Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ancient Norse Legends, Anyone?

Ice floes on Bay of Green Bay, Lily Silver 2005

Brrrr, it's winter. It's freezing here in Wisconsin. We've not had a day above freezing for months. And being it's also the season for Thor 2 in the theaters, my mind is turning back to the Norse legends I studied in college a few years ago. I'm also part Norwegian, so that might have something to do with my fascination for Norse legends.

Here's the thing, in the legends, those women are not your typical weak female types hoping for a man to save them.  The legends of the Valkryies are quite impressive.  One story comes to mind about a girl named Brynhild.  

In Saga of the Volsungs, we have vivid depictions of valkyries, or shield maidens as they are sometimes called. The valkyries tend to be human women imbued with supernatural powers. In Chapter 21 of Volsungs, the hero Sigurd is drawn to a great light on a mountain. He climbs the mountain and goes inside a building to find a man lying asleep in full battle armor. Here's the kicker; he removes the sleeping warrior's helmet and discovers it is a woman, not a man. 
Brynhild awakens and tells him that she was stabbed with a sleeping thorn by Odin as punishment for killing a king in battle whom Odin favored. Odin also told her she would have no more victories in battle and that she must marry, meaning she must someday put away her battle array and become like other women. Boo Hoo!  For Brynhild, this would be a true punishment.

Eowyn from Lord of the Rings Valkyrie immortalized!
Sigurd is entranced by her, perhaps because of her status as a shield maiden, not in spite of it. He asks Brynhild to be his teacher and teach him ‘of mighty things.’ Brynhild does so.  Sigurd compliments Brynhild by saying she is the wisest of all women. Rather than being turned off by her warrior persona and her wisdom, he’s definitely liking what he sees. It’s okay for a woman to be strong and smart in the ancient Norse culture. 
Not your typical damsel in distress, Lord of the Rings, Eowyn

This passage is significant as it shows valkyries as being considered wise and gives them an additional role of playing tutor to the hero. Brynhild’s battle attire and her warrior persona seem to be taken in stride by those about her. When Sigurd comes calling at her home frequently, he doesn’t seem surprised to find her sitting near the hearth dressed for battle, a helmet on her head and a spear in her hand. Their 'love affair' is not clearly laid out in the sagas, but it doesn't take too much imagination as a romance author for me to picture the pair of them curled up on a bear rug in that mountain hideaway, next to a blazing fire, kissing and maybe a little more . . . .
Another story of the legendary hero Helgi has a valkryrie named Sigrun as his love interest. In the first poem, she flies over Helgi’s vessel, protecting his men as they sail off to battle. At the end of the story Sigrun and her valkyries ride into the battle with him:
“Helmeted valkyries came down from the sky--the noise of spears grew loud—
They protected the prince; then said Sigrun—the wound-giving valkyrie flew, the
Troll-woman’s mount [wolf] was feasting on the fodder of Ravens [corpses] . . . 
 [Sigrun says to Helgi] ‘it is fitting lord, that you should have the red gold rings
And the powerful girl [Sigrun is giving him herself, since he’s won the battle].

        Apparently girl and power were not mutually exclusive terms in Norse culture. And the presence of women in battle does not seem to trouble the men folk too much in these sagas. In fact, they seem to take it as a good omen to have valkyries present.
        I don't know about you, but I'm feeling very medieval about now. I'm chomping at the bit to write a good Norse Romance with a Shield Maiden/Valkyrie as a heroine.  If you're curious to see a good depiction of a shield maiden, watch Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers. Eowyn Rocks as a Norse warrior woman, and she calls herself a shield maiden of Rohan!  

She kills the bad guy!
 The best part of the movie (LOTR The Two Towers)  is when our warrior woman confronts the uber bad guy, the Witch King, the guy responsible for all the evil going on around them. He tells her that she's foolish to resist him and she will die, that no man can kill him. She stabs him, and as he's crumbling into dust, basically disintegrating before her eyes, she removes her helment and says "I am no man!" 

Next Week: I'll share another story of a Shield Maiden who avenged her husband's death, ruled Russia, and then became a Catholic, a woman named Olga, or Helga. She's a real person, by the way.

Where do I find this stuff? It's in the ancient literature of the Norse:

 Saga of the Volsungs, 13th century BCE. (New York, Penguin, 1999), 67-71.
The First Poem of elgi Hundingsbani, The Poetic Edda, Transl. Carolyne Larrington, (New York:
Oxford, 1996), 118.

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