Mythological Beasts and Spirits: Valkyries

Norse mythology strikes me as being visually literal. What I mean by this is that spirits and creatures look like humans and animals – sometimes exaggerated in size, sometimes not – but they typically are not hybrids or chimeras of different species. Serpents look like serpents, gods like men, goddesses like women, etc. Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, is an exception to this rule due to his eight legs, but I think it largely holds true. Of course, the gods are able to change form, sometimes into those of animals, but they tend to look like ordinary animals, albeit sometimes exaggerated in size.

So what does this have to do with Valkyries? Well, they look like women – fierce, war-like women, but women, nonetheless. I wanted to illustrate a Valkyrie named Anni for my story poem, The Fear of a Farmer, but I didn’t have enough confidence in my artistic ability to make her look sufficiently impressive, so I added wings. In this sense, she looks a bit like the stereotypical imagery from a Wagnerian opera.

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From The Fear of a Farmer (Copyright: Robert Lambert Jones III).

So what are Valkyries? That’s a good question. I can tell you what they do in Norse mythology, but it’s a bit harder to explain what they are with complete clarity. Much of what we know of them comes from The Prose Edda by Snori Sturluson and other works such as The Saga of the Volsungs.

Valkyries are females who fly over battlefields to choose the best of the slain for entrance into Valhalla, the great hall of Odin. Are they otherwise normal women who aspire to or are chosen for this calling, or are they spirits who can take on physical form? One scholarly opinion I read favors the former, but I don’t know the overall consensus since it is outside my field of expertise (molecular biology). Either way, they are a blend of the natural and the supernatural. This is often the case with Norse mythology and Greek mythology. Valkyries could interact with the living and even marry them. In The Saga of the Volsungs, a Valkyrie named Brynhild is betrothed to Sigurd, the main hero.

Valkyries are not normally portrayed with wings, so portraying them impressively is all about presentation. By this, I mean picture composition. I have chosen some examples which for various reasons have impressed me. Valkyries are often shown as wearing armor and/or riding horses, but there are some other tricks that can be used as well.

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Valkyrie Maiden by Howard David Johnson.

Okay, this might be cheating a little. The Valkyrie doesn’t have wings, but her horse does. Of course, I’m no purist in creative matters like this. Based on the kinds of stories I like to write, I think it’s cool when artists and writers borrow different elements from different mythologies. Pegasus quickly comes to mind from Greek mythology.

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Ride of the Valkyries by Jose Luis Munoz.

In this example, the expressions, postures, and poses of the Valkyries and their horses make for an interesting composition which is heightened by the artistic style and choice of color. This really drew my eye.

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Ride of the Valkyries by Hermann Hendrich.

Here is a more abstract approach which blends them with elements of nature – in this case, clouds. Note how the sense of scale, the dark birds, and the windblown trees accentuate the effect.

In the next two examples, we again see interesting and dynamic poses combined with a sense of context as Valkyries are shown riding in the air. Winged helmets serve as further suggestions of their power of flight. For reasons of personal taste, I especially liked the second of these. Look at the eyes of the horse on the left.

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The Ride of the Valkyries by William T. Maud.
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The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909) by John Charles Dollman.

This next one might be my favorite. Has the Valkyrie merely taken off her implements while keeping dutiful watch, or is she awaiting the return of the warrior she loves? I think art is really doing its job when it encourages us to imagine and speculate.

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The Valkyrie’s Vigil by Edward Robert Hughes.

I might as well end with another selection from my copyrighted but currently unpublished story poem, The Fear of a Farmer. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll just say it shows a farmer  named Einar being born aloft by Anni, the Valkyrie.

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From The Fear of a Farmer (copyright: Robert Lambert Jones III).

Another being next week…

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4 thoughts on “Mythological Beasts and Spirits: Valkyries”

  1. My first knowledge of Valkyries came through Wagner’s Ring cycle as filmed for television in the 1980s. I bought VHS tapes of that performance and have shown it to my family more than once. (Seventeen hours of music–stretched over seven or eight nights, of course.) Somewhere in my collection of books I have the Saga of the Volsungs–I’m not sure exactly where it is just now. J.

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    1. I believe Wagner referred to the Saga of the Volsungs when he wrote his ring cycle. That is one work I have never seen. The seventeen hours might have had something to do with it. I understand that the same book also influenced Tolkien. It reads fairly well if you can find it.

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