Happy V-day everyone! (Viking-day? Valkyrie-day? Well, close enough) For those of us who like our women strong and deadly, here’s to those ladies of the air and battlefield, the Valkyries! (valkyrja, “chooser of the slain”, or less poetically, “corpse-chooser”) OK, while some of the Old Norse stories of valkryies or other strong women (eg the Maiden Kings) may edge towards (or dive straight into) more of a taming-of-the-shrew sort of narrative (to put it mildly), there are others in which these warrior women seem to make it through with their self-respect intact, even if a love story ensues. In Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (The Lay of Helgi Hjorvardsson), the valkyrie Svava not only names the hero (while she rides by in splendor in the sky) and tells him where to find his sword (normally things that would be done by his father), after she marries him we are told that she remains a valkyrie as before, rather than losing her heroic status after finding a man “strong enough to make her a woman” or whatever. Not that the three Helgi poems in Poetic Edda are an unmixed bag–we have two versions of Helgakviða Hundingsbana (Helgi the Bane of Hunding), the first of which is short and triumphant, entirely focused on the hero as a supermasculine awesome warrior dude, and in which he kills the valkyrie’s family-approved suitor and everyone else, to which she replies… yay, now I can marry you, versus the second version, which seems to represent a female perspective a bit more, as she finds herself caught between her lover and her family, the former killing the latter (in order to be able to marry her, true…um…), and then being killed by her surviving brother. Like the women in Beowulf (especially the digressions), she (normally a force of nature in her professional role) is caught in the web woven by the martial patriarchy and suffers for it. Not the most empowering representation of a valkyrie, but one which gives more of a voice to a female perspective on the patriarchal Viking age comitatus than the teenaged-angsty-wishfulfillment of Helgakviða Hundingsbana I.
The Helgi poems mentioned above are all in Poetic Edda (available in two excellent translations, here and here–but I must warn you that the Helgi texts are especially hard to follow for a beginner), at the start of the “Heroic Poems”, following the stories of the gods and supernatural beings, but they are not the only valkyrie love stories in PE. In fact, the Sigurðr-Brynhildr-Guðrún triangle, famous throughout the Heathen/early Christian North and down into our day through Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is central to the entire second half of PE. At the end of the “Mythological Poems” we have an abortive valkryie love story in Völundarkviða, another story which subverts, to some degree, masculine agency by having the swan-maiden valkyries (apropos of their usual function?) choosing their mates (I gather this from the wording in the first few stanzas of the poem, which portrays the women as active and the men as passive) rather than the other way around, as is typical in Swan Maiden stories, and then leaving their men because they feel drawn back to war. OK, that part made me sad, I confess, and we maybe have this female agency countered later in the poem in Völund’s seduction/rape (?) of the human princess Böðvildr, but I feel like there are enough Iserian gaps re: the significance of the valkyries in some of these stories that we can celebrate them as the awesome supernatural warrior women that they are. Hurrah for valkyries!! But if you choose me, please be careful what exactly you are choosing me for, Ms. Corpse-chooser…
PS, in case you are in need of some sappy, V-day poetry of the more depressing sort, remember my short verse here! And yeah, the rating is pretty low now–it used to be a lot higher, but someone went through ALL the poems from that time (not just mine) and lowered everybody’s score, so let’s just hope that jerk learns the true meaning of V-day… or whatever.
Also, will try to get around to posting about the coded runic love messages that have been in the news lately!