The Valkyries: Odin’s Shield Maidens
The Valkyries (pronounced “VAL-ker-ee”) were elegant and noble shieldmaidens that were in the service of Odin. In Old Norse, the term Valkyries meant "choosers of the fallen". Composed of two words, valr referring to those slain in the battlefield and kjósa meaning to choose. The Valkyries were believed to be responsible for choosing those who would die in battle and those who would survive. From those who died in battle, they would then select half to join them in the afterlife in Valhalla. The remaining half would go to the goddess Freyja and join them in the afterlife field at Fólkvangr. Chosen warriors were called einherjar and they trained rigorously in preparation for the events of Ragnarok. The Valkyries are often depicted as foreboders of war riding to the battlefield wearing their helmets and their shields riding their horses.
While the Valkyries are often portrayed in a positive light, in reality, asevident in several sagas, they are darker than they appear. In the poem Darraðarljóð, twelve Valkyries are described to be seen sitting on top of a loom prior to the Battle of Clontarf. Chanting their intentions with delight, they used intestines for their thread, severed heads for weights and swords and arrows for beaters. They weaved their magic to twist the fates of men, deciding on who lived and who died. It is even said that some Valkyries had the power to change the fate of warriors that earned their displeasure weaving their magic so as unfavored warriors would perish in the battlefields.
In later sagas, the Valkyries were romanticized as virgin swan maidens that roamed Midgard (the world where humans lived). The term "Swan Maiden" was derived from their swan feathered garments that allowed them to fly. There are two different stories written in Norse folklore. In the first story, a man happened to come by a Valkyrie in her swan maiden form bathing in the lake. If the man is able to take one of her cloaks, she would become his wife. After several years, the cloak is discovered, and she remembers her glory days. She puts on the cloak and flies back to her sisters in Valhalla leaving her mortal husband devastated. With the intent of winning her back and bringing her home, the man travels in search of his lost love. Along the journey, he comes across an old man whom they call "the King of the Animals" and he leaves him with words of wisdom on how to find his wife. The man is instructed to find the land beyond where he will be asked to complete one of three difficult tasks usually assigned by his wife, her sisters or her other relatives. If he succeeds his wife returns with him and they would live a long and happy life together. Should he fail, he would return home empty handed.
In the second version, the similarity being the man wins the heart of a Valkyrie and they live together in marital bliss. That is until another woman desires the man to be hers. This rivalry ends up in the death of the Valkyrie and she travels to the land of the dead. While there, through magic, she identifies her killer and rises from the dead to kill her rival.
The Valkyries were women of immense prestige and power in Norse mythology. They were known as being beacons of strength and nobility. Garbed in swan feathers and iron chain mails with helmets to protect their faces and spears to quiet their foe, they would strike fear and awe in the hearts of any warrior they met.
Brunhild: The Sleeping Valkyrie
The youngest of all Valkyries, Brunhild means “warrior in coat of mail”. She was Odin's favorite and because of this she knew more about the Runes of Wisdom as compared to the rest of her sisters. Upon her journey to Midgard, Odin gave her a swan feathered dress similar to those he gave her sisters before her. However, upon arriving in Midgard, she did not immediately proceed to the battlefields as she found herself intrigued by the water in the lake. She decided to take a bath and removed her feathered dress. It was there that Agnar discovered her presence. Soon realizing that she was one of Odin's Valkyries, he stole her feathered dress and only vowed to return it if she promised not to run away. Despite their brief encounter, Brunhild found herself liking Agnar and because of this she decided to be his battle maiden. It was only when Agnar went to battle with King Helmgunnar that Brunhild disobeyed her father and went against Odin. Just as Brunhild was Agnar's champion, Odin was King Helmgunnar's which was why King Helmgunnar won against Agnar. However, as she was his favorite, Odin could not stay mad at her for very long. They reconciled and Brunhild asked that he prick her with a thorn from the Tree of Sleep and lay her in the Hall on top of the mountain Hindfell. Odin did as she requested and protected her in a mounting circle of fire. There she waited until a man of great strength and honor woke her from her sleep.
The man she was waiting for was Sigurd. He crossed the circle of fire and woke her from her sleep. His crossing the obstacle that was set before him made her fall in love with her hero and promised only to marry him. However, Sigurd was young and ambitious and wanted to make a name for himself before being tied down. He gave her a magic ring and promised to come back for her. He then ventured towards Nibelungs where he was tricked into drinking a magic potion by the queen. He was made to forget about Brunhild and instead marry their princess, Gudrun.
Gudrun had a brother names Gunnar who, after consistent urging from Sigurd, attempted to win Brunhild's hand. He made two attempts, however, was not strong enough to break through the circle of fire. Wanting to help his wife's brother, Sigurd disguised himself as Gunnar and again passed the circle of fire. This surprised Brunhild as she thought that only one man was brave enough to get through. Impressed, she married Gunnar and plotted her revenge against Sigurd thinking he had forsaken her.
It was years later that Brunhild discovered that it had been Sigurd who had passed through the circle of fire twice, disguised as Gunnar the second time around. Angered by the deception, she told Gunnar to kill Sigurd, however, her husband would not do so. Determined that Sigurd should die, she made Gunnar drink a potion that made him crazy and told him to kill Sigurd. However, Sigurd had superior fighting skills and ended up killing Gunnar. This further angered Brunhild and she decided to kill him herself. However, after his death, Brunhild was overtaken with remorse and killed herself. Her ashes were burned on Sigurd's funeral pyre.
Theirs was not a tale of happy endings.