, but I'm not sure about that.) It might have been from her grave, but it might also be from another, destroyed, grave from the same area.' Comment of 27 July 2010 at http://www.swordforum.com/forums/showthread.php?102010-Aatelisnaissoturi-(Noble-Lady-Warrior)-my-Suontaka-Sword. The same person mentions two other possible Finnish female graves with swords but these are only 'likely' or 'apparently' and no more detail is given. Such internet research is always a bit iffy.
      Case very far from proven, in my view.

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    2. See now Martin Rundkvist's blog: http://scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology/2013/07/29/shield-maidens-true-or-false/

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  6. And /that's/ what you get for not checking your facts before getting all excited! (Sigh: I should know better...).

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  7. I've always thought excitement was overrated... :-)

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  8. Some more info on the find here: http://natmus.dk/nyhedsoversigt/nyhed/article/fynbo-finder-valkyrie-fra-vikingetiden/ though the archaeologists quoted have some rather colourful ideas about valkyries, and they haven't mentioned the sword question.

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    1. And some more detail here: http://museum.odense.dk/det-sker/det-sker/presse/2013/valkyrien-fra-haarby.aspx#.US8apgLma6m.twitter

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  9. This one can read on a forum about the finnish sword(s):

    "It should be noted that the sword is officially classified as "loose find". The woman's grave was partly disturbed and this sword was found from the mixed soil at edge of the woman's grave. (Actually I think it was found in the bucket of an excavator, but I'm not sure about that.) It might have been from her grave, but it might also be from another, destroyed, grave from the same area.

    There was, however, another, less luxurious, sword that was most likely in this woman's grave.

    There is also another find in Kalvola, also in Hämee, that apparently also had a richly decorated sword associated with a woman's grave."

    http://www.swordforum.com/forums/showthread.php?102010-Aatelisnaissoturi-(Noble-Lady-Warrior)-my-Suontaka-Sword

    Greetings

    Larse

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    1. Thanks, yes I found this too and have already quoted it above :-) Do you have any more information, or any views?
      V.

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  10. Correction to the above post - Hallvarðr háreksblesi's Knútsdrápa isn't due to be published until Vol. 3, possibly in 2014. As an editor on that project, I have seen the draft edition, but this should under no circumstances be considered final until the published version is out. There will also be a short section on this question in my forthcoming book - also a way down the line yet.

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