(Valkyrjur, walkyriges, valkyries)
In modern times, the Walkurja has become one of the best-known figures of Northern spirituality (with a little help from Richard Wagner). The roles of the walkurjas that we see in our forebears' literature are several. Firstly, they ride out to the battlefield as Wodan's representatives to choose who shall die; this is the meaning of the name "walkurja". Secondly, they bear drink to Wodan and the einherjar in Walhall; their images on the Gotlandic picture stones suggest that they are especially responsible for giving the horn of welcome to the newly slain. Thirdly, they may also be responsible for raising the dead on Walhall's plain and healing them so that they may slay each other again and again till Ragnarök.
The oldest recorded uses of the word are in Anglo-Saxon, where "wælcyrge" is often used to gloss various Classical terms such as the names of the Furies and Bellona: in The Wonders of the East, gorgoneus is translated as wælcyrging, and mention is made of beasts which "have eight feet, and walkyries' eyes, and two heads". These, particularly the former, might be taken as speaking of the walkurjas' magical power of paralyzation (battle-fetter); they certainly strengthen the image of the walkurja as a frightening figure.
In modern times, the term "valkyrja" has often been used for the Higher Self, the warder of the soul and the shining bride with whom the consciousness seeks to be wedded, especially by Edred Thorsson (FUTHARK), and, following him, Kveldulf Gundarsson (Teutonic Magic; Teutonic Religion). This has caused much difficulty: since the walkurja is so closely associated with the cult of Óðinn, it seems difficult, if not impossible, for followers of other god/esses to call their own Higher Selves "valkyrjur". Gundarsson has suggested (Teutonic Religion) that perhaps the followers of other deities could assume manifestations of their own god/ess along the model of the valkyrja, but known by more fitting names (for instance, "Þrúðmaiden" for worshippers of Thonar). Likewise, those who interpret the walkurja/Higher Self as incorporating some of Jung's concept of the anima are baffled by the problem of women's relationship to this figure.
The concept of the walkurja as Shining Bride and Higher Self is based wholly on Sigrdrífumál and the Helgi poems. In the former, however, the walkurja is specifically sentenced to be married to Sigurðr as part of her disgrace. She has disobeyed Óðinn by choosing the wrong man to die, and so she is no longer a walkurja: she must enter the ordinary realm of women as a wife. Even in Völsunga saga, Brynhildr is not called valkyrja, only skjaldmær, "shield-maiden. In the Helgi-poems, the woman is only called a valkyrja in the prose (which was probably added by the scribe, long after the conversion of Iceland and the composition of the poems); in the poetry itself, she is only ever referred to as a dís. It can also be mentioned that, although Sigrún is able to ride over air and water to ward the living Helgi, while she lives herself, she is not able to follow the dead Helgi to Valhöll - hardly consistent with those women who are actually called valkyrjur, who fare to and from that hall in the course of doing Wodan's will (Hákonarmál) and bear drink to the heroes inside. In the actual poetry, the word "valkyrja" is used only in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, and there it is an insult: Sinfjötli accuses Guðmundr of having been a harmful walkurja "with All-Father", awefull and ill-willing, who set all the einherjar to fighting her battles. Likewise, Sigrún is not called "valkyrja" in Völsunga saga, although the compiler knew the Helgi lays. Neckel suggests that this ommission is due to an earlier perception of the valkyrja as a frightful being, which made the term inappropriate for application, so that Sigrún and Sváva were not originally conceived of as valkyries. The same holds true for the swan-maidens of Völundarkviða: both the term "valkyrjur" and the association of the swan-women with battle appear only in the prose, not the poetry, while the theme of the animal-bride who is happily married to a human man for several years, but then reclaims her beast-hide and leaves him, is very widespread and has nothing to do with walkurjas. In one of our oldest skaldic poems, Þórbjörn hornklofi's Hrafnsmál (ca. 900), which is also the first recorded ON usage of the word "valkyrja", it is specifically stated that the woman speaking to the raven is a wise valkyrja who understands bird-speech, to whom no man is dear. The belief in a womanly soul-warder, bride, and "Higher Self" should not be forgotten - it will be spoken of further under "Idises" and "Soul, Death, and Rebirth" - but it is probably incorrect to give that being the name "walkurja".
The arguments against seeing the walkurja as being essentially the hero's higher self and bride also stand against the idea of seeing human women as walkurjas. Today, it is quite common either to describe any strong woman (especially warrior-women) as a "valkyrie", or to use the word for the woman who bears the horn about at holy rites. The shield-maiden or Maiden Warrior is, indeed, a mighty figure of Germanic literature (and probably life in the old days, and certainly life now!), but there is no justification for identifying her with the wild wights who ride above the battlefield to choose men's death and doom the battle's outcome. There were probably human women who practiced magical arts to take part in battle in this manner, as is discussed under "Idises", but they are unlikely to have been universally followers of Wodan. Whereas the few surviving instances of "valkyrja" in Old Norse poetry, with the exception of Hrafnsmál where the walkurja is actually interrogating a raven (a bird defined in skaldic kennings almost exclusively, and interchangeably, by the names of Óðinn and the valkyrjur) about a man who is probably an Óðinn-hero (Haraldr inn hárfagri), not only explicitly connect these women with Óðinn, but show them as being wholly spiritual beings. Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (C.E. 1014), which puts "wiccan ond wælcyrian" together with murderers, kinslayers, and fornicators as destructive influences upon the nation, does hint at a belief in human walkurjas; however, Wulfstan also emphasizes a euhemeristic interpretation of the Heathen gods in De Falsis Deis. This, applied to walkurjas, could reasonably turn the battle-spirits into human sorceresses. If the supernatural walkurjas were generally seen as partaking in Wodan's magical practises, as the name-pair Göndul/Göndlir suggests, this could also have blurred the distinction between spirit and sorceress in the christian cleric's eyes.
As bearers of the horn in Walhall, the walkurjas are the Wodanic mirroring of the normal womanly role: as a drighten's hall must have the atheling-frowes, his wife and daughters, bearing drink to the ruler and his thanes, so Walhall must have fitting women doing this honour to the god and his einherjar, as in Eiríksmál, when he bids "walkurjas bear drink, as if a prince came". Despite the reading usually given to the little Viking Age pendants of horn-bearing women from Sweden, however, this does not mean that all women bearing drink are walkurjas - though those who appear on the Gotlandic picture stones as holding the horn up to a rider on an eight-legged horse, with a great hall behind them in front of which a fight is going on, almost certainly are. However, carrying the horn about at a holy feast or offering a greeting-drink to a guest was one of the most usual activities of the Germanic woman, from the free farmer's hut to the halls of the god/esses. At a blessing made to Wodan alone, the horn-bearing woman might be thought to play the part of the walkurja in his hall; but at other rites, this would hardly seem fitting.
As the Norse and English sources show them to us, the walkurjas are figures of awe and even terror, who delight in the deaths of men. As battlefield scavengers, they are very close to the ravens, who are described as wælceasega, "picking over the dead", in the Old English interpretive translation of Exodus, and the good Prof. Tolkien suggests that the valkyrie-word "derived partly from the actual carrion-birds of battle, transformed in mythological imagination" (Exodus, p. 50). The steed of the walkurja, like that of the frightful troll-woman of Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar (Heimskringla) who gloats over the dead and feeds corpses to her mounts while claiming the blood for herself, is the wolf; the Rök Stone speaks of "where Gunnr's horse sees food on the battlefield, twenty kings who lie there". Gunnr ("Battle") is one of the most typical walkurja-names; others include Skögul (either "Forward-Striker" or "The Raging"), Hlökk ("Shrieker"), Göll ("Loud" - cf. Óðinn names Göllnir, Göllorr, Göllungr), and Herfjötur ("Battle-Fetter"). In Darraðarljóð, a man sees these women weaving in a womanly way - but they are weaving human guts, with human heads as the weights, a sword for the beater and an arrow for the shuttle. This poem is associated with the Battle of Clontarf (1016), so it is likely to be Heathen in conception.
As spoken of under "Wodan", the walkurjas can best be seen as the womanly reflections of Wodan: they do his work and share in all his crafts and being. This is a narrower role than the word "valkyrie" has held in Ásatrú until now, but one better-founded. It also deals with the vexing question of why a part of the soul which all human beings share - the "Higher Self" - should have been thought to be so strongly associated with one god, and not the most widely beloved god at that: the answer is that after the Heathen period, the term was applied widely and romantically by the antiquarian scribes writing down the Eddic poems.
KveldúlfR Gundarsson, "The Valkyrie in the Cult of Óðinn", Idunna.