In The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, Nancy Marie Brown – renown author of Song of the Vikings, The Far Traveler, and Ivory Vikings – has once again pushed the boundaries of what we think we know about ancient and medieval civilizations by examining warriors and warriorship during the Viking Age.
For decades, Brown has studied Icelandic literature and culture and, in 2019, I was fortunate enough to travel with her to Iceland where we visited ancient saga sites and discussed all things Viking. It was then that Nancy opened my eyes to the unexplored depths of Old Norse culture and society. When I learned that she was writing a book on valkyries and Viking warriors, I had to learn more. Once the work was done, she graciously sent me an advanced reading copy and took the time for a short interview on the book and her views on the warrior ethos during the Viking Age. I have since shared excepts from The Real Valkyrie with colleagues and Viking enthusiasts both in academia and in the premier Viking warrior organization, the Jomsborg Army, and all have echoed enthusiasm for Nancy’s latest contribution to our evolving understanding of this pivotal period in world history.
Michèle Hayeur Smith at Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology calls the book “truly enjoyable and very well researched…a must-read for anyone interested in Viking Age history and the history of women.” Gísli Pálsson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Iceland and author of The Man Who Stole Himself says, “This amazing book offers nothing less than a paradigm shift… Carefully researched and beautifully written, this journey into the distant past has a lot to offer for current discussions of gender bending, the instability of scholarly “facts”, the dynamics of misogyny, and the legacy of slavery.”
For more on Nancy and her work, visit her author page on Amazon.com.
THE MIDGARDIAN INTERVIEW WITH NANCY MARIE BROWN
JDT: The title of your latest book is The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women. First question: what prompted your interest in the Viking age?
NMB: When I entered college in the late 1970s, Tolkien was my favorite writer and I wanted to learn to write like him. I was told that fantasy was not a worthy subject of study for an English major. So I read Tolkien’s biography and decided to study what he had studied—Norse mythology and the Icelandic Sagas. I’ve been doing it ever since.
JDT: In your opinion, what is it that the Valkyrie represented during the Viking age. What does the figure of the Valkyrie represent to you personally?
NMB: In histories, poetry, and sagas about the Viking Age there were many types of warrior women. The valkyries were battle goddesses, sometimes beautiful, sometimes troll-like. They were sent by Odin, the supreme Norse god, to fetch slain heroes to Valhalla—or they drizzled troughs of blood over the battlefield and whipped men’s heads off with bloody rags. The texts also tell of shield-maids. Sometimes they ride flying horses and cast storms of spears. Sometimes they are called giantesses. Sometimes they are portrayed as real women who dress and fight like men. I use the word valkyrie for all three types: the mythological, the legendary, and the historical. I don’t think we can always tell them apart, and we certainly can’t tell when an amulet or figurine of a woman with weapons was meant to be real or not.
JDT: The Real Valyrie is a great read. Not only is the scholarship and logic sound, but several women that I know read key passages and were literally moved to tears by the passion of Hervor. Without spoiling anything from the book, can you tell us a bit about Hervor: her biography but also her philosophy or ethic – what informs her identity?
NMB: Hervor is my creation, based on the female Viking warrior buried in grave Bj581 in Birka, Sweden. To fully imagine what that 10th-century warrior woman’s life must have been like, I needed to name her. I chose “Hervor” to honor the two warrior women of that name in The Saga of Hervor: one, leading a Viking band, opened her father’s grave mound to retrieve his sword; the second, leading an army, died in battle protecting a border fortress. In both cases, the people in the saga are not surprised that the warrior is a woman. They knew she had earned her place. We have to remember that most people in the Viking Age stayed at home and ran the farm. Only the elite joined—or led—a Viking band. For a man or a woman to do so required skill, strength, commitment, ambition, and a bold and aggressive nature. The Hervor I imagine was willing to exhaust herself training with sword, shield, axe, spear, and bow, with riding, rowing, swimming, and sailing. Her joy was a joy of the body, a joy of pushing her physical and mental limits and breaking through to new levels of skill, regardless of the blood, aches, and bruises involved. She was also a strategist, with the ability to outwit her opponents, to guess and defuse their attacks, to mentally juggle her options and quickly choose the best. She had what you could call battle luck.
JDT: An issue that seems to have been settled by Old Norse scholars is that the term drengr – the ideal warrior – could be applied to both men and women? What do you think describes the drengr ideal?
NMB: The word drengr means “boy” or “lad” (which originally meant one who is “led by a leader”). The comparable word for a warrior woman was skjaldmaer or “shield-maid”—not “shield-maiden,” as it is often translated; sexual experience has nothing to do with being a warrior. What the words refer to are status. These warriors are not householders. They have no economic responsibilities. They have no obligations except to their war leader. They are professional fighters. In a Viking band, kinship—the cause of so many feuds in the Icelandic sagas—was meaningless. To be a drengr meant casting aside the family honor. If a member of your band was found to have killed your close relative, you were forbidden to fight it out. Instead, you must bring the problem to your war leader, whose judgment was final. Your loyalty was to your band. You were a team. You had one another’s backs. Each would avenge the others. None would run from an enemy of equal strength or weaponry. None would speak a word of fear or complaint, no matter how bleak things looked. None would stir up trouble.
JDT: Do you find that, for lack of a better term, there is a spiritual dimension to warriorship?
NMB: Yes, there was definitely a spiritual aspect to it. The members of a Viking band were bound by common experiences: by rituals, the trauma of the battlefield, the dangers of sea travel, and the overindulgence that defined a good feast, where boasting and storytelling both created and expressed their shared identity and oaths were sealed with a drink.
JDT: What do you think it is about valkyries that continues to inspire the modern imagination from Wagner to the present? Is it something universal or is it specific to each historical period?
NMB: I think every historical period has redefined valkyries to reflect their own times. Wagner used them to express women’s limitations. I see them as expressing women’s strengths and possibilities.
JDT: Today, so many people are making attempt to connect with the Viking age in various ways: do you think this is often a matter of simply romanticizing the past or do you think there are valuable lessons in Old Norse literature and history that are applicable today?
NMB: We cannot understand our own times if we do not continuously reinterpret our past. How do we know what we think we know? Much of our understanding of the Viking Age took shape during the Victorian Age in the 19th century, when upper-class women were confined to the home and told to concern themselves only with children, church, and kitchen. Working on The Real Valkyrie I was constantly finding that things I had assumed to be “facts” about the period were actually interpretations. Only by breaking through my prior assumptions was I able to see what the medieval texts and modern science really had to say about warrior women in the Viking Age.
JDT: What has been the general reception of The Real Valkyrie from readers so far and have you encountered any difficulties or challenges while working on the book?
NMB: The reception so far has been surprisingly positive. Readers have described it as “a game-changer” and “a paradigm shift,” which is what I hoped it would be. My biggest challenge, as I said, was questioning my own assumptions and those of my teachers, many of them scholars I have long admired. To write about the Viking Age at all means to make educated guesses. To interpret and to speculate. We have very little real data. I also had to be honest about my new assumptions—and to make them clear to the reader. For example, words like menn in Old Norse, manna in Old English, and homines in Latin have been translated for hundreds of years as “men”—but they also mean “people,” no genders implied. What does the Viking world look like if we revise every translation of menn to be genderless? In this, I am following in the footsteps of a wonderful group of scholars currently researching gender issues in the Viking Age. We ask, What would the Viking world look like if roles were assigned, not according to concepts of male vs. female, but based on ambition, ability, family ties, and wealth?
JDT: Undoubtedly, every work on the subjects of Vikings is open to interpretation or debate, what do you see as the most likely criticism of the book and what would you say to that criticism?
NMB: As I hope I have made clear, The Real Valkyrie is intended to push the boundaries. By making every assumption genderless, I may have gone too far. I don’t expect to have the last word on women warriors in the Viking Age. I only hope to expand the conversation.