Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas

Page: 87

That will be ere the set of sun.”

Macbeth (Shakespeare).

The Vala

Sometimes the Norns bore the name of Vala, or prophetesses, for they had the power of divination—a power which was held in great honour by all the Northern races, who believed that it was restricted to the female sex. The predictions of the Vala were never questioned, and it is said that the Roman general Drusus was so terrified by the appearance of Veleda, one of these prophetesses, who warned him not to cross the Elbe, that he actually beat a retreat. She foretold his approaching death, which indeed happened shortly after through a fall from his steed.

These prophetesses, who were also known as Idises, Dises, or Hagedises, officiated at the forest shrines and in the sacred groves, and always accompanied invading armies. Riding ahead, or in the midst of the host, they would vehemently urge the warriors on to victory, and when the battle was over they would often cut the bloody-eagle upon the bodies of the captives. The blood was collected into great tubs, wherein the Dises plunged their naked arms up to the shoulders, previous to joining in the wild dance with which the ceremony ended.

It is not to be wondered at that these women were greatly feared. Sacrifices were offered to propitiate them, and it was only in later times that they were degraded to the rank of witches, and sent to join the demon host on the Brocken, or Blocksberg, on Valpurgisnacht.

Besides the Norns or Dises, who were also regarded as protective deities, the Northmen ascribed to each human being a guardian spirit named Fylgie, which [172]attended him through life, either in human or brute shape, and was invisible except at the moment of death by all except the initiated few.

The allegorical meaning of the Norns and of their web of fate is too patent to need explanation; still some mythologists have made them demons of the air, and state that their web was the woof of clouds, and that the bands of mists which they strung from rock to tree, and from mountain to mountain, were ruthlessly torn apart by the suddenly rising wind. Some authorities, moreover, declare that Skuld, the third Norn, was at times a Valkyr, and at others personated the goddess of death, the terrible Hel. [173]


Chapter XVIII: The Valkyrs

The Battle Maidens

Odin’s special attendants, the Valkyrs, or battle maidens, were either his daughters, like Brunhild, or the offspring of mortal kings, maidens who were privileged to remain immortal and invulnerable as long as they implicitly obeyed the god and remained virgins. They and their steeds were the personification of the clouds, their glittering weapons being the lightning flashes. The ancients imagined that they swept down to earth at Valfather’s command, to choose among the slain in battle heroes worthy to taste the joys of Valhalla, and brave enough to lend aid to the gods when the great battle should be fought.

“There through some battlefield, where men fall fast,

Their horses fetlock-deep in blood, they ride,

And pick the bravest warriors out for death,

Whom they bring back with them at night to Heaven

To glad the gods and feast in Odin’s hall.”

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

These maidens were pictured as young and beautiful, with dazzling white arms and flowing golden hair. They wore helmets of silver or gold, and blood-red corselets, and with spears and shields glittering, they boldly charged through the fray on their mettlesome white steeds. These horses galloped through the realms of air and over the quivering Bifröst, bearing not only their fair riders, but the heroes slain, who after having received the Valkyrs’ kiss of death, were thus immediately transported to Valhalla.

The Cloud Steeds

As the Valkyrs’ steeds were personifications of the clouds, it was natural to fancy that the hoar frost and [174]dew dropped down upon earth from their glittering manes as they rapidly dashed to and fro through the air. They were therefore held in high honour and regard, for the people ascribed to their beneficent influence much of the fruitfulness of the earth, the sweetness of dale and mountain-slope, the glory of the pines, and the nourishment of the meadow-land.

The Swan Maiden

The Swan Maiden

Gertrude Demain Hammond, R.I.

Choosers of the Slain

The mission of the Valkyrs was not only to battlefields upon earth, but they often rode over the sea, snatching the dying Vikings from their sinking dragon-ships. Sometimes they stood upon the strand to beckon them thither, an infallible warning that the coming struggle would be their last, and one which every Northland hero received with joy.

“Slowly they moved to the billow side;

And the forms, as they grew more clear,

Seem’d each on a tall pale steed to ride,

And a shadowy crest to rear,

And to beckon with faint hand

From the dark and rocky strand,

And to point a gleaming spear.

“Then a stillness on his spirit fell,

Before th’ unearthly train;

For he knew Valhalla’s daughters well,

The chooser of the slain!”

Valkyriur Song (Mrs. Hemans).

Their Numbers and Duties

The numbers of the Valkyrs differ greatly according to various mythologists, ranging from three to sixteen, most authorities, however, naming only nine. The Valkyrs were considered as divinities of the air; they were also called Norns, or wish maidens. It was said that Freya and Skuld led them on to the fray. [175]

“She saw Valkyries

Come from afar,

Ready to ride

To the tribes of god;

Skuld held the shield,

Skaugul came next,

Gunnr, Hildr, Gaundul,

And Geir-skaugul.

Thus now are told

The Warrior’s Norns.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Henderson’s tr.).

The Valkyrs, as we have seen, had important duties in Valhalla, when, their bloody weapons laid aside, they poured out the heavenly mead for the Einheriar. This beverage delighted the souls of the new-comers, and they welcomed the fair maidens as warmly as when they had first seen them on the battlefield and realised that they had come to transport them where they fain would be.

“In the shade now tall forms are advancing,