Valkyries by William T. Maud (British, 1865 – 1903), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Valkyries: Women of War

The symphonic “Ride of the Valkyries” is one of composer Richard Wagner’s most recognizable pieces, in part, due to its connection to the popular Looney Tunes and Bugs Bunny. Wagner’s masterpiece “Der Ring des Nibelungen” explores the story of a magic ring and the quest to obtain it. It is the costumes in this opera series, designed by Carl Emil Doepler, that gave rise to the myth that the Vikings wore horned helmets (which we know isn’t true for a variety of reasons). The Valkyries depicted in Wagner’s seminal work are generally large women with winged or horned helmets. However, this depiction does not capture the full idea of the Valkyries: women of war.

What Is a Valkyrie?

According to Dr. Jackson Crawford, a Valkyrie is a human female who has dedicated herself to Odin. Crawford also notes that Valkyries may also be Jötunn. She takes on this role of choosing the dead, which grants her the powers of a Valkyrie. Whether the job is a lifetime appointment or not is not made clear in what survives of Norse mythology.

Physical Characteristics of the Valkyries

While modern depictions often portray Odin’s shield-maidens as scantily clad and attractive, there is little evidence to suggest that Valkyries were physically beautiful. ‘Hrafnsmal,’ a poem written for Harald Fairhair around 900 A.D., describes a Valkyrie as blonde and bright-haired, indicators of the upper class. She was wise, snake-eyed, blond-lashed, and pale-throated, and unaffected by men emotionally. The term ‘snake eyes’ relates to the Voelsungs and denotes a daunting presence in battle.

The Valkyrie Skins

Some Valkyries wore feathered skins, giving them a swan-like appearance, which may have been the source of their flight powers. In at least one tale, men have stolen these skins.

The Terrifying Valkyries

There is much more evidence that shows them to be mesmerizing and terrifying. The “Saga of the Voelsungs” says that looking at them was like gazing into flames. “The Web of Spears” unites 12 of the Valkyries with Skuld, the youngest Norn (a Fate in Norse mythology). They go to a cottage where they use a loom made from human body parts. The cloth is human entrails dyed with blood, and the tools are weapons. They sing about how their weaving is determining the outcome of a far-off battle. When they finish with the weaving, they tear it to shreds and take the scraps with them. Crawford points out that Skuld may or may not be a Norn. She could be a Valkyrie with the same name. The Valkyrie and the Norns may actually be the same group of supernatural beings.

Men’s Lust

Crawford suggests that the Valkyries symbolize both the tangible lust men have for women and the abstract allure they feel toward battle.

Valkyries: Women of War

According to Neil Price, there are 52 named Valkyries in surviving Norse literature. Many of those names have something to do with war. Price says the Valkyries did not gracefully “swoop” onto the battlefield to bear their heroes to the afterlife; instead, these women warriors “were unleashed on it,” personifying the harsh realities of battle. Many Valkyrie names reflected the noise of battle, the hesitation, and the chaos. They were also named for weapons and different ways and times those weapons would be used.

Valkyrie Names and Their Meanings

The word “Valkyrie” means “dead body on a battlefield chooser,” which aligns with their well-known occupation of taking away the dead viking, either to Freya or Odin and Valhalla. Some of the different Valkyrie individual names that we know include:

  • Goendul: Price’s interpretation is “War-Fetter,” the freezing hesitation that could be fatal. Crawford links the name to magical staves, wolves and monsters. Goendul also comes up as a name for Freya, who appears as a tall, beautiful woman to King Hethinn.
  • Hloekk: Price lists this name as “Chain,” “Mist,” “Cloud.” It could be related to the fog of war or the hesitation as with Goendul. However, Crawford says this “the cry of an eagle.”
  • Hjalmthrimul: “Helmet-Clatter.”
  • Hjoerthrimul: “Sword-Noise.”
  • Hjlod: “Howling.”
  • Randgnithr: “Shield-Scraper.”
  • Sklalmjoeld: “Sword-Time.”
  • Svava: “Killer” or “Put-to-Sleeper.”
  • Tanngnithr: “Teeth-Grinder.”
  • Geirahoed: “Spear-Battle.”
  • Geirdriful: “Spear-Flinger.”
  • Geirskoegul: Price calls her “Spear-Shaker.” Crawford calls her “Spear-Projector.”
  • Hrist: “Shake.”
  • Mist: “Mist.”
  • Skeggjold: “Axe-Age,” which is also the name of one of the terrible ages coming before Ragnarök.
  • Skoegul: “Projector.”
  • Hildr: “Battle.”
  • Gunnr: “Battle.”
  • Thruthr: “Supernatural-Strength.”
  • Herfjoetur: “War-Fetter” or “War-Wife.”
  • Goell: “Noise.”
  • Randgrid: “Shield-Eager.”
  • Radgrid: “Advice-Eager.”
  • Reginleif: “Divine-Survivor” or “Divine-Remnant.”
  • Skuld: “Debt” or “Necessity. This is a Norn name.
  • Sigrun: “Victory-Rune” or Victory-Mystery.”
  • Brynhildr: “Armor-Warrior.” Her other name may be Sigrdrifa.
  • Sigrdrifa: “Victory Driver.” He other name may be Brynhildr.
  • Battle-Weaver.
  • Disorder.
  • Scent-of-Battle.
  • Victory-Froth.
  • Vibration.
  • Unstable.
  • Treader.
  • Swan-White.
  • Shield-Destroyer.
  • Helper.
  • Armor.
  • Devastate.
  • Silence.

Chief Valkyrie?

Crawford Proposes that Freya may be the head of the Valkyries: Women of War. She is tasked with the seat placement for the dead in Volkfangr, which may also be Valhalla. In essence, she chooses the dead just like a Valkyrie.

Sources: Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price (2020).

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