Home Mythology: Fylgja and Valkyrie: The Warrior's Companions through Life&Death

Fylgja and Valkyrie
The Warrior's Companions through Life and Death

Features of Fylgja and Fate
It is, for various reasons, difficult to describe Germanic beliefs, in particular as those ideas were not dogmatically defined and thus open to changes, moreover there was no written tradition, so that - in the course of time - similar ideas from different religions influenced each other. Even the enemy’s gods or spirits were adopted as the his success was ascribed to his deities.

Spiritual creatures are ephemeral due their immaterial nature. This holds good for the strange being that is named fylgja (pl. fylgjur) or hamingja/ur in Northern Mythology. As we lack Old English terms we may stick with this name. fylia01 Golther1 describes the Fylgja or “Folgerin” (Following being) as an inherent feature of man, his soul, which becomes visible to its bearer only at the moment of his death, but in some rare cases during his life-time, too. It is said to adopt the features of the person himself, if it does not show itself in the shape of an animal, which reflects his nature. Thus a child may be accompanied by a bird, while a warrior might have a wolf or a bear at his side. Eventually, however, that spirit changed into a female protector, a goddess of fate, watching over one individual man or his whole kin.
Later (p. 316) Golther explains that ‘‘Odin’s girls’’ combine several different beings within themselves, which elsewhere appear in a particular shape…. They appear as ‘weird sisters’, influencing individual or collective fate, as spirits of the tempest, as Woden’s consort Freyja, as souls, as fylgjur. They show themselves to those doomed to die, as earthly women, who in the king’s mead hall pass the drinking horns round, as women, who arm themselves with the weapons of the men...

Whether fylgjur, dises, nornsor valkyries, they are “Fates, who direct a man’s destiny from birth to death” and who are present – unnoticed – at the birth of a child. (pp. 104) They all are shape-changers, their human appearance is but one of their manifestations in which they may choose to reveal themselves to their protégées in a dream. But it is more likely that they cross his path as bird or beast. Valkyries prefer to fly away as swans (Völundarkviða), and due to that they are also known as ”swan maidens”. This, by the way, seems to be most closely related to their nature, and is symbolized by the rune z-Rune, eolhsecg, ‘elk-sedge’. This reed “grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound, covering with blood every warrior, who touches it”(„Rune Poem“).
According to the SOED ‘elk’ was a term for the ‘wild swan’ (Cygnus ferus ) and the ‘wild goose’ (Anas anser ) - both characteristic manifestations of the Fylgja or Valkyrie - while the rune z-Rune looks like the footprint of waterfowl. So the rune in a pre-Christian version of the may have been closely linked with the Valkyrie, and, in fact, on the Franks Casket it is used to denote her.

Eventually, the Fylgja or Valkyrie develops a more intense relation with her protégée so that she – having brought predestined death over him – visits him in his grave to revive him with that potent drink, alu,2 and to join him in love. As Woden’s daughter she will take him to Valhalla, cares for him and remains at his side as his eternal partner in ”love and war.”

All the above may be derived from inscriptions, rock drawings, and Eddic poetry, though only in fragmentary form. However, all these facets blend into one coherent story, if we turn to the pictures on the Franks Casket, which depicts a royal hero’s desirable course of life in a sequence of emblematic pictures. If they are meant to influence the fate of the king-to-be, they definitely can’t do so without the Fylgja.

Present at the Cradle

fylia02All lives start with birth, and a king-to-be is no exception. It is the setting, which matters, and therefore the proper emblem needs to be employed. For a pagan rune-master it was no problem to appropriate the already-familiar mythology and symbolism of Christianity. The Birth of Christ, though, was less likely chosen for the Saviour Himself than for the Magi, who fascinated the people both by their skills and their wealth, as expressed by the gifts they bring. In order to invoke their help the carver inscribes their picture with the word „Mægi“, kept in runes, while the text, the ”Verses of the Whale”, alliterates on F [f-Rune], and G [g-Rune]. The names of the runes – that is what they stand for – are “wealth” and ”gift” (O.E. feoh and gifu.

Seemingly our carver follows the Syrian-Oriental picture formula, where Virgin and Child are depicted on the right side facing the viewer rather than the visitors. They, the Magi, approach the throne from the left, in fixed order of precedence and postures3, humbly offering their presents – just as sub-kings would pay their due tribute.

Pictures of this type invariably show an angel between throne and visitors. He is not there as guide to the travellers, but as the courtly master of ceremonies, who makes sure that the company sticks to the rules and pays due respect to etiquette. But while our carver otherwise faithfully renders each detail of the original, even the pattern of the footstool by the throne, he now places a goose or swan where the angel ought to be! This, though, is no ignorant misinterpretation of a winged person, but represents a very deliberate change of the formula. The Woden- knot (O.N. valknut) over the back of the last Magus in line should warn us, symbolically changing the priest of Mithras into an adherent of Woden. So Germanic may hold the clue for the nature of this strange bird.

For the Fates, Fylgjur, Norns or Valkyries , whether popular belief makes them guardian angels or harbingers of death, may adopt the shape of a bird in order to be present at birth without being recognized. At this point the Fylgja, the guarding companion, displaces the imperious angelos, the courtly Master of Ceremonies.

Thus our rune-master has made use of a Christian emblem (just as pagans had always tended to join what they could not beat), only changing it in a few essentials. This way he procures a noble descent, due homage, proper tribute and, above all, the help of a guardian-companion.

Helper at Distress

Immediately left of this holy scene the carver has placed a picture of the cruel revenge taken by the mythical smith Weland on his oppressor, Niðhad. The juxtaposition of Christian love and bloody vengeance, however, is not as contradictory as it seems.
Weland’s motive is not mere retribution, the deed is a precondition for the freedom of the elfish hostage, who had been captured by Niðud, the father of the victims, as he was regarded to be an inexhaustible source of wealth. This corresponds with triply alliterated rune, F - [f-Rune], which stands for wealth, as Weland is almost synonymous with gold.4
A picture formula referring to Weland thus requires two elements, revenge and escape5


Apart from gifts and wealth there is one other element both pictures have in common: the presence of the Fylgja. Here she is his helper, supplying the beer, Weland needs to seduce his oppressor’s daughter while her brother lies beheaded under the anvil. Thus released by his spouse’s help the elfish smith is able to change his shape and to fly away as a bird.
The carver has placed her between the scenes of revenge and escape. To separate her from the proceedings, her site is the elk-sedge, two florally shaped runes, which frame the z-Rune swan-maiden z-Rune. She does not appear on any other known picture of Weland. Here, though, she matters, as the topic here is her help in a hopeless situation.


According to the Vœlundarkviða there were three brothers, Vœlund, Egil und Slagfið, partners of three swan maidens for exactly seven years, before they took off to work at war. One of these was Olrun, whose name proclaims her to be acquainted with the “secrets of beer”. Perhaps it is she who here comes to free Weland It took a woman, of her knowledge, a Fylgja, to free him. He – unlike other mortals – may have seen her in her human shape when she was around.
Both pictures, then: that of the Magi and this of Weland serve dual purposes, on the one hand they aim to procure wealth, on the other, and much more important, to ensure the Fylgja’s assistance.

Companion at War

The life of a warrior-king is determined by fight. As soon as he leaves his realm, which may not be ore than his estate, he rides in enemy territory. According to the „Rune Poem“ the rune [r-Rune] raidho, refers to the warrior’s dangerous ride on horseback over alien highways.
Nothing suits better at this point than the image of Romulus und Remus. They are the sons of Mars, the Roman god of war and protector of the young warriors. In this function he was equivalent Woden/Odin, his Germanic counterpart. And like Woden, who was accompanied by two wolves, the Roman twins had at least one, the she-wolf, who fed hem. Like castor and Pollux the Roman boys themselves were venerated as heavenly twins. Romulus, after his ascent to heaven, was believed to be seated beside his father, Mars, replacing the ancient god Quirinus as patron of the army in times of peace.


The Roman twins, according to the legend, were fed by the she-wolf; a consort is not known off. To make sure hat Woden is appropriately represented in this scene on the casket the carver adds a second wolf, thus changing the lupa into that Old Norse wolfish pair Geri and Freki. The scene is no longer the grotto by the Tiber, and there is no shepherd trying to scare the she-wolf away. Now it is the Holy Grove of the Germanic peoples, and here we have four warriors devoutly kneeling, and each of them holding the stem of a tree which tells his lot.

We should expect the Fylgja somewhere here. As she normally does not show herself in her human shape, she has likely adopted that of the wolf, Woden’s follower. And as ” Woden’s girl” she is the warrior’s following spirit in wolf-form, thus equipping him with the attributes of the god.

Donor of Victory

fylia06A campaign so well prepared must be crowned by a glorious victory, which demands all the virtues of the king: reward for the brave retainers and punishment for traitors and cowards. Victory and justice are closely linked. All that contains the rune [t-Rune] (tir) for T which bears the name of the Woden’s predecessor Tiw, Tiu or Tir, once venerated as the god of war and now as protector of the court (gemot, þing).
Again our rune-master turns to Roman tradition finding in the person of Titus not merely a victorious commander but also one, who was to become a famous emperor. What better emblem could he possibly find for his royal patron?

And so he depicts four scenes of the conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD: The attack of the Romans, the flight of the Jews, a trial over braves and cowards, hostages being lead away. Thereseems to be no traice in any of this of the Fylgja, - until we note a floral symbol, similar to a rune, identical to that one we observed with Weland’s helping Valkyrie (similar to the rune z-Rune) giving her presence away. It crowns the huge arc in the centre which divides the scenes left and right.
Beneath the arch are animals, rendered in pairs. If we interpret them as horses, wolves and ravens, we have the following beings belonging to Tir and Woden, respectively the gods of war and justice. If so these animals belong to both worlds, just like the Fylgjur and Valkyries, who are partners of the warrior and part of Walhalla simultaneously.

Chooser on the Battlefield …

fylia07The hero may now enjoy the peak of power and glory, but there is a price to pay or goal to gain, depending on the point of view. If he does not want to enter Hel instead of Valhalla, he must die a warrior’s death. In battle, not in bed. It is not the enemy, who defeats him, however, but his own Fylgja, now his Valkyrie (battle chooser), who – visible to our hero for the first time – she paralyses him by her terrifying appearance, so that the adversary has the better of him.
This is the bad luck, aglac, the text describes with the rune H, [h-Rune]. The name of the rune is “hail” , which is synonymous with ‘bad luck’. And, actually, this is the first rune in the name of the dreadful monster, which the text identifies as Herh-os, which means ‘grove-deity’ (one of the Aesir).

As all the other pictures refer to certain episode in history or mythology, this one will be part of a lost Germanic saga. In the moment of death the hero encounters his Fylgja or Valkyrie, which the carver has composed from all her different shapes (e.g. bird, horse, snake, man). This creature holds a twig, which seems to tell his doom (by means of twig runes).
In the central part of the picture we read three words (risci > wudu > bita ), which may be understood as a ‘twig’ which turns into the ‘wooden’ shaft of the ‘biting’ weapon.

fylia08Thus the twig turns into the fatal weapon, a trait we know from other tales. Now that her warrior has been killed the Fylgja changes into a bird and flies from her decreed place, Harmberg, to the grave of the deceased. There we see her in her human shape, the lethal spear in her hand. A chalice in front of her may contain the potent drink of alu, ‘beer’ these days. 2 This will revive him, so that she can join him in love.

… and Guide to Valhalla
At this point S the other alliterating rune [s-Rune] becomes effective. Its name is ”sun”, which is synonymous with “life”.

The horse by the grave is no ordinary animal. There are two ”Woden-knots”, (valknutr), between its legs, very similar to images on the Swedish standing stones of the Viking era. May be this alludes to Odin’s eight-legged stallion Sleipnir; at least it indicates a sacred scene.
Anyway, the Valkyrie has chosen him to join the Einherjer (Odin’s warriors). Thus she leads him high on horseback to Valhalla’s beer tables. May be, this picture was inspired by reality, when the dead body of a warrior was laid across the back of his horse and led back to his beer hall.
The ”trinity” of hero, horse and Fylgja is best expressed in the sentence: > Marr er mans fylgja. The horse is the hero’s Fylgja.

This way the carver has procured a death befitting his high standing. In order to make sure that this sinister event was not premature, he encoded the text very thoroughly. It may not have worked properly, as some ignorant knife tried to erase the word for ill luck (aglac).

Heroes in Heaven

With these four panels, the warrior’s life on Earth has run its course from life to death. But death does not mean the end. Actually, real life begins here in the realm and at the side of the gods. Quite reasonably the lid offers a glimpse of what the Christians regard as Heaven and the Pagans knew as Asgard: the site where Woden gathered his troop of slain heroes, to defend creation against the frost giants in the final battle, Ragnarök. 6

fylia09Aesir, when his hour has come. With the famous archer Egil he finds a figure, suited in every respect. He chooses ‘Æ’ as the proper initial vowel and for numeric reasons adds an ‘I’ at the end. The archer by the name ÆGILI supplies the fitting rune Æ [A-Rune]. It stands for the ash-treeæsc , which according to the Rune Poem ”with its stout trunk offers a stubborn resistance, though attacked by many a man.” Furthermore, Yggdrasil7 itself, the World Tree, is an ash tree, a coincidence of name and place, which certainly is not unintended. Apart from that, the wood of the ash is most suitable for bow and arrow, Egil’s weapon.

The Vœlundarkviða (Poetic Edda) introduces Egil as Weland’s brother, and like him he is the partner of a swan maiden.. Whether or not they were seen as brothers as early as the 7th century is uncertain, never the less he will have belonged to the sphere of ‘lower mythology’, i.e. between the human beings and their gods. 8 And like Weland on the front panel, he – if this is a female – would have his Fylgja at his side, helping him.
fylia03 fylia03 So the person under the arc could be her, but if we compare this construction to the “Throne of the Virgin” we may wonder whether or not this is the “High Seat of Woden” himself, Hliðskjálf 9.
This view is supported by the two pairs of animals at the seat - wolves(?) below and ravens(?) above it, which accompany the grim god - and three valknutr (“death knots”, Woden’s ‘hallmark’) indicate the sacred region, one of them the High Seat itself. The arrow in Woden’s hand (where we would expect his spear Gungnir) tells that ‘He Himself’ supports the archer at his fight. This would make sense, as the Valkyrie has fulfilled her task by choosing the warrior who is now to serve in the god’s war band, the einherjar. She, protector in lifer and chooser of the slain, works wyrd, thus she is by her nature comparable to the Norns or Weird Sisters. Her task ends, when her hero belongs to the sphere where she is at home.

Picture: "Silver hanger in shape of a Valkyrie", Köping Klinta, States Historiska Museum.

1 Golther, Handbuch der germanischen Mythologie, S. 98ff
2 This word (O.N. œl, ‘ale’) which we find on urns, probably as a wish for the dead one on his way to Valhalla,froze to a formula, so to speak. It did not change when it migrated to England, as it was of runic and numeric power, the way it was. More on that in The World of Icons, Runes, Numbers and Values
There are amulets, too, which show the Valkyrie with a 'drenchorn', and similar depictions on the Swedish standing stones with the same motif, where the Valkyrie receives the dead warrior with her drinking horn.
3 Alfred Becker, Franks Casket; Zu den Bildern und Inschriften des Runenkästchens von Auzon (Regensburg, 1972) S. 125 – 134 Zur Ikonographie der Magierbilder
4 Just like in Latin where pecus (cattle, G.Vieh) is the word stem for pecunia (money).
5 Ardre VIII shows just these elements,the smithy (to recognize the topic), the victims (the two beheaded princes and their debauched sister) and the one freed by these deeds, Weland in the shape of a bird.
6 In Norse mythology the valkyries are dísir, minor female deities, who serve 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”. (Source: Wikipedia)
7 In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil (Old Norse Yggdrasill, the extra -l is a nominative case marker) is the World Tree, a great ash tree located at the center of the universe and joining the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. The trunk of the tree may be thought of as forming a vertical axis around which these worlds are situated, with Ásgard, realm of the gods, at the top and the Hel, located in Niflheim, at the bottom. Midgard, or Mid-Earth the world of mortals, is located in the middle and surrounded by Jötunheim, land of giants, both of which are separated by the ocean. Yggdrasil is also sometimes known as Mimameid or Laerad. (Source: Wikipedia)
8 See Zur Wielandsage mit einem PDF Anhang aus Becker, Franks Casket.
A shorter English version in The development of the Weland Saga Tradition
9 In Norse mythology, Hliðskjálf (sometimes Anglicized Hlidskjalf; English: "high-gate"[1]) is the high seat of Odin enabling him to see into all worlds. In Grímnismál, Odin and Frigg are both sitting in Hlidskjálf when they see their foster sons Agnar and Geirröd, one living in a cave with a giantess and the other a king. Frigg then made the accusation to her husband that Geirröd was miserly and inhospitable toward guests, so after wagering with one another over the veracity of the statement Odin set out to visit Geirröd in order to settle the matter.
In Skírnismál, it is Freyr who sits in Hlidskjálf when he looks into Jötunheim and sees the beautiful giant maiden Gerd, with whom he instantly falls in love. (Source: Wikipedia)


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