Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Freyja, Lady, Vanadis: An Introduction to the Goddess

Book Review: Freyja, Lady, Vanadis: An Introduction to the Goddess by Patricia M. Lafayllve (Outskirts Press 2006)
This is a good introduction to the Norse goddess of fertility, love, sex, magic, battle, seidr, and death. She is the lady of the Vanir. The Vanir are thought by many to be among the original tribes of the northern areas before the arrival of the Aesir, who are sometimes equated to Indo-European conquerors.
This book is a thoughtful and honest attempt at revealing the nature of Freyja through careful analysis of the Sagas, Eddas, and other literature, and through information from the archaeological record. Not much is known directly from these sources about Freyja but plausible inferences can be made.

According to the Eddas, Freyja and her brother Frey are the children of Njord of Noatun. The name of their mother is not given but some have speculated that it was Nerthus, an earth goddess mentioned by Tacitus in the Germania. Njord was said to be married to his sister just as Freyja and Frey are given as both sister and brother and as lovers. As part of the settlement after the to be among the original tribes of the northern areas before the arrival of the Aesir, who are sometimes equated to Indo-European conquerors.

This is a good introduction to the Norse goddess of fertility, love, sex, magic, battle, seidr, and death. She is the lady of the Vanir. The Vanir are thought by many  war between the Aesir and Vanir there was a hostage exchange. Frey and Njord went from Vanaheim to live in Asgard and Freyja went as well though no reason is given why she went along. Perhaps it was simply that the rest of the family went. She was given a hall in Asgard called Sessrumnir and her field for the slain -  Folkvang, and choice of half of the slain warriors with Odin getting the other half. Here it becomes apparent that she, like Odin, has attributes of a psychopomp, or purveyor of the dead. She was the next ‘highest’ goddess to Frigga and though she is sometime equated to Frigga, most researchers emphasize that they are different goddesses with different etymologies. Some of the information and inferences about Freyja come through “kennings” which are descriptive phrases, often compound words, in skaldic poetry. These work well to give attributes and correspondences. As a high-ranking goddess she often serves mead in Asgard. 

The word Freyja simply means ‘lady’ as Frey means ‘lord’. So we see that her name is her title. Some have speculated that the original lord and lady of Wicca are Frey and Freyja. Some of her kenning names are Mardoll (sea-bright), Syr (sow), Gefn (giver), Horn (flax?), Skjalf, Thrung, and Menglad (necklace-glad). She has been associated with Gullveig (gold-greed), Heid (the name of the volva, or seer, in the Voluspa), and Gefion as well. She is also called Vanadis, which may mean ‘lady of the Vanir’ or ‘Dis of the Vanir. The dis are female ancestors, usually in the form of ‘light elves’.

In Ynglingasaga, (History of the Kings of Norway) after the death of the gods in Ragnarok, she is said to have survived and kept up the sacrifices and due to these all women of rank thereafter were called Freyja.

She was known to have a magical falcon-feather-cloak which she lent to Loki on occasion. In the Lay of Hyndla she rides her lover Ottar transformed into the magical boar Hildisvini. She is also associated with cats. She dons the famed necklace ‘Brisingamen’ made by dwarves. She is associated with gold (Freyja’s tears).

Freyja is often associated with love and sex and was said to be fond of love songs and possibly bawdy songs as well. Traditions of lovers writing erotic love songs to one another – called mannsongr were thought to be so powerful that the Icelandic Christians outlawed them. Freyja is known for her “promiscuous” sexual activity in myths though the moral implications of such actions and what constitutes them in Norse society and myth seem to vary. She is said to have had sex with four dwarves in order to obtain Brisingamen. Loki accuses her of promiscuity and incest (astride her brother Frey) in the Lokasenna but it is unclear what is the crime as Njord says that such is no big deal and in the Heimskringla  Njord says that sibling intercourse is a custom among their tribes. These type of accusations against Freyja occur in the form of “flyting” which can be said to be true statements designed as hurtful insults that are sometimes put in a poetic framework. It should be noted that she is not accused so much with sex with multiple partners but of inappropriate sex. Freyja, as a goddess of fertility and sexuality, was consulted in all matters of sex, and presumably would have some say among the gods in how sex appropriateness was evaluated.

Freyja shares the battle-slain with Odin. This certainly suggests that she has aspects of a battle-goddess. Her association with boars also suggests this since boars are known symbols of battle among Germanic peoples. The boar she rides in the Lay of Hyndla is called Hildisvini, or “battle-swine.” In one saga Gondul is told by Odin to start a war to win back her necklace. Gondul is thought to refer to Freyja and is also used to refer to Valkyries. Thus, Freyja is sometimes thought of as a Valkyrie, ie. Valfreyja, though the author notes there is nothing in the written lore that identifies her as a valkyrie. The author notes that the valkyries are considered servants of Odin and lesser deities, often interwining in the world of humans. She considers Freyja as a goddess beyond this stature.  Freyja is also often associated with Gullveig, who precipitated the war between the Aesir and Vanir. The sacrificial kings of early Sweden may have been sacrificed to Freyja as Skjalf hangs Agni with her necklace. Thus it is likely that Freyja, like Hel, is a goddess of death. She is sometimes associated with the Dis, female elven ancestor-spirits. This is logical since her brother Frey is considered lord of the Alfar, the male elven ancestral spirits.

Freyja has long been considered patroness of magic, seidr, and witchcraft. In the Lokasenna, Loki accuses her, in a derogatory manner, of being a witch. Seidr is an ecstatic technique with shamanistic elements that was typically practiced by women in the Norse culture, though it was Freyja, who is said to have taught magic (seidr?) to Odin and the gods. Seidr was used for divination, battle magic, and likely many other things. The tradition of spae is very similar, sometimes considered a less elaborate form. The practice of utiseta, or sitting out, was also practiced, and is thought to be more like a personal vision quest. Freyja is said to have gone to Baldur’s funeral in a chariot drawn by cats and so cats are thought to have been a familiar spirit, or fetch, of Freyja. Though no texts label Freyja as a volva, or seer, her depictions as shapeshifter of herself and others strongly suggest it. Gullveig, sometimes thought to be Freyja, was able to return after passing through fire three times. Some have suggested this as some sort of shamanic initiation.

Chapter 5 is called “Gold, fertility, and the sea”. The daughters of Freyja, Hnoss and Gersimi are called treasures. Freyja, as well as all the Vanir, can be seen as wealth deities. Njord is a merchant god and clearly a sea god and Freyja has reference to the sea as well. In the myths the giants often demand Freyja as a reward which might be seen as demanding her wealth-giving attributes. In the Lay of Thrym, the giant Thrym, after stealing Thor’s hammer demands Freyja. Brisingamen may symbolize wealth, gold, and fertility. Some authors have equated the necklace as a long-standing universal symbol of the fertility of the mother-goddess, esp. in Indo-European formats. Even so, Freyja has never been considered a mother-goddess and H.R. Ellis Davidson has said there is little evidence of a mother-goddess figure in Scandinavian lore, though Frigga is sometimes considered to have some of those attributes. The author also notes Nerthus, sometimes thought to be Freyja’s mother, as an earth goddess, rather than a mother-goddess – though she is not real clear on what the difference is. Gold as well as flax for linen are thought to have been common offerings to Freyja. Some associate amber with her as well. Freyja has been compared to Venus and Aphrodite as a love goddess and some later attributes of her may have been influenced by them. A friend of mine pointed out some similarities of the girdle of Aphrodite to Brisingamen. Both also mated with smiths – Aphrodite with Hephaestus and Freyja with the dwarf goldsmiths. Freyja wept tears of gold. Especially when she searched for Od, or Odr (possibly Odin), her missing husband who never returned. The author makes a rather interesting speculation that Freyja takes her golden tears, shed from the loss of Odr, to the dwarves so that they can be transformed into the necklace. Both magicians and smiths are transformers of the raw into the refined. She suggests the power of Brisingamen as a union of the creative power of smithcraft and the creative power of sex. In this scenario of providing her tears and her sexuality, Freyja can be seen as a co-creator of the necklace. Gullveig too may have been forged in the fire.

Freyja has also been associated with fire. The story of Gullveig passing through fire is one way. Another is in the Lay of Hyndla where she calls down a ring of fire on a giantess. Fire is transformative and Freyja as goddess of magic and love and sex might also be seen as a goddess of transformation.

The author compares Freyja and Odin as deities of magic and possible mates as suggested by her husband Odr. She also compares Freyja and Frigga and their differences – Frigga being more associated with frith, the luck of the hall, social order, and domestic matters. Freyja (one of her by-names is Gefn) may also be related to the Danish goddess Gefion who also has a magic necklace given to her for favors, although she is said to be chaste, and as well a handmaiden of Frigga, so the author thinks this connection unlikely.

The author notes that Heimdall is seen as an ally and champion of Freyja and may even be a Vanic deity. Heimdall suggests “earth-bright” as Mardoll is “sea-bright”. Heimdall recovers Brisingamen by chasing Loki down and fighting him for it. Freyja is known as a friend of Thor but there is a likely adversarial relationship with Loki.

The author examines the Lay of Hyndla from the Poetic Edda. Here Freyja travels on the back of her human lover Ottar in the form of a boar and awakens and confronts a giantess in order to reveal the ancestry of Ottar and win a wager. Knowledge of family lineages was very important as was/is ancestor veneration. Here, like Odin, we see Freyja travelling to the otherworld and commanding a seeress. Freyja may be compelled to help Ottar for had made an altar to her and offered blood-sacrifices. He was said to sacrifice to her so much that she owed him a boon, as per the rules of gift-giving. This story also suggests that men were active in the cult of Freyja. Their travel to the land of the dead to wake the spirit of the giantess can be seen as a shamanistic event involving shapeshifting and possibly a witch riding the spirit of the man. The similarities to Odin’s Ride to Hel are not too few and this story can be interpreted similarly as shamanistic.

The author examines UPG (unverifiable person gnosis) attributions given to Freyja by herself and others. The whole idea of UPG is important for maintaining an authentic yet evolving type of pagan reconstructionism but there can be much disagreement. Interestingly, the author sees Freyja as a feminist “wild woman” given to danger and ecstatic forays. She is also seen as seductive and yet unpredictable. Her penchant for bawdy ballads might indicate an unruly nature as well. I might see her as a prototype of the archetype of Our Lady Babalon, whose egregore is less traditional and more dynamic. She too is seen as a patron of transformation and initiation. She too rides a beast. For me - I am not so much interested in worshipping gods as discovering what symbolic forms influence the psyche and our ideas and ideals.

Finally, the author suggests as topics for further study, comparisons of Freyja to Celtic goddesses and Roman goddesses as well as to beliefs of continental Germanic peoples and Anglo-Saxons who had more direct contact with Rome. Both of these peoples bordered Germanic lands. Recently I read a blurb of the similarity of Freyja and Brighid. If the IE root of Freyja’s name is pri – to love, then it is maybe a small step to Bri but such is speculative.   

Among the various appendices there is a list of source materials in the Eddas and sagas. There are some suggestions for modern worship such as seeing Frey and Freyja as fertility patrons of the Maypole rite and there is a sample blot to Freyja. There is a bibliography. Finally there is some poetry by the author, including a nice one about Freyja’s lament for her lost Odr.




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