The Ladies of War

Dísir, norns and valkyrias – Fertility cult and sacred kingship in the North

Summarised and translated by Maria Kvilhaug [my own opinions offered in section marks like these ] from the work of the renowned Swedish scholar Folke Ström`s work:
Ström, Folke : Diser, nornor, valkyrjor – Fruktbarhetskult och sakralt kungadöme i Norden  (Almqvist & Wiksell, Stockholm 1954)

Chapter 4:Dísir and valkyrias

“Why did you thus rule the path of the battle, Spear-Strife[Geirskögull – a valkyria]? We were those worthy of victory!”

(Lament over a valkyria`s choice in the Skaldic poem Hákonarmál)

As a god of kings, we have also seen Odin as the god of war and the battleground. His attributes are the spear and the sword, the latter an inheritance from his predecessor, Freyr, god of fertility and battle. Freyr`s sword was an important part of his mythology.

Even as a god of war Odin is closely connected with the great goddess. He shares with her the fallen dead (Grimnismál 14). Odin as a war-god must be seen in connection with the turbulent migration era during the Iron Age, where he was before anything else the god of victory.

On the continent we meet the war- and victory-aspects of the dísir at an early stage. These aspects emerge with absolute clarity in the Iron Age Roman-German-Celtic matres cult which has for a long time been seen in connection with the Scandinavian cult of the dísir. These Iron Age “mothers” seem to have possessed strong elements of fertility, guardian spirit functions and deities of fate.

In their most clearly warlike aspect we see them in the Merseburger-charm idisi. These idisi stand out as the powers of victory and magic of the war and battle-field. The charm dates to the 10th century:

“Once high idisi [goddesses]sat, they sat here, they sat there. Some bound chains, some led the armies, others loosened the chains. Run from the chains! Be immune to the enemies!”

Like Ivar Lindquist, I perceive the spell as a magical charm used before battle. The song creates the image of the war goddesses seated on their horses, perhaps splitting into fractions with particular tasks. Some tasks were to magically “bind” and avert the hostile armies, others had as their task to help escape those who had been captured, and some to make strategies. The purpose of the song is to encourage the goddesses to ensure the desired outcome. According to primitive speculation the outcome of the battle is decided on a higher divine plane.

The chains that the dísir are binding are thus magical chains. She is, like the goddess in Ragnarsdrápa, a fordædha [sorceress] of war. This is of interest in the name of one valkyrja: Herfjötur, which means Army-Chains, and Hlökk – the Chain. According to Snorri`s Edda, her and her sister`s main task is to choose those who are to fall and rule over victory (“kjósa feigdh menn ok rádha sigir”).  Just like their prototypes, the war goddess Freya, and her male counterpart,  Odin, she applies magical means, giving and taking away alertness and strength and mobility. The phenomenon of suddenly experiencing inability to move fast and efficiently during battle (as a result of exhaustion, perhaps) was thought to be the hostile spells of a dís who puts “army-chains” on the warrior. Example from Sturlunga saga when Gudmund is killed in battle because of this phenomenon and his friend asks if: “hvárt herfjöturr væri á honum?” (Have army-chains been placed on him?) The same magical formula as in the Merseburger-charm seems to occur in Hávamál  149(Poetic Edda):

“I sing charms so that I  can make the chain loosen from the foot and from the hand the iron.”

In the poem Haustlöng Thiodolf describes the battle between Thor and the giant Hrungnir. Even in this divine scene the outcome depends on the dísir: Thor`s victory is explained with the concluding words: vildu svá ímundísir – “Thus the battle-goddesses wanted it”.

We assume that the dísir who interfered in battle received sacrifice before the battle [and/or after], and we remember that the sacrifice to the Dísir at Uppsala presented two main concerns: for peace, and for victory.

The same double sidedness is found in the two deities connected to the dísir-collective: Freya and Odin. In the Edda poetry both sides exist.

The dísir-valkyrjor`s role in battle reflect their archaic role as death-brides “who take pleasure[gaman – sexual pleasure] in the king`s corpse” as it is said in Ynglingatal about Dyggve, who was to be “wed/consecrated to the horse-goddess” [horse-goddess is another name of the death-goddess/valkyria who was imagined as coming to the dead riding on a horse].

The Viking warriors believed that the dead warriors took a part in the divine plan of rescuing the world at Ragnarök so that death on the battlefield, perceived as a sacrifice to or union with the dísir, just like with the sacrifice of the king to the goddess, was ultimately meant to serve life. In my opinion (Ström`s) there is an unbroken line from the ancient fertility religion with its demand of the king`s self-sacrifice and the warrior culture`s ideology with its idea of the victory in death itself (as they were taken into the company of gods and increase their powers). The emphasis moved from the earlier to the latter as a consequence of the peasant society`s change to a warrior-dominated society with a warlike ideology.

The omen of Ragnarök is presented in the Edda poem Völuspá in stanza 30 when the valkyrjor appear on the cosmic scene:

Sá hon valkyrior vitt um komnar —-(She saw valkyrias come from far and wide)

Görvar at rída til Godthiodar ——(Ready to ride to the peoples of the gods)

Skuld heit skildi ———————–( Future[Debt, the youngest norn]held a shield)

Enn Skögull önnur  ——————–(And Battle-Sound another [shield])

Gunn, Hild, Göndul ——————(War, Battle and Witch-Woman[Göndul, a name of Freya])

Ok Geirskögul ————————–(and Spear-Battle-Sound)

Nú ero taldar nönnur Herjans —–(Now are counted the women of the Lord)

Görvar at rída grund, valkyrior ———(Valkyrias ready to ride the Earth)

When Odin and the dísir failed to give victory, people complained and did not hesitate to call their gods by bad names, such as when Odin is called Skollvaldr (Causer of Treason) and Bölverkr (Working Evil) or when the Edda poet  of Helgakvida Hundingsbana II declared: einn veldr Ódinn öllu bölvi (“Odin alone cause all evil”). Same with the dísir, as is said in Edda poem Reginsmál: tálar dísir standa thèr á tvær hlidhar (Traitorous goddesses stand there on both sides). Loss in battle can also be explained by the rage of the goddesses: úfar ro dísir, nú knàttu Ódhin siá (The goddesses are angry – you will see Odin (=you will die) now!” (Grimnismál 53)

The protective and saving goddesses are also present in the source material. In the heroic poems of the Edda, valkyrias are utterly beneficial to their chosen heroes. In Ásmundar saga kappabana ch.8 we hear that the hero Asmund before his battle against Hildibrand dreams that a group of armed women stand over him and say to him: “We are your spádísir (“prophecy/fate-goddesses”) and we will protect you against your enemies”. After his victory  Asmund praises the goddesses with a poem and assign them the victory who had encouraged him and protected him.

In the Völsunga saga, the roles between Odin and the dísir vary. King Sigmund`s courage is caused by his spádísir who helped him and made him invulnerable, and the only reason that he dies in the battle is because Odin interferes personally, entering the battle and killing Sigmund for himself. The conflict between Odin and the dísir about who deserves victory continues throughout the whole saga.

How the valkyrjor were perceived directly as the rulers of war may be seen in the Song of Darrad cited in Njáls saga where an army of valkyrjor have dismounted their horses and erected a great weave. It was a bloody weave where they used human entrails, heads and weaponry rather than the usual equipment. Blood rains from the weave. The ladies are in two places at once, on the battle-field as well as by the weave, and by the weave they describe what they are seeing on the battlefield (a way of describing a clairvoyant vision?). They sing:

4“We weave, we weave, the weave of Darrad

That the young king first owned

We would go against the enemy army

Where our friends now wield their weapons”

5 “We weave, we weave, the weave of Darrad

And we were later to follow the king

There should Battle and Witch-Woman, [Gunn and Göndul (=Freya)]

Who followed the king

See bloodied the shiny shields

6, “We weave, we weave, the weave of Darrad

Where courageous men move on the field

Let not his life go to waste

Valkyrior owe to consecrate the dead.”


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