Valkyrie/Valkyrjur, ‘Choosers of the Slain’.
The Allfather Odin learned the details of the day of Ragnarok in his battle of wits with the giant Vafthruthnir. Since that day he has taken every measure to prevent the onset of the Twilight of the Gods. Knowing the hardships of the war to come he has a band of shield maidens, called the Valkyries or the Valkyrjur. They are responsible for recruiting for Asgard, the bravest and most skillful of warriors from the battlefields of Midgard.
The Allfather knows that all the gods and goddesses of Asgard and Vanaheim, the bright elves of Alfheim, and many diverse allies will gather to engage in combat with fire and frost giants, with Loki, Hel, Fenrir, and Jormungand and with the hosts of the dishonorable dead.
He also knows that it will not suffice, and so to bolster his armies, he sends the Valkyrie maiden warriors to find the Viking warriors who will assist the gods in their darkest hour.
It is given to the Valkyries to choose the fallen that will feast with Odin in Valhall. As such it is also their power to decide who will die on the battlefield and be parted from their kin forevermore, even in the afterlife. For this reason, they are to be feared as much as loved in their roles as goddesses of war. Because of their influence they may decide the outcome of conflicts in Midgard, according to the wishes of Odin.
Those who go with them are known as the Einherjar, ‘Once Fallen’. They must sever all ties with those who will not be chosen for Valhalla at the time of their deaths. Although a great reward, the timeless life in Odin’s hall comes at a high price.
Although goddesses now, many were once mortal women, priestesses of Odin, or daughters of Kings and Queens. As priestesses of the Odin cult, it was their practice to make living sacrifice to the Allfather. Their gruesome duty of choosing those from among the living to join with Odin in Valhalla continues after they have left this mortal world.
Spirit Wives, ‘Swan Maidens’.
The Valkyries are beautiful, known sometimes as ‘swan maidens’ for their ability to transform themselves into the most elegant of birds when they choose to come to earth and seek out mortal men to take back with them to the realms of the gods.
It is said that when a Valkyrie disrobes to bathe or when she removes her battle garb, she is transformed into the form of the most beautiful of birds so that none shall see what is not for them to take.
If an Einherjar is fortunate he may find that a swan maiden chooses him for a husband, and she will accompany him in the afterlife until his time to fight on the field of Vigrid comes.
The Valkyrie too will fight alongside Odin and the Einherjar, thus are they equipped with shining battle armor, fearsome weapons, and battle steeds, sometimes horses, sometimes wolves. They are the ultimate warrior ‘shield maidens’ on the field of battle.
Their magic of shapeshifting makes them formidable enemies even among the gods. A murder of ravens or crows on the battlefield may be one of their ranks in disguise.
Signs and Symbols of the Valkyries
Many things may presage a visitation from the Valkyrie, but most common in the lore are swans, murders of crows and ravens, wolves, divine music or hellish sounds, crashing waves, storm clouds. Displays of the Aurora Borealis is said to be the light reflecting off their shields and battle armor..
The most famous, feared and respected of Odin’s maids include Brynhildr, ‘Bright Battle’, Sigrún, ‘Victory Rune’, Hildr, ‘Battle’, Svava, ‘Sleep Maker’, Thrud, ‘Strength’, daughter of Thor, and Sigrdrifa, ‘Victory Urger’.
Of these two Brynhildr and Sigrún are the most famed and each plays a central role in key moments of the sagas of the gods.
While these two are the most renowned, there are many more whose stories remain untold. In all, thirty-nine shield maidens are named.
The Völuspá lists several of them here:
On all sides saw I
Ready to ride
to the ranks of the gods;
Skuld bore the shield,
and Skogul rode next,
Guth, Hild, Gondul,
Of Herjan’s maidens
the list have ye heard,
to ride o’er the earth.
Brynhildr and Sigurd
The life of Brynhildr, also called Brunhild or Brunhilda, is the most recounted of all the Valkyries. Her actions are central to the events recorded in the saga of the Völsunga and many of the Edda. Her deeds were so famous that they are also recorded in the Germanic Nibelungenlied where she is introduced as follows:
There was a queen who presided over the sea,
Whose like no one knew of anywhere.
She was exceedingly beautiful and great in physical strength.
She shot the shaft with bold knights
— love was the prize.
Her free life as a Valkyrie is thrown into disorder when Brynhildr is ordered to judge a battle between the kings Agnar and Hjalmgunnar. Although she knows that Hjalmgunnar is favored by Odin, she decides in favor of Agnar.
As punishment for her disobedience, the Allfather banishes her to Midgard where she will sleep in a castle, behind a wall of shields, at the peak of one mount Hindarfjall in Midgard. The castle is surrounded by an undying ring of fire and Brynhildr must remain there until one hero brave enough to cross through the flames shall arrive to rescue her and take her hand in marriage.
While Brynhildr slumbers, there is a mortal hero by name Sigurd, whose feats of bravery are bringing him fame throughout Midgard. His greatest deed, the slaying of the dragon Fafnir, has conferred upon him the magical ability to resist fire.
It is this hero who at last finds the captive Brynhildr and who rides fearlessly through the wall of flame where he finds the bewitched shield maiden still sleeping and dressed in her battle armor.
Sigurd sets Brynhildr free
He uses his sword to free her from the metal garb which seems to have fused into her flesh, and when she awakens the pair fall instantly in love. He proposes marriage and offers her the magical ring Andvaranaut which is in his possession. The ring is hauntingly beautiful, and yet, its provenance from the clan of the Niebelungen carries with it the curse of Dwarvish sorcery.
Brynhildr offers him a ring in return and then they part. Sigurd promises to return soon so that they can become husband and wife.
Not all are pleased with the news of his true love and betrothal. The witch Grimhild, wife of Gjuki, had planned for her daughter Gudrun to be Sigurd’s bride. Using a magic potion she induces Sigurd to forget his love for the Valkyrie and to marry her daughter.
Despite the success of her plan, Grimhild was still not content. She decides that the magnificent shield maiden would make a good match for her son Gunnar and sends him to find and court her. Her son is a close companion of Sigurd and is also brother to Högni and uncle to the Valkyrie Sigrún.
The young Viking is brave and up for the task, but lacking the magic conferred upon Sigurd by slaying Fafnir the dragon, he is unable to pass through the flames which still burn around Brynhildr’s castle. To overcome this obstacle Grimhild causes Sigurd, still under her control, to shape-shift into the form of her son.
Once transformed he enters the castle and proceeds to marry Brynhildr where they spend three chaste nights together, with his sword between them in their marriage bed. The two then return to Gjuki and Grimhild’s court where Sigurd returns to his true form and Brynhildr is handed over to Gunnar, with the deception intact.
Curse of the ring
As the fates and the curse of the ring would have it, sometime later Brynhildr and Gudrun are bathing together by a riverbank. Feeling proud of her marriage status to the hero Gunnar, Brynhildr haughtily informs Gudrun that she will not share the same water with her, due to her husband’s importance.
Stung by the words Gudrun tells the tale of her husband, Sigurd, slaying of Fafnir the dragon. Brynhildr retorts that only brave Gunnar had been capable of riding through a wall of flame to claim her hand in marriage. Unable to bear the affront, Gudrun reveals that it was in truth Sigurd who rode through the fire and proves her point by producing the wedding ring gifted to him by Brynhildr on their wedding night.
Incensed by the deception, the vengeful shield maiden causes Gunnar to slay Sigurd, but once the deed is done, she is filled with regret and brings an end to herself out of grief and madness. The ill-fated couple is burned together on the same funeral pyre, fulfilling the curse of the Nibelung ring.
Sigrún and Helgi
Sigrún, whose name means ‘Victory Rune’, is another of the Valkyries with a colourful history. She is with her band of warrior maidens when she first encounters the mortal Viking hero Helgi Hundingsbane, son of Sigmund and Borghild.
Then glittered light
And from the light
the flashes leaped;
High under helms
on heaven’s field;
Their byrnies all
with blood were red,
And from their spears
the sparks flew forth.
The young Viking was a warrior to the bone, famous already for slaying the Saxon king Hunding when he was a scant fifteen years to avenge the death of his father. Thus his name, ‘Hunding’s Bane’.
His skill in combat and continued feats of bravery attract the attention of Sigrún far above in Asgard. Besotted with the striking mortal she rides out with her band of maidens and finds the Midgardian standing at the prow of his longboat.
Without ceremony, the forward goddess embraces her chosen lover, they kiss and instantly fall in love.
A forbidden love
But Lofn, the Aesir goddess of forbidden love, must have been near when they met as their union was blocked by fate. Sigrún’s father, Högni had already betrothed his daughter in marriage to one Höthbrod, the son of Granmar, a Viking ruler.
Bewitched by the heavenly swan maiden, Helgi does not hesitate to sack Granmar’s stronghold and put to the ax any who naysay his union with Sigrún.
Sigrún’s father and brothers come to Granmar’s aid and fight alongside him, but Helgi is too fierce a warrior and slays all to the last man save for Dagr, a brother of Sigrún. Helgi deigns to spare him as long as he will swear an oath of loyalty.
The love-bound Valkyrie cries tears of joy to learn of Helgi’s victory, enraged as she was at the injustice of her father’s unwanted marriage betrothal.
The pair marry and are blessed with sons, living in happiness until Dagr, unable to reconcile the death of his father and brothers, plots his revenge.
He pleads with mighty Odin and makes a sacrificial offering to the Allfather, who in return, gifts him a spear that will doubtless achieve the task.
Dagr finds his enemy and sure enough, once bled by the spear Helgi’s fate is sealed. The vengeful brother’s victory is short-lived, however, as Sigrún, upon learning of his treachery, places upon him a Valkyrie curse, condemning him to live as an outcast in the wild, scavenging upon carrion meat to survive until the world ends.
The wind would stop every time he entered a ship.
The fastest horse would not carry him if he is hunted.
His sword would wound no one but himself.
Bereft of her brave, headstrong lover, Sigrún buried him in a fitting barrow. His freed soul flew up to Valhalla to be welcomed by Odin into the ranks of the Einherjar.
Sigrún’s grief knows no bounds and at last, the Valkyrie passes from this world, to be reincarnated, however, to the life of a heavenly shield maiden once more.
The Einherjar, ‘Once Fighters’
Those selected by the Valkyries for death and the journey to Valhalla are known as the Einherjar.
Their lives in Odin’s great hall are the dream existence of every born warrior. They fight all day, hacking, gouging, and dismembering their companions, honing their battle skills. In the evening all their wounds are healed, the shield maidens serve them mead, and they are honored to drink in the presence of great Odin.
Their food is prepared from the magical boar, Saehrimnir, the perfect meat for gods and warriors. Each day the beast is slain and then returns to life when the feast is over. He is then fattened and butchered once more for the morrow’s meal, living and dying eternally for the host of ravenous fighters.
Their mead is a perfect brew drawn from the udders of Heidrun the goat, whose bounty is endless and allows the Einherjar to drink their fill without restraint before retiring to bed.
By night, those who have taken swan-maidens as their wives can pass the time with their stunning Valkyrie brides.
Although no Viking warrior could ask for more than this, their time in Valhalla is limited. Eventually when the time of Ragnarok comes their skills will be put to the test as they assist Odin in his battle against the great wolf Fenrir.
They shall fail to save Odin, but be strong enough to hold back his enemies while his son Vidar takes revenge. Nevertheless, they shall all find their end in this world as Asgard and the other created realms sink into the giant waves caused by Jormungand the world snake.
The Fate of the Einherjar and the Valkyries
Although leading charmed existences in the hall of Valhalla and beyond, the brave Einherjar and the valiant shield maidens who chose them can only go on in their perpetual bliss of feasting and warring for so long.
When all the Signs of Ragnarok have been witnessed, the Once Fallen, numbering 432,000 in all, will gird themselves for war. When they are readied, they will march out, 800 at a time through each of the 540 doors of Odin’s hall as described in the Grímnismál Edda:
Five hundred doors
and another forty
so I believe there is in Valhǫll;
eight hundred einherjar
walk through each door
when they fare to fight the wolf
As skilled as they are in battle from their millennia of combat, still the wolf Fenrir will devour swathes from among their ranks and the destruction of the worlds shall take the rest.
The Valkyries also shall fight alongside their King and Queen, slaying many from among the giant clans and battling the hosts of dead from Loki’s ship of nails, the Naglfar. But at last, they too shall succumb to the end of all worlds and sink with their comrades beneath the waves of Jorumungand’s flood.