The Valkyries, The choosers of the slain

Article by Denton Walter.
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There is hardly anything more synonymous with Norse mythology than the Valkyries, the mounted warrior women who took warriors killed in battle to Asgard. The romantic and thrilling image of the Valkyries riding across the sky with a fallen warrior slung over their saddle has inspired a plethora of paintings and statues, as well as one of the most famous pieces of music ever written, The Walkürenritt (The Ride of the Valkyries).

The Ride of the Valkyries’ is from the start of Act III of Richard Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’, which forms the second part of the music-drama cycle called Der Ring das Nibelungen, ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’, the music was written in 1856 but the opera was not performed in public until 1870.

In Old Norse the Valkyries are the Valkyrja (singular) and Valkyrjur (plural), which translates as ‘The choosers of the slain’, from ‘Val’, meaning someone killed in battle, or specifically a warrior killed in battle, and ‘Kyrja’, one who chooses. The Valkyries not only brought the dead to Óðinn’s hall, Valhǫll ‘The Hall of the Slain’ in Asgard, home of the gods, but they were actually responsible for many of them being dead in the first place. Before they flew off to the battlefield, Óðinn would inform them as to who he wanted dead so the Valkyrie actually had control over which warriors would die and who would live. You might wonder why warriors bothered to practice their fighting skills as much as they did, since it hardly mattered. If Olaf the Awful had spent his entire life training to become the greatest warrior ever known, invincible in battle, and he’s just about to kill Erik the Useless, the worst warrior the world has ever seen, then some woman comes riding down out of the sky, says “Sorry about this Olaf, but the Allfather hates your guts, so you die” and freezes his sword arm so Erik jumps up and kills him, well Olaf rather wasted his time doing all that training, didn’t he?

In the Heimskringia Saga, Óðinn sends two Valkyrjur, Göndul and Skögul, to ‘choose among the kingsmen’ as to who will die in a coming battle. As a result King Hákon I of Norway and all his men are killed and, being now dead, he can see Göndul sitting ‘high-hearted on horseback’ and leaning on her spear, and he, clearly a bit peeved at the outcome, says to her: “Why didst Geiriskögul grudge us victory? Though worthy we were for the gods to grant it?”   To which she replies: “It is owing to us that the issue was won and your foemen fled.” [Hollender (2007:126)] (1)   See what I mean? King Hákon’s fighting skills didn’t get him very far when the Valkyrjur turned up. The only consolation of course was that they would now take them all up to feast with the gods in Asgard.

We see the wishes of Óðinn with regards to the Valkyrjur orders before battle also in the Völsunga Saga, when the famous Valkyrja Brynhild is punished by him for making a mistake by killing a man who was supposed to win the battle, she ending up in a magic sleep surrounded by a ring of fire until such time as one brave enough, or possibly stupid enough, to walk through the flames shall awaken her. Wagner of course used this tale for the ending scene of ‘Die Walküre’ and for the third and fourth operas in the Ring cycle, ‘Siegfried’ and ‘Götterdämmerung,’ though he renamed Óðinn and Brynhild with the German versions of their names, Wotan and Brünnhilde.

The Valkyrjur are often regarded as being exclusively the daughters of Óðinn, but in fact they could be any woman who was chosen to serve in that capacity. There was no actual requirement to be blood-related to the Allfather himself, nepotism had no place in Asgard, and reading through the Sagas shows quite clearly they could be both human and non-human, Divine or mortal. For example,  two were the daughters of a king, another the daughter of a female giant, and yet another the daughter of þórr (Thor), but all were appointed to the position by Óðinn. They are mentioned as having helmets, and carrying shields on several occasions in the poems and Sagas of the Poetic Edda, as well as being mounted. They are often shown with large wings sprouting from their helmets, but that’s an invention of 19th century artists and Richard Wagner, Brünnhilde always seemed to be dressed with wings that would have done credit to a young eagle on her helmet, but there’s nothing in Old Norse literature or in any surviving art work to substantiate that. Those Valkyrjur whose names that have come down to us are listed below, alphabetically, along with the meaning of their names where known, though the exact meaning of some names is uncertain and open to often quite differing interpretations.

Brynhild Bright Battle’ or ‘Armour Battle’

Eir ‘Peace, clemency’

Geirahöð from Geirr (‘Spear’) and Hōð, (‘Battle’)

Geiravör ‘Spear-Vōr’

Geirdriful ‘Spear-Finger,

Geirönul, Geirrönul, Geirömul or Geirölul (Various spellings) Uncertain, possibly connected with the Odinic name Geirölnir and the dwarf Ölnir, or may be from the runic charm word Alu? Possibly meaning ‘The One Charging with the Spear’

Geiriskögul ‘Spear-Shaker’ (see Skögul entry below)

Göll ‘Tumult’ or ‘Noise, battle’

Göndul ‘Wand-Wieder’

Guðr or Gunnr ‘War’ or ‘Battle’

Herfjōtur ‘Host-Fetter’ or ‘Fetter of the Army’

Herja from Old Norse Herja and Old High German Herjón, meaning to ‘Devastate’

Hlaðguðr Svanhvít Hlaðguðr 'Swan-White’

Hildr ‘Battle’

Hjalmþrimul possibly ‘Helmet Clatterer’ or ‘Female Warrior’

Hlökk ‘Noise, battle’

Hrist Old Norse Hirsta (‘Shake, Quake’) meaning ‘The Quaking One’

Hrund ‘Pricker’

Kára Either ‘The Wild, Stormy One’ (Old Norse Afkárr, ‘Wild’) or ‘Curl’ or ‘The Curly One’

Mist ‘Cloud’ or ‘Mist’

Ölrún Possibly ‘Ale-Rune’

Randgriðr or Randgrid ‘Shield-Truce’ or possibly ‘Shield-Destroyer’

Ráðgriðr ‘Council-Truce’ or possibly ‘The Bossy’

Reginleif ‘Power-Trace’ or ‘Daughter of the Gods’

Róta Possibly from Old Norse Róta, meaning ‘Sleet and Storm’

Sanngriðr ‘Very Violent, Very cruel’

Sigrdrífa ‘Victory-Urger’ or ‘Inciter to Victory’

Sigrún ‘Victory Rune’

Skalmöld, ‘Sword-Time’

Skeggöld or Skeggjöld ‘Axe-Age’

Skögul ‘Shaker’ or possibly ‘High-Towering’

Skuld Possibly ‘Debt’ or ‘Future’

Sveið Unclear, possibly ‘Vibration’ or ‘Noise’

Svipul ‘Changeable’

þögn ‘Silence’

þrima ‘Fight’

þrúör ‘Strength’ or ‘Power’  (2)

There is a brief reference in the Poetic Edda to Valkyrjur putting on what are called ‘Swan-suits,’ though there is no indication as to what the purpose of these garments were, but there is a possibility that it had something to do with their ability to fly, when we consider that Freyja had the cloak Fjaðrhamr, ‘Feather-skin’made of hawk feathers, which enabled her to fly. Freyja is seen by many as being the leader of the Valkyrjur, and is mentioned as collecting some of the dead herself and taking them to her own hall, Sessrúmir, so could it be that swan feathers did the same for the Valkyrjur?  We simply have no definite answer to that, but it certainly seems a possibility. Also they do appear to have possessed invisibility, though that is not actually ever stated as such, but given the fact that they could go around battlefields choosing who died and who didn’t, yet they were almost never seen by the combatants until, like King Hákon, they were dead, seems to indicate quite strongly that they could shield themselves from mortal eyes. That would make sense I suppose, since it would be highly distracting if one was trying to fight while helmeted women carrying spears were wandering around on the battlefield muttering “You die,” “You die,” “You live,” “You live – no you don’t, Allfather doesn’t like you either, you die too!”

The role of these women was two-fold, firstly as the armed choosers and gatherers of those slain in battle and bearing them skywards to Valhǫll in Asgard, then attending those same recently deceased warriors, Einherjar, ‘Once-fighters’, as they feasted along with the gods, bringing them mead from the udder of the goat Heiðrún, and meat from Sæhrinnir (probably a boar, though there is some debate as to that), this creature eaten by night and revived by day ready for the next feast. It was killed and cooked by Andhŕimnir, the chef of Valhǫll, whose name means literally ‘The Sooty One’, in his giant cauldron, Eldhrímnir, ‘Fire-Sooty.’ He also prepared the mead from the goat’s milk. The warriors enjoyed themselves in Valhǫll by fighting and ‘killing’ one another all day, except of course that they couldn’t actually die seeing as they were already dead, then feasting with Óðinn all night, with the Valkyrjur acting as table servants, then doing it all over again the following day, and so on and on until the eventual end of the world, Ragnaröck. Since the end of the world hasn’t come yet, one must assume they’re all still at it, killing each other and feasting. Doesn’t sound so bad. Killing things indefinitely, an alcohol-producing goat, an immortal joint of roast meat, and a bevy of beautiful warrior women to bring it to you. What more could you want? (3)

(And a note on the subject of Valhǫll: the usual way this in spelled in English, Valhalla, is quite incorrect, there is no ‘a’ on the end. It should be Valhall, just as other Norse names that have had that final ‘a’ added, Frigga should be Frigg, and Hela should be Hel.)

The Valkyrjur were not seen as particularly charming when going about their death-dealing and collecting duties; for example, in the Völsunga Saga, looking at one, if you were unlucky enough to do, was described as ‘staring into a flame’, or towards the end of Njál’s Saga, or Brennu Njál’s Saga as it is in Old Norse, ‘The Saga of Burnt Njál’, where a truly charming image of them is presented. This tells of a man in Caithness named Dourrud or Dörruő who, just before the Battle of Clontarf, which took place in Ireland on Good Friday in the year 1014 AD, sees a group of twelve women go into a stone hut. Dourrud looks through a chink in the wall to see what they are doing, and probably regretted it.

Inside the hut, the women turn out to be Valkyrjur, only six being named: Hildr, Hjōrþrimul, Sanngnðr, Svipul, Guðr and Göhoul. [Hollander (1980:68)] They sing a skaldic poem entitled Darraðarljoð, as Dörruő watches, trying to memorise it, while they set up a loom made from men’s body parts, as you do, and begin weaving the fate of the warriors prior to the coming battle, much as would the Norns. They are greatly enjoying themselves, gleefully spinning the destiny of the warriors, using severed heads as weights, intestines for the warp and weft and a sword for the shuttle, blood-covered spears for spindles, and arrows for reels.

How awful it is to be without

as blood-red rack races overhead,

is the welkin gory with warriors’ blood,

as we Valkyries war-songs chanted”

When they are finished they tear the resulting ‘cloth’ or ‘thing,’ or whatever you want to call the undoubtedly rather bloody and messy result of their efforts, into twelve pieces. Each woman taking one, and saying “start we swiftly with steeds unsaddled – hence to battle with brandished sword” before mounting their horses and riding off, six going north, the other six going south. [Hollander (1980:68)] A quite delightful little scene to be sure, a perfect bedtime story for young children, though what a bunch of Valkyrjur were doing in Caithness singing and weaving about a battle in Ireland, since Caithness is in Scotland, and just about the furthest point in Scotland you can get from Ireland without falling off into the North Sea, I really don’t know. If they’d just sat on the Hill of Howth, in Dublin Bay, Clontarf would have been right below them a short distance away. But no, off they go to Scotland. And they didn’t stop there either, since a similar event was said to have occurred in the even more distant Faroe Islands, way out in the North Atlantic. Those Valkyrjur really got around. I don’t suppose it really matters though, since six rode north, six rode south, but Clontarf is south-west from Scotland, so they all went the wrong way. Their loom was really impressive, but a good map to go with it would have been rather helpful. It’s thought by the way that this part of the Saga may have been added later. (1)

The Sagas were of course originally verbal tales, recounted by storytellers and poets called Skálds, and were only written down many years afterwards. In the case of Njál’s Saga it was finally written down in Iceland c. 1250-1280 AD, and much of the description of the events of the Battle of Clontarf itself seems to be a reworking of an Irish tale, Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh, which translates as ‘The War of the Irish With the Foreigners’ written over a hundred and fifty years previously, c. 1103 AD, and adapted to suit the story and add some Christian values to it, since Iceland was long since Christianized by the 13th century.  

In the Völsungakviða Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, the ‘First Lay of Helgi Hundingbane,’ a Norse poem in the Poetic Edda, the hero, Helgi, sits surveying the bodies strewn across the battlefield at Logafjőll, when Valkyrjur appear riding across the sky. 

‘Then light shone from Logafell,
and from that radiance there came bolts of lightning;
wearing helmets at Himingvani came the valkyries.
Their byrnies were drenched in blood;
and rays shone from their spears’ [Larrington (1999:116)]

Later in the poem they return, this time to protect him during the Battle of Frekastein, after which they ride off, all save Sigrún.

‘Helmeted valkyries came down from the sky
—the noise of spears grew loud—they protected the prince;
then said Sigrun—the wound-giving valkyries flew,
the troll-woman's mount was feasting on the fodder of ravens’ [Larrington (1999:121)]   (1)

The Anglo-Saxons had a version of the Valkyrjur in their own mythology, called Wælcyrie or Wælcyrge in Old English, who were seen as less than desirable female spirits of carnage and destruction, demons, though an alternate meaning could be a witch or sorceresses. Either way, not something you really wanted to meet. It’s not been established if these similar figures were something that came into Saxon usage by their frequent interaction with the Norse peoples or were entirely creations of Old English mythology, though the great similarity of the name would seem to indicate the former, such a coincidence seems unlikely. (1) 

As a final note, just as thunder and lightning were associated with þórr using his famous hammer, Mjǫllnir, so too the Valkyrjur, not to be outdone by the thunder god, were thought to produce a spectacular effect in the heavens themselves, the beautiful red and green flickering curtains of light seen in the sky at northern latitudes, the Norðrljós, ‘North Light’ (Aurora Borealis), being produced by reflections from their armour and shields as they rode through the air. While there is no mention of that in Old Norse literature, it is recorded in the Konungs Skuggsjá (‘The King’s Mirror’), a Norwegian educational text written around 1230 AD, and the Valkyrjur tale is based on stories that were brought from Greenland. Interestingly enough, the King’s Mirror was actually compiled as a father and son dialogue, intended as part of the education of Magnus Lagabøte, son of King Håkon Håkonsson, the son asking his father questions on all manner of subjects, such as trade, morality, military tactics and strategies and the like, and his father answering him. (4)

 

References:

1   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valkyrie         This page was last edited on 19 March 2018, at 17:08.

Valkyrie - Wikipedia

en.wikipedia.org

Etymology. The word valkyrie derives from Old Norse valkyrja (plural valkyrjur), which is composed of two words: the noun valr (referring to the slain on the battlefield) and the verb kjósa (meaning "to choose").

 

2   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List-of-valkyrie-names. This page was last edited on 17 March 2018, at 01:53

3    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%A6hr%C3%ADmnir.    This page was last edited on 3 August 2017, at 06:13

Sæhrímnir - Wikipedia

en.wikipedia.org

In Norse mythology, Sæhrímnir is the creature killed and eaten every night by the Æsir and einherjar.The cook of the gods, Andhrímnir, is responsible for the slaughter of Sæhrímnir and its preparation in the cauldron Eldhrímnir.

 

4    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konungs-skuggsj%C3%A1.     This page was last edited on 2 April 2018, at 19:31

(All accessed on April 7, 2018)