‘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.

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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.

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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

Women at Harvest Time

by E.J. Lawrence

I grew up in a rural farming community so harvest time has always left an impression on me. It’s when all the lush, green crops disappear and suddenly you can see through a corn field again. I’ve always loved summer for the fresh produce, and there’s something about harvest that always makes me a little sad. Another cycle has ended…and it’ll be a few months before it begins again.

But that’s just me being poetic, I suppose. And thinking about harvest and all the farmers I know back home also makes me think about the history of women in agriculture. I don’t know of a single farm that’s a one-person operation, and I know many women who are proudly involved in that work today. So this week, I’m offering a post from Successful Farming about women’s roles in agriculture through the ages:

“A History of ‘Women’s Work'”

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A picture of a farm and farm family from my hometown (c. 1900)

Persephone and the Discomfort of Darkness

by Carrie Gessner

Imagery is one of the most important and versatile aspects of fiction. Especially in fantasy, we tend to default to symbolizing goodness with light and evil with darkness. Just consider Star Wars (which I classify as space fantasy). Not only are the villains aligned with the literal dark side, but the major bad guys—Darth Vader, Palpatine, even some stormtroopers—are decked out in black. Anakin’s clothes start out as tan and light colors but slowly turn darker as he approaches his alliance with the dark side itself. Visually, this can be fantastic shorthand, and not just in movies. We use it in fiction all the time, too.

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Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874

Outside of the black-and-white, good-and-bad binaries, though, darkness embodies uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. What could be more uncertain and uncomfortable than the prospect of what happens to us after we die? It’s a question people have been wrestling with for millennia, as evidenced by the some of the stories that have survived thousands of years. One of the most well known in the western world is the Greek myth of Persephone, sometimes known as Proserpina or Cora.

Together with her mother, Demeter, Persephone represents the natural agricultural cycle—the planting and sprouting of seeds followed by the maturation of the harvest. The last piece of the cycle, the coming of winter and dormancy of the natural world, comes later on, following Hades’s abduction of Persephone (courtesy of the earth splitting open and a golden chariot). In her grief for her missing daughter, Demeter ceases to perform her godly duties and allows the earth to wither.

When Zeus realizes he must intervene, he sends other gods as messengers to Demeter, but Demeter doesn’t listen. “Never would she let the earth bear fruit until she had seen her daughter” [1]. And so Zeus sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the underworld, but not before Hades gives her a pomegranate seed to eat, ensuring she must return to him. Rhea tells Demeter of the compromise:

Come once again to the halls of the gods where you shall have honor,
Where you will have your desire, your daughter, to comfort your sorrow
As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended.
For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her.
For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals. [2]

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Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1912

Though Persephone is allowed to live with her mother for two-thirds of the year, she must return to the underworld for the remaining four months. “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows. Nothing is real there. The ghosts’ existence, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.” [3] What must it be like to be like to be mistress of such a place?

stqI think that’s one of the questions more modern fiction, in the form of retellings and adaptations of Persephone’s tale, likes to explore. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a fantasy novel that’s inspired by India and Indian mythology [4], but because every culture has myths exploring the mystery of death, there are obvious similarities to Persephone’s story. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Mayavati, the princess of Bharata, whose fate is to be married to death and destruction. In an effort to escape war and almost certain death, Maya pledges herself to Amar, lord of Akaran, “a kingdom of impossible power” and “a kingdom that all nations feared.” All too soon, Maya realizes that Akaran is really Naraka, the realm of the dead, and Amar is “the lord of justice in the afterlife” [5]. As the story goes on, she must learn how to trust the man who decides fates and how she fits into his world.

A lot of times, when we retell myths or write stories inspired by them, we give more agency to the female characters, which is part of the reason we keep returning to them. As for why Persephone’s story in particular commands such attention, I think it has a lot to do with the liminal darkness of the underworld and the discomfort it inspires. We grow stagnant if we stay in one place for too long. Discomfort pushes us to change, and Persephone’s story is a clear representation of that process.


[1] Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Warner Books, 1999. 53.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid., 39-40.

[4] “Questions about The Star-Touched Queen.” Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/questions/766624-is-there-an-indian-myth-or-fairy-tale-this. Accessed 10 Aug. 2018.

[5] Chokshi, Roshani. The Star-Touched Queen. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 171.

 

Books Featuring Female Antagonists

by E.J. Lawrence

Dear Readers,

I am taking a hiatus from blogging this month so to kick off our “Lady Midnight” theme for August, I’ve decided to bring you three of my favorite “modern” books featuring women who walk on the dark side…

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The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander

I’ve mentioned these books before in my post on the Morrigan. They’re loosely based on the Welsh Mabinogi, but one of the chief antagonists is a woman named Achren.

I say “antagonist”…but she isn’t always. One of the things I love about this series is that it shows motives may be marbled. Achren is a powerful sorceress who’s been upstaged by her former pupil, and she wants revenge. She’ll do anything to get it, even if that means killing the protagonist…

These books are more in the middle grade set (I first read them at age 12), but they’re also books I go back to again and again and again because the story and characters are just that compelling.

“It was then Taran saw [Achren] held a weathered branch of driftwood. She lifted it high and Taran gasped as in her hands it blurred and shimmered. Suddenly in its place was a dagger.” (The Castle of Llyr)

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The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

This one just got re-released with a new cover design! And Carrie did a post on Attolia not too long ago.

This is, technically, a series. And Attolia–as Carrie pointed out–does undergo character development (to be fair, so does Achren in The Prydain Chronicles). However, her portrayal in this first book is nothing short of chilling. The thief of the title, Gen, works for the King of Sounis, but she offers him a chance to work as her thief…or be executed for stealing from her lands. So, not much of a choice. She’s used to getting what she wants.

“‘You are promised to someone?’ said the queen in disbelief.

‘I am, Your Majesty,’ I said firmly[…]

‘Surely I am a better mistress to serve?’

‘You are more beautiful, Your Majesty.’ The queen smiled again before I finished. ‘But she is more kind.’

So much for discretion. The smile disappeared. You could have heard a pin drop onto the stone floor as her alabaster cheeks flushed red. No one could ever accuse the queen of Attolia of being kind.”

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Okay, so this one isn’t fantasy, but it is a bit historical. I do not want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read it, so I won’t spend much time here except to say that this book is an excellent look at the evils of hypocrisy.

She didn’t want to die.

She couldn’t imagine wanting to die…

Death was for–the other people…”

Of course, if you want more historical takes, there’s always anything Arthurian, The Oresteia, The Aeneid, etc. But since I’m always sharing the ancient/medieval works, I thought it might be fun to share some modern classics, too! What about you? I’d love to hear some of your favorite books that feature some “lady midnights”!

The Pirate Queen of the South China Seas

by K.P. Kulski

A couple weeks ago, E.J. and taught a class on Writing Realistic Women in Historical Settings for In Your Write Mind, a writer’s conference annually hosted by Seton Hill University. During the lecture, I touched on the idea that women of lower classes could find opportunities for power through communities of crime such as piracy and robbery

This got me thinking about how living and operating in communities that were outside and/or in direct conflict with the larger social norm, women could more easily step into roles that would have been improbable within their societies. Please note that I will be discussing these groups and concepts in a historical context, but certainly many of the forthcoming statements may or may not apply to modern day.

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Piracy in the South China Sea ( Image © adventuresinhistoryland.com)

While these communities of crime were brutal and unforgiving, structural norms for the sake of order or blind adherence to traditional roles did not hold the level of importance it did in larger society. Organized crime was a state of flux with the strongest and most shrewd rising to power and then ultimately falling in favor someone else. Social power structures are therefore not stationary, if anything, quite the opposite. By nature, crime violates social norms through violation of law. Further, these communities tended to be focused on factors such as cunning and clear success for the basis of authority with little regard for things such as gender or class.

The history of piracy and general seafaring has many examples of women who found escape from social restraints on their gender and chose to live a life on the high seas. It is not surprising, since in many ways, a ship alone upon the ocean can be its own extremely isolated and unique society with varied power structures. Through cunning, effective leadership and delivery of victory (therefore money), individuals from many backgrounds could find themselves in positions of power. Neither class nor gender was necessarily an obstacle.

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(Image © allthatsinteresting.com)

It should be no further surprise that one of the most powerful pirates in history was a woman. At her height of power, she commanded a fleet that numbered 70,000 pirates and 1,200 vessels.[1] A “pirate confederation whose members outnumbered by two times the total forces involved in the Spanish Armada.”[2] This woman, born as Shi Yang would later be infamously known as Cheng I Sao “the wife of Cheng I” or Ching Shih “widow of Zheng.” She was not high-born, in fact she was a commoner who originally worked as a prostitute in the Canton region before her meteoric rise to pirate power. Her strength and immense supremacy over not only a single ship but several fleets, justly conjures the image of a pirate queen. If not anything else, Ching Shih was exactly that, a position achieved through her unparalleled capabilities of strategy and leadership.

Her rise to power began first as an exceedingly effective union between her and the pirate Cheng I through marriage. Historians are not completely sure of the basis of the marriage, if it was motivated by love, lust, business alliance or some combination of all three. But Ching Shih put her political and strategic skills to work alongside Cheng I whose pirate status (in fact he was from a family of pirates) legitimized her own status within the pirate world. While together, they successfully unified and strengthened the pirates of the South China coast by 1804. Historian Dian Murray points out that it appears Ching Shih elevated and launched the careers of her spouses, a role reversal from larger society, that it was Ching Shih who provided the impetus and skills for success.

When Cheng I died suddenly in 1807, Ching Shih maneuvered herself as sole leader of the massive fleets they had built together. She did this through identifying how to further legitimatize her claim (something already strong), created relationships with tributary pirate gang leaders and even used religious beliefs to her advantage.

But she was much more than a cunning contender to power, Ching Shih was a highly effective leader. Taking power is one thing, but consistently delivering successful operations was vital to maintaining it. She did just that, even recognizing that robbing ships alone could not sustain operations. Ching Shih took control of vital salt shipments and organized extensive networks that sold vouchers to local fishermen and other seafarers that exempted them from attack. She did all this through strict control with draconian punishments that included immediate decapitation for anyone who tried to usurp or disobey commands.[3] She maintained an interest in the proper treatment of women that extended to female captives establishing a punishment that included death for pirates who raped women, captive or not.[4]

Ching Shih next married the adopted son of her deceased husband. This union was as much a partnership of ambition with Ching Shih in the driver’s seat of the fleet. She created the conditions for her new husband Chang Pao to gain power within the fleet as the commander of a subset of the organization, known as the Red Flag Squadron.

What’s most interesting to me is that Ching Shih did not seem to identify herself solely as a pirate, instead she held a supreme confidence in her abilities and knew when to roll the dice and when to bow out of the game. She was flexible and took to new roles fluidly and with equal skill. Eventually she left the pirating world, obtained a position of governmental authority for her husband and set herself and her family up nicely in Canton.

Ching Shih never lived within the constraints of society and never let anyone define her. It was a remarkable outlook. When she died at the age of 69, she left behind a well-lived life where she not only refused to take “no” for an answer, but never seemed to recognize that anyone had the right to refuse her in the first place.

Featured image credit: Still from the 2003 movie, Singing Behind Screens

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Endnotes

[1] Dian Murray. “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” Historical Reflections 8, no. 3. (1981): 3.

[2] Murray, “Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” 3.

[3] Murray, 6.

[4] Murray, 6.

Feminism: Dispelling Frequent Misconceptions

by K.W. Taylor

I’m a speculative fiction author, but I’m also an academic who teaches, researches, and writes about cultural issues, particularly media and literary representations of gender. Since 2013, I’ve taught introductory women’s studies courses, and one of the things I cover on the first day of class is to ask students to make a collaborative list of common stereotypes of feminists. The results are sometimes over-the-top and humorous, but even though most people in the classroom disavow believing in the stereotypes, negative conceptions of feminism still pervade our society. Whether or not you identify as a feminist, it’s useful to have a basic working understanding of the term and clarify what it actually means. What follows are five common misconceptions about feminism and some history and data to dispel them.

Misconception 1: There is one kind of feminism; if you don’t perform it “that way,” you’re doing it wrong.

The fact is, not only are there different schools of thought within feminism, the core 220px-Annie_Kenney_and_Christabel_Pankhurstideology has shifted over time. In the so-called “first wave” of feminism in the nineteenth century, for example, the general focus was on voting rights. During the middle of the twentieth century, many feminists fought for equal pay, while others protested against exploitation. At the transition to the twenty-first century, the focus for several years has included digital activism and collaboration, while other feminists focus on obtaining better representation in politics or family leave in the workplace. Just because someone puts their emphasis on one area of gender-based equity doesn’t mean they’re not “doing” feminism correctly. Many textbooks on the matter pluralize the word “feminism” to emphasize its plurality of meaning.

Misconception 2: “Feminism” means trying to make women superior to men, and feminists hate men.

Many people have claimed a better term than “feminism” would be “humanism” (although technically the latter word is already claimed by an anti-theological philosophical movement), because “feminism” as a word seems to imply female superiority. In fact, very few strains of feminism aim for female superiority; most are fighting for equality and equity with men. Other than extreme outliers, in fact, most feminists don’t hate men, especially on an individual level, and one goal of feminism is often a dismantling of patriarchal gender roles that hurt men, too. By leveling the playing field and reducing cultural expectations on everyone, men, women, and gender non-conforming people can all live more freely.

Misconception 3: Feminists are all lesbians, and men can’t be feminists.

First of all, these misconceptions tend to imply negative judgment against members of LGBTQ+ groups. Certainly, some feminists are lesbians, but not all, and not all lesbians are even feminists. Most feminists—regardless of sexual orientation—are also supportive of LGBTQ+ rights. Part of the reason for this misconception stems from some radical feminist ideology of the late second wave, wherein there was some advocacy for “political lesbianism” regardless of one’s natural sexual orientation. However, it’s important to contextualize this, as even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, women in heterosexual marriages lost specific political and economic rights when they married, including their own credit history. Furthermore, with the gain of certain reproductive freedoms over time, marriage no longer has to mean the same extent of familial obligation it once did. Therefore, there is far less call to avoid heterosexual unions or marriage than there used to be, and the third wave of feminism in the 1990s advocated ever-increasing positive attitudes about women’s sexual freedom and expression, regardless of the gender of one’s partners.

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Image © factmyth.com

In the mid-1960s, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded to help solidify women’s rights. It’s notable the preposition is “for,” not “of,” as its purpose is women’s advocacy, not to imply they are only constituted “of” women. Anyone who wants gender equality can consider themselves a feminist, whether they themselves identify as female, male, or nonbinary, whether they are cisgender or transgender, and regardless of sexual orientation. Some feminists believe it may be difficult for male-identifying people to be fully invested in feminist causes, as men are perceived to benefit from sexism, and as a result, some men choose instead to identify as “feminist allies.” Regardless, that difference is slight; if you don’t identify as female but believe in gender equality, you shouldn’t feel afraid to say you are either a feminist or a feminist ally.

Misconception 4: Feminists are white.

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Kimberlé Crenshaw Columbia University

This misconception has more factual roots than not. One valid criticism of feminism is a lack of diversity; during its first and second waves, feminism was focused on the concerns of white women. In the late 1990s, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways in which different identity markers work together to cause multiple forms of oppression. For example, black women are usually subject to more social disadvantage than white women, and all women may be at a greater disadvantage than white men. On the other end of the spectrum, a white woman who is able-bodied and of normative sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion may be more privileged than she realizes. Thus, many people of color who would otherwise be sympathetic to feminist ideology eschew it in favor of women’s

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Image © Medium.com

rights issues specifically focusing away from white women. “Womanism” is a term many women of color have adopted that speaks to a black female experience and integrates elements of cultural life seen as missing in broader feminist circles. However, many other scholars and thinkers on this subject simply speak of “black feminism” or a need for inclusive or intersectional feminism. So while it is erroneous to say feminists are all white, this is indeed an area rife with opportunities for improvement.

Hopefully, this has been helpful in dispelling some of the myths surrounding feminism. For some additional reading, I recommend the books Introducing Feminism, by Caitha Jenainati and Judy Groves (Icon Books, 2007), Women’s Studies: The Basics, by Bonnie G. Smith (Routledge, 2013), and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, by bell hooks (Routledge, 1984).

Featured Image © Atwood Vintage