Thursday, May 14, 2015

ART CONTEST – Midsummer 2015

Midsummer Eve Bonfire by Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup

CONTEST

The theme for The Norse Mythology Blog's fifth art contest is a bit different. Be sure to carefully read the entire Contest Theme section so that you understand the assignment.

During the summer solstice on June 21, those of us in the northern hemisphere will experience the longest day and shortest night of the year. This may seem early in the season, but it’s really the middle. From this point on, days will get shorter as we slowly move back towards winter.

Throughout Northern Europe, there are local traditions that celebrate midsummer. Some of these practices preserve very old rituals. Your original piece of visual art should capture the midsummer spirit of Norse mythology.

I strongly suggest doing some reading and research on the Norse myths before you begin your artwork. What characters and concepts can you discover? Can you think of a way to relate them to the contest theme?

If you need some ideas about Norse mythology, browse The Norse Mythology Blog Archive. You can also check out the winners of the Midsummer 2014 Art Contest in the three categories: kid, teen and adult. Most importantly – be creative!

CONTEST THEME

Your artwork entry must somehow relate to this excerpt from the Old Norse poem Sigrdrífumál ("Sayings of Sigrdrifa") from the Poetic Edda, the great collection of mythological and heroic poems from medieval Iceland.

Sigurð discovers the Valkyrie – Willy Pogany (1920)
At this point in the poem, the dragonslayer Sigurð has just woken the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa (who may or may not be the heroine Brynhild under another name). She had been mystically put to sleep by the god Odin as punishment for vanquishing his chosen hero in battle.

As she wakes, the Valkyrie sings a beautiful song of celebration. In the classic 1923 translation by Henry Adams Bellows, she sings:

Hail, day! Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.

Hail to the gods! Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.

You can do any of these things:

1. Illustrate the scene of Sigurð and Sigrdrífa
2. Illustrate the words of the song sung by Sigrdrífa
3. Illustrate the feeling of the scene
4. Illustrate the feeling of the song
5. Create something inspired by the scene
6. Create something inspired by the song
7. Draw something connecting the song to other Norse myth characters or concepts

You must do this one thing:

Include an explanation with your entry explaining how your work relates to the poem.

Beware!

In this contest, Marvel Comics characters are NOT considered part of Norse mythology. Art with imagery from comic books or movies will NOT be accepted. Do some reading and research on Norse myth, then base your imagery on what you learn!

Want to learn more about Sigurð and Sigrdrífa?

Read the entire poem in English by clicking here.

* Includes introduction and notes by Bellows

Read a kid-friendly version of the story here.
* Sigrdrífa is called Brynhild in this version

JUDGES

I am extremely proud to announce the judges for the art contest. I greatly respect both of these incredibly talented people, and I'm very happy that they agreed to participate this year. The three of us will judge the entries together.

Simon Fraser
Simon Fraser
This brilliant Scottish artist is one of my absolutely favorite comics creators. I've been following his work since it first appeared in the UK's 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine in the mid-1990s, and I'm continually amazed by his fusion of Bollandesque clarity of line, Corbenish depth of color and Mœbiusistic level of detail with a determinedly personal vision.

Simon's work with writer Robbie Morrison on the Megazine's Shimura series was fantastic, but the pair's collaboration on their co-creation Nikolai Dante was revelatory.

Nikolai Dante with friends, enemies & frenemies
Art by Simon Fraser
Between 1997 and 2012, the adventures of the Russian rogue happened in real time. The characters aged and changed, loved and lost, lived and died. In my four decades as a comic book fanatic, I have never been moved by any title as deeply as I was by this series. Years later, I still can't think of the series without feeling a tug of emotion. It's a tremendously powerful and perfectly unique work, and Simon's art deserves the highest accolades than can be given.

He has also made his mark on the legendarium of Judge Dredd himself, drawing the adventures of the future lawman to scripts by creator John Wagner, Robbie Morrison, Gordon Rennie and John Smith.

Simon is currently gaining a new legion of fans with his wonderful work on Doctor Who for Titan Comics. You can check out Simon's comics art, illustration and portraits at his wonderful website, simonfraser.net.

Dr. Merrill Kaplan
Dr. Merrill Kaplan
One of today's strongest voices in the field of Scandinavian studies, Merrill is Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Ohio State University. She's also Associate Professor of Folklore and Scandinavian Studies at the Center for Folklore Studies and Affiliated Faculty with the Department of Comparative Studies. On top of all that, she's Director of the Scandinavian Program Faculty at the university.

Merrill teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on Norse mythology, medieval Icelandic saga, Old Norse language and related subjects. She has published several academic articles and co-edited the collection News from Other Worlds: Studies in Nordic Folklore, Mythology and Culture (2012). Last week, she hosted the annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. I'm exhausted just thinking about everything she does!

She studied with John Lindow at the University of California at Berkeley, where she completed her PhD in 2006 with a dissertation on The Irruption of the Past in Nornagests þáttr and Allied Texts. Her undergraduate degree at Harvard University was in Folklore and Mythology with a thesis on "Re-Evaluating Ragnarök: An Examination of the Gosforth Cross as a Celtic Christian Monument."

You can learn more about Merrill at her faculty page, and you can find out about the Scandinavian Program at OSU by clicking here.

AGE CATEGORIES

There will be three winners in each of the following categories:

Kids: Age 12 & under
Teens: Age 13-19
Adults: Age 20 & up

RULES

1. Art must be done with crayons, markers, paint, pen, pencil or digital materials.
2. Original art only; no photos or collage.
3. Art must be kid-friendly; no nudity or violence.
4. No copyrighted characters. Let’s leave the Marvel Comics to the professionals!
5. One entry per person, please.

HOW TO ENTER

Send an email to mythcontest@live.com that includes the following:

1. Your full name (kids can give first name and last initial)
2. Your age (as of June 19, 2015)
3. Your location (city, state/province, country)
4. A short description of your artwork that explains how it relates to the poem
5. Your artwork (as an attachment)

Seriously, don’t forget to include your art as an attachment!

ENTRY DEADLINE

Midnight (Chicago time) of June 19, 2015

WINNERS

Winners will be featured on all
Norse Mythology Online sites
Simon, Merrill and I will be judging the entries based on creativity and relation to Norse mythology. Do some reading, do some thinking and make something original!

The three winners in each age group will be featured on The Norse Mythology Blog, The Norse Mythology Facebook Page, The Norse Mythology Google+ Page, The Norse Mythology Pinterest Page and The Norse Mythology Twitter Page. Your art and your description of it will be posted on all the many sites of Norse Mythology Online and will remain permanently in the The Norse Mythology Blog Archive.

June 22: Kid winners announced
June 23: Teen winners announced
June 24: Adult winners announced

It’s time to sharpen your pencil and start drawing. Good luck!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

“DREAD CUSTOMS”: INVERSION & ENFORCEMENT OF GENDER ROLES IN THE NIBELUNGENLIED, Part Three

Click here to read Part One and here to read Part Two of the series.

Uwe Beyer as Siegfried (Sivrit) & Rolf Henniger as Gunther
Die Nibelungen (1966/1967)
Before Sivrit steps in, Gunther’s agency is completely subsumed to that of his wife. His fear (angest[lichen]) and passive role on his wedding night inverts the expected gender roles of experienced husband and virgin wife. As he did in Iceland, Sivrit offers to set things to rights: “I’ll bring it about that she lies so close to you tonight that she’ll never again be slow to give you her love.” Gunther’s worry about his status and Sivrit’s willingness to step in as “fixer” can be read through Cooper’s framework: An attempt to understand the conventions by which gender-specific characteristics were assigned to women and to men, and the rhetorical ends that such conventions could serve, will tell us something about the relations between men and women, and at least as much again about the competition for power between men and other men. Again, the focus is on representation.

How do we read the gendering of Prünhilt, Gunther and Sivrit? By this point in the poem, we have enough information to create this rubric:


Paul Richter as Siegfried (Sivrit) in Die Nibelungen (1924)
The disjunction between the sex and gender of Prünhilt and Gunther is reminiscent of Augustine’s explanation for the ability of Perpetua and Felicitas to resist violent onslaught as they approached martyrdom: “But they were able to hold out against attacks on them, and to break these assaults by a hidden and very great strength because inside themselves they were like men.” Prünhilt is indeed “like a man,” and her overt masculinity forces Gunther into the position of being “like a woman.” It is this very disjunction that only Sivrit is able to correct. He is the only character whose sex and gender are in alignment. His physical strength is magical; while wearing his cloak of invisibility, he has “strength in abundance – a good dozen’s men might in addition to his own.” He comes from outside Worms, but a parallel outside; Xanten, like Worms, is a place of order with named parents and regular social structures – not a place of “dread customs” and unnamed progenitors like Prünhilt’s Iceland. He is a guest, with all the reciprocal responsibilities that that status entails. In all categories, he is a liminal figure between Prünhilt and Gunther. She is the Other who must be brought to the Inside, Gunther is the Insider whose right to power must be legitimated, and Sivrit is the magical Liminal who mediates between Inside and Outside. It is in this context that we should read his willingness to “play Gunther’s part.”

Cooper provides two character analytics that can help explain the actors in portions of the Nibelungenlied covered by this article. In the course of her discussion of Plutarch’s Lives, she writes, “We will encounter these four figures – the public man and his rival for power, the legitimate wife and the adulterous temptress – over and over again in the literature of the Roman empire.” A mapping of the character types onto the Nibelungenlied would look like this:


This doesn’t quite work. Gunther is indeed a public man, but – although Gunther later views him as rival, on the incitement of Prünhilt – Sivrit is here an ally. At this point, Kriemhilt plays the part of the legitimate wife – a role reversed in the second half of the poem – yet Prünhilt is anything but an adulterous temptress. In addition, Kriemhilt is married to the rival, not to the public man. A more useful model is provided in Cooper’s discussion of the “love triangles” of the Apocryphal Acts, which can be presented like this:


With an inversion of each term, this can be mapped onto the Nibelungenlied:


This helps us to further understand the mediating role Sivrit plays in the relationship of Gunther and Prünhilt. As the outsider who comes inside and aligns himself with the status interests of the husband, Sivrit plays the same role as the intruding apostle, but with reversed allegiance. In the Acts, the apostle is an outsider whose loyalty is to the Outside, to Christ. In the Nibelungenlied, Sivrit is an outsider bound by Germanic codes of hospitality; his loyalty, for the time being, is to his host on the Inside. In both cases, the liminal character (apostle/guest) uses his mystical power (sanctity/magic) to change the wife’s status in favor of his allied side (Christianity/king).

As in the Icelandic contest, Sivrit offers to use his wiles (liste) and his cloak of invisibility to hide the fact that he is taking Gunther’s place. Sivrit makes his object plain:
“Thus I will compel your wife to let you make love to her tonight, or else I will lose my life.” 
“Provided that you do not make love at all to my dear lady,” the king replied, “I am happy with this. Do to her otherwise all that you will. Even if you were to take her life, I would leave it unavenged. She is a terror of a woman!”
Kristanna Loken as Brünnhilde (Prünhilt) in Die Nibelungen (2004)
Gunther gives Sivrit free dominion over the body of his wife, with the exception of actually having sex with her – a stipulation that Sivrit may actually ignore, as discussed below. That Sivrit’s physical violence against this “terror of a woman” (vreislîchez wîp) is still considered commendable by men of stature is evident in the fact that one eminent scholar of relatively recent vintage has written that “[t]his dialogue and all the following scenes have a kind of straight-faced realistic explicitness scarcely hiding the underlying wild comicality,” referred to Prünhilt as “the superhuman shrew whom [Sivrit] tries to tame,” and described her resistance to rape as “outrageous behavior” and “the termagant’s defense of her maidenhood.” As for the idea that the following scene is one of “wild comicality,” I would counter that the broad sexual humor of the Icelandic contest and Gunther’s binding are based in the inversion of gendered power roles. As in Ibn Fadlān’s report of the slave-girl of the Rūssiyah treated like a queen at the death of her master and given the joyous privileges of high rank until she is raped and killed at his funeral, the social inversion of the earlier Prünhilt scenes is here righted with sexual violence. The humor of the previous scenes in the Nibelungenlied now gives way to a deadly seriousness.

While Gunther listens in, Sivrit goes to bed with the unsuspecting Prünhilt. As in the Icelandic contest, he performs the actions that Gunther cannot: “Sivrit acted as if he were Gunther, that powerful king. He embraced the admirable maiden.” The poet highlights the uniqueness of the moment, stating his doubt that “such defiance will ever be made by a lady again.” After Sivrit makes multiple attacks on her person, Prünhilt tells him:
“You are not to tear apart my shift, so white as it is! You are most uncouth – this will cost you dear! I’ll make the consequences clear to you!” said the comely maiden.
As in the contest scene, emphasis is placed on Prünhilt’s undergarment as representation of her unviolated virginity. Strangely, we are now explicitly told that the virgin is physically stronger than the greatest Germanic hero, even with the powers of his mystic cloak:
What use was his great strength and massive might to Sivrit? She showed her superior strength to the warrior. She carried him by sheer force – he had no choice! – and squeezed him roughly between the wall and a chest.
This humbling moment leads Sivrit to declare a more cosmic form of the fear and anxiety that has been expressed by the male characters since they had first arrived in Iceland:
“Alas!” thought the warrior. “If I am now to lose my life at the hands of a maiden, then all women will forever be high and mighty in their dealings with their husbands after this, little though they act like that now!”
Siegfried (Sivrit) slays the dragon
by Wilhelm Ernst Ferdinand Franz Hauschild
Gunther, the local king, had been worried about his personal status among his men; Sivrit, the legendary dragonslayer and ruler of the Nibelung hoard, is concerned with the establishment of proper gender relations for all time. As the poet uses “the topos of womanly influence to amplify the tension between a man’s private interests and his loyalty to those who might place their trust in him,” the groups that each man feels responsible to are of different magnitude; Gunther is concerned with his relationship to the men of his kingdom, Sivrit with mankind. What had been a comedy of inverted status now becomes an origin myth of gender hierarchy. The wild imbalance of power between the supernaturally strong Prünhilt and the impotent Gunther becomes righted when she is finally faced with an opponent of mythic stature, and we retroactively understand that Prünhilt and Gunther have been presented as negative models of proper social behavior that only the liminal Sivrit can bring into proper alignment.

Any remaining idea that the poet is still in the comedic mode is banished by the bloodily violent tone of the struggle, one more suited to mythic battles with the forces of darkness than to bedroom scenes of any sort:
Sivrit was greatly ashamed and began to wax wrath. Exerting his monstrous strength, he sat upright. Perilously he made another attempt on Lady Prünhilt. It seemed a long time to the king before he overcame her. She gripped his hands so tightly that the blood spurted from his nails – that hurt the hero hard! Yet he was to make the haughty maiden take back the monstrous desire she had spoken of before.
The battle of grips with blood spurting from fingernails (ûz den nageln spranc daz bluot) is reminiscent of the hand-to-hand combat and breaking fingers (fingras burston) of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel; the Nibelungenlied poet is using the language of the darkest mythic violence to describe a rape scene. Prünhilt’s “monstrous desire” (ungefüeges willen), on a par with her “dread customs” in Iceland, is “to leave the marriage unconsummated.” As mentioned above, Prünhilt’s only real agency is to say no to male characters. The terribly brutal end of the struggle takes even that ability away:
Sivrit thrust her onto the bed, causing her to scream out loud. His strength caused her anguish in abundance. Then she reached down to her side to the braid, intent on tying him up. His hand then prevented it with such strength that her limbs and all her body creaked. It was that which ended the battle – then she became Gunther’s wife. 
She said: “Noble king, you must let me live! I will make full amends for all that I have done to you. Never again shall I defy your noble love. I have found out for certain that you can be a lady’s master.”
Brünnhilde (Prünhilt) by Arthur Rackham (1911)
The text does not openly state that Sivrit raped Prünhilt. However, the sex act is explicit in the version of the story related in Þiðreks saga, “a Norwegian translation of a north German amalgam of heroic tales,” and “the Nibelungenlied shows signs of having suppressed the deflowering, a change readily understandable in light of the poem’s status as polite literature.” I suggest that the poet allows for both readings, and that the text does contain phrases that suggest the coital nature of Sivrit’s struggle with Prünhilt, such as at the beginning of the scene:
Then strong Sivrit set about playing his game – there was nothing else for it! – with the fair maiden. That caused King Gunther both joy and sorrow.
The “joy” (lieb, “love”) is understandable – Gunther achieves satisfaction of his desire to subjugate Prünhilt – but why sorrow (leit), unless he aurally witnesses the hero taking his wife’s virginity? The sorrow is tied to this specific act; it is not a general foreshadowing of tragedy, as in the poem’s opening lines about Kriemhilt (“For her sake, many knights were to lose their lives”). Of Sivrit’s taking of Prünhilt’s ring and girdle as trophies, Edwards writes that
the symbolism of the girdle is obvious. Hatto describes the narrator’s comment [“I don’t know if he did that out of his high spirits”] as “diplomatic ignorance.” This is the weakest point in the plotting of the Nibelungenlied, a relic of an older, more robust version of the epic.
The bloody violence of Sivrit’s final actions in the struggle can also be illuminated by Shaw’s remark on the stripping of Perpetua and her exposure to the bull: “These two aspects, sexual shaming and physical punishment, were integrally interrelated.” These are also the two aspects of Prünhilt’s humiliation of Gunther, and they are the two aspects of Sivrit’s acts upon her that reinstate the proper male-female hierarchy. Whatever the poet’s equivocation on the act of rape, the dual nature of the scene – sexual and violent – is clear.

The poet provides an idyllic coda to the violence of the Sivrit-Prünhilt scene:
Then Gunther and the beautiful maiden lay with one another. He caressed her lovingly, as well became him. She was then obliged to renounce her anger and her shame. His intimacies caused her to become a little pale. Oh, how much of her great strength abandoned her because of that love-making! After that she was no stronger, indeed, than any other woman. He made ardent love to the beautiful lady. If she were to try to resist again, how would that have helped her? Gunther and his love-making had done away with all that.
Hannah Ralph as Brunhild (Prünhilt) & Theodor Loos as Gunther
Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)
That it was the love-making (minne) of the insipid Gunther that took away Prünhilt’s supernatural strength seems somewhat absurd, given the epic nature of her battle with Sivrit, his declaration of the cosmic meaning of their struggle, and her formal surrender to him at the end. Prünhilt’s loss of strength is explained matter-of-factly in Þiðreks saga, as Sigurðr (Sivrit) tells Gunnarr (Gunther): “Her nature is such that as long as she keeps her maidenhood, she is almost as strong as any man who wants to try his strength against her; but as soon as it is broken, she is no stronger than other women.” In the epilogue to The Virgin and the Bride, Cooper writes, “What is clear is that, as a rhetorical figure, the virgin was more volatile than the bride, both because of her ambiguity and because her arrival disrupted the old moral language of Concordia.” Prünhilt’s ambiguity of gender and refusal to play the bridal role had disrupted the hierarchy of Gunther’s court. With her defeat and subjugation, the concord that Gunther desired has been established, and Prünhilt’s volatility has been transmuted into obedience – or so Gunther thinks, at this point.

In any case, from this point on, Prünhilt no longer evinces masculine qualities or attributes. Instead, she disappears into the standard female trope of the inciter, of the woman who “respond[s] to personal grievances according to the old Germanic method of inciting men to take revenge on [her] behalf.” Her body is no longer a vehicle to impose her will; now it is only through her voice in her husband’s ear that she can attempt to steer the course of her own life. In On the Veiling of Virgins, Tertullian writes:
Therefore if she is a virgin so long as she is unripe, she ceases to be a virgin when she is perceived to be ripe; and, as not-virgin, is now subject to the law, just as she is to marriage.
Via her subjugation by Sivrit, Prünhilt now becomes subject to the law and to the rules of marriage. She has been incorporated into the power structures of the Rhine lords and forced into the reduced role of a wife subject to her husband. She later refers to her own moment of violent subjugation as “when the king had his will of me and won my love in such a knightly way.” The poem contains no further mention of her striding abroad as a shield-maiden; she has become a creature of the castle who identifies with her husband’s interests. The traditional gender hierarchy of the Rhineland has replaced the “dread customs” of Iceland. With its sexual violence and its brutal enforcement of gender roles, it is no improvement.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Andersson, Theodore M. The Legend of Brynhild. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Boor, Helmut de. Das Nibelungenlied: Nach der Ausgabe von Karl Bartsch. Wiesbaden: F.A. Brockhaus, 1959.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Clover, Carol J. “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe.” Speculum 68, no. 2 (1993): 363-387.

Cooper, Kate. The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Edwards, Cyril, trans. The Nibelungenlied: The Lay of the Nibelungs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Fulk, R.D., trans. and ed. The “Beowulf” Manuscript. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Geary, Patrick J., ed. Readings in Medieval History. Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998.

Jochens, Jenny. Old Norse Images of Women. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

–––. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson. A Guide to Old English. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Montgomery, James E. “Ibn Fadlān and the Rūssiyah.” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 3 (2000): 1-25.

Orchard, Anthony. A Critical Companion to “Beowulf.” Cambridge, England: D.S. Brewer, 2003.

Schoenberner, Franz. Introduction to The Nibelungenlied. Translated by Margaret Armour, xi-xxiii. New York: Heritage Press, 1961.

Shaw, Brent D. “The Passion of Perpetua.” Past & Present 139 (1993): 3-45.

Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Cambridge, England: D.S. Brewer, 1993.

Tertullian. On the Veiling of Virgins. Available online.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorthelm’s Son.” Essays and Studies VI (1953): 1-18.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

“DREAD CUSTOMS”: INVERSION & ENFORCEMENT OF GENDER ROLES IN THE NIBELUNGENLIED, Part Two

Click here to read Part One of the article.

Brunhilde (Prünhilt) by Arpád Basch (1900)
When Prünhilt arrives at the location of the contest, “They saw that she was armed as if she were to fight for all the kingdoms in the world.” In yet another way, she is elevated in masculine heroic status above Gunther; here she is seen as a conquering emperor against him as an emasculated local king, standing in a foreign land without arms, armor or army. Prünhilt has “more than seven hundred” (mêr danne siben hundert) of her “bold warriors” (küenen recken) against Gunther’s two visible companions (Sivrit having departed to fetch his magical cloak of invisibility), and her followers “were seen to bear swords,” (die sah man wâfen tragen). Not only does Prünhilt command hundreds of men to Gunther’s two, but the weapons her men hold point to the impotent weaponlessness of the visitors. In one way after another, Prünhilt’s masculine strength pushes Gunther’s heroic status ever lower into femininity.

Prünhilt’s shield “was, beneath its buckles, so we are told, some three spans in breadth, of steel and also of gold – it was of ample splendour. Her chamberlain and three others could scarcely carry it.” It is so large and so well decorated with gold and gems that the poet is moved to comment, “A man would have to be most valiant if that lady were to hold him dear.” The physical superiority of Prünhilt to any man here begins to become exaggerated to a degree that becomes comically sexual in the folklore or mythological mode. After the shield has been brought in,
they carried in for the lady a heavy, huge javelin, very sharp, which she always threw. It was strong and bulky, massive and broad, and its edges cut most fearsomely. Hear marvels told of that javelin’s weight: three-and-a-half ingots had been beaten to make it. Three of Prünhilt’s men could scarcely carry it. Noble Gunther began to grow very anxious.
Given the ribald humor of the poet Tannhäuser, from roughly the same time period and geographical area as the anonymous poet of the Nibelungenlied, and given what has been done and said in the Iceland section of the poem up to this point, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to read this as a comedic portrayal of a feminized man trembling before the ridiculously large phallic weapon of a masculine woman of “dread customs.” Continuing Prünhilt’s inversion of gender roles, Gunther is now the one afraid of being penetrated; he comes off as the fearful bride on the wedding night, she as the fierce and manly conqueror. The inverse relationship between the gender characters of Prünhilt and Gunther – the more masculine she is, the less so Gunther becomes – fits with Cooper’s reading of the Plutarch’s Lives: “when women and their influence are discussed, their appearance should be read as a sign that a man’s character is in question, whether its virtue is to be defended or its dissolution illustrated.” Throughout the scenes with Prünhilt, we witness the “dissolution” of Gunther’s masculinity and the threat that such withering presents not only to his status, but that of his male followers. In Cooper’s words, the construction of Prünhilt’s masculinity is “shaped rhetorically to suit a judgment of male character.”

Karin Dor as Brunhild (Prünhilt)
Die Nibelungen (1966/1967)
Along with the first demonstration of Prünhilt’s inhuman strength, we find the first branding of Prünhilt as someone outside the Christian world. The sight of her massive shield moves Hagen to ask, “What now, King Gunther? Are we to lose our lives like this? She whom you desire to woo there is the very Devil’s wife.” When he sees the massive stone that Prünhilt is to throw (which twelve of her heroes can scarcely carry), Hagen laments, “What a beloved the king has found! She could be the foul fiend’s bride in Hell!” Much later, after Prünhilt has humiliated him in their bedroom back in Worms, Gunter complains to Sivrit that he has “invited the foul fiend home to my house.” Prünhilt is the “Devil’s wife” (tiuvéles wîp), “the foul fiend’s bride in Hell” (in der helle sîn des übeln tiubels brut) and the “foul fiend” (übeln tiuvel). In the second half of the poem, Etzel’s men are simply referred to as “heathen” (heiden); they are simply placed into a non-Christian category. Prünhilt, however, is characterized in a more extreme manner, as one who is actually of the demonic world. It is beyond the scope of this article to trace connections to pre-Christian Germanic religious figures, but Prünhilt does seem to be at least figuratively associated with the old gods “and all fiends which are their companions” (ende allum thêm unholdum thê hira genôtas sint). Over the course of the poem, the characters are eight times mentioned or described going to church; there is no mention of Christian structures or activity during the heroes’ sojourn in Iceland. In light of the above, and given the Christian missionary practice of recasting figures of heathen cosmology as devils, we can at least say that Prünhilt is associated with the heathen world.

When Prünhilt overhears Hagen’s lament for his missing sword, she replies:
Smiling, she looked over her shoulder: “Since he thinks himself so valiant, let their armour be brought in to them. Put the sharp swords in the warriors’ hands!”
When they had regained their swords as the maiden had ordered, valiant Dancwart blushed for joy. “Now let them play whatever games they will,” said that man of great mettle. “Gunther will be unvanquished now that we have our swords.”
"The Trial of Strength" by Howard Pyle (1905)
While Prünhilt’s sarcastic remarks are spoken in the grandiose mode of the male hero, Dancwart’s blushing for joy (von vréuden wart rôt) seems more appropriate to a “lovely lady.” His excitement at having his sword returned makes no sense in terms of plot, as the contest is between Prünhilt and Gunther only; in any case, she has over seven hundred men to their three. The joy seems to spring more from having some small part of his manhood returned in this situation of inverted gender roles. The comedic nature of the exchange lies in this reversal of gender roles; Prünhilt plays the part of the knight giving a trifle to a lady while Dancwart plays the part of the blushing virgin receiving a gift. That the trifle being handed to him by the actual virgin is the symbol of his own masculinity only adds to the humor of inversion.

In a prefiguration of his actions on Gunther’s behalf in the bedroom, Sivrit secretly appears in his invisibility cloak, holds Gunther’s shield, and tells the king, “You go through the motions now, and I will do the deeds.” Gunther’s acceptance of Sivrit’s secret help – which goes against the heroic ethos of face-to-face confrontation – can be read in light of Shaw’s discussion of the Christian virgin Perpetua:
It is no accident that Perpetua’s brother, who came to address her as Domina soror (“Lady sister”) while she was in prison, believed that she had been raised to a special “great status” (magna dignatio) and that she had extraordinary powers to command connections with the Lord. Even her otherwise hostile father was forced to this recognition of her status, to see her not as daughter, but as domina.
Prünhilt has both “great status” (as the queen of a foreign nation) and “extraordinary powers” (her ability to physically beat all suitors). Against his will, Gunther is forced to recognize her superior status and accept Sivrit’s help in subduing her, both here and in the later bedroom scene. More than any physical desire, it is the fact that Prünhilt stands at a higher societal level than Gunther that is the motivating force behind his drive to subdue her. As will become clear below, it is Sifrit’s liminal status that enables Gunther to engage his guest’s services to bolster his own social status.

"The Maiden Hurled Her Spear"
by Granville Fell (1908)
As the contest begins, Prünhilt throws the javelin hard at the shield held by Sivrit in front of Gunther:
The fire leapt up from the steel, as if blown by the wind. The stout javelin’s blade pierced right through the steel, so that fire was seen to spark from the chainmail. At the power of the throw both those strong men staggered. Were it not for the cloak of invisibility they would have died on the spot. 
Blood broke from valiant Sivrit’s mouth.
Penetration, la petite mort, blood – again, the sexual imagery is fairly obvious. Prünhilt’s status as penetrator is reinforced as Sivrit throws the javelin back, thinking, “I do not want to pierce the fair maiden.” He throws it with the blunt end of the shaft forward; it knocks Prünhilt to the ground, winning the round for Gunther. Sivrit also illicitly wins the other parts of the contest on Gunther’s behalf, throwing the stone and leaping after it while carrying the king. Whether hiding behind Sivrit or being carried by him, Gunther remains the most traditionally feminine character of the triangle.

Upon her defeat, Prünhilt announces to her men that they are now subject to King Gunther; “Then those valiant men laid their swords on the ground. They knelt at the feet of powerful Gunther from the land of Burgundy – bold men in great numbers.” Through the wiles of Sivrit, Gunther has asserted his manhood over Prünhilt (at least for the time being), and he receives the concomitant social result of a rise in hierarchical status. When Sivrit shows up at the hall and pretends to have missed the contest, he is informed of the outcome:
“Then happy am I at these tidings,” said Sir Sivrit, “that your pride is laid so low here, that someone has lived to be master over you.”
"Brunhilda Was Thrown to the Ground"
Artist unknown (1905)
This celebration of throwing down Prünhilt’s pride (hôhverte) hearkens back to Sivrit’s earlier characterization of the queen as unnaturally haughty (übermuot, “overbold”). The use of übermuot as a pejorative term for Prünhilt parallels the use of the Old English equivalent ofermōde to criticize Byrhtnōð in The Battle of Maldon, the poem describing the confrontation between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in 991. Tolkien argued that this “defect of character” in Byrhtnōð was “not only formed by nature, but moulded also by ‘aristocratic tradition,’ enshrined in tales and verse of poets now lost save for echoes... Magnificent perhaps, but certainly wrong.” There is no sense of “magnificence” in Sivrit’s characterization of Prünhilt. Byrhtnōð’s ofermōde is admirable, and his doom is lamented; Prünhilt’s übermuot is despicable, and her overthrow is celebrated. The heroic code, it seems, does not apply to women warriors.

Christian groups of the second century suggested that a life of perpetual virginity could break “the endlessly repeated cycle of birth and death,” that “the human body could stand out as a clearly marked locus of free choice.” Prünhilt has existed in this suspended time of virginity, repeating the wooing contest “countless times.” With this first defeat, she is pulled out of the eternal recurrence of the pagan ritual moment and forced into the teleological world of Christian marriage. The immediate effect of this first reassertion of gender hierarchy is that, when she leaves for Worms to marry Gunther, Prünhilt takes “eighty-six women along with her, and also some hundred maidens, most fair of person.” She no longer commands armies of men, but only an entourage of women of the court.

Hannah Ralph as a skeptical Brunhild (Pruünhilt)
Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)
After being verbally rebuffed by Prünhilt when he tries to have sex with her during the journey, Gunther makes his move after the celebrations in Worms. While the poet draws a modest curtain over Sivrit’s pleasant and “noble love-making” (edelen minnen) with Kriemhilt, stating that he will “tell you no more of what he did with the lady,” he welcomes us into Gunther’s bedroom with seeming relish. It is this sustained exposition of the details of Gunther and Prünhilt’s sex life that, I think, justifies the above reading of the contest in gendered and sexualized terms.

Despite the strong emphasis placed on Prünhilt’s virginity in the poem, little weight seems attached to the casual statement (introducing the bedroom scene) that Gunther “had often had greater comfort lying with other women.” Virginity, it seems, is not as important a state for a king as it is for a queen. The focus is immediately centered on Prünhilt’s body (lîp) and Gunther’s desire to take her virginity: “He thought he was going to caress her lovely body – he was, however, a long way away from making her his wife as yet!” Gunther has surprisingly high expectations for someone who won a wife by cheating to win her in a physical contest:
He lay down close to her, full of joy. The hero embraced the lovely lady. He could have made love to her charmingly if the noble lady had let him. Yet she grew so very angry that it troubled him. He had thought to find a friend – instead he found the enmity of a foe.
The encounter quickly becomes a contest of wills, with Prünhilt setting the terms, as she did on the field of contest.
She said: “Noble knight, you must let it be. What you’re hoping for can’t come to pass. I want to remain a maiden still – be sure you mark this! – until I find out the truth of the matter.”
"Brunhild Watching Gunther, Suspended from
the Ceiling on Their Wedding Night"
Henry Fuseli (1807)
Hearing of her unchanged desire to “remain a maiden” (noch magt belîben), Gunther attempts to rape her: “Then Gunther grew hostile towards her. He struggled for her love and tore her clothes apart.” He does not get very far: she binds his hands and feet with her girdle, carries him (as Sivrit had done earlier) across the room and hangs him on a nail in the wall. Gunther’s will is dominated by Prünhilt’s, again in a sexually humiliating way (emphasized by her use of the girdle).

After Prünhilt “forbade his love-making” (die mine si im verbôt), there is no doubt who plays the dominant part:
Then he who had thought himself master began to plead with her: “Untie my bonds now, most noble queen. I don’t believe I’ll ever be the master of you, fair lady, and shall seldom lie close to you again!” She did not care how he fared, for she lay in all comfort there. He had to hang there all through the night until day broke, and the bright morning shone through the windows. If his body had ever possessed strength, there was little of it left.
Gunther’s acknowledgement of Prünhilt’s superiority underscores that his attempted rape was about both power (meister, gesigen) and sex (nâhen mêr geligen). His binding by Prünhilt inverts ancient symbols of married relationships; in his discussion of the anonymous Liber ad Gregoriam, Brown writes:
The pious woman could turn a large Roman household into a holy place. But, in order to do this, she must accept the laws of the household. She had been given over entirely to her husband, “bought by the marriage contract and bound in as many knots as you have parts of the body.” Yet docility combined with the frank use of “the embraces permitted to marital good cheer,” would enable her to establish her own religious authority in the home.
In this first bedroom scene, all of these conditions are turned upside down. Gunther, not his wife, is the one whose body is bound in knots, and he is the one who exhibits docility. Prünhilt, on the other hand, refuses to “accept the laws of the household,” to give herself over to her husband, or “to be bought by the marriage contract.” The Nibelungenlied poet presents a portrait of a marriage in which societal expectations of married life have been thrown into chaos.

Puünhilt & Gunther by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1828)
Prünhilt’s will and body are portrayed as clearly superior to those of Gunther; after tying him up, she sleeps without a care while he frets about status as his already small strength ebbs away. Prünhilt’s morning greeting exposes the public meaning of the night’s private events:
“Now tell me, Sir Gunther, would it trouble you at all,” said the beautiful maiden, “if your chamberlains were to find you tied up by a lady’s hand?” 
The noble knight replied: “That would cost you dear! Nor would I have much honour by it,” said the bold king. “For the sake of your own repute let me come over to you now. Since my love-making causes you such grief, I shall never again touch your clothes with my hands.”
As with Prünhilt’s taunt about loss of honor (êre) before the Icelandic contest, the social status implications of defeat by a woman are emphasized, now with the suggestive sexual elements openly stated. Discussing martial sexual relations in the Passio Anastasiae, Cooper writes that
the text explicitly states that [Anastasia’s] troubles with her husband begin “at the time when she left off relations with her husband (mariti consortio), on the pretext of a feigned illness.” (There is little doubt as to the sexual meaning of mariti consortium here.) This supports the inference above that it is the disruption of conjugal relations – or the affront to honor that publication of the fact implies – which causes the wrath of [her husband] Publius.
Iain Paterson as Gunther in the Metropolitan Opera's
2013 production of Richard Wagner's Twilight of the Gods
It is this “affront to honor that publication of the fact implies” that motivates Gunther. The fear of losing public status is a far greater motivator for his actions than any simple bodily lust. Being bested by Prünhilt pushes Gunther far enough down the social ladder that he can be judged by his own serving men. A similar affront to social pecking order motivates Prünhilt’s bedroom resistance; she is concerned with the status of Sivrit, whom she believes to be Gunther’s vassal in a socially inappropriate marriage to the king’s sister. However, Gunther’s attempt to make Prünhilt’s repute (tugende) the issue at hand gains no traction; it is his status that is at stake here.

The status element is foregrounded in Gunther’s complaint to Sivrit the next day:
“I suffer disgrace and loss, for I have invited the foul fiend home to my house. When I thought to make love to her, she tied me up in tight bonds. She carried me over to a nail and hung me high up on the wall. There I hung in fear throughout the night until daybreak, before she untied me. How softly she then lay! Let this complaint be made to you in confidence and friendship!”
This confession of impotence is necessarily in secret, as public knowledge of his failings in the bedroom would have serious status consequences for Gunther. In the chapter on “Private Lives, Public Meanings” in The Virgin and the Bride, Cooper writes:
A man’s ability manifestly to dissociate himself from the weaknesses which made for social instability was a critical element in his claim to honor, a claim which needed constantly to be justified, both within the brotherhood of aristocratic men and in the larger arena of a society in which these were by definition a minority. Reported performance (whether of private austerities or public benefactions) was the coin by which honor was purchased; yet the sphere of the private bore particular semiotic importance.
Paul Richter as Siegfried (Sivrit) in Die Nibelungen (1924)
The fear of public disgrace and loss of honor is expressed to Sivrit “within the brotherhood of aristocratic men” as Gunther calls upon the reciprocal responsibilities of his guest. In order to prevent report of his failure to perform reaching “the larger arena of society” and affecting his status, he gladly accepts Sivrit’s aid. Without the intercession of Sivrit, Gunther’s sexual impotence and belittling by his defiant wife in private would have serious consequences for his power and status in public. Clover discusses a similar “snarl of gender crossings” in a scene from the Icelandic Gísla saga that parallels the scene of Gunther’s bedroom humiliation. She unpacks the usage of two Old Norse terms used in the saga: blauðr (with meanings and connotations of female, soft, weak, cowardly) and hvatr (male, vigorous, bold) as she discusses the female Auðr hitting the male Eyjólfr in the nose:
If her sex qualifies Auðr as blauðr, bloodying the nose of a person qualifies her as hvatr; and if being a man qualifies Eyjólfr as hvatr, having his nose bloodied qualifies him as blauðr, and having his nose bloodied by a creature he himself wishes to designate as blauðr by virtue of her sex qualifies him as blauðr in the extreme – which is, of course, the point of Auðr's reminder that he has been not only struck in the nose, but struck in the nose by a woman.
This “reminder” by Auðr has a function similar to that of Prünhilt’s morning question to Gunther on what his chamberlains would think of his sorry situation. For him to be bound is bad enough. To be bound in his own bedroom is worse. To be bound by his wife is unforgivable.

To be concluded in Part Three.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

“DREAD CUSTOMS”: INVERSION & ENFORCEMENT OF GENDER ROLES IN THE NIBELUNGENLIED, Part One

First letter of a Nibelungenlied manuscript
from the early 13th century
Written down in approximately 1200 CE by an anonymous poet, most likely in the south-eastern German region, the Nibelungenlied’s appearance as a text stands temporally halfway between the composition of early Christian writings and the publication of scholarly work of our own times. In this article, I posit a close reading of three key scenes – the defeat of Prünhilt on the competition field, the defeat of Gunther in the bedroom, and the defeat of Prünhilt in the bedroom – in light of texts from both ends of the chronological range: early Church written sources on the one hand, and modern scholarly works such as Peter Brown’s The Body and Society and Kate Cooper’s The Virgin and the Bride on the other.

I am not trying to argue any direct influence of early Christian texts on medieval German poetry; I am using concepts derived from recent scholarship on the source texts as lenses through which to read these three scenes and examine ways in which analyses of early Christian thinking on virginity, the body, gender, marriage and sexuality can provide new ways of reading the Nibelungenlied. Instead of solely approaching the poem from this side of modernity, I am also attempting to approach it from the other side – from early Christian thinking. I am primarily using the conceptual frameworks of Brown and Cooper as guides to reading this poem – to discover if their way of approaching and interpreting texts can be applied to these scenes.

In the introduction to The Body and Society, Peter Brown writes:
The study of gender has led us to examine exhaustively the manner in which rival protagonists on the brightly lit stage of late Roman society used the themes of sexuality, marriage, and gender to construct their own identities and to highlight (often by means of garish contrasts) the identities of their opponents.
Theodor Loos as Gunther in Fritz Lang's
film Die Nibelungen (1924)
All three of the Nibelungenlied scenes are constructed around sexuality and marriage; the first is a wooing ritual, the second is a failed attempt at consummation, and the third is an act of sexual subjugation. Throughout, Gunther’s identity as a masculine ruler of men is constructed via “garish contrasts” of gender with Prünhilt. In order to assert and solidify Gunther’s masculinity, the poet first paradoxically presents him in highly feminized terms while painting Prünhilt in an overtly and overly masculine manner. It is by overcoming and subjugating Prünhilt – and by stripping her of her masculine attributes, both figuratively and literally – that Gunther’s own masculinity is established. The role of Sivrit as the third party that accomplishes this masculinizing will be discussed in detail below.

The impetus for the action is Gunther’s (initially somewhat abstract) desire for a wife. In her discussion of “cross-gender intrigue” in the story of Ismenodora in Plutarch’s Erōtikos, Cooper writes:
This mix-up provides a parodic introduction to the thesis that the pursuit of private desires endangers the fulfillment of social contracts. Yet, while Ismenodora’s passion furnishes the comic impetus of the dialogue, Plutarch is not so much concerned with female desire as with male desire: with passion as a corridor through which objects of desire exert power over men.
In the Nibelungenlied, Gunther’s desire comes into direct conflict with the implacable unwillingness of Prünhilt. Her absence of desire powers his lust as she becomes an objecting object. She is only important to Gunther for what political benefit (warriors, treasure, land) she can bring him; her value is in her ability to confirm and raise his status as king. Although her overwhelming strength and single-mindedness suggest great agency, it should be noted that what she is fundamentally doing is repeatedly saying no to Gunther’s advances. Rather than acting to further her own agenda as a character, she is portrayed only as acting to negate the action Gunther attempts to accomplish. The Nibelungenlied poet “is not so much concerned with female desire”; Prünhilt is an external Other who is only considered by the poet for the desires she raises in the male character. However, Gunther’s “pursuit of private desires endangers the fulfillment of social contracts.” As discussed below, his insistence on wooing Prünhilt places in jeopardy the status and honor of his men, in addition to his own.

Brunhild (Prünhilt) in a 1961 Nibelungenlied
illustration by Edy Legrand
Prünhilt is introduced as queen of far-away Iceland, and her physicality is immediately foregrounded: “There was a queen who resided across the sea, whose like no one knew of anywhere. She was exceedingly beautiful and great in physical strength.” There is no mention of her virtue (as in the poem’s portrait of Gunther’s sister Kriemhilt) or wisdom (as in the Icelandic Völsunga saga’s portrayal of Brynhildr, the Old Norse equivalent of Prünhilt); her characterization is solely of the body. In order to win her in marriage, a suitor is required to best her in physical combat:
She shot the shaft with bold knights – love was the prize. She threw the stone far, and then leapt a great distance after it. Whoever desired her love had to win three games without fail against that well-born lady. If he failed any of them, he would lose his head. The damsel had won at such games countless times.
Prünhilt’s physical defense of her own virginity is at least partially explained by the absence of her father. After the contest, when Gunther’s companion Dancwart gives away much of her wealth, Prünhilt rebukes him: “I want to keep my wealth for a while yet. Moreover, I trust I’m well capable myself of squandering what my father bequeathed me.” Writing of unmarried Christian women of the fourth century who wished to become consecrated virgins, Brown writes that
the majority of such young women were the daughters of widows. They had acted as they did after their father had died, at a time when male control over the women of the family had been withdrawn.
He notes elsewhere that “Basil’s own mother, Emmelia, had wished to remain a virgin, but was forced to marry when her father died.” In the absence of a father, Prünhilt is left to defend both her virginity and her inheritance herself. The fatherless women of late antiquity described by Brown sometimes sought protection for their virginity from the Church; in a Germanic setting, Prünhilt adapts the masculine heroic stance of northern culture to protect own virginity. While Gunther and Sivrit are both clearly provided with parents in the Nibelungenlied, Prünhilt’s only mentioned living relative is her mother’s brother, who is left to manage Prünhilt’s lands when she departs for Worms. The relationship between a young man and his maternal uncle is “the closest of male family relationships in the Germanic heroic world,” so the nature of Prünhilt’s one living relation is one small textual element (among many obvious ones) that emphasizes her masculinity. The idea of the loser of a contest losing his head, of course, echoes the stakes of Germanic contests from the Edda to the Wartburgkrieg – contests that are, inevitably, between male characters. Taken together, these details begin to create a characterization of Prünhilt as a female with masculine traits.

Like the knightly sports that occur throughout the Nibelungenlied, the wooing contest is purely a test of physical strength and prowess. Given the commonplace of sport in the poem, Sivrit’s warning that Gunther should avoid the Icelandic contest seems odd:
“I advise against that,” said Sivrit then. “Indeed the queen has such dread customs that anyone who seeks her love will pay a high price.”
He repeats the same phrase shortly thereafter:
“No matter how great an army we were to take with us,” Sivrit replied, “the queen holds to such dread customs that they would, nevertheless, have to die, so haughty is she.”
"Gunther's Bride-Journey to Iceland" by Ivo Puhanny (c1910)
The disturbing nature of the “dread customs” (vreislîche site) is not due to their fatal nature – as mentioned, the fatal contest is a Germanic commonplace – but to the fact that a woman is taking the role of male aggressor, that she is unnaturally “haughty” (übermuot, “overbold”), and that her physical strength is greater than that of any man. Discussing the implications of “a searching gender-based analysis of late Roman modes of identity and authority,” Cooper writes:
The introduction of the figure of the virgin, the daughter who refused to pass from her initial role within one household to that of the wife in another, offered a new model of moral authenticity, one that classical society would have rejected as opening the way symbolically for other antisocial actions but one that, after a struggle, late Roman society accepted with enthusiasm.
It is Prünhilt’s refusal to pass from the role of virgin to that of wife that is at issue here. Her haughtiness and supernatural strength are poetic amplifications of her core characterization as the resolute virgin whose actions will, as the poem progresses, be posited as having societal implications. As will be made explicit in Sivrit’s exclamations during his bedroom struggle with Prünhilt, it is these implications that cause his disquiet. In the world of the Nibelungenlied, Prünhilt does not project “moral authenticity” but a threat to established gender relations.

Throughout the first half of the poem, Kriemhilt is portrayed as Prünhilt’s antithesis – the quiet and subservient maiden opposed to the willful virgin – as in her scene with Gunther and Sivrit before they depart for Iceland:
The damsel replied: “My dearest brother, I’ll show you most willingly that I’m at your disposal and will give you all the help I can. If anyone were to refuse you, that would grieve Kriemhilt. You must not ask me anxiously, noble knight, but must proudly give me your commands. I am ready and willing to do whatever I can to please you,” said the charming maiden.
Prünhilt vs Kriemhilt by Carl Otto Czeschka (1908)
Prünhilt’s behavior is in extreme contrast to that of Gunther’s quiet sister. While Kriemhilt is the epitome of socially mandated proper feminine behavior, Prünhilt is a threatening figure of “dread customs.” While Kriemhilt is welcoming and deferential, Prünhilt is oppositional and demanding. While Kriemhilt stays inside to do needlework with her ladies-in-waiting, Prünhilt struts outside to engage in knightly sport with the men.

Discussing the powerful gaze that Perpetua turns on her tormentors in the text of her Passion, Shaw writes:
Her ability to stare directly back into the faces of her persecutors, not with the elusive demeanour of a proper matrona, broke with the normative body language in a way that signaled an aggressiveness that was not one of conventional femininity.
Prünhilt’s speeches to Gunther and his men and her aggressive body language during the contest demonstrate a break with “conventional femininity” similar to that of Perpetua. As Perpetua’s transgression of gender norms is amplified by comparison with the ideal of the “proper matrona,” Prünhilt’s transgression of gender norms is highlighted and exaggerated through the poet’s implicit comparison of her behavior with that of the thoroughly conventional Kriemhilt.

From the moment Gunther, Sivrit, Hagen and Dancwart arrive in Iceland, they are effeminized by Prünhilt’s overwhelming masculinity. The men must give up their swords and armor at the gates of Prünhilt’s castle:
Then Sivrit told [Hagen] the truth of the matter: “In this castle the custom is, I tell you, that no strangers are to bear weapons here. Now let them be taken away – it would be as well.” Hagen, Gunther’s vassal, agreed to this most unwillingly.
As part of Prünhilt’s “dread customs” (here man pfliget, “one is accustomed to”), the men are left both physically vulnerable and emasculated; the phallic symbolism of the swords is made increasingly explicit as the text progresses. The virgin, in being overly “haughty” in her militant protection of her virginity against threats, has begun a process of forcing the men into a threatened feminine state. Hagen later underscores the relationship between taking of the swords and Prünhilt’s haughtiness:
“We could easily leave this land unimprisoned,” then said [Dancwart’s] brother Hagen, “if we had the armour we are sorely in need of and our fine swords – then this mighty lady’s pride would easily be tamed.”
Brünnhilde (Prünhilt) & Hagen by Arthur Rackham (1911)
Hagen in no way means that the four men would fight their way out of the situation; the immensity of Prünhilt’s army precludes any such notion. Rather, the reference seems to be Gunther’s sword-less impotence; he is quite simply incapable of imposing his desires upon “this mighty lady’s pride” (der starken vrouwen übermuot).

Prünhilt’s speech to Sivrit makes clear that all four men will die if Gunther loses the contest (“if he proves master in them, then I’ll be his wife – but if I win, it will cost all of you your lives”), and her answer to Hagen’s challenge suggests that there is something additionally at stake in the outcome:
“[Gunther] will have to throw the stone and leap after it, and shoot the javelin in competition with me. Do not be in too much of a hurry! You may well lose your honour and your lives here! Think long and hard on this,” said the lovely lady.
Prünhilt asserts her masculinity while simultaneously diminishing that of the men. Her admonishment not to hurry (niht sîn ze gâch) tauntingly suggests the men are getting hysterical (with the original connotations of the word); they do actually become increasingly nervous as the events progress. The disjunction between the commanding tone of the words and their ascription to a “lovely lady” (mînneliche wîp) underscores the inversion of gender roles Prünhilt embodies. It is this inversion that attaches “dread” to “custom” when Prünhilt suggests that loss of honor (êre) will accompany loss of life. Shortly before the contest begins, Dancwart laments, “I regret from my heart this wooing expedition. We were always renowned as warriors. What a way to lose our lives if women are now to be our ruin in these lands!” It is the potential loss of honor in being physically bested by a woman that most worries Gunther and his men as the action progresses, and it is this worry that prompts Gunther to accept Sivit’s offer of supernatural aid.

Sivrit counsels Gunther to be unafraid and says, “I will guard you well against her by my wiles.” He later uses the same word (“wiles,” liste/n) when describing how he will defeat Prünhilt in the bedroom scene. The narrator had earlier used the term to foreshadow the events of the contest, stating that Sivrit “set about the wooing of that most noble woman with great cunning [listen].” The mighty hero of Germanic legend is unable to physically defeat Prünhilt in a fair contest of strength, but must resort to indirect methods; charges of unmanly (Old Norse ergi) behavior are raised against Odin in the Eddas for similar underhandedness. Sivrit’s willingness to resort to trickery is paralleled by Gunther’s fear (angest); neither are manly qualities in the heroic ethos, and both are thrown into relief by the physical strength and coolness of Prünhilt.

The description of Prünhilt’s contest kit contrasts an outer masculinity and inner femininity:
She ordered good battle-gear to be prepared for her, a breastplate of red gold and a good shield’s rim. The maiden put on a silken shift beneath her armour, one never slashed by a sword in any battle, made of phellel-silk from Lybia – it was most fair. Brightly embroidered braids could be seen to shine from it.
Hanna Ralph as Brunhild (Prünhilt) in Fritz Lang's
silent film Die Nibelungen (1924)
On the outside, Prünhilt wears the very sort of armor protection she took from Gunther and his men. Beneath the manly exterior, she wears a “silken shift” (wâfenhemde, lit. “armour-shift”). That the feminine undergarment under the masculine outerwear represents the unviolated virginity she seeks to protect is made clear by the statement that it has never been “slashed” (versneit) by an opponent’s weapon (wâfen). As with the swords being taken from Gunther and his men, the symbolism is not particularly subtle.

While Prünhilt prepares for battle, Gunther’s group is “met with many taunts and threats” (in gelfe vil gedreut). In this context of effemination, the taunting is reminiscent of the flyting of Icelandic literature, in which the insulter asserts the cowardice, honor failing, taboo breaking and “receptive homosexuality” of his opponent. In a discussion of Roman attitudes of the second century, Brown writes:
No normal man might actually become a woman; but each man trembled forever on the brink of becoming “womanish.” . . . It was never enough to be male: a man had to strive to remain “virile.” He had to learn to exclude from his character and from the poise and temper of his body all telltale traces of “softness” that might betray in him, the half-formed state of a woman. The small-town notables of the second century watched each other with hard, clear eyes. They noted a man’s walk. They reacted to the rhythms of his speech. They listened attentively to the telltale resonance of his voice.
It is this judgmental male-on-male scrutiny to which Gunther is now subject; he is forced into a “soft” feminine role through comparison with Prünhilt’s overwhelming “hard” masculinity. Describing the thought of Ambrose, Brown writes that “[t]o surrender any boundary line was to court the ancient shame of the Roman male – it was to ‘become soft,’ to be ‘effeminated.’” By giving up his sword and agreeing to Prünhilt’s “dread” conditions, Gunther agrees to a passive role – in Icelandic accusatory terms of male homosexuality, he is a “soft cat.” Prünhilt, armored and (as will be discussed in Part Two) armed with a comically phallic weapon, plays the role of the penetrating “hard cat.”

To be continued in Part Two.

Friday, March 13, 2015

HEATHENS IN THE MILITARY: ARMY LEAVES ÁSATRÚ IN LIMBO

Daniel's Thor's hammer from Mjölnir Project of White Hart Forge
At the beginning of January, I interviewed veteran Josh Heath and current soldier Daniel Head about their efforts to have Ásatrú and Heathen added to the Army's religious preference list as faith options. You can learn more about Josh and Daniel and their work by reading the January article here.

This was a done deal. Daniel was told that the preferences had been approved by Chief of Chaplains and by the head of the personnel department. All that was left was for the new preference codes to be keyed into the Army computer system. Josh and Daniel provided instructions for soldiers, veterans and the families of deceased soldiers to have their preferences changed by the Army.

Then something changed. The new codes were not added. In response to Daniel's inquiries, the Chief of Chaplains stated that the codes would be added within a few weeks. Nothing happened. Daniel was subsequently sent emails that backed away from previous statements. He was told that the additions had never been approved.

Over two months after being notified of approval, Army Heathens are now in a state of limbo. Inquiries are being given stock responses from the Chaplains Office. In January, the only issue was waiting for the code to be entered. Now, the Army position is that the original request for addition of the religious preference has not been approved, but is “under active consideration.”

In an era where supposed assaults on religious freedom are routinely covered by the media, it's disappointing that Heathens are being told that it's not yet time for them to receive the basic respect and rights given to members of other faiths.

Today, I asked Josh and Daniel to give us an update on this ongoing struggle. My questions and their answers are below.

KS – Before our first interview, what exactly were you told by the Army about approval of Ásatrú & Heathen as religious preferences?

Chaplain (Colonel) Bryan Walker
DH – In an email dated 5 January 2015, Chaplain (Colonel) Bryan Walker [Personnel Director at the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains] wrote, “It has been approved, however the code is not yet in the system. That will probably take a week or two. In any event, long road travelled with success…”

JH – Chaplain Walker indicated we had received approval, but we were a few days to at most two weeks away from having the code approved by Army Human Resources Command. Because of this, we felt we were close enough to make everyone aware of all the work we’d been doing in the background. The message we’d received made it appear that we could let people know, and it seemed smart to get the word out early, so people could make appointments with the S1, in case that couldn’t be handled immediately.

KS – What happened? Why were the preferences not added?

JH – Though Chaplain Walker indicated we were good to go, at this point it appears as if there was some form of technical issues that had not been surmounted. Chaplain Walker has been helpful through the process, but he later admitted he miswrote when he told us we were approved. The process seems to have been much farther way from finalization than indicated, and our current feedback has provided almost no information on what – if anything – is holding up the process.

Chaplain Corps Insignia: "For God and Country"

According to the Pentagon, "The pages of the open
 Bible represent the primacy of God's Word."
DH – Around 21 January, I emailed Chaplain Walker concerning the absence of the code in the religious preference list. Initially he said to give it a week or two, so I did.

The code still wasn’t present, and when I emailed him back he then clarified what he really meant:
The last time we talked I said that I did not recommend putting out news of a new religious preference because it had not yet received Army finalization and new code generated. Thus my suggestion to you then that you check with your S1 in a month or so to see if the new code was in the system. If not, check again in another month. I appreciate your patience to date and ask that you would be patient for a little while longer for the process to complete. Feel free to call me if you have any questions. Thanks.
He’s been great communicating back and forth, and I have no malice or animosity towards him. In a conversation back and forth he concluded:
I mis-communicated as to the G1 approve and sign. I meant to say that the recommendation was for the G1 to approve the request, however, I should not have communicated that the G1 had already signed off. My language reflected my confidence in the outcome, however, I erred by sounding too confident. Nothing as to moving it faster, from what I can see the process is continuing and near the end.
Chaplain Walker wasn’t the final approval. However, he did provide the recommendation for approval to Army G1. As representative of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains, he worked diligently and communicated continuously with me through the process until it reached Army G1.

KS – In our first interview, you gave instructions for current and former Army members to change their religious preference. Do you know what happened to people who tried and were denied?

JH – I’ve heard several stories. They usually go like this: “I went to S-1 to make the update and I was told the option was not in the system.” Generally, this is a paperwork issue at the lower levels, and nothing can be done if the option isn’t available. No one has stated they were treated poorly – just denied because the computer system has no love for them.

DH – I don’t have any stories I was directly involved with, but I did see the outbursts on social media like Facebook about it being “lies” and whatnot. My own story was the embarrassment of walking a new S1 guy through the religious preference code system only to find it wasn’t there.

KS – What do you personally think and feel about this development – or lack of development?

Daniel Head
DH – I’m a little angry, but more determined. I understand the Army is in the process of merging administrative systems to something more amiable with on overall Department of Defense system. The claim from Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Walsh is that this is the hold up, although he hasn’t explain why this is the hold up in any comprehensible way.

JH – I’m pissed, but I am struggling at determining who to be mad at. I’m angry as all get-out that this is still not completed. I recently put together a detailed timeline. We’ve been at this for over 5 years now. There is no need for this to still be in the works, and the fact that it is still not done is infuriating.

Part of me really regrets accepting Chaplain Walker’s approval message at face value. That is what really burns me, we should have kept silent, said nothing until we had hard evidence that it was completed before we publicized, but I was so excited, I thought we were in the clear.

KS – What is the Army saying now? What’s the latest statement?

DH – Chaplain Walker handed me off to Chaplain Walsh since the latter is directly involved with Army G1 and this process. Since then, communication hasn’t been the best – although not for lack of reply. Every questioned has been answered with, “Your request that the Army add a religious preference to the database is under active consideration.”

JH – The Army is telling us the process is under active consideration. Basically, they are working on the issue somewhere within the big green machine. However, that tells us nothing, and we literally have received no positive feedback.

KS – What's the next step?

DH – The emails aren’t really getting anywhere. I think they’re too impersonal to convey much in communication. I don’t know what “active consideration” means, and I don’t think Army G1 understands my questions either.

Josh Heath looking dapper
JH – We are involved in a campaign of pestering and constant follow-up. Often in the Army things are done in the background that seem like they should take ten seconds to anyone else. For example, getting vacation approved requires a process that goes through like ten channels, with multiple signatures, and is usually lost or returned because something is incorrect several times.

The next step is to wait, but also to publicize that we are waiting. Journalists like you have reached out to us to begin constructing a narrative around this entire process.

One source we have seems to think that we’ll have this completed by April – but also was told we could end up having to wait till August. That is unacceptable, but there sadly doesn’t appear to be a lot we can actively do, which makes things even more frustrating.

KS – Do you have any message for Ásatrú and Heathen soldiers?

DH – I think everyone should be patient, but should also start sending up their own requests and inquiries.

JH – Don’t give up. Never surrender. We will kick this door until it breaks. Be patient right now, because as much as I want to have every soldier, veteran, and civilian ally e-mail or call over this issue, I don’t think it will help at this juncture. We’re in this together, and we will keep fighting the fight till the fight is won.
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