Valkyries, Wish-Maidens, and Swan-Maids
Dear Viking Answer Lady:
I am a high school coach for girls' sports. The school mascot is "the Vikings" and features a grim visaged male warrior. I'd like to have our women's sports teams be called "the Valkyries" but it occurs to me that I should find out more about the Valkyries before I do so. I'd appreciate any information you can give me on the topic.
Also, if you have access to any images of Valkyries, that would be helpful as well in designing team jerseys and logos.
(signed) Coaching Our Warrior Women
Bronze Brooch from Lousgaard, Bornholm, Denmark.
The Valkyrie is, in the oldest strata of belief, a corpse goddess, represented by the carrion-eating raven. The name in Old Norse, valkyrja, as well as Old English wælcyrge means literally, "chooser of the slain." The word for valkyrie was used by Anglo-Saxon scholars to gloss the names of the Greco-Roman goddeses of vengeance and retribution, the Furies or Erinyes, as well as for the Roman goddess of war, Bellona.
The Valkyrie is related to the Celtic warrior-goddess, the Morrigan, who likewise may assume the form of the raven. The Irish badb is at one and the same time a seeress foretelling the fate of men upon the battlefield and is also the carrion-crow or raven. (Rooth 228). At times the female seeress was replaced by the work of women's hands in the form of a Raven Banner:
Artist's Conception of the Raven Banner
Erat namque eis uexillum miri portenti, quod licet credam posse esse incredibile lectori, tamen, quia uerum est, ueræ inseram lectioni. Enim uero dum esset implicissimo candidissimoque intextum serico, nulliusque figure in eo inserta esset imago, tempore belli semper in eo videbatur coruus ac se intextus, in uictoria suorum quasi hians ore excutiensque alas, instabilisque totoque corpore demissus.
For the Danes had a banner possessed of a wonderful property, which although I believe it will seem incredible to the reader, nevertheless, because it is true, I will insert it for him for the sake of truth. For although it was woven of a very plain bright silk and had no figure embroidered on it yet always in time of war a raven seemed as it were to appear on it, in victory opening its beak and beating its wings, restless in its feet, but very quiet and drooping in its whole body in defeat. (Hrafnhildur Bodvarsdottir, p.111)
Sometimes the blood-covered Valkyrie-prophetesses are seen themselves as weavers, as in the poem Darraðarljóð where the valkyries appear to prophesy the outcome of the next day's battle (describing the fall of Brian Boru to Viking forces at the Battle of Clontarf, 1014):
Blood rains from the cloudy web
Vítt er orpit fyri valfalli
Romantic Depiction of the Norns Spinning Fate
Viking Age Women Wove on an Upright Loom
Valkyries Were Confused with the Folklore Motif of the Swan-Maiden
The Legend of Volundr from the Franks Casket
Weaving is an integral function of both the valkyrie and the Norn. In Beowulf we read of the wigspeda gewiofu (weavings of victory), creafted by the valkyrie. The valkyrie who can weave victory can also weave defeat, for the valkyrie had the art of the war-fetter, which allowed the valkyrie to bind a warrior with terror, or release a favored warrior from those same bonds. Like the Norns, the valkyries are intimately involved in weaving or spinning the fates of men. In this capacity, the valkyries were worshiped as disir, and offered sacrifices (dísablót) as in Ynglingasaga Chapter 28.
Midway between the third and eleventh centuries, the Valkyries begin assuming a more benign aspect. Small amulets and pictures on memorial stones begin to depict the figure of the beautiful woman welcoming the deceased hero with a horn of mead to the afterlife. By this later time, the Valkyries as demigoddesses of death had their legend conflated with the folklore motif of the swan maiden (young girls who are able to take on the form of a swan, sometimes as the result of a curse). In her role as swan-maiden, the valkyrie can travel rida lopt ok log, "through air and through water." It is known that the swan was popularly associated with the concept of augury. See, for instance, the phrase, es scwant mir, (it swans me, meaning "I have a premonition or a foreboding").
If one could capture and hold a swan maiden, or her feathered cloak (alftarham), one could extract a wish from her. This may be why sometimes valkyries are known as swan maidens or oskmey (wish maidens), or perhaps they take this name from Odinn's appelations, Oski or Wunsc (wish). In his identity as the god cognate to the Roman Mercury, Odinn at times is found to carry a wunsciligerta (OHG, wishing-rod). Grimm makes the connection between the wunsciligerta and the sleep thorn with which Odinn enchants Brynhildr into the magical sleep, and also connects it to the enchanted spindle upon whcih folktale descendents of Brynhildr will prick their fingers and be cast into a hundred-years' slumber. Rocks associated with the valkyries Brynhildr or Kreimhildr are sometimes called spilstein or Chreimhildespil, derived from spille (spindle, fusus), or the stone might be called kunkelstein (distaff-stone).
The motif of the swan-maiden appears in the earliest strata in the sagas. In Helreid Brynhildar, a man named Agnar forced Brynhildr and her seven sisters into his service by hiding as they bathed and then stealing their swan-shifts. In Volundarkvida, the saga tells of three Valkyries who put their swan-shifts aside to sit on the shore spinning flax, and who consequently were wooed and won by three brothers -- here the oskmeyjar stay seven years with the brothers, only to fly away at the end of that time, never to return. In Hromundars saga Greipssonar, the valkyrie Kara appears in swan shape flying above a battle, shapechanged by the wearing of a alftarham (swan-shift). However in time, the valkyrie/swan-maiden evolves into a marchen character, Dornroschen, Sleeping Beauty, the wunschelweib.
The descriptions of Odinn's hall describe the Valkries as foster-daughters, just as the einherjar (the chosen warriors of Odinn) are foster sons. See Grimnsimal 36, Gylfaginning 36) Freyja is said to be the first of the Valkyries, called Valfreyja, "Mistress of the Slain," she pours ale at the feasts of the Aesir (Skaldskarpamal 17) Other names for Freyja include:
- Mardöll ("Sea-Shining", probably a kenning for amber)
- Hörn ("Lady of Flax")
- Gefn ("The Giving")
- Sýr ("The Sow", "The Protector")
- Vanadís ("Goddess of the Vanir")
- Þrungva ("She Who Pines for Love Lost")
- Skjálf ("Shield", "She Who Protects")
Although the sources are not clear on this, the chief of the Valkyries seems to have been the goddess Freyja. Like Odinn, she received half of those slain in battle, but since ladies go first she was allowed first choice! Freyja possessed a magical cloak of falcon feathers that allowed her to take the shape of a falcon if she wished, making the swan maidens similar to the goddess by having "feather coats" or cloaks that enable their shape-shifting abilities and the power of flight.
The Valkyries appeared riding in a troop, often of nine war-like women:
Þá brá lióma af Logafiöllom
enn af þeim liómom leiptrir qvómo;
hávar und hiálmom á Himinvanga
Brynior vóro þeira blóði stocnar.
Enn af geirom geislar stóðo.
Helgakviða Hundingsbana I
[Then burst forth light at Logafell
and from those lights flashes leaped forth.
[The maidens rode] sublime under helmets on Heaven's Plain;
their byrnies were spattered with blood
and beams stood forth from their spear-points.]
Hlude wæran hy, la, hlude
ða hy ofer þone hlæw ridan,
wæran anmode. ða hy ofer land ridan,
. . . .
þær ða mihtigan wif
hyra mægen beræddon
and hy gellende garas sændan.
For a Sudden Stitch
[Loud were they, lo
when they rode over the barrow.
Bold were they, when they rode over the land.
. . . .
when the mighty women
made ready their strength
and they sent forth the screaming spears.]
Eiris sazun idisi, sazun here duoder
suma hapt heptidun, suma heri lezidun,
suma clubodun umbi cuoniouuidi;
insprinc haptbandun, unuar uigandun.
First Merseberg Charm
[In days gone by, the idisi sat and they sat here and yonder.
Some made firm the fetters, some hindered the host
and some picked apart the chains;
escape from fetters, escape from foes.]
Warlike Valkyrie from a Pillar in the Stave Church at Urnes
Brunnhild and Odin by F.L. Spence, 1915
There are several traditional names for Valkyries mentioned in the sagas and the Eddas:
- Brynhildr ("Byrnie of Battle" or "Mail-coat of Battle")
- Sigrdrifa ("Victory Blizzard")
- Sigrún ("Victory Rune")
- Hrist ("The Shaker")
- Mist ("The Mist" or "The Fog")
- Skeggjöld ("Wearing a War Axe")
- Skögul ("Battle")
- Hildr ("Battle")
- Hilda ("Battle")
- Hildeberg ("Battle Fortress")
- Hildegund ("Battle War")
- Þrúðr ("Power")
- Hlökk ("Noise", "Din of Battle")
- Herfjötur ("War-Fetter")
- Göll ("Loud Cry", "Battle Cry")
- Geirahöd ("Spear of Battle")
- Grimhildr ("Mask or Helm of Battle")
- Randgríðr ("Shield of Peace")
- Ráðgriðr ("Counsel of Peace" or "Gods' Peace")
- Reginleif ("Heritage of the Gods")
- Gunnr ("Battle")
- Róta ("She Who Causes Turmoil")
- Skuld ("She Who Is Becoming")
- Göndul ("Magic Wand" or "Enchanted Stave" or perhaps, "She-Were-Wolf")
Arthur Rackham's Depiction of the Valkyrie Brunhild
Terms describing valkyries include:
- Valkyrie ("Chooser of the Slain")
- Waelcyrie or Waelcyrge (Old English form of the word Valkyrie, also means "Raven")
- Walachuriá (Old High German form of the word Valkyrie)
- Valakusjó (Gothic form of the word Valkyrie)
- Valmeyjar ("Battle Maidens", "Corpse Maidens")
- Skjaldmeyjar ("Shield Maidens")
- Hjalmmeyjar ("Helm Maidens")
- Óskmeyjar ("Wish Maidens")
- Svanmeyja ("Swan Maiden")
- Hvít ("White")
- Hjalmvítr ("Helm-White")
- Biört ("Bright")
- Sólbiört ("Sun-Bright")
- Alvítr ("All-White")
- Drósir Suðrænar (southern maids)
- Suðræn (southern one)
- Dísir Suðrænar (southern dísir or goddesses) (in Völundarkviða and the Helgi lays)
Valkyrie from a Romantic Engraving
A common misconception about the Valkyries is that they were fighting women. This is not so. No where will one ever find an account of a Valkyrie actually in combat, and only rarely carrying a weapon. In fact, women warriors in the Viking Age are mostly myth, spurred on by folks such as Saxo Grammaticus, who as a Christian priest was aghast at the relative freedom and societal power of real-life Viking women, and so wrote many many stories about women warriors that relied much more on his classical education's references to the Greek Amazon legends than to any Viking practices. Saxo's aim was to present a woman warrior, then to create a virile hero who would defeat her with nothing but his aura of virility and manly good looks. The names of a few of Saxo's valkyrie-like women include:
- Hede (Heiðr in Old Norse, "heath", often found as a witch-name and related to "heathen.")
- Swanhwid (Svanvít in Old Norse, "Swan-White")
- Gunwar (Gunnvör in Old Norse, Gunnora in Old English, "War-Oath")
- The Poetic Edda. trans. Lee M. Hollander. 2nd revised ed. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1962.
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- Chantepie, Pierre D. "Walkyries, Swan-Maidens, Norns" The Religion of the Teutons. Dallas: Ginn & Co. 1902. pp. 304-317.
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- Damico, Helen. Beowulf's Weahltheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison: Univ of Wisconsin Press. 1984.
[Discusses the valkyrie in depth. Her conclusions about female characters in Old English poetry all being Valkyries is stretched excessively thin, but her basic facts are interesting and accurate.]
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- Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. 4 vols. New York: Dover.
[see Volume I, chapter 16 "Wise Women", section 3 "Norni-Fatae" pp. 405-417, section 4 "Walachuriun-Valkyrjor", pp. 417-426, section 5 "Swan-Maidens" pp. 426-430.]
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- Nasstrom, Britt-Mari, Freyja - the Great Goddess of the North. Lund Studies in History of Religions 5. Lund: Dept of History of Religions Univ of Lund. 1995.
[An excellent and comprehensive study of the goddess Freyja, analyzing all the scant facts that are known about the Norse Goddess of Love and Death.]
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- Clover, Carol J. "Maiden Warriors and Other Sons," Journal of English and Germanic Philology (JEGP), 85 (1986):35-49.
also collected in: Robert Edwards and Vickie Ziegler, eds. Matrons and Marginal Women in Medieval Society. Rochester: University of Rochester Press. 1995.
[This is an excellent article examining the theme of the Viking warrior woman. Clover has determined by examination of the laws, particularly the Baugatal section of Gragas, the sagas and Saxo Grammaticus's depictions of women warriors, as well as ethnological comparisons, that the woman warrior was a rare and specialized role. The only case in which a woman was allowed to take up arms was if (1) she was never married, (2) she had no living male relatives in the degrees listed in Baugatal who would have received weregild for the death of a family member, and (3) a crime had been perpetrated against her family that required vengeance by the social code of the day, often the murder of her last male relative. This role was temporary, but for its duration conferred the social role on the warrior woman as "son". Excellent and insightful essay.]
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Other excellent resources include:
- Tolkein, Christopher. The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise. London: Nelson. 1960.
[This work contains Hervor's Saga. Hervor is the most famous of the Norse warrior women.]
- Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum. Available in English translation by Peter Fisher as History of the Danes. Totowa NJ: Rowman and Littlefield. 1979.
[Saxo had a decided fascination for the Norse warrior woman, and went out of his way to collect what stories and folklore he could find about these ladies. Unfortunately, Saxo had also read quite a bit of Classical literature, and freely adulterated the Norse stories he was told with Greek tales of the Amazons. His work still provides fascinating reading. Do be sure to also read Birgit Strand's analysis of how Saxo treats his female characters, cited below.]
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- Jochens, Jenny M. "The Medieval Icelandic Heroine: Fact or Fiction?" Viator 17 (1986): 35-50.
[A revealing examination of the "Germanic-Nordic model of strong, independent womanhood" via a comparison of the heroines of the sagas and evidence drawn from Scandinavian law codes, with special attention to women and marriage.]
- Strand, Birgit. "Women in Gesta Danorum." Saxo Grammaticus: A Medieval Author Between Norse and Latin Culture. ed. Karsten Friis-Jensen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. 1981. 135-167.
[A comparison of parallel portrayals of women in Saxo's Gesta Danorum and those in the works of Snorri Sturluson. Contains a good discussion of the perception of women by Christian authors of widely differing backgrounds: really points up the differences between medieval Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. A good deal of the essay deals with Saxo's depictions of Norse warrior women.]
- Lukman, N. "The Raven Banner and the Changing Ravens," Classica et Mediaevalia 19. Copenhagen: Dansk Selskab for Oldtide og Middelalder forskning. 1958.
- Rooth, Anna B. "The Raven and the Carcass," FF Communications 186. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. 1962.