Who were the Valkyries?
The Valkyrie has gone through the ages, losing many nuances about what it really represents. Is Valkyria just a warrior?
Valkyria is one of those mythological figures of a warrior woman who has inspired the arts throughout history. This is the story of the Valkyries.
What is a Valkyrie?
The fantasized figure of the northern warrior
The Valkyrie. If you take to the street to ask the first passer-by what this word means to them, it is quite possible that you will find yourself confronted with two types of mental images.
Either you come across someone with a null sense of humour who will answer "laughing cow". Either you have the chance to talk to someone who will put a little more effort into describing a woman in armor.
Overall, the image of the divine Scandinavian warrior who invaded the battlefield under the command of the god Odin is the one that has best survived time.
Valkyria in the popular imagination
I'm not going to tell you that it's all nonsense, note. Just that if Valkyria is still very present in the popular imagination today, it comes more from the famous Wagnerian Valkyries than from the first Nordic myths.
It must be said that, after the famous opera, not much else is known about Valkyrie.
An obscure character haunting these old Nordic myths that are so unfamiliar, she joins the queue of preconceived ideas about the ancient Scandinavians in the same way as the Viking horn helmets - which would in fact never have had horns.
- The disappointment.
Don't worry: if we dig deeper into the myth, the Valkyrie is far from disappointing. Supernatural warrior, magician, half goddess messenger of death...
In short, the Scandinavian Régis Boyer sums it up very well: the Valkyries, you see, "are not who you think they are".
Valkyrie, the ultimate warrior
I do not come to completely destroy the classic image of the warrior who comes to make the difference on the battlefield by giving her preference to certain fighters.
As in any interpretation of a myth, there is truth - if at all - in this area we can speak of truth!
The problem with Scandinavian mythology is always the same: the lack of sources.
Most of them are Icelandic, dating from around the 12th century, we doubt their willingness to preserve the cultural heritage of old myths such as fiction and stylistic literary support, but that's about all we have.
Thus, it is Gylfaginning, the first of the three parts of the Edda of poet/mythographer Snorri Sturluson, which best serves the cause of warrior Valkyria.
Gylfaginning presents the whole of Nordic mythology in the form of a dialogue between King Gylfi and three Asgard gods.
According to this text, the Valkyries are Odin's envoys, in charge of picking up the fallen warriors, and choosing among them those who have shown themselves brave enough to join the valley (also called the Valhalle or the Valhalla).
It is difficult to say whether they choose these warriors from among those already killed, or whether, by choosing one of them, it actually falls into their hands.
In any case, the chosen ones led into the great Hall of the Gods are called the "Einherjar", a barbaric word that refers to the "exemplary warriors", who will fight alongside the gods when the Ragnarok (the end of the world) arrives.
Thus, in the Valhalla the heroes of the end times are waiting...
Alternating, to keep busy, between laughing at the trogne (since you don't hurt yourself in Odin's Hall) and spending your time in a perpetual banquet, drinking mead by the Valkyries and feeding on the flesh of the Saehrimnir boar that never gets thinner.
I will come back to the possible symbols behind the role of the Valkyries and the "end of time" of northern mythology. In the immediate future, let's take some time to comfort ourselves in the idea of the Blonde Warrior whose war is only an instrument!
Indeed, many poems later involve these ladies, and the Grímnismál, this time taken from the Edda Poétique, gives us the names of some of them (Be careful, big copied/pasted feeling weariness with strange accents.)
- Hrist ("the one who shakes or upsets")
- Mist ("Mist")
- Skeggjöld ("axe time": combat)
- Sköguld ("that is carried forward")
- Hildr ("fight")
- Drudr ("vigour")
- Hlökkk ("brightness")
- Herfjötur ("who paralyzes the army or warrior")
- Göll ("noise")
- Geirölul ("lance pointed forward")
- Randgrid ("shield devastation")
- Radgrid ("eager to command")
- Reginleif ("heiress of the gods").
- Gunn ("fight")
- Róta ("battle")
- Skuld ("future")
Normally, if you are the attentive and warm reader I know, you must have noticed something. Except for the fact that you can't pronounce the names.
Yes, there you go, bravo: they all evoke with a certain harshness the lexical field of the warrior... except the last one.
The good students in the audience will even tell me "Madam! " (brave little ones)," but Skuld, isn't she a Norne rather than a Valkyrie? ». Yes, it is. Have a candy.
The Norns, similar to the Fates in Greco-Roman mythology, are the three deities of Destiny: Urd, the past, Verdandi, the present, and Skuld, the future.
Their role as personifications of Destiny can be quite extensive, and it is generally agreed that they are responsible for the fate, happy or unfortunate, that every mortal knows.
What does a Norne (" and it looks like a nun, uhuhuhu ") do among the terrible Valkyries?
If I would be unable to answer you, I would like to highlight two details: the first is that according to the descriptions - a little vague, certainly - the Valkyries would have some kind of power of life or death over the warriors they choose.
The second is that without the names given in Grímnismál, the Valkyries would have no other warrior attributes.
Destiny, or the representation of Death in Valkyria
These are the Valkyries as they can be guessed from the most recent and best preserved texts. But there is always a way to go back in time, even if the sources are more obscure, more difficult to interpret.
However, the more we dig, the more we realize that we are moving away from the post-romantic Wagnerian image that is epic (and popopopooopo).
And if we stay on the question of the relationship between the Valkyries and Destiny, imagine that we find matter. Take for example Völund's Song, still taken from the poetic Edda, and told by Régis Boyer (yes, again) at a fascinating conference at Les Imaginales 2012.
Part of this poem tells how one evening, the hero saw twelve winged women on horseback arrive.
They lay their wings down, and start working on a huge loom that is a little peculiar and not very tasty: the tension weights of the yarns are human skulls, the yarns are entrails, and by using the bones that make up the weaving tool, they sing while their macabre work is spreading...
Nornes? It must be said that this motif of the weaving of yarns in comparison to the weaving of life is very recurrent in all Antiquity; it constitutes a metaphor of Destiny and thus the work of the Norns, Fates and other equivalent divinities.
It is easy to understand, therefore, any confusion between Valkyrie and Nornes, even if it takes us away from the first idea we have of the divine warrior. But it must be recognized that, in either case, Valkyria is always directly related to death.
Yes, even in the case of Odin's envoys to the battlefield. Who says the Valkyries are fighting? They are just shopping on "Adopt a Warrior", and above all... They are sent by Odin. The magician god, the god of deception, the god of death.
Until they say that they will seek the dead to guide them into the afterlife, what is called a psychopump function, there is only one step.
Moreover, it is easy to support this theory of fateful divinities by looking at their various descriptions and apparitions over the ages and texts.
The stories that have been most remembered are those that say them on horseback... the animal psychopump par excellence in most mythologies, because it leads the dead. Take the Ankou cart (to please the Breton-born) for example!
Others, older, make them winged women, sometimes calling them swans, raven women... Can we compare the winged form to the emanation from the physical body and death, that is, the soul?
The origins of Valkyries
We have seen so far two facets of Valkyria, which are so complementary that they merge: the warrior of Fate, who elects the heroes, and the messenger of the afterlife. It is time, therefore, to talk about the etymology of his name.
"Valkyrie" would come from Valr, a word for the fallen, and kyria, meaning "to choose". For once, it's not very complicated, the Valkyrie is "the woman who chooses who will die on the battlefield".
This is not the first time that we have seen such a mediating role between the two worlds entrusted to female mythological figures. Remember the sirens, for example, whose singing evoked the promises and knowledge of the Other World.
A number of researchers, such as Régis Boyer and, for a change, Mircea Eliade, see in it the primary role of women, acquired through the idea that women are the ones who give life, and that (in Eliade's words), "the ones who give life, preside over death". Can you feel the pressure?
No, no kidding, it's one of the principles that defines one of humanity's oldest cults, that of the Mother Goddess, which I had already discussed with the fairy Morgana.
Nordic mythology would be imbued with it, like many other mythologies - the Great Goddess, Mother Earth, a kind of mother nature, that is.
"Uh, where did you get your cult from? If he's so old, how do we know he existed, huh? ": Well, we keep several traces of it, even if it is not obvious, the oldest of which are engravings and sculptures dating back to the Bronze Age.
Engravings often representing, and some people will like it, vulva.
"Wow, Valkyrie, Vulva, this is all going a little too far": good, good.
If the frightened man from whom you come worries you, let us simply keep in mind that Scandinavian mythology, based on this archaic principle, can only give a crucial place to women, complementary to that of men.
Examples include the three greatest Scandinavian goddesses: Freya, goddess of love and fertility (the one who creates life), Frigg, goddess of motherhood (the one who sustains life), and Skadi, goddess of shadow (the one who ends life).
This is all speculation. But again, is it only possible to do something other than speculate with the founding and archaic myths?
However, this crucial role given to women corresponds to the perception of women in ancient northern civilizations, who act as the solid foundation, guardian in their homes... and guardian of life?
The Hero and Valkyria
- the Man and the Woman at the end of time
In the end, why did you keep the image of the warrior, if she doesn't fight? Mmh, but do you have to bleed on the battlefield to be a warrior?
There is no shortage of war goddesses in mythologies in general: take the Roman goddess Bellone, or the Morrigan, both merciless and destructive.
They do not fight but influence mortals, having the power of life or death over them. They remain war symbols.
War being the closest thing to death (apart from accidents), it is not surprising that these mythical creatures are closely related to death. The Valkyries may very well be "warriors of death".
Paradoxically, they are also guardians of life. Did I mention that Freya, the one who creates life, is considered the first of the Valkyries, who serves mead to exemplary warriors in the Vallhala?
And no, it is not incompatible, if we accept the fact that the concept of death and the end of time among the Scandinavians was then a little different from our Judeo-Christian tradition.
Death is not a linear end as in the Christian mentality, but a change, even a renewal, and life is perpetually related to death.
What the Valkyries do in choosing the warriors who will fight the forces of chaos (beware, chaos, not evil) during the Ragnarok seems absurd, since it is predicted that the Ragnarok will be "the consumption of the destiny of the Supreme Powers".
Or, more modestly, an apocalypse.
Except it's the end of a cycle, not the end of the world. The Christian tradition operates on a linear pattern, but most ancient mythologies operated on a cyclical pattern, implying the idea of renewal.
This is what the events of the Ragnarok would be like, and the "exemplary warriors" do not fight for nothing: they fight against chaos, for the form that the world (re)will take.
Legend has it that at the end of the Ragnarok, only Yggdrasil, the great tree of the worlds, and at its foot, a man and a woman will remain: Lífþrasir, "willing to live", and Líf, "life".
I may have already speculated too much, so I leave you with just this last idea of duality between Valkyrie and the hero she elected. Or rather this ancestral concept of complementarity between man and woman, life and death... each in turn.