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The Valkyries: Goddesses of Release by Michelle Skye

Beautiful Valkyrie

The Valkyries are powerful, fierce Norse goddesses of warfare and battle. As goddesses of release, they bring freedom in all its many forms, from the silence of death, to the sweetness of self-confidence, to the strength of courage. Their magics are life-changing and irrevocable. Once a Valkerie enters your life, you are never quite the same again, for your soul and spirit have grown beyond the feeble enclosure of your body.

The Valkyries were originally known as "choosers of the slain," and their chief role is to escort Odin's heroes from the earthly plane to Valhalla, Odin's hall in Asgard, the realm of the gods. With this act, they serve as psychopumps -- shamans who help departed souls in "crossing over" to their next existence. In Norse cosmology, a sole goal is to the palace of the god or goddess most closely connected with the life of the deceased. Warriors who die in battle, for instance, often go to Valhalla, the hall of Odin, the All-father. Odin selects the fastest, brightest, and strongest warriors to die on the battlefield and be gathered up by the Valkyries. Once the warriors are in Valhalla, they trained incessantly for the final battle of the gods, known as Ragnarok, at which time the world of humans and the world of the gods will be irreparably changed. After Ragnarok, a new world order will be in place.

Usually depicted as beautiful, mail-clad women, the Valkyries vary in number from 3 to 16. Historical and literary sources do not specify an exact number but do agree that they usually travel in groups. Often times, a group of nine Valkyries is described in the literature, as nine is a magical and mystical number in Norse mythology. However, Valkyries are also depicted in groups of 12 or 13 (possibly in conjunction with the number of new moons in a year). Valkyries are seen as human females who give their lives to Odin in order to attend to him. They are granted immortality while they wait on Odin, but, should they choose to leave his service, they would return to their normal mortal age and eventually die. As immortal humans, the Valkyries are demi-goddesses; thus, in the past, they often were worshiped as Disir (ancestral goddesses), with sacrifices, sometimes of human or animal composition. In the Northlands and British Isles, local scholars used for broad term of Valkyries to correspond to the Greco-Roman demi-goddesses of vengeance and retribution: the Furies, or Erinyes. Although the Valkyries are not exactly like the Furies or Erinyes, they do have some characteristics and abilities in common, such as flying.

The Valkyries fly through the sky on magical (some say winged) horses or large wolves. Their shields and armor flicker in the night sky, forming the beautiful, shimmering lights known as the Aurora Borealis. The bodies and mounts of the Valkyries are invisible except to those who are to die in battle. A marked warrior may dream of a Valkyrie the day before his death, or he may see her on the battlefield during the fighting. Most warriors welcomed the image of the Valkyrie, for it meant an honorable death and an afterlife filled with glory. The Valkyries are not restricted to their horses in order to move through the air. Many possess feather cloaks, gifting them with the ability to shapeshift into birds or beasts. The most common shapeshifting form of the Valkyries is the figure of a swan. Stories abound of Valkyries who are also swan or wish maidens. Originally, the swan maidens may have been separate from the Valkyries, but somewhere between the third and 11th centuries their legends merged, possibly due to Odin's name as Oski, or Wunsc ("wish"). The swan maidens, long associated with prophecy and auger rete, added new dimensions and depth to the Valkyrie character.

Another character from mythology that alters the fearful, bloodthirsty Valkyrie image is Freya, Norse goddess of love and death, pleasure and pain. First among the Valkyries, Freya bears the name Valfreya, "Mistress of the Slain," when she scours the battlefield in her cat-drawn, golden chariot looking for warriors for her holding, Folkvang. Freya and Odin has struck a bargain whereby half of all the battle-slain warriors go to her hall and the other half travel to Valhalla. As the lady, Freya is given first choice among the battlefield dead.

While walking among the dead, Freya has the option to don her cloak of falcon feathers. This cloak allows her to shapeshift into the form of a falcon, the faster, sleeker, more violent bird than the Valkyries' swan manifestation and, undoubtedly, one of the reasons that she is named the "first," or most important, Valkyrie. (Her role as a true goddess, not a demi-goddess, also explains her title as "first of the Valkyries.") Although Freya cavorts with death, she is also the goddess of life and birth and beauty. This aspect of her personality surfaces throughout Norse mythology; however, in relation to the Valkyries, it is important to note that she and the battle-hardened, death-dealing women also bestow the gift of hospitality. Freya often pours ale and mead for the AEsir (Norse gods and goddesses), just as the Valkyries offer the horn (the traditional hospitable offering in Norse homes) to the newly slain warriors in Valhalla.

Thanks in large part to Freya and the swan maidens, by the 11th century the Valkyries had transformed into multidimensional, charismatic, magic wielding, mead offering, prophecy making demigoddesss. As oracles and spellbinders, the Valkyries frequently utilize the loom and the action of weaving in their magic. Their weaving magic as the power to bind men's actions on the battlefield, either freeing them or drowning them in fear and anxiety. The poem or song "Darradarljod" from the Story of Burnt Njal, which describes the fall of the Irish hero Brian Boru to Viking forces at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, clearly utilizes weaving imagery to illustrate the power of the Valkyries:

See! warp is stretched
For warriors’ fall,
Lo! Weft in loom
'Tis wet with blood;
Now fight foreboding,
‘Neath friends’ swift fingers,
Our grey wolf waxeth
With war’s alarms,
Our warp bloodred,
Our weft corseblue.

This woof is y-woven
With entrails of men,
This warp is hardweighted
With heads of the slain,
Spears blood-besprinkled
For spindles we use,
Our loom ironbound,
And arrows our reels;
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work;
So weave we, weird sisters,
Our warwinning woof.

Death and carnage dripped from the first two stanzas of the poem, once again linking the Valkyries to their ultimate and primary task, that of meting out Odin's battlefield justice.

However, it is obvious from the lines “So weave we, weird sisters, / Our warwinning woof” that the Valkyries are in fact doing more than picking up Odin’s chosen slain and carrying them to Valhalla. The Valkyries are shaping the battle themselves through their creation on the loom. This idea of power and control is carried throughout the poem, as stanzas four, five, and six all begin with the phrase "Wind we, wind swiftly/Our warwinning woof." The Valkyries are using their weaving to perform magic and change the outcome of the battle. In stanza seven, the focus of the Valkyries shifts from magic to prophecy. They sing together:

Now new-coming nations
That island shall rule,
Who on outlying headlands
Abode ere the flight;
I say that King mighty
To death now is done,
Now low before spearpoint
That Earl bows his head.

In this stanza, the Valkyries are naming the actual man who will die, seeing the future and shaping it according to their vision. In essence, they are creating a "war-fetter" by naming the men and weaving their spirits into the tapestry.

Hindering the strength and skill of warriors on the battlefield is one of the great magics of the Valkyries. The skill is so intrinsic to the Valkyries’ power that one of their number is actually named Herfjotur (“war-fetter”). Another poem, the First Merseberg Charm, highlights the skill:

In days gone by, the idisi [another name for ancestral goddesses] sat
and they sat here and yonder.
Some made firm the fetters, some hindered the host
and some picked apart the chains;
Escape from fetters, escape from foes.

The power, then, to choose who will is and who will die rests ultimately in the hands of Odin's handmaidens. They can bind a man with fear or give him complete freedom from concern and worry. Odin may claim the life of a brave warrior, but it is the Valkyries who decide exactly how he will die. The women have the ultimate power, and the choice resides in each individual woman.

One Valkyrie who chose to save a life condemned by Odin is Brunhildr ("Mail-coat of Battle"), also known as Sigrdrifa ("victory blizzard"). In "Sigrdrifumal:The Lay of Sigr-drifa” in the Poetic Edda, she condemns to death Odin's hero, the elder of two fighting men. For Brunhildr’s disobedience, Odin pricks her with a sleep thorn and places her within a circle of fire, from which she can escape only by a man who knows no fear. Luckily for Brunhildr, such a man exists in the shape of the handsome yet troubled Sigurd. When he wakes her by cutting off her mail-coat (no chaste kiss for the passionate Vikings) she gifts him with her "knowledge of all the worlds" -- the knowledge she learned in Odin's service.

The Valkyries, as handmaidens of Odin, learn much from the God of mystery, magic, poetry, and war. Serving him well, they are rewarded with a place in his hall, fine food and drink, immortality, and the knowledge of Galdr. Galdr is the chanting or singing of the runes to perform magic. (The runes are a Norse divination device of 24 shapes that Odin received after sacrificing himself for nine nights upon Yggdrasil, the world tree.) By chanting certain runes in a specific order, the desired end result manifests. Brunhildr teaches Sigurd about speech-runes, thought-runes, birth-runes, sea-runes, limb-runes, and more, proving that the Valkyries possessed the magic of Galdr, along with the magic of the war-fetter.

Even the names of the Valkyries portray them as much more than death-maidens. Approximately half are named for battlefield skills, while the others have connections to magic, the realm of the gods, and shape shifting. Those named for battlefield skills are Brunhildr (“mail-coat of battle”), Skeggjold (“wearing a war axe”), Skogal (“battle” or “rager”), Hildr (“battle”), Hlokk (“noise” or “din of battle”), Goll (“loud cry” or “battle cry”), Geirahod (“spear of battle”), and Gunnr (“battle”). Other names that depict magical skills show the diversity of the power of the Valkyries.Sigrdrifa (“victory blizzard”), Mist (“the mist” of “the fog”), and Hrist (“the shaker”) are names signifying the Valkyries’ link to weather or elemental magic. Kara (a shapeshifting swan Valkyrie) and Gondul (“ magic wand," "enchanted stave," or "she-werewolf”) are two Valkyries whose names show the power of shape shifting. Names connecting the Valkyries to binding battle magic are Herfjotur (“war-fetter”), Rota (“she who causes turmoil"), and Sigrun (“victory rune”). Other names tie the Valkyries to the realms of the gods: Randgridr (“shield of peace"), Radgridr (“god’s peace”), Reginleif (“heritage of the gods”), and Friagabi (“giver of freedom”). Two Valkyries are actually demi-goddesses in their own right: Thudr (“power”) is the daughter of the powerful God Thor, and Skuld (“she who is becoming") is the youngest member of the three Norns, or Fates.

The power of the Valkyries extends far deeper than the modern conception of mail-coated battle maids. They possess strong magic and the ability to think for themselves, wielding the power of life and death, restriction and freedom. They can control the weather and the outward appearance of their bodies. Their songs contain magic, and their weavings prophesy the future. The Valkyries delve into the deep recesses of our souls, ferreting out the pain that we have buried in our innermost psyches. They are not afraid of the dark and they are not afraid of death, for they know that death brings release and eventual rebirth. It is very dark kiss that releases our spirit, allowing it to find its true form.

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