Thursday, April 11, 2013

Frey: God of the World

Book Review: Frey: God of the World by Ann Groa Sheffield (LuLu 2002, 2007)

This is a neat little book exploring the Norse god Frey, of the Vanir pantheon. Frey means “lord”. His name is given as Yngvi and he is sometimes called Yngvi-frey. In the Ynglingasaga (History of the Kings of Norway) there is a lineage of kings given beginning with Odin, then Njord, and then Frey. Frey’s reign was one of great peace and prosperity. His seat was in Uppsala, in Sweden. After he became ill and died his death was concealed from the public and he was buried in a mound, a howe. After three years the prosperity continued so it was thought that as long as Frey was in Sweden there would be peace and prosperity, so he became the king under the earth securing the peace and prosperity of the kingdom. Frith and ars, peace and prosperity, are the key domains of Frey. Frey became the ancestral-king residing in the grave-mound. Sacrifices to the king in the grave-mound were common. Even though Snorri Sturluson mentions that mound-burials were introduced by the entombing of Frey, the archaelogical evidence suggests that mound burial and cremation were contemporaneous into antiquity.

In Sweden, Frey is the ancestor of the Yngling royal house and is called Yngvi-Frey, or Ingunar Frey. The Swedish Ynglings ended up in Norway. The source of the word “Yngvi/Ing” is obscure but it has been used for “king” and Tacitus in the Germania mentions a Germanic tribe called the Ingvaeones. Frey, as “lord”, is properly a title rather than a name.

The word ar actually means “good seasons” and it was the king who was responsible in the magical sense for providing food, prosperity, and peace. Sacrifices were made, of cattle, of men, and finally of the king himself, if good seasons were not secured. This was the fate of King Domaldi of Sweden and King Olaf Tree-feller of Norway. The Danish story of King Frodhi is similar. Frodhi means ‘learned and wise’ and may also be a title similar to Frey. According to Saxo’s account his fate was almost identical to that of Frey, his death being concealed, he being carried around the countryside for a time, and he being buried in a mound. The story also bears much resemblance to Celtic relationships between the king and the land. There is a story of the Yngling King Olaf Geirstadhaalfr where he instructs the people not to sacrifice to his mound for good seasons after his death because it will turn him into a troll but the warning is suspected of having Christian influence. Nevertheless they do sacrifice to him and thereby avert a famine and they then refer to him as an elf – an ancestral spirit. Frey and the elves are associated with mounds and it is said that Frey was given Alfar, the realm of elves. The story of the Yngling king Halfdan the Black is that he was quite ‘ar-blessed’ and so his body was divided up and buried in different mounds presumably to bless a wider area. Thus, the ancestral spirit-king was very important. King Holgi’s mound contained offering layers of gold and silver.

Frey was said to get about in a cart or chariot pulled by a boar. Tacitus mentions chariot processions about the land for the goddess Nerthus and similar stories appear about Frey nearly a thousand years later. The word Nerthus is thought to be a female variant of the word Njord, Frey’s father, and so Nerthus has been painted as a possible Vanir goddess.

The 22nd rune from the Elder Futhark is called Ing or Ingwaz. The Old English rune poem gives the following:

Ing was first among the East-Danes
seen by men, until he afterwards eastward
departed over the wave; the wagon ran after;
thus the hard {men} named the hero

The wagon may refer to a procession of the god. The word ‘departed’ may suggest death. The author notes similarities to the story of the Danish king Scyld in Beowulf. Scyld is found abandoned in a boat as a child, becomes king founding a dynasty, and rules a prosperous reign. At his death he is set out to sea on a ship. Frey’s father Njord was a sea god and Frey is associated with the sea also, having one of the treasures of the gods, his ship Skidhbladhner, made by dwarves. Ship-burials were common in Scandinavia and are thought to have been common from about 500 C.E. suggests the archaeological evidence. This may have been an adaptation of mound-burial to ships as the people became more mobile and seafaring. Baldur’s funerary ship being set afire is one story from myth and comparing to the archaeological evidence may time-define the earliest manifestation of this story.

Ars, as prosperity and abundance referred to the year. In Viking times the year was divided into summer and winter. Summer was the raiding time but also the time of the short growing season in the north. Success in agriculture and success in plundering were perhaps both necessary for prosperity. Snorri definitively associates Frey as an agricultural deity. The ar-king, or year-king, also seems similar to sacrificial agricultural year-kings more to the south. In an on-line discussion I was told that peoples in the north did not have a myth of the dying and risen god but the story of Frey, the year-kings, the Green Man and others as myths of sacrifice and renewal all contradict what I was told. The season may be shorter and planting and harvest times different than in the Near East and Mediterranean but the grain king is there nonetheless. The word for the hero Beow means barley. Scyld was said to be the son of Scef, meaning sheath (of wheat). One of Frey’s servants is called Byggvir, or barley. His story in the Lokasenna indicates he is tiny, ground in a mill, and used in beer. This even suggests possible origins for “John Barleycorn.” Byggvir even threatens to grind Loki to a pulp! So we see here the sacrificial grain king motif being connected to Frey.

Another of Frey’s servants is Beyla, who may refer to cows. As grains, milk, and meat were the food of the people, the cow was very important to Northern Europeans. Cattle and swine were sacrificed to Frey but the author also notes that the roles could be reversed as ox and swine were sometimes called Frey and there are a few stories where kings are killed by cattle. Even King Frodhi was said to be killed by a “sea-cow”, apparently a race of gray cows that originally came from the sea. Cattle are generally synonymous with wealth in IE cultures.

The story of Frodhi’s Mill involves two giantesses who make gold (and peace and happiness) in a mill for Frodhi’s kingdom. Gold is called “Frodhi’s meal”. Frey’s magical boar was called Gullinbursti, or “Golden Bristles”. With him pulling Frey’s chariot he could traverse land and sea with great speed and the golden bristles would light the way. The boar was a symbol of both aggression and protection. A sacrificial boar was a tradition at Yule when oaths would be sworn on the boar. “Battle-boar” was a kenning for a helmet and Anglo-Saxon helmets depicting boars have been found.

Frey is also associated with Frith, often translated as peace, but also “inviolability” and “sacredness”. Frith was also associated with kinship rights and privileges. Norse legends tell of a time of great peace often called the “Frith of Frodhi” and the Swedes associate it with Frey. The lord of frith as sacred king seemed to have required peace, self-control, and commanded that there be no violations. Weapons were thought to be absent at the (Vanic?) festival of Nerthus as Tacitus noted and at the assemblies, or Things, in later times. Tacitus does mention that weapons abounded at business assemblies in his time so perhaps the peace-code of the Thing is more recent. Both the Thing and the hof, or temple were to be places without weapons.

Frey gave his magical sword and his steed to his servant Skirnir so that he will bring to him a giantess he has fallen in love with. Her name was Gerdh. Frey’s giving up of horse and sword – the two chief attributes of warriors – is perhaps telling of his status as a god of frith. He was also associated much with horses and possibly to horse sacrifice and consumption of horse meat which was a common but probably occasional practice. Frey, like Tyr, may have also been a patron of oaths so oaths sworn upon him or his symbol the boar tended to be kept. Those who betray Frey by violating the sacred conditions of Thing and hof, assembly and temple, often receive the fate of loss of frith and ar, peace and prosperity. I recently read about the warrior Starkath fighting for the Anglo-Saxons who desecrates a temple in Sweden (probably a temple of Frey) who was cursed by the priest to not die in battle as he longed to do and the curse was fulfilled.

Both Frey and frith are also strongly associated with love and sexuality. Adam of Bremen and Saxo both  give accounts of the temples of Uppsala where Thor, Wotan, and Frey (Frikko) were honored. The warrior Starkathar was said to be disgusted with the sexual aspects of the temple folk, thinking them unmanly. The Christian authors tended to agree and of course were disgusted by sexuality and likely scrubbed any references to sexual practices. Idols of Frey were said to be adorned with huge erect phalluses. The IE root word for Vanir is thought to be the same as that for Venus and indicates desire or striving. Frey goes into a maddening desire for Gerdh and when he sends Skirnir to her he threatens her with violence and sexual torment if she refuses the desire of Frey. One is perhaps a curse of insatiable nymphomania. Curses of perpetual sexual dissatisfaction also occur in sagas. Romantic love and passion were also thought to threaten the social order as marriages were often alliances. Gerdh accepts Frey’s terms and becomes his wife so that particular curse does not play out.

The story of Ingimund in Landnamabok and Vatnsdaela saga tells of a prophecy of him going to Iceland and finding a silver image of Frey, which he does, and sets up a farm there, and calls his farm Hof. This is kind of a story of Frey’s cult being established in Iceland. As Christian kings came to power in Norway it was thought that Iceland was still a place of the old ways. The prosperity of Ingimund in Iceland echoes that of Frey and establishes Frey as a patron of Icelandic farmers as well.

An appendix is given regarding the tripartite social functions in IE societies propounded by Georges Dumezil. The three functions are magic and judicial sovereignty, physical force, and fecundity. Odin and Tyr were assignedthe two parts respectively of the first function, Thor the second, and the Vanir (Frey, Freyja, and Njord) the third. The author notes that Frey came to acquire some of the other functions as well, as Germanic society changed, particularly when it became more militarized after threats from the Romans and from migrating tribes displaced by Romans, Huns, and others. Frey may have taken on the more priestly functions of Dumezil’s first function especially in Sweden where Tyr was not venerated. The author compares the peaceful aspect of Frey to that of the peaceful Roman leader Numa who is contrasted with the previous violent Roman leader Romulus. Dumezil sees the first function dichotomy in Mitra and Varuna of the Indian Vedas where Mitra is the lord of contracts and judicial functions (frith?) and Varuna is the more wrathful warrior aspect. A telling comparison is between the Roman priests (flamen dialis) and the Indian Brahman priests – both of which are forbidden to bear weapons and to ride horses. Frey’s giving up his sword and horse can be seen as similar in this respect. Varuna was said to be a god of binding and Mitra a god of unbinding. In the Lokasenna it is said that Frey “releases everyone from fetters” so this certainly suggests a Mitra-like first-function. Frey’s attribution as a sacred king also suggests a first function so we see that Frey defies the universality of Dumezil’s classification quite a bit.

Finally a list of sources, a few tables of kennings, and a bibliography is given.

This was an interesting account of Frey as the lord of frith, of peace, prosperity, fertility, and sexual vigor and the archetypal sacred ancestral spirit king at one with the land itself.

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