‘We Raise Our Sisters on Our Shields:’ The Modern Valkyrie

By Kristin Jacques, author of Ragnarök Unwound, forthcoming from Sky Forest Press

The Valkyrie has made a comeback in a big way. While this Norse mythological figure has cropped up from time to time in the modern era, the influx and influence of mythology in recent media has lifted the Valkyrie in a new direction. There is now an abundance of depictions in comic books, novels, television shows and blockbuster films, where the Valkyrie has become synonymous with the B.A.M. (Bad Ass Motha), the tough-as-nails female heroine. This archetypal heroine is a cornerstone in several genres, such as Urban Fantasy.

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Valkyrie, Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1864

This representation is not a far cry from their Norse origins, though newer incarnations present a somewhat sanitized version of the original myth, focusing on the noble characteristics of these female extensions of the All Father. The hint of their dark origins is in the etymology of their name.

valkyries-1900778_1920To break down the old Norse Valkyrjur, Valr referred to the slain of the battlefield and kjósa, meant ‘to choose.’ Valkyrie translated to ‘Choosers of the Slain,’ a title that not only encompassed their choice of which warriors were granted Valhalla status, but who would die in battle. Valkyries didn’t shy away from invoking some heavy-duty black magics to ensure their choices came to fruition. In Njal’s Saga, there is an instance of twelve Valkyrie gathered around a loom, weaving fate like the Norns, though their materials are far grimmer. Here, the Valkyrie use intestines for thread, severed heads for weights, and swords and arrows for beaters, while they gleefully chant their hit list. The Saga of the Volsungs compares the sight of a Valkyrie to ‘staring into an open flame.’ To the Anglo-Saxons, they were spirits of carnage.

At some point the representation shifted from ‘warrior’ to ‘shield maiden,’ and there, a fine distinction began to surface. Valkyrie served as projections, parts of a greater whole. The Valkyrie were an extension of Odin, but as the focus shifted to their nobler deeds, so too did their autonomy expand. Odin might dictate their choice of who died in battle, but the Valkyrie, such as Brunhild or Sigrun, chose their lovers. They chose mortals to favor and protect. They became susceptible to the vices and failings of mortals, just like other Norse deities. They became more human.

tessa thompson

It was this association with fairness, brightness, gold, and bloodshed that has resurfaced in depictions of the modern Valkyrie. There has also been a bit of an amputation from the All Father. A single Valkyrie is a B.A.M., but she comes with a sisterhood. Recent Valkyrie representations include everything from Tessa Thompson’s very memorable kick-butt turn as Marvel’s Valkyrie in the third Thor outing to Rachel Skarsten’s Tamsin in the fantasy femme fatale brawl that is Lost Girl. [pictured: Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok.]

In Marvel’s hot take, the Valkyrie were an elite band of female warriors who served in Odin’s army, with Thompson’s character adrift and rudderless without her sisters. (Slight spoiler: she comes back swinging.) Here at least Odin is present, but the Valkyrie, particularly Thompson, have complete autonomy over themselves.

Lost Girl - Season 5
LOST GIRL — “Like Hell Pt. 1” Episode 501 — Pictured: Rachel Skarsten as Tamsin — (Photo by: Steve Wilkie/Prodigy Pictures)

The Valkyrie in the Canadian fantasy drama Lost Girl give a fair nod to their dark origins. Here, the Valkyrie don’t answer to Odin at all, but to Freyja. They still have the soul-taker gig, but with a twist.  The Valkyrie consider one another sisters, and they fight like sisters, though the hair is off-limits.

For my own depiction of Valkyrie in Ragnarök Unwound, I draw on the more bombastic qualities present in the myths and modern incarnations in the creation of Hildr—fierce, loyal, and quite literal. Isolated from her sisters, Hildr builds a new sisterhood with the other female characters of the novel to fight the good fight.

A common factor in these modern depictions is while the Valkyrie are singularly B.A.M., the Sisterhood is a force of nature. They draw strength from one another and in turn give their strength to one another.

This mentality of sisterhood carries over into women’s culture. We all want to be Wonder Woman. We want to be the B.A.M., but we are strongest when we lift each other. We raise our sisters on our shields. No matter the depiction, the world they inhabit, or who their boss is, Valkyrie are the Sisterhood of the Fierce.


Sources:
The Saga of the Volsungs
The Viking Spirit by Daniel McCoy
Norse-mythology.org
Lost Girl
Thor: Ragnarok

Featured image: Arthur Rackham, “Wagner’s Ring Cycle: The Valkyrie,” 1910

“Thou and I are One”: What As You Like It Teaches Us about Friendship

By: E.J. Lawrence

I am currently in the middle of teaching my Shakespeare unit to my students. I suppose that’s why, when the theme of female friendship came up this month, I immediately thought of Rosalind and Celia from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. While this isn’t a play I’ve ever taught before, it is one of my favorites, and one of the reasons I love it so much is because of the beautiful depiction of friendship between these two women.

In this play, Rosalind is a young woman whose father is out of favor with his brother, the treacherous duke–and he is thus exiled–but Celia, the duke’s daughter, so loves her friend that she begs Rosalind be allowed to stay. The duke dotes on his daughter and cannot deny her this request…until he, for no real reason other than mad jealousy, rescinds his offer and tells Rosalind she must leave immediately, on pain of death. Celia tries to beg for her friend and cousin’s life again, but this time, is denied. Rather than stay at home and mourn for her lost companion, Celia chooses to run away with Rosalind, and the two girls escape to the forest where they meet a shepherd, a band of merry men, and their eventual love interests.

When we first meet Rosalind and Celia, Celia is trying to cheer up Rosalind because of her father’s exile. Though Rosalind is initially reticent, the two end that portion of their conversation with an exchange of witty repartee. The wordplay shows both women to be intelligent and quick, treating conversation like a skill they’ve both sharpened on each other for years. It’s a game they enjoy and are both good at, so it makes for not only comedic dialogue, but also shows that the two friends “get” each other. They even often conspire to “outfool the fool” when they make jokes at Touchstone’s (“the fool’s”) expense. While they’re talking about whether Fortune and Nature work together or not, Touchstone enters, and their course of conversation turns to make fun at his expense:

CELIA

No? when Nature hath made a fair creature, may she
not by Fortune fall into the fire? Though Nature
hath given us wit to flout at Fortune, hath not
Fortune sent in this fool to cut off the argument?

ROSALIND

Indeed, there is Fortune too hard for Nature, when
Fortune makes Nature’s natural the cutter-off of
Nature’s wit.

CELIA

Peradventure this is not Fortune’s work neither, but
Nature’s; who perceiveth our natural wits too dull
to reason of such goddesses and hath sent this
natural for our whetstone; for always the dulness of
the fool is the whetstone of the wits. How now,
wit! whither wander you?1

1200px-Before_the_Duke's_Palace–Rosalind,_Celia,_Orlando,_the_Duke_&_Attendants_(Shakespeare,_As_You_Like_It,_Act_1,_Scene_2)_MET_DP85957
“Before the Duke’s Palace” (1800)

This joke, which is essentially saying that fools exist to be made fun of, and that must be why Touchstone has arrived, has built for several lines. Such a joke requires the skill and teamwork of two people who have known each other for some time, and thus know how to set each other up for a punchline. We all have someone with whom we share jokes–inside jokes, puns, etc. These “shared” jokes are usually only between those with whom we share more than just jokes. Witty back-and-forths require a connection, and inside jokes–like the one here between Celia and Rosalind–require an “inner circle” connection. We don’t often joke around in this manner with someone we aren’t close to, and we certainly don’t expect mere acquaintances or “friends of circumstances” to deliver when we set them up for a punchline. These two have a friendship built on common intellect, yes, but also on years of close communication.

It’s more than just their sense of humor that cements them as friends. It’s also their willingness to walk through fire for one another. When Rosalind is banished by Celia’s father, she declares she is now alone. Celia responds: “Rosalind lacks then the love/ Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one:/ Shall we be sunder’d? shall we part, sweet girl?/ No: let my father seek another heir.”2 Celia is not banished; she isn’t the one who must leave. She could have provided her friend with some supplies and sent her on her way, choosing to continue her life in comfort. Instead, she dons the clothes of a peasant girl and runs with her cousin into the forest, giving up every scrap of wealth and comfort she had to give her closest companion some comfort.

To me, that’s the greatest depiction of friendship there is. John 15:13 says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”3 That, essentially, is what Celia does for Rosalind. She risks death and physical discomfort for her closest companion.

Rosalind_and_Celia
“Rosalind and Celia” (1870)

Once in the forest, Rosalind disguises herself as a man and Celia disguises herself as a peasant, and the two women conceal each other’s identities as they find mischief, mayhem, love, and family in the forest. In the end, in true comedic fashion, everything works out for both women–mostly thanks to Rosalind’s quick-thinking and Celia’s careful protection of her friend’s identity. And while, for me, the play holds many great moments (Jacques’ speeches speak to my soul…which should probably alarm me), my favorite part has always been the beautiful friendship between Celia and Rosalind–their matched wits, their compassion, and the way they protect and look out for each other in the darkest of circumstances.

  1. Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Act I.Scene 2, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/asyoulikeit/full.html
  2. —. As You Like It. Act I. Scene 2, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/asyoulikeit/full.html
  3. The Bible, King James Version, Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+15%3A13&version=KJV
  4. Featured Picture: “Rosalind and Celia” (1909)