"Her temper was still the same":1 Women Resisting Colonialism in Modern Viking Narratives
© 2021 by Margaret Sheble. All intellectual property rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2021 by The Heroic Age.
Permissions granted for educational and personal purposes only.
Abstract: Most twenty-first century audiences know about Norse sagas or "Viking culture" through Hollywood films and video games such as The Vikings (1958), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (2018), and God of War (2018). As scholarship has demonstrated, Viking films and games are a hybrid of old customs and modern principles and are often not concerned with historical accuracy but rather with current issues. Like the Norse sagas that inspired them, the women presented in modern Viking narratives, specifically those I identify as colonized women, can still be understood as advocates of agency through their use of language. My use of the term colonized women refers to the ideology of the colonizer: men, who are not a part of the woman's original culture, forcing those women to submit to their ideology—a concept often referred to as internal colonization. Colonized women in modern Viking narratives often use language, a representation of the self, as a means of recovery in their foreign new world (i.e. a new physical place or even a new mental state). These women are shown as fighting against a "foreign" enemy, displacement, and general patriarchy. I argue that modern Viking films and games are concerned with how women can demonstrate agency through language. Such an analysis is important in consideration of modern society's continuous struggle with gender equality as seen through the #MeToo movement, where women's testimonies are giving rise to a greater movement of resistance and change against unbalanced gender power dynamics.
§1. "I will rain down every agony, every violation imaginable, upon you. I will parade your cold body from every corner of every realm, and feed your soul to the vilest filth in Hel. That is my promise" (God of War 2018). This vow is uttered by the goddess Freyja to the main protagonist, Kratos, just after he murders Freyja's son in Sony's video game God of War (2018)—this game marks one of the most current portrayals of a female figure in Norse mythology.2 The successful reboot of the God of War series in 2018 brought Norse mythology to a wide range of audiences, an audience that has, in recent years, grown significantly. Statistics show that gaming has surpassed its reputation as an activity for children and teenagers and now encompasses adult players as well. Most contemporary audiences know about the Norse sagas or "Viking culture" through Hollywood films and television shows. In the last few decades, however, video games have also begun to heavily feature elements of Norse mythology, as can be seen in titles such as Erik the Viking (1984), God of Thunder (1993), and Viking: Battle for Asgard (2008). Through video games and Hollywood productions, modern Viking narratives therefore affect a large population, extending beyond the small academic pool interested in Viking myths. As research has shown, "Since the turn of the millennium, the annual industry reports of the Electronic Entertainment Association (ESA) indicate that digital games have become an increasingly popular pastime for adult and elderly players. While the ESA's 1999 study estimated that only 9% of the North American digital games audience was older than 50 years, this percentage rose to 19% in their 2005 study, and was estimated to be at 24% in their latest study (2007)" (De Schutter 2010, 4). In addition to a growing population of gamers, popular video games draw on Norse mythology that ties into a larger interest in Norse culture. In this way, the fascination and mass audience consumption of Viking narratives in modern popular culture can be viewed as demonstrating the general public's basic familiarity with Norse mythology. These video games, like modern Viking narratives in film are, however, still largely male-dominated narratives in which women only feature in minor roles. Nonetheless, although their roles are often minor, the women in these contemporary Viking retellings inspired by original Norse narratives are often subversive, as is demonstrated through their use of language as a means to grapple with patriarchal norms. With the growing popularity of Norse women, such as Freyja in God of War, in video games and other pop culture, an examination of their depiction is imperative, particularly as gender discrimination continues and, in the current political climate of women's rights, women are being scrutinized by their involvement or lack of involvement in bureaucratic affairs.
§2. "Viking culture" was brought into the popular culture spotlight in the nineteenth century, when most medieval Icelandic sagas were translated into English and archaeological sites such as the Danish Trelleborg were discovered. Kevin Harty argues that Viking culture disappeared for four centuries and was "rediscovered" during the Victorian era, asserting that the idea of the Vikings was perhaps a concept invented by the British during this time.3 Consequently, "in doing so, they [the British] raised thorny questions about race, about state, about nationhood, about heritages Anglo-Norman versus heritages Anglo-Saxon. The result was a more benign and heroic view of the Vikings, which, like everything else in western culture they appropriated, the Nazis would, following the lead of Wagner, subvert for their own purposes" (Harty 2011, 4). As a result, an analysis of women in modern Viking films and games and their hybrid of old customs and modern principles is necessary to dismantle concepts of harmful gender stereotypes and combat white nationalism that is equally harmful to marginalized women.4 Hardly any women in these works of pop culture exist because patriarchy and racism often go hand in hand and "historical accuracy" is often cited as the means in which women should not be presented in modern portrayals of the medieval period.5 Scholarship needs to turn to look at the way that women are using language to carve out a space for themselves while simultaneously through an intersectional lens look at the women who are denied access to the opportunity to use language because they are overlooked.6 Like the Norse sagas that inspired them, the women presented in modern Viking narratives, specifically those I identify as colonized women can still be understood as advocates of agency through their use of language.
§3. My use of the term colonized women in what follows refers to the ideology of the colonizer: men who are not a part of the women's original culture forcing those women to submit to their ideology—a concept often referred to as internal colonialism. Colonized women in modern Viking narratives often, I will show, use language, a representation of the self, as a means of recovery in their foreign new world (i.e., a new physical place or even a new mental state). The women in The Vikings (1958), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (2018), and God of War (2018) are fighting against a "foreign" enemy, displacement, as well as general patriarchy. Further, as is often the case with works of medievalism, contemporary films and games dealing with the past are, by and large, not concerned with historical accuracy but rather with current issues. I argue that modern films and video games with Norse narratives are concerned with how women, through language, can demonstrate agency. Such an analysis is important in consideration to modern society's continuous struggle with gender equality, as can be seen in the #MeToo movement, where women's testimonies—their use of language—have motivated a greater movement of resistance and change to unbalanced gender power dynamics.
§4. I am not the first academic to identify how captured or, colonized women, were able to fight their captors. In Including the Female Immigrant Story: A Comparative Look at Narrative Strategies, Tamara Seiler (1996) refers to colonialism specifically in regard to women as a "'double jeopardy,' or double vulnerability to being marginalized (colonized) on the basis of gender, as well as ethnicity" (52). In this instance, colonialism especially effects women over their male counterparts who maintain some semblance of privilege, and women of color most of all. Generally defining colonization, Samuel Klausner and Edward Foulks write that the term means "a geographically area kept for political, [strategic and economic] advantages" (1982, 24). Although women are not a "[geographical] area," the capturing of women in Viking twentieth- and twenty-first century narratives is done for political, strategical, and economical advantages. Most famously, theorist Homi Bhabha found that "Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order" (1997, 171). Bhabha identified forms of resistance through the concept of mimicry which refers to how the colonized subject adapts or imitates the mannerisms of the colonizer in the hopes of attaining the same access of power that the colonizer holds. Accordingly, "Mimicry is, thus, the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation, and discipline, which 'appropriates' the Other as it visualizes power" (1984, 126). The problem of the colonizer is the desire to have the colonized simply be compliant and not attempt to mimic them or even become ambivalent about those who hold a position of power because to do so would break down the colonizer's authority and control.7 The theory of mimicry can be subversive and can expose how artificial power can often be when the colonized perform the traits of the colonizer. The Norse women featured in this article perform resistance analogous to mimicry. Since each woman fights the effects of colonization on an individual level, through speaking to her captor (often her husband) in the same language, the colonized woman appears simultaneously content and yet resistant.
§5. David Wyatt (2009) suggests that, in Norse sagas, "slave women taken from the communities of medieval Britain might have deliberately attempted to express their contempt for their master through passive resistance and incompliant [sic] behavior" (153). Today's audiences are aware of the idea of passive resistance, or civil resistance, through the ideology of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Robert Adams provides a definition of civil resistance as:
a type of political action that relies on the use of non-violent methods. It is largely synonymous with certain other terms, including 'non-violent action', 'non-violent resitance', and 'people power.' It involves a range of widespread and sustained activities that challenge a particular power, force, policy, or regime—hence the term 'resistance.' The adjective 'civil' in this context denotes that which pertains to a citizen or society, implying that a movement's goals are 'civil' in the sense of being widely shared in a society; and it denotes that the action concerned in non-military or non-violent in character. (Roberts 2012, 2)
§6. Civil resistance is not about complicity but rather non-violent or passive means of defiance. This issue of defining what counts as "resistance" has plagued modern workers in regard to identity politics, striking, and unionization. Can passive resistance and noncompliant behavior count as fighting against one's oppressors? Jean Helms Mills, Albert Mills, and Robyn Thomas (2004) posit that:
§7. Definitions of resistance are generally conceived of as something in opposition to managerially enforced controls and are presented in a mutually reinforcing control-resistance dyadic relationship. However, as Kondo (1990) argues, to present resistance, accommodation, consent or compliance in neat categories suppresses differences within and between these categories suggesting a mutual and temporal "fixidity." A less limiting approach is to view resistance as something socially constructed in context, rather than resorting to a neo-positivistic and rational framework (Sewell, 2000) and pre-conceptualizing what constitutes "real" resistance. (3)
§8. Accordingly, resistance refers to breaking apart fixed categories that are traditionally already a part of the status quo. While the Norse women presented in this article do not create revolutions or large resistance moments in their communities, they do follow a more "micro-political" or individualized resistance.8 Micro-political resistance refers to "resistance to the dominant at the level of the individual subject" and "micro-political approaches represent what can be seen as a 'quiet challenge'" to forms of oppression (Mills, Mills, and Thomas 2004, 6). I argue that the Viking women of modern films and video games most successfully use language, as well as physical action, as a means of resistance. As discussed in The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, colonized women are concerned with "crisis of identity … the concern with the development or recovery of an identifying relationship between self and place" (Ashcroft et al. 2011, 8–9). In each of these examples, a colonized woman elects to reestablish their individual identity over a larger communal identity forced on them by a colonizer.
§9. Significantly, the colonized woman narrative is not an invention of the modern world; in fact, it appears in the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse anonymous poems from the Icelandic thirteenth-century manuscript Codex Regius. This codex represents one of the few "organized" collections of Norse mythology (another such is the Prose Edda), and, among its many narratives, Skírnismál (The Lay of Skírnir) exists as a colonized woman narrative, demonstrating a woman's lack of agency and her forced marriage to an "outsider" or "foreigner." In Skírnismál, a man, Skírnir, attempts to persuade the giantess, Gerðr, to accept the god, Frey, as her lover. Frey navigates from Óðinn's throne into the giants' home, Jotunheim, and falls in love with Gerðr at first sight. Skírnir offers to bring Gerðr to Frey after borrowing Frey's sword along with a horse that can gallop through flames: Mar gefðu mér þá þann er mik um myrkvan beri vísan vafrloga, ok þat sverð, er sjalft vegisk við jötna ætt [Then give me the horse / that goes through the dark And magic flickering flames; And the sword as well / that fights of itself against the giants grim]—Gerðr's race (29–32). This early mention of violence in the poem highlights the hostility both Frey and Skírnir feel towards the other race as the sword is identified as being a giant-killer and Skírnir willingly wields it. The threat of race-based violence makes the aggression towards Gerðr far more significant as she becomes further marginalized by her "villainous" heritage in addition to her gender. Skírnir takes on the role of a colonist willing to conquer and massacre the giant/troll race in order to win Gerðr for Frey since he is a man not a part of Gerðr's culture and desires her submission.
§10. After Gerðr refuses Skírnir's gifts (or bribes), the violence surfaces. Skírnir responds by proclaiming: Sér þú þenna mæki, mær, mjóvan, málfáan, er ek hef í hendi hér? Höfuð höggva ek mun þér hálsi af, nema þú mér sætt segir [This mottled blade, / dost, maiden, see it / which I here hold in my hands? / Thy haughty head / I hew from thy neck / but thou yield thy love to the youth] (90–93). Skírnir threatens the giantess with her death, her family's death, and her torture— including imprisonment, hunger, and humiliation, in addition to physical and mental pain. Surprisingly, although Gerðr is threatened throughout the entire text, translator Lee Hollander (1990) describes the poem as an "epic-dramatic technique of the North at its best—and the subject is a romantic love-myth that speaks to us all" (65). A male translator referring to the text as romantic erases the threat of the female racial minority and normalizes the interaction. Helga Kress remarks on these tortures and Skírnir's threat of the god's wrath as a metaphor for "the rage of societal and patriarchal power" (2015, 82). Despite these explicitly different interpretations, Hollander and Kress both suggest that Skírnismál represents attitudes that readers are expected to understand and does so within a patriarchal society that is recognizable to modern western readers because we also largely live in such a society in which violence against women can be recast as "love." For example, Frey represents the traditional Germanic marriage code in which men can choose their wives without the woman's consent. Instead, a woman's father or mother determined Germanic/Norse marriage agreements. Accordingly, a woman's legal guardian "received the suitor's or his representative's proposal. Assuming there were no legal or other obstacles to marriage and the guardian accepted the proposal, he would set up the marriage contract, including the amount of the bride's wealth and dowry, and the date of the wedding (Grágás, in Finsen 1852, 2:29–30; Hastrup 1985, 93). The laws did not consider a woman's consent to be necessary (Frank 1973, 475)" (cited in Self 2014, 155). As Skírnismál illustrates, women are meant to be conquered even if at the point of a sword.9
§11. Gerðr's story is both tragic, since she cannot successfully fight back against Skírnir and memorable to audiences as a story about love rather than conquest. Moreover, this idea that women are to be wooed by violence is not simply "medieval"— after all, Lee Hollander suggested in his 1990 translation that Skirnismal represents a "universal love story." Modern Viking narratives are inheritors of these earlier Nordic tales and reflect similar tendencies of these oftentimes-sexist stories where women are forced to bend to the will of men. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (2001), in his investigation on postcolonial theory, found the term postcolonial often neglects the importance of the past in regard to how modern regimes have gained power. The current postcolonial theory's "exclusionary model of temporality denies the possibility that traumas, exclusions, violence enacted centuries ago might still linger in contemporary identity formations. It also closes off the possibility that this past could be multiple and valuable enough to contain (and be contained within) alternative present and futures" (3). As Cohen reveals, the past reveals concepts that still linger in modern understandings of certain perceptions, such as, for the purpose of this argument, in the ways in which women should, allegedly, be viewed. Modern scholarship, as in Lee Hollander's analysis of Skirnismal, demonstrates a continuous and simply wrong idea of understanding a woman's position in society. However, while modern Viking narratives are inheritors of the past, the women of these modernized stories often surreptitiously find means of defiance through language and other means of civil resistance.
§12. One of the earliest films that explores the concept of the colonized woman in Viking society is the The Vikings (1958), directed by Richard Fleischer. This film was loosely based on the 1951 novel by the same title by Edison Marshall, who was interested in the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok.10 The main protagonist, Eric (Tony Curtis), is the son of a colonized woman himself—his mother, the wife and queen of the King of Northumbria, is raped by the Viking, Ragnar, during a raid, and to protect her new son, Eric, she sends him to Italy. However, Vikings intercept the ship and enslave Eric. The Christian Princess, Morgana (Janet Leigh), the main female character of the film, plays the love interest of both Eric and his half-brother Einar. Morgana was originally expected to marry King Aella but was captured in a Viking raid. The Vikings then use Morgana as a tool to demand ransom from the Northumbrian King, Aella. One particular night, during a drunken feast after Morgana's capturer, Einar confesses his feelings for Morgana to Ragnar, who comments that women often need to be taken by force and grants his son possession of the prisoner, Morgana. In a controversial expression of agency, the Christian princess defies Einar during his attempted rape by not aggressively resisting him as he had hoped.11 By remaining silent, Morgana's action-through-inaction is reminiscent of similar resistance strategies adopted by other colonized women in Nordic tradition.
§13. One such example who echoes Morgana's action-through-inaction is Melkorka from the Laxdæla Saga, who abides and later vows vengeance on the Icelandic noble, Höskuld, who purchased and enslaved her. The author first describes Melkorka as Sú var illa klædd. Höskuldi leist konan fríð sýnum ef nokkuð mátti á sjá [poorly dressed, but Höskuld thought her to be a good-looking woman, as far as we could judge] (ch. 12). Melkorka, like Morgana in The Vikings, is desired solely for her physical appearance and Höskuld does not learn her name until much later in the narrative. Höskuld's indifference to Melkorka's name demonstrates both the sexism of the male characters as well as the further discrimination Melkorka experiences as a slave. Höskuld apparently shows "benevolence" to Melkorka, as the author remarks: Höskuldur svaf hjá húsfreyju sinni hverja nótt síðan hann kom heim en hann var fár við frilluna [he slept with his wife every night after he came home and had very little to say to the mistress], meaning Höskuld stayed loyal to his wife, Jórunn, and left Melkorka alone (at first) (ch. 13). However, as Jenny Jochens identifies, "Cross-cultural comparison would indicate that Icelandic slaves were … sexually available for their masters at all times" (1995, 35).12 Therefore, Höskuld's desire for Melkorka still represents the power dynamics of the colonizer over the colonized. Although Melkorka is left alone, her position as a slave leaves her constantly vulnerable to the whims of Höskuld. This vulnerability is underscored when she is eventually forced to bear Höskuld a child.
§14. Melkorka's silent resistance in the Laxdæla Saga demonstrates for David Wyatt that her "lowly position meant that she was clearly forced to sleep with [Höskuld but] her refusal to 'speak' to him may have been used by the author to further emphasise her defiance and her innate or hidden nobility" (2009, 154). Although Melkorka is positioned as a slave and forced to sleep with Höskuld (and eventually to give him a son), her resistance, shown through determined silence, also indicates her status as a woman. As noted before, women were subjected to their husband's or another patriarchal authority's rules, a fact which leaves Melkorka with little means of resistance. As such, her silence serves as a means of defiance, one with which she keeps valuable information, i.e. her true identity, from Höskuld and others. Melkorka allows others to misidentify her background, resulting in many expressing their disproval of Höskuld's relationship with Melkorka due to concerns about class and status. For example, Jórunn states: Eigi mun eg deila við frillu þína þá er þú hefir flutt af Noregi þótt hún kynni góðra návist en nú þykir mér það allra sýnst ef hún er bæði dauf og mállaus [I've no intention of wrangling with some slave-woman you have brought home from Norway who doesn't know how her betters behave, least of all since she is both deaf and dumb] (ch. 13). Although Jórunn is Höskuld's current wife and head of the household, her comments are reminiscent of Norse ideas concerning slave women. Jórunn is threatened by the presence of another woman in her household whom she knows Höskuld desires. However, others notice Öllum mönnum var auðsætt stórmennskumót á henni og svo það að hún var engi afglapi [ … the obvious air of distinction about her and realized that she was no fool] (ch. 13). Höskuld later discovers that Melkorka can not only speak, but that she is the daughter of Myrkjartan, king of Ireland, and that she is teaching her and Höskuld's son, Ólaf, the Irish language. Through Ólaf, Melkorka exacts revenge against Höskuld for the humiliation and trauma she experienced as a result of her enslavement and rape. She demands that Ólaf travel to Ireland and speak to her father. The purpose of Ólaf's journey is twofold: first, to establish that Ólaf is not a son of a slave-woman by having him meet his noble grandfather, and secondly, so that Melkorka can divorce Höskuld and marry Þorbjörn through her father's blessing. Ólaf is only successful in convincing Myrkjartan that he is Irish by showing him the gold ring given to him by his mother and his understanding of the Irish language. In this way, Melkorka functions as a colonized woman able to assert agency through language, albeit indirectly. Language, as Homi Bhabha articulated, can be a means of colonial resistance. Since Ólaf knows both Irish and Norse, he enacts language-hybridity. Ólaf's understanding of language therefore threatens Höskuld's power because he has the ability to express his mother's desires to her Irish father and then to return to Norse society—his identity can cross between both the colonized and colonizer's realms. As an identity marker for Melkorka, language has specific functions that allow her to obtain power, particularly through her decision to remain silent and to wield the power of secret knowledge—her true identity. Melkorka elects to maintain her individual identity, as demonstrated through her silence, over any larger, communal identity forced upon her. Put simply, Melkorka gets her revenge on Höskuld for taking her against her will, albeit many years later, through her crafty manipulation of language, both spoken and silent.13
§15. Melkorka's actions correspond to Morgana's decisions in The Vikings. In the film, Eric saves Morgana from Einar at the last minute and the two escape on a small ship to England, closely pursued by Ragnar and the Vikings. On their journey, Eric and Morgana become lovers, causing Morgana to promise to try to get out of her arranged marriage. Once in England, Aella captures Ragnar, ordering that Ragnar be thrown to the wolves as a means of undermining Ragnar's opportunity to enter Valhalla. Eric, however, saves Ragnar from a dishonorable death, throwing him a sword so he can die fighting. Aella becomes upset at Eric's "treason" and cuts off Eric's left hand, banishing him from the court. Ultimately, Eric's life is only spared when Morgana agrees to marry Aella, despite her feelings for Eric. By thus agreeing to marry Aella, Morgana performs mimicry, appearing to submit to her male captor by providing him what he desires—agreeing to become his property through marriage—and performing the role of loyal wife granted to her by the cultural expectations or "language" of wifely behavior. As Aella's wife, Morgana would be held to the same habits and values of her husband, the colonizer, and Aella, for his part, accepts Morgana's plea without hesitation or concern about her potential resistance, assuming that Morgana will meet the normal expectations of a submissive wife.
§16. In the remainder of the film, Eric returns to England after telling Einar about their father's death and the two vow vengeance and put aside their differences for the time being to attack Aella. In battle against Aella, Eric pushes Aella into the wolf pit, then fights Einar in order to finally be with Morgana. Einar soon defeats Eric in battle, breaking his sword. Nevertheless, Morgana saves her lover by using language—she tells Einar of Eric's true origin—and Einar becomes distracted by how much Eric looks like his father, Ragnar. Evocative of the Norse Laxdæla Saga, the power of language in this case saves Eric's life, as Morgana's words about Eric's true identity echo in Einar's mind, preventing him from dealing the final blow. Morgana exhibits how knowledge can give an individual power and she can use this power to strike fear into Einar's heart and make him briefly defenseless. As a captive, Morgana is able to strategically maneuver her way through Viking society as she attempts to save Eric's life. The Vikings' portrayal of this woman exhibits the power language has to both protect and aid in the navigation of a hostile world. Possessed of the ability to cause her colonizer to form evocative memories, i.e. revealing Eric's origin—material learned through her stay with her captors—Morgana ultimately uses that information and her skill with language to free herself.
§17. The story of Eric and Morgana in The Vikings is an example of a trope in popular narratives in which Norse women act as agents fighting against their oppressors through words rather than actions. What separates The Vikings from most other "Viking" films is its close connection to Hollywood and its ability to thus reach a broader audience.14 The movie grossed five million dollars at the box office and was nominated for best director and best actor (Kirk Douglas) awards at various film festivals. Other, less popular and non-blockbuster Viking films, including Erik the Conqueror (1961), The Long Ships (1964), Alfred the Great (1969), The Norseman (1978), and The Vikings Saga (1995), portray women similar to Morgana, yet these women have minimal roles, existing only as a means to motivate men to rescue them. Moreover, captured/colonized women characters in films and games were not generally depicted as intransigent until much more recently—as late as 2017 and 2018. A focus on women using language as a means of empowerment in this more recent works notably coincides with the #MeToo movement which promotes the same mentality. Women who speak out against their oppressors create a small resistance that inspires others to speak out in their turn and thus to spark a larger revolution. Modern creators are intuitively picking up in this shifting narrative and bringing this uprising to the forefront of their narratives.
§18. A more recent portrayal of colonized Viking women comes from Thor: Ragnarok (2017) which deals heavily with the theme of colonialism—and this is not merely coincidental. Thor: Ragnarok's director, Taika Waititi, is an Indigenous Māori director, writer, and actor. Elements of Waititi's culture appear throughout the film, with examples including the tribal tattoos Valkyrie wears on her face, the colors of the ship that Valkyrie and Thor steal (red, yellow, and black, the colors of the Aboriginal flag), and, as Briana Ureña-Ravelo notes, the message, "Asgard is not a place. It never was. It is a people, [is] not unlike Waititi's own Pasifika ancestors, who carried their culture with them not by land but by sea" (2017). The film, moreover, contains many overt examples of colonialism. Most generally, the character Hela appears following the death of Odin in order to continue where she and Odin once left off—conquering the universe in the name of the Asgardian master race. The Asgard palace hides an art mural showing Hela and Odin's imperial warring past—an image covered by a new work in which Odin instead propagates himself, and himself alone, as a peaceful monarch, literally burying Hela and their violent, colonial past. Meanwhile, cast away from Asgard and believed dead, Thor finds himself marooned on a desolate trash planet called Sakarr where he meets Scrapper 142, a drunken scavenger (later revealed to be a former valkyrie by the Asgardian name Brunnhilde).15 Audiences learn that Scrapper 142 lived during Hela's original reign and later fought for Odin as he tried to subdue Hela and banish her from the kingdom. All of the other valkyries died in the battle and only Scrapper 142 survives, living on Sakarr in a self-imposed exile that predominantly features heavy drinking.
§19. Although an alcoholic, Scrapper 142 (known only as Valkyrie in the film) is a fierce and independent warrior who saves Thor during his first experience with oppression. Most individuals on Sakarr underestimate Valkyrie because she is a woman. For instance, when capturing Thor for herself against the poachers she is depicted as a bumbling alcoholic until she shoots the poachers with her ship and knocks Thor out with an electric charge. Thor, who is usually a "lady's man," is additionally unable to communicate with Valkyrie early on without sounding like a fool. When he learns of her true identity, he remarks "My God, you're a Valkyrie … You know, I used to want to be a Valkyrie when I was younger, until I found out you were all women. There's nothing wrong with women, of course, I like women. Sometimes a little too much. Not in a creepy way, just more like a respectful appreciation. I think it's great, an elite force of women warriors. It's about time" (Thor: Ragnarok 2017). Valkyrie represents for Thor the instability of his new world—he cannot function as he did before in Asgard. As Ureña-Ravelo identifies, "Thor is afraid of something Valkyrie, both in her mythological role and as a diasporic African and Indigenous woman, has already experienced: immense loss, displacement, death, erasure, pain. This brings him panic. Thor has never had to experience a loss of culture and position. It was assumed that he would have these things forever" (2017). In this case, Valkyrie functions as a colonized woman trapped on the planet Sakarr. While Valkyrie treats her time on the trash planet as a self-imposed banishment, it is clear from Thor's mission to leave the planet and escape the clutches of the Grandmaster that nobody on the planet truly has agency. The Grandmaster in fact monopolizes the planet and controls its resources, a fact displayed most evidently by the Grandmaster's "Contest of Champions." The only way to leave the planet is to steal one of the Grandmaster's ships, the only means of escape powerful enough to make the journey out of "The Devil's Anus"—a Magnestar wormhole. Despite her colonized identity, Valkyrie still manages to take care of herself by ruthlessly salvaging warriors to fight in the Sakarr arena. By capturing space gladiator fighters and forcing them into the Grandmaster's arena, Valkyrie also performs mimicry, recognizing that this is the only way to gain any form of power in Sakarr's society. Trying to forget the past, Valkyrie intentionally suppresses her original cultural identity and embraces her new Sakarr identity—Scrapper 142—over her Asgardian origins. While Valkyrie executes some of the actions of the colonizer, she is still trapped on the planet and subject to the whims of the Grandmaster.
§20. Valkyrie's eventual decision to help Thor comes out of a nostalgic sense of honor concerning her previous position as a valkyrie warrior. In Norse literature, valkyries are supernatural women warriors whose job included selecting the men who would die in battle and escorting them to Valhalla—sometimes the decision was Óðinn's, but often it was the valkyires themselves who decided.16 Breaking down the name, "the term itself is based on valr (the slain; corpses on a battlefield) and kjósa (to choose); thus, a valkyrie is a 'chooser of the dead'" (Self 2014, 147). Valkyries not only work on the battlefield—in Valhalla, valkyries serve warriors drinks so that the warriors can live in pleasure until the arrival of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse and resurrection of the world, when the warriors will be called into battle again. In the film, the character Valkyrie decides to help Thor as the realization sets in that Ragnarok is approaching Asgard—the land that she and her loved ones once defended. Valkyrie's action in the film consists not just of her use of a giant machine gun to shoot down Hela's demon minions or to fight in battle alongside Thor—she also enacts her power through her words.
§21. When Valkyrie decides to help Thor leave Sakarr, she explains, "I don't want to stop drinking. But … I don't wanna forget. I can't turn away anymore. So, if I'm gonna die, well, it might as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous hag" (Thor: Ragnarok 2017). Valkyrie's speech reflects her position as a member of the colonized population fighting back—one cannot forget the past or one's homeland, rather one must fight to regain one's home. Although Hela is an Asgardian herself, her unwelcome and violent return to and assault on Asgard causes the citizens to become refugees, fleeing their own land. Hela is not a colonized woman, but instead acts as the colonizer both before and after her banishment from Asgard by Odin. However, a particular gender dynamic is at play here, particularly considering that Hela is portrayed as a villain while Odin's own colonial past is forgotten and easily forgiven by Thor. Through Hela's brutal return to power, she invokes emotion within Valkyrie, who fought the colonizer once before. Although Valkyrie does not return home due to her defeat in battle, her self-banishment transforms into definite exile with Hela's return. As a result, Valkyrie embodies her namesake as she returns to Asgard to do battle at the time of Ragnarok and motivates Thor to action through her words. Valkyrie thus represents the opposite of Hela's colonization, as she briefly mimics the "language" of colonization through gladiator piracy before going on to become the liberator of both the Sakaar and Asgardian populations. Valkyrie's words to Thor resonate in the remainder of the film as fleeing Asgardians stop and decide to protect their homeland, fighting side-by-side with Thor and his companions. Valkyrie uniquely expresses the power of rhetoric when she reminds Thor that "The people are safe. That's all that matters," further stressing the film's theme that the people matter over and above the country (Thor: Ragnarok 2017). Thor also learns to not forget the past of his father's colonial warring but rather to become the king that Asgard deserves and to fight against this dark legacy. Valkyrie thus comes to serve as remembrance of both Odin's and Hela's crimes as well as the future of a new Asgard. Additionally, Valkyrie reminds the audience of the destructive nature of colonialism—a problem not just from the past but one still present in modern politics. Further, Valkyrie's depiction complicates our understanding of silence as a language of its own, suggesting how refusal to speak can, at times, instead make one complicit.17 Notwithstanding, Valkyrie shows that forgiveness is possible and there is always an opportunity to amend one's past actions.
§22. Messages such as Valkyrie's do not just appear in film, but also in other treatments of Viking narratives, including those in video games. For example, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, a fantasy psychological horror videogame developed and published by Ninja Theory in the fall of 2017, provides a good starting point. As the director Tameem Antoniades states in the making of Hellblade, "Is this what hell is? The world shaped by Senua's nightmares?" (2017). The game introduces players to a world where the main character, Senua, fights Norse mythological demons. However, these demons turn out to be just figments of Senua's imagination as she travels through a normal Viking landscape of villages, forests, and caves. As Senua travels, players can listen to the druid, Druth, tell Senua of various Norse sagas. Thematically, the game is heavily based around the concept of mental illness—Senua often fights against what is simply referred to as "the darkness." The physical manifestation of this darkness is referred to as "permadeath." According to the Ninja Theory team, Senua's mental illness would be diagnosed by modern professionals as psychosis, which the developers, in a special feature, elaborate on, stating that the "Psychosis shows in her early teens and is expanded by societal stigma and isolation at the hands of the clansmen and her father (Perhaps genetic—her mother). Sacrifice of her lover tips her over the edge causing her to remodel her reality around a concept that connects everything to the darkness" (Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice 2017).18 Senua falls into complete mental illness when she returns home to Orkney to find that the people of her village have been slaughtered and that her lover, Dillion, has been brutally scarified to the Norse gods. Because of the violent death of her lover, Senua most likely also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since Senua's PTSD stems from a foreign invasion, her identity as a colonized woman stems more from mental or internal, rather than corporeal or geographic, colonization.19 Senua does not have to deal with the physical presence of the colonizers themselves, but rather is affected by the consequences of their conquests—the death of her lover—for a period of time long after the initial trauma.
§23. At the beginning of the game, Senua fights a non-stop army of demons until she is finally killed and wakes up with a dark stain on her arm. The game threatens that if Senua continues to die, she will be consumed by the darkness and players will lose all game progress. If players engage the game long enough and poorly enough, they learn that permadeath does not actually exist—Senua can in actuality die repeatedly with no consequences—but the threat of game erasure creates a psychological tension for the player, one mirroring the anxiety that the character simultaneously experiences. In fact, Senua's fight with demons and her travels through the underworld parallel modern descriptions of PTSD. Currently, in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, an individual must re-experience a traumatic event in one of five of the following ways:
- [Criterion B requires] recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections, recurrent distressing dreams of the event, acting or feeling as though the event were recurring (flashbacks), intense physiological or intense emotional distress upon exposure to internal or external reminders of the trauma
- Criterion D comprises seven different criteria representing negative alterations in cognitions and mood: inability to recall important aspects of the trauma; persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs; self-blame; persistent negative emotional state; diminished interest or participation in important activities; feeling detached or estranged from others; restricted range of affect. At least two of these symptoms must be present for diagnosis.
- Criterion E requires two of the following symptoms indicative of arousal: difficulty falling or staying asleep; irritability or outbursts of anger; reckless or self-destructive behavior; difficulty concentrating; hypervigilance; and exaggerated startle response. Criterion F requires the B, C, and D symptoms to last at least 1 month,
- … the last two criteria specify that the symptoms must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in functioning (Criterion G)
- … and are not due to the effects of a substance or a medical condition (Criterion H) (Bovin et al. 2014, 457–496).
Throughout the game, Senua experiences several of these symptoms: she continuously suffers flashbacks that cause emotional distress, she lives in a fantasy world of her own creation, she fights physical manifestations of her mental demons, and she expresses outbursts of sorrow and anger throughout her dialogue. Before the tragedy befell her village, Senua had already dealt with mental illness, as did her mother. As a result, the village exiles Senua, and she must find "penance" to ease the villager's fears that she will bring the darkness to them and their families. Antoniades refers to Senua by the Celtic term "Geilt," meaning "a man or woman who has been driven mad by a curse, or battle trauma, grief. The Geilt would take to a life in the woods in search of penance, punishment and purgation" (Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice 2017). Senua can be classified as a colonized woman as she is forced to grapple with the psychologic trauma that was thrust upon her by an invading force.
§24. In seeking to break free from this internal colonization, Senua is brought into the Norse underworld (imagined only in her mind) where she attempts to win back Dillion's soul. Although game players spend the majority of the game completing puzzles and fighting demons, Senua's greatest means of resistance to the darkness of her colonized mind lies in speaking. Trying to combat the voices screaming in her head as she lies wounded at the end of the game, Senua remarks to the personification of death looking above her, "I will give you my life. That's what you want? My soul? ... But if you won't [take it] then you'll have to kill me because I have nothing left. No fear. No hate. No quest. Nothing. And you have no power over me" (Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice 2017). Death then strangles and stabs Senua, appearing to defeat her, until she hears the voice of Dillion explain, "I learned the hard way, to not be afraid of death, Senua. Because a life without loss is a life without love. Turn your back on death—and you only see the shadow that it casts. The longer you hide from it, the longer the shadow grows, until all you can see is darkness. When our time comes, we must look death in the eye and embrace it as a friend. Only then can we let go of fear, and emerge from our darkness" (Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice 2017). Senua, like Morgana and Valkyrie, thus proves that mental prowess, such as that exhibited by those withholding information or remaining silent, is a mental game that involves knowledge rather than solely physically fighting back. A woman can be a strong force outside of her physicality, possessing the ability to also (or alternatively) be forceful and inspiring through language. As a response to the narrative events that occur, Senua becomes internally colonized by her enemies while simultaneously being externally colonized by them (in the invasion based on Orkney). She fights back against this internal colonization, called and likened to "psychosis" by the developers, and what I identify as PTSD, throughout the game. While these battles take place only in her head, Senua's abilities and means of fighting back against her oppressor parallel those of the aforementioned colonized women in that she resists through language and speech. I argue that the other women are experiencing similar "internal colonization," but the Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice video game allows users to actually fight back against this internal colonization in a visual way unavailable to actual people or in stories about people, generally speaking. This is why passive resistance can be a powerful tool of dismantling colonial influence, since colonialism does not just involve stealing land and taking people, but also the psychological effects this can have on the colonized individual such as Senua.
§25. The last modern example of Viking narratives I examine brings us back to Old Norse mythology. The following quote from Völuspá, part of the thirteenth-century Poetic Edda, refers to a war between the Æsir and Vanir deities: Þá gengu regin öll á rökstóla, ginnheilug goð, ok um þat gættusk: hverr hefði lopt allt lævi blandit eða ætt jötuns Óðs mey gefna (25) [They gathered together / the gods for counsel, / the holy hosts, / and held converse: / who had filled the air / with foul treason, / and to uncouth etins / Oth's wife given] (25). Ultimately, the Æsir win this conflict, and, in an effort to prevent future war, demand an exchange of captives, receiving the Vanirians Freyja and Freyr to live among them in Asgard. In her new world, Freyja flourishes as ruler of Sessrúmnir and as the goddess of fertility and love. Freyja is powerful and respected, as is demonstrated in the Ynglinga Saga, which reveals that Freyja uniquely has magic called seiðr. As Jóhanna Friđriksdóttir explains, seiðr "is the kind of magic that enables the practitioner to summon, communicate with, and manipulate the plethora of supernatural beings in the Norse pagan belief system in order to achieve his or her own ends, while its divinatory qualities could have a soothsaying function" (2013, 49). For example, Freyja teaches this magic to Óðinn, and it gives him the power of foresight. Although, on the surface, Freyja appears to not face direct oppression, she still finds herself without complete agency, used as a pawn by Þrymr and Loki and promised to a giant in exchange for his services in the plot of the poem Þrymskviða. As part of a different race of gods, Freyja's "foreignness" and status as a peaceful offering means that she becomes colonized, absorbed into her new community despite her position of importance in her former life. She is taken from her original culture and forced to submit to a new ideology. In Þrymskviða, Þόrr discovers one morning that his hammer, Mjǫllnir, is missing. As the plot proceeds, Loki believes that the hammer has been stolen by the giant, Þrymr, who will return Mjǫllnir in exchange for marrying Freyja.20 Although Freyja refuses and Loki and Þόrr eventually stop the giant, the tale nonetheless illustrates how women—even gods—could function as commodities that were sold, captured, or given away. Although Freya does have some power as a goddess, her station is complex, and her gender still puts her in a colonized position. For instance, outside of Þrymskviða, Freyja is continuously used in Norse mythology as "an object of lust for male giants," as can be seen in both the Völuspá and Skáldskaparmál (Lindow 2002, 127). In reference to Þrymskviða Margaret Clunies Ross highlights:
In the late thirteenth-century form in which we have it, Þrymskviða uses comedy to explore some of thirteenth-century Iceland's most profound social and intellectual concerns and some cultural anxieties surrounding them. These can be summarised as: interpersonal and hierarchical relationships between men (Þόrr and Þrymr) and their resolution through the control of women (Freyja); the nexus between social status and power of the group and the self-image of the individual; and the nature of male and female self-image and their definition. All these themes are familiar to readers of Old Icelandic saga literature. Þ>rymskviða's plot tests the boundaries of these concepts and definitions, and it does so by means of comic exaggeration of character and situation (2013, 155).
This comic exaggeration connects directly to Freyja's refusal to serve as a bargaining chip. As a result, Þόrr dresses up as the bride instead in order to trick the giant into returning his hammer. Although comedic, Þόrr's cross-dressing highlights that "the assumption of attributes of the opposite sex is a source of strength, in that these actions enable him to achieve what he wants" (Ross 2013, 159). Þrymskviða thus gives an Old Norse example of the role women play in narratives and how they can fight back against forms of oppression. Even though it is Þόrr, a man, who fights Þrymr, in his disguise as a woman, he demonstrates aggressive forms of resistance that can parallel Freyja's outright refusal to marry the giant through her language. Þόrr's disguise and physical combat are, as such, only a physical manifestation of the subtle but rebellious words of Freyja.
§26. Returning to the example with which this article begins, a modern portrayal of Freyja occurs in the video game God of War (2018). Here, the traditional Norse goddesses, Freyja and Frigg, are compressed into one: Freyja. Freyja's original characteristics as outlined above differ from those of Frigg, who "appears as Óðinn's wife, patroness of the home, and a relative model of social virtue. It might be somewhat rash to state that Frigg is the Mother Goddess of the north, but she is certainly a maternal figure in the myth in which she plays the most active part—the story of Baldur's death, where she tries to protect him from all harm" (Grundy 1999, 56). However, scholars such as Stephan Grundy have outlined ways in which Frigg and Freyja share certain characteristics:
Both of them have falcon cloaks, which each of them lends to Loki in a time of need, and both are possessors of jewellery obtained by unchastity. Frigg is well documented as Óðinn's wife, not only in the Old Norse materials, but also in the Origio gentis Langobardorum (Waitz 1873:2–3), while Snorri describes Freyja as the wife of Óðr, who often wandered on long journeys and left her weeping to search for him. Snorri does not identify Óðr with Óðinn but, as pointed out by Jan de Vries among others, there is little doubt that the two were originally the same: a similar doublet appears with the names of the gods Ullr and Ullin (1956:II, 104). The name Óðinn is simply an adjectival form of Óðr … suggesting, as de Vries stated, that Óðr was most probably the elder form (1931:33). This in turn suggests that Snorri's account may have unknowingly preserved an older myth of Freyja as the wife of Óðr, or that Snorri, in his desire to present a coherent and systematic mythology, used the two forms to emphasize the distinction between Frigg, the wife of Óðinn, and Freyja, the wife of someone else (56).
Throughout the course of the game it becomes apparent that the God of War creators were aware of the Freyja/Frigg combination of identities. Within the game, Freyja functions as a maternal figure, helping Kratos save his son, Atreus, several times. At the start of the game, neither Kratos nor the player knows Freyja's true identity, as she only refers to herself as "The Witch of the Woods". Freyja first meets Kratos and Atreus when the boy shoots a sacred boar and Freyja heals the animal and befriends Atreus. Perhaps due to her foresight, Freyja recognizes Kratos, who has banished himself to Midgard from his homeland of Greece where he has murdered all of the Greco-Roman gods. Kratos, the son of a god himself, sought revenge against the Greco-Roman gods, including Zeus, his father, because they caused him to accidently murder his family in a moment referred to as "Spartan rage." Freyja expresses worry that Óðinn will murder Kratos and Atreus due to their status as foreigners, and she is especially concerned that Atreus does not know his true heritage as a son of a god as Kratos has kept this knowledge from him, fearing the boy would make the same mistakes that he did.
§27. Players learn over the course of the game that Freyja has been the leader of the Vanir gods and married Óðinn to bring peace between the warring Æsir and Vanir, as mentioned in Völuspá. This information comes from the head of Mimir, the God of Knowledge and Wisdom, carried by Kratos. In God of War, the narrative reveals that, over the course of their marriage, Óðinn's lust for power and his manipulation of his wife's supernatural abilities have led Freyja to leave Asgard and to become banned by Óðinn from ever traveling between realms again; she is thus prevented from ever returning to her Vanir people. Óðinn's punishment, which is unique to the God of War franchise, showcases Freyja's colonized identity, trapping her away from her own people and in unfamiliar territory as a penalty for her refusal to submit to his will. Freyja's imprisonment physically distances her from her own people, not just spatially but also cosmetically. Freyja held the title of queen of the Valkyries, but Óðinn strips away her wings and hides them in a secret vault. In Snorri Sturluson's Gylfaginning, Freyja appears similar to a valkyrie. Snorri writes:
En Freyja er ágætust af Ásynjum. Hon á þann bœ á himni er Fólkvangar heita, ok hvar sem hon ríðr til vígs þá á hon hálfan val, en hálfan Óðinn, svá sem hér segir:
en þar Freyja ræðr
sessa kostum í sal.
Hálfan val hon kýss
á hverjan dag
en hálfan Óðinn á.
Salr hennar Sessrúmnir, hann er mikill ok fagr. En er hon ferr, þá ekr hon kǫttum tveim ok sitr í reið. Hon er nákvæmust mǫnnum til á at heita, ok af hennar nafni er þát tignarnafn er ríkiskonur eru kallaðar "fróvur". Henni líkaði vel mansǫngr. Á hana er gott at heita til ásta.
[Freyja is the most renowned of the goddesses; she has in heaven the dwelling called Fólkvangr, and wheresoever she rides to the strife, she has one-half of the kill, and Óðinn half, as is here said:
Fólkvangr 't is called, | where Freyja rules
Degrees of seats in the hall;
Half the kill | she keepeth each day,
And half Óðinn hath.
Her hall Sessrúmniris great and fair. When she goes forth, she drives her cats and sits in a chariot; she is most conformable to man's prayers, and from her name comes the name of honor, Frú, by which noblewomen are called. Songs of love are well-pleasing to her; it is good to call on her for furtherance in love] (24.29–42).
By depicting Freyja as a valkyrie in the game, the creators God of War draw parallels between the warrior-like characteristics of Freyja and Óðinn in traditional Norse mythology. As Snorri writes, after a battle, Freyja keeps one-half of any warriors who were killed and Óðinn keeps the other, thereby demonstrating them to be equal fighters. Although God of War does not formally introduce audiences to Óðinn, the story hints multiple times at his being a great threat to Kratos and Atreus. However, because players learn to identify Freyja as a warrior, and since Óðinn potentially fears Freyja and her magic because she cannot be contained, the game suggests that Freyja may be the ultimate boss that Kratos and Atreus will have to face at some point in the series. Hinting at the possibility that Freja, the colonized, can overcome her oppressor Óðinn, the colonizer, this narrative demonstrates that the scales of colonization can be easily tipped in this battle for power and domination.
§28. In the last boss battle of the game, players grasp that Freyja is the mother of Baldur, a god who attacked Kratos and Atreus early in the game.21 Additionally, players learn that Freyja enchanted Baldur to never feel physical pain or to die—a gift that Baldur sees as a curse, since he can feel literally nothing. This explains Baldur's murderous rage towards his mother. Freyja experienced a vision at Baldur's birth indicating that he would die a needless and painful death; after charming Baldur in an attempt to protect him, Freya ironically fulfilled the prophecy by inadvertently causing his ultimate death, forcing him to become a violent force that needs to be stopped. When he was first enchanted, Baldur meant to kill his mother but stopped himself out of the remaining love he felt toward her. However, after centuries suffering from his accidental curse, Baldur strikes out against his mother, who, for her part and blinded by her love for her son, believes he can be reasoned with.
§29. The fight between Kratos and Baldur begins after Baldur strikes Atreus and pricks his finger on one of the boy's mistletoe arrows.22 Delirious with happiness at his newfound ability to feel pain, Baldur strikes again at Kratos and Freyja. Freyja, desperately believing she can reach out to her son, uses magic to awaken the frost giant, Thamur, and pleads for the men to cease fighting. Eventually, knowing she cannot reason with them, Freyja accepts Baldur's offer to kill her. This remains a short-lived agreement as Kratos soon intervenes, killing Baldur instead. It is Kratos' intervention that brings Freyja to speak her curse: "I will rain down every agony, every violation imaginable, upon you. I will parade your cold body from every corner of every realm and feed your soul to the vilest filth in Hel. That is my promise" (God of War 2018). Because of her rage, Freyja does not recognize that Kratos kills Baldur not only to protect himself and his son but to also keep Freyja, who has become his friend, out of harm's way.
§30. Freyja's micro-resistance as a colonized woman in God of War functions on multiple levels. First, Freyja willingly helps Kratos and Atreus remain unseen by Óðinn, the husband who imprisoned her in a foreign realm.23 Further, each moment that Freyja helps Kratos by bringing Mimir back to life, curing Atreus, or giving directions to the other realms, works as an indirect move against her oppressor. Second, Freyja's life presents a cautionary tale to Kratos about the perils of parenting. Throughout the game, Kratos struggles with how to connect to his son after the death of his wife, Faye. Players witness Kratos remaining physically and emotionally distant from his son until the two meet Freyja and journey to the highest peak in Midgard to spread Faye's ashes. Throughout the journey, Kratos, a quiet man, learns from Freyja that he must be open and speak to his son or run the risk that Atreus may become the murderous god that he, himself once was. As Freyja tells Kratos: "This boy is not your past, he is your son, and he needs his father" (God of War 2018). She also advises Kratos, while he debates about telling Atreus of his true identity: "Of course everything I did, I did for myself. I let my needs, my fears, come before what [my son] needed, and I couldn't see his resentment until it was too late. Don't make the same mistake. Have faith in him" (God of War 2018). Freyja's toxic "mothering" of Baldur, however, presents a largely problematic representation of her gender. Societal ideas of ideal masculinity often depict an overbearing mother as villainous, smothering, and detrimental to the development of a man's masculinity. However, the overbearing mother also represents a complicated narrative surrounding choice—an idea epitomized by Kratos as he tells his son at the end of the fight with Baldur: "We will be the gods we choose to be, not those who have been" (God of War 2018). Kratos will not force a way of being on his son, as Freyja attempted, but rather will allow Atreus to have agency. In short, Freyja fights against Óðinn but also makes the protagonist's journey in the game successful—not just in reaching the mountain top but also changing for the better as an individual. Freyja's words spur Kratos to change and trust his son—thus saving them from making the same senseless and violent mistakes as their ancestors. Perhaps the kindness and wisdom Freyja showed to Kratos and Atreus will be reciprocated in the next game in order to save Freyja from her own grief and anger. Akin to previous colonized women, like Valkyrie, Freyja is able to use words to motivate the main protagonists to be successful in their mission while simultaneously allowing herself to fight against her own oppressing force. Freyja's own decisions might only be considered a micro-resistance, but her influence is far more outreaching.
§31. The colonized women of modern Viking narratives can be read along the current #MeToo discussion and movement. According to metoomvmt.org (2017), over 17,700,000 women have reported sexual assault since 1998, and this number, of course, does not reflect the many unreported sexual assaults.24 The women who pioneered the #MeToo movement, which began in 2006 but came to full fruition in 2017, were named in the same year "The Silence Breakers" by Time magazine. The purpose of the #MeToo movement, enacted through these "Silence Breakers," is to open up dialogue concerning women and sexual assault to the general public, and to expose and call out predatory men. Women do not need to violently attack their assailants but can fight back through the power of rhetoric—that is, by breaking their silence. A recent example of this approach is Christine Blasey Ford's testimony against Brett Kavanaugh during his nomination process for the seat of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Ford testified that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school. In her opening speech, Ford remarked, "I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school" (NPR 2018). Ford's brave statement to the court demonstrates the power of language. Although Kavanaugh was still nominated and confirmed, Ford's speech inspired other women to speak out against their oppressors, caused people to organize and protest Kavanaugh's nomination, brought new voters to participate in the 2018 midterm election, elected new women to political office, and helped raise funds for sexual assault survivors and charities. Christine Ford, the #MeToo movement, and modern portrayals of Viking women prove that language can help the oppressed obtain power over their own lives and worlds otherwise unavailable to them due to their internalized-colonized status. Although modern Viking narratives in games and film are not intended to be revolutionary challenges to all of popular culture's understanding of Nordic gender identity, they nevertheless showcase a means of individual resistance that can empower popular audiences to seek further action. Because of the #MeToo movement, some sexual predators are losing their careers and reputations, a result that shows that raising one's voice can lead to larger societal changes. One of the most prominent cases of the #MeToo movement's influence comes in the collapse of American film producer Harvey Weinstein. In 2017, with the newest wave of #MeToo outrage on Twitter, more than a dozen women in the film industry accused Weinstein of sexually harassing, assaulting, or raping them. As a result, Weinstein was fired from his own production company, expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and then resigned from the Directors Guild of America, losing the support of his wife and other prominent figures. In 2018, Weinstein was charged by the New York police with rape, criminal sex act, sexual abuse and misconduct, and he surrendered to the police to only be released after a million-dollar bail that has left him with an ankle monitor and inability to leave the country. Each woman in the Norse and Norse-inspired narratives examined in this article fights against the ideology of male captors, often husbands but always men in positions of power, to retain and advocate for her original identity through language. Colonized women use language, a representation of the self, as a means of self-recovery and of attaining agency and personal authority in their foreign new worlds. Ultimately, the message remains clear throughout, from the medieval to the modern: Women will not be silenced.
1. This quote comes from The Saga of the People of Svarfardal Valley which is perhaps one of the most violent sagas concerned with a colonized woman's agencyᾹthat of Yngvild fair-cheek. See The Saga of the People of Svarfardal Valley in The Complete Sagas of Iceland IV translated by Fredrik J. Heinemann. [Back]
2. Specifically, this is one of the most modern portrayals in video games. [Back]
3. The consequences of white supremacist's appropriation of the invented "Vikings" and "Viking culture" extends past the nineteenth-century, continuing to be tragically recognized in modern society with a new interest in Old English and white nationalism. Currently, fascists have been appropriating Viking mythos into their organizations. For instance, when white supremacist Jeremy Christain killed two men in Portland he posted on social media "Hail Vinland! Hail Victory!" Vinland here refers to "the name that a group of 10th-century Vikings, led by Leif Erikson, gave to a grapevine-rich island off what we believe is the coast of North America. For white supremacists, the concept of Vinland asserts a historical claim over North America, stretching especially from the Northeast coast to the Pacific Northwest. They use the myth of Vinland to position themselves as righteous defenders in the wars of race and religion they believe are coming." (Perry 2017). [Back]
4. Medievalist Sierra Lomuto, in a 2016 blog entry on "White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies," addresses issues of white supremacy's interest in Viking culture, even as it appears in the medieval gaming world where a "medieval castle [was made] to appear more Disney-like" but there was "zero racial diversity, despite its genre of fantasy and the very real presence of people of color in the Middle Ages." Starkly, the majority of medieval scholarship seems to want to not address race in the medieval past. As Lomuto outlines "we [medievalists] are refusing to see how hierarchical structures of difference operate in all of their nuanced complexities, including within multicultural and transnational contexts. We are allowing the Middle Ages to be seen as a preracial space where whiteness can locate its ethnic heritage. And we end up convening conference panels that uncritically present the use of the medieval in perpetuating white supremacy." The inability of scholarship to address race and the appropriation of the (imagined) Middle Ages allows white supremacy to believe they are validated in their beliefs and they will not find resistance—thus silence equals justification (Lomuto 2016). [Back]
5. Race continues to be an issue in medieval scholarship as seen in the 2019 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. Previously, in 2018 the ICMS was under scrutiny for being accused of not accepting more inclusive and self-critical sessions to occur with topics like anti-racism and anticolonialism. On May 5, 2019 the ICMS was further criticized for their remarks in the New York Times article "Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another" by Jennifer Schuessler resulting in many people of color boycotting the conference and citing their voices have not been properly heard or considered. [Back]
6. For scholarship concerning race and medieval studies see the following mini lit review. The organization Medievalists of Color provide the crowd-sourced Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography organized by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski. Additionally, there is "Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Featured Lesson Resource Page" complied by Carol L. Robinson for TEAMS. One of the most recent books dealing with medieval race is Geraldine Heng. 2018. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Back]
7. Bhabha remarks in "Of Mimicry and Man" that "It is from this area between mimicry and mockery, where the reforming, civilizing mission is threatened by the displacing gaze of its disciplinary double, that my instances of colonial imitation come. What they all share is a discursive process by which the excess or slippage produced by the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the same, but not quite) does not merely 'rupture' the discourse, but becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a 'partial' presence. By 'partial' I mean both 'incomplete' and 'virtual. It is as if the very emergence of the 'colonial' is dependent for its representation upon some strategic limitation or prohibition within the authoritative discourse itself. The success of colonial appropriation depends on a proliferation of inappropriate objects that ensure its strategic failure, so that mimicry is at once resemblance and menace" (Bhabha 1984, 126). [Back]
8. Further explaining the definition of "micro-resistance," Mills, Mills, and Thomas elaborate: "Given their small scale, subtle and often hidden challenges— often at the level of identities and meanings— they [micro-resistances] can be dismissed by those viewing resistance as something that makes big statements and large-scale differences to dominant norms (Hartsock, 1990; Meyerson and Scully, 1995) … .the importance of small-scale change as a trigger for larger-scale changes should not be underestimated … Ultimately, micro-political resistance presents us with an agential self able to see and construct alternative ways of seeing the world and living within it." (Mills, Mills, and Thomas 2004, 3). [Back]
9. Expanding on the negative connotations of the poem, Kress remarks, "Furthermore the poem's structural pattern indicates a relation between the rise of patriarchy on the one hand and the subordination of women and the feminine on the other. In order to conquer women (and the feminine) men have to make alliances, and they need weapons. In the poem, then, the sword has a double and clearly phallic meaning as a metaphor for male power" (2015, 83). [Back]
10. "The Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok" is a thirteenth-century Icelandic text that is part of the manuscript of the Völsunga Saga. The narrative concerns Ragnar's various marriages and eventually his death at the hands of king Ælla of Northumbria. Ragnar's sons get revenge for their father's death and continue expanding his territory. [Back]
11. The 1960 Swedish film Jungfrukällan or The Virgin Spring tackles a similar outlook of non-violent resistance to rape. However, the men who commit the act are not colonizers but rather traveling goat herders. The film, directed by Ingmar Bergman, concerns a father's revenge for his daughter's rape and murder. The daughter, Karin, is raped and murdered by men who then steal her clothes which they unknowingly try to sell to her mother. Once the father enacts his revenge he vows to the Christian God that he will build a Church where his daughter's body now rests. In this context, Karin is honored like most Christian martyrs, who die without resistance to their fate. [Back]
12. Jochens further comments "although cases do not surface in the sources. A vignette describing an episode in Greenland suggests that slave women provided sexual services for visitors (Ftb 6.21 : 225)." [Back]
13. Another example of a resilient silent woman appears in the Droplaugarsona Saga written in the thirteenth century. In this saga, Arneiðar, daughter of Asbjorn, the earl of Hebrides, is abducted and enslaved much like Melkorka. Although Arneiðar does not physically fight her captors, she exhibits traits of depression and anguish long enough to gain notice. Arneiðar's unhappiness demonstrates her agency in emotion and her form of passive resistance. Furthermore, Arneiðar also resists by withholding information: she knows about treasure that she later bestows upon Ketill Þrymur—who would later save her and take her as his wife— but remains silent until she deems fit to reveal the information. As demonstrated here, silence does not equate to passivity and weakness but rather cunningness and strategy to use one's words during the appropriate time. [Back]
14. Since the success of the Lord of the Rings franchise in the early 2000s, the epic fantasy film genre has exploded with many B-rated fantastical Viking films such as Viking Legacy (2016), which received a rating of 2.5/10 from IMDb. Currently I am only interested in more "main-stream" Viking titles as they reach a broader audience. Hence, women in highly marketable Viking films who perform passive resistance are relatable to larger popular cultural ideas within society. [Back]
15. Although in the film Scrapper 142 goes by the name Valkyrie in Marvel's comic book history she is also known as Brunnhilde which refers to the Old Norse valkyrie Brynhildr from the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and the Völsunga Saga. [Back]
16. Valkyries are complex characters in Norse mythology as they display both masculine and feminine features. In a gendered analysis, Kathleen Self finds that "in poetic usage, the term valkyrie is not consistently used to mean only a warrior women [sic]. Nevertheless, these figures do not fit into the classification of woman, although the shield-maiden may leave the male/female hybrid to be repositioned squarely in that feminine category … Their presence in battle is one of the strongest masculine attributes that they had. Additionally, the shield-maidens' power to determine their male spouses when they did marry shows their capacity to act in a role usually limited to men. Other attributes are those usually assigned to the female, such as affective and sexual choices, the gender of the pronouns used to refer to them, and in some points in the narratives, feminine, as opposed to masculine, clothing" (2014, 145). [Back]
17. In the 2019 film Avengers: Endgame Valkyrie returns to the Marvel cinematic world as Thor's right-hand commander in New Asgard a refugee town for the remaining Asgardian individuals. Although Valkyrie's role is mostly minimal in the film she does appear in the final battle against Thanos in her own valkyrie armor to fight amongst the other superheroes. After the battle Thor "crowns" Valkyrie as the new "king" of Asgard since he cites she has truly been looking out for the citizens while he has been moping. Valkyrie's loyalty to Asgard is awarded in this film with the ultimate power status as their new ruler. [Back]
18. Ninja Theory featurette provided in game extras. [Back]
19. Antoniades explains this invasion as the ninth-century Viking invasion of the Picts that wiped out their population entirely. [Back]
20. Further discussing her gendered reading of the poem, Margaret Ross comments: "The gods cannot bear 'their' Freyja to pass out of their control and she protests rather too much about the damage her reputation for sexual respectability will suffer if she goes to giantland as a bride. Since sending Freyja to Þrymr is unthinkable, the god Heimdallr has the bright idea that Þόrr can dress up as a bride, with the epicene Loki as 'her' maid, and fool the giant into bringing out the hammer in a traditional marriage ritual in which the instrument was required to consecrate the bride. It was the custom to place the hammer on the bride's lap; Heimdallr's plan was evidently hatched to take account of the expected nature of this rite. After the divine bride's inappropriately masculine behaviour almost gives the show away, the anticipated sequence of events occurs: the hammer appears, Þόrr snatches it up and smashes the skulls of both the giant, Þrymr, and his grasping sister, who has been itching to get her hands on the 'bride's' dowry" (2013, 152). [Back]
21. Traditionally, Baldur is the son of Frigg, not Frejya, in Norse Mythology. [Back]
22. The use of mistletoe alludes to the tale in the Poetic Edda where Baldr is killed by his brother, Hother, after Loki hands him an arrow formed from mistletoe. Baldur's death is seen as the first sign of Ragnorak and perhaps a sign for what will be in store in the next God of War game. Players learn at the end of the game that Atreus's true name is Loki, which makes his accidental killing of Baldur that much more significant for the franchise. [Back]
23. Other women (such as Athena and Gaia) help Kratos in the God of Series franchise originally set in the Greco-Roman mythos. [Back]
24. The vision of the website reads: "The 'me too.' movement was founded in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing. Our vision from the beginning was to address both the dearth in resources for survivors of sexual violence and to build a community of advocates, driven by survivors, who will be at the forefront for creating solutions to interrupt sexual violence in their communities. In less than six months, because of the viral #metoo hashtag, a vital conversation about sexual violence has been thrust into the national dialogue. What started as local grassroots work has expanded to reach a global community of survivors from all walks of life and helped to de-stigmatize the act of surviving by highlighting the breadth and impact of sexual violence worldwide. Our work continues to focus on helping those who need it to find entry points for individual healing and galvanizing a broad base of survivors to disrupt the systems that allow for the global proliferation of sexual violence. Our goal is also to reframe and expand the global conversation around sexual violence to speak to the needs of a broader spectrum of survivors. Young people, queer, trans, and disabled folks, Black women and girls, and all communities of color. We want perpetrators to be held accountable and we want strategies implemented to sustain long term, systemic change." [Back]
Antoniades, Tameem. 2017. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. 2017. Cambridge: Ninja Theory, Playstation 4. [Back]
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. 2011. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures. Brantford, Ontario.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services. [Back]
Bhabha, Homi. 1984. "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." October 28: 125–33. [Back]
———. 1997. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge. [Back]
Bovin, Michelle et al. 2014. "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder." The Wiley Handbook of Anxiety Disorders, edited by Paul M. G. Emmelkamp and Thomas Ehring. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons: 457–496. [Back]
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. 2001. The Postcolonial Middle Ages. London: Palgrave Macmillian. [Back]
The Complete Sagas of Iceland IV. 1997. Translated by Fredrik J. Heinemann. Edited by Viðar Hreinsson. Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríkson Publishing. [Back]
De Schutter, B. 2010. "Never Too Old to Play: The Appeal of Digital Games to an Older Audience." Games and Culture. 6, no.2: 155–70. [Back]
Dronke, Ursula, ed. and trans. 2011. The Poetic Edda, Vol II: Mythological Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Back]
Fleisher, Richard. 2002. The Vikings. Los Angeles, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, DVD. [Back]
Friđriksdóttir, Jóhanna Katrín. 2013. Women in Old Norse Literature: Bodies, Words and Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. [Back]
Grundy, Stephen. 1999. "Freyja and Frigg." In The Concept of the Goddess, edited by Miranda Jane Aldhouse-Green and Sandra Billington. London: Routledge: 56–67. [Back]
Harty, Kevin J. 2011. "Introduction: 'Save Us, O Lord, from the Fury of the Northmen'; or, Do You Know What's in Your Wallet?" In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty. Jefferson, NC: McFarland: 3–8. [Back]
Hollander, Lee M. 1990. The Poetic Edda. 1990. Austin: University of Texas Press. [Back]
Jaffe, David. 2018. God of War. Santa Monica: SCE Santa Monica Studio, PlayStation 4. [Back]
Jochens, Jenny. 1995. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. [Back]
Klausner, Samuel Z., and Edward F. Foulks. 1982. Eskimo Capitalists. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Pub. [Back]
Kress, Helga. 2015. "Taming the Shrew: The Rise of Patriarchy and the Subordination of the Feminine in Old Norse." In Cold Counsel: The Women in Old Norse Literature and Myth, edited by Sarah Anderson and Karen Swenson. London: Routledge: 81–92. [Back]
Lindow, John. 2002. Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Cary: Oxford University Press. [Back]
Lomuto, Sierra. 2016. "White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies." In the Medieval Middle (blog), December 05, 2016. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/12/white-nationalism-and-ethics-of.html. [Back]
Mills, Jean Helms, Albert Mills, and Robyn Thomas. 2004. Identity Politics at Work Resisting Gender, Gendering Resistance. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis. [Back]
NPR. 2018. "Read: Christine Blasey Ford's Opening Statement For Senate Hearing." NPR, September 26, 2018. Accessed December 20, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/09/26/651941113/read-christine-blasey-fords-opening-statement-for-senate-hearing. [Back]
Perry, David. 2017. "Perspective: White Supremacists Love Vikings. But They've Got History All Wrong." The Washington Post, May 31, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/05/31/white-supremacists-love-vikings-but-theyve-got-history-all-wrong/?noredirect=on [Back]
Roberts, Adam. 2012. Civil Resistance and Power Politics the Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Back]
Ross, Margaret Clunies. 2013. "Reading Þrymskviða." In The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology, edited by Paul Acker and Carolyne Larrington. New York: Routledge. [Back]
Seiler, Tamara. 1996. "Including the Female Immigrant Story: A Comparative Look at Narrative Strategies." Canadian Ethnic Studies 28, no. 1: 51–66. [Back]
Self, Kathleen M. 2014. "The Valkyrie's Gender: Old Norse Shield-Maidens and Valkyries as a Third Gender." Feminist Formations 26, no. 1: 143–72. [Back]
Sturluson, Snorri. 2005. Edda Prologue and Gylfaginning. Edited by Anthony Faulkes. London: Viking Society for Northern Research University College London. [Back]
Ureña-Ravelo, Briana. 2017. "'Thor: Ragnarok' through a Black and Indigenous Post-Colonial Lens," AFROPUNK (blog), November 16, 2017. http://afropunk.com/2017/11/thor-ragnarok-black-indigenous-post-colonial-lens/. [Back]
Waitti, Taika. 2017. Thor: Ragnarok. Los Angeles, CA: Marvel Studies, DVD. [Back]
Wyatt, David. 2009. Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800–1200. Boston: Brill. [Back]