Saturday, 12 March 2016

Freyja – Love Goddess

"A Blonde Beauty" by Styka 
The usual starting place, when looking to the written sources on Germanic Gods, is Snorri Sturluson – an Icelandic Christian who wrote the Prose Edda, the most extensive resource we have on Norse mythology. Of Freyja he writes:
“Njord [a Vanir fertility God associated with the sea] … had two children. The son was called Frey and the daughter Freyja. They were beautiful and powerful … Freyja is the most splendid of the Goddesses. She has a home in heaven called Folkvangar [Warriors’ Field]. Wherever she rides into battle, half the slain belong to her. Odin takes the other half … Her hall, Sessrumnir (With Many Seats], is large and beautiful. When she travels, she drives a chariot drawn by two cats. She is easily approachable for people who want to pray to her,  and from her name comes the title of honour whereby women of rank are called frovur [the Scandinavian Fru and German frau are derived from Freyja’s name] … She delights in love songs, and it is good to call on her in matters of love  
Freyja, along with Frigg, is the most noble. She married the man called Od. Their daughter, Hnoss, is so beautiful that from her name comes the word for a treasure that is exceptionally handsome and valuable. Od went travelling on distant paths, while Freyja remained behind, crying tears of red gold. Freyja has many names, because she gave herself different names as she travelled among unknown peoples searching for Od. She is called Mardoll and Horn and Gefn and Syr. Freyja owned Brisingamen [a famous necklace]. She is called the Goddess of the Vanir [Vanir Gods tend to be associated with fertility in the land and sea] ...  
[After his involvement with the disappearance of the Goddess Idunn, Loki] said he would go into Giant Land to find Idunn if Freyja would lend him her falcon shape ...  
How should Freyja be referred to? By calling her the daughter of Njord, the sister of Frey, the wife of Od, the mother of Hnoss, the possessor of the fallen in battle, of the hall Sessumnir, of male cats and of the ring of the Brisings, the God of the Vanir, the household deity of the Vanir and the God whose weeping is beautiful [Sturluson, Prose Edda, Penguin Classics at 35, 42-43, 82 and 111].”
Frigg is cited by Sturluson as the wife of Odin, however, a story recorded by Paul the Deacon suggests that Freyja (under the earlier name of Frija; she gave her name to Friday, which was a translation from the Latin Dies Veneris, the day of Venus) is wife to Odin (then known as Wodan) and some scholars go so far as to suggest that Frigg and Freyja are but different names for the same Goddess.* It is not impossible that Wodan/Odin was thought to have a number of different Goddess consorts due to theological variants (if not merely pronunciation variants) across the tribes; some tribes may have considered Freyja to be his wife, while other tribes may have favoured Frigg. Or Odin may simply have had multiple consorts – just as we know that some pre-Christian Germanic men had more than one wife.** 

What we can say with certainty is that Freyja is one of the great Goddesses of Germanic polytheism; that she is considered noble, powerful and beautiful; that she “has many names” and is well travelled (which includes shamanistic travel through different dimensions via her falcon guise); that she is associated with love (even while myth records her own love life to be imperfect – this is a common theme in traditional Germanic love stories, which almost always have a tragic edge to them), as well as fertility and death. Noting that in the traditional Germanic worldview death is not the final chapter of life, but a gateway to another life.

Another of the great Goddesses of the early Germanic tribes was described by the Roman Tacitus: 
"Nerthus". Source: begermanicos.wordpress.com
“[Among the Suebi there are seven tribes, including the tribes that would later be known as the Angles and Saxons] distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth, and believe that she intervenes in human affairs and rides through their peoples. There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot [or wagon], draped with a cloth, which the priest alone may touch. He perceives the presence of the Goddess in the innermost shrine and with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle. There are days of rejoicing then and the countryside celebrates the festival, wherever she deigns to visit and to accept hospitality. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away, then and only then do they experience peace and quiet … until the Goddess has had her fill of human society and the priest brings her back to her temple. Afterwards the chariot, the cloth, and, if one may believe it, the deity herself are washed in a hidden lake … Passing then to the right-hand shore of the Suebian Sea, here it washes the peoples of the Aestii, whose customs and appearance are those of the Suebi … They worship the Mother of the Gods and as a symbol of that cult they wear the figure of a wild boar …” [Tacitus, Agricola and Germany: A new translation by A. R. Birley, Oxford World's Classics at 58, 60-61].”
This powerful description is the only reference we have of Nerthus*** – it seems inconceivable that her worship could have whittled away to nothing centuries later. The wagon, the boar and the association with peace and fertility all suggest she was a great Vanir Goddess, and it may be that she is one and the same with Freyja. An alternate hypothesis is that Freyja is the daughter and successor of Nerthus – for it is said that Njord (whom Sturluson names as the father of Freyja) is the male counterpart to Nerthus (Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology at 88). Njord and Nerthus may have been sexually active brother and sister deities, in the same way that Freyr and Freyja are said to be.

* Like Frigg, Freyja is associated with the earth, fertility, childbirth, divination, a falcon guise that enables flying and tears (Frigg is associated with tears through the story of the death of Baldr). Freyja also appears to be intimately connected with Odin (as one would expect a consort to be) by virtue of sharing the spirits of the slain with him and travelling widely (as Odin does) in search of her husband Od, whose name sounds very similar to Odin. 
** Ibn Fadlan records that Rus Vikings encountered in 1oth century Russia worshipped a God (who was very likely Odin) who had multiple wives who could be interceded with in order to obtain favour with their Godly husband. In the 1st century CE Tacitus's Germania records that Germanic noble men occasionally married more than one woman, presumably for political reasons.
*** The worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth, may be the continuation of the Mesolithic reverence for a powerful fertility Goddess such as seems to be evidenced by the numerous “Venus” figurines, such as Venus of Willendorf, found across Europe. Mesolithic Europeans seem to have principally belonged to Y-DNA Haplogroup I. Germanic societies were roughly 15-50% Haplogroup I so it would not be surprising if the religion of Mesolithic Europe continued on in some form in her Germanic descendants.

Freyja and shamanism
"Freyja in her car drawn by cats" by Doepler (1905)
Embedded in the descriptions of Freyja there are hints that Freyja is, like Odin, connected with shamanism. Odin’s shamanism is evidenced through the famous rite by which he discovered the runes after hanging from a tree for nine nights, and his related gift of divination;* as well as by his berserker warriors who fought in an Odin inspired frenzy while wearing the skins of bears and wolves. Freyja’s shamanism is, inter alia, suggested by her famous falcon guise which caused the wearer to fly – in a shamanic context this flying would be conducted in the spirit, rather than the physical, realm. 
“Shamans use many props and symbols to represent their psychic experience and to affect the experience of their clients … Often shamans use a vehicle such as a bird to fly … or they may become the vehicle themselves … A shaman’s costume helps … [and parts of] animals are also widely used … they endow the shaman with something of their own properties, and may perform actions on the shaman’s behalf … shamans are generally diviners … The process of divination can … be an integral part of the … soul journey … Divination is not only used to address the future, but may also find out what is going on elsewhere in the present [Vitebsky, Shamanism, University of Oklahoma Press at 52, 70, 82, 104-105].”
Freyja’s shamanism becomes even more evident in the Poetic Edda:
“Bright one [this is almost certainly a reference to Freyja] they called her, wherever she came to houses, the seer with pleasing prophecies, she charmed them with spells; she made magic [seidr] wherever she could, with magic she played with minds, she was always the favourite of wicked women [The Poetic Edda: A new translation by Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World's Classics at 7 (Seeress’ Prophecy)].”
The Poetic Edda spells it out bluntly when Loki condemns Freyja as “a witch and much imbued with malice” (Loki’s Quarrel). This is a indication of where Freyja’s shamans would eventually end up. The image we have of the flying witch, who rides her (phallic?) broom with a cat by her side seems to be inextricably linked with Freyja who could fly like a falcon, was strongly associated with cats and indelibly linked with female sexuality. This is a long way from the 1st/2nd century CE when Tacitus wrote that Germanic people:
“… believe that there is something holy and an element of the prophetic in women, hence they neither scorn their advice nor ignore their predictions … we [Romans] witnessed how Veleda [a female seer] was long regarded by many of them as a divine being; and in former times, too, they revered Albruna and a number of other women [Tacitus at 41].”
Around a hundred years earlier the Greek Strabo also describes the important, though rather bloody, role of female shamans amongst the Germanic Cimbri tribe:
“…Their wives, who would accompany them on their expeditions, were attended by priestesses who were seers; these were grey-haired, clad in white, with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, girt with girdles of bronze, and bare-footed; now sword in hand these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had a raised platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up; and from the blood that poured forth into the vessel some of the priestesses would draw a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people; and during the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way produce an unearthly noise [The Geography of Strabo].”
Strabo’s gory description is a reminder that it would be naïve to assume that shamans were merely healers and herbalists or lovely white witches with all the charm of Harry Potter about them. We know that in parts of Africa, where belief in witchcraft is mainstream in some societies, heinously barbaric murders occur all too frequently in the name of effective magic – it may have been the same in the darker corners of Germanic shamanism (although I would tend to think murder would fall foul of Freyja's domain, for she is a overwhelmingly a Goddess of life, even her association with death is really an association with life in the form of life after death / the afterlife; how could a Goddess of love look kindly on an act of cruelty?). On the whole though, it seems that until Christianity female seers were mostly well regarded. The Flateyjarbok, compiled in the 14th century, describes the customs of a few centuries before:
“At that time wise women used to go about the land. They were called ‘spae-wives’ and they foretold people’s futures. For this reason folk used to invite them to their houses and give them hospitality, and bestow gifts on them at parting [cited at 120, Davidson, The Gods and Myths of Northern Europe].”
Davidson gives us a broader picture in a summary which reminds me of the famous oracle of Delphi, who performed divination ceremonies throughout the Greco-Roman period:
“Freyja’s name is specifically linked … with a special kind of witchcraft known as seidr … The essentials for performing it were the erection of a platform or lofty seat on which the leading practitioner sat, the singing of spells, and the falling into a state of ecstasy by this leader, who is generally a woman, and is called a volva. Sometimes the volva was supported by a large company, who acted as choir and provided the music. At the close of the ceremony, the worker of seidr was able to answer questions put to her by those present, and it is implied that she received her information while she was in a state of trance. The accounts show that questions put to her were concerned for the most part with the coming [farming] season and the hope of plenty [these things are within Freyja’s domain], and with the destinies of young men and women in the audience. Sometimes the term seidr is used to refer to harmful magic, directed against a victim, but in the majority of accounts it appears to be a divination rite. The term volva is found in the poetry and the sagas to denote someone with special mantic gifts, a seeress or soothsayer [Davidson, The Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at 117].”
By the 16th century the fortunes of Germanic shamans had changed dramatically:
“… Denmark and adjacent countries … were suffering the throes of an outbreak of witch mania. Witches were being outed by accusers in every village and hamlet, and the people were terrified of the Devil’s agents, as witches were understood to be [Tyson, The Witch Mania of King James IThe Llewellyn Journal].”
This seems to be the point from where the persecution of witches in protestant/Germanic Europe really kicked off; in the late 16th century King James of Scotland married a Danish princess and subsequently became so obsessed with witchcraft that he wrote the hugely influential Demonology, a manual for witch-spotting. When he became the first king of the United Kingdom he pushed through a new law which decreed death as the penalty for witchcraft (before this time imprisonment had been the usual punishment). Tens of thousands of people convicted of witchcraft, most of whom were women, would subsequently lose their lives over the next century and a half, until the Age of Enlightenment cured Europe of her paranoia.

Understanding the history of the persecution of witches in the age of Christendom possibly explains why we know so little of Freyja and the women who worshipped her. Quite simply, they were driven to the margins of society – reviled, feared and persecuted. The same words could be used of the traditional Christian treatment of female sexuality, which is of course Freyja’s primary domain. Fortunately though, we have come back full circle to the dawn of a new age in the inexorable life-death-rebirth cycle that orders all things under the sun.

* Sturluson states that Odin’s wife, unnamed in this instance, also has the power of divination; as does Thor’s wife Sif. 

"Freya in the Woods" by thorskegga.deviantart.com
Conclusion
If a neat description of the nature of Freyja is sought, it can be said that she is a Goddess of beauty, love and fertility. She is associated, like her twin brother Freyr, with peace and plenty and the fertile earth, including the dead within the earth; taking some of those fallen in battle to live on after death in her Godly realm, with others going to Odin. She is connected with shamanism, such as was once likely common to all the peoples of northern Eurasia, but which was harshly suppressed in Christian Europe, and it is perhaps for this reason that some of our knowledge about Freyja seems to be fragmented and confused. At a certain point it is probably better to leave intellectual analysis and reach out for a more intuitive approach, which is as it should be, for love and sex belong primarily to the world of emotion, desire, pleasure and instinct. Trying to impose reason and logic in such a realm is probably impossible.
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Sources:
Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin
Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn
The Poetic Edda: A new translation by Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World's Classics
The Poetic Eddasacred-texts.com
Sturluson, Prose Edda, Penguin Classics
Sturluson, The Younger Eddagutenberg.org
Tacitus, Agricola and Germany: A new translation by A. R. Birley, Oxford World's Classics
Tyson, The Witch Mania of King James IThe Llewellyn Journal
Vitebsky, Shamanism, University of Oklahoma Press


Postscript (2017): In 2017 I revised this post to minimise speculation about the similarities between Freyja and Frigg. The original post made the mistake of being too scholarly and obsessing over the minute details of myths surrounding Frigg and Freyja. While it is true that myth presents the two Goddesses as alarmingly similar in many respects, I tend to think it is foolhardy to rely on myths, mostly recounted by Christians, to establish the truth of anything. It seems to me that the reality is that the different Germanic tribes had a number of fertility Goddesses and were without a neat Greco-Roman style pantheon. Different myths would have formed surrounding these Goddesses and no doubt sometimes stories about Goddesses (both different and similar) were borrowed from other tribes. By the time of Snorri Sturluson the stories were likely drinking yarns. Myths are stories, but Gods are Gods – the two are not the same.

Written by M. Sentia Figula.

2 comments:

  1. I'm not quite sure why this wasn't received as well on /r/Pagan, save for the fact that the Heathens who tend to post there can be a bit finicky about questions as to their deities. I think the post asks some good questions which, unfortunately, cannot be answered. I'm sorry that it was downvoted to the point it was. Reddit can be really touchy.

    Regarding the Frigg-Freyja issue, there's some theory that I've come across over the years which posits that the rise of these two deities are from a later state in cultural and linguistic development within the Old Norse cultural sphere. Scholastically, this is the Frigg and Freyja origin hypothesis, which is still hotly debated. In some Heathen circles it has been adopted by a variety of traditions. I'm inclined to believe that there was a distinct splintering of a common core figure sometime during the Viking Age, since neither Anglo-Saxon nor Continental heathen etymological histories have a distinction between two such deities. Whether this is a "splintering" or, for instance, there was a more local deity which rose to prominence, is also up to debate. But because there are not textual sources, and archaeological remains are frustrating, it remains in the realm of linguistic etymology and that does nothing to really help guide religion.

    I think it has some merit, because if you look at the two deities, compared to the richness of the others, they seem almost one dimensional. Where other deities are very much expansive in their divine "portfolio" as it were (Þunor being God of the Thing, the Protector of Commoners, a Protector of Ships, the Lightning God; Woden being...Woden, Tiw being the God of the Thing, a War God, an early Sky God, etc), Frigg and Freyja seem very bland in comparison. One deals with domestic spheres, and the other deals with fecundity and battle, but both have similar aptitudes for magic and journeying, similar interactions with the same divine figure, etc.

    In Anglo-Saxon Heathenry, Frīge usually takes the role of both deities. If you look at Old English resources, she's the only goddess of any similarity, and she alone gives us Frīgedæg/Friday, which is often reserved for Freyja from the Northern Germanic language days. But Anglo-Saxon paganism is 300 years "less" developed than the Old Norse practice, and even moreso as represented in Snorri's work. The scanty evidence leads me to believe they probably had the same progenitor deity, although I haven't quite gotten off the fence and continue to treat Frīge and Freo as separate entities for the time being, out of respect.

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this so thoughtfully. On the upside I could see that people were up-voting my link as well (which is why I noticed the down-voting) so I’m not too bruised. I just wish some of the down-voters had made some comments as to why they objected to the post so I could understand their point of view. I certainly never intended to offend anyone and I find it hard to understand why this blogpost would offend because there is actually nothing in it that hasn’t been said elsewhere; most notably in Dan McCoy’s website on Norse mythology and in H R Ellis Davidson’s widely read “Gods and Myths of Northern Europe”; I can see that you have long been aware of the Freyja-Frigg debate. I reached out to Cara Freyasdaughter who has a blog devoted to Freyja and she said “Personally, for me it comes down to experience. I experience Frigga very differently than Freya.” I think this is a fine way to look at this issue – contemporary experience can be just as valid and persuasive as a host of historical references. I confess that I prefer to think of Freyja and Frigg as different because it fits in well with my Roman influenced ideas about and experience of the Gods. However I do think sometimes people (definitely including me) try too hard to pin things down and put them in tidy boxes; this can give rise to inflexible orthodoxies and black and white thinking. I honestly don’t think it really matters if Freyja and Frigg are the same, or different, or closely related, what matters is that we connect with them and respect them, the experiences we have thereafter will bring us closer to the truth than any academic debate or social media barney.

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