In Norse mythology the valkyries are dísir, minor female deities, who served Odin. The valkyries’ purpose was to choose the most heroic of those who had died in battle and to carry them off to Valhalla where they became einherjar. This was necessary because Odin needed warriors to fight at his side at the preordained battle at the end of the world, Ragnarök. In Valhalla the valkyries also “serve drink and look after the tableware and drinking vessels” (Prose Edda Gylfaginning 35).
It appears, however, that there was no clear distinction between the valkyries and the norns. Skuld is for instance both a valkyrie and a norn, and in the Darraðarljóð (lines 1-52), the valkyries weave the web of war (see below). According to the Prose Edda (Gylfaginning 35), “Odin sends [the valkyries] to every battle. They allot death to men and govern victory. Gunn and Rota [two valkyries] and the youngest norn, called Skuld, always ride to choose who shall be slain and to govern the killings”.
In modern art, the valkyries are sometimes depicted as beautiful shieldmaidens on winged horses, armed with helmets and spears. However, valkyrie horse was a kenning for wolf (see Rök Stone), so contrary to the stereotype, they did not ride winged horses. Their mounts were rather the packs of wolves that frequented the corpses of dead warriors. They were gruesome and war-like.
Whereas the wolf was the valkyrie’s mount, the valkyrie herself appears to be akin to the raven, flying over the battlefield and “choosing” corpses. Thus, the packs of wolves and ravens that scavenged the aftermath of battles may have been seen as serving a higher purpose.
According to Thomas Bulfinch’s highly influential work Bulfinch’s Mythology (1855), the armour of the valkyries “sheds a strange flickering light, which flashes up over the northern skies, making what men call the ‘Aurora Borealis’, or ‘Northern Lights’.” However, there is nothing in our sources which supports this claim.
The origin of the valkyries as a whole is not reported in extant texts, but many of the well known valkyries are reported as having mortal parents. It is now believed that the original valkyries were the priestesses of Odin — gruesome old hags who officiated at sacrificial rites in which prisoners were executed (“given to Odin”). These priestesses sometimes carried out the sacrifices themselves, which involved the use of a ritual spear. By the time the Poetic Edda came to be compiled in the late 12th or early 13th century, these rituals had given rise to legends of supernatural battle-maidens who took an active part in human conflict, deciding who should live and who should die (Davidson 1964).
In the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda the valkyries are supernatural deities of unknown parentage; they are described as battle-maidens who ride in the ranks of the gods or serve the drinks in Valhalla; they are invariably given unworldly names like Skogul (“Raging”), Hlok (“Shrieking”) and Gol (“Screaming”).
In the Heroic lays, however, the valkyries are described as bands of warrior-women only the leader of whom is ever named. She is invariably a human woman, the beautiful daughter of a great king, though she shares some of the supernatural abilities of her anonymous companions. In the first of the three Helgi Lays, Helgi Hjörvarðsson is accosted by a band of nine valkyries the leader of whom, Svava, is the daughter of a king called Eylimi. In the second and third lays, the valkyries are led by Sigrun, who is the daughter of King Hogni; she marries the hero Helgi Hundingsbani and bears him sons. The most famous of the valkyries, Brynhildr, is also a human princess. In the Sigrdrífumál (The Ballad of the Victory-Bringer) she is never named, being called simply Sigrdrífa (“Victory-Bringer”), and there are only hints that she is not a deity; what’s more, we are told nothing of her parentage. In the corresponding passage in the Volsunga saga, however, she is identified as Brynhildr, the daughter of King Budli. (Sigrdrífa is also identified with Brynhildr in another heroic lay, Helreið Brynhildar, or Bryndhildr’s Ride to Hel.)
The word “valkyrie” comes from the Old Norse valkyrja (plural “valkyrur”), from the words “val” (to choose) and “kyrja” (slaughter). Literally the term means choosers of the slain. It is cognate to the Old English “wælcyrige”. The German form “Walküre” was coined by Richard Wagner from Old Norse.
Various individual valkyries are mentioned in numerous forms of Germanic literature.
 Major Valkyries
Several valkyries appear as major characters in extant myths.
Brynhildr appears in Völsunga saga. Her name means “Byrnie of battle.”
Hildr appears in the legend of Hedin and Högni, in Ragnarsdrápa and in the Edda. Her name means “Battle.”
Sigrdrífa appears in Sigrdrífumál. Her name means “She who Drives Victory.”
Sigrún appears in Helgakviða Hundingsbana II. Her name means “Knower of Mysteries (or spells) of Victory.”
Sváva appears in Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar.
Ölrún, Svanhvít, and Alvitr appear in Völundarkviða. “Ölrún” means “Knower of the Mysteries (or spells) of Ale.”
Þrúðr is a daughter of Thor.
Other sources indicate that some other valkyries were notable characters in Norse mythology, such as Gunnr who appears on the Rök Runestone, and Skögul who still appeared on a runic inscription in 13th century Bergen.