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The Norse Valkyries are among the most famous beings and symbols to survive to this day from ancient Nordic and Germanic mythology. In modern culture, they are usually portrayed as beautiful and strong warrior women riding on flying horses. The original image of these mythical Norse maidens was exactly that, but also so much more.
Who are the Norse Valkyries?
While many of the Valkyries in Norse myths had their own names, they were usually viewed and talked about as a homogeneous party of beings, all sharing a common purpose.
In most sagas and eddas, the individual Valkyries are often named. Most of their names related to battles and war. For example:
- Gunnr – War
- Skögul – Shaker
- Göndul- Wand-wielder
- Geirskögul- Spear-Skögul
- Hildr- Battle
- Þrúðr- Power
- Skeggjöld- Axe-age
Together, these female warriors bore the name Valkyries, or Valkyrja in Old Norse, which meant choosers of the slain. Given their main purpose as servants of Odin, the name was more than appropriate.
Different Valkyries have their own myths, some more famous than others. These stories depict the Valkyries as having mortal feelings such as love and infatuation.
The Role of the Valkyries
In most Norse myths the Valkyries are viewed not just as servants of the Allfather god Odin but as outright extensions of his being. Just like the ravens Hugin and Munin which symbolize and embody Odin’s wisdom, the Valkyries embody Odin’s goal of gathering all the greatest Nordic and Germanic people into Valhalla.
- The purpose of gathering the fallen soldiers
However, the Valkyries’ mission isn’t just an aimless collection of warriors. Additionally, Odin doesn’t charge his flying maidens with this task as a “reward” for the fallen heroes. Instead, the Allfather tries to gather all Nordic and Germanic heroes in Valhalla with the purpose of getting their help during Ragnarok.
Odin does this because he knows the prophecies relating to Ragnarok. Odin knows that the gods of Asgard are going to fight against the giants, jötnar, and other “creatures of chaos” of Norse mythology. He also knows that the gods are fated to lose that battle and that he, Odin himself, is to be slain by Loki’s son, the giant wolf Fenrir.
- Ragnarok – a battle fated to be lost by the gods
Even though Odin knows that the battle is fated to be lost, he still tries to gather them in Valhalla in the first place, in a futile attempt to prevent the inevitable. The Norse heroes will rise from Valhalla and will fight the losing battle side-by-side with the gods.
In essence, Odin follows the prophecy while trying to prevent it. All this symbolizes one of the main motifs of Norse mythology – fate is inevitable and you cannot change it. All you can do is follow it as heroically as possible.
The Valkyries’ role in all of this is to act out Odin’s will and follow the already-prophesied story. They do this by flying over the battlefields of men or standing next to them, and picking and choosing those who died the most heroic deaths. Once a Valkyrie finds “the right” hero, she gets their spirit on the back of her flying horse and delivers them to Valhalla.
- Valkyries in later myths
In later myths, the Valkyries are described as shieldmaidens, rather than the warriors of Odin. In this regard, they lose some of their power and status, morphing into mortal women who are allowed to fight alongside men.
Historically, there were brave and courageous female warriors in Norse culture, who fought as fiercely and as brilliantly as the men. Some speculate that the Valkyries were inspired by these women, and over time, transformed into the legendary beings we know as the Valkyrie.
Valkyries as Caretakers of the Einherjar Fallen Heroes
The Valkyries’ role doesn’t end with just delivering dead souls to Valhalla. Once the fallen heroes – called einherjar or once fighters in Old Norse – get to Valhalla they get to spend their time in it fighting and training for Ragnarok.
And when the einherjar weren’t fighting, the Valkyries would bear them mead so the einherjar could drink, feast, and enjoy their afterlife. Many Norse stories and sagas depict Valkyries in such a “positive” light – as friendly spirits who help the slain einherjar heroes in their afterlife.
Noble Warrior Maidens or Insidious Monsters?
For every “positive” Valkyrie story, however, there’s another that shows a much darker side of these celestial warriors. Poems like Darraðarljóð from the Njal’s Saga show that the Valkyries didn’t just choose the warriors who died heroically for Valhalla – they chose which warriors were to die in the first place.
The Darraðarljóð tells about the Battle of Clontarf.
In the poem, a man called Dörruð follows 12 riders into a hut. Dörruð looks through a chink in the hut’s wall and sees twelve Valkyries weaving a horrific loom. Instead of warp and weft, the loom used human entrails, instead of weights – human heads, instead of a shuttle – a sword, and instead of reels – arrows.
While working the loom, the Valkyries were singing a song called Darraðarljóð and its 11 stanzas described the warriors who were to die in the Battle of Clontarf.
Stories and poems like this show the Valkyries in a role similar to that of the Norns, the women who wove everyone’s destiny. While the Valkyries’ “weaving” is on a much smaller scale, it’s also significantly darker as all they weave is people’s deaths.
Symbolism of the Valkyries
Depending on which side of the Valkyries’ myth you choose to focus on they can be either beautiful, noble, and heroic warrior maidens or dark prophetesses of death and doom.
The ancient Nordic and Germanic people didn’t ignore either of these sides of the warrior spirits and they worshipped them anyway. They didn’t begrudge the Valkyries for weaving their deaths and still willingly sought heroic deaths in battle.
Ultimately, the Valkyries perfectly symbolize the Nordic and Germanic views on war, death, and destiny – they are inevitable, they are dark and horrific, and they are also glorious.
The Valkyries also symbolize the force and power of women. These beings had prestige and power, especially over mortals. Their power to choose who would live and who would die on the battlefield inspired awe and terror, especially to the warriors fighting the battles.
Importance of Valkyries in Modern Culture
The image of Valkyrie warriors is one of the most frequently used Norse symbols by artists, sculptors, and writers from around the world. Usually portrayed on white flying horses – sometimes winged like Pegasus, other times not – these celestial warriors often had heavy battle armor, swords and shields, long, flowing blond hair, and beautiful, feminine as well as physically strong features.
In the post-Christian era, the Valkyries were often portrayed as Christian angels – with wings on their backs and cloth robes and sandals.
Valkyries also appear in different portrayals throughout literature and film. They are a part of Richard Wagner’s famous Ride of the Valkyries, and a character named Valkyrie was also a part of the MCU movie series about a variant of the Norse god Thor.
Note that the movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise, wasn’t about the Norse mythical beings but instead about a failed plot to kill Hitler during World War II. The plot was code named after the Norse creatures.
Valkyries were a group of women who served as Odin’s assistants.
The Valkyrie rode winged horses.
Valkyries were tasked with the job of collecting ‘worthy’ slain warriors and take them to Valhalla where they would remain until Ragnarok.
No, the Valkyries weren’t deities but female maidens.
There’s some contention that the legendary Valkyries were inspired by historical female shieldmaidens who fought alongside their male counterparts in war.
Brynhild is often believed to be the most famous Valkyrie.
The Valkyrie had strength, speed and agility. They were also less prone to injury and disease, and had high tolerance of pain.
The Valkyrie is a symbol of feminine power and prestige, as well as of the Norse view of life, death and destiny as being inevitable and pre-determined.