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The Valkyries

The Valkyries

In Norse mythology, the Valkyries (from Norse val = male and kjosa = choose) were a group of feminine beings associated with war and death and the god Odin.

The sources tell that they were deities who chose which warriors would fall in battle and who would spend the afterlife in Odin's stronghold Valhalla. This function linked them to the concept of fate, which played a major role in Norse culture.

In Valhalla, the warriors would become members of Odin's horde, the Einherjer, who would fight for him in the final battle at Ragnarok. In this realm of death, warriors would be brought up by Valkyries. In several heroic tales and poems, the Valkyries also appear as the frills of mortal warriors.

In them, they are also often depicted as king's daughters and linked to swans. These poems were written for the aristocracy and therefore reflected the ideas held by the upper echelons of society.

They were part of a particular warrior ideal centred on Valhalla mythology, which had emerged in the pre-Viking period. In this ideology, the Valkyries were an important element. This ideology was widespread until the change of religion.

Full descriptions of the Valkyries are known from odd Nordic sources from the Middle Ages, including the Old Edda, which was written down in Iceland on the basis of pre-Christian sources. In these accounts they are equipped as warriors and are skilled horsemen.

In addition, there are descriptions in Snorre Sturlason's Younger Edda and Heimskringla, as well as Njål's saga, the Icelandic sagas, Vølsung's saga and various shield poems.

Several rune inscriptions referring to Valkyries are known from pre-Christian times, but they are difficult to interpret without the help of the younger sources. They are not described as actual goddesses, but were important mythological beings nonetheless.

In Anglo-Saxon sources, the related words wælcyrge and wælcyrie appear, which may indicate that the idea of Valkyries is based on an older common Germanic tradition.

However, it is uncertain whether this is an expression of a later Norse influence in the Viking Age. In modern times, Valkyries have been a source of inspiration for music, painting, poetry, computer games and the like.

Valkyrie names

In the eddic poems Völuspá, Grímnismál, Darraðarljóð in chapter 157 of Njål's saga and Nafnaþulur in Snorre Sturlason's book on skaldic art, Skáldskaparmál, there are lists of names of Valkyries, while in other texts there are names of individual Valkyries, such as Sigrún (the main character in the heroic poems about Helge Hundingsbana, Helgakviða Hundingsbana I and II).

Many of the Valkyrian names were associated with war and battle, a subgroup in particular with the spear, a weapon associated with the king of the gods, Odin.

In Skáldskaparmál, some manuscripts mention up to 29 different Valkyrian names: Hrist, Mist, Herja, Hlökk, Geiravör, Göll, Hjörþrimul, Guðr, Herfjötra, Skuld, Geirönul, Skögul, Randgníð, Ráðgríðr, Göndul, Svipul, Geirskögul, Hildr, Skeggöld, Hrund, Geirdriful, Randgríðr, Þrúðr, Reginleif, Sveið, Þögn, Hjalmþrimul, Þrima and Skalmöld. Some of them are known from other contexts, while others appear exclusively in this list.

Snorre also describes ways in which bards have used Valkyrie names in poetry, including as kennings for battle and war. In chapter 48, the kennings "weapon-, shield-, Odin- or valkyrie-war" appear as a paraphrase of a battle.

The sheriff Torbjørn Hornkløve used the kenning "Skögul's noise" about the battlefield, while the barn jarl Berse Skaldtorvasson called a sword "Gunnr's fire" and a battle "Hlökk's snow".

Several scholars have suggested that the Valkyries' names themselves were not linked to individual persons, but rather functioned as descriptions of the war and the nature of its deities; perhaps such names are simply the inventions of shield poets themselves.

Others believe that the names were descriptions of the roles and abilities they held, such as the Valkyrie name Herfjötur, which points to the Valkyries' relationship with bird feathers, while the name Svipul may be a description of their influence on fate. The name Herja, on the other hand, may be related to the goddess Hariasa, who is known from a South Germanic inscription from 187 AD.

Theories of origin and evolution

A number of different theories have been put forward about the origin and development of the Valkyries, from early Germanic religion to later Norse mythology. Rudolf Simek has suggested that they were originally seen as a demonic entity that owned the warriors who died on the battlefield.

He believes that the shift was linked to the change in the nature of Valhalla myth that took place in the Germanic Iron Age. Where previously it had been a mythological representation of the battlefield, it now became the paradisiacal afterlife of fallen warriors.

According to Simek, the original concept was replaced by the idea of the shield maiden - an Irish Celtic female figure that paralleled the Germanic einherjar. He also believes that the Valkyries' association with Odin was an original element of their earlier function as demons of death.

On this basis, Simek believes that it was this change in status, where their demonic traits disappeared and became more human, that made the Valkyries popular figures in the heroic Edda poems.

MacLeod and Mees argue that the role of the Valkyries as choosers of the fallen became increasingly intertwined with the role of the Norns as goddesses of fate in later Norse mythology.

Gro Steinsland argues that although the Valkyries were not considered gods in their own right, they nevertheless had great religious significance; for example, they probably played a significant role in the drinking celebrations.

She also points out that evidence has been found that sacrifices to Valkyries in connection with battles were common, and she suggests that this may have been part of the ideas behind Iron Age weapon sacrifices.

Steinsland points out that the representations that have survived of the Valkyries generally originate from an aristocratic milieu. The more popular representations, she believes, may have been passed down through the tales of the wild hunt.

Hilda Ellis Davidson points out that, in the case of Valkyries, representations are based on layers from the stories of previous generations, and therefore representations of them consist of many different concepts; for example, in their ability to determine a person's fate, one can recognize characteristics similar to those of the Norns; those of the elves, when they protect warriors with spells; those of the drunkards, when they bring luck to specially chosen youngsters; and perhaps even to the classical mythological notions of the female Amazon warriors from the Black Sea region.

She also mentions the possibility that the notion of the Valkyries may have arisen from a memory of female priests conducting ritual sacrifices of prisoners of war in ancient times.

Davidson adds that Valkyrie directly translated means "elector of the fallen", and she compares Wulfstan's mention of such "electors" in his Sermo Lupi sermon, where they appear in association with sinners, witches, and other malevolent groups, i.e., with the other classes of enemies of Christianity that he describes.

She concludes on this basis that these "electors" were human. Davidson also points to the 10th-century Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan's detailed account of a Viking burial on the Volga River, in which an old "Hun" looking woman appears to be in charge of the sacrifice of a slave woman. Ibn Fadlan refers to her as the "Angel of Death" (a familiar Muslim term) and her retinue of helpers as daughters.

Davidson points out that it would not be surprising if many strange legends arose about such a woman, who apparently lived apart from normal society because of her horrible duties. From other sources we know that the drawing of lots was widely used as a divinatory way of selecting prisoners for killing.

This idea that the gods themselves chose who would die could, according to Davidson, have influenced the idea that it was chosen in advance who would die in battle. At the same time, from "older times" there seems to have been a notion among the Germanic peoples of warlike female spirits who incited battle, even participated in battle, and perhaps even ate the bodies of the fallen.

Archaeological remains

Stylised silver amulets from the Viking Age with images of female figures have been found all over Scandinavia. They usually wear long robes and their long hair is pulled back, some of them holding a drinking horn in front of them.

These motifs are usually interpreted as depictions of Valkyries. These amulets appear in graves and, according to Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees, were probably placed there because they were thought to have strong protective powers.

On the Tjängvide image stone from Gotland there is an image of a rider on an eight-legged horse (most likely Odin on Sleipner).

He is welcomed by a woman who hands him a drinking horn. She is probably one of the Valyrians described in several sources as attendants to the dead heroes who spend the afterlife in Valhalla.

On a rune stone from the 11th century. One of the carvings on an 11th century rune stone, called the Sigurd Stone, is of a woman carrying a horn. She has been interpreted as the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa, who gives the hero Sigurd (who appears elsewhere on the stone) a drinking horn.

Rune inscriptions

One of the rune inscriptions found at the Bryggen in Bergen is called the "valkyrie stick", and it is dated to the end of the 14th century. Several texts are engraved on the stick, including a futhark, which from the following text probably functioned as a spell against elves, trolls, giants and Valkyries, described as follows (English translation):

Against the harmful skag-valkyries,
so that she never shall, though she never would -
evil woman! - injure (?) your life.

Then follows a series of curses. Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees interpret the inscription as a special spell to secure a woman's love. They believe it corresponds to the Edda poem Sigrdrífumál, in which the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa teaches the hero about runic magic.

viking-jewelry

Written sources

Völuspá and Grímnismál

In strophe 30 of the Edda poem Völuspá, the vole tells Odin that she "saw" Valkyries far away, ready to ride to Goðþjóðar (Realms of the Gods), she then mentions the names of six Valkyries: Skuld (Norse: probably "debt", "future" or "future"), and Odin. "fate"), who "held a shield", together with her Skögul ("shaker")", Gunnr ("war"), Hildr ("battle"), Göndul ("stick-wielder") and Geirskögul ("spear-Skögul"). The stanza ends with the weasel saying that she has now told of "the women of war, Valkyries, ready to ride the earth."

In the poem Grímnismál, the tortured, starving and thirsty Odin (disguised as Grímnir) tells young Agnar that he wishes the Valkyries Hrist ("shiver") and Mist would bring him a drinking horn.

He then mentions the names of 11 more Valkyries: Skeggjöld ok Skögul, Hildr ok Þrúðr, Hlökk ok Herfjötur, Göll ok Geirönul, Randgríðr ok Ráðgríðr ok Reginleif, all carrying beer to the Einherja.

Helgakviða 

Valkyries appear in several of Elder Edda's heroines, often as war and fate goddesses. A few of them may also play a prominent role as the hero's mistress. In the poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, the hero Helge is sitting on the corpse-covered battlefield at Logafjöll when a light emitting flashes of lightning suddenly begins to shine from the mountain. Helmeted Valkyries now come flying across the sky. Their long chainmails are covered in blood, and their spears gleam:

Then light shone from Logafell,
and from that radiance there came bolts of lightning;
wearing helmets at Himingvani [came the valkyries].
Their byrnies were drenched in blood;
and rays shone from their spears.

In the following stanza, Helge asks the Valkyries (whom he refers to as "southern goddesses") if they will go home with the warriors when night falls (all the while arrows are flying).

When the battle is over, the Valkyrie tells Sigrún ("victory rune") that her father, Högni, has promised her away to Höðbroddr, whom Sigrún otherwise considers unworthy. He is the son of King Granmar, who belongs to the Hniflung dynasty.

Helge then gathers a large force to fight the Niflung at Frekastein to help Sigrún escape her betrothal. Later in the poem, the hero Sinfjøtle quarrels with Guðmundr, whom he accuses of having once been a woman.

He describes in detail how Guðmundr had been a terrible and unnatural witch among Odin's Valkyries. In the poem, the phrase "the valkyrian's airy sea" is used as a kenning for "mist."

Völundkviða

In the prose introduction to the poem Völundarkviða, it is told that the three sons of the fin king, Slagfiðr, Egill and Völundr, lived in a house in Úlfdalir ("wolf valley"). There, one early morning, they discovered three women spinning on the banks of Úlfsjár ('Wolf Lake'). They were Valkyries, and next to them lay their swan hams.

Two of the three women, Hlaðguðr svanhvít (Swan-white) and Hervör alvitr (Alvid or unknown being[) were King Hlödvér's daughters. The third was called Alruna (perhaps Ølrune) and was the daughter of Kjárr of Valland.

The three brothers took them home and lived with them for seven winters until they flew away to battle, never to return. Slagfiðr and Egill went off to find their wives, while Völundr stayed behind to wait for his.

Helgakviða Hjörvarðsson

The main character of the poem Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, Helgi, was the son of the Norwegian king Hjörvarðr and Sigrlinn of Sváfaland. When he was a young man, he was also silent and therefore had no name, but one day, as he sat on a mound, he saw nine Valkyries coming riding. One of them he found particularly beautiful; she spoke to him and gave him the name Helgi (probably: holy).

The hitherto silent Helgi now speaks, describing the Valkyrian as a brúðr bjartlituð (faceless bride), and he asks what gift of a name she will now give him, adding that he will not accept it unless he can have her too. She tells him of a group of swords located at Sigarsholm, and that one of them was special.

A prose passage now tells us that the Valkyrie's name was Sváfa, and she was King Eylimi's daughter. Later in the poem it is said that Atli became involved in a senna with the female giant, Hrímgerðr. She said that she had seen 27 white prepared Valkyries around Helgi, and that one in particular had led the group.

Helgi, now a king, is betrothed to Sváva, and while Helgi continues his wars, Sváva stays at home with her father, but the poem says that she was still a Valkyrie just as before Eventually Helgi dies and the poem ends with a prose passage saying that [it has been said that Helge and Svåva were reborn].

Younger Edda

In Gylfaginning from the 13th century, Snorre Sturlason describes the function of the valkyries. In chapter 36, "High" tells the disguised "Gylfi" that, in addition to the asynyas, there are others (i.e. female deities) whose duty it is to serve in Valhalla. They bring drink and look after the table and the beer mugs.

These women are called valkyries, and they are sent by Odin to all battles, where they choose who will die and decide who will be victorious. High adds that Gunnr, Róta and Skuld (who is also, according to the same text, the name of the youngest of the Norns) always ride out to battle. High later tells us that the Valkyries, together with Hugin and Munin, arrived at the funeral of Balder in the company of Odin and Frigg.

Skáldskaparmál refers to a number of shield poems, some of which feature Valkyries. A fragment of the poem Hrafnsmál (usually attributed to the Norwegian skjald Þorbjörn Hornklofi) contains a conversation between a valkyrie and a raven, mostly about the life and deeds of Harald Hårfager.

The Valkyrie is described as a knowledgeable woman who understood the language of birds, with a white neck and arms, golden hair, brilliant eyes, and who took no pleasure in mortal men. The raven, on the other hand, is described with a beak that soaked in the blood of corpses.

In Eiríksmál, the Valkyries are described as servants who serve wine to the warriors. In Húsdrápa, which has been dated to the 10th century, by Úlfr Uggason, a number of mythological scenes depicted on the walls of a newly built house are described, including the Valkyrians and the ravens accompanying Odin to Balder's funeral:

Valkyries and Ravens
were in Odin's entourage.
Noticeable memories
We see painted in here.

Chapter 31 of the book presents the poetic terms for women, including that a woman can be referred to by any of the terms asynyries, valkyries, nornians or dises. Chapter 41 retells an episode from the story of Sigurd Fafnersbane; riding his horse Grane he came to a building on a hill, inside the building he finds a sleeping woman wearing chain mail, which Sigurd cuts off her. Then she wakes up and tells him that her name is Hildr, but she is known as Brýnhildr, and that she is a Valkyrie.

Fiction

In fiction literature there are several descriptions of creatures that are either referred to as Valkyries, or that are very likely to be so. Some of them are very similar to the characters found in the heroines, while others are presented in a more demonic form. In chapter 157 of the Saga of Njal, a man named Dörruð sees twelve people riding together to a stone hut in Caithness on Good Friday.

The twelve enter the hut, and Dörruð can no longer see them, so he goes there. Through the window he sees that they are women and that they have set up a loom. As weights they use the heads of men, as trend and guts of men, as shuttle a sword, and the thread is rolled up on arrows. While they weave, women sing a song called Darraðarljóð, which Dörruð memorized.

The song consisted of 11 verses, and it describes how the Valkyries weave and choose who will die at the coming Battle of Clontarf. Six of the Valkyries' names are mentioned in the song: Hildr, Hjörþrimul, Sanngriðr, Svipul, Guðr and Göndul.

At the end of the poem, the Valkyries sing, "No ut aa rida paa avlause hestom! med sverdi bragande burt nie fara." The prose then tells us that the Valkyries tore down their weave and tore it apart. Each Valkyrie holds on to what she has in her hands. Dörruð leaves the crack in the wall and returns home, and the women mount their horses and ride away, six to the south and six to the north.

The poem Hákonarmál is interwoven with the prose poem The Saga of Haakon the Good. It dates to the 10th century and is attributed to the bard Eyvindr skáldaspillir.

This part of the saga deals with the death of Haakon the Good in battle, where, although baptised while growing up at the English court, he wanted a pagan burial according to Norse custom.

Both his friends and enemies mourned his death, and removed his body to Seim in North Hordaland, where he was laid in a large burial mound dressed in his finest clothes and full war armour. Eyvind Skaldaspillir composed the fable of Hakon's arrival in Valhal, Hákonarmál.

In Hákonarmál, Odin sends the two Valkyries Göndul and Skögul to choose from among the king's men who will live with him in Valhalla. The battle was very bloody and is described, among other things, by the legend "Skögul's storm". Haakon and his men all die, and they then see Göndul leaning on his spear.

She then says: "For Aesine fylgje aukast. Or Hakon shall go home to the gods with his lords." The Valkyries are now described as "lying on horseback; with thoughtful crouch, on head helmet and shield they by side had."

Skogul then says that they will ride to "the green home of the gods" to tell Odin that a king is now on his way to Valhalla. The poem says that Haakon was one of the Einherjars who awaited the battle against Fenrir in Valhalla.