On my personal account on Facebook we are discussing the use of the term Valkyrie for ale bearers at symbel a modern custom I have always been against. The argument most groups use for using the term is that it is used with great respect and because the ale bearer is serving mead just as the Valkyries do in Valhalla. There are several problems with the use of the term in my mind however. I have boiled them down to the following.
1) We know from the Anglo-Saxon glosses the Wælcyrgan (Valkyries) were equated with vicious, wrathful beings, with not too attractive features. While their appearance may not be that unattractive as the word Wælcyrge also glossed Venus, the fact remains most of the glosses are for such beings as the Classical Furies and the Gorgon. The fact that a group is using the term for ale bearer out of great respect to the Valkyries may make no difference to them. In other words using the term may pack supernatural repercussions of wrathful beings that feel they are being disrespected by mortal women being equated with them. I for one would not want to do anything to piss them off.
2) The use of the term Valkyrie simply because the ale bearer plays a similar role to the Valkyries of Valhalla at feast would be like me calling myself the Ás (one of the Æsir) of Symbel simply because I am playing the role of Odin as host. Were I to do that I would be laughed out of Heathenry. Why should using the term Valkyrie for ale bearers in symbel be any different?
3) No where in the lore are the Valkyries said to pour mead at symbel. They do so at feast in Valhalla, but no where that I know of is symbel mentioned as taking place in Valhalla. Were a symbel to take place in Valhalla the role of ale bearer would fall to Frigga as she is Odin’s wife and therefore lady of the hall. It is her place to play that role of high honor not the Valkyries.
4) One of the roles of the ale bearer in symbel is to be a friþwebba “frith weaver.” This term is used of Wealtheow in Beowulf in reference to her role in symbel. The horn bearer is the one to keep peace during the rite. Valkyries are not peace keepers they are wights of war. The view of Valkyries as beautiful blonde maidens with slender arms pouring mead for the heroes of Valhalla with kind words and soft eyes is a romanticized view. Instead they are more like warlike women wading through the gore of the battlefield marking heroes for death. Picture a vicious Xena Warrior Princess even more warlike covered in blood killing the heroic and carrying them to Valhalla. This is a far cry from the image of Wealtheow in Beowulf as the elegant jewel bedecked lady of the hall serving mead with flattering words, kind eyes, and only once leveling a very diplomatically worded veiled threat to Beowulf.
All that said there are many other perhaps more appropriate terms and phrases one can use for the lady of the hall’s role in symbel. The term used in the Old English lore is ealu-bora “ale bearer.” One could adapt this to medu-bora “mead bearer.” Another could be hyrn-bora “horn bearer.” One of my friends used the phrase Lady of the Mead. Another term once commonly used is mead warder. Why it ever fell out of use I do not know. I always like horn bearer myself. Alternately, one could use words for “lady” like Old English ides or Old Norse dís which were used both of mortal and supernatural women. Or one could come up with their own term that describes the role other than Valkyrie.
One thing I do want to point out is the role of horn bearer by the lady of the hall is a role she should only play the first round or first couple of rounds of symbel in my opinion. After that the role of pouring the mead should be taken over by what we in Wednesbury call byrelas (singular byrele) or “cup bearers.” These are usually young men and women. They take over so the lady of the hall can sit down and enjoy symbel.
This has long been an issue for me. And I do not mean to sound critical of those that do use the term Valkyrie for the ale bearer in symbel. There are many groups and individuals for which it is the custom to use the term Valkyrie of the horn bearer that I deeply care for and/or respect. I merely want to point out why I do not use the term myself that way, and why I discourage others from doing so.