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 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. it’s wrong. it’s an abomination.
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 women who very much could kill you. And while Odin, and Freya both received battle-slain, there is nothing, anywhere that says all the battle-slain go to them. 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?
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 meadhall and the guests. Two female Powers do this, not males. Skadhi is fiercely independent, skilled archer, and has no problem standing before the Holy Powers and demanding Her due.
Skjaldmær or shield-maidens, pop up from time to time in the lore. In Saxo Grammaticus 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.” 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 clarify what he means by war-like.
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 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. 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 wide spread 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 American & 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 and 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.
There’s more references in some of the heroic sagas, or fornaldarsogur: Bósa saga ok Herrauðs, Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar, Sigurds Saga, Volsung Saga, in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks to 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.
There appear to be other references to shield-maidens as mentioned in the encyclopedia Nordisk familjebok among some of the other Germanic peoples: Goths, Cimbri and Marcomanni.
In the old lawbook Grágás (from the twelfth century, long after conversion), 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. 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.
Now, valkyries do seem to have some aspects in the lore that appear to be part of the much greater disir tradition, of which other roles such as the norns and the weaving of fates, fylgja, seeresses (volvas) 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 and to fuck ever be 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.