Viking woman Svanhvita slayed evil stepmother and other monsters

In ancient Viking myth, the Swedish queen Thorild hated her stepsons Regner and Thorald. She appointed them as royal herdsmen to kill them at night in the countryside. However, the Danish princess Svanhvita saved these men with her “womanly talent {muliebre ingenium}.” Men have long appreciated women’s distinctive gift of adaptability and guile. Women today should follow the example of Svanhvita in using their womanly talent to save men’s lives.

Men throughout history have faced many dangers. Consider, for example, the wedding-feast debacle of Ruta and Agner in Viking myth. During their wedding feast, the bridegroom Agner and other men playfully took up “knobby bones {nodosa ossa}” from the feast table and hurled them at the man Hialti. One bone-throw missed Hialti and struck the man Biarki in the head. Enraged, Biarki hurled the bone back into the thrower’s face.

The bridegroom Agner naturally was angry that Biarki had ruined their bone-throwing fun at his wedding feast. Apparently with his bride Ruta’s approval, Agner challenged Biarki to a traditional Viking sword-duel. That meant that each man would alternately strike the other with a sword. The bridegroom Agner struck first. His sword-swing split Biarki’s helmet and tore into his scalp. Biarki in turn braced his foot on a log and strongly thrust his sword straight through Agner’s stomach. Agner fell dead.

A brawl then ensued. Many men-guests at the wedding feast were killed. Biarki, however, survived the brawl. Agner’s bride Ruta subsequently married him. A woman should not marry a man who disrupted playful bone-throwing at her wedding feast and who then killed her bridegroom and caused a brawl. That’s just not right. Women should better appreciate men’s lives.

Compared to playful bone-throwing at a wedding feast, evil stepmothers typically are more dangerous to men. To save Regner and Thorald from their evil stepmother Thorild, Princess Svanhvita journeyed into the countryside with her sisters. They saw Regner and Thorald guarding oxen at night while monsters surrounded them. Svanhvita gazed upon Regner with her female gaze and admired his handsome features:

“You are the progeny of kings,” she said, “not of slaves. The shimmering glow of your eyes so pronounces. Your shapeliness reveals your lineage, and in your glittering eyes nature’s loveliness shines. Your sharp sight displays the excellence of your birth, and no humble birthplace is indicated, for the beauty that commends you certainly indicates your nobility. The outward keenness of your pupils reveals a splendid character within. Your face shows your true family, and in your gleaming countenance may be observed the magnificence of your ancestors. Your gracious, aristocratic appearance could not come from an ignoble foundation. The glory of your blood bathes your brow with related glory, and the mirror of your face reflects your native rank. Not in the least therefore did an obscure maker complete such an inspired image of engraving.”

{ “Regibus te,” inquit, “non servis editum praeradians luminum vibratus eloquitur. Forma prosapiam pandit, et in oculorum micatu naturae venustas elucet. Acritas visus ortus excellentiam praefert, nec humili loco natum liquet, quem certissima nobilitatis index pulchritudo commendat. Exterior pupillarum alacritas interni fulgoris genium confitetur. Facies fidem generi facit, et in luculentia vultus maiorum claritudo respicitur. Neque enim tam comis tamque ingenua species ab ignobili potuit auctore profundi. Sanguinis decus cognato frontem decore perfundit, et in oris speculo condicio nativa resultat. Minime ergo tam spectati caelaminis simulacrum obscurus opifex absolvit. }

Recognizing the danger to them, Svanhvita told Regner and Thorald what to do. Her concern wasn’t to have them do valiant deeds. She sought to save their lives:

You must now swiftly turn and depart frequently from the road to avoid the attacking assemblies of monsters. Your most elegant bodies must not become prey and food for those most foul troops.

{ Nunc itaque celerrima declinatione crebros viae excessus petentes monstrigenos vitate concursus, ne elegantissimorum corporum praeda sordidissimis pastum agminibus praebeatis. }

Women often give men advice. No self-abasing woman-server, Regner was a man with an independent sense of self. He asserted his sense of self even to Princess Svanhvita:

Those with manly chests should not fear demons of such horrible, livid foulness — apparitions marked by a false pallor whose momentary corporeal substance was borrowed from insubstantial air. Svanhvita therefore was mistaken to try to soften their tough virility with womanliness and fill with effeminate fright men who are unaccustomed to defeat.

{ neque larvas livido tantum squalore terribiles a masculis debere pectoribus formidari, quarum effigies adulterino distincta pallore momentaneum corporis habitum ab aeris teneritudine mutuari consueverit. Falli igitur Suanhuitam, quae solidum virorum robur muliebriter emollire viresque vinci insolitas effeminato pavore perfundere conetur. }

This man’s sense of manliness in relation to femininity didn’t offend Svanhvita. Impressed with Regner’s firm sense of himself as a man, she showed him her bare limbs. They then agreed to marry. Appreciating his gift of his manly self to her, she gave him a highly capable sword.

No complacent woman of privilege, Svanhvita didn’t leave to her husband the brutal work of fighting monsters. She took on the job herself:

She fought through the night against the most repulsive hordes of monstrosities. Light returned to reveal demons of various forms and weirdly formed phantoms lying dead in the fields. One knows that among them was seen the image of Thorild herself, covered densely with wounds.

{ adversum obscenissimas portentorum catervas noctem dimicando permensa, luce reddita varias larvarum formas et inusitata specierum figmenta passim arvis incidisse cognoscit, inter quas et ipsius Thorildae crebris offusa vulneribus effigies visebatur. }

Men warmly appreciate women who fight evil stepmothers and other monsters to help men.

Viking woman-warrior (valkyrie cosplayer)

Princess Svanhvita loved her husband and had children with him. She loved him dearly right up to his death, which she undoubtedly didn’t cause:

Regner of Sweden died. His wife Svanhvita very soon afterwards herself contracted a disease from her sadness and died. She by destiny followed her husband, from whom she had never been able to bear separation during his life. Indeed it often happens that when the living has lavished affection on one whom has departed, the living struggle to accompany the deceased in death.

{ Regnero apud Suetiam defuncto, coniunx eius Suanhuita parvo post et ipsa morbo ex maestitia contracto decedit, fato virum insecuta, a quo vita distrahi passa non fuerat. Fieri namque solet, ut quidam ob eximiam caritatem, quam vivis impenderant, etiam vita excedentes comitari contendant. }

If bone-throwing occurred at Svanhvita and Regner’s wedding feast, Svanhvita almost surely didn’t allow it to lead to men’s deaths. Men’s lives mattered to her. Princess Svanhvita, a slayer of an evil stepmother and other monsters, provides a glorious model for women everywhere today.

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The story of Ruta and Agner’s wedding is from Saxo Grammaticus, Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum} 2.6.9. The story of Svenhvita and Regner is from Gesta Danorum 2.2.1-9 and 2.5.5. The quotes above use the Latin text of Olrik & Raeder (1931). The English translation is that of Davidson & Fisher (1979-80), modified to follow the Latin more closely. For a freely available, online English translation, Elton (1894). Saxo Grammaticus wrote his Gesta Danorum late in the twelfth century.

Throwing food at a feast has the cachet of being classical Greek activity. In the Odyssey, suitors were feasting at Penelope’s home while Odysseus was thought to be dead or gone forever. The suitor Ctesippus contemptuously hurled a roasted ox foot at a beggar being treated as a guest. Odyssey 20.299-300. That beggar was Odysseus in disguise. Odysseus, Telemachus, and their friends subsequently slaughtered Ctesippus and the other suitors.

Svanhvít means “swan-white” in Old Norse. Nothing more is known about Svanhvita than what Saxo Grammaticus wrote. The Old Norse Poetic Edda poem Völundarkviða includes a valkyrie named Hlaðguðr svanhvít.

Men throughout history have tended to be dehumanized through being valued instrumentally. Men typically were so valued in the ancient Viking world: “Young women did not so much admire young men’s shapeliness as the splendid deeds that they had performed {puellae quoque non tam procantium se formas quam edita speciose facinora mirabantur}.” Gesta Danorum Svanhvita’s appreciation for Regner’s beauty is thus particularly praiseworthy.

[image] Viking woman warrior (valkyrie cosplayer) at Fan Ex 2011. Source photo thanks to Victoria Henderson and Wikimedia Commons.


Davidson, Hilda Ellis, commentary, and Peter Fisher, trans. 1979-80. Saxo Grammaticus. History of the Danes. Vol. 1 (English translation). Vol. 2 (commentary). Cambridge, GB: D.S. Brewer.

Elton, Oliver. 1894. The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: D. Nutt. Alternate presentation.

Olrik, Jørgen and Hans Raeder, eds. 1931. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta danorum. Hauniae, Levin & Munksgaard.

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