5. The Reincarnating Valkyria – Initiation in Heroic Poems

This article is taken from a chapter in my 2004 thesis – The Maiden with the Mead – a Goddess of Initiation in Norse Myths?” by Maria Kvilhaug


“There are still others [among the goddesses] whose function is to wait in Val-hall, serve drink and look after the tableware and drinking vessels.(…) These are called valkyriur. Odin sends them to every battle. They allot death to men and govern victory. Gunn and Rota and the youngest norn, called Skuld, always ride to choose who shall be slain and to govern killings.(…)” [1]


In the Gylfaginning, as quoted above, Snorri Sturluson gives the image that has had great influence on our image of the valkyriur – that of serving maids in Valhǫll and supervisors over battle. They ride to battle, choosing who shall win and who shall die, thus their title, valkyria, from val – the “chosen” or the “slain”, and kjosa – “to choose”. They are the “Choosers of the Chosen (Slain), the “maidens of Óðinn”, and they bring the dead souls to his warrior´s paradise, Valhǫll – “Hall of the Chosen (Slain)” after battle. In Valhǫll, warriors are served mead by the valkyriur, mead milked from the goat Heiðrún who stands on the roof of Valhǫll, eating from the great tree there, the Læradr. The way the tree is described by Snorri renders it obvious that the tree is no other than the World Tree itself.[2] So the mead that the valkyriur give the One-Harriers to drink is drawn directly from the tree of life itself, the very same tree that the oldest norn waters every morning. The water comes from the well that makes anyone who bathes in it come out shining white (see Ch. 5.7 about the transformative power of Urðr´s well). Moreover, the goat´s name means “bright rune”.[3] Runes (rún, f.pl. rúnar) were a kind of letters used by Germanic peoples, including the Vikings, but their name means “secret” or “hidden knowledge”.[4] It seems logical that the secrets contain the hidden knowledge of destiny, since they were first inscribed by the norns, mistresses of fate. [5] Both Ström[6] and Näsström[7] regarded the norns, valkyriur and other dísir as creatures more or less identical to each other; while the norns allot fate in general, the valkyriur seem more specialized for the fate of battles. Snorri counted the youngest norn, Skuld, among the valkyriur, as quoted above. In the Hyndlulióð, the goat Heiðrún is compared to Freyia, a comparison I believe is far from irrelevant. The comparison is presented in the guise of an insult referring to Freyia´s promiscuity. However, if we consider what Heiðrún actually represents, we realize that the “insult” provides information about Freyia that reaches far beyond moral judgement about the goddess´s sexual transgressions: The goddess is compared to the goat whose name means “bright hidden knowledge”, from whose udders flow the sacred mead of the valkyriur. This mead has its ultimate beginning in the well of Urðr, whose waters will transform anyone who bathes in it into something new, shining and transparently white, whose waters will keep the World Tree itself from rot and decay. Heiðrún is the transmitter of that mead, and Heiðrún is comparable to Freyia. Now, Näsström has argued that Freyia may be called “the Great Valkyria”[8], and indeed, Snorri describes how she rides to battle.[9] In the Grímnismál, St. 14, Freyia is described as the receiver of einherjar, the dead souls, and it is told that “she chooses the slain (chosen)” every day, keeping half to herself and sending half to Óðinn. The exact words used are val hon kyss, val and kyss (kjosa) being the same words that compose the word valkyria. As we shall see in this chapter, the valkyriur operate in a collective of maidens, but only one “Great Valkyria” stands out. It is not impossible that we are meeting Freyia in one of her many guises, and we shall see that the reincarnating valkyria fits neatly into our now well-known “Maiden-mythology”.


As mentioned in Ch. 2.3, the different Heroic Poems are of different ages and origins, yet the editors of the Edda, perhaps basing themselves on common tradition, must have linked them together so as to form part of a very long family saga. As Alv Kragerud has argued, it seems likely that the way the editors presented the poems was in accordance with tradition. According to Kragerud, the primary motif of the Helgi poems is to convey the pre-Christian belief in reincarnation. The reincarnation theme has been largely ignored by scholars or dismissed as a mistake by the editor(s) of the Codex Regius. Kragerud, however, argues that the poems were made in order to show just how reincarnation occurs. The notes of the editor(s) function as integrating parts of the legendary material that the poems are based on. There is no reason to assume that the editors were “wrong” when they explained the poems they were writing down; on the contrary, the editor(s) belonged to a traditional chain of frodi – “knowledgeable” – men and women among whom the legendary traditions behind the poems were still very much alive. There is little reason to believe that the idea of reincarnation was a late addition from the Christianized editor(s) rather than a pre-Christian concept. Besides, Kragerud argues that the idea of reincarnation is confirmed in the poems themselves, the last stanza of the poem of Helgi Hjǫrvardsson conveys the idea that he will “come back” to the world, and the valkyria recognizes her hero in the poem of Helgi Hundingsbani.[10] In my opinion, the theme of reincarnation is important in the poems, but more important is the way the the poems convey an underlying “Maiden-mythology” behind these apparent sagas of love and revenge. From my point of view, the reincarnation theme is a natural part of the theme of the Maiden with the Mead. We have seen how Svípdag “returns” to his Maiden after having been separated for a long time due to “winds” and fate: possibly, they have been separated by the death of the former Svípdag. How the very young Svípdag could have been married to the Maiden a long time ago could perhaps be explained through the idea of reincarnation transmitted by the Heroic Poems.



6.1: A Summary of the Maiden-stories in the Heroic Poems


The poem Helgakvíða Hjǫrvardssonar relates the stories of King Hjǫrvardr and of his son Helgi Hjǫrvardsson and their relationship to supernatural women. Hjǫrvardr hears rumours about a beautiful maiden called Sigrlinn in a far off country, and sends his earl´s son Atli out to woo her for him. Atli spends a winter with the girl´s father, king Svafnir, but has no luck. Later, Atli retires to a grove, where a bird speaks to him, demanding shrines, temples and sacrificial cattle in return for its help in obtaining the maiden. The story proceeds with Atli taking the king up on a mountain from where they may look down into Svávaland. Next, Atli takes the king with him to a river´s edge, where the king falls asleep. In the middle of the night, Atli crosses the river into Svávaland, finds the maiden Sigrlinn accompanied by another maiden, Álof, hidden in a house guarded by a giant eagle which is “Earl Fránmarr” in disguise. He is the father of Álof. Atli kills the “earl” in eagle´s shape and returns to Hjǫrvardr with the maiden Sigrlinn as a bride to the king, and her friend, earl Fránmarr´s daughter Álof, as his own bride.


Hjǫrvardr´s and Sigrlinn´s son grows up fair-looking, but no name will stick to him, he speaks little and socializes less. He is sitting on a haugr – a (burial) mound when a company of nine valkyriur rides paSt. The leader of the valkyriur, Sváva, gives him a name, Helgi, which means “the sacred one”[11], and incites him to seek a special sword which lies on the “Islet of Victory”[12] in order to rule the “Fields of Shining Light”[13]. This first meeting makes Helgi intent on becoming a warrior, finding the sword that Sváva revealed to him. Sváva is said to protect him in battle. Later, Helgi kills a giant called Hrodmarr – “Ocean of Non-Peace”,[14] and then another one called Hati – “Hate”. While still in Hatafjord, the “Fjord of Hate”, the ship is threatened by an ogress, Hati´s daughter with Rán called HrimGerðr, “Frosty Enclosure”. All the men are asleep except Atli the earl´s son, who accompanies Helgi and his men. Atli engages the ogress in a duel of words in which is revealed that Atli was castrated in the past and that only the protection of Sváva and her valkyriur are preventing the ogress from drowning the ship. As Helgi lives happily with his valkyria wife, who continues “riding air and sea”, Helgi´s older half-brother Hedinn meets an old giantess riding a wolf, using serpents as reins. The ogress asks Hedinn to accompany her, but he refuses. The ogress warns him that this will have a terrible outcome. Later, Helgi is killed by the Frekasteinn, “the Rock of Greed”.[15] He asks Sváva to marry his brother Hedinn, who loves her and who had even sworn to have her, but she flatly refuses. I agree with Kragerud that the last stanza of the poem does not reveal that Sváva accepted Hedinn as husband. On the contrary, the last stanza is Helgi´s promise of returning to avenge himself. The prose ending of the poem declares that Helgi and Sváva were reborn.


The first and second poems of Helgi Hundingsbani relates the story of the valkyria Sigrún and Helgi, son of Sigmundr Volsung. The two poems complement each other. The first relates how a norn at the birth of Helgi fastened a special fate-thread northwards, bidding it to hold forever. Sigmundr´s son grows up a prince and harsh warrior, and manages to break the “Peace of Frodi” (Frodafridr). According to Snorri, the frodafridr was a time long ago, of peace and plenty, of friendship and happiness, when no one stole from nor killed one another. A golden ring could lie forever in the fields without no one picking it up, so little greed was there, and no one bothered with revenge. This was under the reign of king Frodi, whose name could mean “wisdom”.[16] As Helgi is busy killing and winning battles, nine maidens approach from the “Mountains of Flames” and the “Fields of Heaven” while lightning and rays of fire surround them.[17] Helgi asks them if they would like to come to him, but the leader of the valkyriur, Sigrún, declares that she has no time to lose drinking beer with men when there are more important matters to attend to. She asks him to save her from her hideous suitor by killing him as well as defeating her own family, who is trying to forceher into the undesired marriage. During the journey to the battle-place, Helgi is assisted by his half-brother, Sinfiǫtli, who in a discourse somewhat similar to that of Atli and HrimGerðr leads a duel of words with one of the representatives of the enemy, in which it is revealed that Sinfiǫtli was castrated in the paSt. In the battle that follows, Sigrún and her “shield maidens” descend and protect their hero, who wins.

The second poem relates the same story in a different way. Helgi is said to be named after Helgi Hjǫrvardsson. The first meeting between the valkyria and Helgi takes place after he has been to battle, while feasting on raw meat with his warriors. Sigrún from Sefafjǫll approaches on horseback, and we are told that she is Sváva reborn. She asks Helgi what he is doing, and he tries to explain the bloody sight of himself and his men. Sigrún  declares that she already knows, and that she has not been far away. When she saw him, she recognized him as Helgi. Declaring her love with a kiss, she asks him to kill her unwanted suitor, and the same events take place as in the first poem. However, the second poem allows the story to continue after the victorious battle. Helgi and Sigrún meet on the field of slain men after the battle of Frekasteinn – the“rock of greed”, where most of Sigrún´s kinsmen lie dead. Helgi is dozing off, dead tired, beneath the Arasteinn – “Eagle`s Rock” – when she embraces him. The two are married, but Sigrún´s brother avenges his kin by slaying Helgi with Óðinn´s spear in the Fjǫturlundr, the “Grove of Fetters”. He rides to Sigrún on the Sefafjǫll to tell her the news. Sigrún meets the dead Helgi in his burial mound, where the two drink “the precious mead” before sleeping together in the grave. Helgi goes on to Valhǫll. The couple is said to be reincarnated as Helgi and Kára as told in Káraljod, a poem that is lost to us. However, the Grípisspá identifies the valkyria Sigrdrifa as the maiden “who has slept since Helgi died”, and her hero is Helgi´s younger brother, Sígurðr, born after Helgi´s death.[18]


The prose interpolation in the Poetic Edda called Frá Dauda Sinfiǫtla tells the story of Sinfiǫtli´s death, and then proceeds with how Sígurðr was born. Sígurðr´s father Sigmundr, who was also father to Helgi Hundingsbani and Sinfiǫtli, dies in battle with the Hundings, his late son´s enemies. Sígurðr´s mother marries again and Sígurðr grows up with her and his step-father´s family.


The Grípisspá relates how the young Sígurðr approaches his maternal uncle Grípir, who “ruled countries and was wiser than all and could see the future”. Grípir is persuaded to tell Sígurðr his whole fate, and the poem functions as a “synopsis” of the Sígurðr-saga.


Reginnsmál relates how the young Sígurðr meets Reginn in the stables of his step-grandfather. Reginn is a dwarf, but he is wise and has a hard húgr (mind, intent, soul), and he knows about sorcery. He fosters Sígurðr and teaches him. He tells Sígurðr about the story of the red gold of the gods, taken from the dwarf Andvari and now kept by the great serpent Fafnir. Reginn declares that the gold is his father´s heritage, and asks Sígurðr to help him slay the serpent, who is Reginn´s own brother. Fafnir is really a giant, and his name means “embracer”. Reginn forges a sword called Gramr –“Anger”, which bites through anything. Sígurðr declares that he has to do his duty as a prince and son before he can go on Reginn´s quest, and Reginn follows Sígurðr as he sets out to avenge his father against the Hundings. On the sea journey they are overtaken by a storm. In the midst of the storm they see a man standing quietly on a rock in the ocean. As he enters the ship, the storm quiets. The man presents himself with several names indicating that he is really the god Óðinn, and gives Sígurðr important counsels. At the end of the poem, Sígurðr slays the Hundings and Reginn praises his warrior´s deeds, much in the manner of a royal bard.


Fafnismál relates how Sígurðr slays the great serpent Fafnir with the aid of Reginn. As the serpent dies, he reveals secrets, answers questions and gives counsel to Sígurðr. Sígurðr comes back from the slaying apparently a new man. When Reginn tries to praise his warrior´s deeds, Sígurðr replies that many men are courageous who never reddened their sword in another man´s cheSt. Reginn is alarmed by Sígurðr´s new attitude, but, still regarding Sígurðr as his apprentice, orders him to roast the heart of Fafnir. Reginn drinks Fafnir`s blood and goes to sleep while Sígurðr works with the roasting. But as he is roasting the heart, a drop of blood falls down on his finger, which Sígurðr licks, and suddenly he can understand the speech of birds. The birds tells him that Reginn will betray him, and that he should take the gold of Fafnir and ride up to the Hindarfell – the Mountain of Obstacles[19] – where a beautiful shield maiden – a valkyria – is to be found. She is sleeping because Óðinn punished her for choosing differently than he wished. Sígurðr slays Reginn, gathers the treasures of the serpent on his horse`s back, and rides on.


Sigrdrifumál relates how Sígurðr rides up on the Mountain of Obstacles, where the earth trembles and flames reach up to the sky, a place few would have the courage to enter. Sígurðr, surrounded by the shine of the gold of the gods, rides through a wall of fire. Inside the fire-fence is a hall made of shields, and as Sígurðr enters the hall he finds a warrior in full armour. Taking off the helmet of the warrior, he realizes that the warrior is a woman. The armour has grown into her body, and Sígurðr has to cut her loose. As she wakes up, liberated from the armor, she speaks to Sígurðr and asks him to present himself. He explains who he is, and she declares that she has been sleeping for a long time, and that everybody has suffered for that reason. Óðinn caused her deep sleep with his galðr. She presents herself as Sigrdrifa, a valkyria, and continues her tale of her disagreement with Óðinn about the fate of some warriors which led to her imprisonment. Sígurðr then asks her to teach him wisdom from all the worlds. Sigrdrifa responds, praising day, night, gods, goddesses and the holy earth, and praying for eloquence, intelligence and healing hands in life. After the prayer, she offers him the minnis aul – the drink of Memory, declaring that the ale is filled with power, manliness, sung songs and blessing words, good galðr and runes of pleasure. She proceeds to counting up all the kinds of runes that Sígurðr needs to know and how to use them. The counting evolves into the tale of how Óðinn found the runes, where they came from, how he held the head of Mimir and spoke wise words, and how he cut the runes loose to flow into the worlds of gods, elves, the vanir and humankind. In the end, Sigrdrifa asks whether Sígurðr would like “speech or silence” from her. He has a choice, but fate is still laid out for him. Sígurðr declares that he is not afraid of knowing his fate even if it is death, and chooses her wise words and counsels as long as he lives. Sigrdrifa grants him eleven pieces of advice about behavior.


The poems that follow relate the events around Sígurðr´s death from different angles. Only the Grípisspá (mentioned above)gives a coherent summary of why Sígurðr had to die. The story may also be found in Snorri´s Skáldskaparmál and in the Volsunga Saga. Apparently, Sígurðr had sworn oaths to Sigrdrifa, but as he rides down from her mountain, he forgets all his oaths and his great love for the valkyria. Unwittingly breaking his oaths, he is married to beautiful Gudrun, whose mother knows more about Sígurðr`s past than he now knows himself. The mother, Grimhildr, asks Sígurðr to help his brother-in-law, Gunnarr, to seek the maiden Brynhildr. It becomes clear that Brynhildr is just another name for Sigrdrifa. Sígurðr takes Gunnarr up onto the Mountain of Obstacles, but Gunnarr´s horse refuses to enter the fire, and Sígurðr´s horse refuses to carry Gunnarr. This is when Sígurðr changes shape with Gunnarr, so that he can enter the hall of the Maiden in the shape of another man. He sleeps with Brynhildr as if she were his mother, for three nights, with an unsheated, poisonous sword between them. Later, Brynhildr comes as a bride to king Gunnarr, but as she discovers how she has been tricked into marrying an unworthy man, her revenge is terrible, ending with Sígurðr´s death. Brynhildr takes her own life.


The Helreið  Brynhildar tells the tale of how Brynhildr rides into Hel, where she is met by an ogress. The ogress calls Brynhildr the “goddess of gold” from Valland and asks what she is doing in this dark realm when she ought to be weaving in her own. It becomes clear from the ogress´s hostile words that Brynhildr is not supposed to be in that rocky realm and that she has acted wrong causing the death of men. This is certainly a puzzling remark about a valkyria, who is supposed to cause death through choosing. The only explanation for this is to reconsider our idea of the valkyria. Sígurðr is residing in Hel because of Brynhildr, and that is wrong. His relation to the valkyria should have had a different outcome. Brynhildr defends herself by explaining the cause of her actions, laying the blame on her brother “Atli” and on the “wise king”, who tricked her sisters and herself by stealing their bird hides a long time ago. It would seem that Óðinn hides behind the characters of Atli and the “wise king”. At the end of her speech, she declares that she has been underestimated and that she will follow her heart, being with Sígurðr for all eternity. She tells the ogress to “sink”.


The Oddrúnargrátr tells the tale of how Brynhildr´s “younger sister”, Oddrún from Hlésey – the “wind shielded island” – fell in love with Gunnarr after the deaths of Sígurðr and Brynhildr. She offered the drinking horn to Gunnarr, but her relations opposed the match and Gunnarr could not fight them. As he is taken captive by her brother Atli, Gunnarr is thrown into a pit of poisonous serpents. He manages to keep the serpents back by playing on a harp with his toes (his hands are bound). The music is so beautiful that everybody who hears it has to weep, and the tones reaches far away to the wind shielded island, where it is finally heard by Oddrún. Oddrún rides the fastest she can to save her beloved, but just as she reaches the pit, her brother´s mother, an ogress, has taken the shape of a serpent, crawled into the pit and given Gunnarr the fatal bite.


6.2: The Vision Quest Theme

…the Great Taiga the Heart Taiga

I do climb it, I do scale it

spirit recluse, spirit recluse

my staff tingles the tender pine

Have you not seen Alan´s mothers

- the ancestors of our shaman…

…born in new shape

born with miraculous power

oh mothers mine, oh mothers mine…[20]


Sitting in a certain grove(lund nokkurn), as Atli does when he speaks to the bird, may certainly be part of a “vision quest”. Groves were sacred to the Germanic peoples, often used as shrines and sanctuaries. The sanctity of the grove is ancient. Even as early as 80 A.D., the Roman historian Tacitus, whose accounts about the Germanic tribes is considered one of our most reliable Antique sources,[21] testified that groves were holy places, to which the Germans applied “the name of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence”.[22] Sacrifices and rituals took place there, and no one could enter unless bound with a cord. The grove, Tacitus asserts, is the center of their whole religion, from time immemorial. It is regarded as the cradle of the people and the dwelling place of the supreme god. Later on, Tacitus reveals how the shrine of Nerthus, Mother Earth, was situated in a grove on an island. Groves appear quite frequently as mythical places in Eddic poetry. Sitting in a grove, especially when the result is communication with a bird who demands shrines, temples and sacrifice in order to assist in an important matter, would appear to me an obvious example of a vision queSt.


Helgi Hjǫrvardsson sits on a haugr – a mound - when nine valkyriur ride past, changing his fortune forever. Sitting on a burial mound was a way of gaining wisdom and inspiration in the Viking Age.[23] In the Poetic Edda, it could appear that Óðinn is sitting on a burial mound when he sings galðr to wake up a dead vǫlva in Baldrs Draumar, and and that Svípdag does the same when he invokes his dead mother in Gróagalðr. Mounds could, for example, contain elves, who would heal in return for sacrifice.[24] Burial mounds and mounds in general were places of sacrifice to powerful ghosts or elves.[25] In the Volsunga Saga, king Rerir sits on a mound when the valkyria Hljod appears in the shape of a crow to give him an apple of fertility from Óðinn as an answer to a prayer to Frigg. In this case, Helgi receives the vision of nine supernatural maidens while sitting on a mound. He probably sat there in order to obtain a vision.


Atli took his king up on a mountaintop in order to see Svávaland. Sígurðr slew the serpent on a mountain and encountered the valkyria on another. Mountains are often associated with female supernatural beings. Gunnlǫð was said to dwell within the deadly rock-layer much like other giantesses such as Hyndla, the ogress in Helreið  Brynhildar, and in the poem Grottasǫngr, two giantesses reveal how they grew nine winters within the mountain. Menglǫð sits in silence on the Mountain of Healing whereas Sigrdrifa sleeps on the Mountain of Obstacles. Sigrlinn shows the way to the Shining Hills, and Sigrun´s dwelling is Sefafell, another mountain, and she descends from The Mountain of Flames. According to Motz, mountains and rocks were associated with a kind of Germanic priesthood, as well as with the world of the dead.[26] In another Scandinavian tradition, the Saami, the idea of a Sacred Mountain was central within the lore of their shamans, and especially connected to the residence of helping spirits. It was also considered a dwelling for the dead.[27] In Siberian shamanism, mountains – or the “master spirit” of the mountain – play the role of initiating shamans.[28] It is indeed a “sacred mountain” (hélog fioll) that Sígurðr ascends in his quest for the serpent´s gold and the Maiden, as shown in Fafnismál St. 26.  Svávaland, watched from the mountaintop, belongs to a realm of death,as we shall see in Ch. 6. and is an Other World. To climb a mountain in order to “see” such a realm must be counted as a vision queSt.


Atli also takes his king to a riverside where he sleeps while Atli crosses it. The river is a border to Svávaland which, as already remarked, is an Other World. In Norse Mythology, rivers frequently function as borders between realms. In Frá Dauda Sinfiǫtla we meet the river as a border to the world of the dead. Sleeping by a river in order to cross it in the dark of night, entering the Other World must be seen as a vision queSt.


Hjǫrvardr has to sacrifice cattle in order to obtain his goal. The sacrifice helps Atli find his way to the Maiden. Helgi Hundingsbani also butchers cattle, eating the meat raw when the valkyriur arrive. We remember how Óttarr sacrificed to Freyia before descending into the Other World. Sacrifice may be counted as a means of obtaining the necessary vision and power to enter the Other World.


Helgi rests beneath the Arasteinn – “Eagle´s Rock”- when the valkyria appears. Knowing the symbolic significance of the eagle as a force in the realm of the dead (see Ch. 4. 4), we may detect the deeper meaning of such a place. Another place where Helgi meets his Maiden is while staying the night in Brunavág. Bruna means “edge”, so the name could be translated as “the Bay of the Edge”. Both places could signify a very special place or even state of mind where the hero is present at the borders of the Other World. These events could also be counted within the vision quest theme.


Finally, the drinking of a mythical serpent´s blood in order to induce visions, as Reginn and Sígurðr do, may also be regarded as a vision queSt. The serpent, who reveals knowledge about the other worlds and about fate, is obviously a powerful creature, and so is its blood and heart. Reginn falls asleep after drinking the blood, and we do not know what kind of effect it has on him. According to Ström, it was assumed that a person who could change shape or travel with the soul would be asleep or dreaming when the húgr –the “free-soul” – detached itself from the body (see Ch.3.1). That the blood would have some kind of magical effect seems obvious: Sígurðr´s immediate reaction is to understand bird´s speech and communicate with birds who can tell him what is hidden and advise him in his actions.


6.3: The Vision Theme

The vision theme is closely tied to the vision quest theme, and some of the visions have been alluded to in the previous chapter. Speaking birds may be counted as a vision, as in the cases of Atli and of Sígurðr. So is the vision from the top of a mountain into another world. Helgi Hjǫrvardsson obtains the vision of nine valkyriur, with one more splendid than all the others, who speak to him and reveal, among other things, his name and the location of a magical sword. Helgi Hundingsbani sees three times nine maidens ride down from the heavens, surrounded by lightning and flames, their byrnies spattered with blood: “southern red goddesses”, directing his future. On another occasion, the leader of these shield maidens approaches him while he is dozing off, embracing and kissing him. In all the poems, emphasis is laid on the immense rays and luminiscence that surround the valkyriur, comparing them to the sun. Sigrdrifa´s hall is surrounded with flames reaching up to heaven, and her mountain shines with rays of light. They ride through air and sea, descending from the heavens. We are reminded of Freyr´s vision of the Maiden with the arms that lights up sea and mountain, the golden chair of Gunnlǫð, Freyia´s fiery necklace and golden tears, and the Shining Hall of sunbright Menglǫð. Gerðr and Menglǫð have that in common with Sigrdrifa: their residence is surrounded by a fence of fire. Gunnlǫð and Freyia are also surrounded by immense obstacles.


6.4: The Descending Theme

Atli spends a winter with king Svafnir, Sigrlinn´s father. Svafnir literally means “the One Who Puts to Sleep”. Simek believes that this is a poetic way of saying “death”.[29]Svafnir is one of the names of Óðinn,[30] as well as the name of one of the serpents that live in the well of Hel.[31] The Hel-serpent Svafnir and Óðinn-Svafnir, the god of the dead, contribute to the idea of king Svafnir´s realm as a realm of the dead. King Svafnir and Sigrlinn´s realm is called Svávaland. Sváva also means “to Put to Sleep”, indicating the same thing as the name of the king: death. In “Sleep-Putting Country”, Atli encounters a giant in eagle´s disguise. In Ch. 4.4, we discussed the symbolic significance of such a creature, identifying it with the eagle Corpse Swallower who dwells in the northernmost reaches of Hel.


Sigrún dwells on Sefafjǫll.  Sefa means “to calm down” or “have mercy”. It could also be a genitive form of sefi, m., which is a synonym for húgr, m., that is, the soul, intent, will, mind, desire or thought of a person. The name of Sigrún´s dwelling is either “Mount Calm Down”, which would be in accordance with the above Sváva and Svafnir (calming down being associated with falling asleep), or “Soul´s Mountain”. Sigrún´s relationship to death becomes clear when she meets Helgi in his burial mound, comparing herself to the “hungry hawks of Óðinn”, and describing in detail the lovely sight of hot and bloody corpses. She talks as if she was about to devour her beloved (see app. X). Sleeping in his dead arms further indicates death, since, in the Norse sources, death is often depicted as an embrace of the mistress of the dead.[32]


The Great Serpent

“The serpent is linked with the giants, and with the snakes that inhabit the world of death and are its symbols. Beside him we must set the fiery dragon of northern mythology, emerging from the depths of the earth, from rocks, caves, or burial mounds of the dead.”

                                                                                                Hilda Ellis Davidson[33]


Last but not least we must consider the great serpent that Sígurðr slays, whose blood makes it possible for him to understand the speech of birds and to cross the Mountain of Obstacles. Fafnir means “the embracer”, indicating that he is coiling himself around something – in this case the gold of the gods and of the dwarf Andvari. Now what other great serpents do we know in the Norse mythology? Two come immediately to mind: the serpent mentioned several times already; the Nidhǫggr and the Midgardsormr (“World Serpent”, also known as the Jormundgandr.[34] Nidhǫggr dwells in the well of Hel, Hvergelmir, together with uncountable snakes, as described in the Vǫluspá:  

(…) thar saug Nidhǫggr nái framgengna                        (…) There Nidhogg sucks the bodies of the dead

sleit vargr vera (…)[35]                                                       wolves tear the corpses(…)


We meet Nidhoggr again in the last stanza of the same poem:

Thar kemr inn dimmi dreki fljugandi                                There comes the dark dragon flying

nadr fránn nedan frá Nidafjǫllum;                                    the shining serpent up from Dark Moon Mountains

berr ser i fjǫdrum –flygr vǫll yfir-                                     carries in its feathers – flying across the earth -

Nidhǫggr nái                                                                      the corpses, Nidhogg

Nú man hon sǫkkvask [36]                                                    Now she will sink down


We know, then, of Nidhǫggr, that it sucks the corpses in Niflheim, and that it carries corpses in its feathers as it flies across the earth in the new world after Ragnarok.


Of the Midgardsormr –“World Serpent” – we know a bit more. It is the brother of Hel, goddess of death, and of the great wolf Fenrir (“Greed”). The serpent lies coiled around the ordered cosmos. As Heide points out, the Midgardsormr may appear not to be entirely destructive, in fact it might be the very bond that keeps the world together.[37]


Ellis Davidson establishes the Germanic fiery dragon as the “guardian of the burial mound”, “brooding over his treasure in a megalithic stone chamber inside a burial mound”.[38]The dragon in particular is associated with the graves of the dead, and Davidson points out that the fire-spitting dragon is a natural image of devouring death, swallowing up the dead body and its treasures with greedy fire. Although the dragon in Norse poetry is pictured as a great serpent, it is easy to recognize the dragon. Both in England and Scandinavia, the dragon-serpent came to be regarded as the guardian of the grave mound, watching over its treasures. The name Nidhǫggr, she adds, means “Corpse Tearer”, leaving little doubt as to the image of the devourer of corpses. The serpent-dragon Fafnir, Davidson claims, is a typical example, and it has left its mark in the serpentine ornament and recurring snake-motif upon memorial stones raised over the dead. The snake as symbol of the world of the dead is as recurrent in the art as in the literature of the north. Like Davidsom, I too believe that Fafnir should be seen in the light of the two monsters, Nidhǫggr and the Midgardsormr. Both the World Serpent and Fafnir are pictured as coiled around something precious, the Earth and the gold of giants and gods. Fafnir meaning “Embracer” further strengthens the comparison. Both Nidhǫggr and the World Serpent are related to death, the one by its dwelling place, the other by its brotherhood to Hel. The World Serpent seems to play yet another role – that of holding the known, ordered world in one piece. When Thorr tries to catch it in the Hymiskvíða, the world shakes, and even the great giant Hymir is struck with terror, preventing the kill.


As with the eagle, the great serpents represent great cosmic figures related to the realm of death. Both figures are also crucial to the maintenance of the known world: the eagle creates the winds of the world, the serpent holds it together. Just like the eagle had to die so that Atli could take the maiden out of Put-to-Sleep-Country, the serpent has to die so that Sígurðr can find his maiden and release her from the spell of sleep. In addition, the killing of the serpent means a “killing” of the limits of the human world, represented by the serpent who with its body forms a frontier between the ordered Midgardr and the unknown Utgardr; thus numinous knowledge is revealed.


6.5: The Trial Theme

The heroes have to overcome the monsters of the Other World. We have already touched upon the significance of killing the serpent which opens the way to the Maiden. Sígurðr also has the wit to obtain knowledge from the dying monster. Just like the eagle is said to be exceedingly wise, the serpent reveals cosmic secrets when it is overcome. Atli has to kill the eagle to release the Maiden, which is the same theme as that of Sígurðr. Helgi Hjǫrvardsson has to defeat the giants of “Non-Peace”, Hate, the ogress “Frosty Enclosure”, and win a battle by the “Rock of Greed”. He fails the last test, but is reborn as Helgi Hundingsbani. This Helgi, however, breaks the “Peace of King Wisdom” in the beginning of his career. Later, he wins the battle of the Rock of Greed. He dies by Óðinn´s decree, however, but is united with his valkyria bride in the grave and is allowed to enter Valhǫll.  Many of the “battles” could appear to have to do with proper conduct. Indeed, many of Sigrdrifa´s important counsels have to do with right behavior, and Sígurðr has the rather “un-viking-like” realization that there is no need to kill to prove one´s courage. The two Helgis´ test of defeating “non-peace”, “hate” and “greed” quite speaks for itself. HrimGerðr is a daughter of Rán, the mistress of the bottom of the sea, who makes people drown. That, and her name, which means “Frosty Enclosure”, certainly indicates death. Helgi, with the help of Atli, defeats what this ogress represents. He does die, but he is reborn, and later reunited with the Maiden and allowed an afterlife as a warrior for the gods. Defeating the ogress could represent an alternative to extinction in death. There are indeed more monsters in these stories that could be discussed, but the examples just mentioned should suffice to show that the hero faces trials of proper conduct and how to “trick death” through following the valkyria who protects him.


6.6: The Maiden Theme

In each of the cases summarized in Ch. 6.1, the hero is married to or loves the valkyria. In Helgi Hundingsbani´s, Sígurðr´s and Gunnarr´s case, the offering of mead is mentioned. Helgi receives the “precious drink” in the grave, and apparently drinks it together with Sigrún. Sígurðr receives the “memory drink” as a prelude to Sigrdrifa´s teachings about the runes, their use and their origin. The drink is mixed with the magical powers of charms, runes and songs. Sígurðr learns how to heal, how to help women in childbirth, how to calm storms, how to turn enemies into friends, how to speak eloquently, and so forth. Later he is given practical advice about how to behave, and the choice of listening to his valkyria´s counsel or not. In Gunnarr´s case, the drink is just mentioned as a symbol of his amorous relationship to Oddrún. The Maiden theme is prominent in all the stories, and particularly detailed and informative in the Sigrdrifumál.



6.7: Ogress versus Valkyria; the Life and Death Opposition

The ogress HrímGerðr declares that the only thing which saves Helgi and his men from drowning is the protection of the valkyriur. Above, I argued that HrímGerðr with her “frosty embrace” was a representative of extinction in death. The valkyria is the opposite. In the poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, the hero´s forthcoming death is announced by an encounter with an ogress riding a wolf using serpents as reins. The opposition surfaces again in the Helreið  Brynhildar, where Brynhildr encounters an ogress on the way to Hel. The ogress declares that Brynhildr has nothing to do in this realm, being from Valland – the Land of the Chosen – and a “goddess of gold”, and besides, that she is pursuing another woman´s man. The “other woman” would, in my opinion, not necessarily mean Sígurðr´s human wife, but Hel, to whom Sígurðr now belongs. However, Brynhildr, through eloquence, argues her way into Hel, making the ogress “sink” as she declares that she will be with Sígurðr for all eternity. It could appear that Brynhildr chooses to reside in Hel with Sígurðr. However, the sinking of of the ogress and the declaration could equally well mean that she actually saves Sígurðr from Hel. This idea seems to be strengthened by the case of Oddrún and Gunnarr. Oddrún dwells at Hlésey, the “wind shielded island”,[39] where, we may guess, the winds of the eagle Corpse Swallower do not reaCh. Gunnarr has always been a weak man in the spiritual sense, unable to cross the fire of the valkyria and letting another man do it for him, hiding the truth from everybody else until it leads to disaster. But his love for the valkyria is sincere and wins him the love of the “younger sister” Oddrún. However, Gunnarr is unable to conquer her vicious kinsfolk. In the poems of the Helgis, we see that the valkyria´s kinsmen must be regarded as the hero´s enemy, just as they are in the stories of Óðinn and Freyr. They are representatives of the hostile world of the giants and the forces of death. Oddrún, perhaps as a consequence of Gunnarr´s failings, is far away from Gunnarr when he is thrown into the snake-pit – the perfect image of devouring death if we recall the Vǫluspá´s description of Hel´s snake-infested well. When Oddrún hears the beautiful strains of his music, she rides as fast as she can, but not fast enough. It is too late now; Gunnarr has become the victim of the ogress of death.

The same sad theme is touched upon in the Helgakvíða Hjǫrvardssonar. Hedinn, Helgi´s brother, meets an ogress mounted on a wolf, using serpents as reins. We have seen that such an ogress is the perfect image of Hel. Steinsland has suggested that Hedinn, when he refuses to walk with the wolf-woman, refuses initiation, for initiation takes you to the depths of death itself.[40] I agree with this view; what Hedinn is refusing when seeing the horrible creature is the company and teachings of an ogress much like Hyndla, who taught Óttarr. This is also an explanation of why – and even an argument for – the disputed fact that Sigrún refuses Hedinn and decides to wait for Helgi´s reincarnation. The Maiden will only open her arms to the worthy, the initiated.



6.8: The three Worlds of Teaching

In chapter 4.5, I argued that Óðinn´s trials on the world tree encompassed not only his learning of runes, but also his learning of galðr by a wise giant and his union with Gunnlǫð, who offered him the precious mead of wisdom, eloquence and poetry. His journey to Mimir´s well of wisdom must have been a part of the same scenario. I argued that the three wells at which he learned – the well of Mimir, the well of Urðr (the runes were, ultimately, inscribed by the norns), and the well of Hel (Gunnlǫð´s realm) – are really one and the same well, or aspects of each other. Fjǫlsvinnsmál, as argued in Ch. 5.7 to Ch. 5.10, could appear to confirm this thesis, since the three worlds beneath the World Tree – the realm of giants (the giant Fjǫlsvidr and the tree of Mimir), of the dead (barking dogs), and of the gods/norns (Menglǫð and her maidens) – appear in one and the same setting, as if they were just layers wrapping themselves around each other. The Sigrdrifumál would appear to strengthen this thesis further. Here, the knowledge of runes is certainly combined with the offering of mead by the Maiden, and Óðinn holding Mimir´s head is mentioned in the same stanzas that describe his discovery and liberation of the hidden runes.



6.9: The Numbers Nine and Three

The number nine and sometimes the number three three are mentioned throughout all the Maiden-stories of Ch. 4, 5 and 6. The number nine is obviously important in Norse mythology and usually in connection with feminine entities. The vǫlva of Vǫluspá simultaneously remembers nine worlds and nine giantesses (or troll-women) before the present World Tree rose from the ground. The vǫlva Hyndla relates how nine giant maidens simultaneously gave birth to Heimdallr – the “Illuminating World”. Rán, the giantess ruler at the bottom of the sea, is the mother of the nine daughters of Aegir the sea-giant. In all these cases, the number nine is certainly in connection to giantesses.


However, the number occurs also in association with valkyriur. In the poem Solarljod, St. 79,we even hear of the otherwise unknown “nine rune-carving daughters of Njǫrdr”.[41] Njǫrdr is otherwise known as the father of Freyia. He resembles Aegir insofar as both are associated with the sea, and in the fact that he does not (originally) belong to the tribe of divine Aesir.


In the Heroic Poems, the milieu is strikingly maritime. The heroes travel by and fight at sea and often fight sea monsters (such as Hrodmarr, Hati and HrimGerðr). Perhaps this is simply reflecting the Viking Age in which the poems were created. Yet as we have mentioned in the beginning of Ch. 4, the ocean itself is often imagined as a realm of death, ruled by Rán, Aegir and their nine daughters.


 It is interesting that the valkyria Oddrún´s dwelling is Hlésey. In Skáldskaparmál, Aegir is said to live on Hlésey, and even to have the name of Hlé himself – the Wind-Shielded. One could almost get the impression that the valkyriur – usually nine in number – somehow have come to resemble the nine daughters of Aegir or a different aspect of them. The association to the sea is obvious in the poems of the valkyriur. Since Freyia, Njǫrdr´s – the god of winds and waves´ – daughter, is so intimately connected to the valkyriur – specialized norns (see Ch. 3.4) – it is curious that at least one poet had the notion of Njǫrð´s nine daughters, who in the Solarljod obviously represent norns.


The number nine in itself makes it necessary to consider whether the group of nine valkyriur is connected to the nine primeval giantesses. This is interesting to our thesis which aims at showing how the Maiden hides behind both giant and divine beings. We may look back at the Maiden Gerðr in Ch. 4.10 and consider how her father Gymir has been identified with Aegir. As Mundal, Ström and Näsström have argued (Ch. 3.4), the collective of dísir (a term covering goddesses, norns, valkyriur, fylgjur, even giantesses) and the one great Dís are identical. The number nine used to describe the collective of valkyriur – or giantesses – refers to something crucial in the mythology of the Maiden.


Within the context of Maiden-mythology, the number is repeated in Óðinn´s nine-day trial on the World Tree, in Freyr´s nine long nights of waiting, in Svípdag´s nine galðr and in Menglǫð´s nine maidens. The valkyriur, as we have seen, always appear nine in number, or, alternatively, three by nine. The importance of the number nine is repeated in Snorri´s version of the Gunnlǫð story, where Óðinn does the work of nine thralls on the fields of the giant Baugi (“The Ring”). Three draughts were necessary for Òdinn to fill himself up with mead from all the three cauldrons, after spending three nights with Gunnlǫð. The number three repeated three times is the number nine. According to Ström, the number nine symbolizes the stage between life and death.[42] The number three also appears in the amount of time Óttarr has to learn his lessons in the Underworld and in the number of nights Sígurðr spends with Brynhildr. The number three is also associated with female beings; the three thurse maidens who instigated the creation of humankind, and the three norns who carved the runes of fate in the beginning of time. It is impossible to decide exactly what the number nine means in Norse cosmology, but our study of Maiden-mythology may give us a clue as to what it means within the context of initiation.



We are starting to see that a theme of “immortality” in one form or another appears to be present in the Maiden stories. To look for an explanation about the nine days-nine maidens theme, we should glance back at the idea of the nine primeval giantesses as worlds. The Norse cosmos know of many worlds – realms (heimar). The Grímnismál accounts for about twelve worlds. Some of these worlds are higher even than those of the gods; they belong to the light-elves. Some of these worlds, we may assume, are not subject to the force of death: for Hel rules only in nine worlds. As the story of Hermóðrr shows, the road to Hel takes nine days. It is no coincidence that Freyia rules in the ninth world. That is perhaps the uppermost – or shall we say the innermost – realm where death is a rule. We have several times touched upon the idea of a realm of immortality located in the heart of darkest Hel, a theme perhaps repeated in the place Hlésey, a place of no “winds” right in the middle of giants´ ocean. There, Freyia, the Great Maiden, receives the dead, but within Maiden-mythology at least, she does not receive any dead. She receives the chosen, the worthy, and their afterlife is different from that of Hel-dwellers.


[1]Faulkes, 1987, p. 31

[2] The tree can be no other than the world tree, for alongside the goat Heidrun, a stag also stands and feeds from the same tree, and its horns drip a liquid into the well of Hel, Hvergelmir, which we know to be located at one of the roots of the world tree. Text in Faulkes, 1987, p. 33

[3]  From heidr (adj.) “clear”, “bright” (Norrøn Ordbok)

[4]  Norrøn Ordbok

[5]  Vǫluspá St. 20

[6]  Ström, 1954

[7] Näsström, 1998, p. 177-178

[8] Ibid, p. 164

[9] Gylfaginning, see appendix VI

[10] Kragerud, p. 3-54

[11]Larrington, 1996, p. 114

[12]  Sigarsholmr

[13]  Rǫdullsvollir

[14] Hrodi, m. means enmity, lack of peace, quarrel, storm. Hrodaligr –disgusting, enemy-minded. But hrodr means honorable, good fame. Marr means “ocean”(Norrøn Ordbok). In the light of Hrodmarr´s giant successor Hati, I found the interpretation “unpeace” of the hrod- in his name logical. “Hate” and “Unpeace”…

[15] Freki: “the greedy one”. Frekleikr, m., “greediness” (Norrøn Ordbok)

[16] Frodr – “wise”, “knowledgeable” (Norrøn Ordbok)

[17] Logafell, from loga (ad.) “flaming”, “burning” or loga (f.), log (n.) “torch”, “light”. Himinvangar: “Fields of Heaven” (Norrøn Ordbok)  

[18] Näsström, 1998, p. 164 also identifies Sigrdrifa and Brynhildr with the former valkyrias

[19] From hindr, n.: “Obstacle”? Turville-Petre,1975, p. 199, interpreted the meaning as the Hind-Mountain, from hind, f.: “hind”.

[20] Siberian shaman song. A Taiga is a snowclad mountaintop. Diószegi, 1968, p.  264-265

[21] Näsström, 1998, p. 17, Simek, 1996, p. 309

[22] Mattingly, 1970, p.109

[23] Davidsson, 1990, p. 155, Hedeager, 1999, p. 9, Solli, 2002, p., Ström, Motz,

[24] Ex.: Kormáks saga, Davidsson, 1990, p. 156

[25] Näsström, 2001, p. 89-91

[26] Motz, 1983, p. 7, 87-91, 95-97, 100-104

[27] Bäckman, 1975, p. 88-91, Hultkrantz, 1992 (b), p. 140, Pollan, 2002, p. 29, Steinsland, 1992, p. 320

[28] Diószegi, 1968, p. 55

[29] Simek, 1996, p. 305

[30] Grimnismál, Hrafnsmál and the thulur.

[31] Skáldskaparmál, Faulkes, 1987, p. 137

[32] Steinsland, 1992, p. 320-322

[33] Davidson, 1990, p.139

[34] From jǫrmun-( a name for Ódinn) meaning “great”, and gandr, m. a name for the magic wand (cult staff) of witches and the vǫlur, or meaning “sorcery”. Simek, 1996, p. 179-180, Norrøn Ordbok

[35]Vǫluspá St. 38, 39

[36]Vǫluspá St. 66

[37] Heide, 1997, p. 107

[38] Davidson, 1990, p. 159. About the serpents, p. 159-162

[39] From hlé – place shielded from the wind. A dwelling of Aegir the sea-giant in Skáldskaparmál.

[40] Steinsland, 1997, p. 146

[41]Hér ´ru rúnar, er ristit hafa / Njardar dætr níu”. Solarljod, St. 76. The poem is a Norse, but Christian “visionary poem” (Näsström, 1998, p. 171) reflecting a transition period where Pagan imagery still had a strong impact on poetry. Bugge, 1965, p. 357-370

[42] Ström, 1954, p.84. Ström uses the poem Solarljod as an example, where a person sits nine days on the norna stóli –the chair of the norns- before he is taken to the realm of the dead by a horse. Ström compares this with Hermóðrr traveling nine nights before he reaches the gates of Hel.

Legg igjen et svar

Din e-postadresse vil ikke bli publisert. Obligatoriske felt er merket med *


Du kan bruke disse HTML-kodene og -egenskapene: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>