Friday, May 28, 2010

The Heroes, Part Six

The valkyries are also characterized as the Wish Maidens of Odin. They are the physical manifestation of his will, and carry out his desires on the earthly plane. This concept of the godhead sending out his "wish" and his "will" as physical agents can be related to shamanistic practices, as seen with his two ravens.

Swan Maiden by Gertrude Demain Hammond (circa 1909)

Related to the valkyrie and the Wish Maiden is the Swan Maiden, in which the shape-changing ability of Freya remains, but has lost all meaning and power. The mystic women are, at this point, merely objects of desire to the young male heroes who seek to make them into captive wives by stealing their mystic feather-cloaks as the young women are bathing.

It is important to remember that Freya, in addition to being the goddess of love and desire, was the leader of the valkyries. This role is completely missing in the tale of Brynhild, in all its forms. Where is Freya when her lieutenant is banished from the godhead? In the time of the saga, Odin still wanders the world and interacts with humanity, but the other gods and goddesses are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps Brynhild, the valkyrie made mortal, stands in relation to early conceptions of Freya in the same way that Sigurd and Beowulf relate to Thor – the god of myth reforged as the hero of legend.

Amulets of women, maybe valkyries (6th century, Sweden)

Brynhild exhibits the complexcharacteristics that are seen in the gods. She represents a full life, from love through battle and wisdom to death. Through the changing portrayal of her character, we can see the changing status of women in Germanic society. In the Saga of the Volsungs, written down in 13th century Iceland, she is a mystic font of wisdom. When Sigurd asks for her to share her wisdom, she fills a goblet, hands it to him, and says, “Beer I give you, battlefield’s ruler” – clearly an earthly incarnation of Valhalla’s valkyries serving ale to the undead warriors. She proceeds to give an Odinnic "ecstatic wisdom performance" of practical advice and runic lore. For a society in which women were spiritual leaders and keepers of arcane knowledge, this is a very smart way for Sigurd to begin a relationship.

In this Icelandic version of the saga, Brynhild retains an explicitly mystical connection to the god Odin. By the time we get to the medieval German Nibelungenlied, written down at roughly the same time as the Saga of the Volsungs, Brunhild is a human woman. It is obvious that the German tale is based on older sources; Brunhild and Siegfried (the German form of Sigurd) clearly know each other when they meet, but their relationship is never explained. The warrior queen has a strength that goes beyond any mortal woman, but there is also no explanation of her abilities. To the modern reader, the explanation is obvious; she is the valkyrie of Northern legend, descended into a human figure in a Christianized retelling that downplays all mystic elements.

The change in women’s status brought about by the advent of Christianity went well beyond women’s status in religion. In the older era, women could inherit property, could divorce themselves from their husbands at will, had power in running the affairs of family and state, and would even pick up sword and join the fighting if they were needed. This power is only dimly reflected in the Nibelungenlied. Brunhild is an anomaly and a foreigner, not a representation of the authoring society’s ideal woman. She is weird – weird in the ancient sense of mystic and strange – but her strangeness is never explained. Like some elements of the Icelandic version, the German text offers further evidence for the existence of a virgin priestess cult.

Siegfried in his invisibility cloak by Joseph Sattler (1904)

In the medieval epic, Brunhild repeatedly declares that she must be physically bested before she will submit ton marriage. In sport, in battle, and finally in the bedroom, she will not agree to King Gunther’s advances unless he can prove himself her superior. He can’t, of course, and Siegfried must help him out through his magic devices and mystic strength. In the end, Siegfried literally subdues Brunhild in her marriage bed on behalf of Gunther. Broken, she submits to the will of her husband, whom she has been tricked into believing had bested her.

This whole series of subjection and taming episodes contrast strongly with the Icelandic version, where Sigurd respectfully sits at the foot of the valkyrie and listens to her wisdom over a glass of beer. However, it does underscore the idea of a Germanic group of virgin priestesses. When the Nibelungenlied Brunhild is deflowered by the duo of Siegfried and Gunther, her strength and power disappear completely from the epic. Combined with the Saga of the Volsungs version, where Odin turns his back on the valkyrie and gives her to a human husband and denying her any further battle-victory, we can see the mythic version of a human virgin priestess leaving the god’s service to become a wife and mother.

At this point in the story, all versions leave the world of myth and enter the realm of heroic legend. The story of Sigurd, Brynhild, and the dire consequences of their meeting for all they come in contact with belongs squarely in the world of saga, and out of the realm of myth. Odin makes no further appearances in the Icelandic tale, and he never appears (or is even mentioned) in the German version. Gods, valkyries, dwarves, and dragons are all, as the anonymous Icelandic writer says of Helgi, “out of the saga.”

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