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Who were the 'Valkyries'?

In Norse Mythology the Valkyries are a group of female spirits who help the leader of the Aesir tribe of Norse Gods, Odin. They would guide the souls of slain warriors to the halls of Valhalla where they would wait until they were called to fight once again besides the Allfather at the battle of Ragnarok

The name 'Valkyrie' roughly translated from Old Norse into 'choosers of the slain' in modern English. Many modern and late Norse depictions of the Valkyries show then as elegant and beautiful maidens guiding the fallen warriors and drinking mead with them in the halls of Valhalla. There are numerous stories of them being the lovers of mortal men and are said in some sagas to be the daughters of royalty.

Valkyries - viking style

Valkyries - Emil Doepler, 1905

Historical Sources

The Valkyries appear in numerous sagas within the Poetic Edda. In one poem called the 'Grímnismál', Odin is starved, tired and thirsty. He sends for two Valkyries named Hrist and Mist, to bring him a drinking horn. He then asks eleven more Valkyries to do the same for his einherjar, the slain warriors who are waiting in Valhalla. 

 They also appear in the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson. In one chapter the character known as 'high' appears before the King Gylfi, who is disguised as Gangleri, the earliest known king of Scandinavia in Norse Mythology. High tells thee king "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". 

Valkyries as Swan Maidens

In Norse sagas there are two stories of the Valkyries taking swan form and having love affairs with mortals which continue to appear repeatedly.

Swan maidens - valkyries - viking style

The Swan Maidens - Walter Crane, 1894

The first story says that a man encountered a valkyrie in her swan form whilst bathing and took her cloak. Soon after the pair became man and wife  and lived happily together for some years. However after finding the cloak that the man had once taken from her the valkyrie was reminded of her past and the glory and prestige that she had left behind. Upon retuning home the husband was distraught to find that she had left him so he goes in search of her. In his search he encounters an old man, known as 'the king of the animals' who tells him that she had flown away to the land beyond, 'east of the sun and west of the moon'. 

The man tells the bereaved husband how to find his wife, however upon his arrival he found that she was happy to see him again. However she challenged him to complete one of three trials, which were thought up by her, her sisters and relatives. Fortunately the man manages to pass the challenge and win back his wife, allowing them to live together happily once again.

The second story tells of a King who took a swan maiden for his wife. She left behind her sisters to go and live with him, and they were happy for a time. However one day she was murdered by another woman who desired to be the king's wife. Before the rival woman managed to marry the king the valkyrie managed to use her magic from the realm of the dead to bring herself back and kill the other woman. 

Did the Valkyries have a Darker Side?

 In many modern depictions the Valkyries are shown to be beautiful and divine, however in the earlier Viking age they were well known to have a more sinister side. In addition to guiding the slain warriors to Valhalla they would also choose who died and who survived and used dark magic to ensure their wishes came to pass. In one particular poem, known as the 'Darraðarljóð', the Valkyries were casting a spell of fate to ensure their predictions would come true before the battle of Clontarf in Ireland. They used intestines to weave a thread of fate and human heads for weights whilst chanting their incantations of dark magic.

The ride of the Valkyries - Viking Style

The ride of the Valkyries - William T. Maud, 1890

The idea of Valkyries also appears in the Folklore of other Germanic and Celtic peoples who's tales of their dark and malevolent nature support this idea that they were not entirely good. 

The Valkyrie Origins of Sleeping Beauty

In the story of Brynhildr and Sigurd from the Volsung Saga, there are many similarities between the tale and the modern story of sleeping beauty. The princess Brynhildr was depicted as a beautiful and strong women, and in many versions, also a Valkyrie.

According to the tale Brynhildr was banished by Odin for her disobedience and cursed to sleep eternally inside a ring of fire. Sigurd bravely passed through the flames and gave her a kiss, which lifted the spell and awoke her. The two of them then fell in love and were engaged to be married, however after a time Sigurd left to continue with his travels. 

Brynhildr - valkyries - viking style

Brynhildr and Sigurd - Arthur Rackman

Whilst on his journey Sigurd was given a potion which made him fall in love with another woman, Gudrun, and out of love with Brynhildr. This plan was devised by Gunnar, the brother of Gudrun, due to the fact that he wanted to take Brynhildr for himself. 

Due to the effects of the potion Sigurd was tricked into disguising himself as Gunnar and pursuing his marriage with Brynhildr. After they her and Gunnar had been married, and realising she had been tricked, Brynhildr was furious with Sigurd. She arranged to have Sigurd murdered, however once the act had been carried through she was consumed with sadness. She was so affected by the grief that she threw herself onto Sigurd's funeral pyre.

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