Fierce and Fair: The Valkyries of Norse Legend

valkyrieI’d like to thank Viking Rune for inviting me to write a guest post here on his blog. The subject that naturally sprang to mind for me was the Valkyries.

Norse mythology is filled with memorable stories and themes that still echo within our hearts and minds centuries after they were created. One part of those legends that has inspired me is the Valkyries. And I am not alone, the Valkyries have inspired everything from operas to video games, comic books to paintings, sculptures to episodes of Xena, Warrior Princess. So what do we know about the Valkyries?
Let’s start with the name. Valkyrie comes from the Old Norse valkyrja which means “chooser of the slain.” That’s fairly straightforward, except there is some confusion as to whether or not they choose who will fall in battle or just which of the fallen will go to Valhalla. Snorri Sturluson tells us in the Elder Eddas:

…these does Othin send to every battle; they ordain which men are doomed to death, and decide the victory.

But in the Volsunga Saga (the basis for Wagner’s epic opera series) Odin punishes Brynhildr (also called Brünnhilde) for allowing King Hjalmgunnar to die. This implies that Odin makes the choices and the Valkyries simply carry out his will.
The idea of Valkyries not just choosing from those who died in battle but choosing who will die in battle might be connected to one particular member of this band of warrior women – Skuld. Her name can be roughly translated as Future and not only is she a Valkyrie, she is also one of the Norns. The Norns were three female beings who ruled over destiny, deciding the fates of gods and men. So it makes sense that at least one particular Valkyrie – Skuld – could be choosing which warriors are not going to make it through the battle.
Once these warriors die in battle they are brought to Valhalla where they become Einherjar, the host of warriors who will fight beside the gods at Ragnarök. In the meantime the warriors train and fight during the day and then feast at night. In the Gylfaginning Odin says:

Hrist and Mist | I would have bear the horn to me,
Skeggjöld and Skögull;
Hildr and Thrúdr, | Hlökk and Herfjötur,
Göll and Geirahöd,
Randgrídr and Rádgrídr | and Reginleif
These bear the Einherjar ale.

This is the basis for the Valkyries also being known as cup-maidens. One of the other kennings for them is shield-maidens which refers to their place on the battlefields, but also suggests their role as supernatural guardians. There are tales of Valkyries who essentially follow one individual throughout their life and help to protect them. One such lucky individual is Helgi. The Valkyrie Sváva acts as his protector throughout his life and he even calls her his “radiant bride.” In Hrómundar Saga we have an individual protected by a woman in the shape of a swan who flies overhead during battles.
We are told in Magnusson & Morris’s translation notes to the Volsunga Saga that there are three different aspects of the Valkyrie: those who are simply of divine origin; swan-maidens who have magical cloaks that allow them to assume the form of the bird; and mortal kings’ daughters who “devoted themselves to warlike deeds and perpetual maidenhood.” These women could be received into the Valkyries’ ranks, but if they fell in love and married, they would then lose all of their power.
The original oral nature of Norse mythology is no doubt partly responsible for the confusing nature of these various accounts. Hilda Roderick Ellis, in her excellent book The Road To Hel writes that the most interesting thing about the Valkyries, for her, is the different guises in which they appear. The Hákonarmál depicts the Valkyrie as noble and dignified women. Fully armored, they sit high on their horses, carrying out the commands of Othin and handing out victory according to his will. Yet the Darraðarljóð portrays them in a much different light – fiercer and cruder. These Valkyries are shown weaving the web of battle, they exult in blood and carnage. They don’t compare to the elegant abstractions of the Hákonarmál; Ellis finds them much more like the creatures from various passages of the sagas who ride wolves, sit in blood-drenched houses and wave bloodstained cloths over those about to fight. There are various examples throughout Norse literature of strange elemental beings who .rejoice in slaughter and the conflicts of men.
Ellis tells how Gustav Neckel also made this distinction between fierce elemental beings and protective supernatural women in his book Walhall. Neckel suggests that an older belief in a type of battle demon can account for the class of Valkyrie who delights in blood and slaughter. He places them closer to the giantesses and hostile to the gods. Neckel sees Freyja as the chief spirit of the other class of Valkyries who are helpful and protective, a class which he calls dísir.
Two classes of Valkyrie, or even three? I have to confess this is the most confusing part for me. Are they singular beings that encompass all these different roles? Are there more than one class of Valkyries as Neckel suggests, each class filling different roles? I still haven’t decided but I’d be interested in reading everyone’s thoughts on this.
If you’re interested in reading more I can suggest the following:

Mark Neumayer is a long-time Norse mythology enthusiast and author of the book Valda & the Valkyries, a novel based on Norse mythology.

Photo: The Valkyrie’s Vigil by Edward Robert Hughes. Public domain.

9 comments… add one
  • Oli

    I think that there are no specific classes of valkyrjas, but rather different views on them:
    The valkyrjas much like other aspects of Asatro (or norse-mythology) are not as such defined in a singular place. These stories are from different parts in the old world and different time and thus reveal more how they are seen there at the time. Remember that these myths were not written down but survived by word-of-mouth so they did not only change with time but also became different in different locations.

    There are stories who claim that Thor takes common men who fall in battle while Odin takes the “better” men like lords or kings while other stories claim that the valkyrjas choose among the slain or that they choose according to the wishes of Odin.
    Another stories claim Freyja takes half of the fallen to her “Folkvangr” field and Odin the other half, but this might be only when Freyja rides to battle. In Egils saga, Egils daughter mentiones going to Freyja.

    I remember reading in a book about the history of romans about a conflict between roman troops and “barbarians” where the barbarian women attended as witnesses of the battle with their breasts bared, when their men died they took their own life (if I remember correctly). I sometimes wonder if this is one of the roots to the valkyrja storyline, it is known that some princesses were given the title of valkyrja.

    There is a story in Poetic Edda called Volundarkvida where three valkyrjas fly over darkwood to a beach in sweden, in short they meet three princes of a king kalled Nidadur and enjoy each other for seven years. But on the eight year the valkyrjas become restless and on the ninth year they cannot resist the urge to seek back south ower darkwood to deliver fate. It is a bit funny that on wikipedia they are only called swan-maidens, but in the original tekst they are directly called valkyrjas who could don a swan likeness so to speak or shapechange. It is mentioned that their swan-hamur lay at their side when the princes found them.

  • Jay

    I might be completely wrong, but I was always thinking that shield maiden are the female humans who would go into battle as well. Where as valkyries are “unreal” mystic beings like Odin, Freya, etc.?

  • Ramon Menendez

    I did not see mention of the leader of the Valkerie (Frehja) – it is she who is to choose only the greatest of warriors slain in battle to sit in Valhala

  • Tawny Owl

    Well written article, thank you for the good work!
    I already suspected there are different kinds of valkyries.
    But I read somewhere they are all dísir.
    Both the valkyries and their close kin the fylgjukonur.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Tawny. Sounds interesting.

  • Romeo Bollen


    Im looking for the orignal form in elder runes for valkyrjar, walkuren or valkerie. Could you point me in the right direction. It is for a tattoo and I have found several websites stating they could provide me with it but the runes differ from site to site.

    Kind regards,


    • victor

      the “original” (old norse) form is valkyrja, plural valkyrjur… If Im not mistaken a good refference might be on “Njal’s Saga” but also look for the article here of how to see the diferences between old icelandic and old norse cuz there are a lot of versions out there

      • victor A

        My bad, there is an Edda “the spae of the volva” or “völuspá” that mentions it. Not much but it does. There is also about the Valkyrie Sigrud but I’m not sure abou the saga’s name. Then yeah try to translate it to old Norse with the link below, I guarantee that will be a job well done, really accurate in spelling but I don’t know about the language cuz the name of the gods and their spelling change so using elder futhark for an example to substitute old Icelandic might be pretty wrong. Old Norse was used by viking’s but using young futhark and so on… Elder Futhark might have a better structure for spelling but sometimes I’m in conflict to by using the right language to something of the time that it was used like a vegvisir with young futhark maybe or using elder futhark with it. But there are a lot of choices and good luck, this site is the best I could find EVER and it helps a lot, the link below will give you a lot more help

    • Viking Rune

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