|"Frey" by hellanim.deviantart.com|
In Germanic polytheism, neatly put, Freyr is the God of good times, peace and plenty. He is a protecting God of the earth and a male fertility God par excellence. Of the Roman Gods he is most like Faunus. Like Faunus, Freyr is associated with the fruitful earth and fertile flocks. Implicitly, both Gods are strongly associated with male sexuality. Respected Cambridge scholar H R Ellis Davidson goes so far as to speculate that ceremonies involving sexual abandon may have been among the wilder rites associated with Freyr in pre-Christian times (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at 126), something that can easily be associated with the pleasure loving Faunus, who enables mating amongst livestock and fertile fields. This sexual aspect of the God is not simply about hedonism, it is about something far more serious and fundamental – it represents an affirmation of life and a continuation of this same force. For Freyr is not only fertile, he is wise (Poetic Edda; Skirnir’s Journey). When Freyr is honoured crops succeed, livestock flourishes and people enjoy good health. H R Ellis Davidson describes Freyr thus:
“the Gods and Goddesses who brought peace and plenty to men were known as the Vanir … The God who stands out most prominently in the literature is called Freyr, a name meaning ‘Lord’. His twin sister was Freyja, ‘Lady’ [fertility Goddess of love], and their father was the God Njord [God of the fertile sea]. Freyr was said to have been worshipped by the Swedes at Uppsala in the late Viking Age, along with Thor and Odin [foremost of the Aesir Gods], and to have been represented in the temple there by a phallic image. He was described as the God who dispensed peace and plenty to men, and who was invoked at marriages [Scandinavian Mythology at 74].”
Thus it seems that just as Freyja (who is very like the Roman Venus) deals with female sexuality and fertility so is Freyr essentially a God of male sexual virility and fertility.
God of life and life after death
|Warriors with boar-topped helmets, 7th century CE|
“the snow never settled on the south-west of Thorgrim’s burial mound, nor showed any sign of frost. People suggested that Frey had found the sacrifices Thorgrim made to him so endearing that the God had not wanted the ground between them to freeze.”
Freyr is also connected with the burial mounds of the early Swedish kings. On this H R Ellis Davidson writes:
“There is a close link between Freyr and the dead kings of Sweden who continued to benefit their people after their deaths. Snorri tells us in the history of the Ynglings, the early Swedish kings at Uppsala, that it was Freyr who set up the holy place there where the temple stood, and where we know that burial mounds of the fifth and sixth centuries formed a centre of power and sanctity. Because of the prosperity which Freyr had brought to the Swedes when he ruled them, it is said they worshipped him and took his name, calling themselves Ynglings after Yngvi-Freyr [Freyr’s name among the Swedes]. His death was concealed from the people until a great howe, or burial mound, was ready to receive him, with a door and three holes in it, into which treasures were placed in the form of gold, silver and copper. These were the people’s offerings for plenty, and for three years they brought them, thinking that Freyr still lived. When they learned that he was dead, they realised that he must still be helping them, as the seasons continued to be good, and they called him the God of the earth [Scandinavian Mythology at 77-78].”
The implication is that those inhumed in burial mounds live after death as spirits connected with the land. H R Ellis Davidson notes that there “seems to be some link between elves and the dead within the earth” (Scandinavian Mythology at 117), and so too with Freyr, as described in the Poetic Edda; Grimnir’s Sayings:
“Alfheim [lit. “elves’ home”] the Gods gave to Freyr, in bygone days as a tooth payment [it was traditional to give gifts to children when they lost their first tooth].”
Instead of going to a celestial afterlife such as Odin’s Valhalla, Freyr’s worshippers remain closely connected to this world, perhaps as elven spirits similar to the Roman Lares (land spirits), Manes (benevolent spirits of the dead) and/or Lemures (malevolent spirits of the dead). However, while elves may be helpful or harmful, it is clear that Freyr is fundamentally benevolent. This is made clear in the Poetic Edda; Loki’s Quarrel:
35 ‘That was my reward, when I, from far away, was sent as hostage to the Gods [of the Aesir]; that I fathered that son, whom no one hates and is thought the prince of the Aesir’…
37 ‘Freyr is the best of all the bold riders in the courts of the Aesir; he makes no girl cry nor any man’s wife, and looses each man from captivity.’”
|"Freyr Icon". Source: flickr.com/photos/jesseca_trainham|
This is not to say that Freyr’s benevolence is unconditional – within Germanic (and Roman) polytheism it is implicit that the relationship with the Gods must be reciprocal, which is why offerings and sacrifices are made. It is known that horses, especially stallions, were offered to Freyr and that they were kept in his temples. Tacitus records that horses were used for divination by ancient Germanic tribes, and so it may have been in a later age as well. Viking age horse fights were almost certainly connected to Freyr’s rites, and the well known Viking age story describing a family’s reverence for the penis of a horse may be another rite connected with Freyr. There is at least one record indicating that an Ox was a suitable sacrifice to Freyr and it seems that humans too were, at regular intervals or in times of famine, also offered as sacrifices to the God, some such sacrifices may have included kings (during times of peril) as well as people of humbler origins.
Blood sacrifices would have marked significant occasions but in daily worship it may be that blood offerings were disagreeable to Freyr, as weapons were not allowed in his temples and the violent spilling of human blood on his sacred field, which lay next to his temple, is said to have brought about Freyr’s displeasure. As a fertility God of the earth it seems likely that the most common offerings to Freyr may be lost to the historical and archeological record, for they may have been both humble and perishable. Food offerings would fit this description, as would offerings of mead or beer. We do know, at the very least, that festive drinking was part of his cult (Gisli Surrson’s Saga), as was the “clapping of mimes on the stage” and the “clatter of bells” (Adam of Bremen, cited by H R Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at 96) which reminds us of Freyr’s association with good times. In keeping with Freyr's association with wealth, precious metals were also suitable offerings, as noted above.
The boar is also strongly associated with Freyr – and the Vanir Goddess Freyja – thus it may have been an acceptable offering to him. Ships are another symbol connected to Freyr – and the Vanir God Njord – perhaps because ships were traditionally made from the wood of trees (which spring from the fertile earth), which may explain the use of ships and boats as an ancient funeral symbol in Germanic lands and, by medieval times, an actual funeral offering (in the Viking age many people were literally buried, in land, inside a boat or ship). Just as boars and ships are well established Vanir symbols so too are wagons, and thus they are also associated with Freyr.
|Illustration depicting Freyr by Doepler (1905)|
Before leaving this post I want to make a note about the following description of Freyr by Snorri Sturluson:
“Frey is the most splendid of the Gods. He controls the rain and the shining of the sun, and through them the fruit of the earth. It is good to invoke him for peace and abundance. He also determines men's success in prosperity [Prose Edda; Gylfaginning].”
Unfortunately, there is good reason to think that Sturluson’s knowledge of the Gods was sometimes confused (we must remember that he was a Christian living in a Christian age), and therefore his assertions require corroboration from other sources before acceptance. Other records confirm that Freyr is associated with prosperity, fruits of the earth and peace, however Freyr cannot be the God of rain for this is clearly Thor's domain, and nowhere else is Freyr conclusively described as a God of sunshine. The closest we get is via the description of his sacred boar, known as Gullinbursti (Goldenbristles), whose “glowing bristles on his mane lit up the darkest night” (H R Ellis Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology at 83). The possibility that this links Freyr to sunshine is inconclusive for it could just as likely be a reference to golden wheat fields, which definitely are Freyr’s domain. At best, we may link Freyr with the fertile aspect of rain and sunshine as it hits the earth and causes its abundance.
Another of Sturluson’s works seems to offer a more reliable description of Freyr:
“'How should Frey be referred to?’‘… one of the Vanir, the God of a good [farming] year, and the giver of wealth …’ [The Prose Edda; Skaldskaparmal].”
Or put another way, in Flateyarbok it is recorded that Norwegian worshippers of Freyr described him as the God:
“who talked to us also, and told us future happenings beforehand, and he gave us peace and plenty [cited in H R Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at 103].”May it be so.
|"Freyr and Freyja" by richardpace.deviantart.com|
- H R Ellis Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn (1969)
- H R Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books (1990)
- The Poetic Edda, Oxford University Press (1996)
- Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Penguin Books (2005)
- Gisli Surrson's Saga, Penguin Books (1997)
To read my blogpost on Freyja see Freyja – Love Goddess.