Freya the Beautiful, Lady of the Vanir
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Gods and Myths of the Viking Age - The Goddess Freya by H. R. Ellis Davidson

Goddess Freya, Mistress of Seidr

When Snorri first introduced Freya into his account of Asgard, he declared that she was the most renowned of the goddesses, and that she alone of the gods yet lived. This implies that he knew something of her worship continuing into his own day in Scandinavia, and it is well known that fertility cults die hard, particularly in remote country districts. The impressive list of places called after Freya, especially in south Sweden and southwest Norway, shows that Snorri's estimate was no idle one. There is no case for assuming her to be a mere intervention of the poets.

Freya was called the goddess or bride of the Vanir, and one of Loki's scandalous assertions was that she had loved dealings with her brother Frey. Snorri puts the matter differently: he tells us that brother and sister marriages were customary among the Vanir, and that Frey and Freya were the children of Njord and his unnamed sister (possibly Nerthus). Freya was associated with love affairs between men and women, and it was said to be good to call on her for help in such cases. Loki accused her of taking all the gods and elves for lovers, while the giantess Hymdla taunted her with roaming out at night like a she-goat among the bucks. A similar insulting comparison was made by an early Christian poet in Iceland, who coupled her name with old, and called her a bitch. However, no stories of unseemly behavior by Freya have survived, with the exception of a late account in Flateyjarbok of how she won her necklace by sleeping one night in turn with each of the four dwarves who forged it. There are several cases of giants who want to carry her off, but she does not seem to have given them any encouragement. However, the jokes made in Prymskevioa about Freya's eagerness for the bridal night, which, according to Loki, had given her an amazing appetite and burning eyes, fit in with the general picture, and confirm the idea that ritual marriage formed some part of the rites of her cult.

Freya is not concerned only with human love. She seems to have had some authority in the world of death. In Egils Saga the hero's daughter, a young woman called Thorgerda, threatened to commit suicide after her brother was killed, and declared "I shall take no food until I sup with Freya". In Grimnismal is even stated that Freya receives some of those who died in battle; she has half the slain who fall each day, while half go to Odin. Like Frigg she is pictured as a weeping goddess, and her tears are said to be of gold, a favorite image of the early poets. Why she weeps is not very clear. Snorri says that she searches for her lost husband Od, but gives no details. One would expect that this is a memory of the goddess seeking for the slain god of fertility.

According to Snorri, Freya had many names. Gefn, as we saw, expresses her character as a giver, and links her with the Danish Gefion. Another name, Mardoll, suggests a connection with the sea (marr). Syr, 'sow', reminds us that the boar symbol belonged to her as well as to Frey. Horn is another of her names which occurs in place names in east Sweden, and may be connected with horr, 'flax', indicating a special local variant of the cult of the vegetation goddess. Another possible name used in poetry is Skialf, a name of an early queen of Sweden, married to King Agni, who had a boar helmet and was presumably a worshiper of the Vanir. Skialf is said to have killed him with the aid of a necklace, and this story is one of those which have them thought to imply a tradition of sacrificial death among the early kings of Sweden.

A necklace is the ornament connected with Freya, if we are right in assuming that her most cherished possession, the Brisingamen, was worn round the neck. It has been suggested that it was a girdle, and again that it was a piece of amber, but the word ‘men’ is in general used of a woman's ornament worn at the neck, and what we hear about it in the later sources fits in with this interpretation. There appears to be some connection also with a treasure called the Brosingamene mentioned in the old English Beowulf, which is assumed to have been a kind of necklace or collar. The meaning of the name has not been explained and we do not know whether it was based on a family or tribal name, ‘the necklace of the Brisings', or whether the reference is to the brightness of the ornament, from a rare form brisingr, 'fire'. A necklace is something which is associated with the mother Goddess from very early times. Figurines wearing necklaces found in the Mediterranean area date back as far as 3000 B.C., and small female figures wearing them have survived from the Bronze Age in Denmark and are thought to represent a fertility deity.

We are told also that Freya possesses a 'feather' or 'falcon' shape. This is mentioned several times in the myths, and is once attributed to Frigg also. Although in Snorri and in Prymskvioa it is represented as a kind of flying costume which Loki borrows, there can be little doubt that the original conception was a serious one: Freya was believed to take on the form of a bird and to travel over vast distances, as Odin and Loki were also able to do.

Freya's name is specifically linked by Snorri with a special kind of witchcraft known as seidr, for he states that she was a priestess of the Vanir who first taught this knowledge to the AEsir. We know a great deal about seidr from prose sources, and it forms an interesting clue to the nature of her cult. The essentials for performing it with the erection of a platform or lofty seat on which the leading practitioners sat, the singing of spells, and the falling into a state of ecstasy by this leader, who is generally a woman, and has called a volva. Sometimes the volva was supported by a large company, who acted as acquire 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 season and the hope of plenty, 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 sagas to denote someone with special mantic gifts, a seeress or soothsayer.

We are told more than once that seeresses of this kind used to travel about the land to visit the farms and be present at feasts, and that they would give replies to those who inquired of them. The best known accounts of the visit of such a woman to a farm is given in Eiriks Saga Rauoa and is said to have taken place in the Icelandic settlement in Greenland. It has been questioned whether such practices did in fact take place in Greenland at so late a date, but the account of the costume, equipment, and behavior of the volva has in any case aroused great interest, because it offers so detailed and remarkable a parallel to that of shamans and shamankas of recent times who have been observed and described by travelers and anthropologists in northeastern Europe and Asia. This resemblance helps us to understand better the nature of the ceremonies, while it also strengthens the case for the reliability of saga evidence for rites and customs.

As practiced in Northern Europe and Asia, shamanism is the practice of divination by a professional class of highly trained seers, both men and women. The shaman acts as intermediary between the world of men and gods, and has the power to descend into the realms of the dead. His spirit is believed to journey forth from his body, which remains in a state of trance. Sometimes the long journey which it takes is described by him in a chant. Sometimes he induces the condition of ecstasy by beating his drum or by an elaborate and exciting dance. His actions and his costumes symbolized the inner meaning of the ceremonies in which he takes part. The costume is usually made of animal skins, birds’ feathers, and metal likenesses of creatures of the animal world, and sometimes it's modeled on some particular creature, such as a bear or a bird. While in his trance, the shaman is believed to be helped or hindered by animal spirits, and many imitate the voices of these creatures with great effect. Sometimes his ascent of the heavens is symbolized by the climbing of a ladder or a tree, and sometimes he is said to ride up to the sky on the back of a goose. The purpose of the ceremony is usually to find the answer to some question of importance for the community, such as the reason for a dearth of food, or an epidemic. Alternatively it may be to heal some sick person, in which case it may be necessary for the shaman’s spirit to pursue the soul of a sick man down into the underworld and to overcome by his superior powers the hostile spirits trying to prevent it from returning to the body. The shaman may also reply to individual questions put to him by members of the audience.

We are told in the account of Eriks Saga that the volva wore a costume of animal skins, including boots of calfskin and gloves of catskin, and also that a sacrificial meal was prepared for her from the hearts of all living creatures obtainable. She sat on a kind of platform high above the audience, upon a cushion stuffed with hen's feathers. She asked that someone should be found to sing the spell necessary for the ceremony, and after some search a young Christian woman admitted that she learned it when a child, and was persuaded to sing it. The volva told her afterwards that her singing was so successful that many spirits thronged to hear, and thus she learned from them the hidden things which men wished to know. After the main ceremony was over, she replied to the most important question, which was whether the famine afflicting the community would soon end. She also predicted the destiny of the girl who sang the spell, and told her what her fortunes in marriage would be. Finally men and women went up to put individual queries to her, and received wise answers; in fact 'little that she said went unfulfilled'.

In this account, and in a number of less detailed ones scattered through the sagas, there is much in common with accounts of shamanistic ceremonies described by modern anthropologists. The journey of the shaman’s spirit may not be a feature mentioned in the saga narratives, but on the other hand it seems to be implied in the poems. Some poems, like Voluspa (literally, 'Soothsaying of the Volva') are presented as the utterances of a seeress, revealing what is hidden from men. There are also a number of descriptions of supernatural journeys through terrible cold and darkness and barriers of fire into the 'other world', and these are in accordance with the fearful experiences of the shaman’s spirit described elsewhere. It seems established that some form of shamanistic practice with so widespread in the heathen North as to have left a considerable impact on the literature.

All this is relevant to a study of the cult of Freya. As we have seen, she is said to have been an expert on seidr, and to have introduced it. She could take on bird-form, which meant that she could journey far in some shape other than human. As goddess of the Vanir, the prosperity of the community and marriages of young people were within her province, and these were precisely the subjects on which the volva used to be consulted. The volva too were accustomed to journey round the countryside and be present at feasts just as Freya's brother, Frey, was said to do. Like Frey, such women were asked to foretell the coming season. We are told of one volva in Landnamabok who is even said to have worked seidr so that a sound should fill with fish, which means that she took an active part in the bringing of plenty to the land. This seeresses also appear to have for told the destiny of children. In the story of Norna-Gest, included in Flateyjarbok, there is a reference to this:

At that time the 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.

The women in this story were seated when they made their prophecies, since when the people crowded round them, one of them was pushed off her seat, and was very angry. Here then we have memories of a custom which offers us a link with the Mothers and the Parcae. The volva in Greenland who is described in such detail was said to be the last survivor of a company of nine women, and the sagas elsewhere represent the seeresses as going about in groups. Possibly at an earlier time than that represented in the sagas, isolated seeresses were less common, and women were not left to conduct ceremonies alone until the organization had broken down a link to the weakening of the old traditions. Such is the state of affairs implied in the story of the Greenland ceremony.

The use of animal fur in the costume of the volva links up with the statement made by Snorri that Freya traveled in a carriage drawn by cats. The link between cats and the goddess has not been satisfactorily explained, but the gloves made of catskin, white and furry inside, mentioned in the Greenland account, suggests that cats were among the animal spirits which would aid the volva on her supernatural journey. We may note further that in a consultation of a volva described in Vatnsdoela Saga, she prophesies is to a young man in the audience in the name of Frey, and tells Ingimund that it is the god's will that he go to Iceland. Thus at least in the mind of the saga-teller there was some kind of link between such practices and the cult of the Vanir.

When we find hints that at one time seidr was also practiced by men, we may remember the traditional ceremonies, said to be of a shameful nature, associated with Frey. One of Harald Fairhair’s sons, called Ragnvald, was said to have worked seidr with a company of 80 followers. His descendent Eyvind also did seidr, but it is clear that there was great hostility against these two men, and both were killed in the end by members of their own family, and were condemned in Snorri's Heimskringla for their wickedness. Such practices in early heathen times seem to be associated then with both the male and female deities of the Vanir. The connection between women and divination however seems to have been established early among the Germans. Tacitus in his Histories refers to a young woman called Veleda among the Bructeri, who was a seeress secluded in a tower, from which she gave answer to inquirers by means of a relative, who interpreted her replies. He has an interesting comment on this. It was the custom, he says, of the Germans to regard women as endowed with the gift of prophecy, and 'even as Goddesses'.

What we know about the practice of seidr may throw some light on the divination associated with the deity in the wagon. The seeresses who traveled alone or in companies and what round two farms in Norway and Iceland may have been the final representatives of the fertility goddess in the north, the deity who, according to Snorri, survived last of all the gods. Here too we may see a link with the widespread cult of the Mothers in earlier times, the appeal to female deities whose blessing on newborn children insured their happiness in life. We have evidence here for rites in which women were able to participate fully, both as celebrants and as audience, rites bound up with the fertility of the land and also with the rearing of a family and the giving of young girls in marriage. Frigg and Freya appeared to be concerned in some way with such rites; both at times appear as the beneficent goddess helping women and girls at the times of marriage and childbirth as well as shaping the destiny of children.

There is little doubt that there was a darker side to seidr and all that it represented. It could include harmful magic, dealing out death to its victims, and this aspect of it in the sagas is more than once found in conjunction with the horse cult, which we know to be connected with the Vanir. One of the early Kings of Sweden was said to have been crushed to death by a seiokona who took on the form of a horse. According to Landnamabok, a woman skilled in witchcraft was brought to trial in Iceland for 'riding' a man to death in a similar way. The story is expanded in Eyrbyggja Saga, where the picture of the witch is an evil and menacing one. Memories of this evil cult lived on for many years. An English chronicle of the 12th century states that the wife of King Edgar was accused of witchcraft, and that she was accustomed to take on the form of a horse by her magic arts, and was seen by a bishop 'running and leaping hither and thither with horses and showing herself shamelessly to them'. This may be unreliable evidence for the character of a historic queen, but it is significant that an accusation of witchcraft should be expressed in this particular form. It recalls the accusation against Freya herself, that she strayed out at night like she-goat among the bucks. Hints such as this build up a vague but unpleasant picture of the malignant powers and repulsive practices of some women connected with the cult of the Vanir, and they may help to explain the strong prejudiced against eating horseflesh which is survived in this country.

The goddess of the Vanir seems to have flourished under different names in various parts of Scandinavia. In the north we have the arresting but confused set of traditions concerning Thorgerda Holgabruor, who was worshiped with passionate devotion by Jarl Hakon of Halogaland, and was known as his wife. She appears to be linked with the Vanir, and her image stood in some temples. King Olaf in Flateyjarbok is said to have dragged her out along with Frey, and to have insulted her by pulling her along at the tail of his horse. In Saxo she is said to be one of the 'wives of the kinsfolk’ of Frey, and to have been put into a brothel along with her companions. Thorgerda in the later sagas is represented as consorting with trolls and evil creatures of all kinds, and there is no doubt of the hostility with which she was regarded, and of the sinister light which played around her cult for the storytellers of the Christian a age.

Frigg has been left almost wholly free from such aspersions, and yet there is little doubt that Frigg and Freya are closely connected. As the weeping mother, the goddess associated with childbirth and linked with the benevolent Mothers, Frigg appears to have her ruts in the Vanir cult. The two main goddesses of Asgard indeed suggest two aspects of the same divinity, and this is paralleled by the twofold aspect of the fertility goddess in the Near East, appearing as mother and has lover. Sometimes both roles may be combined in the person of one goddess, but it is more usual for the different aspects to be personified under different names. It is even possible to recognize a triad of goddesses, such as Asherah, Astarte, and Anat of Syria, or Hera, Aphrodite, and Artemis of Greece. Here are the three main aspects of womanhood appear side-by-side and his wife and mother, lover and mistress, chaste and beautiful virgin. Frigg and Freya in Northern mythology could figure as the first two of such a trio, while dim figure of Skadi the huntress might once have occupied the vacant place.

Even in the late sources which are all that remain, it is easy to discern two distinct sides of the cult of the goddess of the Vanir. One was connected with marriage, the family, and the birth of children. This appears to have been eminently respectable and the visits of the seeresses to the families and groups of neighbors in Scandinavia would seem to have been its latest manifestation. Side by side with these reputable practices -- which the storytellers do not shrink from recording -- there were others which Saxo and other Christian writers refer to with horror and loathing, and condemn in terms which single them out from other heathen rites. These have only been preserved in hints and garbled accounts, and the hostility felt towards them does not seem to be wholly due to Christian prejudices. The ambivalent nature of the fertility goddess is something familiar to us from what we know of Cybele and Isis in the Roman world, as well as the rich pageant of the Near Eastern deities, and it may help us to understand more of the nature of Frigg and Freya in Asgard.

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