Weeks before Halloween, I found myself pacing the aisles of a costume store. I had volunteered to help with my child’s classroom party, and though I had a witch hat at home I wanted an outfit that would be more commanding. I decided on a horned Viking helmet with long blond braids glued on.
A few months later, I happened to come across the origins of this costume. It was first worn by Brünnhilde, the protagonist of Richard Wagner’s epic opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. For the opera’s 1876 production, Wagner’s costume designer outfitted the characters in helmets, both horned and winged. Brünnhilde went on to become opera’s most recognizable figure: a busty woman in braids and helmet, hefting a shield and spear.
In Wagner’s story, Brünnhilde is a Valkyrie, tasked with carrying dead warriors off to the heroes’ paradise of Valhalla. At the end of the 15-hour opera cycle, she throws herself into her lover’s funeral pyre. First, though, she belts out a poignant aria, giving rise to the expression, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” Her character became yet another way to casually ridicule women’s bodies and their stories.
Because while millions are familiar with the operatic Brünnhilde, few today recall that she shares a name with an actual Queen Brunhild, who ruled some 1,400 years ago. The Valkyrie’s fictional story is an amalgam of the real lives of Brunhild and her sister-in-law and rival, Queen Fredegund, grafted onto Norse legends.