The Valkyrie calls to mind images of Amazon-like warrior-women astride great steeds, wearing winged helms. Victorian romanticists have so confused their image that it’s difficult to shake this depiction from our deeper subconscious. So who were the wælcyrian and what role did they play in Anglo-Saxon, pre-Christian religion?
It would appear that the English wælcyrian or ‘choosers of the slain’, like many of the beings in Anglo-Saxon lore, have been misrepresented throughout the centuries. Much like the elves and dwarfs, the wælcyrge are typically depicted as being of a malevolent disposition.
Some scholars have speculated that the ‘mihtigan wif‘, or ‘mighty women’ mentioned in ‘Wið færstice’ is a reference to wælcyrian. The fact that these ‘mighty women’ are depicted wielding spears echoes later Norse depictions of Valkyrjur as powerful spear-maidens.
“They were loud, yes, loud,
when they rode over the (burial) mound;
they were fierce when they rode across the land.
Shield yourself now, you can survive this strife.
Out, little spear, if there is one here within.
It stood under/behind lime-wood (i.e. a shield), under a light-coloured/light-weight shield, where those mighty women marshalled their powers, and they send shrieking spears.”
A stanza from the Norse poem ‘Helgakviða Hundingsbana I‘ seems eerily familiar to the first few lines of ‘Wið færstice’.
“Helmeted valkyries came down from the sky
—the noise of spears grew loud—they protected the prince;
then said Sigrun—the wound-giving valkyries flew,
the troll-woman’s mount was feasting on the fodder of ravens:”
Although the surviving information is sparse, looking at the context where ‘wælcyrge’ is used creates a clearer picture of how they might have been viewed by the general populace.
The word ‘wælcyrian‘ finds its way onto Bishop Wulfstan’s list of evil beings alongside witches and harlots.
“Sermo Lupi ad Anglos: …myltestran ] bearnmyrðran ] fule forlegene horingas manage,] …wiccan] wælcyrian…”
“harlots and child-murderers and many foul, perverted whoremongers and…witches and slain choosers.”
Clearly during the Christian period, wælcyrian much like other wights were pushed into the realm of devils and demons and reviled by the church. Although this was common practice with the onset of Christianity, it would seem the wælcyrian were never gentle creatures. In some Old English texts, the term wælcyrge is used to describe the Roman war goddess Bellona, gorgons and the Greek Erinyes ‘Furies’. While the connection with Bellona is in keeping with later depictions of walcyrian as warrior-women, it’s the ties to the Furies and gorgons that is the most interesting. If the elder English did view the wælcyrian as Furie-like creatures, this would paint them as darker, chthonic beings who inspired awe and fear.
Brian Branston’s description of the Furies in The Lost Gods of England seems a much more realistic interpretation of the wælcyrian within the pagan mind.
“In the eighth and tenth centuries we find Old English manuscripts glossing ‘wælcyrge’ for ‘Erinyes’, the ancient Greek Furies. This gloss suggests that the Old English wælcyrge was something quite different from the conventional Valkyrie of the Viking Age; and that, even when we make allowances for the bedevilling of the creature by Christian writers, the original wælcyrge was a much darker and bloodthirstier being than of ‘Odinn’s maids’. For if wælcyrge is equivalent to Erinyes, then we must remember that the Erinyes were old, older than the gods who came to power with Zeus; their skins were black, their garments grey; they were three in number but could be invoked together as a single being, an Erinyes; their voice was often like the lowing of cattle, but usually their approach was heralded by the babble of barking for they were bitches; their home was below the earth in the Underworld. Such creatures are more akin to the ‘pitch black hounds with staring black eyes’ which bellied their way through the darksome woods between Peterborough and Stamford.”
Several Norse accounts also corroborate this view describing ‘witch-wives’ splattered with blood or astride ferocious wolves; wolves with human carcasses gripped between their jaws.
As is typical of Germanic paganism, the line between the wælcyrge, the Idesa and the Fates (Wyrdae) and ultimately the goddess Frīg is seemingly quite vague. Hilda Ellis Davidson touches upon this connection in ‘Gods and Myths of Northern Europe’ where she states:
“evidently an elaborate literary picture has been built up by generations of poets and storytellers, in which several conceptions can be discerned. We recognise something akin to Norns, spirits who decide destinies of men; to the seeresses, who could protect men in battle with their spells; to the powerful female guardian spirits attached to certain families, bringing luck to youth under their protection; even to certain women who armed themselves and fought like men, for whom there is some historical evidence from the regions round the Black Sea.”
Siegfried Andres Dobat also commented on the connection between Frīg, the Idesa and wælcyrian in ‘Bridging mythology and belief: Viking Age functional culture as a reflection of the belief in divine intervention’.
“in her mythological role as the chooser of half the fallen warriors for her death realm Fólkvangr, the goddess Freyja, however, emerges as the mythological role model for the Valkyrjur and the dísir.”
It is my belief, based on the aforementioned examples, that the wælcyrian were primeval, often frightening beings associated with both battle and death. They were psychopomps, guiding the dead to the hereafter. It is in this duty that they are connected to Wōden, the chief psychopomp of the Germanic world. While the crows and wolves fed on the bodies of the slain, the wælcyrian ushered their spirits to the realm of the dead.
The Road To Hel by Hilda Ellis Davidson