(host) Vikings were some of the fiercest fighters in human history, using their impressive battle prowess to spread Norse influence between the 8th and 11th centuries.
Their bravery as warriors was driven by one ultimate desire: to join Odin in Valhalla.
Only the most worthy Vikings would get to spend their afterlives in that hallowed hall, and the choice of who made the cut fell to a group of powerful but mysterious women.
I'm talking about the Valkyries.
[intro music] Most of what we know about the Valkyries comes from the prose and "Poetic Eddas," collections of mythology and heroic tales written down in the 13th century.
In the texts, these powerful women were often described as beautiful maidens decked out in battle gear and armed to the teeth with brutal weapons.
Using their powers of foresight and mystical abilities to sway the tides of war, the Valkyries were said to fly over battlefields on horses, or sometimes they would sport their own wings, like the goddess Freyja, who may have been the first Valkyrie.
The Valkyries were at least as deadly as they were beautiful, and were said to be blessed with superhuman strength and speed.
In some stories, they could even shapeshift into different birds, Most Valkyries went unnamed, but those who weren't were given war-themed monikers like Skogul, Sigrún, or Hlokk, which mean "shaker," "victory rune," and "clashing battle."
The word Valkyrie means "chooser of the slain," and they were indeed as selective as their name implies.
Only half of the Norse warriors who died in battle were carried by the Valkyries to Valhalla.
The rest were spirited away to Fólkvangr to spend their afterlives with Freyja.
Once in Valhalla, the dead heroes, or einherjar as they were called, would spend their days fighting and nights feasting, preparing to defend Asgard in the world's last battle.
Despite the power they wielded on the battlefield, the Valkyries' role was relegated to that of servant in Odin's hall.
The mead that the einherjar drank to heal their wounds from training was served by the very same hands that plucked them away from Midgard.
In addition to deciding individual warriors' fates, the Valkyries were sometimes said to determine the outcome of entire battles.
An old Norse poem called the Hákonarmál recounts how two Valkyries, named Skogul and Gondul, influenced the Battle of Fitjar, fought in Norway in 961 CE.
King Hákon the Good faced an army led by his nephews who wanted to take his throne.
The poet who immortalized the clash wrote that Hákon tore off his mailsuit and, with his sword, hacked through his opponents' armor "as if it were cutting through water."
The would-be usurpers were defeated, but King Hákon suffered mortal injuries, and when the Valkyries appeared to take him away, he asked Skogul and Gondul why they came for him when he fought so well and defeated his nephews.
The Valkyries replied that it was only because they were with him in battle that he was able to hold the field, and his enemies fled.
Way to kick a man while he's down.
In their capacity to predict and sway the outcome of war, the Valkyries were similar to Norns, deities of destiny who you may remember from our episode on the Greek Fates.
A poem found in Njál's Saga from the 13th century makes this comparison abundantly clear when the titular Daurrud happened upon a group of Valkyries weaving the fate of a battle later that day.
Daurrud spied 12 Valkyries working around a gruesome loom with human heads for weights and swords for shuttles.
The thread was made from human entrails, and the Valkyries sang while they wove their "war-winning woof."
The Norns weren't the only mythical figures who blended with the Valkyries.
By the time the Eddas were written, the Valkyries had taken on characteristics of the German swan-maiden.
Like Selkies from Celtic folklore, swan-maidens were able to shift from their animal form into beautiful women.
Their good looks were often their downfall, however, as was common in stories for men to steal a maiden's swan suit.
And without her feathers, she was stuck in human form.
Even Brynhildr, one of the most famous Valkyries, fell prey to this avian theft.
While the man involved suffered very little consequence, of course, Brynhildr went on to live a life of punishment for his foul deed.
According to the Volsunga Saga, Brynhildr was the human daughter of King Budli, lovely enough that Odin picked her to be one of his Valkyries.
One day, Brynhildr and her sisters were out bathing in a pool with their swan suits tucked away on the bank to stay dry.
Unbeknownst to the young Valkyries, a prince named Agnar was hiding, waiting for them to be distracted so he could steal the maidens' feather suits.
Brynhildr and her sisters were stuck with Agnar for years, and whether through coercion, real love, or some twisted combination of the two, Brynhildr ended up making an oath of fealty to Agnar.
Later, after he returned Brynhildr's feathers, Agnar fought against Hjalmgunnar, King of the Goths, who was favored by Odin to win the battle.
But Brynhildr used her Valkyrie powers to uphold her oath and sway the outcome.
Agnar emerged a victorious underdog, and Odin was furious.
His punishment for Brynhildr's betrayal was to banish her to a fully mortal life, slumbering in a castle, guarded by a wall of fire.
An early sleeping beauty, if you will.
Maybe you can guess what happens next.
A hero named Sigurd, aka Seigfried the Dragon Slayer, was brave enough to pass through the flames and immediately fell in love with Brynhildr, but left her behind while he ran an errand in Bergundy.
While there, he met a jealous sorceress who wanted him to marry her daughter, so she cast a spell on him and sent her son Gunnar to marry Brynhildr instead.
Except Gunnar was too much of a coward to walk through her protective fire, and Sigurdr had to do it disguised as Gunnar.
Brynhildr married Gunnar based on that lie, and when she found out the truth, she arranged for Sigurdr to be murdered and then threw herself onto his funeral pyre.
I swear, modern-day soap operas should dip into Norse folklore for inspiration.
Brynhildr's fascinating, albeit tragic, life illustrates the mystery surrounding the mythical Valkyrie.
She was a human woman trained to be a shield-maiden, granted divinity by Odin, who made herself vulnerable by shifting into a swan.
Scholars believe that the basic idea of a Scandinavian war goddess is quite old, but that these varying characteristics were added to the mythology over time.
They all would have been written down together when the Eddas were composed in the 13th century.
But that begs the question: where did the Valkyries come from?
One hypothesis is that the legend arose from the totally mundane phenomenon of the Norse shield-maiden.
These were warrior women who fought alongside male Vikings in battle.
Modern scientists have used DNA evidence to confirm that Norse women did indeed fight with men, and it's not too difficult to see how this practice might lead to myths about ferocious women who decided the fate of war.
It would also explain why so many Valkyries are said to have human parents.
Another idea is that the stories were inspired by priestesses of Odin in the early Viking Age.
These women would have overseen sacrificial rituals in Odin's honor, literally choosing who would be slain in his name.
This sounds familiar, and it would explain why Valkyries were described as the physical manifestation of Odin's will in the older mythological poems of the Eddas.
We may never know the Valkyries' true origins, but we can say for certain that they have made a large impact on our popular culture.
Valkyries can be found in comics, anime, television, and video games.
In the 1850s, Richard Wagner composed his opera Die Walküre, or The Valkyries, which was one of his four music dramas inspired by Norse mythology.
This one loosely follows Brynhildr's story and features the absurdly catchy tune, "The Ride of the Valkyries."
And of course, we can see Valkyrie on the silver screen, played by Tessa Thompson in Marvel's "Thor" franchise.
The Valkyrie is depicted as a strong, powerful woman with influence over life and death, even today.
It may seem strange that a culture so infamous for its physical dominance would hold women in such high esteem.
But women had more rights in Scandinavian culture than you might think.
Their gender roles were typical, with men doing most of the physical labor and women taking care of the home, but women could own property, divorce their husbands, and often had a say in who their parents married them off to.
Naturally, people with so many fierce female figures in their mythology would have respect for mortal women.
We clearly haven't forgotten the Valkyrie, so let's not forget this lesson they teach us.