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.