In 2022, we saw the release of yet another Batman movie. This one, called The Batman, is a little different from recent movie incarnations in that it focuses more on Batman as a detective and also really digs into the negative psychological impact of being a vigilante.
Even Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne has succumbed to the darkness–in the new movie, we do not see the playboy billionaire who attends parties and schmoozes with politicians and other bigwigs. This Bruce Wayne is unkempt, with vacant, troubled eyes, and he seems to have difficulty even carrying on a normal conversation with people. Years of a vigilante lifestyle lived mainly at night have taken their toll on Batman and on Bruce Wayne.
What does this have to do with Valkyries and Norse sagas?
In my research about Norse mythology and the Viking age, I’ve come across people who seem to think the Norse sagas and the stories of the Norse gods are static, like they were told once back in the day, that story stuck, and then they were written down in the 13th century exactly as they were told that first time. That somehow these stories as they were preserved are the exact Truth of Viking age beliefs.
I don’t know what actually happened with the Old Norse stories and poems, no one does, but I am certain they changed over time. Some must have changed with each storyteller or skald and in different places and times. The Viking age lasted for hundreds of years! It involved people who lived in Iceland all the way to Constantinople. The stories could not have remained the same over that long of a time period and over those vast distances.
Think about family stories today. I am the youngest of four children (with a ten-year gap between my oldest sibling and me), and my memories and stories of growing up in my family are very different from the oldest. Sometimes it’s like we grew up in different families!
If this is the case in a group as closely knit as a nuclear family unit, imagine what it was like with grand stories of gods and kings. If a storyteller or poet was in the presence of a king, they might tell a story different from the one they might recite outside of the king’s power.
In the king’s presence, the poet was likely to exaggerate the king’s prowess in battle, his wealth, and his exploits. He killed a dragon! His boat was filled with so much gold it nearly sank! When he was a child, he was called ‘the greatest of all boys’! He was friends with an emperor!
That’s why so many of the king’s sagas are also quite fantastical. Who doesn’t love a good dragon slaying tale? The ones that survived were the most exciting and interesting.
Batman: a Modern Example
When I was a kid, I watched reruns of the 1960s Batman TV show, the one with Adam West as Batman. It was campy, colorful, and very fun. The 1980s saw the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton version of Batman, which was somewhere in between the campy TV show (think of the Joker’s parade complete with a Prince song) and the much darker Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Dark Knight movies of the 2000s and 2010s. Now Batman has changed again.
And this is only with the feature films! The Batman world also contains comics, graphic novels, and animated series.
Here are a few aspects of Batman that have remained static for decades:
- Batman has always been clever.
- Batman lives in Gotham City, a place that is filled with corruption.
- Batman fights for justice and battles corruption and criminals.
There are some features of the Batman story that have remained basically the same over the years, and yet different storytellers have changed certain things.
- Batman’s look–this has remained fairly consistent over the decades with the cape and cowl, although the color scheme of the Batsuit changes. In the first imaginings of Batman, he wore a red suit, had bat wings, and wore a small mask that only covered his eyes. As the decades have gone on, though, Batman’s suit has become stronger until it is now basically bulletproof against even automatic weapons at close range!
- Batman’s origin story–the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in front of him has remained constant for a long time. However, the person who murdered them has changed. It has been Joe Chill (a simple mugger), the Joker, or some unknown assailant. What remains the same is that this was a formative moment in Bruce Wayne becoming Batman.
- Weapons–most of us think that Batman only uses his gadgets to apprehend villains, and that he doesn’t ever kill them if he can help it. In the early days, Batman used guns. Now, the no-gun policy is considered a part of Batman’s personality; after all, his parents were killed by a gun, so he has a dislike of using them. But it wasn’t always that way.
- Sidekicks–in the more recent movie adaptations, Batman mainly works alone. There is no Robin. Early on, the comic creators wanted a foil for Batman, someone younger and more vibrant, and also someone Batman could talk to. Different permutations of Batman have included Robin and other sidekicks.
The consistencies and the changes in Batman’s story all reflect the sensibilities of the time period in which they came out. In the 60s, the campy Batman show had the feel of other TV shows popular at the time. By the 1980s, though, when the comic The Dark Knight Returns was released, our post-Vietnam and post-Watergate society had taken a darker turn, so Batman reflected that. It was grittier and darker than previous versions.
Norse Sagas and Snorri Sturluson
I believe the Norse sagas were no different in that some aspects of the stories stayed consistent over time while many others changed. Snorri Sturluson is credited with capturing many of the Old Norse myths and sagas in print. Snorri was a 13th century Icelandic chieftain, politician, historian, and poet in Iceland. He was an educated man and is responsible for the Prose Edda (a collection of Old Norse stories) and Heimskringla (stories about the kings of Norway and Sweden). For his part in preserving the old stories, he deserves praise. However, Snorri, as a human being, had an agenda when writing down these stories. He was also living long after the Viking Age and was a Christian writing about a pre-Christian society. So there is that issue, and it cannot be ignored.
In deciding which stories to retell, Snorri had a lot of editorial control. And although I can’t prove it, I’m certain he made up a bunch of stuff, too!
Valkyries: a Medieval Example
A Norse mythology example of how stories change is the Valkyries. Most people have heard of the Valkyries, those supernatural women who chose slain warriors from the battlefield. While this aspect of them is fairly consistent and they are typically considered supernatural beings of fate, there are also conflicting stories about whether they are figures of horror or beauty.
Within the very popular Njal’s Saga, there is a story about a man named Dorrund. Dorrund saw twelve women riding horses and then they disappeared into a women’s house (a place where women did their weaving). Curious, Dorrund peeked in the window to discover the women working on a loom, but this was no ordinary loom–it was quite horrific.
“Men’s heads were used for weights, men’s intestines for the weft and warp, a sword for the sword beater, and an arrow for the pin beater.”*
While they worked, they spoke verses about a battle.
“The heavens will be garish
With the gore of men
While the slaughter-wardens
Sing their song.”**
Once finished, the Valkyries who “decide who dies or lives”, pulled down the finished cloth and tore it to pieces, each keeping her own piece.
This is not what we envision when we think of Valkyries!
In other stories, the Valkyries are less horrific and have more human-like qualities. In some of these, they are the beautiful war-maidens that we have come to associate with Valkyries.
One is the story of Brunhild, in which the god Odin told the Valkyrie which king he favored to win a battle. Disobeying Odin, Brunhild gave the victory to the other king. In punishment, Odin imprisoned her in a ring of fire and only a man who knew no fear could pass through the flames to free her. This sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Unfortunately for Brunhild, it did not end in fairy tale fashion–she and the “prince” both died.
In the Poem of Helgi, Son of Hjorvarth (Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar), a young man with no name was sitting on a hill when nine Valkyries passed by. One of them, Svava, stopped to talk to the young man, naming him Helgi. He called her a “lovely woman” and Helgi and Svava fell in love. From that point on, Svava defended Helgi in battle and he became a great king.
Later, when Helgi was speaking to a giantess who wanted to kill him and all his men, he referred to Svava as a “beautiful lady wearing a helmet” while the giantess called Svava, “sparkling girl.” In this story, the Valkyrie was beautiful and desirable, as well as powerful, for the giantess claimed that the only reason she couldn’t kill Helgi and his men was because Svava was protecting them.
From these few sources, we can see that the image of Valkyries, while still being war-maidens and “choosers of the slain”, has changed with the storytelling.
We have Valkyries as terrifying women who weave men’s fate with body parts and who are the stuff of nightmares, and Valkyries like Brunhild and Svava who are human enough to disobey orders and also to fall in love with a human.
There must have been certain parts of the Old Norse stories of mythology, gods, and kings that remained the same in the telling. There were motifs and tropes that storytellers used to engage their audiences–some that worked well, while others changed and fluctuated over the years and decades. Dragon slaying seems to be a favorite no matter the time period. Stories of blood feuds were a favorite, too, as those show up quite a lot.
The social mores of the times would dictate which stories were popular, just as they do now. Influences from other popular stories and mythologies would creep in as well. Just as they do now.
Even something as simple as gadgets can change to reflect the times. Early on, Batman had a few gadgets, and, of course, the Batmobile, but he didn’t have nearly as many as he does now. The motif of an inventor presenting the “hero” with a number of cool gadgets was made popular in spy movies. It’s a fun trope. When a trope is popular, people keep using it, at least until some daring writer or director decides to put a new spin on it or return to an even older version. Spy movies influenced the influx of gadgets into modern Batman movies.
In Snorri’s time, the influence of Christian stories and motifs, and even some Greek and Roman mythology tales, would have crept in. Was the bit about Brunhild being imprisoned behind a ring of fire and waiting for a brave warrior to rescue her an influence of local folk tales that listeners found fun and interesting and then were picked up by the people who wrote the stories down? Of course, we’ll never know.
Storytellers are not always even aware of how their influences show up in their work!
What Would Future Historians Think?
If, 1000 years from now, an archaeologist, linguist, or historian discovers pieces of the Batman comics or finds clips of footage from various movies and TV shows, what will they think? They’d have to weave together what they find into something coherent. They might have a bit from early Batman when he used guns and killed his villains and then bits from later Batmans where he was adamantly opposed to guns and only apprehended his villains.
Which one is the true Batman? Other questions might arise. Who killed his parents? Does he have a sidekick, Robin, or not?
Which story is right?
These are also issues with the poems and stories from pre-Christian Scandinavia. Are Valkyries terrifying creatures who weave a warrior’s fate using human body parts or are they beautiful young maidens who have favorites and fall in love with human men?
Which one is the truth?
The whole point, I think, is to admit that there is no Truth. One poet or storyteller liked the macabre aspect of Valkyries who used human entrails to weave a man’s fate, while another liked the more beautiful hand maiden version. One might have been told in a time or place that was rough and violent and reflected that aspect of society, while the other reflected a vastly different time or place. Decades or even centuries could have separated the differing versions of who the Valkyries were.
At this point in time, over 1000 years later, neither is right nor wrong. They are simply different versions of a similar story.
So, if you are reading a translation of an Old Norse saga or story about the gods, remember the Valkyries and Batman. Remember how often they have been remade and the changes that have been made.
Remember that Snorri Sturluson and all of the oral storytellers who came before him changed and adapted their stories to fit their audience and their time, too. Stories are not static. And I, for one, don’t want them to be.
Stories reflect the times, and since the times, values, and interests of people change, so must their stories.
*For those who don’t know, the weights are what hold the thread taut. The warp and weft are the vertical and horizontal threads, respectively. The sword beater is a piece of wood used to tamp down the weft threads to tamp them down tight. The pin beater is thinner and used to separate the warp threads and push down the weft threads.
**Njal’s Saga. Translated by Robert Cook. Penguin Classics. 2001.
The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes. Translated and edited by Jackson Crawford. Hackett Publishing. 2015.
The Prose Edda. Snorri Sturluson. Translated by Jesse L. Byock. Penguin Classics. 2005.