Traditionally, Valkyries are usually recognised as mythical female creatures that descend on the battlefield and chose the best warriors to return with them to Valhalla. Here they would sup with Odin and spend their time preparing for battle and feasting in the great hall. At the end of time when an event called Ragnarok is meant to occur, these mighty warriors will be summoned in a battle between the gods that will result in the near eradication of life on earth–the gods included.
In this myth, the Valkyries only take the most fearsome and skilled warriors. Therefore, to die in battle was considered a great honour to a Viking as it meant their position in Valhalla and the Ragnarok event was confirmed. Usually, the Valkyries only chose half of the fallen to reside with Odin in Valhalla, the other half went to the goddess Freya. Alternative variants on her name include Freyja and Freja. She also goes by the alternative names: Gefn, Hörn, Mardöll, Sýr, Valfreyja, and Vanadís.
Freya is, essentially, a fertility goddess but she is also considered the ruler of the heavenly afterlife field called Folkvangr. This is where women who were considered to have suffered a noble death go after they die, sent on the behest of the Valkyries.
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While we may have heard of the Valkyries, it appears that a great many of the stories and sagas involving them have been lost. Even with the suspected loss of written sources about the Valkyries, there are many mentions of these mythical women throughout the sagas. In addition, there are references to Valkyries, shieldmaidens, or women being cited as such in tales including Grímnismál, Nafnaþulur, Völundarkviða, Völuspá, and Skáldskaparmál, to name just a few. They can also be easily found in the Poetic Edda; the Prose Edda, and Heimskringla.
Along with the Valkyries being associated with Valhalla and the selection of warriors for Ragnarok, there appears to be some overlapping between these mythical women and other supernatural groups in Norse mythology. In particular, there has been some scholarly discussion that associates the Valkyries with the Norns, and the disir.
The Norns are female creatures who are tasked with deciding the destiny of men. The disir are also associated with the fates. This has led to the possible confusion between the Valkyries and these other groups in Norse mythology.
Then, there is also the possibility, as Henry Adams Bellows suggests at points in his translation of the Poetic Edda, that some of these stories associated with the Valkyries might actually just be about ordinary women. Some words within the Poetic Edda have been translated as “Valkyrie.” However, the surrounding words and stanzas do little to suggest that the woman involved is a mythical creature.
While the Valkyries were usually considered creatures above and beyond the realm of humans, there are still stories of them descending for a time to be with the mortal race. This is where a lot of the romantic mythology has captured the imagination of readers. Often, they chose men considered to be great heroes or warriors. In fact, for those who have read the book in my previous series, Vikings: The Truth about Lagertha and Ragnar, you will know that the mighty shieldmaiden Lagertha was suspected to be one of these Valkyries, falling in love with Ragnar and descending for a time to be with him.