By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
For many modern fans of Norse mythology, the Valkyries are especially intriguing characters. Women are positioned somewhere between mere mortals and the divine. But recent pop culture depictions of Valkyries have tended to distort what we learn about them in the medieval Norse myths preserved in the Eddas.
Valkyries in the Norse Myths
In the Eddas and sagas, contrary to the pop culture depictions, the Valkyries are many in number, more than what is suggested in their other representations. They are mortal human women born of mortal human parents. It is not their origin, but their service to Odin, that bestows on the Valkyries certain supernatural powers.
One of these powers is that Valkyries can fly. This might be by means of the so-called ‘feather-cloaks’ they wear like the one Freyja owns that Loki so often borrows to fly.
Valkyries also have the ability to travel between the realms of living mortals on Midgard and Odin’s hall in Valhalla, carrying dead warriors from Midgard’s battlefields to Valhalla. And the Valkyries serve these dead heroes their drinks in the evening in Valhalla as well.
‘Valkyrie’, then, is a job rather than a species. But it’s a job with special perks.
Richard Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’
Some of the blame for the distorted facts about Valkyries lies with Richard Wagner’s influential ‘Ring Cycle’, in which he takes so many liberties with the myths as presented in the Eddas. For example, Wagner combines characters. One instance is the goddess Freyja getting combined with the goddess Ithunn, whose apples keep the gods young. The two become a new composite figure, called Freia.
Wagner also invented new roles for the gods, inspired by some of the stranger speculations in the work of folklorist Jacob Grimm. Loki the ambiguous trickster becomes a master of fire. And even a character’s species may get changed, as when Fafnir the serpent becomes Fafner the giant.
And in Wagner’s plays, the Valkyries are nine demigoddesses fathered by Odin and blessed with immortality.
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Punishment for Valkyries
Though it is not clear what is involved in a Valkyrie’s ‘hiring’, Brynhild’s story clearly reveals that a Valkyrie can be ‘fired’ for a cause. In her case, the ’cause’ of her firing is that she made the wrong king die in a battle, which meant that Odin did not get the man he wanted for Valhalla.
Based on some other stories, it also seems that getting married means a woman must quit her position as Valkyrie. And a marriage might even be used as a punishment for a disobedient Valkyrie, which is another part of the retribution against Brynhild in the Volsungs legends.
Freyja As a Valkyrie
The Valkyries are not goddesses, but they are some of the most prominent female figures in Norse mythology. And it seems likely that the goddess Freyja is their commander, or can even be counted, at times, as holding the job of Valkyrie.
An Old Icelandic story, called The Story of Hethin and Hogni, provides some reason to think that Freyja is closely connected with the Valkyries.
The story begins with Freyja as the probable protagonist, but as the story progresses, we also hear of Gondul.
Is Gondul Freyja?
This name Gondul is known elsewhere as the name of a Valkyrie. Does Freyja take the name Gondul when she is working for Odin as a Valkyrie?
It could well be, since Gondul seems to be the chief Valkyrie in, for example, a poem called ‘Hakonarmal’ composed in honor of a Norwegian king’s entrance to Valhalla. And, to have a goddess at the head of the Valkyrie corps seems likely enough.
Is Freyja the Chief of the Valkyries?
Freyja, as Gondul in this story, certainly acts as a Valkyrie: as an instigator of armed conflict between men, creating the dead warriors who the Valkyries will bring to Odin for Odin’s army in Valhalla.
Another reason to think Freyja might be the chief of the Valkyries is that Odin himself says Freyja, “chooses half the dead who fall in battle.”
While this isolated remark has made some modern readers see Freyja as keeping her own separate afterlife for dead warriors, a more economical explanation is that she is simply the main or most powerful chooser among the Valkyries. Valkyrie, after all, translates to ‘chooser of the slain in battle’.
But the main point to be observed here is that the goddess Freyja can be seen in a romantic liaison even with a human man. And that this makes her all the more like the Valkyries.
The lesser Valkyries, human as they are, are very often the love interests of the human heroes of the Norse poems and sagas.
Other than Freyja and the Valkyries, and some of the antagonistic anti-goddesses that heroes encounter in their adventures, there are not many active supernatural women figures in the Norse myths.
Common Questions about Valkyries As Seen in Norse Mythology
In the Norse myths, Valkyries are mortal human women born of mortal human parents. Valkyries can fly. This might be by means of the so-called ‘feather-cloaks’ they wear like the one Freyja owns that Loki so often borrows to fly. Valkyries also have the ability to travel between the realm of living mortals on Midgard and Odin’s hall in Valhalla
In Richard Wagner’s plays, the Valkyries are nine demigoddesses fathered by Odin and blessed with immortality. Wagner also combines characters. One instance is the goddess Freyja getting combined with the goddess Ithunn, whose apples keep the gods young. The two become a new composite figure, called Freia.
The goddess Freyja is their commander, or can even be counted, at times, as holding the job of Valkyrie. Freyja, as Gondul in a story, certainly acts as a Valkyrie: as an instigator of armed conflict between men, creating the dead warriors who the Valkyries will bring to Odin for his army in Valhalla.