Being Woman Shield-maidens and standing one’s ground

Shield-maidens and standing one’s ground

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This is the second post based on a series of digital collages I created, in which I explored the ways that ‘being woman’ affects how I express myself in the world. For a woman to stand her ground and fight for herself, is one of the most challenging but also most necessary aspects of being a woman. Or at least, it is for me! Having to practice this on a regular basis flies in the face of how I 'naturally' respond to people, accommodating the needs of others before my own. The term 'shield-maiden' originates from the old Norse skjaldmær, and refers to a female warrior from Scandanavian mythology. The word shield-maiden is itself semantically feminine, and it can variously mean virgin or girl. Shield-maidens are sometimes equated with Valkyries, as both are mythological Scandanvian female warriors. I would have actually preferred to use the term 'Valkyrie' as a descriptor of what it means to be a woman able to stand her ground. But I have chosen shield-maiden deliberately, as stepping into one's power is a fraught process precisely because of our positioning as women in the world.

The word, imagery and symbolism of the shield-maiden has entered contemporary consciousness largely through modern storytelling platforms, such as Vikings, or Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Historically, there were Scandanavian women, mainly widows and unmarried women without male kinsmen, who took up traditional male responsibilities, writes the Swedish historian Birgit Sawyer. According to Sawyer, these women were sometimes highly regarded and respected in society, but they could equally be viewed with suspicion, as unwomanly defenders of their own independence in a society where a woman's natural expression is to be a wife and mother. The earliest written accounts of shield-maidens have come to us via 12th century author, Saxo Grammaticus, who chronicled oral histories whilst simultaneously creating new mythologies that addressed the reality of his own time and place. The account of Lagertha as featured in the series Vikings is found in Saxo's Gesta Denorums (Deeds of the Danes), and it is considered to be largely fictional, or an invention by Saxo based on legends of Amazon warriors. The Gesta Denorums was written at a time of increasing fear of independent women. From the 11th century onward, many more women reached adulthood and of these, some women remained unmarried, whilst a large number survived their husbands and as widows controlled great properties, notes Saywer. In this context, Saxo's account reflects the broader discomfort with independent women reflective of the times: 'these female warriors were independent of men and thus uncontrollable, thereby constituting a threat to social order', suggests Sawyer.

Shield-maidens and Valkyries as third gender

Feminist author Kathleen Self describes shield-maidens and Valkyries as a hybrid or 'third gender' that manifest both masculine and feminine characteristics. As such, they occupied a complex space in the social psyche, particularly Valkyries. Valkyries would appear as both comforting protectors in battle, and unwelcome agents of life's end. They selected the warriors who were to die, and as 'chooser of the dead' they were 'simultaneously awe-inspiring and fearsome beings', writes Self. The appearance of Valkyries in battle symbolised the appearance of the feminine not just in a masculine domain, but in masculine guise. With some Valkyries, their 'body has merged with the armor', describes Self, and this proved an especially troublesome idea in the mythology. Self notes some differences in how Valkyries and shield-maidens were understood. In medieval literature, Valkyries appear as semi-divine beings who may have had sex with men, but generally did not marry, although they were sometimes forced to marry as punishment. Shield-maidens were human, and of human lineages, although they may have had some supernatural abilities, such as being able to ride over the sea and through the air, writes Self. Shield-maidens were expected to marry heroic men, but exercised some control over whom they married.

The distinction between Valkyries and shield-maidens was quite fluid, and some famous figures such as Brynhild appeared as both. Brynhild was a female warrior whose armor had 'grown into her flesh'. Her protective mail coat was cut off by the dragon slayer, Sigurd, as Brynhild was cast into a supernatural sleep by Odin. Once her armor was removed, Brynhild ceased to be a Valkyrie or 'third gender' and her identity was now feminine, writes Self. Having her armor removed was a punishment by Odin, the 'Allfather' for having disobeyed a command. But further punishment followed, for now Brynhild was required to marry. As Self describes Brynhild's new position, marriage fundamentally changed her agency. Instead of wielding a sword in battle, Brynhild is now compelled to make her male relations act in the ways that she wants, inciting others to take violent action and defend her honor, which is now also tied to her male relations. Both men and women seek vengeance in these tales, but the particular feminine way of seeking vengeance involves words to spur men's violent action on their behalf. In both folklore and life, married women lacked agency. In marrying, both Valkyries and shield-maidens would be 'disarmed' from both their protective armor and their weapons, in order to become wives. In the process they would lose what agency and subjectivity they had as 'third gender' persons, concludes Kathleen Self.

Becoming precocious human heroines

The shield-maiden/Valkyrie mythologies seem to be a warning. If a woman wishes to exercise her own agency and identity in the world, it will be hard-won, and it will come with a cost. It is also something that is easily lost every time she steps into socially approved role, whether this is wife, mother, or a particular career choice. Every time she unquestioningly accepts such a role, she becomes 'disarmed' from both her armor, and her shield and sword. She may well convince herself that she acts from her own sense of agency in such situations. She chooses whom to marry, she chooses her career path etc. But the myths of the shield-maidens and Valkyries suggests she must guard against complacency. Women without armor, without a shield and sword, become vulnerable to the violence of individuals and institutions. The statistics on intimate partner violence are ample evidence that being part of a relationship is filled with risk to a woman's own safety and well-being. The stubbornly persistent gender pay gap also testifies to ways women continue to be vulnerable in broader society.

When I reflect on the figure of the shield-maiden, I acknowledge that asserting my own sense of agency involves traveling difficult terrain, and I can expect to encounter strong opposition. But I am encouraged that I am not without resource. If the myths of shield-maidens and Valkyries are critical reflections on society that often end in tragedy, they are also symbolically disruptive and refuse to become socially acceptable morality tales. The humanity of shield-maidens in particular shows me that it is possible for women to be more than a socially approved role, but that we cannot do it all. Indeed, hoping for some kind of supernatural strength may only damage me further, when it disconnects me from my own human nature. As women, we don’t start out as strong heroes, but as ‘precocious human heroines’ who have to use our wits, and often endure and press on even when we feel insignificant and powerless, writes Jean Shinoda Bolen, in her book, ‘Goddesses in Every Woman’. This means even vulnerable women can become ‘heroines and choice makers’. When women can maintain a sense of themselves even in precarious situations, they are able to react and from this basis plan for the future. That is perhaps not as glamorous as being a sword-wielding Valkyrie on a battlefield, but it is not nothing!

For the last 5+ years, I have practiced Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), a ground-based submission martial art that involves grappling, ground fighting and submission holds. When I first started as a white belt, the first and only thing I that mattered was surviving and enduring rounds of sparring. It was both physiologically and psychologically challenging. The most useful skills I learned then was being able to put my body into defensive positioning in live ‘rolling’, the short rounds of sparring that are part of practicing BJJ. And I had to do all this whilst being trapped underneath partners who were bigger, stronger, and/or far more skilled. In the process, I would feel what Bolen calls ‘insignificant and and powerless'. The minutes simply became a test of endurance, of pressing on in my defense strategies, and waiting for the blessed timer to end! But I think now that this is precisely where precocious human heroines are born.

Becoming a sword-wielding woman

When I created the original digital collage on being woman as empowered, shield-maidens and Valkyries were not on my mind. I had been researching and writing on the apocryphal figure of Judith, who uses the ‘feminine’ power available to her in her time and place, to trick her way into an enemy camp, where she decapitates a general while he sleeps. The best part of this particular story is that she pops his head into her ‘food bag’ and walks out of the camp with her maid. The following morning, the headless corpse of Holofernes, the Assyrian general to Nebuchadnezzar's army, is discovered in his tent. In mythologies, decapitation was a symbol of shame. Such stories reflect a primal male fear of castration, according to Freud. This is yet another reason why empowered women will constantly face the threat of 'being disarmed' and must guard their own sense of agency throughout life. To be a heroine is to actively choose one's own path. It is to take a position and to stand one's ground. It is to refuse to go along and simply acquiesce to someone else's choice. Since my original digital collage, I have made some changes to better reflect the precious fighting spirit of the shield-maiden who refuses to surrender her sword and shield.


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