Thursday, February 28, 2013

More About The Hårby Valkyrie

About a month ago, I blogged about a new find in Denmark, a small metal Valkyrie figurine that appears to have been a pendant. Though the figure is broken off at about hip-level, it displays some wonderful details of hairstyle and costume. 

One of my readers, Jakob, pointed me to this article from the Odense Bys Museer's website that includes more details about the find and a number of additional clear photographs. Although the article is in Danish, Google Translate has enabled me to glean the following additional information:
  • The figurine in its present broken condition is 3.4 cm tall.
  • It is made from solid silver which was then gilded.
  • The gilded figure was also treated with niello,"a black mixture of copper, silver and lead sulphides" (see this Wikipedia article).
Most interesting of all, one of the photographs shows a clear frontal view of the figure. This view appears to show (at least to me) that the figure is wearing a garment with narrow straps and a deep, v-shaped neckline. This garment does not greatly resemble any of the proposed apron dress reconstructions.  The straps are ornamented with little circles that resemble punch work, but the figurine does not show any beads, tortoise brooches or other brooches.  Perhaps this garment is meant to be some kind of breastplate or armor of some kind.

Perhaps the Valkyrie figurines cannot and should not be taken literally as depictions of Viking era women's clothing. Consider a work of art from much nearer to our own time--Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Guiding The People.

La liberté guidant le peuple (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Look at the figure of the woman in the foreground, the woman in yellow holding the French tricolor.  The way she is dressed carries obvious symbolism to people familiar with French history and the art of the period.  For example, she wears a red Phyrigian cap, a known symbol of liberty and freedom. But can Madam Liberty's attire be taken as depicting the ordinary clothing of French women in 1789, even in a stylized manner? No. We know it cannot, because we have other art showing actual French women of the period, as well as a number of surviving garments, that tell us that Liberty's clothing in the Delacroix painting is purely symbolic.

Now consider our Valkyrie.  We know that she is a figure from Norse mythology--a kind of warrior spirit sent by Odin to choose brave warriors slain on the field of battle for an afterlife of eternal glory in Valhalla.  What we don't know is whether Scandinavians of the Viking period had a set of symbolic garments or other conventions that told them "this figure is a figure of a Valkyrie."  We assume that a figure like the Hårby figure is a Valkyrie because she is armed with sword and shield. But maybe we should consider that the rest of her clothing may also be symbolic of her peculiar mission as a Chooser of the Slain, and not just of the fact that she is female.

Like the other Valkyrie figures that have been found, the Hårby Valkyrie so far provokes more questions than it provides answers. That's not a bad thing. Further study, and future finds, may help provide answers and expand the base of available information from which inferences about Viking era costume can be made.

EDIT: To eliminate my original comments about the article's statement that the figure is "polychrome"; see Jakob's comment below.
EDIT: (3/4/2013) Apparently the figurine is going to London to be exhibited at the British Museum with other Viking age finds. See this article. EDIT: (3/6/2013) Jakob has found an even better series of close-ups of the figurine, from all angles, including the bottom. Look here.


  1. Two short comments:

    1. When the museum talk about it being polychrome they mention that it was both gilded and with niello. There doesn't seem to be any signs of more than those two colors (gold and black).

    2. The most important photo can be seen in full size (3543x2362 pixels) here: . I mention this since the enlarged photo you can get from the article by clicking the photo is "only" 800 pixels wide. The full size photo allows for better study of details.

    Interesting detail, btw: If you look at the hand holding the sword only 3 fingers can be seen. The thumb would of course be on the other side of the sword and not seen but the artist for some reason chose to only depict her with four fingers. Much like modern day cartoon figures.

  2. the breastplate idea is an intriguing one, and I am also reminded of one of the apron dress finds that had a hole in the top like it was a hand-me-down that was worn without broaches.

  3. Thanks, Jakob, for the comment. Another Viking era scholar I discussed the results with guessed that the gilding plus niello was probably what was meant by "polychrome"; I will amend my text to avoid misleading anyone.

    I'm not surprised about the three-fingered hand. I have always been skeptical about the use of such figures in costume research, precisely because they seem to me to be no more detailed than modern cartoons.

  4. More detailed photos: