Valkyrie – Chooser of the Slain

In Norse religion, a valkyrie (from Old Norse valkyrja “chooser of the slain”) is one of a host of female figures who choose those who may die in battle and those who may live. Selecting half of those who die in battle, the valkyries bring their chosen to the afterlife hall of the slain, Valhalla, ruled over by the god Odin (the other half go to the goddess Freyja‘s afterlife field Fólkvangr). There, the deceased warriors become einherjar (Old Norse “single (or once) fighters”[1]). When the einherjar are not preparing for the events of Ragnarök, the valkyries bear them mead. Valkyries also appear as lovers of heroes and other mortals, where they are sometimes described as the daughters of royalty, sometimes accompanied by ravens and sometimes connected to swans or horses.

Valkyries are attested in the Poetic Edda, a book of poems compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources; the Prose Edda and Heimskringla (by Snorri Sturluson), and Njáls saga, a Saga of Icelanders, all written in the 13th century. They appear throughout the poetry of skalds, in a 14th-century charm, and in various runic inscriptions.

The Old English cognate terms wælcyrge and wælcyrie appear in several Old English manuscripts, and scholars have explored whether the terms appear in Old English by way of Norse influence, or reflect a tradition also native among the Anglo-Saxon pagans. Scholarly theories have been proposed about the relation between the valkyries, the norns, and the dísir, all of which are supernatural figures associated with fate. Archaeological excavations throughout Scandinavia have uncovered amulets theorized as depicting valkyries.

Valkyrie

 The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909) by John Charles Dollman.

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”). Together, they mean ‘chooser of the slain. The Old Norse valkyrja is cognate to Old English wælcyrge. From the Old English and Old Norse forms, philologist Vladimir Orel reconstructs a Proto-Germanic form, *walakuzjōn. However, the term may have been borrowed into Old English from Old Norse: see discussion in the Old English attestations section below.

Other terms for valkyries in Old Norse sources include óskmey (Old Norse “wish maid”), appearing in the poem Oddrúnargrátr and Óðins meyjar (Old Norse “Odin‘s maids”), appearing in the Nafnaþulur. Óskmey may be related to the Odinic name Óski (Old Norse, roughly meaning “wish fulfiller”), referring to the fact that Odin receives slain warriors in Valhalla.

Poetic Edda

Valkyries are mentioned or appear in the Poetic Edda poems Völuspá, Grímnismál, Völundarkvviða, Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, Helgakviða Hundingsbana II and Sigrdrífumál.

Völuspá and Grímnismál

In stanza 30 of the poem Völuspá, a völva (a travelling seeress in Germanic society) tells Odin that “she saw” valkyries coming from far away who are ready to ride to “the realm of the gods”. The völva follows this with a list of six valkyries: Skuld (Old Norse, possibly “debt” or “future”) who “bore a shield”, Skögul (“shaker”), Gunnr (“war”), Hildr (“battle”), Göndul (“wand-wielder”) and Geirskögul (“Spear-Skögul”). Afterwards, the völva tells him she has listed the “ladies of the War Lord, ready to ride, valkyries, over the earth”.

In the poem Grímnismál, Odin (disguised as Grímnir), tortured, starved and thirsty, tells the young Agnar that he wishes that the valkyries Hrist (“shaker”) and Mist (“cloud”) would “bear him a [drinking] horn”, then provides a list of 11 more valkyries who he says “bear ale to the einherjar“; Skeggjöld (“axe-age”), Skögul, Hildr, Þrúðr (“power”), Hlökk (“noise”, or “battle”), Herfjötur (“host-fetter”), Göll (“tumult”), Geirahöð (“spear-fight”), Randgríð (“shield-truce”), Ráðgríð (“council-truce”) and Reginleif (“power-truce”).

Völundarkviða

A prose introduction in the poem Völundarkviða relates that the brothers Slagfiðr, Egil and Völund dwelt in a house sited in a location called Úlfdalir (“wolf dales”). There, early one morning, the brothers find three women spinning linen on the shore of the lake Úlfsjár (“wolf lake”), and “near them were their swan’s garments; they were valkyries”. Two, daughters of King Hlödvér, are named Hlaðguðr svanhvít (“swan-white”) and Hervör alvitr (possibly meaning “all-wise” or “strange creature”); the third, daughter of Kjárr of Valland, is named Ölrún (possibly meaning “beer rune”). The brothers take the three women back to their hall with them—Egil takes Ölrún, Slagfiðr takes Hlaðguðr svanhvít and Völund takes Hervör alvitr. They live together for seven winters, until the women fly off to go to a battle and do not return. Egil goes off in snow-shoes to look for Ölrún, Slagfiðr goes searching for Hlaðguðr svanhvít and Völund sits in Úlfdalir.

Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar

In the poem Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, a prose narrative says that an unnamed and silent young man, the son of the Norwegian King Hjörvarðr and Sigrlinn of Sváfaland, witnesses nine valkyries riding by while sitting atop a burial mound. He finds one particularly striking; this valkyrie is detailed later in a prose narrative as Sváva, king Eylimi’s daughter, who “often protected him in battles”. The valkyrie speaks to the unnamed man, and gives him the name Helgi (meaning “the holy one”). The previously silent Helgi speaks; he refers to the valkyrie as “bright-face lady”, and asks her what gift he will receive with the name she has bestowed upon him, but he will not accept it if he cannot have her as well. The valkyrie tells him she knows of a hoard of swords in Sigarsholm, and that one of them is of particular importance, which she describes in detail. Further into the poem, Atli flytes with the female jötunn Hrímgerðr. While flyting with Atli, Hrímgerðr says that she had seen 27 valkyries around Helgi, yet one particularly fair valkyrie led the band:

Three times nine girls, but one girl rode ahead,
white-skinned under her helmet;
the horses were trembling, from their manes
dew fell into the deep valleys,
hail in the high woods;
good fortune comes to men from there;
all that I saw was hateful to me.

After Hrímgerðr is turned to stone by the daylight, a prose narrative continues that Helgi, who is now king, goes to Sváva’s father—King Eylimi—and asks for his daughter. Helgi and Sváva are betrothed and love one another dearly. Sváva stays at home with King Eylimi, and Helgi goes raiding, and to this the narrative adds that Sváva “was a valkyrie just as before”. The poem continues, and, among various other events, Helgi dies from a wound received in battle. A narrative at the end of the poem says that Helgi and his valkyrie wife Sváva “are said to be reincarnated”.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana I

In the poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, the hero Helgi Hundingsbane sits in the corpse-strewn battlefield of Logafjöll. A light shines from the fell, and from that light strike bolts of lightning. Flying through the sky, helmeted valkyries appear. Their waist-length mail armour is drenched in blood; their spears shine brightly:

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.

In the stanza that follows, Helgi asks the valkyries (who he refers to as “southern goddesses”) if they would like to come home with the warriors when night falls (all the while arrows were flying). The battle over, the valkyrie Sigrún (“victory-rune“), informs him from her horse that her father Högni has betrothed her to Höðbroddr, the son of king Granmar of the Hniflung clan, who Sigrún deems unworthy. Helgi assembles an immense host to ride to wage battle at Frekastein against the Hniflung clan to assist Sigrún in her plight to avoid her betrothment. Later in the poem, the hero Sinfjötli flyts with Guðmundr. Sinfjötli accuses Guðmundr of having once been female, and gibes that Guðmundr was “a witch, horrible, unnatural, among Odin’s valkyries”, adding that all of the einherjar “had to fight, headstrong woman, on your account”. Further in the poem, the phrase “the valkyrie’s airy sea” is used for “mist”.

Towards the end of the poem, valkyries again descend from the sky, this time to protect Helgi amid the battle at Frekastein. After the battle, all the valkyries fly away but Sigrún and wolves (referred to as “the troll-woman’s mount”) consume corpses:

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:

The battle won, Sigrún tells Helgi that he will become a great ruler and pledges herself to him.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana II

At the beginning of the poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, a prose narrative says that King Sigmund (son of Völsung) and his wife Borghild (of Brálund) have a son named Helgi, who they named for Helgi Hjörvarðsson (the antagonist of the earlier Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar). After Helgi has killed King Hunding in stanza 4, a prose narrative says that Helgi escapes, consumes the raw meat of cattle he has slaughtered on a beach, and encounters Sigrún. Sigrún, daughter of King Högni, is “a valkyrie and rode through air and sea”, and she is the valkyrie Sváva reincarnated. In stanza 7, Sigrún uses the phrase “fed the gosling of Gunn’s sisters”. Gunnr and her sisters are valkyries, and these goslings are ravens, who feed on the corpses left on the battlefield by warriors.

After stanza 18, a prose narrative relates that Helgi and his immense fleet of ships are heading to Frekastein, but encounter a great storm. Lightning strikes one of the ships. The fleet sees nine valkyries flying through the air, among whom they recognise Sigrún. The storm abates, and the fleets arrive safely at land. Helgi dies in battle, yet returns to visit Sigrún from Valhalla once in a burial mound, and at the end of the poem, a prose epilogue explains that Sigrún later dies of grief. The epilogue details that “there was a belief in the pagan religion, which we now reckon [is] an old wives’ tale, that people could be reincarnated” and that “Helgi and Sigrun were thought to have been reborn” as another Helgi and valkyrie couple; Helgi as Helgi Haddingjaskaði and Sigrún as the daughter of Halfdan; the valkyrie Kára. The epilogue details that further information about the two can be found in the (now lost) work Káruljóð.

Sigrdrífumál

In the prose introduction to the poem Sigrdrífumál, the hero Sigurd rides up to Hindarfell and heads south towards “the land of the Franks”. On the mountain Sigurd sees a great light, “as if fire were burning, which blazed up to the sky”. Sigurd approaches it, and there he sees a skjaldborg with a banner flying overhead. Sigurd enters the skjaldborg, and sees a warrior lying there—asleep and fully armed. Sigurd removes the helmet of the warrior, and sees the face of a woman. The woman’s corslet is so tight that it seems to have grown into the woman’s body. Sigurd uses his sword Gram to cut the corslet, starting from the neck of the corslet downwards, he continues cutting down her sleeves, and takes the corslet off of her.

The woman wakes, sits up, looks at Sigurd, and the two converse in two stanzas of verse. In the second stanza, the woman explains that Odin placed a sleeping spell on her she could not break, and due to that spell she has been asleep a long time. Sigurd asks for her name, and the woman gives Sigurd a horn of mead to help him retain her words in his memory. The woman recites a heathen prayer in two stanzas. A prose narrative explains that the woman is named Sigrdrífa and that she is a valkyrie.

A narrative relates that Sigrdrífa explains to Sigurd that there were two kings fighting one another. Odin had promised one of these—Hjalmgunnar—victory in battle, yet she had “brought down” Hjalmgunnar in battle. Odin pricked her with a sleeping-thorn in consequence, told her she would never again “fight victoriously in battle”, and condemned her to marriage. In response, Sigrdrífa told Odin she had sworn a great oath that she would never wed a man who knew fear. Sigurd asks Sigrdrífa to share with him her wisdom of all worlds. The poem continues in verse, where Sigrdrífa provides Sigurd with knowledge in inscribing runes, mystic wisdom, and prophecy.

Prose Edda

In the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, valkyries are first mentioned in chapter 36 of the book Gylfaginning, where the enthroned figure of High informs Gangleri (King Gylfi in disguise) of the activities of the valkyries and mentions a few goddesses. High says “there are still others whose duty it is to serve in Valhalla. They bring drink and see to the table and the ale cups.” Following this, High gives a stanza from the poem Grímnismál that contains a list of valkyries. High says “these women are called valkyries, and they are sent by Odin to every battle, where they choose which men are to die and they determine who has victory”. High adds that Gunnr (“war”), Róta, and Skuld—the last of the three he refers to as “the youngest norn“—”always ride to choose the slain and decide the outcome of battle”. In chapter 49, High describes that when Odin and his wife Frigg arrived at the funeral of their slain son Baldr, with them came the valkyries and also Odin’s ravens.

References to valkyries appear throughout the book Skáldskaparmál, which provides information about skaldic poetry. In chapter 2, a quote is given from the work Húsdrápa by the 10th century skald Úlfr Uggason. In the poem, Úlfr describes mythological scenes depicted in a newly built hall, including valkyries and ravens accompanying Odin at Baldr’s funeral feast:

There I perceive valkyries and ravens,
accompanying the wise victory-tree [Odin]
to the drink of the holy offering [Baldr’s funeral feast]
Within have appeared these motifs.

Further in chapter 2, a quote from the anonymous 10th century poem Eiríksmál is provided (see the Fagrskinna section below for more detail about the poem and another translation):

What sort of dream is that, Odin?
I dreamed I rose up before dawn
to clear up Val-hall for slain people.
I aroused the Einheriar,
bade them get up to strew the benches,
clean the beer-cups,
the valkyries to serve wine
for the arrival of a prince.

In chapter 31, poetic terms for referring to a woman are given, including “[a] woman is also referred to in terms of all Asyniur or valkyries or norns or dísir“. In chapter 41, while the hero Sigurd is riding his horse Grani, he encounters a building on a mountain. Within this building Sigurd finds a sleeping woman wearing a helmet and a coat of mail. Sigurd cuts the mail from her, and she awakes. She tells him her name is Hildr, and “she is known as Brynhildr, and was a valkyrie”.

In chapter 48, poetic terms for “battle” include “weather of weapons or shields, or of Odin or valkyrie or war-kings or their clash or noise”, followed by examples of compositions by various skalds that have used the name of valkyries in said manner (Þorbjörn Hornklofi uses “Skögul’s din” for “battlefield”, Bersi Skáldtorfuson uses “Gunnr’s fire” for “sword” and “Hlökk’s snow” for “battle”, Einarr Skúlason uses “Hildr’s sail” for “shield” and “Göndul’s crushing wind” for “battle” and Einarr skálaglamm uses “Göndul’s din”). Chapter 49 gives similar information when referring to weapons and armor (though the term “death-maidens”—Old Norse valmeyjar—instead of “valkyries” is used here), with further examples. In chapter 57, within a list of names of ásynjur (and after alternate names for the goddess Freyja are provided), a further section contains a list of “Odin’s maids”; valkyries: Hildr, Göndul, Hlökk, Mist, Skögul. And then an additional four names; Hrund, Eir, Hrist and Skuld. The section adds that “they are called norns who shape necessity”.

Some manuscripts of the feature Nafnaþulur section of Skáldskaparmál contain an extended list of 29 valkyrie names (listed as the “valkyries of Viðrir“—a name of Odin). The first stanza lists: Hrist, Mist, Herja, Hlökk, Geiravör, Göll, Hjörþrimul, Guðr, Herfjötra, Skuld, Geirönul, Skögul and Randgníð. The second stanza lists: Ráðgríðr, Göndul, Svipul, Geirskögul, Hildr, Skeggöld, Hrund, Geirdriful, Randgríðr, Þrúðr, Reginleif, Sveið, Þögn, Hjalmþrimul, Þrima and Skalmöld.

Hrafnsmál

The fragmentary skaldic poem Hrafnsmál (generally accepted as authored by 9th century Norwegian skald Þorbjörn Hornklofi) features a conversation between a valkyrie and a raven, largely consisting of the life and deeds of Harald I of Norway. The poem begins with a request for silence among noblemen so that the skald may tell the deeds of Harald Fairhair. The narrator states that they once overheard a “high-minded”, “golden-haired” and “white-armed” maiden speaking with a “glossy-beaked raven”. The valkyrie considers herself wise, understands the speech of birds, is further described as having a white-throat and sparkling eyes, and she takes no pleasure in men:

Wise thought her the valkyrie; were welcome never
men to the bright-eyed one, her who the birds’ speech knew well.
Greeted the light-lashed maiden, the lily-throated woman,
The hymir‘s-skull-cleaver as on cliff he was perching.

The valkyrie, previously described as fair and beautiful, then speaks to the gore-drenched and corpse-reeking raven:

“How is it, ye ravens—whence are ye come now
with beaks all gory, at break of morning?
Carrion-reek ye carry, and your claws are bloody.
Were ye near, at night-time, where ye knew of corpses?”

The black raven shakes himself, and he responds that he and the rest of the ravens have followed Harald since hatching from their eggs. The raven expresses surprise that the valkyrie seems unfamiliar with the deeds of Harald, and tells her about his deeds for several stanzas. At stanza 15, a question and answer format begins where the valkyrie asks the raven a question regarding Harald, and the raven responds in turn. This continues until the poem ends abruptly.

Njáls saga

In chapter 157 of Njáls saga, a man named Dörruð witnesses 12 people riding together to a stone hut in Caithness. The 12 go into the hut and Dörruð can no longer see them. Dörruð goes to the hut, and looks through a chink in the wall. He sees that there are women within, and that they have set up a particular loom; the heads of men are the weights, the entrails of men are the warp and weft, a sword is the shuttle, and the reels are composed of arrows. The women sing a song called Darraðarljóð, which Dörruð memorizes.

The song consists of 11 stanzas, and within it the valkyries weave and choose who is to be slain at the Battle of Clontarf (fought outside Dublin in 1014 CE). Of the 12 valkyries weaving, six have their names given in the song: Hildr, Hjörþrimul, Sanngriðr, Svipul, Guðr and Göndul. Stanza 9 of the song reads:

Now 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.

At the end of the poem, the valkyries sing “start we swiftly with steeds unsaddled—hence to battle with brandished swords!” The prose narrative picks up again, and says that the valkyries tear their loom down and into pieces. Each valkyrie holds on to what she has in her hands. Dörruð leaves the chink in the wall and heads home, and the women mount their horses and ride away; six to the south and six to the north.

Heimskringla

At the end of the Heimskringla saga Hákonar saga góða, the poem Hákonarmál by the 10th century skald Eyvindr skáldaspillir is presented. The saga relates that king Haakon I of Norway died in battle, and although he is Christian, he requests that since he has died “among heathens, then give me such burial place as seems most fitting to you”. The saga relates that shortly after Haakon died on the same slab of rock that he was born upon, he was greatly mourned by friend and foe alike, and that his friends moved his body northward to Sæheim in North Hordaland. Haakon was buried there in a large burial mound in full armour and his finest clothing, yet with no other valuables. Further, “words were spoken over his grave according to the custom of heathen men, and they put him on the way to Valhalla”. The poem Hákonarmál is then provided.

In Hákonarmál, Odin sends forth the two valkyries Göndul and Skögul to “choose among the kings’ kinsmen” and who in battle should dwell with Odin in Valhalla. A battle rages with great slaughter, and part of the description employs the kenning “Skögul’s-stormblast” for “battle”. Haakon and his men die in battle, and they see the valkyrie Göndul leaning on a spear shaft. Göndul comments that “groweth now the gods’ following, since Hákon has been with host so goodly bidden home with holy godheads”. Haakon hears “what the valkyries said”, and the valkyries are described as sitting “high-hearted on horseback”, wearing helmets, carrying shields and that the horses wisely bore them. A brief exchange follows between Haakon and the valkyrie Skögul:

Hákon said:
“Why didst Geirskogul grudge us victory?
though worthy we were for the gods to grant it?”
Skogul said:
“‘Tis owing to us that the issue was won
and your foemen fled.”

Skögul says that they shall now ride forth to the “green homes of the godheads” to tell Odin the king will come to Valhalla. The poem continues, and Haakon becomes a part of the einherjar in Valhalla, awaiting to do battle with the monstrous wolf Fenrir.

Old English attestations

The Old English wælcyrge and wælcyrie appear several times in Old English manuscripts, generally to translate foreign concepts into Old English. In the sermon Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, written by Wulfstan II, wælcyrie is used, and considered to appear as word for a human “sorceress”. An early 11th-century manuscript of Aldhelm’s De laudis virginitatis (Oxford, Bodleian library, Digby 146) glosses ueneris with wælcyrge (with gydene meaning “goddess”). Wælcyrge is used to translate the names of the classical furies in two manuscripts (Cotton Cleopatra A. iii, and the older Corpus Glossary). In the manuscript Cotton Cleopatra A. iii, wælcyrge is also used to gloss the Roman goddess Bellona. A description of a raven flying over the Egyptian army appears as wonn wælceaseg (meaning “dark one choosing the slain”). Scholarly theories debate whether these attestations point to an indigenous belief among the Anglo-Saxons shared with the Norse, or if they were a result of later Norse influence (see section below).