“Brothers shall fight | and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons | shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men | each other spare. (Poetic Edda¸ 9.)
And so began the final battle of the Norse gods: the one-eyed leader Odin, hammer-wielding Thor, and the mortal comrades chosen at death to fight alongside them against the forces of Hel and the trickster god, Loki. These comrades, once human men—princes and kings—were chosen in their final breaths of life by women who moved swiftly and suddenly through grounds hazy with blood; women whose primary role was to determine which men would be immortalized to one day defend the world against Loki’s powerful, nearly undefeatable army of monsters. But the tales of these women have long eroded from literature and have been recreated by Christian authors so many times, that not only is their exact role shrouded in mystery, but many of the goddesses who swept the battlefields are missing from history. While their tales are incomplete, some of their names are at least known.
The Ride of the Valkyries (1890), William T. Maud. (Public Domain)
A Very Valkyrie Romance
One Valkyrie with a rather intriguing tale is that of Sváfa, also known as Sváva in some literature. What makes Sváfa’s tale unique from her Shieldmaiden counterparts is her supposed reincarnation. Sváfa’s tale is not unlike that of Brynhild’s in that she is sometimes considered the daughter of a human king (in this case King Eylimi) who falls in love with a human—a forbidden relationship considering her otherworldly duties.
Sváfa met the son of the king and queen of Sváfaland, Hjörvarðr and Sigrlinn, when she descended from the halls of Valhalla with eight fellow Valkyries in tow. She named this man Helgi – a customary ritual between Valkyries and human men when Valkyries chose a warrior to protect in battle – and offered Helgi anything he chose. Naturally, all that Helgi wanted was Sváfa herself. She consented, wedding him upon the approval of King Eylimi, and remained his wife until he was slain by one of his brothers. Though Helgi dies, both Sváfa and Helgi are reincarnated as another Valkyrie and warrior, respectively, and continue their “forbidden” romance as Sigrún and Helgi II, and then again as Kára and Helgi III.
Helgi and Sigrún by Johannes Gehrts. (Public Domain)
Sigrún’s tale is not very dissimilar from Sváfa’s tale. She, like her previous incarnation, met her Helgi while venturing down from the clouds to earth, and immediately embraces him as her lover. In this case, however, Sigrún is already betrothed to another man, and it is this man who Helgi must defeat (along with her father) for Sigrún’s hand. He does so, but unfortunately meets his end when Sigrún’s brother demands retribution by the gods. Following this brief life together, Sigrún is reborn as Kára and Helgi as yet another Helgi.
‘Valkyrien’ by Peter Nicolai Arbo. (Public Domain)
Róta, The Icemaiden of the Shieldmaiden
Another important little-known Sheildmaiden is named Róta, or Ruta. She is often associated with sleet and snow, due to the translation of her name, and is mostly depicted in literature alongside fellow Valkyries Gunnr (sometimes called Gudr instead) and Skuld. These three Valkyries are recorded by Snorri Sturluson as those who always ride out to choose the slain who will join Odin in Valhalla. By this statement, Sturluson indicates that the other Valkyries take part in this task as well as pour the mead in Valhalla, and help train the warriors to prepare for the final battle of Ragnarök.
‘The Valkyrie’s Vigil’ by Edward Robert Hughes. (Public Domain)
Skuld – A Valkyrie and Norn Ambiguity
Skuld is somewhat of an enigma in the Old Norse religion due to the lack of literature written by the Norse people rather than later medieval Christians. Skuld is attested as the name of both a Valkyrie and a Norn, and it is not unlikely that this Valkyrie and Norn were one and the same entity. Both are described as women with a hand in deciding the fate of men and gods. So, although it is possible that they were separate individuals, it should not be assumed. There is not a distinctive instance in which Skuld is explicitly stated as both a Norn and a Valkyrie except by Snorri Sturluson, the medieval author of the Prose Edda. A translation of the text reads:
“These are called Valkyrs: them Odin sends to every battle; they determine men’s feyness and award victory. Gudr and Róta and the youngest Norn, she who is called Skuld, ride ever to take the slain and decide fights.” (Sacred-Texts.com)
The norns of Norse mythology (Urd, Verdande and Skuld) by J.L. Lund. (Public Domain)
A Merciful Valkyrie
The final lesser-known Valkyrie who deserves a moment in the spotlight is Eir. Her name indicates she is related to help, mercy, or medicine; in fact, she is often associated with goddess of healing and thus it is uncertain whether she was definitively a Valkyrie or a Norse goddess in her own right. (It is also possible that she was worshipped in both manners concurrently, the nature of her being varying by location.)
Menglöð and Nine Maidens including Eir by Froelich. (Public Domain)
Though the tales of these Valkyries are brief and no more positively known than the religion from which they were born, they are intriguing specimens of ancient Scandinavian (and early medieval) culture. The Valkyries once had their own tales and preferential roles in the Old Norse religion, just as the ancient gods did, and just like the “heroes” or protagonists of the Norse sagas. Therefore, despite the lack of knowledge regarding these warrior women, they are as noteworthy as the “primary” deities.