The Valkyries attained their greatest development in Viking times, with the growth of war and of Odin as War-god and chief deity, and skaldic poetry doubtless aided in this. Yet their personality is of more remote origin.

The ON Valkyrjor (singular Valkyrja) means “Choosers of the slain” (valr, “the host of the slain,” i.e., in battle, and kjósa, “to choose” — word used for the acceptance of sacrifice by a god). They were also called Valmeyjar, “Battle-maids”; Hjalmmeyjar, “Helmet-maids”; Oskmeyjar, “Wish-maids,” because they performed the wish of Odin (or, perhaps, “Adopted-maids,” i.e., adopted by Odin, just as dead warriors in Valhall were his “Adopted sons,” oska-synir); Herjan’s (Odin’s) Disir. The names Hjalmvitr, Folkvitr, and Sarvitr, meaning respectively “Helmet”-, “Battle”-, and “Wound-wight,” also occur. To these names correspond the AS Sigewîf, ON Sigrmeyjar.1

Snorri describes them in their final form. They serve in Valhall, carry drink, and attend to the table-service and ale-flagons. Odin sends them to every battle. They choose or determine men’s feyness and award victory. Guth, Rota, and Skuld, the youngest Norn, ride to choose (kjósa) the slain and decide fights.2

The Eddic poems have several references to purely supernatural Valkyries and also to Valkyries who are maidens of mortal descent with certain supernatural powers. The latter are found in the heroic poems. In Grimnismal Odin tells how certain Valkyries bring the horn at his will, and carry beer to the warriors in Valhall. These are Hrist or “Shaker,” Mist or


“Mist,” Skeggjold or “Axe-time,” Skogul or “the Raging one,” Hild or “Warrior,” Thrud or “Might,” Hlok or “the Shrieker” or “the Fetter,” Herfjotur or “Host-fetter,” Goll (?), Geirronul or “Spear-bearer,” Randgrid or “Shield-bearer,” Rathgrid, “Plan-destroyer” (?), and Reginleif, or “Companion of the gods” (?). Other names are found in Voluspa and in the Sagas.3 The Valkyries ride to the battle-field, helmeted, their birnies red with blood, sparks flying from their spears. Lightning accompanies them. Or, as in another account, they fly from Heaven, helmed maids, wound-givers. War follows their appearance, and a splendid description of their assembling, ready to ride over the earth, occurs in Voluspa. They ride through air and sea, three, nine, or thrice nine in number, one riding first. Their horses shake themselves. From their manes drop dew in the dales and hail on the lofty trees, bringing fruitfulness to men. They exercise care over heroes dear to them and guard their ships.4 If the allusion to Valkyries in the flyting between Sinfjotli and Gudmund in Helgakvitha Hundingsbana is based on myth, then the warriors in Valhall fought for the possession of some of them. Sinfjotli says of Gudmund:

“Thou wast, evil witch, a Valkyrie,
Loathsome and malicious, in Odin’s hall,
The warriors must ever fight,
Wilful woman, on thy account.”

Where the Valkyries come to the battle-field the wolf (“the horse of the giantess”) and their birds, the ravens, are gorged with the slain.6 Hence such kennings for battle as “storm” or “storm-wind of the Valkyries,” or “Hild’s game.”7

At Balder’s funeral Frigg and the Valkyries rode with Odin.8 In the Volsunga-saga Ljod, daughter of the giant Hrimnir, is Odin’s Oskmaer, “wish-” or “adopted-maid,” and when Rerir prayed for a child, Odin and Freyja heard, and Ljod was sent to him with an apple, flying in the form of a crow and dropping it into his lap. Eventually she married Volsung, the child


granted to Rerir.9 Like gods and heroes the Valkyries ride on horses, and also hover over battle-fields, sent by Odin to choose those who are to fall, perhaps to cause their death, to award victory, and to lead the chosen to Valhall, where they serve them with ale. Freyja also chose the slain and was called Val-Freyja and “Possessor of the slain,” and she poured ale in Valhall on one occasion.10

The appearing of the Valkyries indicated battle. Glum dreamed that two women sprinkled blood over the land from a trough, a prophecy of the fighting which was to follow. In the verse attached to this story these women are called “goddesses” and “a host of divine beings riding over the land.”11 In the Sturlunga-saga there is a dream about two blood-stained women rowing in a boat, while blood dropped around. One of them sang that they were Gunn and Gondul, and that blood rained before men fell in fight. This was an omen of fighting in Iceland.12 Before Harald Hardradi sailed for England, Gyrd dreamed of a woman holding a short sword and a trough of blood, and Thord of a woman sitting on a wolf with a corpse in its mouth.13 These dream-women are of the Valkyrie kind.

The skalds picture Odin sending Valkyries to choose the slain and conduct them to Valhall. Bragi’s song of Lodbrok ends:

“Home bid me the Valkyries,
Who from high Valhall,
Odin hither sent to me.
Gladly ale with Æsir
Shall I drink in high seat.”

In the Hakonarmal on Hakon’s death, the Valkyries Gondul and Skogul are sent by Odin to choose among the kings one of the race of Yngvi-Frey to enter his service. They go to the battle-field. The king is dying. Gondul says that the gods’ army is waxing great now that Hakon and a host are coming to Valhall. Hakon sees the Valkyries mounted, with helmets and shields, and asks why deserved victory was withheld. Skogul


says that thus they had arranged it. Hakon kept the field till his enemies fled. Now the Valkyries must ride to the city of the gods to tell Odin that a mighty king is coming to him.15 In the earlier Eiriksmal Odin awakes from a dream in which he had bidden the heroes prepare the benches and fill the beer-vats, and the Valkyries to bear the wine, as if a king and host were coming. This precedes the coming of Eirik to Valhall.16 The punishment of Sigrdrifa (Brynhild) by Odin shows that a Valkyrie might be self-willed and not carry out Odin’s wishes. Odin had promised victory to Hjalmgunnar, but the Valkyrie slew him in battle, favouring his opponent Agnar. Odin pricked her with a sleep-thorn, which caused her to sleep till Sigurd waked her, and said that she would never again win victory in battle but would be married. She was bound by this spell in a shield-tower, surrounded by fire, on a high mountain.17

The heroic poems of the Edda show that heroic women of mortal birth were regarded by the poets as Valkyries and dowered with supernatural power. Brynhild, daughter of Budli, is either confused with a Valkyrie of that name, or herself regarded as one. Oddrun bids her wear the helmet and say that she will be a Wish-maid, but she is described in human terms. She is the “victory-bringer” (sigrdrifa), a word regarded as a proper name, that of a Valkyrie different from Brynhild. She rides her horse Vingskornir and wears helmet and coat-of-mail.18 Svava, daughter of king Eylimi, is called a Valkyrie, one of nine whom Helgi sees riding. She gives him his name and tells him where to find a superb sword.19 Sigrun, daughter of king Hogni, is a third human Valkyrie. Helgi saw the Valkyries coming and addressed Sigrun, here called “the southern Dis,” and in the sequel married her.20 According to the poet, Sigrun was reborn as the Valkyrie Kara.21 The epithets applied to these heroines are those which would be applied to supernatural Valkyries — “white,” “fair, with helmed head,” “bright in corslet,” “sun-bright,” “with clear, brilliant hue,”


“gold-decked,” “richly decked with gold.” Sometimes Valkyries are characterized as coming from or belonging to the South — suthronn, droser suthronar, “southern women,” Diser suthronar, and this is true of Sigrun.22

These heroine Valkyries shield their favourites in battle, protect their ships, and bring ill to their foes. Brynhild also taught magic runes to Sigurd.

Were beings like Valkyries known in other parts of the Teutonic area? The Idisi of the Merseburg charm (South Germany) correspond to the Disir among whom Valkyries were included. The charm says that the Idisi sat down. Some fastened bonds, presumably on enemy prisoners. Some held back the host, perhaps by magic or by taking part in the fight. Some tugged at the fetters, i.e., of prisoners whom they favoured. By repeating this charm, which must refer to some myth about the Idisi and their actions, and by adding: “Leap forth from the bonds, escape the enemy” fetters were supposed to be unloosed. The actions of the Idisi correspond to some degree to what underlies the names of certain Valkyries, viz., Hlok, if this means “Fetter,” and Herfjotur, “Fetter of the host,” or perhaps “panic terror,” such as is indicated by the ON word herfjoturr, thus holding back the enemy by terror. In the Hardar-saga it is said that “over Hord the herfjot is come,” but he got rid of this “magic band” (galdraband) on two occasions. On the third he was overcome by it and slain. The Sturlunga-saga gives several examples of this palsying terror, followed by death. Herfjoturr or panic terror befell men in battle or seeking security in flight. Thus Gudmund and Svarthofdi were fleeing from Illugi, when the former fell back. His companion asked him if herfjoturr had come over him. Illugi now gained upon him and slew him.23 The Idisi who loose fetters recall the magic runes for loosing chains in Havamal and Svipdagsmal.24

In the Idisi as a group of female spirits of war we may thus see an old Germanic source of the later, more specialized Norse group of Valkyries, of whom Herfjotur would be the spirit or


goddess who causes paralysing terror, thus making the enemy as if bound with fetters. In the field of battle which, as Tacitus says, was called Idistaviso by the Cheruscans, or according to the suggested reading which has won general acceptance, Idisiaviso, some have seen a place called after the Idisi — “field of the Idisi,” as if they had aided in a victory there. Idisi means “women” or, more definitely, “supernatural women,” like the Greek ½Í¼Æ·.25

The Anglo-Saxon word Wælcyrge (equivalent of Valkyrie) is glossed Bellona, Erinys, Tisiphone, Parca, venefica. Another gloss speaks of eyes as “Wælcyrigean eagan” or “gorgoneus,” as if their eyes were terrible as a Gorgon’s.26 The Wælcyrge was thus a sinister being, and other references rather suggest a supernatural witch than a Valkyrie. The older War-maidens may have degenerated into witch-like beings. An Anglo-Saxon charm against pain supposed to be inflicted by a little spear thrown by supernatural beings from the air calls it êsa gescot, ylfa gescot, hœgtessan gescot (“shot of Æsir, of elves, of witches”). Though the charm refers more immediately to witches, these are described rather as Valkyries riding through the air. “Loud were they, yea, loud as they rode over hills; haughty were they as they rode over lands.” Then it speaks of these “mighty women” mustering their hosts and sending forth their whizzing spears.27 Wulfstan, archbishop of York (1022–23 A.D.), refering to Danish invaders and Anglo-Saxon traitors, says of them that “here in England there are witches and Wælcyrgean.”28 Thus the name had become one of ill omen. The word Sigewîf, “Victorious women,” mentioned in a charm, may point to the older functions of the Anglo-Saxon Wælcyrge, though here referring merely to bees, the charm forming a blessing of bees. Kemble renders it: “Sit ye, victorious women, descend to earth; never fly ye wildly to the wood; be ye as mindful to me of good, as every man is of food and landed possessions.” Bees were supposed to have prophetic powers.29


Saxo’s virgins silvestres in the Hotherus story resemble Valkyries in their functions — taking part invisibly in battle, giving victory to their favourites, governing the fortunes of war; but they have traits of the Waldfrauen of German lore and also of fées and elfins. Very often a hero, misled by a mist as Hotherus was, meets supernatural beings in a wonderful dwelling, which afterwards vanishes with them.30 This glamour incident runs through all folk-belief and occurs in Snorri’s Edda. The woodland traits of Saxo’s Valkyries recall the Valkyrie-Swan-maidens of Volundarkvitha, as we shall see in the next Chapter.

Thus supernatural women resembling Valkyries were known elsewhere than in Norway.

In their power over the fate of men in battle and their prophetic gifts as displayed, e.g., by Brynhild31 and by the virgines silvestres in Saxo’s story, who, by auspiciis ductibus, decide the fortunes of war, the Valkyries have affinity with the Norns, the youngest of whom, Skuld, is said to be a Valkyrie. The Valkyries in Volundarkvitha are spinners, like the Norns, and one is called Alvitr, “All-wise.” An episode in the Njals-saga is also significant. Before the battle of Clontarf in 1014 A.D. between Irishmen and Norsemen, Daurrud in Caithness had a vision in which he saw twelve women riding through the air to a bower, while blood dropped from the sky. Looking in, he saw them engaged in a horrible kind of weaving. The reels and shuttles were arrows and a sword, the spindles spears, the weights men’s heads, the web was of human entrails. They sang a song — the Daurrudar-ljod — given in the Saga, as they wove the web for the coming battle and prophesied the course of the future. This weaving-song shows that the women were Valkyries, about to ride to the fight, guiding its destinies, and, as “corpse-choosing spirits,” taking charge of the slain. Their gruesome weaving forebodes the course of the fight, and the woof is “war-winning.” The weaving ended, they tore the web in two: six rode to the North with one piece; six to the South with the other. Their



This vessel, perhaps used in sacrifice or in rain-magic, or possibly for burning incense, was found at Peckatel, Schwerin. It stands sixteen inches high, and the diameter of the vessel’s mouth is fourteen inches. Similar vessels have been found in Seeland and Schonen. Bronze Age.


prophecy will now come to pass. A similar conception of weaving fates of warriors occurs in Beowulf in the phrase wigspéda gewiofu, “the weavings of victory,” as if a battle’s fate were woven by higher powers.32

The Norns wove the fate of men in general: Valkyries could be represented as weaving the fate of battle and the fateful death of warriors. Norns and Valkyries are both included among the Disir, the Valkyries being “Herjan’s Disir” and Sigrun “the southern Dis.” Snorri speaks of the kennings for “women” as “the names of goddesses, Valkyries, Norns, and Disir.” In the Asmundar-saga Asmund saw in a dream women with weapons standing over him, telling him he was singled out for supremacy, and that they, his Spadisir, would aid him against his enemies.33 These women are like Valkyries, but also resemble the weapon-bearing guardian spirits or Hamingjur. The Valkyries have also, like the Norns, a prophetic aspect. Their appearance foretells battle, as already indicated, usually through a dream of women pouring blood out of a trough, as examples in the Sagas show.34

Besides having affinity with the Norns the Valkyries have some traits of Swan-maidens, as we shall see in the next Chapter.

To what earlier conception may the later aspect of the Valkyries be traced? They resemble the War-goddesses or War-spirits of Irish mythology, whose symbols or incarnations were scald-crows, just as ravens were connected with Valkyries — “choughs of the Valkyries.”35 Such Germanic War-spirits would not at first be strictly personalized: rather would they be a group, like the Idisi. Some then became more definitely personal, like the German War-goddesses of inscriptions — Vihansa, Hariasa, Harimella, or the goddess Baduhenna mentioned by Tacitus. The derivations of these names show that the goddesses were connected with war and the host, and the name Baduhenna is cognate to that of the Irish War-goddess Badb.”36 With the growing dominance of Odin and the warrior


Valhall conception, the Valkyries took more definite shape as Odin’s servants. The passage already cited from Helgakvitha Hjorvardssonar seems to connect them with the fruitfulness of the earth, but unless they and their steeds are poetically regarded as clouds dropping dew and moisture, they do not seem to have been regarded as nature spirits.

As War-spirits the Valkyries may be reflexions of actual female warriors such as were known in Germanic custom and referred to by Flavius Vopiscus, Dio Cassius, and Paulus Diaconus.37 These are the “shield-maids,” skjald-meyjar, of the Huns, spoken of in Atlakvitha, and apparently known also in Scandinavia. They took part in the famous Bravalla battle, according to the Sogubrot and Saxo, who says that they had women’s bodies, but souls of men. Saxo also speaks of Alfhild, daughter of Siward, king of the Goths, who was a sea-rover with other like-minded maidens, and of Danish women who dressed as men and devoted themselves to war. “They offered war rather than kisses, and preferred fighting to love!”38 Such shield-maids may have given a hint for the existence of War-spirits, and it is possible that the ghosts of such women may have been regarded as spirits carrying on warfare in the unseen, as the spirits of warriors did, and so becoming spirits of battle, Idisi and Valkyries.39 A curious belief, perhaps based on memories of shield-maids and their ghosts, is found in the Penitential of the German “Corrector,” in a question asked of an alleged witch: “Dost thou believe, as certain women are accustomed to believe, that in the silence of the night, when the doors are closed, thou, with other members of the devil, are raised in the air even to the clouds, and there dost fight with others, giving and receiving wounds?”40

The derivation of the Valkyries from nightmare demons, favoured by some scholars, rests mainly on the idea of the herfjoturr as indicating “panic terror,” a paralysis of the limbs equivalent to the effects supposed to be caused by the nightmare demon. But as only one Valkyrie bears a name, Herfjotur, resembling


herfjoturr, such a derivation is hardly likely. The German Walriderske, “Rider of the dead,” is thought to be a folk-survival of the Valkyries in this earlier aspect.41 There is no reason, however, to go beyond their origin in actual War-spirits.