‘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

Female Friendships in Jacques’s Ragnarok Unwound

“[Friendship] was a bond worth fighting for.” – Ragnarök Unwound

I have the pleasure of introducing this month’s theme—female friendship! We’re going to do things a little bit differently today. As you know, here on Unbound, I write about the depiction of women in fiction. As you may not know, I run a micro-press called Sky Forest Press. We focus on science fiction and fantasy novels with female protagonists and diverse casts. I chose to focus on this niche because it’s a little harder to find in the bookstore, especially adult epic fantasy with female protagonists.

ruThat’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Ragnarök Unwound, written by Kristin Jacques, author of Zombies Vs. Aliens and the upcoming Marrow Charm from Parliament House Press. Ragnarök Unwound is the story of Ikepela Ives, who is known as the Fate Cipher. The Fate Cipher’s job is to untangle the threads of fate. The only problem is Ives is the first part-mortal Cipher, and no one ever taught her how to use her powers. She runs away from her duty until one day, she can’t anymore. A Valkyrie locates her in a bar and pleads for her help in stopping Ragnarök, which has been set in motion. Jacques blends Norse and Hawaiian mythology for a truly unique tale filled with a unique ensemble cast.

Ives is an endearing protagonist. She’s a little bit snarky, a little bit messy, a little bit awesome. She deals with having one foot in the world of mortals and one foot in the world of gods—if not gracefully, then with an awful lot of heart. But the real charm of the book is the friendships she makes. At the beginning of the story, she’s already friends with Jules, a brownie. Along her journey to stop Ragnarök, she acquires Hildr the Valkyrie and Hel, the Goddess of Death, too (and a few boys, but that’s not what this post is about!).

And each woman is unique. Jules, because she’s a brownie, humorously loves cleaning, and she owes Ives a blood oath. That’s not why she sticks around, though. She sticks around because she’s friends with Ives, truly, and does whatever is in her faerie power to protect her. Hildr is a Valkyrie, a warrior from Norse mythology. She’s quite the opposite of Ives and Jules—stoic and unfamiliar with human customs. Even so, she proves her loyalty and does her part in stopping the coming apocalypse. Jacques puts a spin on Hel, the Goddess of Death, and portrays her quite differently from Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. Here, she’s a gamer who doesn’t often visit the mortal realm because half her body is skeletal. With Ives, she doesn’t feel the need to glamour herself to appear normal. Even though the gang is up against nearly insurmountable odds, the strength of these friendships is what gets Ives through.

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Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok

I love stories of oddball people banding together to save the world, and that’s really what attracted me to this story and why I wanted it for Sky Forest Press. I’m hopeful that you’ll enjoy it, too! Ragnarök Unwound will be published on January 8, 2019, but you can add it to your Goodreads list now. You can also check out Kristin and Sky Forest Press on Twitter.

[Featured image: The Ride of the Valkyrs by John Charles Dollman. 1909]

Set a Fire and Burn

by E.J. Lawrence

When I was younger, I remember my grandmother saying, “If everyone just listened to me, the world would be a better place.”

She said it out of frustration, and with a twinge of irony since pretty much everyone thinks this, but it’s one of those logical fallacy things–everyone may believe it, but only one person, if any, can actually be right in saying it.

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“Fear not death, for the hour of your doom is set and none may escape it.” Well…those Norse were a cheerful lot.

Which brings me to the myth I’ve chosen to cover this month: Signy and Sigurd. Because, for Signy, if everyone had just listened to her, this myth would have turned out differently. But even though they didn’t, she wasn’t the sort to sit back and say, “I told you so.” No, this Norse woman rolled her eyes and said, “all right, I’ll fix the mess you made anyway.” And she sets about constructing the most elaborate revenge plot of just about any story I’ve ever read.

If you don’t know the myth, Signy and Sigurd were twins, the eldest children of King Volsung. One day, another king visits the castle and asks for Signy’s hand in marriage. To put this in 21st century terms, Signy gets bad vibes from the guy and tells her father she’d rather not marry him. Her father ignores her, and Signy reluctantly marries King Siggeir.

Her father and brother decide to visit Signy and her new husband, and Signy warns them that her husband will betray them. Of course, they don’t listen, and her father is killed, while her brother Sigmund is captured. Signy rescues her brother from captivity, then sends her son to Sigmund to be trained, so that her son might grow up and return to avenge his grandfather’s death. However, Sigmund tells her that her son is too weak, and Signy has him killed. They repeat this process, to the same results (I guess any son of this Siggeir guy is just not brute warrior material?). Fast forward a bit, and Signy decides the only way she can have a son who’s fit for her revenge purposes is to have a son with her father’s son–also known as her twin brother (why do mythologies always resort to incest? That’s an article for another day, I suppose). With the help of a sorceress, she tricks Sigmund into sleeping with her (a reverse King Arthur conception story), and has a son, who grows up and helps Sigmund set a fire to kill Signy’s husband.

Whew. See what I mean about the elaborate revenge plot? Still, for the culture at the time, it was incumbent on the offspring to avenge their parents’ murder. A lot of these stories we know–Orestes and Hamlet probably being the most famous. So, while a female revenge plot might be unusual, it certainly isn’t unheard of.

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That looks hot.

Of course, perhaps the most intriguing part of this story is how it ends–as the fire that kills her husband rages, Signy turns to her son and tells him of his true incestuous parentage, then she walks into the fire to die with her husband.

Why? If she’s gotten her revenge, the thing she’d spent the last several decades trying for, why would she throw herself into the fire? Because she was also a woman bound by custom, and it was her duty to die with her husband, even though she never wanted to marry him in the first place, and even though he betrayed her father. The goal wasn’t living without him. The goal was revenge. Once she got that, she had nothing else left.

It might be easy to critique this and say that Signy was trapped by her duty as a woman. However, I think it’s also interesting to note that Signy shares a lot in common with Hamlet, who also dies once his revenge is completed. The major different between Signy and Hamlet, of course, is that Signy is much more active, taking measured, calculated steps toward her revenge; while Hamlet just mopes around wondering if life is even worth bothering about.

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Hamlet, being moody. Again.

I’m not saying revenge should be a great motivator or anything like that. But in the ancient medieval world, revenge meant justice, and justice could only be taken by those who were wronged. I suppose that’s why revenge stories fascinate me so (admittedly, Oresteia is my favorite Greek cycle, and Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play); the quest for justice, for “rightness,” for balance, is an ancient quest, and so often, we feel we are denied justice. That’s the meaning behind the phrase “if everyone listened to me, the world would be a better place”–in other words, if I were in control, everything would be right with the world. The world would be just.

That’s fantasy, not reality. But it does make for a powerful story. An empowering one, really. Though it’s also worth noting that the revenge for Orestes, Hamlet, and Signy all come at a very high cost. For Orestes, the cost is his sanity. For Hamlet and Signy, it costs them their lives. Yet, all three of them knew the cost and accepted it willingly. They set the fires that consumed them.

I’m curious–if you know of any other female revenge stories a la Hamlet or The Oresteia, please share in the comments!

 

Works Consulted:

  1. Volsunga Saga
  2. Hamlet
  3. The Oresteia
  4. Hamlet picture By Peter Church, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13754721