There’s one scene in The Northman that shows a mythical figure screaming into the camera. It’s frightening.
She’s a Valkyrie, as the events of the film but also the immediately recognizable iconography indicate, but more than a few people have asked the question: wait, is she wearing modern braces?
No one’s asked you? Well, the question has come up multiple times for me, in dinner table conversations, with friends and colleagues, whenever anyone’s mentioned The Northman. Maybe I need to get out more, but nonetheless, it’s come up. Here’s the moment in the trailer if you haven’t seen the film:
While it’s a legendary tale based on the Icelandic Sagas, Robert Eggers’ film is rooted in historical accuracy, down to the correct type of grass. So, did Vikings dabble in modern dentistry, whether gods of war or Earthly human warriors?
Well, no. In fact, they’re a form of teeth tattoo.
“We know that some Vikings modified their teeth,” Neil Price, archaeologist and leading Viking Age specialist Neil Price, who has written several books on the subject and consulted on The Northman. “What they did was file horizontal grooves across the front teeth. Sometimes one, sometimes several. There are one or two that are sort of chevrons [V-shapes] but mostly they’re just horizontal lines.”
How accurate is ‘The Northman’ to Viking history? Well, it’s a Robert Eggers movie.
That’s right, Vikings were literally coming at their own teeth with a file and grinding away, something Price says was a practice only discovered about 15 years ago. But it doesn’t stop there. Price says they were probably filled with a kind of resin, most likely from trees, that was a dark red or black colour, and (classic Viking patriarchy) were only worn by certain members of society.
“They’re only found on men, so the decision (which is Robert’s decision, this wasn’t something I was involved in…) to put them on the Valkyrie’s teeth, it associates her with a different gender, maybe, or a different world,” says Price. “She’s a being of war, that’s what she does. She’s a servant of the war god, that’s what the Valkyries are.”
Valkyries are a reasonably recognizable figure from Norse mythology, appearing in skaldic poems. They’re warrior figures who serve Odin, the god of war, and in most interpretations, decide who among those felled on the battlefield are worthy of a spot in the heavenly realm of Valhalla, or Valhöll. Valkyries are even sometimes referred to with terrifying names that you might want to steal for your next bowling night. “We’ve got lots of their names, and their names are very graphic, they’re things like Ripper, Killer, The Chain, Shield Grinder, Helmet Slicer, things like that,” says Price. “I mean, they are war.”
Price notes that, of course, we don’t know what Valkyries looked like, being mythological figures, but they’ve tended toward one style in artistic representations. “With the general image of the Valkyrie, if you do a Google image search on 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 , it’s all chainmail bikinis.” Price and the film’s other advising historians gave one piece of advice to Eggers: don’t do that. “I don’t think there’s any risk that he would, but we’re just like, really, really, really don’t do that. The Valkyries are terrifying. They are demons of war. We have this idea that they’re beautiful women and so on (and they kind of turn into that in the later poetry where it gets a bit Christianized) but originally, these things are unleashed on a battlefield, they represent what war is.” In recent years, Valkyries have continued to show up in pop culture — Marvel character, Valkyrie, created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema and played by Tessa Thompson onscreen, is one of the most known modern versions, wearing bold, practical armour.
Aside from her non-braces (as we’ve established, her teeth tattoos and notably, a helmet whose chain seems to sit across her lower teeth), the Valkyrie’s costume in The Northman links to other important aspects of Norse mythology: shapeshifting. It’s in her cloak for one. “They’re associated with swans, some of them have cloaks made of swan feathers. You actually see that in the film very briefly — there’s a cloak of trailing white feathers,” says Price. “She has a swan on her helmet (the helmet is fictitious).”
The split second in “The Northman” trailer when you can spy the Valkyrie’s swan cloak.
Credit: Screenshot: YouTube/Focus Features
The Valkyrie in The Northman is onscreen for mere seconds, so needs to make impact. “Robert said he needed a Valkyrie that looked as if this being was actually capable of throwing Alexander Skarsgård across a horse — you know, he’s a big guy — and they succeeded in that as well.”
So, there you have it, an explanation maybe you didn’t ask for, but now you have. Skål!
The Northman is now showing in cinemas.