Monday, 29 July 2013

Valkyries Revisited

Picture stone from Tjängvide, Alskog, Gotland.
Wikimedia Commons
Martin Rundkvist's recent blog on shield maidens has inspired me to air in a little more detail my views on women warriors by looking first a bit more closely at their close cousins, the Valkyries.
The valkyrie is a mythological being with widespread currency, since she appears in art, archaeology and a wide range of literary texts. Valkyries (valkyrjur lit. ‘choosers of the slain’) were defined by Snorri Sturluson as figures:
whose job is to serve in Valhall, bringing drink and looking after the tableware and the drinking vessels ... These are called valkyries. Óðinn sends them to every battle, they choose who is to die and allot victory. (my translation)

Snorri does not specify that they bear arms, though this might be deduced from the second aspect of their role. The figure is further developed in Old Norse literature, often with a strong romantic angle involving love between a valkyrie and a male warrior, and Snorri himself testifies to the enduring popularity of this figure in the thirteenth century. But the two functions of valkyries identified by Snorri have their origins in the Viking Age, where they can be traced in the material culture, as well as in both Eddic and skaldic poetry.

The first of the functions identified by Snorri is most easily identified in pictorial representations. Some of the earliest examples are scenes on several Viking Age (8th to 11th centuries) picture stones from the Baltic island of Gotland, which show female figures proferring drinking horns to warriors about to enter a building that can be interpreted as Valhall, the mythological hall of the slain, as in the Tjängvide stone shown above. This image is repeated in art, particularly metalwork, but also sculpture, from across the Viking world. Even the scene of Mary Magdalene at the Crucifixion on the tenth-century Gosforth cross in Cumbria has been seen by most scholars as owing something to this visual tradition.

Images of armed female figures are less common. However, the exciting metal detectorist discovery from Hårby on the island of Fyn in Denmark in 2012 appears to represent just such a figure, as discussed here some months ago. This is a very rare, perhaps unique, visual representation of a female figure with a sword. When valkyries are represented in literary texts as being armed, their weapons of choice tend to be a spear and protective armour, but not swords, as in stanza 15 of the Eddic poem 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. The figurine from Hårby has none of these attributes.

However, a closer study of skaldic poetry does show an occasional association of valkyries with swords, though mostly indirectly, in kennings. In a large number of kennings, battle is figured as a storm, or tumult, or din, or meeting, which is further determined by a term for weapons, or for a valkyrie, either her name, or a further kenning for her. Using examples from vol. I of Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, there are simple kennings which call battle þing hrings ‘assembly of the sword’ or gný Gunnar ‘din of Gunnr’, with Gunnr a valkyrie-name. A more complex battle-kenning such as snerra geirvífa ‘onslaught of the spear-women’ incorporates a valkyrie-kenning with her traditional attribute of the spear. Occasionally, such valkyrie-kennings do associate them with swords, though most often embedded in more complex kennings where the direct association of valkyries and swords is less clear. Thus, a kenning for ravens or eagles figures them as the gjóðir dísar dolgeisu ‘ospreys of the woman of battle-fire’, in which ‘battle-fire’ is an embedded kenning for sword. But in the same way, valkyries can be associated with other weapons such as bows, or just with weapon-points in general. Thus, the skaldic evidence suggests the possibility that any female figure associated with weapons of any kind can be interpreted as a valkyrie.

In themselves, though, these figures from art and literature do not yet prove the case for warrior women, or for any association between women and the weapons of war other than as an aspect of myth and ideology. It would be difficult in any case to pin down any such association in real life, though burials, despite their heavily symbolic nature, might give a clue. We know that warriors were men, and we know that many men were buried with weapons. This does not make every man buried with weapons into a warrior, but the association is widespread and consistent. There are a few examples of women buried with weapons, though their number is not great. Most of these burials are problematic in some way, many of them antiquarian finds with inadequate contexts. Nevertheless, it seems likely that occasionally people could be buried with items more commonly associated with the opposite gender (and of course there are many grave-goods that are gender-neutral). The reasons for these very occasional deviations from the norm are difficult to discern from this distance, and could be various, including the items belonging to someone else in a double or mass burial, or the finds from two adjacent burials becoming mixed, or even people being buried with items belonging to their (deceased?) partner. But that the very few women buried with weapons were warrior women in life seems the least likely explanation of all.


  1. If you haven't already read it, Bonnie Effros has a nice discussion of sex, gender and grave goods, including quite a bit on weapons and jewelry in Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Middle Ages, in particular on pp 156-63. She primarily references Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian cemeteries/graves.

  2. Thanks for this. These questions do seem to consume archaeologists of all periods, and it is clear that the answers vary enormously from place to place, time period to time period, and according to the quality of the evidence. So I'm always cautious about assuming that Anglo-Saxon or Merovingian evidence is analogous. I have read much discussion of these questions in relation to Scandinavia and/or the Viking Period and, though I am not an archaeologist, I have to concur with Martin Rundkvist that, in the Viking Age at least, 'furnished burial is strongly gendered'. Which is, I think, another way of saying that Viking Age society was strongly gendered in all kinds of ways. This is not to say that the odd individual could not be different - they were human beings after all.

  3. Regarding your discussion above of sword vs. spear. M. Harrison in the book Anglo-Saxon Thegn observes that "the broad-headed spear was the prime weapon of combat.... Most warriors would have had no sword and would have had to rely primarily on their spear. The metal shield boss was a weapon in its own right..." (p. 32). I had always imagined all the warriors in a battle as having the full kit--sword, spear, shield, helmet, etc. It makes sense that most would have just had a spear, though, since swords would have been much more expensive to make or purchase. Surely the economics of sword vs. spear would have been analogous in Scandinavia? Though I suppose Valkyries might not have been troubled by such earth-bound concerns.

  4. Dear Viqueen,
    My question is this: What was the status of free Scandinavian women during the Viking Age? I realize that status, region, and such had to have a huge influence on this. Were they chattel and second class, or living in a Nordic paradise of egalitarianism as some would wish? Is it a myth in total that they were "better off" than their Christian contemporaries? What was their general socioeconomic standing compared to their contemporaries in Christian Europe, or the Saxon kingdoms of England?
    Or maybe I should just come over there and attend your classes.

  5. Even today, there are women who have served in the army for many years, who are still buried in a dress. Why should the Viking Age burials be any different? A woman might have been a warrior at some point, and then settled down to live a normal life. Just like men did. Being a warrior was for the young and strong, and most people weren't "professional" warriors. They fought when they had to, often to defend house and land. Most Vikings never left their homeland; they fought in battles between small kingdoms in their own country. It makes more sense in such a scenario that women would participate to defend their kin.

  6. You've probably seen this by now...