The Valkyrie is, in the oldest strata of belief, a corpse goddess, represented by the carrion-eating raven. The name in Old Norse, valkyrja, means literally, “chooser of the slain.” The Valkyrie is related to the Celtic warrior-goddess, the Morrigan, who likewise may assume the form of the raven.
Midway between the third and eleventh centuries, the Valkyries begin assuming a more benign aspect. Small amulets and pictures on memorial stones begin to depict the figure of the beautiful woman welcoming the deceased hero with a horn of mead to the afterlife. Valkyries are usually represented as blonde, blue eyed and fair skinned. They wear scarlet corslets and carry shields and spears.
By this later time, the Valkyries, as demigoddesses of death, had their legend conflated with the folklore motif of the swan maiden (young girls who are able to take on the form of a swan, sometimes as the result of a curse). If one could capture and hold a swan maiden, or her feathered cloak, one could extract a wish from her. This is why valkyries were sometimes known as swan maidens or wish maidens.
Although the sources consulted are not clear on this, the chief of the Valkyries seems to have been the goddess Freyja. She is the Norse goddess of love, fertility, and beauty, sometimes identified as the goddess of battle and death. Blond, blue-eyed, and beautiful, Freyja travels on a golden-bristled boar or in a chariot drawn by cats. She resides in the celestial realm of Folkvang. Like Odinn, she received half of those slain in battle, but since ladies go first she was allowed first choice! Freyja possessed a magical cloak of falcon feathers that allowed her to take the shape of a falcon if she wished, making the swan maidens similar to the goddess by having “feather coats” or cloaks that enable their shape-shifting abilities and the power of flight.
The Valkyries carry out the will of Odinn in determining the victors of the battle, and the course of the war. Their primary duty is to choose the bravest of those who have been slain, gathering the souls of dying heros or warriors found deserving of afterlife in Valhalla. They scout the battle ground in search of mortals worthy of the grand hall. If you are deemed by the Valkyries as un-worthy of the hall of Valhalla you will be received after death by the goddess Hel in a cheerless underground world.
The Valkyrie’s Vigil (1906) by Edward Robert Hughes