The Increase of the Valkyries

The Increase of the Valkyries

T he Fight of Fitjar, battled in southern Norway in 961, was a struggle between King Hákon ‘the Good’, once the foster-son of King Æthelstan of England, and his nephews, the children of Erik ‘Bloodaxe’. The Viking Age was a rough period both within Scandinavia and in the extensive lands the Vikings took a trip. According to a cycle of 13 th-century Norse sagas, the Heimskringa, the brothers had made routine, if not successful, attempts at declaring the Norwegian throne for years. Although Hákon once again repelled their difficulty, Fitjar would be his last battle. He was to die not long after from his injuries.

A poem called Hákonarmál(Words about Hákon), made up in the dead king’s memory by a poet in his retinue, associates his fate to the will of 2 valkyries, Gondul and Skogul.

Hákon, who had invested much of his youth at Æthelstan’s court in England, was an early adopter of Christianity in Norway, however Hákonarmál is steeped in the pagan beliefs to which most of his topics still subscribed. In the Norse belief system, valkyries were supernatural ladies who determined who lived and passed away on the battlefield. Consequently, they would take a select group of the slain warriors on horseback to Odin’s hall, Valhalla, where they would join the einherjar, the special retinue who fight for sport during the days and banquet at night. It is easy to see the tourist attractions of such an afterlife, in which a male never ever goes hungry and combating is a kind of entertainment with no effects, a minimum of for those who came from the warrior class.

Valhalla, by Max Brückner, 1896.

The Edda, a textbook about Norse folklore composed in the 13 th century by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, claims that the valkyries served beverage to fallen warriors in Valhalla.

Valkyries have the power to give victory to one of the warring sides, an ability encapsulated in the description of a fight as the ‘judgement of Gondul’, a metaphor which compares the clash of 2 armies to a court where both sides litigate but one celebration is eventually provided success by a judge, the valkyrie.

One answer emerges if we consider the circumstance from the viewpoint of a Viking king. Kings needed to muster large crowds of men willing to battle, and very potentially die, for them. They required their warriors to purchase into the idea that death on the battleground was aspirational instead of horrific. In addition to dispensing gifts and titles, kings achieved this by cultivating a military ideology, partially by having the poets in their service whose task was to compose verses that promoted a heroic warrior mentality.

Hákonarmál becomes part of this Norse custom, enjoying the magnificence and glamour of war. The poet stresses the king’s valour and expert fighting, and the descriptions of the battle– swords clanging, guards clashing and blood spilling– are vibrant. Ultimately, Gondul and Skogul’s choice is carried out and the valkyries ride to Valhalla to reveal the king’s imminent arrival. With their profound power over death, the valkyries play their well-defined part in propaganda intended to encourage individuals to compromise their own life, or that of others. In myths about valkyries, we see an attempt to raise the banality of war– to make the pain and suffering, the lost limbs and defects, the piles of lifeless bodies– marvelous and rewarding. The randomness of who is struck by a flying spear or arrow, and who isn’t, is rationalized as a warrior’s fate and good luck, the intentional choice of a supernatural being sent out by Odin.

In spite of the stereotype of Vikings as fearless warriors, the valkyrie likewise engages with the apprehensions some of these males may have had about fighting, possibly for many years, numerous leaving their partners and family behind. Hákonarmál opens with the striking picture of the two valkyries riding off to the fight when it will begin, before moving rapidly to a heroic portrait of the king and his army, spears displayed, the royal basic flying. After the fight, as the mortally injured king lays bleeding, he has a conversation with Skogul, asking her why things took place as they did. It is hard to inform whether the poet means Hákon’s words to express shock, anger or dissatisfaction, however his declaration that ‘we were worthy of gain from the gods’, suggests that the king felt difficult done by.

The Valkyrie, by Hans Makart, 1877.

This ambivalence may explain why poets sometimes take the valkyrie in a softer instructions, representing her as graceful and attractive. For example, the poem Hrafnsmál ( Words of the Raven) relates the spectacular military successes of another Norwegian king by method of a discussion in between a raven and a ethereally stunning valkyrie. She has white-blonde hair and fair skin. Other poets imagined the valkyrie as a doting lover, excited for the warrior’s romantic and sexual existence, even when he is a remains. In poems about the legendary warrior Helgi ‘Hunding-slayer’, his bride, the valkyrie Sigrun, does not want him to die, so instead of fulfil her role and condemn him to death, she hovers in the sky throughout fights and safeguards him. The valkyrie views Odin not as her leader (as is conventional) however rather as her rival for Helgi’s loyalty and attention. Although Helgi is mesmerized by the valkyrie, their subsequent marital relationship appears to trigger Sigrun to lose her powers and therefore her allure. When he finally does die in fight, she attempts to compel her husband to remain in his burial mound in an undead state so that they can continue to be together. Ever the warrior, Helgi picks Odin and Valhalla over an afterlife with Sigrun.

Helgi and Sigrun’s relationship tips at the tensions intrinsic in warrior life, with clashing needs and loyalties to one’s king and family. The mythical valkyrie therefore informs us something about Norse society beyond warfare, specifically that ladies had company and were considered crucial.

Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir is the author of Valkyrie: The Ladies of the Viking World(Bloomsbury, 2020). She operates at the National Library of Norway in Oslo.

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