Tag Archives: Brynhild

Brynhild and Gudrun: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Brynhild and Gudrun: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Brynhild and Gudrun are two women who are, for all intents and purposes, diametric polarities on the scale of Norse women. Brynhild represents a strong, feminine warrior, a valkyrie, a woman of conviction. Gudrun’s character leans toward a more passive role, a woman who is a perpetual bride and the passive victim of the circumstances that surround her. In spite of these pronounced differences, both their stories end with the same basic outcome: death and sorrow.

Brynhild’s story begins when we are introduced to her on a fiery mountain top. She reveals to Sigurd that she is either a valkyrie or a shield maiden (depending on which version you accept), and that she is there as a punishment from Odin. The Sigrdrifumol in the Poetic Eddas says:

“Odin pricked her with the sleep-thorn in punishment for this, and said that she should never thereafter win victory in battle, but that she should be wedded. “And I said to him that I had made a vow in my turn, that I would never marry a man who knew the meaning of fear.”

Immediately we know that this is not a woman to be trifled with. She is a warrior, she is a chooser of the slain, and she is self-possessed enough to go against a god. She is also a woman who lives by her convictions. Odin imposes a condition on her future, that she will be forced to lay down her sword and get married. Brynhild counters with a near impossible condition of her own, that he will be a man who knows no fear. Even in the face of divine castigation, she is defiant and insists on calling the shots. It is only through subterfuge and trickery that she is forced into breaking her vow. When the deception is revealed to her by Gudrun, she takes action, and has Sigurd killed. In the end, Brynhild chooses to take her own life, making the final decision about her destiny herself. She is even burned on the funeral pyre of another woman’s husband at her request. It takes a great deal of chutzpa to have a man killed and then ask to have your body burned along with his in front of his widow.

Conversely, all of Gudrun’s actions and decisions are made for her by others. When we first meet Gudrun in the Volsungasaga, she is introduced thusly:

There was a king hight Giuki, who ruled a realm south of the Rhine; three sons he had, thus named: Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm, and Gudrun was the name of his daughter, the fairest of maidens; and all these children were far before all other king’s children in all prowess, and in goodliness and growth withal; ever were his sons at the wars and wrought many a deed of fame.

She is defined as someone’s daughter, an object of beauty. She is there to be strategically married. Gudrun desires Sigurd, but he only has eyes for Brynhild. It is Grimhild who takes action by poisoning Sigurd and making him forget his love for Brynhild. Then it is Gudrun’s brother Gunnar’s desire for Brynhild that takes Brynhild out of the equation once and for all for Sigurd. Gudrun gets to marry Sigurd not because of any action she has taken or decisions she has made, but by default. When she reveals Gunnar and Sigurd’s deception to Brynhild, it is in response to Brynhild’s boasting and snubbing at the river while washing their hair. Again, she does not act, she reacts. Her character is summarized completely by her response to her husband’s death, which is literally to do nothing. She becomes dormant, inactive, almost catatonic. Gudrun is incapable of independent, unfacilitated action throughout the story.

Both Gudrun and Brynhild share a common thread in the tapestry of fate. They both, at different times, are wed or betrothed to Sigurd, both dream of their shared destiny before it happens, and both end up widowed (Brynhild posthumously). There the similarities end. These women are opposite sides of the same coin of how Norse life was for a woman. While there were opportunities for a woman to fight alongside men, to stand up for herself, and to have an independent personality, far too often they were used as bullet points on a trade agreement, a peace offering, or currency. Brynhild demonstrates the perils of life as an independent woman. She is punished repeatedly for pursuing things that she desires. She is forced to give up the only thing she ever wanted, being a shield maiden, and her anger over this is palpable. Gudrun, on the other hand, demonstrates how a life without self-advocacy leaves an individual at the mercy of the maelstrom of world around her. Both women end up victims of their own actions (or inactions), and in the end neither way seems to be the right way in this story.

Odin is the Fickle Finger of Fate

Odin is the Fickle Finger of Fate

To bring the Norse Mythology portion of this class to an end, let’s talk about Odin and his strangely fickle nature. Odin gives his favor as easily as he takes it away again. I don’t know that many people notice that in the Norse tales, Odin tends to be the only god who actually intercedes in mortal affairs (sometimes it’s Frigg, but she seems to do so with Odin’s involvement). If you want a baby, want to win in battle, whatever, ask Odin. I also love how Odin usually doesn’t show up with great pomp and circumstance. I almost picture a bunch of guys arguing and yelling, when this old dude just sort of saunters in, stabs a sword in a tree, nonchalantly says “pull this out and it’s yours” and then meanders off into the night. The scene where he shows up as Sigurd is preparing to kill Fafnir cracks me up. It’s like that slightly annoying elderly neighbor who shows up anytime you are working on a project in the garage. John Deere hat (with an eight legged deer) over the crew cut he’s had since “dubya dubya two”, plaid shirt, red suspenders, eyepatch, chewing on a toothpick, rocking back on his heels, hands (with one missing finger) shoved in his pockets and squinting up at the sky, “Hullo der! Sooo… whatcha got going on der? I remember back in tha’ day when we’d kill a dragon, we’d dig TWO trenches. But dat’s just me…. I hear da fishin’s good up at da lake dis year…” (My grandparents were old school rural Washingtonians, I couldn’t help casting my grandfather as Odin. As a completely tangential side note, many of my grandparents friends were loggers, farmers, etc and were missing body parts either from the war or hazardous work. When I was a little girl I thought that as you got older parts of you fell off like leaves on a tree.).

Odin’s favor is fleeting. I firmly believe that this is due to his knowledge of future events. He manipulates events like Bobby Fischer with a chess board. He stacks the deck by filling his hall with the best einherjar he can, but not before he has ensured they have done as much to further the plot here on earth. Odin doesn’t take away his favor because you have failed him, he does so because it’s time to do so.

I am still convinced that Brynhild’s continued sorrows are due to her defiance of Odin. She chooses to kill the king that Odin has promised victory to, and he puts her in a state of suspended animation on a mountain top surrounded by flame. This seems like an odd punishment, aside from the fact that inactivity would be hell for a shieldmaiden. In reality, I believe he is punishing her by setting up a lifetime of having break to every oath she has ever made to herself. She broke her oath to Odin, there for all her oaths will be broken. He has taken her free will from her, and forced her to give up the one thing that means anything to her; being a shieldmaiden. Brynhild/Brunhilde has always been my favorite character, and one that I can personally relate to. As someone who was, in a very literal way, raised by my mother to be a “sheildmaiden” (she made sure I knew how to fight, that I was tough, that I was unafraid to compete with men, that I had a sense of honor, etc. She was like the Great Santini in a Maidenform bra), I know how hard it is to lay down your arms. I always joked that I married my husband because he was the first man I ever met who could best me in a fair fight, not to mention he really did ride through the fire for me early in our courtship (the first year we were dating I ended up unemployed, both my grandparents died, and I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The fact that he didn’t run for the hills still amazes me.). She is a woman who trusted her own judgment over Odin’s and paid by always having her heart’s desire dangled just out of reach. This may seem like a particularly cruel act on Odin’s part, but when you think about it the message is that you don NOT mess with Odin’s plans. Because Odin’s plans are Fate’s plans, and you can not change fate in the world of the Norse. The warp is set, the weft must follow. If Odin were to go easy on someone who meddled with the order, there would be chaos. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, rivers and seas boiling, forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! (I have now quoted Ghostbusters in my English class. Good night, Bellingham!)