Long Reads

Valkyrie: How the bloodthirsty Valkyries of Norse mythology became a pop culture phenomenon

We know them for their strength, their skill, and their unparalleled beauty, but how do modern representations of Valkyries match up to the original myths? Christobel Hastings charts the transformation of the most fascinating and misunderstood figures from the ancient world 

In Njal’s Saga, a thirteenth-century Icelandic family saga, there is a story of ancient feuds, prophetic dreams, and bloody acts of revenge. This is a tale where human passions have a high cost; but in one passage in the Darraðarljóð, a skaldic poem in Old Norse, the saga moves beyond the blood and gore of the mortal realm. 

The song tells how on the morning of the Battle of Clontarf, a Caithness man named Dörruðr observes twelve creatures riding at full speed towards a bower. Curious about their mission, he follows them and watches through a crack in a window, where inside, the mysterious beings, six of whom are named as Hildr, Hjörþrimul, Sanngriðr, Svipul, Guðr, and Göndul, are exulting in the prospect of slaughter. 

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However, the true horror comes not from their malicious scheming, but the object of their work: a grisly loom, made from men’s entrails and weighted with severed heads. “See! Warp is stretched, For warriors’ fall, Lo! Weft in loom, ‘Tis wet with blood,” they sing triumphantly as they weave the soon-to-be tragic fates of warriors. 

The creatures are no bloodthirsty heathens, but female spirits of the great god Odin. They are, of course, the Valkyries.

Valkyries: The Wild Hunt of Odin (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo

If you’re unfamiliar with the sinister predilections of the Valkyries, there’s good reason why: over the centuries, the ancient Norse stories that told of female spirits deciding who lives and dies in battle have shape-shifted with the times, giving us a spectrum of characters that are as diverse as the catalogue of myths from which they rose.

In our modern world, most of us could render a rough character sketch of a Valkyrie, and they would most likely look similar: a blonde, armoured warrior, whose code of honour is as strong as her skill in battle. But the true essence of the legend lies not in our sanitised representations of golden-haired women drifting regally through the skies on white horses, but in Old Norse mythology of the 13th century, when folklore told of beautiful and terrible demigoddesses who could control the outcome of battles, and decide who was worthy to ascend to the halls of Odin.

The clue to the origins of these spirits actually lies in the name Valkyrie, which literally translates as “chooser of the slain”. As Heather O’Donogue notes in From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths, Valkyries had two significant roles to play in the afterlife: “to choose which warriors on a battlefield should be taken to join Odin in Valhalla, and to serve those warriors in Valhalla”, ruled over by Odin. A main source of authority on this version of the legend lies is the Poetic Edda, a 13th century collection of Old Norse poems primarily preserved in the Icelandic medieval manuscript Codex Regius

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In various different poems, the Valkyries are portrayed as bloodthirsty spirits delighting in the slaughter on the battlefield and their search for einherjar, the chosen slain. In the poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, for example, the valkyrie Sigrún lingers after the battle at Frekastein, feasting on human corpses with a pack of wolves. 

There are plenty of other tales of blood and gore too, as Hilda Ellis Davidson notes in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. “Female creatures, sometimes of gigantic size, pour blood over a district where a battle is to take place, they are sometimes described as carrying troughs of blood or rising on wolves, or are seen rowing a boat through a rain of blood falling from the sky.”

Valkyries: Valkyrien (1869) by Peter Nicolai Arbo

However, the depiction of Valkyries in Old Norse literature is rarely one-dimensional. Though they are creatures of carnage in many texts, they too are shown to be gracious, well-intentioned shieldmaidens, faithfully carrying out Odin’s commands on the battlefield, and conveying dead heroes to the skies. 

In the Hákonarmál, a 10th century memorial poem contained in the Heimskringla saga, Odin sends two Valkyries, Göndul and Skögul, to attend to the Norwegian king Haakon I, who dies on the battlefield. Leaning on her spear shaft, Göndul declares, “groweth now the gods’ following, since Hákon has been with host so goodly bidden home with holy godheads”. Not only do they make preparations for Haakon to be given a hero’s welcome, but they reassure him that as a Christian, he will receive a warm reception from the company of pagan warriors waiting to receive him in Valhalla.

The choosers of the slain had another important role after deciding who would die in battle. In several poems in the Poetic Edda, the Valkyries are described as serving food and mead to the fallen in the halls of Valhalla. In the poem Grímnismál, for instance, Odin lists 11 valkyries who “bear ale to the einjerjar”. 

Meanwhile in the book Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the enthroned figure High informs Gangleri of “others whose duty it is to serve in Valhalla. They bring drink and see to the table and the ale cups.” Then there is the Skáldskaparmál, a book of skaldic poetry, in which an anonymous 10th century poem, Eiríksmál, describes Valkyries preparing Valhalla for the next cohort of dead heroes: “I aroused the Einheriar, bade them get up to strew the benches, clean the beer-cups, the valkyries to serve wine for the arrival of a prince.” 

The mead-pouring wasn’t purely for civil hospitality. As Robert Blumetti observes in The Norse Gods and Their Myths, the Valkyries’ duty to nourish and revive means that they are “not only the collectors of the dead, but givers of life.”

Valkyries: The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909) by John Charles Dollman

Bloodthirsty warrior women and female guardian spirits, shieldmaidens who fought like men in battles and servile maidens who served in the halls of Valhalla: why do the stories of the Valkyries differ so greatly? According to Davidson, the influence of Germanic paganism in early times when “heathen Germans believed in fierce female spirits doing the commands of the war god, stirring up disorder, taking part in battle, seizing and perhaps devouring the slain”, has much to do with the Valkyries transition from deadly demons to loving, otherworldly women. 

Then there are the heroic lays of the Codex Regius, the Icelandic medieval manuscript which tells legends of brave mortal warriors, in which Rudolf Simek asserts that the Valkyries lost their “demonic characteristics and became more human, and therefore become capable of falling in love with mortals […].” This can be observed in the tragic love story of Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, in which the protagonist Helgi falls in love with the Valkyrie Sigrún, and gathers a force to overcome anyone opposing their union. Rather astonishingly, when Helgi is killed by Sigrún’s brother, she dies from a broken heart.

Given that symbolism in ancient times was rich in meaning, it’s entirely possible that the differing representations of the Valkyries, whether as death demons or courageous shield-maidens, were all equally valid. While the evolution of the myth cannot be definitively pinpointed, we can locate part of the Valkyries’ transformation in later centuries to art. As the Romantic movement swept across Europe in the 19th century, ancient mythology found itself in vogue, as did an appetite for beauty, heroism and the sublime. 

It was during this period that artists’ employed more than a few brushstrokes of creative license to transform the Valkyries into voluptuous, rosebud-lipped beauties. Take Peter Nicolai Arbo’s 1869 painting Valkyrie, in which a shapely shield-maiden rides barefoot on her horse through the skies, Hans Makart’s portrayal of a helmeted golden-haired Valkyrie holding a spear, or Emil Doepler’s Walkyrien, where several blonde riders clad in winged helmets and sensuously draped skirts ready themselves for battle. 

Bathed in golden sunshine, the wind in their hair, these Valkyries are a far cry from the monstrous creatures spinning the fate of fallen soldiers with a handful of human guts.

Valkyries: Walkyrien (1905) by Emil Doepler

One of the most famous references to Valkyries, of course, is German composer Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, a rousing piece of music at the beginning of act 3 of Die Walküre, the second of four operas in Der Ring des Nibelungen, which was completed in 1874. Many scholars have commented on how Wagner’s work bolstered a sense of zealous nationalism, and, interestingly, it appears that the Valkyrie may have become associated with the German people’s search for hope in a time of adversity. 

“As Germany sought to recover from the devastation of WWI in the early 20th century,” writes Beth Rogers, “the morale of the country was low, and one of the things used to bolster it was pride in an ancient heritage, often exemplified by a strong woman ready for defend her people.” This would explain the dearth of artwork that emerged out of the period, which glorified the Valkyries as beautiful, formidable women determined to achieve victory on the battlefield, at the same time as it created a metaphor for German superiority. 

It would remiss to chronicle the transformation of the Valkyries without mentioning Marvel Comics’ very own fictional superheroine, the most famous Valkyrie who reigns supreme in pop culture today. Based on the mythological figure Brynhildr, Valkyrie came to life in 1970 in The Avengers #83, created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. 

Back then, she was hardly a paragon of strength and independence, but an angry, aggressive leader of a group of female heroes called The Lady Liberators. Their purpose was to fight for gender equality, but in reality, the comic mocked Second-Wave feminism at every turn. In 1973, however, writer Steve Englehart introduced Valkyrie to The Defenders “to provide some texture to the group”, and her character underwent a radical makeover. 

This Valkyrie, also known by her Asgardian name Brunnhilde, evolved into a credible character who could lead Odin’s personal unit of Valkyrior, and oversee which fallen men would be worthy of being transported to Valhalla. Skilled in combat and a master at fighting with her enchanted sword Dragonfang, Valkyrie evolved into the modern stereotype of a singularly powerful, alluring and armoured Valkyrie that we have become familiar with today. It is this version of Valkyrie that prevailed on the silver screen when Tessa Thompson took up the sword as Valkyrie in the recent Marvel films Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame.

Valkyries: Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Marvel Studios' 2017 blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok

With the news that Thompson is reprising her role as Valkyrie in the upcoming Marvel film Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021, the character is likely to shape-shift once again, not least because Thompson’s character is the first openly LGBTQ+ superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This particular character development is another reminder that mythological figures continually hold a mirror up to the needs and desires of society at any given time; and the Valkyries, whether in their assistive, romantic or murderous capacities, are no different. 

Given the push for diverse representation on our cinema screens, it’s fitting that the next incarnation of Valkyrie will return not only as a beacon of power, strength and prestige, but a symbol of an inclusive new world, too. 

Images: Getty, Wikimedia Commons, Marvel Studios