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A Maiden or a Man? Women Crossing Gender Boundaries in Old Norse Mythology
Valkyries, Warrior-woman Hervör, and the Maiden-king Thornbjorg
In Old Norse sources, “male” qualities such as courage, the desire to distinguish oneself and win fame, fighting spirit, the ability to perform heroic feats, the ability to engage oneself in the fate of one’s family and brothers-in-arms and the ability and will to keep one’s promises are highly valued (Andersen 300-301). What is so fascinating about these valued “male” qualities, however, is that they are not only found in men, but also in the women of Old Norse epics. Further, these women are able to establish themselves as males just as well in their skills and appearance. However, what distinguishes the women of Old Norse fantasy is not just that they can encompass masculine characteristics, but also how they are able to function so well as both masculine and feminine. Mythical figures such as the Valkyrjur (Valkyries) in their dual role of warrior maidens and handmaidens, the Warrior-woman Hervör and the Maiden-king Thornbjorg are all examples of women in Old Norse literary fantasy who, in their qualities, their skills and their appearances, cross over the barrier into traditional male territory, while also being capable of encompassing the role of the conventional female.
In Old Norse sources, which can be dated to the period between about 750 and about 1200, there is an account of women who served the in the halls of Valhalla, and, fully armed, took part in wars and battles. These women are referred to as Valkyrjur (Valkyries), although another name given to them is Skjaldmeyjar (shield-maidens) (Andersen 292). A Valkyrie, or “chooser of the slain” (valr = the fallen ones, and kyria = choose), is a warrior-woman of Odin, who is the all-father of the Norse pantheon. They ride out onto battlefields to decide on who is to die and accompany them back to Valhalla. They are sometimes omens of fighting and death, seen in dreams before battles or riding amongst the dead and dying during battle (Davidson 64). One famous example depicting the masculine appearance and nature of the Valkyrie is in the poem Darraðarljóðfrom Njáls saga:
“The warp is made of human entrails;
Human heads are used as heddle-weights;
The heddle rods are blood-wet spears;
The shafts are iron-bound and arrows are the shuttles.
With swords we will weave this web of battle
It is horrible now to look around
As a blood-red cloud darkens the sky.
The heavens are stained with the blood of men,
As the Valkyries sing their song.” (Njal’s Saga; ch. 156)
Here is depicted the power and symbolism of the Valkyries. Here, the warp and heddle-weights are references to the act of weaving, and the swords of the Valkyries are akin to needles used in the same art. However, what is being sewn here is the course or story of the battle, and the tools used to create this story are the bodies and lives of men, and the will and decision (through their swords) of the warrior-women. The Valkyries are here seen as taking a direct role in the fate of warfare and warriors, engaging themselves in the masculine art of battle, as well as bearing the quality of being able to take part in the fate of brothers-in-arms, a “male” quality. Further, the Valkyries are very unfeminine in that they ride through the battle with armor and unsheathed swords. Where women traditionally have no place in a world of warriors, we have these supernatural warrior-women choosing amongst the dead and dying, singing their song of glory over a horrifying scene of blood and battle. Despite their incredibly masculine qualities, the actions of the Valkyries here in the poem Darraðarljóðare marred with the motif of weaving, a domain typically associated with the feminine domain.
While Valkyries are in fact the “choosers of the slain”, they also bear another duty in their service to Odin alongside their role as warrior-women of fate: they are also Odin’s handmaidens. As they decide on the lives of warriors, the Valkyries choose amongst the fallen who will accompany them to Valhalla (Odin’s fortress), where they greet the slain with horns of mead, and serve them wine at feasts (Davidson 61). Valkyries are typically associated with warfare and power. In fact, the names of some of these warrior-women are directly associated with these masculine domains: Gunnr and Göndul, for instance, two Valkyries names mentioned in Darraðarljóð, mean “battle” and “wand-wielder” (the wand being a symbol of authority and power) (Andersen 301). The Valkyries go from the dominant and powerful ‘male’ role in the battlefield to a submissive ‘female’ role, a woman servant of her male host. Despite the femininity of the Valkyries here, they are not wholly submissive, as read in the Skáldskaparmál, the second part of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda:
“What dream is that? quoth Odin,--
I thought to rise ere day-break
To make Valhall ready
For troops of slain;
I roused the champions,
Bade them rise swiftly
Benches to strew,
To wash beer-flagons;
The Valkyrs to pour wine,
As a Prince were coming.” (Sturluson, 102)
Although the Valkyries are to serve wine to the fallen, it is not they who clean prepare the hall for the newcomers, but the champions of Valhalla. While they are to some extent submissive to the men who come, they do it in a very limited sense. Further, the act of pouring wine for the champions can be interpreted as celebrating the death and glory of these fallen warriors, making their actions associated with (or perhaps not detriment to) the ‘male’ domains of violence and war. It would seem that Valkyries can neither escape the femininity of their ‘male’ qualities, nor the masculinity of their ‘feminine’ qualities, allowing them to cross-over into traditional male territory while still being regarded as women.
Although Old Norse Valkyries serve as a great example of women being able to act on either side of gender boundaries, they are not unique in this sense. Neither are they the only gender-defying women of Old Norse, but it is also not necessarily the case that these women must be of a supernatural nature. In the natural world there is the warrior-woman Hervör. Hervör’s story can be found in Heidreks konungs ins vitra (also known as Hervarar saga), and from her very first appearance in the saga we see her crossing over gender boundaries:
“She was brought up in the house of the jarl, and she was as strong as a man; as soon as she
could do anything for herself she trained herself more with bow and shield and sword than
with needlework and embroidery. She did more often harm than good, and when it was
forbidden her she ran away to the woods and killed men for her gain.” (Heidreks 10)
Hervör was a woman who trained herself for male duties, abstaining herself from the role of a typical female. She sheds the traditions of needlework, and is instead depicted as having the strength and skills of a man. Beyond this description, however, we are also able to see her ‘male’ qualities of courage and fighting spirit in her bloodlust. She is also later shown to engage herself in the fate of her family. Before her birth, her father, a Berserk, was slain by a Swedish hero (Normann 379). After being told of her parentage, she tells her foster-father, the jarl Bjarmar, that she wishes to avenge her slain father and retrieve his lost magic sword, Tyrfing (Normann 377). Her masculinity continues to develop even further, and it would appear that she comes to be wholly a male, not only through the skills and qualities of a man, but through her appearance and name. Hervör says that “I will wrap swiftly/around my hair/a linen headgear” (Heidreks 11). The translation of the original Old Norse may encompass either of two meanings: she either says that she will bind her hair to appear as a man, or that linen cloth will be taken from her hair, implying that she is casting away her woman’s attire (Heidreks 11). Hervör then leaves home to roam with Vikings, adopting the male name Hervard and becoming “captain of the band” (Heidreks 12). It would seem now that Hervör, or Hervard, has now completely become a man, and it would seem has no trace of female qualities. However, the saga takes an abrupt turn in her development, when, after she has avenged her father and retrieved the sword Tyrfing (Heidreks 12-15), described by Lena Normann as a “clear token of male power” (Normann 377), she grew tired of raiding and returned to her foster-father, where she “settled down to fine work with her hands. Many tales were then told of her beauty” (Heidreks 20). Soon after, a marriage was arranged for her with the prince Höfund, for which she “told the jarl to act on her behalf” (Heidreks 21). Hervör, who up until this point has been completely disassociated with femininity, has not only taken up needlework and embroidery, duties she once neglected, but has become an image of womanly beauty. Even further, she submits herself to the jarl representing her in the marriage. Where a man would hold his own image, this ‘woman’ Hervör has allowed her fate to be in the hands of men. Hervör is a woman who crosses over the boundaries of gender into male territory, and comes back to become the ideal woman, making her another female character capable of encompassing both spectrums of gender.
Another woman of the natural world who crosses over the gender barrier into male territory is the maiden king Thornbjorg. The Old Norse legendary saga Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar tells the story of Hrólf, son of Gautrek, king of the Geats, and his proposal to the Swedish king Eirik’s daughter, Thornbjorg. (Normann 380) Thornbjorg is introduced rather differently than Hervör:
“She was unusually good-looking and intelligent, and people thought there wasn’t a girl to
compare with her. …and it’s said she was better at all the feminine arts than any other
woman. She used to tilt on horseback too, and learnt to fence with sword and shield,
mastering these arts as perfectly as any knight…” (Hrolf 34-35)
Unlike Hervör, who is a masculine woman who only becomes feminine later in life, Thornbjorg is already understood as an amalgamation of the two sexes: she possesses the natural skills and beauty of a woman in balance with the abilities of a man. Although Thornbjorg already possesses some male skills, her role as a male figure becomes much more evident as the text progresses. She wishes to distinguish herself as a ruler, rightfully a man’s place, by asking her father to put her “in charge of some part of your kingdom… so that I can try my hand at government and commanding the men entrusted to me.” (Hrolf 35). She then goes on to disallow her father’s right to marry her off, further establishing her dominant male qualities, telling her father “if anyone asks to marry me and I don’t want him, there’ll be a better chance of your kingdom being left in piece if you leave the answers to me.” (Hrolf 35). With that request, King Eirik allots her one third of Sweden, and she goes on to shed her femininity, even changing her female name, in similarity to Hervör, to become King Thornberg, and “anyone so bold as to call her a maiden or woman was in serious trouble” (Hrolf 36). Thornberg’s new masculine identity is further exemplified in how ‘she’ is now referred to as ‘he’, replacing the feminine pronouns with masculine ones (Hrolf 54). Thornberg, despite her now completely masculine role, is nevertheless still able of adorning a feminine role. Pursued by Hrólf, and, despite her attempts to keep him away, which includes her violent attempt to have him killed upon their first meeting (Hrolf 54). she eventually succumbs to him. After losing her third of the kingdom to Hrólf and his army, she goes to he father, as a King, and relinquishes her right to choose her husband (Hrolf 68). She then takes back the name Thornbjorg, becomes newly recognized as Eirik’s “Daughter”, and then she completes her crossing back over into the female domain:
“She handed her weapons over to King Eirik, and began working at embroidery with her
mother. She was the loveliest, most polished and courteous woman in the whole of Europe,
intelligent, popular, eloquent, and the best of advisers” (Hrolf 68)
Thornbjorg then begins as a relatively genderless figure in her association with both male and female qualities, but then is able to fully defy gender boundaries to become a male, even changing her name to a male one and proclaiming that no one should dare name her female. However, she is able to just as easily cross back over to assume the role of a female as she is defeated by Hrólf, and resumes her female name and taking back up the female art of embroidery and role of submission.
The stories of these women defying gender boundaries in Old Norse myths makes one wonder as to the underlying nature of such boundaries. If women are able to take on the roles of men so completely as Hervör and Thornbjorg as to be given male names and perform male duties as well as, or even better than, actual males, then what does that say about how the Norse defined gender? The Old Norse sources tell of supernatural Valkyries bearing armor and arms, celebrating war and commanding death, yet being associated with womanly crafts such as embroidery and acting submissive, serving wine. Then there are the tales of Warrior woman and maiden king, Hervör and Thornbjorg, both of which are females who completely assume the qualities and role of males, but are yet able to transgender back from males to females, taking up weaving and allowing themselves to be married off. Some authors would argue that these stories describe a patriarchal society reaching out its male influences into its female aspects (Andersen 315), while others would argue for a model of binary opposites consisting not of a male or female gender, but of power and powerlessness (Normann 384). However, it is nonetheless very strange and very interesting that these women of Old Norse stories are so capable of occupying both male and female territory so well. It is perhaps in our best interest, for the better know of the Old Norse understanding of men and women is in reviewing and redefining our concept of gender.
Andersen, Lise Praestgaard. “On Valkyries, shield-maidens and other armed women in Old Norse sources and Saxo Grammaticus.” Mythological Women: Studies in Memory of Lotte Motz (1922-1997). Eds. Simek, Rudolf, and Heizmann, Wilhelm. Wien: Studia Medievalia Septentronalia, 2002. 291-316. Print.
Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1971. Print.
Heidreks konungs ins vitra. Trans. Christopher Tolkien. Viking Society Web Publications. The Viking Society for Northern Research. Oct. 2001. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. < http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/>
Hrolf Gautreksson: a Viking Romance. Trans. Edwards, Paul, and Hermann Palsson. Edinburgh: Neill & Co. Ltd, 1972. Print.
Normann, Lena. “Woman or Warrior? Construction of Gender in Old Norse Myth”. 11th International Saga Conference. (2000): 375-385. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <http://sydney.edu.au/arts/medieval/saga/pdf/375-norrman.pdf>
Sturluson, Snorri. Edda: Skáldskaparmál. Trans. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. The Internet Sacred Texts Archive. Nov. 2003. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/>
The Story of Burnt Njal (Njal’s Saga). Trans. Sir George W. DaSent. Ed. Douglas B. Killings. The Online Medieval & Classical Library. July 1995. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <http://omacl.org/Njal/>.