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Yoga Korunta

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One learns, as nothing endures but change.

04 September 2007

Tuesday's Word: Valkyrie

Bloggers, a charming young lady caught my eye and in honor of her bringing light to darkness, we have the following post:

In Norse mythology the valkyries are dísir, minor female deities, who served Odin. The valkyries' purpose was to choose the most heroic of those who had died in battle and to carry them off to Valhalla where they became einherjar. This was necessary because Odin needed warriors to fight at his side at the preordained battle at the end of the world, Ragnarök. In Valhalla the valkyries also “serve drink and look after the tableware and drinking vessels” (Prose Edda Gylfaginning 36).

It appears, however, that there was no clear distinction between the valkyries and the norns. Skuld is for instance both a valkyrie and a norn, and in the Darraðarljóð (lines 1-52), the valkyries weave the web of war (see below). According to the Prose Edda (Gylfaginning 36), “Odin sends [the valkyries] to every battle. They allot death to men and govern victory. Gunnr and Róta [two valkyries] and the youngest norn, called Skuld, always ride to choose who shall be slain and to govern the killings”.

Moreover, artistic licence permitted the name Valkyrie to be used for mortal women in Old Norse poetry, or to quote Snorri Sturluson's Skáldskaparmál on the various names used for women:

Woman is also metaphorically called by the names of the Asynjur or the Valkyrs or Norns or women of supernatural kind.[1]

Depictions
In modern art, the valkyries are sometimes depicted as beautiful shieldmaidens on winged horses, armed with helmets and spears. However, valkyrie horse was a kenning for wolf (see Rök Stone), so contrary to the stereotype, they did not ride winged horses. Their mounts were rather the packs of wolves that frequented the corpses of dead warriors. They were gruesome and war-like.

Whereas the wolf was the valkyrie's mount, the valkyrie herself appears to be akin to the raven, flying over the battlefield and "choosing" corpses[2]. Thus, the packs of wolves and ravens that scavenged the aftermath of battles may have been seen as serving a higher purpose.

According to Thomas Bulfinch's highly influential work Bulfinch's Mythology (1855), the armour of the valkyries "sheds a strange flickering light, which flashes up over the northern skies, making what men call the 'Aurora Borealis', or 'Northern Lights'.[3]" However, there is nothing in our sources which supports this claim[4], except for the arrival of the the Valkyries in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I:

High under helms
on heaven's field;
Their byrnies all
with blood were red,
And from their spears
the sparks flew forth.[6] 15. Then gleamed a ray
from Logafiöll,
and from that ray
lightnings issued;
then appeared,
in the field of air,
a helmed band
of Valkyriur:
their corslets were
with blood besprinkled,
and from their spears
shone beams of light.[7]

Origins
The origin of the valkyries as a whole is not reported in extant texts, but many of the well known valkyries are reported as having mortal parents. It is now believed that the original valkyries were the priestesses of Odin who officiated at sacrificial rites in which prisoners were executed (“given to Odin”). These priestesses sometimes carried out the sacrifices themselves, which involved the use of a ritual spear. By the time the Poetic Edda came to be compiled in the late 12th or early 13th century, these rituals had given rise to legends of supernatural battle-maidens who took an active part in human conflict, deciding who should live and who should die (Davidson 1964).

In the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda the valkyries are supernatural deities of unknown parentage; they are described as battle-maidens who ride in the ranks of the gods or serve the drinks in Valhalla; they are invariably given unworldly names like Skǫgul (“Raging”), Hlǫkk (“Shrieking”) and Gjǫll (“Screaming”).

In the Heroic lays, however, the valkyries are described as bands of warrior-women only the leader of whom is ever named. She is invariably a human woman, the beautiful daughter of a great king, though she shares some of the supernatural abilities of her anonymous companions. In the first of the three Helgi Lays, Helgi Hjörvarðsson is accosted by a band of nine valkyries the leader of whom, Svava, is the daughter of a king called Eylimi. In the second and third lays, the valkyries are led by Sigrun, who is the daughter of King Hogni; she marries the hero Helgi Hundingsbani and bears him sons. The most famous of the valkyries, Brynhildr, is also a human princess. In the Sigrdrífumál (The Ballad of the Victory-Bringer) she is never named, being called simply Sigrdrífa (“Victory-Bringer”), and there are only hints that she is not a deity; what's more, we are told nothing of her parentage. In the corresponding passage in the Volsunga saga, however, she is identified as Brynhildr, the daughter of King Budli. (Sigrdrífa is also identified with Brynhildr in another heroic lay, Helreið Brynhildar, or Bryndhildr's Ride to Hel.)

Etymology
The word "valkyrie" comes from the Old Norse valkyrja (plural "valkyrur"), from the words "val" (slain) and "kyrja" (choose). Literally the term means choosers of the slain. It is cognate to the Old English "wælcyrige". The German form "Walküre" was coined by Richard Wagner from Old Norse.[8]

Other valkyries
Apart from the well known valkyries above, many more valkyrie names occur in our sources. In the nafnaþulur addition to Snorri's Edda the following strophes are found.

As can be seen from the above, several of the names exist in different versions. Many of them have a readily apparent warlike meaning - Hjörþrimul, for example, means "battle of swords" while Geirahöð means "battle of spears".

To what an extent this multitude of names ever represented individual mythological beings with separate characteristics is debatable. It is likely that many of them were never more than names and in any case only a few occur in extant myths.

Recent cultural reference
Richard Wagner incorporated Norse tales that included the valkyrie Brünnhilde (Brynhildr) and her punishment and subsequent love for the warrior Siegfried (Sigurðr). These works included his opera Die Walküre, which contains the well known Ride of the Valkyries, as well as others of his oeuvre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. These depictions and others have subsequently led to modern representations of valkyries less as figures of death and warfare and more commonly as romanticized, pristine white and gold clad figures riding winged horses.

References
Damico, Helen. Beowulf's Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
---. "The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature." New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Eds. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 176-89.
Davidson, H. R. Ellis (1964). Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-013627-4.

Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valkyrie"
Category: Valkyries

This article was edited for brevity.

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