Herman and Thusnelda - George Upton

Valhalla and the Sword Dance

The Prince's decision was applauded by the company. Earnestly, even solemnly, he addressed his sons: "Forget not, my sons, that Odin sends the Valkyrs only to heroes who die for a sacred cause. These divine maidens ride upon steeds, with glistening shields and shining swords, and wear golden helmets. Odin sends them to the battlefield, where unseen they fight by the side of the heroes confided to their protection. If fate, which is stronger than the divine maidens, decrees the heroes shall die by the glorious death of battle, the Valkyrs bear them to Valhalla, abode of the consecrated heroes, across a glittering rainbow bridge. There the hero awakes and beholds the realm of the gods, from the abodes of the sacred ones to the shadowy realm of the death goddess, Hel; and he hears the spheric music of the stars, which as far transcends earthly music as gold does the baser metals.

"Never forget our gods and the heaven of our heroes, my sons, while you dwell among the strangers. Valhalla is bedecked with golden shields and has five hundred and forty golden doors, through each of which eight hundred heroes may enter abreast. Joyously they live there. They eat the flesh of the boar, Sarimnir, which returns to life each morning, and they drink the finest mead, which is supplied abundantly by the goat Heidrun. Odin accompanies them daily through the golden doors to a field where they have glorious combats, and those who fall are brought to life, when they return to Valhalla. Then the heroes sit at table and have a feast at which the Valkyrs serve them mead in golden cups, sing hero songs, and relate stories of glorious battles and victories.

"Never forget also, my sons, that there is an under world in which spirits who have died ingloriously live joylessly and pass each other in silence, like flitting shadows. Those who have shunned noble strife and died the death we call ignominious go there.

"Men and youths, rise and empty your horns, with the wish that we may all meet at the golden tables of Valhalla."

When this was done Sigmar made a signal for a blast of the horn. "Now for the sword dance," said he. The guests rose and went with him down to the valley, where they seated themselves upon moss-covered stones. Twelve youths stuck fifty sharp two-edged swords into the ground just far enough apart so that one unused to it would have found great difficulty in passing among them without injury. After the necessary preparations were made, the semi-nude youths who had placed them drew gleaming swords and disposed themselves so that there were rows of swords between them and the princes, on either side of whom the guests were stationed. A number of armed men stood behind the youths. All was now ready for the sword dance, a pastime much enjoyed by our ancestors and having great significance. The keenness of the weapons had no terror for them. Where the swords were most dangerous the youths skipped about as freely as if they were having a joyous, harmless dance. The warriors struck up a song of heroes, and thereupon the real dance began. The youths turned about, rushed together from the two sides and clasped their sword hands, and then from all four sides ran to a point in the centre of the sword rows. Then, each one holding his sword firmly in his teeth, they joined hands and danced in a circle. Then they formed in a serpentine line and swift as an arrow wound in and out over the field, which at any instant might become a field of death. As the song of the warriors rose more loud, the more daring and dangerous were the movements of the youths.

The Prince at last gave the signal for the dance to close. The youths stood in a row before him. One of them held his hand upon his breast. Suddenly his head drooped, his blood crimsoned the green turf, and he fell dead. He had been mortally hurt in the sword dance, but would not leave the ranks until death summoned him. "Brave youth," said the Prince, "thy name shall not be forgotten!" Then, turning to the other youths, he said: "Forward! Bear him to the sacred grove and there consign his body to the consecrated flames." Singing the songs of the heroes they bore the body away.

Sigmar and his guests returned to the castle. The men-at-arms followed them, and the youths appeared after they had paid the last earthly honors to the dead. The Prince bade them enter the hall and enjoy themselves with eating, drinking, and cheerful talk.