Welcome to this special edition revival of my mythical creatures series.

The valkyrie comes to us from Norse mythology and were believed to be female virginal warriors. They were usually depicted as blonde, blue-eyed and fair-skinned. The word ‘valkyrie’ literally meant ‘chooser of the slain’ and so it was believed the valkyries decided which warriors on the battlefield would live and which would die. Six, nine, or thirteen valkyries would await above the battlefield as the battle was fought, and afterwards the valkyries would choose half of the slain to bring with them to Valhalla, ruled over by Odin, while the rest went to Freya’s Folkvangr. Anyone not taken by Freya and judged unworthy of Valhalla went to the goddess Hel and her underground realm.

In fact, it was Freya who led the valkyries, and Freya had first choice of the fallen, so the better way to express it is to say the chosen went to Folkvangr while the balance were escorted to Valhalla by the valkyries, provided they were judged worthy. Freya was the goddess of love, fertility and beauty, and was sometimes also attributed as the goddess of death and battle as well. She possessed a cloak of falcon feathers which allowed her to take the form of a falcon.

Arthur Rackham‘s illustration to The Ride of the Valkyries
Some valkyries could assume the form of white swans, but if such a valkyrie were ever seen by a mortal in her womanly form, she was doomed by Odin to mortality and could never again walk the halls of Valhalla.  At this point the legend of the valkyrie seems to have fused with that of the swan maiden. Swan maidens were believed to possess a cloak of feathers, and if a mortal found and kept the cloak, he could possess the maiden – similar to the legends of the silkies.

The origins of valkyries are uncertain, and a multitude of storytellers and poets has contributed to the lore, muddying the original core substance of the valkyrie. In the very dim past, the valkyrie in its first form may have been similar to the Celtic warrior-goddess, the Morrigan. They were also possibly influenced by Germanic paganism, and may have in the early days been viewed as demons of the dead (a theory posited by Rudolf Simek).

“The Ride of the Valkyries” by the German painter William T. Maud.    
In this guise, the souls of the dead would have ‘belonged’ to the valkyries, as contrasted with their later role of conductors of dead where they merely escorted the dead to Odin. As the view of valkyries changed, they became more human and less demonic, and it was then that tales of valkyries falling in love with mortals began to emerge.

Hilda Ellis Davidson theorises that the valkyries may have originally evolved from the concept of priestesses to a god of war. Such priestesses may have overseen the putting to death of captives after a battle. Who would die was usually chosen by lot (to send a message to the enemy and demoralise his forces) and may have involved the concept that those who were to die were chosen by the god, and the priestesses would preside over the sacrifice. I rather like this notion… now which book can I use this in!

References

Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis (1990). Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-013627-4 

Simek, Rudolf (2007) translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer ISBN 0-85991-513-1 

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