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The Ride of the Valkyries (1890), William T. Maud

The Powerful Valkyries as Icons of Female Force and Fear

The Valkyries of Norse mythology were women of vast prestige and power. They were one of the few factions of warrior women from ancient lore recognized as having any power over the mortal realm. Known as beacons of strength, they descended from the sky garbed in the feathers of swans coated with sturdy, iron chainmail, their faces protected by helmets and their spears held aloft fearlessly.  Upon the backs of their ethereal horses they came from the heavens to the mortal realm, guttural cries at the back of their throats. When seen by the male soldiers on the ground, both awe and terror would sweep the battlefield – their role was to determine the fate of fallen warriors.

Valkyrien by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Valkyrien by Peter Nicolai Arbo ( Wikimedia Commons )

Role of the Valkyries in a Warrior's Afterlife

Despite this overwhelming awe, it is the duty of the Valkyries not to participate in the wars of mortals or to have a role in the physical or mental acts of battle, but rather to choose from the fallen humans who was worthy enough to ascend to the halls of Odin, and who was benign enough to be sent to the fields of Freyja. Odin's hall, Valhalla, holds the spirits of the warriors in constant training—their sole purpose in the afterlife is to prepare for the battle that will be the end of the world, Ragnarök, and to defend their universe as best they can from Loki and his army. The fields of Freyja, on the other hand, are just as worthy a place to be taken, however the life of the dead there is simple and easy, as one could only hope death would be for fallen fighters.

Three ale-bearing Valkyries  - Hild, thrud, and Hløkk in Valhalla, illustration from Grímnismál (1895)

Three ale-bearing Valkyries  - Hild, thrud, and Hløkk in Valhalla, illustration from Grímnismál (1895) ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Valkyries Names: War and Weaponry

The names of the Valkyries often depend on the text read: in the Icelandic or Old Norse text Völuspá, the first poem of the Poetic Edda in the 13 th century, describes six Valkyrie each named for war or weaponry—Skuld, Skögul, Gunnr, Hildr, Göndul,and Geirskögul.  Another text, the Grímnismál, dictates eleven Valkyries, all with different names than those in the Poetic Edda .  Thus the name of the Valkyries are never entirely agreed upon, though their tasks and purpose are primarily seen as the same. 

In the air, among clouds, and upon a white horse, a Valkyrie rides with the corpse of a man.

In the air, among clouds, and upon a white horse, a Valkyrie rides with the corpse of a man. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Brunhild: The Famous Valkyrie with a Love Story

Undoubtedly, the most famous Valkyrie recognized is that of Brunhild, one of the protagonists/antagonists of the Völsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied. In the latter Brunhild is a superhumanly strong woman. However, in the Völsunga Saga , Brunhild is under an enchantment of Odin's for disobeying him in battle and allowing an opposing warrior to win in a battle. Brunhild is imprisoned in a ring of fire and placed in a deep sleep, only awakened when Sigurd—a warrior of royal blood—rides through the fire and frees her of the girdle which keeps her spellbound. From this moment, they pledge their love until a tragic series of magical events ends with Brunhild aiding in the murder of Sigurd and then casting herself upon his funeral pyre to die with him.

The importance of this tale, however, lies in the depiction of Brunhild.  Valkyries can have an effect on the outcome of battles, though only with the approval of the great god, Odin.  They can willingly choose a human lover, and can be prone to the human tendencies of jealousy and revenge as well. Though they work for the highest of the gods, the Valkyries are similar to many other Norse gods, who are not above mortal distresses. 

Brunhild and Sigurd's Funeral (1909), C. Butler

Brunhild and Sigurd's Funeral (1909), C. Butler ( Wikimedia Commons )

Sigrún: The Valkyrie with a Broken Heart

This was similarly the case in the tale of Helgi and Sigrún, a love tale dictated in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I.  Sigrún, though a Valkyrie, is unhappily betrothed by her father to a man she does not wish to marry.  Moved to action by his own love for her, the protagonist Helgi fights the man she must marry to the death, winning her hand.  Later, after Helgi is killed by Sigrún's brother, Sigrún is one of the few Valkyries known to have died from a broken heart.

Hervors død, Peter Nicolai Arbo. Hervor was a shieldmaiden who dressed like a man, fought, killed and pillaged. Her story is presented in the Hervarar saga.

Hervors død, Peter Nicolai Arbo. Hervor was a shieldmaiden who dressed like a man, fought, killed and pillaged. Her story is presented in the Hervarar saga. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Changing Role of the Valkyries: Warriors to Shieldmaidens

Interestingly, later in the literary and historical record Valkyries decrease in status from warriors of Odin to shieldmaidens—mortal women given permission to fight in wars alongside their men.  It is believed that female warriors truly existed in the world of the ancient and medieval North and were known to be vastly strong and terribly brave, fearless in their own right and respected by the men they fought with.  It is highly believed that the Valkyries might have been based on stories of these women, orally passed down and transformed into legends until they were recorded in the Sagas of the Icelanders and other mythological records. 

Featured Image: The Ride of the Valkyries (1890), William T. Maud ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

H.R. Elllis Davidson, The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (Routledge: London, 1993.)

H.R. Elllis Davidson, Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe: early Scandinavia and Celtic religions (Syracuse University Press: New York, 1988.)

Thomas A. DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1999.)

Jane Smiley. Sagas of the Icelanders (Penguin Publishing Group: NY, 2001.)

Gisli Surgurðsson and Vesteinn Olason. The Manuscripts of Iceland (Arni Magn˙sson Institute: ReykjavÌk, 2004.)

William R. Short. "The Sagas of Icelanders as a Historical Source." Hurstwic. 2005. Accessed February 17, 2015.

http://www.hurstwic.org/library/arms_in_sagas/sagas_as_historical_source.pdf

"About the Sagas." The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders. Accessed February 15, 2014. http://sagas.is/sogurnar.htm

Comments

Justbod's picture

Very interesting article – thank you! Good to read more on the background, history and myth of the Valkyries.

 

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk

 

 

 

The recent discovery that over 50 % of the viking graves discovered since the 18th century contained women's skeletons should put these figures in a more interesting light.

I suspect that many vikings were not only women, but the valkyries may have been actual women who lead their soldiers into battle like the svanhilders and brunhilders of German myth.

Contrary to popular belief generated by 19th century bias, women in Germanic and Celtic societies had far more rights than women in later times.

riparianfrstlvr's picture

i agree, it seems where goddesses were worshiped along side gods, that portrayed equality in diety and reflected equality in society. it is a historical fact the Norse women did lose their rights to equality when Norse mythology fell to christian mythology a man god based religion. a mafia based religion as well. you have god the father, god the son who has a dozen or so henchmen telling us to pray, pay and obey god the son, or else you will suffer the eternal wrath of god the father.

 

riparianfrstlvr

You're spot on, brother. "The time of heroes is over. This 'Christ God' has killed it".

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