Valkyries are among the best-known and certainly the most iconic figures of Norse mythology. Also known as Valkyrja and Valkyrjur in Old Norse, and Wælcyrge and Wælcyrie in Old English. Their name means “Chooser of the slain.”
They are a group of goddesses who serve as an honour guard to the god Óðin. They decide the outcome of battles, arranging who will live and who will die. They select souls to go to Valhöll, where they will have both rest and delight, as well as prepare for a greater cosmic battle as Óðin’s soldiers. These chosen are called the Einherjar (Once Fighters). In addition to death-dealers and afterlife escorts, Valkyries act as lovers and spirit-wives to the slain and serve them mead and ale in the life beyond. They are attested to in the Poetic and Prose Eddas, in Njals Saga, and in the archeological record.
They are described as beautiful, regal women, dressed in fine battle armor, astride magnificent horses, or at other times terrifying wolves. They are shapeshifters, often appearing on battle fields as murders of ravens and crows. Occasionally they are described as a swarm of bees. They commonly also appear as horses, and as swans when washing and in a state of disarming and disrobing.
The Valkyrjur are highly theatrical. They are described as in flight, often astride air-born horses. Often they make their debuts in the form, or accompanied by, various temperamental weather phenomena, including storm clouds, mist, howling wind, crashing waves, and intense cloud-parting sun showers. They are also associated with the Aurora Borealis, said to be light reflecting off their armor. Like the tempestuous weather extremes, they also appear both foul and fair in their dress, in sometimes gleaming polished armor, and other times drenched in gore and blood. They sometimes appear as nymph-like Swan Maids, and other times they are described as witchy troll women who bask in corpses and slaughter.
They are sometimes accompanied by otherworldly beautiful singing, and at other times intense and horrifying cacophony. They are often associated with the Nornir the meta-goddesses of fate, and with the Disir, the protector ancestresses of any particular lineage. Their titles include Óskmey (Wish Maid), and Óðin’s Meyjar (Odin’s Maids), and perhaps their most well-known title: Shield Maidens.
Though they function as a team, they are given individual names. Their names tell us something of the group’s character:
Geirdriful (Spear Flinger) – Geirskögul (Spear-Shaker) – Gunnr (War) – Göndul (Wand-Wielder)
Hildr (Battle) – Hrist (Quaking) – Hrund (Pricker) – Hjörþrimul (Sword Warrior)
Hervör Alvitr (All Wise) – Hjalmþrimul (Helmet Clatterer) – Hlaðguðr Svanhvít (White Swan) – Herja (Devastate)
Kára (Wild) – Ölrún (Ale Rune) – Róta (Sleet Storm) – Reginleif (Power Trance)
Ráðgríðr (Bossy) – Randgríðr (Shield Destroyer) – Sanngriðr (Cruel) – Sigrdrifa (Inciter of Victory)
Sigrún (Victory Rune) – Skalmöld (Sword Time) – Skeggjöld (Axe Age) – Skögul (Shaker)
Sveið (Noise) – Svipul (Changing Fate) – Þrima (Flight) – Þögn (Silence)
They also have individual identities and several Valkyrjur play roles elsewhere in the lore. Þrúðr (Strength) is Thor’s daughter. Eir is one of Frigg’s handmaidens, and the Valkyrie who is largely responsible for those who will recover and live. She is considered to be a goddess of healing within the pantheon. Perhaps the most famous individual Valkyrja is Brunhild, also known as Brunhilda or Brynhild, one of the main characters in the Völsunga Saga, who becomes a sort of fallen-Valkyrja.
The Romans often equated them with the female companions of Mars and Ares, such as Bellona, Enyo, and Discordia.
Thoughts on the Valkyrjur
Although jumbled together with Norns and Disir, Jacob Grimm of Brothers Grimm fame helps distinguish the three groups. The confusing of the three is a result of Christian scholarship, which typically tosses all like beings not in alignment with the Christian mythos into a sort of spiritual miscellany: demons, witches, fairies and shit. The Norns determine and pronounce fate, not just those who fall in battle, but the fate of all, including the gods and the cosmos. In this, the Norns are a sort of meta-goddess. Disir are the family guardians – deceased mothers and aunts who protect their living descendants from harm, in life on and off the battlefield. The Disir are involved in keeping the family together.
The Valkyries are servants of Óðin, the war god. Unlike the other two groups they sever the ties to kin (who will go to dwell in other afterlives, not Valhöll) and the ties to life. They ride steeds, attending battles and shepherding wars to determine their outcomes, tipping the fight in the direction likely decreed by Óðin or the Norns, and fetch and escort chosen heroes from the aftermath.
As Swan Maids, they become erotic, and their swan skins can be stolen, forcing the now nude nymph into marriage with whomever steals the skin. They fall into a folk pattern of the animal spirit bride, along with the Celtic selkie. The Valkyries sometimes are portrayed domestically, as horn-bearing noble women attending to the Einherjar, and eternal companions for those chosen for the cosmic battle of Ragnarök. Although not recorded by Christian writers, there would presumably have been an options for same-sex and alternate pairings … Valkyrboys?
Although given this romantic aspect once the warrior has died and gained admittance to Valhöll, it is clear from the lore that the encounter with the Valkyrjar while still alive was more often an encounter of sheer terror and paralysis. They are described in early writings as a type of demon, and compared with the Greek Furies. Sharing in this comparison, they bear a striking resemblance to the goddess-cluster of Celtic myth, the Morrigan. They are described as casting on war-fetters in the field of battle, indicated a type of paralysis or being struck with fear. Spells have been found in the archeological record petitioning the Valkyries to cast their fetters upon opponents in battle.
Some have theorized that Valkyries were based on mortal priestesses of Óðin, who would have officiated over sacrificial rites of war captives, as well as conducted blessings on the warriors before battles. In this instance, they would be literal “choosers of the slain”. This theory is associated with the travel writings of Ibn Fadlan, in his description of the sacrificial priestess he referred to as the “Angel of Death” who organised the funeral of a dead warrior-chief and the slaying of the sacrifice, a young woman.
The goddess Freya is often thought of as a Valkyrie, as she is also described as being a chooser of the slain, claiming half those fallen in battle – those not taken by Óðin and his Valkyries – to her own afterlife abode, Sessrumnir (Hall with Many Seats) within Fólkvangr, the Army Fields of Ásgard.
Signs and Symbols
Warrior women, ravens, crows, swans, horses, wolves, intense weather patterns, Aurora Borealis, cacophonous noise, drinking horns.
Valkyrja and Valkyrjur in Old Norse, and Wælcyrge and Wælcyrie. Valkyrie and Valkyries.