|Valkyrie by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1869)|
There is further historical evidence of these ritual leaders. The Arab writer Ibn Fadlan described a viking funeral rite that he witnessed in 921 AD on the shore of the Volga River in Russia. He writes of the "Angel of Death" that presides over the proceedings, including the killing of a young slave girl who is burned with the dead chieftain. The older woman is "in charge of the whole ceremony, from the dressing of the cadaver to the execution of the slave." She was "a strapping woman, massively built and austere of countenance." When the final moments come, "the men began to beat their shields with wooden sticks, to stifle the cries of the slave girl, so that other girls would not take fright and refuse to die with their masters." This noise-making echoes that of the Cimbri priestesses almost a thousand years earlier. The grisly ritual reaches its climax when the men involved in the ceremony "made her lie at the side of her dead master. Two held her hands and two her feet, and the Angel of Death wound a noose around her neck ending in a knot at both ends which she placed in the hands of two men, for them to pull. She then advanced with a broad-bladed dagger which she plunged repeatedly between the ribs of the girl while the men strangled her until she was dead." The role of the Germanic priestess either changed over time, was different in different tribes, or had a complex makeup that included both prophecy from the high-seat and a leadership role in ritual sacrifice. Ibn Fadlan worked with an interpreter, and it seems clear that his "Angel of Death" is the same as the Norse "chooser of the slain."
In 1014, the Anglo-Saxon bishop named Wulfstan published his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos ("Sermon of the Wolf to the English"). In a time-honored tradition that continues to this day, he blamed a great calamity (in this case, thirty years of viking raids) on the his own country's lack of moral fiber. He lists a catalog of the most grievous types of sinners that surrounded him, including "wiccan and wælcyrian" - witches and valkyries. This is not a mystical list of devils, but a human list that includes murderers and robbers. Evidently, there were still active wise women and prophetesses at this late date.
These women were, for obvious reasons, bloody and terrifying. It is understandable that whispered tales would grow up around them, especially given the idea in Germanic society that women had mysterious powers to begin with. This gave rise to the mythological concept of the valkyrie as magical maiden that flies above the battlefield, choosing the slain in a mystic sense by marking certain warriors for death in battle. The earthly woman who chooses those who are to be sacrificed evolved into the heavenly war-maiden who magically marks those who are doomed to die on the battlefield. The physical appearance of the original human figures - cloaked, wearing a girdle of bronze, and carrying a sword - is replicated in the mythological descriptions of the warrior-goddesses. Freya in her falcon cloak can be seen as a super-valkyrie, as a primal version of the horse-riding warrior goddesses of the late mythology.