Last update 6th October 2001
Like the Amazons and pirates, the Valkyries are shrouded in popular romance probably far removed from their "historical" context.
The Valkyrie's were literally the female choosers of the slain, and were servants of both Odin [chief of the gods] and Freyja [goddess of lust/rampant fertility]. Historically they may well have derived from more primitive sources and could well have been minor goddesses or demons of death and slaughter in battle. They appear in many ways similar to the celtic Morrigan in this respect. In ways such as Sumerian demons then became totems to frighten away other demons, the Valkyries may have evolved and become romanticised in gothic times to the image we relate to today. Later myths began portraying the valkyries as beautiful virgins, with snowy skin and flowing gold hair and even swan wings, who served as Odin's shield bearers, and in peace served meat and mead to the slain warriors in the halls of Valhalla.
The Valkyries were popularly known to ride over the battlefield on their non-winged steads to collect the souls of brave warriors, taking them to the halls of Valhalla. These souls were known as Einherjar, and were kept by Odin for the final battle against the frost giants at Ragnorak on the Vigrid Plain. By day the warriors fought each other, and by night they feasted, their wounds healing overnight for battle the next day. They were woken each morning by the cock Gullinkambi. Half the warriors went to Odins hall Valhalla, the other half went to Freyja's hall Sessrumnir. I can find little mention of the warriors in Freyja's hall, or they may simply be lumped in with the warriors of Valhalla. It is part of myth strangely silent in my records.
Scandinavian myths mention valkyries in several places.
In the 'Lay of Grimnir', Odin mentions 13[!] of them by name while describing the home of the gods:
"In Valhalla, Shaker & Mist, Axe Time & Raging take it in turns to bring me my brimming horn. And nine other valkyries bring ale to the slain warriors. Their names are Warrior & Might, Shrieking, Host Fetter & Screaming, Spear Bearer, Shield Bearer, Wrecker of Plans & Kin of the Gods."
As is apparent, they are named directly after warlike motifs and function as attendants to the undisputed king of battle.
In the 'Death of Balder', they are listed again. Various versions of the myth list them differently.
"The cortege had swollen to a vast gathering. Odin was there; his ravens, Thought & Memory, perched on his shoulders. Frigg accompanied him, and so did the Valkyries: Shaker & Mist, Axe Time & Raging, Warrior & Might, Shrieking, Host Fetter and Screaming, Spear Bearer, Shield bearer, Wrecker of plans - all those beautiful maidens, choosers of the slain, stood grouped around the Father of Battle."
The later story of 'Brynhild and Sigurd' revolved around the story of the Valkyrie Brynhild (or Sigrdrifa), who defied Odin's direction over her half brother/lover or to spite Odin[!-depending on who's talking], and was banished to Earth and slept imprisoned in a ring of fire. The fire was braved by the hero Sigurd, who woke her and they subsequently fell in love. Unfortunately, he gave her his ring which he did not know was cursed so that it's owner was doomed. In a vein similar to Romeo & Juliet, both ended up dead.
It is interesting by this time that the Valkyrie now has a half brother, and therefore parents. I don't have a full copy of the myth, so I am unsure who her parents were.
The similar story of Gudrun and the hero Helgi tells of Gudrun falling in love with a mortal. When he died, she wept so much that he called from the grave for her tears to stop, his spirit then rising to Valhalla where they could be together.
In a myth relating to Sigurd Dragonslayer, a valkyrie teaches him the power of runes as magic signs (this could be Brynhild).
It should be remembered that later myths were partially influenced by christian thought and imagery.
Often valkyries are shown riding horses across battlefields, though whether they were meant to fight from the horse is debatable. Traditional vikings fought as mounted infantry, racing to the scene and dismounting to fight on foot. It is hard to imagine that the heroines of battle would not be the same. As Odin would dismount, so would the valkyrie? Long standing tradition holds with the riding of valkyries on horses, though these were definately not winged. Some have said that because the Aurora Borealis lights are caused by the reflections on the cloaks of valkyries, this must mean they rode the cloaks across the sky. I do not have anything in my collection to verify this one way or the other. Horses are what is commonly mentioned and illustrated.
Later, and what I imagine are more Christian influenced myths, Valkyries visit Earth flying with swan wings which they take off to frolick in streams. Tales tell of smarty pants who steal their wings and thereby force them to live on Earth, where they have no power except their beauty.
Imagery now almost always depicts valkyries in scale or chain armour, winged helmets, and wielding a spear. What they may have been imagined to wear originally, I can only guess. If they developed from death spirits they would have been considered less 'civilised' than the vikings and probably therefore only simply armed and armoured.
My guess is they would have worn nothing at all and been armed [if at all] with a very simple weapon, either a spear or axe. When Odin absorbed them into his mythology, and they delivered the spirits of the slain to Valhalla, it is hard to decide either way whether they needed to be armed or not. Swords were still special weapons, and I can see in a romanticised valkyrie, it would be a definite addition rather than the spear they are popularly shown with. However, judging by their names above, it is hard to imagine a valkyrie called spear bearer not being armed unless they have devolved so far that they were simply representations of aspects of Odin.
A historical reference from a soldier who thought he imagined seeing one prior to the battle at Hastings described her as carrying a fork to rake up the dead, and a trough to catch the blood of the slain. To my mind this would indicate the valkyrie less as an armed warrior, and more as a grizzly shepherd of souls to valhalla.
A modern retelling of Odin's preparations for Ragnorak describes the Valkyries thus: "As well as training warriors in Midgard, Odin formed an army of women in Asgard, the Valkyries or Odin's Maids. The Valkyries had a special responsibilty. Odin used to send these warrior women, splendidly armed and riding spirited flying horses, to battlefields on Midgard,. There they chose those who died a valiant death to come and join Odin in Asgard.
The Valkyries wore shining mailcoats and helmets and carried all kinds of weapons including swords, spears, battleaxes and shields. However, they did not take part in the actual fighting and were not supposed to interfere by influencing who was to win and who was to be killed. They simply carried out Odin's orders. If they disobeyed (and at least one did) then they had to face Odin's terrible wrath." The text does not quite ring true to me as being directly based on original text, especially the reference to battle axes or an army of Valkyries, but it does give a good description of the modern image of an armed valkyrie.
Traditional vikings wore only simple small conical helms, later with a nasal guard. The popular winged and horned helms were simply not on the shop shelf for the valkyrie to choose to wear. However, the pre history of the vikings had more elaborate helms with cheek and neck guards, and it may be that these more elaborate helms clung to the image of the valkyrie while the day to day helm of the viking became simpler. The viking art of the time did show warriors with horned helms, but archaeological evidence does not yet support the horned helm for the main viking period. If the Valkyrie was a reflection of Odin, it is easy to imagine they would wear elaborate helms as Odin would have, but if they are dissociated from him, it would be easy to see them wearing only what a normal viking would wear, if anything. If they wore armour, it was either a short mail corselet if they were thought well off, or leather jerkins if they simlpy reflected the average warrior.
While they are choosers of the slain, I have no reference to say they do the slaying, or in the final battle of Ragnorak, they take part in the fighting, only that Odin leads the Einherjar. However, I believe they die as the rendition I have says after the battle: "Then Surt will fling fire in every direction. Asgard and Midgard and Jotunheim and Niflheim will become furnaces - places of raging flame, swirling smoke, ashes, only ashes. The nine worlds will burn and the gods will die. The Einherjar will die, men and women and children in Midgard will die, elves and dwarves will die, giants will die, monsters and creatures of the underworld will die, birds and animals will die. The sun will be dark and there will be no stars in the night sky. The earth will sink into the sea." Of course, there are survivors who are further listed, but the Einherjar are dead, and Odin is dead. If a valkyrie survived, she would be unemployed and in need of a new profession.
It is quite amusing that if Ragnorak is pre ordained, why would Odin would decide to build such a huge army of Einherjar to loose anyway? No doubt the collecting of brave souls had an association only partly to dowith ragnorak, and more to do with the viking self mythology, and their prowess in battle.
Valkyries were also the serving girls in Valhalla, greeting the slain at the door and serving them food and drink. The clothes of viking women changed little across their history, being very simple. Off duty, valkyries would most likely wear the same clothes as viking women, though more brightly decorated as well off viking men were. This could consist of two large 120mm long brooches on the chest at the collarbone, from the right could hang house hold utensils, scissors, keys etc. Viking women often wore rings, necklaces, armbands and pendants and even a third brooch in the centre of the chest. The undergarment consisted of a pleated linen shift, the overgarment was two fold with straps passing over the shoulder and attached to the brooches or 2 overlaid lengths of cloth, one folded down one side of the body and tied on the other, with the second layer folded down the second side and fastened on the first, the outer cloth of better quality material than the inner layer. Over this hung a shawl which could be fixed to the third brooch. Viking women did not wear belts as part of the maidens costume, however, this is not to say their dresses were not shaped by the addition of draw strings or knotted girdles about the waist.
Psychologically, what were valkyries like? That's a darn good question, and one we can't really define easily. They were the choosers of the slain, not the slayer. In earlier more traditional myths they make no conversation whatsoever, so we must assume a deeper older mythology associated with them which has not been passed on. Later myths show them passionately in love, vindictive, intelligent, wily, and beautiful (very gothic). They were the quality assurance system for Odin's future army, so they must at least have been intelligent and reasonably dedicated. They understood war and heroism, battle skill and a thing or two about feasting. As the Norse gods were flawed in personality (human) so must the valkyries have had different human personalities.