Sheildmaidens clad in mail cots and helmets, sword, axe or spear in hand, shields braced, crying out for war–Such is the vision of the fiery Heathen woman so many of us long to embrace figuratively (or not).
Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, J.R.R.Tolkien’s Éowyn and Vikings’ Lagertha embody western fascination with the female warrior archetype.
Yet, the truth about women in Heathen societies may well have been different from modern fantasy.
Women occupied a central role within the family unit, caring for, feeding and clothing other members.
However, there are recorded instances when Heathen women have forsaken the domestic lifestyle, refusing to undertake gender specific duties. These emancipated women are the sheildmaidens that have seduced popular culture; they are the foremothers of modern day gender equalitarianism.
In Heathen societies, importance is given to:
1. The need to leave a legacy behind. Fame and renown are ideals that allow a name to live on in history, long after death.
2. Lineage. A claim to a clan is, in itself, one’s identity. To live up to the honor of your lineage is something to strive for.
3. Fate. In Heathenism, the fates of gods and men are woven by the Three Norns. Heathens believe in being the best, boldest and bravest in the time that is given to them; to not fear death because everything revolves around fate and destiny.
4. Death. Dying in battle is the worthiest way to go, for the heroes and warriors fallen on the field have a chance at entering the golden halls of Valhalla.
Live like a warrior + Die like a warrior= Battle and feast eternally in Asgard. Not too shabby, that is….until the coming of Ragnarok.
These societal principals do not only apply to men. Women want to be part of this as much as their partners. And, in some instances, they do.
Dr Jackson Crawford has a video series, covering different aspects of Old Norse, in which he discusses the origins of Norse names.
Here is a sample of female names echoing the warrior theme rampant throughout Heathen societies.
Gunnhildr: Gunn (battle) hildr (battle)
Harbjorg: Har (army) bjorg (help)
Sigridur: Sig (Victory) ridur (beautiful)
Expect your baby girl to have a temper to match her name. Yikes!
Through the folklore of Norse Mythology, Heathen girls are presented with a rich and complex Sacred Feminine ideal (unlike the saintly personification of the central female figure of Christianity).
The Norse Sacred Feminine embodies:
1. Fertility of self and the land. Humans are intrinsically linked to Mother Earth from birth to death, for survival and prosperity. Portrayal goddess : Freyja.
3. Witchcraft: the power to do magic, to issue prophecies and to perform necromancy. Portrayal goddess: Frigg. The Allmother, as Odin’s wife, plays a key role in reviving the Einherjar, the chosen warriors of Valhalla.
4. Sexual independence. The idea of a woman lying with a man other than her husband is not forbidden. In fact, many goddesses ( as gods) enter various sexual relations at will. Sif, Thor’s wife, is linked to Loki at one point. Freyja uses her body as currency to gain possession of a golden necklace she lusts for.
5. Immortality. Idun holds the golden apples of immortality.
6. Wisdom and arms. Norse mythology glorifies the Valkyries as wise sheildmaidens, choosers of the slain.
A powerful imagery in Norse myths is the Valkyrie as a cup bearer.
Whomever drinks from the cup gains wisdom; as though, like food and water, knowledge is ingested by the body- or, in this case, by the mind.
I believe the Norse Sacred Feminine speaks to women in their desire to be vindicated as men’s equals, in a gender biased society-And this, with or without the need for a mail cot.
For my part, the image of the Heathen shieldmaiden fuels my writing, helping me bring to life strong female characters.
The Sacred Feminine is part of us all, has always been and will always be.