‘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.

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.

The Saga of the Volsungs
The Viking Spirit by Daniel McCoy
Lost Girl
Thor: Ragnarok

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

“With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons: The Carnage of Camilla”

by E.J. Lawrence

Okay, honesty time…because I guess it would come out sooner or later: I’ve never been all that impressed with the archetype of the warrior in literature. So what if our fearless hero can out-muscle the bad guy? Yawn. Boring. I’m far more likely to be impressed by the hero who outsmarts the bad guy. Odysseus outsmarting the cyclops is way more intriguing than Odysseus going full postal on the suitors who tried to get with his wife. Sure, it took some brawn to get past that one-eyed monster…but far less brawn than if he’d just tried to muscle his way out of the situation.

So when K.P. suggested we do a month on female warriors, I really had to think about who I would pick, given that I normally don’t pay much attention to the archetype. I thought I could kind of cheat and go with Athena–the goddess of war and wisdom–but then, that’s not really in the spirit of the theme. Then I thought perhaps I could go with Joan of Arc, whom I’ve always admired…but it’s a little cliché. Besides, my past few posts have been historical, and I’ve been itching to do a literary character.

012Then I remembered Camilla. Who possibly fits the spirit of the theme better than Camilla?

If you aren’t familiar with Virgil’s Aeneid, I 100% recommend it. If not for Book XI’s Camilla, at least for Book IV’s Dido. But for today, I’ll just keep the lens on Camilla.

The poem itself focuses on Aeneas’ flight from Troy, after it fell to the Greeks. The purpose of the Aeneid is to connect the fall of Troy to the founding of Rome, and ultimately, to the Roman empire. It’s essentially an empire origin story, starring its mythical hero Aeneas. When Aeneas arrives in Latium (after a long sea journey), he finds the king welcoming. The king even offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to the new arrivals. However…the queen wants her daughter to marry Turnus, a local, and she conspires with Turnus to start a war against Aeneas and the Trojans.

Long story short, she succeeds, and during the battle, Turnus kills the son of Aeneas’ closest ally, whom Aeneas had sworn to protect. Naturally, this makes things worse, and the Trojans unleash their full fury on the Latins.

Turnus…for lack of a better term…turns to a group he believes can help…turn the war in his favor: the Amazons. The women come to his aid, riding upon magnificent steeds, and their coming is described in appropriate warlike terms. Then, as Camilla dismounts her horse–the others following–she tells Turnus:

“If sense of honor, if a soul secure
Of inborn worth, that can all tests endure,
Can promise aught, or on itself rely
Greatly to dare, to conquer or to die;
Then, I alone, sustain’d by these, will meet
The Tyrrhene troops, and promise their defeat.
Ours be the danger, ours the sole renown:
You, gen’ral, stay behind, and guard the town.”1

I’m really not usually awed by “tough talk,” but this speech sends chills up my spine every time. “Hey, Turnus, if we’re talking about honor or that je ne sais quoi a true hero is born with, then I guess that makes this my fight. And since it’s my fight, I (and my fellow Amazons) get all the glory for it. And since we don’t need you, just, you know, stick around here and make sure the town doesn’t spontaneously combust or something.”

At least, that’s how I imagine her tone in my head.

And Turnus, rather than getting irritated, seems kind of giddy at having her there. He thanks her for coming and calls her “grace of Italy”2 before adding that he, and his entire army, are at her command.3

If Turnus, our prideful antagonist, is impressed by Camilla and her entourage…then I suppose I should be, too.

Of course, all is not well up on Mount Olympus, as Diana knows her champion’s fate is to die in battle…and even though they’re gods, they can’t change fate. Phoebe, Diana’s nymph, wishes that whoever kills Camilla in battle with “not pass unpunish’d from this

Diana and her Nypmhs on the Point of Leaving (Jan Brueghel the Elder)



And with that, the Latin and Trojan forces go to war.

With all that build-up, it might seem that Camilla would meet her match on the battlefield, right? That perhaps our fearless hero Aeneas might prove to be stronger than she. That as she faces him, her downfall is his sword because…well, because he’s the dauntless hero, and she’s fighting for the side we’re kind of rooting against. So that’s what happens to Camilla…isn’t it?

Nope. Actually, Camilla’s actions on the battlefield are every bit as good as her reputation. She’s a force of pure brutal energy, slaughtering Trojans left and right. She is “resistless” and “pleas’d with blood.”5 We are the regaled with a list of her kills–all gruesome, but all fair. She even kills two men at once by throwing her spear so hard it runs through one guy and pierces the second.6 And then she goes around taunting all of the men she’s killed, asking if a woman warrior was just too strong for them.6

So one might ask, if Camilla is so good at being a warrior–so good that the general of the Latin army is willing to hang back and let her take the lead; so good that she and her entourage are slaughtering the Trojans in droves; so good that she can kill two men at once while taunting the ones she’s already killed–who on earth could possibly take down the indomitable Camilla?

Some nobody Trojan named Aruns.

What happens is this: Jove is surveying this “unequal fight”7–it just isn’t fair. Camilla’s side is clearly much stronger than the Trojans. He needs to do something about this. So, as the Trojans start to retreat, he puts a fire into Tarchon, a Trojan leader, and Tarchon delivers an impassioned speech, reminding the Trojans that they’re losing to a bunch of weak women, and they need to turn around and fight.7

Camilla DeathAruns, another Trojan, decides that he will be the one to put an end to this massacre. He sneaks up behind her and throws his javelin. It strikes home and comes through the other side of her chest.8 Immediately, he turns in shame and runs because, to the ancient warrior, nothing was worse than killing an opponent from behind. It was seen as pure cowardice. In this case, the ends do not justify the means.

What I find most fascinating about this section is that, while typically I laud a character who can outsmart his or her opponent, in this case, Aruns doesn’t outsmart Camilla–he cheats. It’s not a delicate skirting of the rules, but a shredding them up altogether.

And the poem recognizes this. Even though it’s the Aeneid, and our dauntless hero Aeneas fights for the Trojans, the poem does not recognize any admirable thing about the Trojan Aruns stabbing Camilla from behind. Camilla is presented as strong, bloodthirsty, courageous, and fair–all of her kills were met front-to-front on the battlefield. So it is somewhat ironic that her defeat comes through what amounts to treachery.

Aruns, called now by the name “traitor,” does not go unpunished. Opis, one of Diana’s sentries, sees him running away, and she says:

“Thy backward steps, vain boaster, are too late;

Turn like a man, at length, and meet thy fate

Charg’d with my message, to Camilla go,

And say I sent thee to the shades below,

An honor undeserv’d from Cynthia’s bow”9

Diana from Behind (Andrea Schiavone)

Thus Aruns meets the same fate as Camilla–Opis shoots an arrow through his heart.

Camilla’s cause, however, does not end with her death. As the Latin men run back to their town, the Latin women who witnessed the treachery from their place on the wall, were filled with such a rage that they grab rustic poles and “imitated darts”10 and basically begin hurling down at the Trojans whatever is in reach.

Let me repeat that slowly–while the men run back to the town and close the gate behind them, the women stand on the wall and throw things at the Trojans to avenge Camilla’s death.

That’s a pretty cool image, if you ask me. A fierce female warrior who could only be taken down by one of the worst ancient war crimes is avenged by a group of women watching from a wall. All in a poem written in Latin some 2,000 years ago. About an event that happened some 3,000 years ago.

So even though I’m not typically attracted to the warrior archetype, I have to admit an admiration for Camilla. I also have to hand it to Virgil, who writes a story about war that asks the reader to sympathize with both sides…and does not excuse a war crime, even when committed by the protagonist’s side.

Camilla’s legacy is that she strode into battle with confidence and inspired that same confidence in others, even in death.


*Citation Note: My version does not have line numbers, and I could not find a good online translation that included them either. Therefore, I am using the reference point numbers from this web link: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/virgil-the-aeneid-dryden-trans#lf0555_head_013

All quotes are from the Dryden translation.

1 379

2 379

3 380

4 382

5 384

6 385

7 388

8 389

9 391

10 392

Part 1- Hua Mulan: East-West With Honor

p21118_p_v8_acby K.P. Kulski

It’s not surprising that Mulan is my favorite Disney princess. My favorite female figures of history of have always been warriors, women who defied social norms. I particularly loved the idea that they could defend themselves and exert a power of their own. In a world of Disney princesses who need saving and who are most known for their beauty, Mulan stood out.

But she isn’t really a princess is she? While she’s included in the Disney princess lineup, she wasn’t born into or married to a royal family. She’s not particularly celebrated for her taste in frilly gowns, compassion or a singing voice. Her story is significant because she was a warrior and (by extension) because she did not follow gender expectations. In fact, she spends most of the film in armor. Despite this, I’ve noted that Disney merchandise opts to feature Mulan in beautiful gown instead of armor.

Before I dig all that up further, let’s look at the actual history of Mulan. First, let me assert that there are many tales about Mulan, some conflicting. Mulan’s story enjoyed a popular revival and reimagining in both the 16th and 17th centuries. For the sake of this article, I am focusing on the original “Ballad of Mulan” as recorded in the Music Bureau Collection, which was compiled in the 12th century, long after Mulan was said to have lived.[1]

Her surname and therefore ethnic origins are uncertain, sometimes she is referred to as Hua Mulan, but she could have easily been Zhu Mulan or Xie Mulan. During the period of the Wei Dynasty, a non-Han Chinese group, the “Ballad of Mulan” was written by an unknown author. We’re talking about the 5th or 6th centuries. Whether Mulan existed is also uncertain.

Gathering-Gems-of-BeautyNonetheless, in a time that male physical might and female beauty permeated stories, Mulan’s tale stands out as quite unique. By disguising herself as a man, she takes her aging father’s place in the army. This part is pretty familiar if you’ve watched the Disney movie. However, according to the song, Mulan’s military term is not a short one, in fact, she spends twelve years campaigning in the Khan’s army.[2] There is a clear connection to filial piety in Mulan’s actions. In order to save her father, she is willing to break with expectations and social conventions. While worth exploration, I would warn against focusing entirely on that element of the ballad. There is much more going on this tale. We are presented with an extraordinary, dualistic existence that discusses gender norms, breaking gender norms, earning of honor and loyalty to a noble philosophy.

Most obviously, Mulan challenges the idea that gender exists in binary, and more importantly that social roles are not necessarily gendered. Mulan’s comrades-in-arms, do not lose respect for her the moment they find out she is female. They are surprised, but after, “traveling together for twelve years,”[3] Mulan remains the same individual they have come to admire, who has proven herself over and over.

The ballad goes on to stress that Mulan embodies elements of both genders, “’I open the door to my east chamber, I sit on my couch in the west room, I take off my wartime gown and put on my old-time clothes.’”[4] If we use traditional Taoist ideology, east corresponds with yang—female and west with yin—male.[5] Mulan accesses her femininity, is open to it, but rests within her masculinity. She opens herself to the yang, but remains rooted in yin, yet chooses to remove the outward symbols of maleness and puts on female. To further stress common duality, the ballad closes with, “’The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip, the she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled. Two hares running side by side close to the ground, how can they tell if I am he or she?”[6]

The ballad seems to want the listener to understand that Mulan is female, but more than that, her actions are not male, that they are instead, simply honorable. The stress of the story focuses on Mulan’s nobility, grace and inner reflection.

In next week’s post, I will further discuss and analyze the ballad with special attention on military camaraderie and about female success in traditionally male spheres of influence. I’ll take a look at how the story of Mulan can give us insight into our own political and social issues. Maybe Mulan will save the today’s world too.

[1] Klimczak, Natalia. “The Ballad of Hua Mulan: The Legendary Warrior Woman Who Brought Hope to China.” Ancient Origins. http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/ballad-hua-mulan-legendary-warrior-woman-who-brought-hope-china-005084.

[2] Note, I say “Khan” here, the northern tribe title for a ruler, where the Disney film depicts the “Emperor,” which is a Han-Chinese title. Again, this is a story that does not originate from a Han-Chinese background.

[3] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Heaven and Earth: Taoist Cosmology.” The Art Institute of Chicago. http://www.artic.edu/taoism/tradition/b14.php

[6] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf