The primal desire to fight when facing danger is something wired deep within our brains. We call it the fight-or-flight reaction, and you and I and everyone around us is likely here today because of it.
The word Valkyjur (f. Plural) or Valkyries is an ancient one. Not surprising since Old Norse and Old English are both derived form the same Germanic root language. As a literal translation, the word, Valkyjur means Choosers of the Slain.
Val (corpses littering a battlefield) + Kyjur (choosers) = Choosers of the corpses found on battlefields
Who are these enigmatic women?
Valkyries are mortal women (possibly also giantesses, as per the Volsung saga) who are in the service of the All-father Odin. There is no saying how they become Valkyries or how they acquire their supernatural powers. Perhaps the Norns, the Three sisters of fate, have assigned them to be Choosers of the Slain for all of eternity. Whatever their fates may be, these warrior women are often depicted as wearing helmets and carrying bloodied spears tied with flapping war banners. They visit battlefields and chose among the slain who goes to Valhalla, to battle and feast at Odin’s side.
Valkyries define the female warrior archetype in Norse mythology.
Often depicted as blond beauties, a trait of the Norse upper class and also associated with the goddess Freyja, these women are noble born, the daughters of kings. They have the freedom to roam about the land and seas. They are not particularly interested in men romantically, but may become attached to one as their fates become entangled. (Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar poems)
Valkyries fly about as they are on the hunt for battlefields. They survey the land as eagles, wolves, or ravens do, not to feast on the flesh of the dead, but to recruit and add to Odin’s collection of Einharj warriors in Valhalla, or Valholl in Old Norse.
Val (corpses littering a battlefield) + Holl (Hall) = Hall of the Slain
The idea of a supernatural creature escorting the dead to the afterlife isn’t proper to Norse mythology, but rather found across all human cultures. The concept of Valkyries as such guides predates the notion of Valhalla (Akvithi poem, as noted by
Dr Jackon Crawford) where Valhalla is simply presented as a man’s hall. Not Odin’s. More on the idea that Valhalla evolved in the later Viking Age as a possible parallel to Christian heaven in a future post.
Valkyries, angels, psychopomps, and guiding spirits are all supernatural creatures who help the recently deceased transit from this life to the next, whatever this may be. The experience is thoroughly documented in modern medicine, psychology, and parapsychology and is often described in survivors of NDEs. In Near Death Experiences, patients refer to a light toward which they are drawn, regardless of their religion or system of beliefs. Often times, familiar and less familiar figures are present along the way, to lead the way, again independently of the patient’s culture or beliefs. One might argue that the process of dying is universal and inevitable and that the human psyche, or collective unconsciousness, has evolved in a precise way to deal with its own fatal end. Whatever it may be, the notion of accompanying forces at the time of death are found throughout human history and the Valkyrie might very well be one of them.
Valkyries and Heroes
If they choose to do so, Valkyries may favor certain warriors or kings and lend their protection so the men may reach a new victorious status.
Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, st. 54
As females protagonists, they are sometimes depicted as performing traditional, domestic activities, such as thread spinning (Volundarkvitha). This greatly contrasts with their war-like behaviors when they march the gruesome desolation of battlefields. Still, these strong women must at times submit to the will of their kingly fathers who arrange marriages as a means of punishment.
In order to shimmy out of such an arrangement, a Valkyrie finds a warrior who lusts after her and asks him to challenge her suitor to a duel. If the warrior kills the suitor, the Valkyrie agrees to become the prize. Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, st. 17-19
Depending on the poem, these female warriors present certain characteristics, which are unique to their kind:
In Volundarkvitha, Volund, an elf and smith of great talent meets his future bride, Hervor, on the shores of a lake. Hervor and two of her sister-warriors are busy spinning linen. Volund understands they are Vakyries because at the women’s side arelaid on the ground. Volund marries Hervor and for seven winters they live in marital bliss until Hervor and her warrior-sisters itch to visit battlefields again and abandon they husbands.
The text implies the three women shapeshifted into flying creatures (swans?) as they departed, as it reads in the open stanza of Volundarkvith.
In Helgi’s poems, Valkyries are depicted as riding across the sky. Their arrival is often announced by storms and rolling thunder as the women ride their mares with manes dripping with dew. Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, st. 28
Masters of the sea
In Helgi’s tale, Svava is a Valkyrie described as a beautiful girl who rules over the sea. She stirs the sea and stokes storms or calms the waters depending on her inclination to do so. When Helgi’s ships become threatened by a rising storm, Svava, riding with her Valkyrie sisters, detects Helgi’s presence and soothes the weather in order to assure his safe seafaring. Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, st. 26
Choosers of the Slain
Valkyries hold the power to deny a warrior, or a king’s, entry into Odin’s Valhalla, as is seen in the second poem of Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, st. 25. Bad blood can run deep between warriors and Valkyries, and although a warrior dies at war, he may not be granted access to the coveted Valhall.
In the prose introduction preceding Helgi poems, the (Christian) author mentions how reincarnation was once something folks used to believe in, but brushes it off as an old superstition. This is an interesting remark as it acknowledges the fact that reincarnation or resuscitation are not common ground in recorded and surviving Norse texts. Most who die travel to Helheim, a realm ruled over by Loki’s daughter, the goddess Hel. In essence, Helheim is a shadow world of the one we know, with similar struggles and challenges. Farming, pain, sorrow, fighting hunger and cold.
In Helgi’s poems, we are introduced to star-struck lovers Svava and Helgi. Each of Helgi’s poems begin with him meeting the Valkyrie, the two falling in love, and marrying only for Helgi to die by the end of the narrative.
It is understood that the Valkyrie (who assumes different names in each poem) is in fact the same reincarnated woman throughout.
Cycle of reincarnation:
Helgi, for his part, remains himself in each lifetime.
In case you’re looking for ways to name your baby girl, here are some Valkyrie names that are sure to become conservation starters:
Skeggjold: calamity era during the three never-ending winters foreshadowing Ragnarok
Thruthr: supernatural strength
Hlokk: cry of the eagle
Herfjotur: War fetter
Geirskogull: spear projector
Randgrith: shield eager
Rathgrith: advice eager
Reginlief: divine survivor
Svava: putter to death-sleep
Sigrun: victory rune
Gondul: the monstrous magic one, possibly Freyja in disguise. She and Odin split the corpse yield on battle fields.
Brynhildr: war armor
Sigrdrifa: victory driver
Sources for this post:
Poetic Edda, Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes by Dr Jackson Crawford, 2015