The Valkyries are a key part of Norse myth. But who are the Valkyries, and what role do they play in the stories of northern Europe? Many of us are familiar with the piece of music by the German composer Richard Wagner, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, which has been used countless times in films (most famously in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war film, Apocalypse Now). But where did the Valkyries ‘ride’, and why?
Before we offer an analysis of their meaning and significance, it’s probably worth summarising the role of the Valkyries and how they are described in various Nordic myths.
Valkyries myth: summary
Who are the Valkyries? They are young, blonde-haired, blue-eyed maidens. More than this, they are handmaidens to the god of war, Odin. Although we’re used to seeing the word in the plural – Valkyries – a Valkyrie is perfectly acceptable in the singular, too. The word is from the Old Norse valkyrja meaning ‘chooser of the slain’.
And this etymology of the Valkyries’ name is itself well-chosen, for the role of the Valkyries was to choose who would die in battle and who would live. They were, in this respect, the counterparts to the figures from Greek mythology known as the Fates. Indeed, the Valkyries are often identified with the Norns, the goddesses of destiny in Norse myth. (Curiously, although they had the faces of young blonde women, some accounts of the Valkyries describe them as having bird-like features, which suggests some distant kinship with the Greek Sirens, who lured men to their deaths.)
Accompanied by thunder and lightning, the Valkyries would ride across the battlefields, dressed in armour and bearing shields and lances. They were warriors, sorceresses, and spirits all wrapped up into one. They decided which side of the battle would triumph.
The individual Valkyries are often given names in the myths. Some of the most famous among them included Skuld meaning ‘debt’ and ‘shield-bearer’; Skögul meaning ‘shaker’, Gunnr (‘war’), and Hildr (‘combat’). Some others are named after the weapons they bore: the sorceress Göndul (‘wand-wielder’ or ‘skilled at handling a magic wand’), Herfjoturr (‘she who paralyses her enemies using magic Links’), Mist (‘torpor’), and Geirskögul (‘Spear-Skögul’).
Valkyries myth: analysis
It’s easy to view the Valkyries as fearsome beings whom the Norse warrior wished to avoid. After all, if they decided that you were to perish in the battle, you would lose your life and be defeated by the enemy.
But in fact, this is to misunderstand the Viking attitude to death and glory, and their analysis of the role of the Valkyries in their belief-system. Being marked for death by the Valkyries may have been a death sentence, but it was one which the plucky Viking warrior dearly sought, rather than being something he wished to avoid. Why is this?
A key detail, mentioned by Fernand Comte in his engaging summary of the Valkyries myth in his The Wordsworth Dictionary of Mythology (Wordsworth Reference), is that death was not a punishment, but a reward. The Valkyries chose which fighters would be given the reward of death and a place in the hall of Valhalla, the final resting-place of heroes in Norse myth.
The Valkyries chose who would die and then carried these lucky heroes off to Valhalla personally. The chosen warrior would thus arrive in the afterlife in style, with these beautiful handmaidens escorting him to his seat at the hall of heroes. Since dead heroes chosen to take a coveted place at the table of Valhalla tended to while away eternity fighting each other without ever being wounded or killed, and drinking vast amounts of mead, one can see why it was a reward to be killed in battle and whisked off by the Valkyries, rather than a sign of failure.
And the Valkyries would serve as the handmaidens to these warrior heroes up in Valhalla. Since the Valkyries epitomised and embodied female beauty as the Vikings conceived it – young woman with long, flowing blonde hair and blue eyes – this was something for the Norse fighter to aspire to, rather than avoid.
Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from the darker and more sinister side to the Valkyries: just as they chose who would die in battle and be admitted to Valhalla – paradise for Norse heroes – so they would also decide who didn’t gain admittance to that much-coveted place. Valkyries truly were the Fates of the Viking world, with power of life or death over men.
Heroism was obviously important to the war-loving conquerors we know today as the Vikings, so it’s understandable that their myths would emphasise a rather horrible end for those men who failed to gain honour and glory on the battlefield. And men who weren’t lucky (or brave?) enough to be slain in battle but died in their beds would end up in a quite different place from Valhalla: a gloomy abode of the goddess Hel (related to our word Hell).
But it’s also worth pondering the role of fate in all of this. If heroes were destined to triumph or fail and it was all preordained by the Valkyries, then in what sense were these men in charge of their own fates? Does it even make sense to talk of them as ‘heroes’ when they would win, or be vanquished, not because of any personal courage or skill but simply because the Valkyries had decreed it would be so?
This point comes home in one of the sagas, Njal’s Saga, which contains a poem called the Darraðarljóð, a poem contained within Njal’s Saga. This poem sees twelve Valkyries weaving and choosing who will be slain at the Battle of Clontarf (a real battle, fought just outside Dublin in 1014). Weaving is common trope in myth: the Greek Fates also wove (and cut) the threads of men’s lives.
The heroes in Valhalla were known as einherjar, another Old Norse word meaning ‘former fighters’. There was a purpose to the einherjar engaging in fights with each other in Valhalla: they were getting themselves in training for the last battle, Ragnarök, the pagan Norse version of what in Christianity is known as Armageddon: i.e., the end of the world.
Valkyries appear in numerous sources of Norse myth: both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson, and the medieval Icelandic Sagas. But since those myths were collected (mostly in the thirteenth century), Valkyries have continued to feature in literature, art, and music. Probably their most famous appearance in more modern art is in the 1870 opera Die Walküre by Richard Wagner, which features ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.