Through popular culture, such as film, TV and even comic books, the Valkyries have been diminished to little more than ‘battle babes’. Typically, they are now represented as beautiful, zeppelin-breasted women who do little more than look good. Occasionally, they are depicted as having wings – which is closer to their origins – but as a rule they are simply there to add a little sex appeal to a scenario. However, the Valkyries of Norse legend were much more than scantily clad warrior women; they had powers and abilities that separated them from humankind and put them on a much higher pedestal.
Choosers of the Slain
The word Valkyrie gives us a clue as to just how powerful these beings were thought to be. It is composed of two words, from the Old Norse – valr, which refers to the dead on a battlefield, and kjόsa, which means ‘to choose’. Literally translated, the word means ‘chooser of the slain’. The Valkyries were creatures who carried out the will of Odin. Their job was to determine the victors of battle and they were capable of changing the course of a war.
Primarily, however, the most important job was for the Valkyries to decide who had died the most heroic deaths and who had been bravest in battle. They were believed to gather the souls of the heroic dead or dying and transport them to Valhalla, where they would fight in the battle of Ragnarok, alongside the Gods. Those who weren’t deemed worthy enough were sent to the Underworld, to the cold and lifeless embrace of Hel.
In early Norse myths, Valkyries are often depicted as scouring the battlefields, looking for the worthiest and most heroic souls to accompany them to the afterlife in Valhalla. It is most likely because of the association with scavenging that the Valkyries were originally symbolised as ravens; one of the most notorious scavengers in the bird world.
However, as time went by, the Valkyries’ image was softened. No longer were they perceived as hard-hearted judges of who achieved the afterlife, and later depictions show them without armour and as almost angelic figures, granting the fallen access to Valhalla with a sip of mead from a drinking horn. In these representations, their armour is reduced to a scarlet corset, although they still carried their traditional shields and spears.
In addition, they were less fearsome, typically represented as beautiful, blonde women with blue eyes and fair skin. The way in which they were symbolised changed accordingly. The raven was replaced with the symbol of the swan, which is the image that most of us associate with the Valkyries. In fact, the swan image became interwoven with the Norse folktales surrounding the swan maidens. The swan maidens were thought to be women who could shape-shift into swan form. It was believed that if you could hold a swan maiden or take a feather from her cloak, you would be granted a wish. Slowly, the Valkyries became less the demigoddesses of death and diluted into more of a sort of fairy tale character. They were even known, in later years, as wish maidens.
Freyja, the Norse goddess of fertility, love and beauty was also thought of as the goddess of death. She was also the leader of the Valkyries, entering battle in a chariot pulled by cats or upon a golden boar. Like her compatriots, she too was blue-eyed and blonde and wore a cloak of falcon feathers that allowed her to take the form of the predatory bird. Like Odin, Freyja wanted the souls of fallen heroes, to join her in the battle of Ragnarok.
However, she was always given first choice of the most suitable souls and, before that battle she would whisk her chosen few to the great hall of Valhalla. There, she and the other Valkyries would exchange their battle-dress for pure, white robes and then serve the souls of the fallen, preparing them for the war to come.
The great hall was believed to have 540 doors leading from it and each hid a room. Each of these rooms had the capacity to hold 800 warrior souls and it was there that the chosen would fight and feast, until Ragnarok, which was the final battle between the forces of good and evil. It was thought that this battle would bring about the end of everything – including the gods – and make way for a new order.
Interestingly, the Valkyries may be responsible for a common mistake concerning what the Vikings wore. Many pictures show Viking warriors wearing winged helmets. While they certainly wore helmets, the wings were worn only by the Valkyries, representative of their abilities to travel between the realm of the gods and the realm of men.
The Tale of Brynhildr
However, the Valkyries were more than just a collective; each were characters in their own right and had names that hinted at their powers and abilities, such as Geirdriful, meaning ‘spear flinger’ and Kara, meaning ‘the wild, stormy one’. Brynhildr, meaning ‘bright battle’ was the most famous of the Valkyries, featuring in her own legendary tale:
According to Viking mythology, Brynhildr was punished by Odin for choosing the wrong king to die in a particular battle. Odin’s punishment was to condemn her to marry a mortal, but Brynhildr swore an oath that she would only marry the bravest warrior imaginable. To prevent this, Odin imprisoned her in a castle, surrounded by a ring of magical flames. Sigur, the renowned hero, decided that he would rise to the challenge and marry the Valkyrie. However, he had a rival in Grimhild, the sorceress, who wanted her son, Gunnar to marry Brynhildr.
Grimhild slipped Sigur a potion that made him forget about Brynhildr and he married Grimhild’s daughter, Gudrun. With no rival, Gunnar was free to attempt the test, but failed, so Sigur exchanged shapes with him and completed the task. However, although they slept together for three nights, Sigur ensured that there was a sword between then so that Brynhildr’s virginity remained intact for her real husband-to-be, Gunnar.
When Brynhildr found out about the deception, she killed Sigur but, in a final act of love, threw herself on his funeral pyre and the two were both claimed by Hel, goddess of the Underworld.