There is a scene in The man from the north which shows a mythical figure screaming into the camera. It’s scary.
She’s a Valkyrie, as indicated by the events of the film but also the instantly recognizable iconography, but more than a few people have wondered: wait, does she wear modern braces?
Nobody asked you? Well, the question came to me several times, during conversations at the table, with friends and colleagues, whenever someone mentioned The Nordic. Maybe I need to get out more, but nevertheless, it happened. Here’s the trailer moment if you haven’t seen the movie:
Although it’s a legendary tale based on the Icelandic sagas, Robert Eggers’ film is rooted in historical accuracy, down to the right kind of grass. So, did the Vikings dabble in modern dentistry, whether as gods of war or earthly human warriors?
Well no. In fact, they are a form of teeth tattoo.
“We know that some Vikings modified their teeth”, Neil Price, archaeologist and great specialist in the Viking Age Neil Price, who has written several books on the subject and consulted on The man from the north. “What they did was file horizontal grooves on the front teeth. Sometimes one, sometimes several. There are one or two that are sort of herringbone. [V-shapes] but most of the time they are just horizontal lines.”
How accurate is “The Northman” in Viking history? Well, it’s a Robert Eggers movie.
That’s right, the Vikings literally bit their teeth with a file and gnashed, which Price says was a practice discovered only 15 years ago. But it does not stop there. Price says they were probably filled with some sort of resin, most likely trees, dark red or black in color, and (classic Viking patriarchy) were only worn by certain members of society.
“They’re only found on males, so the decision (which is Robert’s decision, it wasn’t something I was involved in…) to put them on the teeth of the Valkyrie, it associates her to a different gender, maybe, or to another world,” Price says. “She’s a being of war, that’s what she does. She’s a servant of the god of war, that’s what the Valkyries are.”
The Valkyries are a reasonably recognizable figure in Norse mythology, appearing in skaldic poems. They are warrior figures who serve Odin, the god of war, and in most interpretations decide who among those who have fallen on the battlefield are worthy of a place in the celestial realm of Valhalla, or Valhöll. The Valkyries are even sometimes referred to by terrifying names that you might want to steal for your next night of bowling. “We have a lot of their names, and their names are very graphic, it’s things like Ripper, Killer, The Chain, Shield Grinder, Helmet Slicer, things like that,” Price explains. “I mean, they are war.”
Price notes that, of course, we don’t to know what the Valkyries looked like, being mythological figures, but they tended towards a style in artistic depictions. “With the general image of the Valkyrie, if you do a Google image search on the Valkyries, you kind of lose the will to live, really,” he says. “Because they’re just sexualized and shown for the male gaze, it’s terrible, they’re all chainmail bikinis.” Price and the film’s other advising historians gave Eggers advice: Don’t do this. “I don’t think there’s any risk of him doing it, but we’re like, really, really, really don’t do this. The Valkyries are terrifying. They’re war fiends. We have this idea that they’re beautiful women and so on (and they sort of morph into that in later poetry where it gets a bit Christianized) but originally these things are running amok on a battlefield, they represent what is war.” In recent years, the Valkyries have continued to appear in pop culture – the Marvel character Valkyrie, created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema and played by Tessa Thompson on screen, is one of the best-known modern versions, wearing bold and practical armor.
Aside from her non-braces (as we’ve established, her teeth tattoos and notably, a helmet whose chain seems to rest on her lower teeth), Valkyrie’s costume in The man from the north links to other important aspects of Norse mythology: shapeshifting. It’s in his coat for one. “They are associated with swans, some of them have capes made of swan feathers. You actually see that very briefly in the movie – there’s a trailing white feather coat,” Price explains. “She has a swan on her helmet (the helmet is fictional).”
The split second in “The Northman” trailer where you can spot the Valkyrie’s swan cape.
Credit: Screenshot: YouTube / Focus
The Valkyrie in The man from the north is on screen for only a few seconds, so it must have an impact. “Robert said he needed a Valkyrie who looked like he could throw Alexander Skarsgård onto a horse – you know, he’s a big guy – and they pulled it off as well.”
So there you have it, an explanation you may not have asked for, but now you have it. Skal!
The Northman is out in theaters now.