Choosers of the Slain

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    We take for granted the proposition that the gods and goddesses of ancient mythologies are the personifications of natural and supernatural forces that the people creating the mythology regarded as particularly important in their conception of the world. We may not be able to trace the origin and subsequent evolution of any particular deity with any certainty, but we can be certain that the deity originated in someone's sense of awe at an event or phenomenon that seemed to that person to be especially important to the proper order of things. We might consider the origin of Thor as one fairly obvious example of how that process works.

    Storms, especially those involving snow and ice, were rightly feared by the Norse; even in our technologically advanced societies blizzards and ice storms kill people. In the Norse mind such things could only be the work of malignant forces, which were personified in the Frost Giants. That in itself is a good example of a natural phenomenon being conceived as the sign of supernatural beings. But how then to explain thunder and lightning? Lightning is certainly a powerfully deadly weapon, as anyone who had witnessed a nearby lightning strike could have attested. But that weapon is clearly not aimed at the Norse: indeed, most lightning seems to be aimed at something within the storm itself. Apparently someone inside the storm is battling the Frost Giants in an effort to protect the Norsefolk. And the lightning? The Norse knew that their iron hammers drew sparks when they struck rock, so the giant spark of lightning must be the effect of a truly mighty hammer striking the rock-hard skulls of Frost Giants. Thus the Norse conceived Thor and his hammer, Mjollnir. Thunder would then be the rumble of Thor's chariot going over the mountains.

    The Gods are easy enough to figure out, if only in vague outline. But how shall we explain valkyries? What are they and how did the Norse conceive them? How did they come to be conceived as warrior maidens carrying the dead from battlefields to Valhall? For that matter, how did Freyja, a goddess associated with fertility and love, come to be conceived as Commander of the Valkyries?

    In order to answer that question let's start by asking how the Norse originally conceived valkyries. I believe that the most plausible explanation for the existence of valkyries in Norse myth is that these creatures originated in tales of cannibalism. We need only recall the story of the Donner Party and of its experience in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter of 1849 to understand that similar tales would have been common in the ancient Norseland. We don't want to believe that there are conditions that would make human flesh palatable, so we are tempted to conceive cannibals as being not fully human. Our scientific knowledge enables us to resist that temptation and we regard the Donner Party survivors as being just as human as we are; but the Norse did not have that advantage, so they would have seen cannibals as cross breeds of a human and a non-human, the human parent to provide the human form and the non-human parent to provide the revolting instincts. The particular combination that they chose was that of women who were the daughters of a human mother and a troll father.

    Having thus explained away the stories of cannibalism by re-conceiving the cannibals as mixed breeds, the Norse then had a new problem with their ghouls. When there was no more winterkill to eat, where would the ghouls find food? Not in the villages, certainly: people watched over the bodies of their dead kin and then buried them in places where ghouls would likely be discovered if they tried to dig them up. The best circumstance in which to find unguarded corpses in the ancient world was on a battlefield at night. That fact led the Norse to devise the euphemism by which they referred to their ghouls - Choosers of the Battleslain, which, in Norse, comes out as Val-Kyrja.

    The valkyries were monsters in the original sense of the Latin word monstrum (a sign, a portent, a warning), which comes from the same root whence we get the word demonstrate. That is, they did bad things but they were not evil (they lacked the knowledgeable intent to hurt people). They understood that people were upset by what they did, but they saw their habit as harmless because they were taking something that people had lost already anyway. Because the valkyries did no real harm, the Norse would have had no recourse to their Gods; indeed, the Gods had likely ordained the valkyries for their own divine purposes. As monsters the valkyries comprised a message from the Gods, one that seems fairly clear. Imagine that you have been slain in battle, that your body is lying on the battlefield, and that as night falls several women come to your body and begin to cut off chunks of it and devour them. The rational part of your mind says that what happens to your corpse doesn't matter to you because you're dead, you're not there anymore, but the irrational part of your mind recoils in horror. The ancient Norse did not develop their rational faculties to the extent that we do, so the mythic imagination would have dominated their thinking on the subject. The valkyrie myth and its attendant horror of a valkyrie feast thus stood as an imposing bogeyman acting as an agent of the Gods. It didn't so much promote peace as it made men reluctant to fight. In a society with no central authority capable of enforcing its laws to the extent that ours does that would have been a good thing.

    We actually have a fair example of how the skalds would have expressed such a thing. The Song of the Valkyries in a poem called Njal's Saga tells of a man who witnesses twelve valkyries coming into a barn and setting up a ghastly loom on which they weave a gruesome tapestry. Using an arrow for a shuttle, a sword for a beater, blood-wet spears for heddle-rods, and men's heads for weights, the valkyries weave human entrails into a bloody fabric while chanting a song in which they describe how they will choose who will live and who will die in an upcoming battle. When they have finished their song and their weaving, the valkyries tear the fabric into twelve pieces and leave the barn, each valkyrie taking a piece with her as she gallops her horse away from the barn.

    Of course, it didn't last. Somewhere at some time someone began convincing the Norse that he had discovered the hidden purpose behind the existence of the valkyries. No, he told people, the valkyries are not actually eating the battleslain: they are selecting the best and the boldest to be taken to Asgard, to a palace called Valhall (Hall of the Battleslain), where they will train to fight alongside the Gods in the Battle of Ragnarok, the battle at the end of the world. What saved that unknown skald from an accusation of imbibing one too many horns of mead was the fact that in the Norse mind the story makes sense. After all, the Gods expend considerable effort to protecting us from the Frost Giants. What could be more natural than for them to grant us the privilege of returning the favor at Ragnarok? But the story runs into a bit of a political problem.

    As a fertility goddess, Freyja is also an earth goddess. As such, she has sovereignty over all that goes into the ground as well as over all that comes out of the ground. Because the Norse buried their dead, Freyja would thus have been the receiver of the dead, the deity who decides the ultimate fate of the souls of the dead. Before they could remove any dead men from battlefields, the valkyries would have been obliged to obtain Freyja's permission. In granting that permission, Freyja would have gained the option of directing the valkyries in their task. In that manner Freyja became Valfreyja, Commander of the Valkyries.


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