Terrible warrior women, the Valkyries soared through Norse mythology in gleaming armour. Their roles were numerous: to attend Odin, to direct his battles and, most importantly, to choose from amongst the slain those worthy of the glories of the afterlife. Choosing carefully from the fresh corpses, these brave souls would be conducted in honour to the great hall of Valhalla. Every Viking warrior yearned to encounter these awe-inspiring maidens upon his death. The alternative, alas, was the grim, underground domain of the goddess Hel.
The Valkyries are often portrayed as creatures of great beauty, though their initial role in Norse mythology was that of a corpse goddess, represented by the raven, devourer of dead flesh. Those familiar with the tales of the Viking gods will remember Thought and Memory,Odin's raven lieutenants, and it is to be noted that the Morrigan, a Celtic warrior goddess, is also given to assuming the form of a raven. The Valkyries, to begin with, were far from beautiful, and far from the benign, welcoming maidens they have become.
This change in depiction did not occur suddenly, of course. Instead, somewhere between the third and eleventh centuries - a space of eight hundred years! - the Valkyries were gently tamed. Amulets and carvings began to depict fair-skinned women, blonde of hair and blue of eye, welcoming the heroes to Valhalla. Gone were the swooping, black-feathered harpies, swinging low over the battle-field to choose the bravest souls to be separated from their blood-stained flesh.
Part of this change, too, may be attributed to the depictions of Freya, a fair, blue-eyed goddess widely considered to be the chief of the Valkyries. This association may also account for the occasional reference to swan maidens: Freya possessed a feather cloak, enabling her to transform into the shape of a falcon. Capture a swan maiden, so the story goes, or grab a feather from her cloak, and a single wish would is yours.
While the exact number of Valkyries ranges between three and sixteen, the names mentioned in the Eddas number far more. Each name has meaning, and are easily separated into two distinct groups: quite simply, warlike and not. Brynhildr (mailcoat of battle), Skögul (rager), Hlökk (battle noise) and Róta (She who causes turmoil), appear alongside Randgridr (Shield of Peace) and Friagabi (Giver Of Freedom).
Those wishing to discover more about the Valkyries, or Norse Mythology in general, may wish to examine The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Alternately, on a more chilling but undeniably fictional note, the second volume of The Wyrd Museum Trilogy, The Raven's Knot, by British children's writer Robin Jarvis is recommended.