The Norse goddess Freyja and the valkyries, choosers of the slain, seem to have a lot in common. Both can take bird-form, are associated with war, magic and death, and take mortal protegés and lovers. Add that to the fact that she and Odin took half of all slain warriors each, and many have concluded that Freyja was the leader of the valkyries, the valkyrie goddess if you will.
There may be another parallel intended here: we know that the German god Woden lead the Wild Hunt through the night – Freyja and her valkyries would be a female equivalent of that fearsome troop. It certainly implies a balance: Odin and his warriors, Freyja and the valkyries.
The name valkyrie, after all, means “chooser of the slain”, and if Freyja got her pick of the dead, as the Poetic Edda tells us, then we have to assume that she was choosing her own slain. (Like Odin, she had a hall for them to dwell in, Folkvangr, whose name could mean People-Plain or Army-Field.)
Or maybe not?
The valkyries are frequently mentioned in Norse myths and sagas, but nowhere are they connected to Freyja. However, they are strongly associated with Odin.1
In fact, some have argued that the idea of Freyja as valkyrie goddess is modern mythology, based on 1) false etymology or 2) the assumption that because Freyja and the valkyries have traits in common they must be connected.
To take the first point, the word valkyrie, and Odin’s home Valhalla, share the -valr element, meaning “corpses”. Freyja also has two names incorporating -valr:
- Eidandi Valfalls: Possessor of the Slain (Skaldskaparmal)
- Valfreya: Mistress of the Chosen (Njals saga)
These names do not necessarily imply that she is a valkyrie, or connected to them. They just tell us that she receives the slain.
The Norse valkyries were known by many names, but one commonly used one was Odins maer, meaning “Odin’s maidens”. Freyja was Odrs maer, where Odr is usually assumed to be the same as Odin. However, Freyja only ever works for Odin once, in a late text and then only because Odin and Loki trap her. She is his mistress/concubine but she operates independently of him.
In Hyndluljod she helps Ottar to learn his lineage from the giantess Hyndla without any magical help from Odin, and in Thrymskvida, the proposition that Freyja marry a giant to get Thor’s hammer back is put to her directly.
This brings us to the second point. There has been a great deal of dispute about how to read the passage in the Eddic poem Grimnismal that says she chooses half the slain each day, and half go to Odin. That would seem to imply that Odin gets second choice, or it may simply imply equivalence. Some have used this to argue that Freyja is the supreme valkyrie, bringing in the dead to split with Odin.
Other resemblances are superficial – Freyja does have a bird form, but it was a falcon-shape, while the valkyries, like Odin, favoured ravens. (Carrion birds.) Freyja helps out at least one mortal, Ottar, and she may well have been his lover. She doesn’t protect him in battle, however, but helps him win a lawsuit.
Freyja and Odin: Equal Shares
I think it makes more sense to see Freyja as operating independently of Odin altogether, while the valkyries are under his command. (See the Saga of Hakon the Good, where Odin orders the valkyries to go get Hakon’s soul, and Volsunga saga, where Brynhild is cursed for disobeying Odin.)
Presumably, since he and Freyja share out the slain, he knows that she is assembling a large group of people, possibly an army, at Folkvangr. But nowhere does it say that she is doing so on his orders.
In fact, depending on how you read Volupsa, Freyja may have been working her battle magic long before she ever got together with Odin. Ursula Dronke suggested that the reason the Vanir gods (Freyja’s tribe) were able to fight the Aesir (Odin’s tribe) to a standstill was that they were able to regenerate themselves. (231) They could go on fighting forever, and so were unbeatable.
As Dronke puts it, showing the equivalence of Odin and Freyja:
…the unfailing killing power of Óðinn meets the unfailing regenerative power of Freyja. (231)
This emphasizes how evenly matched their powers are, since the war ended in a stalemate.
Dronke sees parallels to another story, in which two groups of warriors are under a curse to keep fighting endlessly.
In the pagan poem Ragnardrapa the witch who curses the two armies to endlessly fight until Ragnarok is called Hild, or Battle. The 14th century Flateyjarbok tells a more Christian version called Sorla thattr, in which Freyja, under Odin’s orders, sets two armies to perpetual war until they are freed by a Christian.
As the two deities who took the most interest in the afterworld, and who were known to be patrons to humans, it makes sense that they would divvy up the dead between them. Both were also the foremost magicians of their groups, which would involve contact with the dead, who were seen as a source of power and knowledge.
If we accept that the valkyries are Odin’s maidens, then Freyja cannot be a valkyrie, because then she would be subject to Odin. Just as Odin sacrificed himself “to himself” so no other god would be pre-eminent over him, Freyja would want to keep her battle-magic for her own use. The two are far too evenly matched for her to be subject to him.
A further reflection: while Odin often used trickery to get souls for Valhalla, Freyja uses a more feminine technique. Women in Norse myths and sagas were legally unable to take their own revenge for wrongs done to their family.
As a result, we often see the women characters egging on the men to fight instead of settling their grievances. This “whetter’ became a standard character in medieval Norse literature. (Jochens) Freyja, setting two armies into perpetual combat, could be seen as the ultimate whetter.
If we accept that she is the Gullveig/Heid “witch” in Voluspa, who seems to bring on the Aesir – Vanir war, then starting wars seems to be a part of her character. As a way of gathering in warrior souls, it certainly is efficient.
Dronke, Urusla: 1988: “The War of the Æsir and Vanir in Völuspá”, in Idee, Gestalt, Geschichte: Festschrift Klaus von See. Studien zur europäischen Kulturtradition, ed. Gerd Weber, Odense University Press.: 223-38.
Jochens, Jenny 1996: Old Norse Images of Women, Mariner Books.