Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Valkyries

In Norse mythology the valkyries (Old Norse Valkyrja "Choosers of the Slain") are dísir, minor female deities, who served Odin. The valkyries' purpose was to choose the most heroic of those who had died in battle and to carry them off to Valhalla where they became einherjar. This was necessary because Odin needed warriors to fight at his side at the preordained battle at the end of the world, Ragnarök. In Valhalla the valkyries also “serve drink and look after the tableware and drinking vessels” (Prose Edda Gylfaginning 36).

It appears, however, that there was no clear distinction between the valkyries and the norns. Skuld is for instance both a valkyrie and a norn, and in the Darraðarljóð (lines 1-52), the valkyries weave the web of war. According to the Prose Edda (Gylfaginning 36), “Odin sends the valkyries to every battle. They allot death to men and govern victory. Gunnr and Róta two valkyries and the youngest norn, called Skuld, always ride to choose who shall be slain and to govern the killings”.

Moreover, artistic licence permitted the name Valkyrie to be used for mortal women in Old Norse poetry, or to quote Snorri Sturluson's Skáldskaparmál on the various names used for women:

Woman is also metaphorically called by the names of the Asynjur or the Valkyrs or Norns or women of supernatural kind.

In modern art, the valkyries are sometimes depicted as beautiful shieldmaidens on winged horses, armed with helmets and spears. However, valkyrie horse was a kenning for wolf (see Rök Stone), so contrary to the stereotype, they did not ride winged horses. Their mounts were rather the packs of wolves that frequented the corpses of dead warriors. They were gruesome and war-like. Whereas the wolf was the valkyrie's mount, the valkyrie herself appears to be akin to the raven, flying over the battlefield and "choosing" corpses.

Several valkyries appear as major characters in extant myths.

* Brynhildr appears in the Völsunga saga. Her name means "Byrnie of battle."
In Norse mythology, Brynhildr was a shieldmaiden and a valkyrie. She is a main character in the Völsunga saga and some Eddic poems treating the same events. Under the name Brünnhilde she appears in the Nibelungenlied and therefore also in Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Brynhildr is probably inspired by the Visigothic princess Brunhilda of Austrasia, married with the Merovingian king Sigebert I in 567. The history of Brynhildr includes fratricide, a long battle between brothers, and dealings with the Huns.

According to the Völsungasaga, Brynhildr is the daughter of Budli. She was ordered to decide a fight between two kings: Hjalmgunnar and Agnar. The valkyrie knew that Odin himself preferred the older king, Hjalmgunnar, yet Brynhildr decided the battle for Agnar. For this Odin condemned the valkyrie to live the life of a mortal woman, and imprisoned her in a remote castle behind a wall of shields on top of mount Hindarfjall in the Alps, and cursed her to sleep on a couch ( while being surrounded by fire) until any man would rescue and marry her. The hero Sigurðr Sigmundson (Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied), heir to the clan of Völsung and slayer of the dragon Fafnir, entered the castle and awoke Brynhildr by removing her helmet and cutting off her chainmail armour. He immediately fell in love with the shieldmaiden and proposed to her with the magic ring Andvarinaut. Promising to return and make Brynhildr his bride, Sigurðr then left the castle and headed for the court of Gjuki, the King of Burgundy
Brünhild, Brunhild, Brunhilda, Brunhilde, Brunhilt, Brunnehilde, Brünnhilde, Brynhild, Brynhilt, Bruennhilde

* Hildr appears in the legend of the Hjaðningavíg, which has survived in several sources. Her name means "Battle."
Hildr is one of the valkyries. She is mentioned in Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda as Högni's daughter and Hedin's wife in the legend of Hedin and Högni. She had the power to revive the dead in battlefields and used it to maintain the everlasting battle between Hedin and Högni.

Hildr is also mentioned along with other valkyries in Völuspá, Darraðarljóð and other Old Norse poems. In Old Norse the word hildr is a common noun meaning "battle" and it is not always clear when the poets had the valkyrie in mind, as a personification of battle.

* Sigrdrífa appears in Sigrdrífumál. Her name means "She who Drives Victory."
Sigrdrífa is one of the valkyries. She appears in Sigrdrífumál as the mentor of Sigurd (Old Norse: Sigurðr). In the Poetic Edda she is identified with Brynhildr. Some scholars have doubted that this identification is original, seeing the roles of Sigurd's mentor and lover as too distinct to belong to the same character.
* Sigrún appears in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I and Helgakviða Hundingsbana II. Her name means "Knower of Mysteries (or spells) of Victory."
Sigrún was a valkyrie. Her story is related in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I and Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, in the Poetic Edda. The original editor annotated that she was Sváfa reborn.

The hero Helgi Hundingsbane first meets her when she leads a band of nine Valkyries:
The two fall in love, and Sigrún tells Helgi that her father Högni has promised her to Höðbroddr, the son of king Granmarr. Helgi invades Granmar's kingdom and slays anyone opposing their relationship. Only Sigrún's brother Dagr is left alive on condition that he swears fealty to Helgi.

Dagr is however obliged by honour to avenge his brothers and after having summoned Odin, the god gives him a spear. In a place called Fjoturlund, Dagr kills Helgi and goes back to his sister to tell her of his deed. Sigrún puts Dagr under a powerful curse after which he is obliged to live on carrion in the woods.

Helgi is put in a barrow, but returns from Valhalla one last time so that the two can spend a night together.

Sigrún died early from the sadness, but was reborn again as a Valkyrie. In the next life, she was Kára and Helgi was Helgi Haddingjaskati, whose story is related in Hrómundar saga Gripssonar.
* Sváva appears in Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar. Her name means "Suebian".
Sváfa was a valkyrie and the daughter of king Eylimi. Consequently she was probably the maternal aunt of Sigurd, the dragon slayer, although this is not explicitly mentioned in Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar where Sváfa's story appears.

Her name means "Suebian", and it may not be a coincidence that a king Sváfnir and the kingdom Sváfaland also appears in this poem (it is also mentioned in the Þiðrekssaga), although they are never directly connected with her.

The Norwegian king Hjörvarðr and Sigrlinn of Sváfaland had son who was a silent man and to whom no name could be given. When this silent man had grown up, he was one day sitting on a hill, and he saw nine Valkyries riding of whom Sváfa was the most beautiful one.

Sváfa called him Helgi and asked him if he wanted a gift with his newly-given name (which was customary), but Helgi wanted nothing if he could not have Sváfa herself. She then informed him of the location of a great sword engraved with snakes and magic runes. Sváfa had given Helgi his name and during his battles, she was always there for him, shielding him from danger.

After having won fame in battle, Helgi went to king Eylimi and asked the king for his daughter's hand. King Eylimi consented and so Helgi and Sváfa exchanged their vows. Although, they were married, she remained with her father and Helgi was out doing battle.

King Hróðmar's son Álfr wanted to avenge his father and had challenged Helgi to a holmgang at Sigarsvoll. During the holmgang with Álfr, Helgi received a mortal wound due to a troll woman's curse and Álfr won. Helgi then sent his companion Sigarr to king Eylimi in order to fetch Sváfa so that they could meet before he died.

Before passing away, Helgi asked Sváfa to marry his brother Heðinn. The brother asked Sváfa to kiss him, because she would not see him again before Helgi had been avenged.

Both Helgi and Sváfa would be reborn as Helgi Hundingsbane and Sigrún and so their adventures continued.

* Ölrún, Svanhvít, and Alvitr appear in Völundarkviða. "Ölrún" means "Knower of the Mysteries (or spells) of Ale."
Old Norse Alruna (Ölrún, Old High German Ailrun, Modern German Alruna, Alraune is a Germanic female personal name, from Proto Germanic *aliruna, from ali- "strange" (or alternatively, "birthing", "begetting") and runa "secret", rune. In German, Alruna was also used as a short form of Adelruna, a different name with a first element *athal- "noble".

In Germanic mythology, Ailrun is the wife of Agilaz, the legendary archer. In the Völundarkviða, she is identified as a valkyrie, and as a daughter of Kiár of Valland.

Alruna of Cham was an 11th century Bavarian recluse, the Roman Catholic patron saint of pregnancy.

In German, Alraune is also a name for the Mandragora or mandrake plant.

* Þrúðr is a daughter of Thor. Her name means "strength".
Þrúðr (anglicized as Thrúd or Thrud) is the daughter of the god Thor. Her name means "strength", "power" in Old Norse.
In Skáldskaparmál , Snorri Sturluson tells that Thor can be referred to by the kenning "father of Þrúðr" ("faðir Þrúðar"). Eysteinn Valdason uses it in his poem about Thor . The Skáldskaparmál adds that her mother is Sif.

In Bragi Boddason's Ragnarsdrápa, the giant Hrungnir is called "thief of Þrúðr" (Þrúðar þjófr). But there is no direct reference to this myth in any other source. The Skáldskaparmál, in which Snorri relates the fight between Thor and Hrungnir, mentions a very different cause, and Þjóðólfr of Hvinir's Haustlöng only describes the fight without giving the reason for it. This poem depicts two mythological scenes painted on a shield, the first being Iðunn's abduction by the giant Þjazi. Margaret Clunies Ross suggested that the two episodes might be complementary, both dealing with the abduction of a goddess by a giant, its failure and the death of the abductor. Another kenning may allude to this myth: in Eilífr Goðrúnarson's Þórsdrápa , Thor is called "he who longs fiercely for Þrúðr" (þrámóðnir Þrúðar).

Even if her name is not given, the Eddic poem Alvíssmál, in which Thor's daughter is engaged to a dwarf, Alvíss, may also be related to Þrúðr.

Other sources indicate that some other valkyries were notable characters in Norse mythology, such as Gunnr who appears on the Rök Runestone, and Skögul who still appeared on a runic inscription in 13th century Bergen.
Þrúðr is the name of one of the valkyries who serve ale to the einherjar in Valhalla (Grímnismál, 36). It is not certain that this Þrúðr is the same as Thor's daughter
Other valkyries

Apart from the well known valkyries above, many more valkyrie names occur in our sources. In the nafnaþulur addition to Snorri's Edda the following strophes are found.
Mank valkyrjur
Viðris nefna.
Hrist, Mist, Herja,
Hlökk, Geiravör,
Göll, Hjörþrimul,
Gunnr, Herfjötur,
Skuld, Geirönul,
Skögul ok Randgníð.
Ráðgríðr, Göndul,
Svipul, Geirskögul,
Hildr ok Skeggöld,
Hrund, Geirdriful,
Randgríðr ok Þrúðr,
Reginleif ok Sveið,
Þögn, Hjalmþrimul,
Þrima ok Skalmöld.



I will recite the names
of the valkyries of Viðrir (Odin).
Hrist, Mist, Herja,
Hlökk, Geiravör
Göll, Hjörþrimul
Gunnr, Herfjötur
Skuld, Geirönul
Skögul and Randgníð.
Ráðgríðr, Göndul,
Svipul, Geirskögul,
Hildr and Skeggöld,
Hrund, Geirdriful,
Randgríðr and Þrúðr,
Reginleif and Sveið,
Þögn, Hjalmþrimul,
Þrima and Skalmöld.

Hrist ok Mist
vil ek at mér horn beri,
Skeggjöld ok Skögul,
Hildr ok Þrúðr,
Hlökk ok Herfjötur,
Göll ok Geirahöð,
Randgríð ok Ráðgríð
ok Reginleif.
Þær bera einherjum öl.



I want Hrist and Mist
to bring me a horn,
Skeggjöld and Skögul,
Hildr and Þrúðr,
Hlökk and Herfjötur,
Göll and Geirahöð,
Randgríð and Ráðgríð
and Reginleif.
They carry ale to the einherjar.

In Völuspá there are still more names.

Sá hon valkyrjur
vítt um komnar,
görvar at ríða
til Goðþjóðar.
Skuld helt skildi,
en Skögul önnur,
Gunnr, Hildr, Göndul
ok Geirskögul.



She saw valkyries
come from far and wide,
ready to ride
to Goðþjóð.
Skuld held a shield,
and Skögul was another,
Gunnr, Hildr, Göndul
and Geirskögul.

More are mentioned in Darraðarljóð (lines 1-52), a poem where their connection with the Norns is evident:

Vítt er orpit
fyrir valfalli
rifs reiðiský,
rignir blóði ;
nú er fyrir geirum
grár upp kominn
vefr verþjóðar,
er þær vinur fylla
rauðum vepti
Randvés bana.



See! warp is stretched
For warriors' fall,
Lo! weft in loom
'Tis wet with blood;
Now fight foreboding,
'Neath friends' swift fingers,
Our grey woof waxeth
With war's alarms,
Our warp bloodred,
Our weft corseblue.

Sjá er orpinn vefr
ýta þörmum
ok harðkléaðr
höfðum manna ;
eru dreyrrekin
dörr at sköptum,
járnvarðr yllir,
en örum hrælaðr ;
skulum slá sverðum
sigrvef þenna.



This woof is y-woven
With entrails of men,
This warp is hardweighted
With heads of the slain,
Spears blood-besprinkled
For spindles we use,
Our loom ironbound,
And arrows our reels;
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work;

Gengr Hildr vefa
ok Hjörþrimul,
Sanngríðr, Svipul
sverðum tognum ;
skapt mun gnesta,
skjöldr mun bresta,
mun hjálmgagarr
í hlíf koma.



So weave we, weird sisters,
Our warwinning woof.
Now Warwinner walketh
To weave in her turn,
Now Swordswinger steppeth,
Now Swiftstroke, now Storm;
When they speed the shuttle
How spearheads shall flash!
Shields crash, and helmgnawer
On harness bite hard!



Vindum, vindum
vef darraðar,
þann er ungr konungr
átti fyrri!
Fram skulum ganga
ok í fólk vaða,
þar er vinir várir
vápnum skipta.



Wind we, wind swiftly
Our warwinning woof
Woof erst for king youthful
Foredoomed as his own,
Forth now we will ride,
Then through the ranks rushing
Be busy where friends
Blows blithe give and take.

Vindum, vindum
vef darraðar
ok siklingi
síðan fylgjum!
Þar sjá bragna
blóðgar randir
Guðr ok Göndul,
er grami hlífðu.



Wind we, wind swiftly
Our warwinning woof,
After that let us steadfastly
Stand by the brave king;
Then men shall mark mournful
Their shields red with gore,
How Swordstroke and Spearthrust
Stood stout by the prince.

Vindum, vindum
vef darraðar,
þars er vé vaða
vígra manna!
Látum eigi
líf hans farask ;
eigu valkyrjur
vals of kosti.



Wind we, wind swiftly
Our warwinning woof.
When sword-bearing rovers
To banners rush on,
Mind, maidens, we spare not
One life in the fray!
We corse-choosing sisters
Have charge of the slain.

As can be seen from the above, several of the names exist in different versions. Many of them have a readily apparent warlike meaning - Hjörþrimul, for example, means "battle of swords" while Geirahöð means "battle of spears".

To what an extent this multitude of names ever represented individual mythological beings with separate characteristics is debatable. It is likely that many of them were never more than names and in any case only a few occur in extant myths.

In Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda and the poem Grimnismál of the Poetic Edda, it is said that Freyja receives half of the slain heroes in her hall Fólkvangr, however there are no descriptions about life at Fólkvangr, at least not in surviving tales.

In Skáldskaparmál, Freyja is called "Possessor of the Slain" (Eidandi Valfalls), and in Njal's Saga, another title of Freyja is mentioned: Valfreyja "Mistress of the Chosen", and Mistress of the Valkyries in general

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