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The Valkyries: Who Were These Female Norse Gods?

Learn about the Valkyries: who these Norse mythological creatures were and why they were considered to be female gods

According to the Vikings, the only way to enter paradise (Valhalla) after death was to die bravely and with dignity in battle. The Valkyries were the female Norse gods Odin would select to act as carriers between the two worlds. After a battle, they would descend on their flying horses to collect the souls of heroes and take them to Valhalla.

Who were the Valkyries according to Norse mythology?

Amongst all the female Norse mythological creatures, the Valkyries are by far the most well-known for two reasons: Firstly, for their role as Odin's subjects whose duty was to collect the souls of the dead Viking warriors and take them to Valhalla. And secondly, for their image as fierce, virgin warriors.

If we take into account the fascination of death so distinctive of the Vikings, believing that dying a heroic death in battle would grant them access to paradise, which is also one of the reasons that the Vikings were such successful conquerors. We can understand how being in that position of power would make the Valkyries extremely popular for the Vikings.

In Norse mythology, the Valkyries are goddesses selected personally by Odin. They are also warriors and are represented in pictures as being musclebound, with big, blue eyes; long, blonde hair and a war helmet with horns. Much like a reincarnation of the Amazons. They also rode flying horses and had superhuman strength and agility.

The Valkyries were the only mythological creatures who connected the Earthly, human world with the universe of the gods. In our world, they would descend from the heavens to collect the souls of brave soldiers, and in their world, they would look after those who recently arrived, helping them cure their wounds and compensate their spirits with banquets and their famous mead.

Brunhilda, the queen of the Valkyries

Out of all the different Norse gods, Brunhilda (sometimes called Brunhild or Brynhild) was Odin's main female shield-bearer and also his main servant. She may have her origins in the Visogothic princess Brunhilda of Austrasia, who reigned over the territory now in the VII century which is now in Germany, poetic Edda gave her the role as queen of the Valkyries.

Brunhilda is Budli's daughter. Budli was one of the greatest kings in Norse mythology, and Brunhilda was chosen by Odin to be a shield-bearer and Valkyrie. She was sent to settle a feud between two kings, but chose the wrong side and was punished by the gods and condemned to sleep in a castle until she was rescued.

She appears in the Nibelungenlied, an epic medieval composition which translates as The Song of the Nibelungs. The poem is split into two parts: in the first part, Siegfried comes to Worms to acquire the hand of the Burgundian princess Kriemhild from her brother King Gunther. Gunther agrees to let Siegfried marry Kriemhild if Siegfried helps Gunther acquire the warrior-queen Brunhilda as his wife. Siegfried does this and marries Kriemhild. However, Brunhilda and Kriemhild become rivals, leading eventually to Siegfried's murder by the Burgundian vassal Hagen with Gunther's involvement. In the second part, the widow Kriemhild is married to Etzel, king of the Huns. She later invites her brother and his court to visit Etzel's kingdom intending to kill Hagen. Her revenge results in the death of all the Burgundians who came to Etzel's court as well as the destruction of Etzel's kingdom and the death of Kriemhild herself.

In Norse mythology, Brunhilda leads an army of Valkyries, which varies in size depending on the specific story. According to the tales, all the Valkyries were dignified and noble female warrior gods.

The Ride of The Valkyries, by Richard Wagner

Between 1848 and 1847, the German composer Richard Wagner composed one of the greatest and most famous pillars of classical music to this day. Inspired by the "The Songs of the Nibelung" and by the Norse sagas, he composed four operas called "Der Ring des Nibelungen", roughly translated as The Ring of the Nibelung.

Richard Wagner - Ride of The Valkyries

The second opera, known as "Die Walkure" (The Valkyrie), includes a piece of music as a prelude to the third act which lasts around 5 minutes and has become one of the most well-known pieces of music in the history of classical music, 'The Ride of The Valkyries'.

Ever since its release in Munich on the 26th of June 1870, and due to the electrifying majesty of the song, this opera became one of the most popular and most frequently played pieces of music in that era. In fact, the song was so popular that it was played without the rest of the opera, it became as famous as it was intended to in no time.

This piece of music has been used in famous films such as 8½  by Federico Fellini and Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola.

But what exactly was Wagner trying to communicate? Die Walkure is the opera in which the German composer did his best to represent the opposition between humans and the gods, and focused on the mythological creatures that bridged this gap, the Valkyries.

  • Learn about Ragnarök: the battle of the end of the world in Norse mythology. Click here!

In fact, the opera takes place straight after a massive battle and tells the tale of the Valkyries' journey to the Viking's paradise, where they hand over the brave warrior souls to Odin. Wagner intended to paint a picture with the instruments, some instruments set the rhythm of horses running, while others represent the clouds and the wind blowing past the horses.

The impactful nature of this piece means that it has been used a few times throughout history, such as by the British paratroopers to mean quick march, and by Hitler when he was introducing a rally or about to appear publicly.

Valkyries in popular culture, by Marvel

In December 1970, in The Avengers #83 by Marvel Comics. The fictional character created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema called Valkyrie became another one of the vast numbers of Norse mythological characters to be used by Marvel Comics to inspire a superhero with supernatural powers. 

In this case, Valkyrie has roots in Brunhilda and is a divine creature which takes the form of the mortal Samantha Parrington and gives her Odin's powers. Thanks to her new abilities, she even takes on the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk #142, published in 1971.

As a superhero, Valkyrie is by far the strongest of all Valkyries, with great resistance to illnesses and wounds and surprising longevity. She can also predict the death of others and was trained to fight with a sword and ride a horse. She is, without a doubt, the most efficient warrior out of all Asgardian women.

She is usually represented with one of two weapons, either a sword called Dragonfang or a nameless iron spear. Recently, Valkyrie was interpreted by the actress Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarök (2017), and also appears indirectly in The Avengers: Infinity War (2018).  

Valkyries have also found their way in other parts of the world, 'Operation Valkyrie' was the name given to the operation intended to kill Hitler. A real story which was interpreted and made into a fictional movie by Bryan Singer in 2008, with Tom Cruise starring in it.

On the 20th of July 1944, the German general Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Hitler and failed. It was a part of the previously mentioned 'Operation Valkyrie' plan by which some German officials from Wehrmacht wanted to overthrow Hitler in a coup. The bomb which exploded in Hitler's headquarters while he was in a meeting with his generals only caused him minor injuries.

In the movie, the story is told in a lot of detail, and Tom Cruise interprets general Claus Von Stauffenberg well, while David Bamber plays Hitler. Anyways, this raises a question: Was the general Stauffenberg thinking of Wagner's music when planning the coup?