Women are sadly accustomed to being sexualized to ridiculous extremes, seemingly everywhere. For those of us who (aren’t imbecilic womanizing wannabes that) identify with the religious practices surrounding Northern Tradition Polytheism, we know that women held (and should still hold) power and respect.
Despite such a rich background, it never ceases to amaze me the ridiculous attitudes that propagate within our religion, carry-overs of bigotry and sexism from the culture at broad. Some will refer to these men as Bro-satru, typically characterized by those who play fight and talk of being warriors and being waited on hand and foot by valkyries who are little more in their minds than mead-bearing tavern wenches around for eye-candy and pleasure toys. (insert heavy sarcasm and eye-rolling here): Like they’re so amazed by your warrior prowess they’ll just fuck you right there: Hardcore! In the mead-hall.
A prime example is a “valkyrie decor plaque” I recently stumbled upon in an ecommerce shop online. Since I think it’s pretty reprehensible, ignorant, and just plain tacky, I am NOT publicizing where I found it, let alone the name of the artisan behind it. Clearly we see a dehumanized woman, her only worth is in her breasts and between her thighs. She can’t have a face or head because then that means she has a brain and she starts to become a real representation of a human being with arms and legs. Limbs she can use to avoid or fight the warrior-wanna-bes who have no idea what it means to sacrifice a limb, let alone a life to protect their community including the women who they should have been raised to respect as far more than sex objects. This plaque is nothing more than a masturbatory visual aid for use.
Not only is that an insult to women, it’s an insult to the valkyrie, and an insult to the religion. While we might have a few references to marriage rites where a hammer was used to help bless a woman for fertility in the marriage, the valkyrie are not connected to Thor, nor were they connected to fertility in women. Yet incongruously in this depiction,there’s a giant mjollnir right there on the form.
And while this plaque doesn’t depict it, another depiction of valkyries in art that shows up often is that of female warriors wearing “boob armor” which would kill them with one good blow: a solid thunk to the boob armor would force the metal divet between their breasts to impact the sternum most likely causing it to fracture, and bone splinters would then pierce the heart and lung. Good armor is designed to not just block penetration of a weapon or minimize the impact of a crushing blow, but also is designed to redirect the blow. Boob armor essentially redirects the blade to a perfect kill shot. They weren’t going around in mid-riff exposing skimpy chainmail bikinis either. And of course horned or winged helmets would throw off a person’s balance, so they’re impractical in combat. I grow so weary of seeing them as accoutrements in artistic depictions. They would simply put be dressed like the men. In clothing functional to the task at hand and weather, in armor equally functional.
The word valkyrie is composed of two Old Norse words. The first valr means ‘corpses on the battlefield’ and the second kjosa means ‘to choose,’ thus the word valkyrie means ‘those who choose the slain.’ Most of the valkyrie are named for various weapons and accessories of warfare. These aren’t ‘babes’ these are female powers who very much could kill you. They are specifically connected to Odin (and as such are religious figures), though as part of their function they delivered chosen battle slain to both Odin and Freyja. One of the Valkyrie is identified as Eir. We’re not 100% sure if this is the same Eir identified as a Goddess of healing elsewhere, many modern-day practitioners have had personal gnosis that put her in the role of a battlefield medic who administers triage in a crisis. She might be able to save you, or she may just grant you mercy in your suffering at the end of your life, which on a battlefield could have been the coup de grâce thus connecting her to functions a Valkyrie might be connected with related to the battle-slain, or in a more modern setting this might point to some of her function also tied to things like the palliative administration of painkillers to ease suffering for the dying. Again, not really a Goddess I’d want feeling disrespected if I found myself grievously injured on a battle field.
Please note there is nothing, anywhere that says all the battle-slain go to Odin or Freyja. We don’t really know Their criteria for accepting warriors to their halls, but when Freya gets half the slain who are chosen for the halls, do you really want a reputation of not respecting women and then finding yourself facing a Goddess? Whether you end up with her, Odin, or one of the other deities (many of which are Goddesses) that we know of who plays host to the dead (Ran, Gefjon, Hel, etc.)
In addition to Freya’s roles in connection to both warriors and skill with magic, we also have other female figures doing non-typical “female gender roles”: the Goddesses of Hlin and Syn who guard: the former the guests, the later the hall. Two female Powers do this, not males. Skadhi is fiercely independent, a skilled archer who has no problem standing before the Holy Powers and demanding Her due. There’s the Goddess Sigyn whose name etymologically renders as victory girlfriend and who has a kenning of incantation-fetter. Plus there’s the Friisian battle Goddess Baduhenna (attested in Tacitus), and then the Germanic Goddess Sandraudiga, whose name is suggested to mean “she who dyes the sands red”. She is attested by a stone inscription near the site of a temple found in what today is near the village of Rijsbergen, in the North Brandt region of the Netherlands. Also in the area of the Rhine delta we have a votive stone dedicated to Vagdavercustis, whose name is suggested to mean “Proctectress of War-Dancers.” There’s also the goddess Hariassa, attested on a since lost votive stone dated to the 2nd century in Cologne, Germany. Analysis on the etymology of her name yields possible connections to war.
Skjaldmær or shield-maidens, pop up from time to time in the lore. These are not religious figures, merely women tied to warfare. In Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum we have a description of Viking women who “dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of their lives to the pursuit of war…” these fierce women “offered war rather than kisses” and “assailed men with their spears whom they could have melted with their looks.” He liked to liken these to the Amazon warriors of Greek Myth. Scholar Birgit Strand discusses Saxo Grammaticus’ fascination in depth in her book “Women in Gesta Danorum”. Adam of Bremen recounts as he chronicles the Hamburg-Bremen archdiocese that an area near lake Malaren in a northern region of Sweden was inhabited by war-like women. Unfortunately he doesn’t expand upon that rather brief mention.
If we look to the archaeological finds of this culture we find numerous iconographic representations of what appear to be female figures depicted with weapons and armor: swords, shields, spears, helmets. These icons have been found on textiles, brooches, and even as figurines. Below is one such female figure with sword and shield discovered in 2012 in modern-day Harby, Denmark.
We’re discovering that grave sites attributed to males based solely on what was in the grave with them have been proven to be wrong on multiple occasions. The archaeologists saw something that equated to their preconceived notions of masculinity and gender roles and without examining the bones in detail labeled them as male. A study in England reexamined 14 graves and found six of them were really female remains. One of the sites in question was from the Repton Woods burial site, “(d)espite the remains of three swords being recovered from the site, all three burials that could be sexed osteologically were thought to be female, including one with a sword and shield,” says the study. Just recently one of the most famous warrior finds, the Birka Warrior from the Birka find in Sweden, has been re-identified as female. There’s also been other graves recently re-identified as female too. And there have been other known burials of women that have weapons with them as well: the Kaupang Burial in Norway, Gerdrup in Denmark, Nennesmo in Sweden, Klinta in Sweden, Bogovej in Denmark, Marem in Norway, Heslerton graves, North Yorkshire in England. For further reading, volume 8 of the Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia details many other such burials.
Now some scholars like Judith Jesch vehemently argue against these being representative of a female warrior presence, and that the weapons may have signified something other. While this is true, I think it’s a disservice to assume that there was no fighting women when presented with what we find across the numinous beings (Freya, valkyries, etc.), archaeological artwork, burial graves, and textual accounts in lore that yes women fought. Well respected scholar Neil Price also argues in support of there having been shield-maidens. The question is simply, we don’t know how widespread it was, and we need to be careful not to equate every weapon in a grave as meaning automatically that the interred dead (whether male or female) was a warrior.
It is an unfortunate truth, that most of the “lore” that speaks of this culture was penned by Christians, who have long been known to have a prejudiced view against women (thanks to their religious beliefs involving Eve), and they’d be far less likely to write about women in their tales. That being said the sagas are full of accounts of women taking up arms. In the Greenland Saga Leif Erickson’s pregnant half-sister Freydis took up a blade to fight off skraelings (the term used to describe the indigenous peoples of North America & Greenland). Now while there is no attestation she was a shield-maiden in the tale, the fact remains we have a woman who defended herself and family with a blade. Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum describes how women were part of the fighting force mustered by the Danes at the Battle of Bravellir. An Irish tenth century text describes a Viking fleet led by the female warrior Inghen Ruaidh. In the late 960s the Rus under leadership of Sviatoslav I of Kiev waged war in the Balkans (Bulgaria) at the encouragement of the Byzantine Empire. After the Kievan Rus controlled the area for a couple of years, the once allies ended up fighting one another. The historian Ionnes Scylitzes (aka John Skylitzes) records that women fought in the battles, and that among the defeated Varangians at the Siege of Dorostolon in 971, a number of armed women were found among the slain, much to the shock of the victorious Byzantine forces. In Procopius’ History of the Gothic War of 535-552 AD, there’s the tale of the “Island Girl” (unfortunately her name does not survive in the account, but we know she was an Anglian princess), who after being jilted post betrothal led a fleet of 400 ships and 100,000 men against her ex-fiancée King Radigis of Jutland, and won. Some other women who we see fighting: Aethelflaed (also known as “The Lady of Mercia”) daughter of Alfred the Great, Gurith daughter of Alvid, Hervor (who later adopts the name Hervardr while seeking vengeance for her father), Hethna, Kahula, Olga widow of Igor of Russia, Queen Aethelburgh the destroyer of Taunton, Queen Gudit, Rusilla, Salaym Bint Malham, Sela, Stikla, Thordis, Thyra the Queen of Denmark, Vebiorg, Visna, & Wafeira.
There’s more references in some of the heroic sagas, or fornaldarsogur: Bósa saga ok Herrauðs, Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar, Sigurds Saga, Volsung Saga, etc. In Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, the female warrior Hervor who seeks to reclaim an ancestral sword of her line. “May your ribs writhe with worms, may your barrow be an anthill where you rot, unless you speak with me, sons of Arngrim, all girt with battle-gear, keen blades at your sides and bright spears stained with blood. Death has made you cowards, but I have kin-right here. I come for the sword made by Dvalin. Why should dead hands hold the blade?” She led her own fleet, and was a major influence of Tolkien’s in the creation of his character of Eowyn. Now while the heroic sagas are factually inaccurate, I find it hard to believe these tales were invented wholesale without some sort of pre-existing cultural reference to fighting women. In Hrolfs saga Gautrekssonar, we meet Thornbjorg, who “spends her girlhood pursuing the martial arts”. Her father, King Eirikr of Sweden provides her with men and lands. She changes her name to the masculine Thorbergr, adopts male dress and is even called a king. While some may latch onto this as perhaps an example of transgenderism, we need to be careful how we analyze and assign modern labels to the historical context of a different culture.
In the old lawbook Grágás, one of the six sections of code was known as the “Wergild Ring List” and it included reference for the payment of wergild to Skjoldmø (shield maidens) in 840 CE. The Grágás as a legal code, would be revised as attitudes changed, led in part by the cultural clash from Christianity. By the time of the late 13th Century the Grágás would have rules where women were specifically barred from becoming chieftains, barred from carrying weapons, and they couldn’t appear like a man (i.e. dressed in men’s clothes, or with shaven, short hair). Now it seems to me, to make a law against something, you first had instances of the very things you’re barring. Case in point certain things like the eating of horse flesh was outlawed because it had been a pre-Christian custom of heathen religious rites. One interesting note in the Grágás there was another lawcode allowing for a mandatory exception for a “ring-woman” an unmarried woman who has to take up the tasks of a man because she lacks a father, brother, son to do so. Of course as soon as she was wed, her husband would be expected to take on those “manly” duties she’d been managing. This suggests to me, in the combined context of everything else, that culturally there was a tradition of women fighting. Plus it echoes some aspects of Thornbjorg/Thorbergr’s story.
There appear to be other references to shield-maidens as mentioned in the encyclopedia Nordisk familjebok among some of the other Germanic peoples: including the tribes of the Goths, Cimbri and Marcomanni.
Now, valkyries do seem to have some aspects in the lore that appear to be part of the much greater disir tradition (which were the numinous ‘Matrons’ and who had specific rites dedicated to them), of which other roles such as the Norns and the weaving of fates, fylgja, seeresses (volvas which were magicoreligious figures in a community) and prophecy interconnect. To my mind all this points back to how women were revered by the Northern Tradition peoples as being holy, imbued with magical power, and with a special ability to prophecy, a reverence which endured from ancient Germania and through history into Scandinavia until the rise of Christianity. So while the nuances of the complete role of the valkyries, and the exact nature and prevalence of shield-maidens may be long contested by scholars, it doesn’t negate the fact that women were respected. And sexualizing them as headless torsos is absolutely abhorrent. So when you see such ridiculousness call it out. This is not normal, but rather harmful. Nor should we ever find the attitude women are only good for brewing and serving the mead, or to be sexualized objects only ever acceptable within our religious traditions.
P.S. For those guys out there that don’t need this education, but have common sense and treat women with respect: Thank you.