|"Dream Idyll (A Valkyrie)" by Hughes c. 1902|
In the Prose Edda Snorri Sturluson describes Valkyries as women who “serve in Valhalla. They bring drink and see to the table and the ale cups … They are sent by Odin to every battle, where they choose which men are to die and they determine who has the victory” (at 44-45). In the Völuspá Valkyries are described as coming “from widely beyond, ready to ride to the people of the Gods. Shall-be wore one shield, Brandisher another, Battle, War, Wand-maid and Spear-brandisher: now are the War-lord’s ladies, ready to ride over earth, Valkyries” (Elder Edda at 9). In the Grímnismál Odin is said to speak of the Valkyries thus:
“I want Wielder and Mist to bring me a horn; Axe-age and Brandisher, War and Strength, Clash and War-bonds, Smash and Spear-waver, Shield-truce and Counsel-truce and Power-trace: they bring the Einherjar ale [Elder Edda at 56]”.
Renowned Old Norse scholar H R Ellis Davidson describes Valkyries as:
“… fierce female spirits attendant on the war-God … Valkyries play a great part in the stories and poems about the exploits of the legendary heroes … They are said by Saxo to vary their appearance, and to be seen sometimes as fearsome beings and sometimes as beautiful maidens, who offer love to the warrior. Protective spirits of this kind were said to attach themselves to the kings and princes who worshipped Odin, giving them help and counsel and bringing them luck in battle, while at death they received them as their ‘husbands’ [Scandinavian Mythology at 41]”.
Odinic associations – death, victory, knowledge and wisdom
There is no getting away from the violence of Valkyries, nor their close association with Odin, made doubly clear when they appear by Odin’s side at his son's cremation, along with his wife and his ravens (Prose Edda at 67). Odin is not just a God of death and violence though, he has many other powers and associations, and these aspects are (at least sometimes) shared with his Valkyries. Just as Odin is a wandering God so too are Valkyries adept at travel. Old Norse scholar Jackson Crawford notes that Valkyries seem to be able to fly, perhaps by putting on “swan-suits” (possibly in a manner similar to the Goddess Freyja when she dons a falcon-shape) and seem to be able to make themselves invisible, or at least hard to detect. The Valkyrie Brynhild appears to share Odin’s association with magical knowledge and wisdom. In the Sigrdrífumál, in words reminiscent of the last part of the Hávamál, Brynhild describes the benefits of understanding how to carve runes, so to grant victory, protection from ill-will, safety at sea, eloquence, strength of will and other good things (Elder Edda at 170-171). In the Saga of the Volsungs Sigurd asks Brynhild to teach him “the way of mighty things” (at 67) and after she does so he says “never can there be found a wiser woman in the world than you. Give me more wise counsel” (at 71). The advice she gives him is redolent of the Hávamál:
“I advise you first, that towards your family you should be without fault; take no revenge, though they give you cause …
I advise you second, that you don’t swear an oath, unless that swearing turns out to be true; terrible threads bind the breaker of faith …
I advise you third, that at a meeting you don’t quarrel with a stupid man; for an unwise man often lets himself say worse words than he realises …
I advise you fourth, if there lives a witch, full of faults, upon your way: better go on than be her guest, even though nightfall catch you … often mischievous … women sit by the roads, who blunt both swords and spirits …
I advise you sixth, that it happens among men that speech over ale turns ugly: don’t argue with a warrior when you are drunk; wine steals from many their wits ... [Sigrdrífumál, Elder Edda at 173-175]”.
|"Brunnhild" by Bossiere c. 1897|
Valkyries as instruments of fate
Brynhild also has the gift of prophecy (Saga of the Volsungs at 75-78), but Valkyries do not necessarily just know the future, they can make it happen. In Njal’s Saga a group of Valkyries have a grisly resemblance to the Greco-Roman Fates, who spin and weave the fortunes of men:
“… a man named Dorrud went outside and saw twelve riders approach a woman’s bower and disappear inside. He walked over to the bower and peered through a window; inside he could see women with a loom set up before them. Men’s heads were used in place of weights, and men’s intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the verses they were chanting:
‘Blood rains from the cloudy web on the broad loom of slaughter. The web of man, grey as armour, is now being woven; the Valkyries will cross it with a crimson weft.
‘The warp is made of human entrails; human heads are used as weights; the heddle-rods are blood-wet spears; the shafts are iron bound, and arrows are the shuttles. With swords we will weave this web of battle.
‘The Valkyries go weaving with drawn swords … Spears will shatter, shields will splinter, swords will gnaw like wolves through armour.
‘Let us now wind the web of war, where the warrior banners are forging forward. Let his life not be taken; only Valkyries can choose the slain.
‘Lands will be ruled by new peoples … We pronounce a great king destined to die; now an earl is felled by spears.
‘… The web is now woven and the battlefield reddened; the news of disaster will spread through lands.
‘It is horrible now to look around, as a blood-red cloud darkens the sky. The heavens are stained with the blood of men, as the Valkyries sing their song.
‘We sang well victory songs … Let him who listens to our Valkyrie song learn it well and tell it to others.
‘Let us ride our horses hard on bare backs, with swords unsheathed away from here’.
Then they tore the woven cloth from the loom and ripped it to pieces, each keeping the shred she held in her hands … The women mounted their horses and rode away, six to the south, six to the north [Njal’s Saga at 349-351]”.
Saxo Grammaticus gives a somewhat similar, though less gruesome, description of Valkyries:
“… Hother chanced, while hunting, to be led astray by a mist, and he came on a certain lodge in which were wood-maidens; and when they greeted him by his own name, he asked who they were. They declared that it was their guidance and government that mainly determined the fortunes of war. For they often invisibly took part in battles, and by their secret assistance won for their friends the coveted victories. They averted, indeed, that they could win triumphs and inflict defeats as they would … [The Danish History, bk III]”.
Both descriptions aver to the agency of Valkyries, for though they are instructed by and serve Odin they have free will, as the story of the rebellious Brynhild demonstrates:
“Brynhild said that two kings had fought. One, called Hjalmgunnar, was old and was a great warrior, and Odin had promised him the victory. The other was Agnar … [Brynhild said to Sigurd] ‘I struck down Hjalmgunnar in battle, and Odin stabbed me with a sleeping thorn in revenge. He said that I should never afterward have the victory. He also said that I must marry. And I made a countervow that I would marry no one who knew fear’ [Saga of the Volsungs at 67]”.
It may be that Valkyries are one and the same with the Disir, female supernatural beings, who “seem to be conflated with both Valkyries and Norns as fateful female figures of power” (Elder Edda at 284). However, as Brynhild herself is subject to the power of the Norns (Elder Edda at 183-184) it appears that Valkyries and Norns are distinctly different, for Norns determine certain fated events throughout the course of a being’s life, whereas the power of the Valkyries appears to be limited to those things over which Odin has power, such as the outcome of battles and whether individual warriors live or die – those who die fearlessly may be chosen by Valkyries to become the Einherjar of Valhalla.
A transitory state?
For all their power, it seems that the state of being a Valkyrie may have a time limit. Crawford suggests that Valkyries are women who have taken on the role of a Valkyrie as an occupation, and that Valkyries are not a distinct species in their own right. For example, in the Saga of the Volsungs the human princess Brynhild loses her essential power as a Valkyrie when Odin takes away her power to determine the outcome of a battle. Earlier on in the same saga one man trades insults with another by suggesting that the other had previously been a witch, then his wife, then a “Valkyrie in Asgard”, and then a mare (at 49) – the heart of the put-down is an accusation of femininity, but the hint of a belief in reincarnation, and therefore transitory states of being (including being a Valkyrie) is there. As it says in the Frá dauða Sinfjötla “there was a belief in olden days that people were reborn” (Elder Edda at 145).
Conclusion – a supernatural reality
|"Walkyrien" by Doepler c. 1905|
Valkyries are instruments of fate who are subject to both fate and Odin, even so, they are given a degree of autonomy in determining the fate of men. Their association with fate, magical knowledge and Valhalla places them in the supernatural sphere, but Davidson suggests that Valkyries may be based on:
“… certain women who armed themselves and fought like men, for whom there is some historical evidence … There may be a memory also of the priestesses … who officiated at the sacrificial rites when captives were put to death after battle. The name Valkyrie means, literally, ‘chooser of the slain’, and in the eleventh century an Anglo-Saxon bishop, Wulfstan, included ‘choosers of the slain’ in a black list of sinners, witches and evil-doers in his famous Sermo Lupi. All the other classes who he mentions are human ones, and it seems unlikely that he has introduced mythological figures as well. In the tenth century ship-funeral on the Volga … the old woman who organises the killing of the slave-girl was called the Angel of Death, and had two other women, called her daughters, in attendance … It would be hardly surprising if strange legends grew up about such women … [Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at 61-62]”.
If this is true then the oldest description we have of Valkyries may date from circa 2000 years ago, in the writings of Strabo:
“[Amongst the Germanic tribe of the Cimbri were] priestesses who were seers; these were grey-haired, clad in white, with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, girt with girdles of bronze, and bare-footed; now sword in hand these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had a raised platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up; and from the blood that poured forth into the vessel some of the priestesses would draw a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people; and during the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way produce an unearthly noise [The Geography of Strabo, Bk VII, Ch 2]”.
- Byock (trans), The Saga of the Volsungs, Penguin Classics
- Crawford, Valkyries, youtube.com
- Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin
- Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn
- Jones (trans), The Geography of Strabo, penelope.uchicago.edu
- Larrington (trans), The Poetic Edda, Oxford World’s Classics (includes the Codex Regius)
- Magnusson & Palsson (trans), Njal's Saga, Penguin Classics
- Orchard (trans), The Elder Edda: Myths, Gods and Heroes from the Viking World, Penguin (incl. Codex Regius)
- Saxo Grammaticus, The Danish History, gutenberg.org
- Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics