Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Norse Mythology has heard of Valkyrie. Readers, artists, and audiences have imagined them as noble warrior women and maybe symbolic of a proudly militaristic past when Scandinavians raided much of the rest of the world to their heart’s content. If nothing else, there’s a good chance a reader is familiar with a version of them through the 2017 hit Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok, although before that point Valkyrie was rated a B-level comics character.
If we brought someone familiar with the mythology back when it was new here to the present and showed them examples of our current media about Valkyries, they’d probably be a bit bewildered. It isn’t so much that in the original mythology the Valkyrie were a bunch of accountants instead of warriors, but it’s much closer to that than you might think…
10. Not Really Warriors
Most pop culture depictions of the Valkyrie will feature them in helmets, heavily armed, and ready for battle. But battle’s not the main function that the Valkyrie served in the original mythology at all. The perception is the result of a cultural blend of their legend with that of the Amazons from Greek mythology.
The true, primary purpose that the Norse god Odin had the Valkyrie serve was to arrive after the end of a battle and escort distinguished fallen warriors to the hallowed Valhalla, where they would rejoice with Odin (their name literally translates to “Choosers of the Slain”). They left the rest of the soldiers to the afterlife known as the Folkvangr (“Soldier Field”). Considering that Folkvangr was an afterlife ruled by the goddess of love and beauty Freya, it was probably a decent way to spend eternity, too. It’s understandable that being in proximity to battlefields convinced generations they must be female warriors. Honestly, though, getting a duty that involved staying out of the fray of battle seems like the best jobs they could have been assigned. Especially considering the status of medical equipment at the time.
9. Elevated Mortals?
You’d probably think that Odin would fill the ranks of his women who decide which soldiers are worthy of his warrior heaven with goddesses. That’s the kind of job you’d want to assign to with someone with the objective perspective that comes with immortality. That wasn’t how Odin did things, though: The Valkyrie were chosen from the realm of mortals and elevated to the state of demigoddesses.
That’s not to say they were necessarily peasants before Odin made them his maids. One by the name of Svana was the daughter of King Eylimi. Others had the full title of queen before joining Valhalla. Usually they were queens and princesses of tribes rather than full nations, but it was very esteemed company by Norse standards nevertheless.
In every region of the world there seems to be written record of a culture venerating female virginity. But in a manner similar to the Vestal Virgins of Rome, the exalted status of mortal virgins to Valhalla wasn’t so much because female virginity was supposed to be an inherently good thing. It was because the Valkyrie needed to remain virgins so that they could remain immortal.
You might think this requirement would prevent any tales of humans forming relationships with Odin’s own, but no, the original tales often included mention of human/valkyrie relationships. They were tragic romances. In some cases, the romances would involve rival lovers where one would be murdered, then the victim would return from the dead and kill her rival just as the initial victor was about to claim her male prize. But even doomed love is less tragic than none at all.
7. Feather Capes
The general image for a Valkyrie no doubt features them in more Mediterranean-style armor and garb. They’d be dressed in light tunics, chain mail, and similar implements. Not like they were originally envisioned at all.
The original Norse mythology had them dressed in capes made of feathers, which came either from swans or ravens. So there weren’t just the white-silver uniforms featured in Thor: Ragnarok. Valkyrie purists should also be picturing the cloaks of the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones. Additionally, some versions of the Valkyrie exploits include the ability of the Valkyrie to turn their capes into wings. They must have resembled the menacing wings that Maleficent had in her 2014 movie.
6. Nightmare Looms
It’s almost forgotten today, but there was a particularly grim portrayal of Valkyries that makes them sound less like some kind of feminine ideal and more like horror movie monsters. In Eddas and the Sagas, one of the definitive texts of Norse Mythology, an early depiction showed their activities before the Battle of Clontarf (a particularly deadly battle in 1014 wherein an Irish army under the command of King Brian Boru killed thousands of Norse soldiers). Instead of going amongst the fallen after the battle to select worthy warriors, the twelve Valkyries were sitting at looms to determine the fates of soldiers. This may sound like it’s copying the Fates of Greek mythology, but it was actually derived from early Norse mythological figures called the Norns.
The Valkyries were not using looms that were in the slightest way whimsical or celestial. The cord on them was made of intestines, and the weights were severed heads. The weaving involved the use of arrows and swords as weaving tools. There was no stately reserve as they did their duty; they were chanting the nature of their business with delight. This saga was in keeping with the times, as Celts and other European groups from roughly the same region imagined goddesses of death in similarly macabre ways that did not provide death in battle with any semblance of dignity.
Selecting the warriors for Valhalla or Folkvangr and accompanying Odin to certain events (such as the funeral of his brother) might make the Valkyrie sound like highly esteemed members of society among the gods. The reality was that in the considerable downtime between battles, they were assigned to pour drinks for Odin and the heroes they’d brought up to Valhalla. Considering that Valhalla was so big that it was supposed to have about 540 doors, that was no light job!
Mead, which was a form of alcohol that came from fermenting honey in water, was definitely the drink of choice during the many feasts in that hallowed hall. It was so identified with Odin that he was supposed to have gained strength from drinking it as a baby. His drinking horn was never to be left completely empty.
As far as food went, the most prominently mentioned was meat from a boar named Saehrimnir. This was a particularly unlucky animal in that every night after a feast the meat that had been cut from it would completely rejuvenate. Even in descriptions of Norse heaven the mythology can produce some surprisingly creepy aspects. There was mention in one of the myths that Odin didn’t eat any of the meat in favor of his drink, and it’s hard to blame him.
4. Blood Magic
Their duties of handing out honors to the valiant who were killed in action and giving Odin refills might make the Valkyrie seem considerably less militarily majestic than being a collection of warriors who fought in the fray. However, these were people that were not necessarily constrained by their roles as Odin’s maids, and that could mean their stories went in wild directions. For example, in one saga there was a Valkyrie named Skuld who reanimates a group of soldiers to attack her brother Hrolf (and ultimately kill him).
As operatically grotesque as using a contingent of the undead to kill a family member is, the Valkyrie could go much further than that in terms of actions that sounded out of gothic horror. The second most elaborate was in a saga called Borva Gefn, wherein Gefn caused a rain of blood. The most elaborate was when Valkyries would manifest rivers of blood in the sky so that Norse ships could row in them. It’s an image of staggering psychedelic violence, like a vision that an anti-hippie would experience.
3. Origin of the Sleeping Beauty Myth
We’ve seen in several entries that there are signs that Norse sagas were influenced by Greek mythology. As it happened, Norse mythology left some major influences of its own on classical storytelling. By far the most famous of these, even more so than the Valkyries overall, was the way that the saga of Sigrdrifa and Sigurd was the basis of the story of Sleeping Beauty.
The saga, as recounted in the 13th Century compendium Poetic Edda, begins with Sigrdrifa taking part in a battle against King Hialmgunnar. Against Odin’s wishes, she won the battle for Hialmgunnar’s enemy. The punishment for this was to be pricked with a sleep thorn. Odin further encircled her sleeping space in a column of fire. Years later, along came the knight Sigurd, who braved the fire. Sigurd wasn’t on a rescue mission. When he found the body, he didn’t even know Sigrdrifa was a woman because she was dressed in full armor and helmet, showing that there were no local legends of a woman in the fire or anything of the kind.
Sigurd did not bring her out of her sleep with a kiss–he woke her by removing her armor. It further turned out that Sigrdrifa didn’t regain her memory until she had a horn of mead. Interestingly, instead of making romantic proposals straight off, Sigurd asked for Sigrdrifa to provide him with the great wisdom that she, as a demigod, must possess, and she obliged him. You don’t need TopTenz to tell you that subsequent versions of the story (among them the German version, which changed her name to Brunhilda and his to Siegfried) changed that part!
2. Beowulf Inspiration
Most of us consider the Vikings in a fairly academic way, without feeling any outrage over the atrocities that they inflicted on numerous communities across Europe. But there’s a glimpse of this in how Danish literature treated the legend of the Valkyrie. They didn’t just reject the notion they were statuesque, fair beauties. They even went further than portraying them as women working on a ghoulism loom. The anonymous author of the 10th Century epic poem Beowulf took the Valkyrie legend and turned it into one of the most famous, and yet nameless, monsters in European fiction: Grendel’s Mother.
The influence of the Valkyrie on the character of Grendel’s Mother is more subtextual than it is explicit. Oxford professor Helen Damico argued that the connections exist in how she is also a half-mortal, half-superhuman entity, and how both the character and the inspiration are implied to be some form of higher class (though this is primarily through the pronouns used to describe Grendel’s Mother). There’s also how she’s a wandering spirit of death, as the Danes would likely have considered their Norse adversaries and their religious figures. In its own way, it brings the grievances that were held against the Norse raiders vividly to life to see other cultures interpreting their mythical figures as wretched beasts.
1. Not Numerous
Fantasy stories and movies like Thor: Ragnarok will present us with images of formidable ranks of Valkyries. Going by the number that were present at even the largest, most epic of battles in the sagas, there actually didn’t seem to be that many of them. Sources such as Norse Mythology A to Z state that there were either never more than 13 of them at a time. Sometimes there were nine of them. But the earliest surviving writing about them says that there were only six Valkyrie at the beginning.
Now granted, ancient Scandinavian armies were not huge. The roughly 4,000 the Vikings got together for the Battle of Maldon in 991 was very high by the standards of the time. Still, we would want many more than six potential eye witnesses/judges on hand to decide if we go to eternal reward, especially if there are numerous battles happening on Earth at the time. That doesn’t even seem like it would even be enough for a good serving staff for Valhalla, but they must have made do.
Dustin Koski invented some mythological figures of his own for his cult fantasy novel Not Meant to Know.