For my second semester of freshman Honors English at Baylor, I had to write a paper over some definite aspect of the mythology of a specific culture. I chose Norse mythology and focused on the goddess Freyja. This is that paper. It looks at Freyja's connection to people in her time and in the present, and to goddesses of other pantheons, as well as other aspects of the goddess. Well, they say to node your homework...
Facets of Freyja
Freyja is the Norse goddess of Love, Beauty, and Warfare. It is through her liveliness and vitality that her beauty is displayed with typical Norse energy. Freyja has many facets; she is a lover, a nurturer, an avenger, a creator, and a destroyer. She is known by many names and possessed of many functions, but she has no equal among the pantheons of other cultures. Her independence reflects the situation of the Viking woman, and at the same time brings to mind the lack of constraint evident in modern women. Bill Moyers, while interviewing Joseph Campbell, stated that "Beauty is an expression of that rapture of being alive."1 It is truly the vivacity of Freyja through which she personifies not only beauty but also life itself.
The Norse have two pantheons: the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir make their home in Asgard, as do three of the Vanir who were traded as tribute after the legendary war between the Aesir and the Vanir: Freyja, her brother Freyr, and their father Njord.2 They are Earth deities, characterized by passion, ambition, rage, desire, and a tendency toward incest.3 Freyja is the most prominent of the Norse goddesses, although she is listed as the highest along with Frigga, the wife of Odin. Frigga, like many other goddesses, is portrayed primarily as a wife and mother. Sif, the wife of Thor, is noteworthy only because Loki cut off her hair as a joke and was then forced by Thor to procure hair of gold as a replacement. Nanna's significance is limited to her faithfully following her husband, Baldur, to the underworld, and Sigyn's only noteworthy function is holding a bowl over her husband Loki's head to catch dripping poison.4 Two individual goddesses, Gefjon and Iduna, also figure into Norse legend; Gefjon is the patroness of virgins, and Iduna is the goddess of youth from whom the apples of youth are stolen.5
Freyja's importance is visible in the variety of her functions. She is the goddess of fertility of the earth and of people, and she is invoked along with Frigga by women in childbirth.6 She is portrayed as the leader of the Disir ("women"), a group of minor unnamed deities who are invoked in matters of the heart.7 However, Freyja seems more connected with matters of lust than of emotional love. She is notoriously loose of morals, and is portrayed as having slept with virtually every male she comes across, including her own brother.8 This type of sexual love was classified by Joseph Campbell as separate from romantic love. In The Power of Myth, he stated that "Before [the troubadours in the 12th century] love was simply Eros... the biological urge. It's the zeal of the organs for each other. The personal factor doesn't matter."9
Freyja's other primary function could not be more different from her role as love goddess. Freyja was also the goddess of battle. Half of all those slain in war would be taken by Odin to Valhalla ("hall of the slain"), but the other half would go to stay with Freyja in her hall, Folkvangar ("field of folk").10 In this capacity, Freyja is often associated with the Valkyries ("choosers of the slain").11 It is unclear whether the Valkyries do the actual choosing, or merely carry out the bidding of Odin and Freyja.
Freyja is also associated with magic. She is a practitioner of 'seiðr', for which she is both lauded and derided. She is said to have shared her knowledge of seiðr with Odin.12 When Freyja arrived with her father and brother, the gods of Asgard assigned them roles as sacrificial priests and priestess.13 Some legends destine Freyja to be the last of the gods alive, and place on her the responsibility of continuing to make the sacrifices.14
Freyja has many names as well as many duties. Her name translates simply as "Lady," and her brother, Freyr, translates as "Lord." Because of this, it is possible that both names are merely titles, and the true names of the twin gods have been obscured.15 An excuse for Freyja's abundance of names is that she assumed strange names in the strange places she traveled through when wondering the world in search of her husband, Odr.16 She is sometimes called "Mardoll," which combines "marr" (sea) with "doll" (from "dallr" - shining), which is a possible association with her shining gold necklace, the Brisingamen. Freyja is also referred to as "Horn" or "Harn," probably taken from the word "harr," which means flax or linen. Flax was often called "the seed of the woman" because it fell primarily under the jurisdiction of the woman. Another name that adds to the confusion surrounding Freyja is "Gefn" (giving) because of its equivalence to a distinct goddess, Gefjon. Although it is certain that this term is sometimes used for Freyja, it is equally certain that there is also a separate goddess by that name, different from Freyja in that Gefjon is a virgin goddess. A name perhaps stemming from Freyja's fertility duties, "Syr" means "the sow"; however, some prefer to attribute the name to the word swer or ser, meaning "to protect" or "to shield." Other names include Drungva (from "dra", meaning "pining", in reference to Freyja's search for her husband) and Menglod ("the One who is gladdened by adornment") in reference to Brisingamen. A simpler and more easily recognizable appellation is "Vanadis": "the woman of the Vanir."
This multitude of titles makes it somewhat confusing to distinguish who Freyja really is. One theory is that Freyja originated in the same goddess as Frigga, and that the two split apart in subsequent tradition. A primary reason for this is their common association with Odin. While Frigga is cited as Odin's wife, Freyja is referred to both as "Odin's bed-friend" and "Odin's maid."17 This situation may be a reflection of the Norse practice of polygamy. Although Norse royalty often had multiple wives, it was more common for a man to have one wife and several concubines.18 Freyja is not, however, referred to as the wife of Odin, and though she is said to be married to a man named Odr (a form of the name Odin), she is often coveted by the giants as if she were available.19 A very glaring difference can be found between Frigga and Freyja in that Frigga is of the Aesir and Freyja is of the Vanir.20 Frigga is also not associated with magic, nor is her name used in kennings for gold as Freyja's is.
Further confusion is caused by similar myths involving Freyja and Frigga. In the myth centered on Freyja,21 four dwarves create a beautiful gold necklace called the Brisingamen, which means "necklace of flames." Once Freyja beholds the necklace, she is completely besotted and must have it. She offers the dwarves copious amounts of gold and silver, but they refuse to sell her the necklace at any price. Frustrated, she asks them what they will take in exchange for it. They request that she spend one night with each of them. It is unclear as to whether the notoriously promiscuous Freyja enjoyed sharing her body with the dwarves, or whether because of their baseness she felt distaste toward them and succumbed only because of her longing for the necklace. Whether the price was dear or not, Freyja paid it, and claimed the beautiful Brisingamen as her prize. Loki, the trickster, witnessed these events and told Odin about his mistress' escapades. Furiously, the slighted lover and king of the gods orders Loki to steal the necklace from Freyja, which the trickster does. To get it back, Freyja must start an everlasting war, one in which the warriors hack each other to pieces and then return to life to continue fighting. Freyja earns her symbol, the Brisingamen, though fulfillment of her two functions: love and war.
The account of Frigga's bartering of her body for jewelry is not very different. According to the myth, Frigga prostituted herself to a servant so that he would steal gold form the statue of Odin for her jewelry. When Odin learns of this, he leaves in anger, insulted by the irreverence to his image and the infidelity of his wife.22 The parallels between the two stories (gold for jewelry, unfaithfulness to Odin with a being/beings of lower status) are very strong, but the disparities are enough to allow the possibility of a legitimate second story. A distinct story about a separate goddess becomes even more plausible when another Frigga story is considered. According to another myth, Odin once stole a necklace from Frigga (possibly the Brisingamen) and used it to adorn his statue. Her handmaiden, Fulla, with the help of an elf, broke the statue and reclaimed the necklace.23
All three stories could possibly have stemmed form the same account. All tell of gold jewelry, with two distinctly describing necklaces. All recount enmity with Odin. If Freyja and Frigga were once the same goddess, perhaps the story originated before the split and took different directions afterward. If the original account was that of a goddess using her body to bargain with a servant, it is conceivable that this relationship took the innocent form of a faithful servant and mistress in the tale of the serene Frigga and the more exaggeratedly grotesque form of four dwarves and an object of lust in the tale of wild Freyja. Some modern interpreters have stretched the repulsiveness of Freyja's tale even further. One such tale is that of Thorskegga Thorn, in which she describes the different types of unpleasantness Freyja must undergo with each dwarf and special gifts she is awarded by them in return.24
In the account of Freyja's acquisition of the Brisingamen, perhaps the theme of a feminine penchant for shiny objects is used to explore the duality of Freyja's patronage. The female tendency to display weakness is apparent in myths from many cultures. In the Hebrew creation account, it is Eve, the woman, who gives into temptation and first tastes the forbidden fruit.25 In the Indian epic The Ramayana, the avatar representing the ideal female develops an unquenchable desire to possess a golden bejeweled deer.26 Perhaps it was also the desire for treasure that prompted Pandora to open her infamous box, although the common theory is that curiosity is to blame.27 The feminine penchant for that which is highly reflective, when incorporated into the myth of the Brisingamen, is the connective means between Freyja's aspects of Goddess of Love and Goddess of War.
This duality of Freyja's nature seems like a study in contrasts, but according to Joseph Campbell, "The god of death is at the same time the lord of sex." He cites the Haitian Voodoo god Ghede, the god of both sex and death, and the Egyptian god Osiris, the lord of the dead and of regeneration of life, as examples.28 Freyja appears to exhibit this phenomenon as well, and the myth of the Brisingamen portrays the utilization of her powers of both sexual love and warmongering. This duality is also often depicted in female forms because women, being child bearers, represent life.29 Life itself is a duality, consisting of creation and destruction, of birth and death. Sexual intercourse is a process of creation and leads to birth, while warfare is a process of destruction, which leads to death. In the Brisingamen myth, Freyja participates in both activities.
Though the version of the myth in which Freyja acquires the Brisingamen may not be the earliest version of the tale, it is still an important one in representing the character of the Norse goddess. To acquire the necklace, Freyja invokes her powers as the goddess of love and beauty, and to regain it after its theft, she enlists her powers as the goddess of warfare. Her feminine avarice forms a link between creation and destruction, and her story forms an abstract correlation to human life: an act of love brings a new human into the world, the human acquires possessions, and eventually dies.
A story told in Greek mythology echoes the themes of greed, love, and war. To convince Paris to name her the Most Beautiful Goddess and award her a golden apple, Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love) promises him the most beautiful woman in the world as his bride. When he accepts her offer, the transference of Helen of Troy to his possession spurs the Trojan War.30 This story also shows the greed and vanity of a goddess causing terrible destruction for humans.
The philosophies of both the Greeks and Vikings were founded in human nature, and Greeks, too, had a tendency to see women as beautiful, frivolous, and untrustworthy.31 Although none of the Greek goddesses are Freyja's parallel, many of them share characteristics with her. The most prominent of these is Aphrodite, who is also a love-goddess and is known for her promiscuity. Though she is not a war-goddess, she is known to be the lover of the Greek war-god, Ares, and has been recorded as spurring him in his pursuits despite his cowardice.32 Aphrodite's Roman name, Venus, comes from the same root word as Freyja's family title, Vanir, from "wen/ven" meaning "pleasure" or "joy", further linking the two goddesses.33
The Greek battle goddess, Athena, shares her patronage of warfare with Freyja, but is known also for her wisdom and virginity, neither of which is associated with Freyja.34 Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, shares functions with Freyja as well. Both are known to be protectresses of the young and bestowers of painless deaths to women. Artemis, however, is also a virgin goddess.35 Lifelong virginity is not lauded in Viking legends as it is in Greek, perhaps because alliances made through marriage were very important.36 Although the Greek Hera, known primarily as the jealous wife of Zeus, is much more like Frigga than like Freyja, the Roman version of the queen-goddess, Juno, shares patronage of childbirth, fertility, war, and royalty.37
The Phrygian goddess Cybele is, like Freyja, a fertility goddess, and she, too, is known to ride in a chariot drawn by cats.38 However, Cybele's Greek parallel, the harvest-goddess Demeter (Roman Ceres), shares the search-motif with Freyja. Demeter is told to have wandered the earth searching for her daughter, Persephone (the goddess of the underworld), who had been stolen by Hades (the god of the underworld), just as Freyja searches for her wandering husband.39
The women living during the Viking era would certainly have identified with Freyja. Their husbands, too, would be away often on raids, leaving them solely responsible for the farm and the land.40 Women could also own their own land. If man had no son, brother, or father, but did have an unmarried daughter, she would inherit as a son.41 A woman owning her own land could be termed a "freyja" after the goddess, and a woman who owned her own house would be called a "husfreyja."42 Viking women had more freedom and powers than their Christian counterparts did, and Norse women did not even take on their husband's name after marriage until the 18th century.43
Pride and confidence were considered valuable attributes in a Viking woman, perhaps because these traits could be passed on to her sons. However, after she was married, the Viking woman would be expected to become wholly feminine.44 Women were usually (although not always) exempt from feud violence, but they were not exempt from being outlawed or executed for crimes.45 Often it was the women of a family who would incite the men to violence with the purpose of revenging wrongs and protecting the honor of the family.46
Viking sagas contain many tales of these fierce and imperious women. Like Freyja, they are shown having power over their own betrothals, marriages, and divorces.47 When Loki told Freyja that she must marry a giant in exchange for the return of Thor's hammer, she refused and a different solution was found.48 Norse women are also often portrayed as promiscuous in accounts of Nordic people written by foreigners. A poet, philosopher, and diplomat from 9th-century Andalusia named Al-Ghazal wrote an account claiming that "none of their women would refuse herself to a man, unless a low-born man accompanied a nobly-born woman, on account of which she would be disgraced, and her family would keep them apart."49 This would point to the status difference between Freyja and the dwarves as the reasons her actions were considered so distasteful. Ibn Fadlan, a Muslim ambassador, also cited lax Norse views toward sexuality. His records claim that the Viking men would have intercourse with their slave girls in public, and that the king would not even leave his throne to enjoy his concubines.50
These views toward women and sexuality changed greatly under the influence of Christianity. The ideal woman became not the spirited Freyja, whom the Christian church termed a "harlot" and a "whore," but the meek and mild Virgin Mary, who also assumed many of the goddess's functions, such as patronage of childbirth.51 Christianity also brought with it the idea that deities should be imitated, and their perfect, omnipotent and omniscient God, who could see into human hearts and judge attitudes as well as actions, won the faith of many Norse from the fallible, human-like gods.52
Today, however, there are an increasing number of people who are turning back to the Old Norse deities. This practice is called "Asatru" (true to the Aesir) and is classed as one of the neo-Pagan religions, which include the worship of gods from other ancient cultures and Wicca, although many followers of Asatru prefer to be classified simply as "heathen" or "pagan." 53 Worship of the Norse pantheon has been growing steadily since the 1970s in the Norse countries, Europe, and North America.54 This may have something to do with the sexual revolution, the philosophies of which match Freyja's freedom more than the Christian Mary's virginity.
Perhaps modern individualists find it easier to relate to the human nature of the Norse gods than the perfection of the Christian God. However, whether viewed as a goddess or a mere mythical character, Freyja's enchanting energy shines through. She is human in her desire for gold, determined as she stands up for herself against Odin and Loki, and generous to host half of the battle-slain in her hall. She is a goddess of war, of love, and of life, but it is her liveliness that gives her the great beauty, which she emanates while fulfilling all of her many functions.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1988), 283.
Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Norse Myths (London, England: André Deutsch Limited, 1980), 8.
Thomas A. DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 54-55.
Britt-Mari Näsström, Freyja - the Great Goddess of the North (Lund, Sweden: Novapress, 1995), 149.
R. I. Page, Norse Myths (Great Britain: The Bath Press, Avon, 1990), 61.
Näsström, Freyja, the Great Goddess of the North, 149.
Näsström, Freyja, the Great Goddess of the North, 97.
Näsström, Freyja, the Great Goddess of the North, 81.
All names and meanings in paragraph from: Britt-Mari Näsström, "Freyja - A Goddess With Many Names," in The Concept of the Goddess, eds. Sandra Billington and Miranda Green (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), 68-77.
Stephan Grundy, "Freyja and Frigg," in The Concept of the Goddess, eds. Sandra Billington and Miranda Green (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), 56-67.
Eric Oxenstierna, The Norsemen (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society Publishers, Ltd., 1965), 211.
Following composed from myths cited in Crossley-Holland, 65-69, 201-204, and Merlin Stone, Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1979), 341-343.
Thorskegga Thorn, "Brisingamen" (Thorshof [May 4, 2001]) available from http://www.thorshof.org/brisskeg.htm.
The Teen Study Bible [New International Version], (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), Genesis 3:1-6.
R. K. Narayan, The Ramayana (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1972), 62-63.
Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York, NY: Meridian, 1940), 70.
Sveinbjorn Johnson, "Old Norse and Ancient Greek Ideals," Ethics 49.1 (Oct. 1938): 18-36.
"wen-," (Dictionary.com [May 5, 2001]) available from http://www.dictionary.com/cgi-bin/dict.pl?term=venus).
Birgit and Peter Sawyer, Medieval Scandinavia (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 201.
Näsström, Freyja - a Goddess With Many Names, 93.
Carol J. Clover, "Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe," Representations 0.44 (1993): 1-28.
Näsström, Freyja - a Goddess With Many Names, 81.
Näsström, Freyja - a Goddess With Many Names, 89.
Judith Jesch, Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1991), 94.
Näsström, Freyja - a Goddess With Many Names, 21.
DuBois, 55, 68.
B. A. Robinson, "Asatru (Norse Heathenism)" (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, Nov. 19, 2000 [May 4, 2001]) available from http://www.religioustolerance.org/asatru.htm.