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.