In Norse mythology, the dísir ("ladies") are fate goddesses who can be both benevolent and antagonistic towards mortal people, and they include the norns. They could also be the protective spirits of Norse clans, and especially in connection with war expeditions, a function for which they were named fylgjas. Moreoever, in later sources, the dísir also appear as Odin's shieldmaidens, called valkyries, and they determine the outcome of battle.
Their original function was possibly that of fertility goddesses who were the object of both private and official worship called dísablót, and their veneration probably derives from the worship of the spirits of the dead. A particular trait of the dísir is the fact that they appear as collective beings.
Many have pointed out that dísir seems to be the original term for the valkyries (lit. "choosers of the slain"), which in turn would be a kenning for dís. As opposed to valkyrja and norn, the term dís never appears in the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. The name dís is the Old Norse cognate of Old High German itis, Old Saxon idis and the Anglo-Saxon ides, all meaning "lady", and idisi appears as the name of the valkyries in the only surviving pagan source from Germany, the Merseburg Incantations (see below). Dís also had the meaning "lady" in Old Norse poetry as in the case of Freya who is called Vanadís ("lady of the vanir"). Adding to the ambiguous meaning of dís is the fact that just like supernatural women were called dísir in the sense "ladies", mortal women were frequently called by names for supernatural women, as noted by Snorri Sturluson in Skáldskaparmál:
Woman is also metaphorically called by the names of the Asynjur or the Valkyrs or Norns or women of supernatural kind.The name dís appears in several place names in Norway and Sweden. Moreover, it was a common element in girls' names as evidenced on runestones, and it still is in Iceland.
The shrine where the dísir were worshiped was called dísarsalr and this building is mentioned in the Ynglinga saga concerning king Aðils' death. In addition, it also appears Hervarar saga, where a woman becomes so infuriated over the death of her father by the hands of Heiðrekr, her husband, that she hangs herself in the shrine.
The eddic poem Hamðismál deals with how Hamðir and Sörli go to the Gothic king Ermanaric to exact vengeance for the cruel death of their half-sister Svanhild. On the way, they kill their reluctant brother Erpr. Knowing that he is about to die at the hands of the Goths, Sörli talks of the cruelty of the dísir who incited him to kill Erpr, who would have cut off the head of Ermanaric and made their expedition successful. In this poem, dísir appears as a synonym of norn and the translator Henry Adams Bellows simply translates dísir as norns:
In Grímnismál, the wise Grímnir (Odin) predicts king Geirröðr's death, which he attributes to the wrath of the dísir. Again, dísir is used as a synonym for the norns:
In Reginsmál, the unmarried girl Lyngheiðr is called dís ulfhuguð (dís/lady with the soul of a wolf) as an insult. Later in the same poem, there is a stanza, where the dísir appear as female spirits accompanying a warrior in order to see him dead in battle, a role where they are synonymous with valkyries:
An ambiguous reference to dís as "valkyrie" or "lady" appears in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, where the hero Helgi Hundingsbane meets the valkyrie Sigrún for the first time. In his translation, Bellows simply translates it as "maiden":
A single remnant exists of the belief in the dísir in Germany. It is called the Merseburg Incantations and it uses the Old High German form of dísir, idisi, for the Valkyries, who free from their shackles warriors caught during battle. The last two lines contain the magic words "Leap forth from the fetters, escape from the foes" that are intended to release the warriors.
Eiris sazun idisi|
sazun hera duoder.
suma hapt heptidun,
suma heri lezidun,
| Once the Idisi set forth,|
to this place and that.
Some fastened fetters,
Some hindered the horde,
Some loosed the bonds
from the brave:
Leap forth from the fetters,
escape from the foes.
Once sat women,|
They sat here, then there.
Some fastened bonds,
Some impeded an army,
Some unraveled fetters:
Escape the bonds,
flee the enemy!