By Berig at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
For this week’s installment in my series on Norse mythology we’re going to cover the Valkyries. This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. I did a lot of reading about the shield-maidens during the research for my book Valda & the Valkyries
. Other religions might have beatific angels that play harps, the Norse would rather wield a weapon.
What’s in a Name, Part 1
Let’s start off with the word Valkyrie itself. It comes from Old Norse and means “chooser of the slain.” The Valkyries were assigned to fly over the battlefields, looking for the bravest warriors. They would swoop down and capture the souls of the bravest of the brave and bring them back to Asgard. There are some references to the Valkyries actually going further than that and deciding who lives and who dies. (More on this in just a little bit.) They were also called Swan Maidens since they possessed magical cloaks that allowed them to transform themselves into these graceful birds.
The Ride of the Valkyries
Thanks to Wagner’s opera The Ring of the Nebilungs, this song has been immersed all over the place in popular culture. One of the more dramatic appearances was in the movie Apocalypse Now where the song is blasted out of loudspeakers that are strapped onto attacking helicopters. One detail that you might not know about the Valkyries is that in early times they didn’t ride horses – they rode wolves. While this doesn’t fit the image of Valkyries you see in famous paintings from the Romantic Period it is exactly what you could expect from the rough and ready Norse culture.
Don’t Stiff this Waitress
When the Einherjar warriors of Asgard were not fighting they were feasting and drinking. The Valkyrie were also called Cup-maidens, because it was their responsibility to serve the nightly mead to all of those thirsty warriors. We even have a Valkyrie named Ölrún, which roughly translates to “Ale rune” signifying a possible connection to the creation or serving of the nightly drinks.
What’s in a Name, Part 2
There are lists of names in the various eddas and other sagas. Valkyrie names tend towards the descriptive. This gives us names such as Geirdriful (spear-flinger,) Sanngriðr (very cruel,) and Brynhildr (bright battle.) The most common thread that you find running through the names is an association with either the spear, or with battle. We can find Norse examples that translate to: Spear-shaker, Noise-of-battle, Victory-urger, Sword-time and Axe-age.
The Fate of The Valkyries
The idea of Valkyries not just choosing from those who died in battle but choosing who will die in battle could be connected to one particular member of this band of warrior women – Skuld. Her name can be roughly translated as Future and not only is she a Valkyrie, she is also one of the Norns. As Wikipedia puts it so well, the Norns “are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men, a kind of dísir comparable to the Fates in Greek mythology.” So it makes sense that at least one particular Valkyrie could be choosing which warriors are not going to make it through the battle.
I hope you’re enjoying this series on Norse mythology. If there’s any subject you’d like to hear about, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. You can also check out the other entries in this series.
Five Odd Things in Norse Mythology
Five Foods of the Gods
Five Cool Creatures From Norse Mythology
Five Ways Dwarves Get No Respect
Five Magical Weapons from Norse Mythology
Loki’s Five Biggest Tricks
Posted by Mark Neumayer