The Bold and Beautiful Valkyries and Their Mortal Lovers
In Norse mythology, Valkyries were originally sinister spirits that would fly above the battlefield in search of the dead, deciding the fate of the fallen for Odin. The word “Valkyrie” means “chooser of the slain,” and once chosen the warriors would be flown by the Valkyries over Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, and on to Valhalla. Valhalla was the heavenly home of Odin’s fallen army, and hall of those who had died heroically in battle.
In the air, among clouds, and upon a white horse, a Valkyrie rides with the corpse of a man.
However, later in Norse mythology the Valkyries were more romanticized, they became Odin’s shield-maidens, virgins with golden hair, who served the heroes meat and drink in the halls of Valhalla. The act of serving meat to those in Valhalla was not seen as a servile task, but rather quite the opposite. In Norse culture, queens would personally serve particularly revered guests as a sign of respect. On the battlefield, they were transformed into swan-maidens. These maidens were at risk of being trapped on earth if they were seen without their plumage.
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Einherjar are served by Valkyries in Valhöll while Odin sits upon his throne, flanked by one of his wolves.
The Folklore of Valkyries as Swan Maidens
There are two standardized stories of Valkyries as swan-maidens that pop up again and again in Norse folklore. In the first, a man will happen upon a Valkyrie in swan-maiden form bathing, and he will take one of her cloaks. She then becomes his wife. After some years she discovers the hidden cloak that he once took from her. The sight and feel of the cloak remind her of the glory days past. She then puts on the cloak and flies away to the land, “east of the sun, and west of the moon,” a generic term for a fairy land, or the land beyond. Having been left, the husband is devastated and searches for his lost love. In his travels, he comes across an old man, typically called “the King of the Animals”, who tells the husband how to get to the land beyond and how to win back his wife. When he finds his wife, she tells him that in order to win her back he must complete one of three difficult trials. These trials are typically assigned by the wife herself, her sisters, or other relatives of the Valkyrie. Once the man succeeds in the trial, the wife returns with him to their happy married life.
The Swan Maidens, Walter Crane. There are two popular folklore tales of Valkyries as Swan Maidens.
The second standardized story type, much like the first, involves a man winning a Valkyrie as his wife. They live happily as a couple until the wife is murdered by a rival woman, who desires the hero. Through strange means she is able to identify her killer from the world of the dead. Just before the hero and the rival woman are to be married, the Valkyrie returns from the dead and kills her rival.
It should be noted that with these stories being common in Norse myth the term “Valkyrie” is sometimes used to refer to mortal women, often queens or princesses. Sometimes the term also refers to priestesses among the various tribes - this is especially common in written history as opposed to folklore.
‘Valkyrien’ by Peter Nicolai Arbo.
Valkyries Become Warrior Mentors
Another function of the Valkyries was to lead warriors in their battle training, and to heal or reanimate them after a day of training. In this role, the Valkyries would become intimately involved with their mortal trainees. Sometimes the Valkyries would impart deep wisdom and lore to the humans, as the Valkyrie Sigrdrifa does in the poem Sigrdrifumal. While Sigrdrifa does not fall in love with the man she is training, she does become quite concerned with his battle etiquette and proper conduct on the battlefield, thus reaching outside of the scope of the stereotypical Valkyrie, who was simply meant to carry heroes off the battlefield.
‘The Valkyrie's Vigil’ by Edward Robert Hughes.
Along with training, Valkyries would provide protection for certain favored warriors by either directly shielding them in battle, or warning them in person or in a dream. One such dream came to a mortal man in which he saw a Valkyrie replacing his internal organs with straw, making him invulnerable in the upcoming battle. Via dreams, Valkyries could also foretell battles and sometimes impending death. It is said that when the Northern Lights appear in the sky it is caused by the reflection from the Valkyries beating their swords against their shield.
In some cases, along with training and protecting chosen warriors, the Valkyries would take the man as their lover, as seen in the common myths above. She would teach her student in the ways of Odin, imparting her wisdom and inspiration to him, and when his time finally came she would kill him and bring him home to Valhalla.
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The Ride of the Valkyries (1890), William T. Maud
Brynhildr, the Valkyrie Who Was the Original Sleeping Beauty
This relationship between Valkyrie and mortal can be seen in the Volsung Saga with the tale of Brynhildr and Sigurd. In this German and Icelandic tale, Brynhildr was a strong and beautiful princess who was deceived by her lover.
Brynhildr, in most of the adaptations, was a Valkyrie, but because she was disobedient to Odin she was punished. Odin caused her to fall into an everlasting sleep surrounded by a wall of fire. The hero, Sigurd, crossed through the flames and woke the maiden with a kiss. They instantly fell in love and were then engaged, but Sigurd left her to continue his heroic travels.
‘Brünnhilde and Siegfried’ by Arthur Rackham. In the Volsung Saga the Valkyrie Brynhildr fell in love with the mortal Sigurd.
Later in his travels, he was given a potion to make him fall out of love with Brynhildr and in love with a rival, Gudrun. This was a plot by Gudrun and her brother, Gunnar, because Gunnar wanted Brynhildr for himself. Sigurd was talked into disguising himself as Gunnar and he pursued Brynhildr. Later realizing she had been tricked into marrying Gunnar, and not Sigurd, Brynhildr arranged to have Sigurd murdered. However, when she learned of his death she was overcome with grief and threw herself onto his funeral pyre. With some major modifications, this is where the story of sleeping beauty originated.