A handout for our October 2012 meeting
The Norse Valkyrie
Etymology and Function:
The word valkyrie (or valkyrja) has a relatively simple meaning: chooser of the slain, from valr, “battlefield slain/corpses” and kjosa, “to choose or select.” The Old English wælkyrce can also mean “raven,” and in East Frisia walruderske means “nightmare or witch” (Nasstrom 112). Because of the etymology of the word, scholars like Simek and Nasstrom believe the valkyries were probably originally very dark figures (Simek calls them “demons of the dead” 349) who represented the horrors and cruelty of warfare; they may have been seen as ravens or birds of prey not unlike the Irish Morrigan and Badb. Hrafnsmal (attributed to Thorbjorn Hornklofi ca. 900, likely the oldest surviving skaldic poem mentioning valkyries) features a dialog between a valkyrie and a raven in which the raven describes in graphic terms the battle it witnessed; though there is a contrast created in the poem between the appearance of the fair, white-necked valkyrie and the black, gore-covered raven, the poet also establishes a strong connection in nature and shared interest between the two figures. The dark, horrible nature of valkyries may be seen later in poems such as Darraðarljoð, in which valkyries weave a tapestry using weapons and human body parts, and Voluspa and Hrafnagaldr Oðins, in which the valkyries seem to appear in advance of, and perhaps yearn for, the great slaughter at the Ragnarok.
There is no direct, conclusive evidence for any pre-conversion cult activity associated solely with the valkyries. If they received worship, it may have been in association with Oðin or the disir, to whom they bear some resemblance.
While valkyries may engage in other activities, they are most commonly understood as female wights who help guide the course of battle, usually at Oðin’s direction, to gain einherjar for the Ragnarok. They typically ride on horseback or travel through the air (or perhaps travel through the air on horseback like Gna on Hofvarpnir). Snorri says in Gylfaginning 36 that “Odin sends them to every battle. They allot death to men and govern victory. Gunn and Rota and the youngest norn, called Skuld, always ride to choose who shall be slain and to govern the killings.” In Eyvind Skaldaspillar’s Hakonarmal, Oðin sends Gondul (“Wand/Staff” or “Magic” or “Wolf”) and Skogul (“Battle”) to choose who should come to Valholl and to increase the gods’ side.
Valkyries appear a number of times in poetry, such as in Grimnismal, as horn-bearers in Valholl. This may be a poetic construction; in a hall where spear shafts serve as rafters and shields serve as thatching, it would be appropriate that death-dealing women with carrion bird attributes take the place of drink-bearing noblewomen. A number of pendants and rock carvings that depict horn-bearing women have been interpreted as showing valkyries.
In many of the heroic poems, the valkyries are born to human families; they are usually the daughters of kings, and they act in a warlike fashion. Like the choosers of the slain, they often travel on horseback or through the air. Saxo describes a number of female characters who behave in a similar way, though he most often refers to them as shield-maidens rather than valkyries. Sigrdrifa, Brynhildr, and Svava are examples of this kind of valkyrie. These valkyries typically protect or give special knowledge to a male hero with whom they become romantically involved. After they become romantically involved, the valkyries often give up their warrior lifestyle to take up pursuits more typical of noblewomen, though they may also meet an early, often violent, end as a result of their involvement with a male hero. The distinction between death-dealing supernatural valkyries and more protective human valkyries may relate to the dual natures of the disir and the norns, both of which are depicted as being at times helpful and at times malevolent towards humanity.
Valkyries are far more likely to have individual names than norns or disir, but this individuality may be an illusion. Many of the names appear in catalogues in different poems, such as Grimnismal, and the vast majority of the names have to do with battle in some fashion. This, combined with the fact that few of the names appear to be particularly old, has led many, including Bek-Pederson, Davidson, and Simek, to believe that the majority of valkyrie names are relatively recent poetic inventions. Valkyrie names are used quite frequently in skaldic poetry to create kennings relating to warfare and weapons.
One of the valkyries in Grimnismal is named Herfjotur, “War Fetter,” a name that Nasstrom relates to the “war fetter” paralysis mentioned in some sagas; the Fjoturlundr, “Grove of Fetters,” where Helgi is killed by Dagr in Helgakviða Hundingsbana II; the grove of the Semnones that Tacitus describes; Oðin’s ability to loosen bindings and to make warriors ineffective in combat; and the gods’ heiti hopt and bond, “fetters/bindings” (110).
Unsurprisingly, when the valkyries are enumerated, they are usually in multiples of three.
Though she is not explicitly connected with the valkyries in the sources, Nasstrom and others believe Freyja likely is related to the valkyries in some fashion, perhaps leading some or all of the valkyries or acting as a valkyrie herself. One of Freyja’s heiti is Valfreyja (“Lady of the Slain”), she has bird of prey attributes, she serves drink in the halls of the gods, and she is said in Grimnismal to receive half the slain. That the valkyries are almost exclusively associated with Oðin may be due to that god’s gradual displacement of Freyja as the main war god of the pre-conversion Norse, or it may be because of his patronage of skalds.
Bek-Pederson, K. (2011) The Norns in Old Norse Mythology.
Brennu-Njals saga. http://sagadb.org/brennu-njals_saga Accessed October 2012
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. (1964) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.
—. (1989) Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe.
—. (1998) Roles of the Northern Goddess.
Hollander. L. (1936) Old Norse Poems.
Gundarsson, K. et al. (2006) Our Troth 2nd Edition Volume 1: History and Lore.
Nasstrom, B. (2003) Freyja, the Great Goddess of the North.
The Poetic Edda. (1936) Translated with commentary by Henry Bellows.
—. (1996) Translated with commentary by Carolyne Larrington.
—. (2011). Translated with commentary by Andy Orchard.
The Poetic Edda: Volume II: Mythological Poems. (1997) Edited with translation, introduction, and commentary by Ursula Dronke.
Poole, R. (1991) Viking Poems on War and Peace: a Study in Skaldic Narrative.
Saxo Grammaticus. (2008) The History of the Danes, Books I-IX. Translated by Peter Fisher, edited with commentary by Hilda Ellis Davidson.
Simek, R. (1993) Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall.
Snorri Sturluson. (1987) Edda. Translated by Anthony Faulkes.
The Story of Burnt Njal (1861) Translated by George DaSent.