Freya the Beautiful, Lady of the Vanir
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Goddess of Love, Beauty, and War
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Freyja - A Goddess With Many Names by Britt-Mari Näsström

Grét ok at Óði
gulli Freyja.
Heiti eru hennar
Horn ok þrungva,
Sýr, Skjalf och Gefn
ok hít sama Mardoll

Freyja cried (tears of) gold for Óðr. Her names are Horn and þrungva, Sýr, Skjalf and Gefn and also Mardoll.

Goddess Freya has many names

This enumeration belongs to the supplement of Skáldskaparmál, usually called þulur, which had the purpose of supplying poets with appropriate synonyms for the gods (Snorri/Jónsson 1926:199). Snorri further explains these names in Gylfaginning, where he says that Freyja is married to a certain Óðr. When her husband went away on long and dangerous journeys Freyja cried tears of red gold for him. She did not, however, sit inactively mourning her husband, but searched for him among many people, and therefore she wore a lot of names (Snorri/Lorenz 1984:34).

Óðr is described as Freyja’s husband not only in Snorri’s text, but also in Skáldskaparmál (1926:120) and in Voluspá as Óðs mey (Eddadikte/Helgason 1971:I, 7), while in skaldic poetry we find the kenning augna regn Óðs bedvinu (rain from the eye of Óðr’s wife), which again alludes to Freyja’s tears of pure gold (Egilsson 1966:39).

In other contexts such as Sorla þáttr and Sólarljóð we find Freyja connected with Óðinn, which is sometimes understood as a late phase of the religious development when she took over the position of Frigg. The difference between the two goddesses is, however, blurred in the myths, where we find that both are given the quality of licentiousness1, especially combined with greediness for gold and precious jewellery. Today, there are also more concrete associations between them, like the name of the flower Galium verum, which was variously called Freyja gräs and still is named Friggjar gras in modern Icelandic; and the constellation Orion’s belt, known originally as Frigge-rocken or Freyja-rocken respectively, i.e. the spinning wheel of the goddesses. There is, though, less doubt that Óðinn and Óðr were originally one and the same person. The names derive from the noun óðr, with various meanings such as ‘agitation’, ‘skill in poetry’, ‘poetry’, ‘intellect’ and ‘ecstasy’. By contrast, the adjective óðr, means ‘furious’, ‘mad’, ‘terrible’, even ‘mentally disordered’. To sum up, the word conveys an extraordinary mental condition, strongly deviating from normal or everyday behaviour, in either a favourable or a pejorative sense. This is obvious in Hyndluljóð (Eddadikte/Helgason 1971:II, 88) where the variant æði was emended by Bugge to Óði and in the same strophe also eðlvina to Óðs vina (Bugge 1883:264). These emendations thus gave two other examples of Óðr as Freyja’s husband. However, what Bugge reads as a lectio difficilior, oeði and eðlvina, should in my opinion be interpreted in their original form, æði, oeði meaning raging; here in the special sense of oestrous, which would agree with the following line about the goat Heiðrún in heat. The strophe should, accordingly, be interpreted as:

Rant at æði, ey þreyandi, skutuz þér fleiri und fyrirskyrtu, hleypr þú, eðlvina, úti á náttum sem með hofrum Heiðrún fari.

You ran ever yearning in lechery, under the front of your shirt still others have crept. You ran in heat, my lustful friend, as Heiðrún with the he-goats in the night.

Perhaps the philologists of the nineteenth century were misled by their romantic intentions, when they put forward the existence of Óðr in the poem. Before leaving the problem of Óðr-Óðinn, which is closely connected with Freyja and her many names, we must ask why Snorri used the short form Óðr, thus inventing a husband for Freyja. Among many explanations, L.M.Hollander draws a parallel with the story of Cupid and Psyche, where he argued that their roles had become inverted in the Nordic interpretation: i.e. óðr (soul) represented the male, whereas Freyja, or rather Frija—deriving from fría (to love)—was the female (Hollander 1950:304–8). His argument that the motifs of Freyja’s longing and tears were too sentimental to have risen from the Nordic temperament and therefore must be a borrowing from classical mythology is not convincing. Although we know that Snorri was influenced by the twelfth-century Latin Platonists, especially concerning the myths (Dronke & Dronke 1977:171–6; Ross 1987:14), it seems a little hazardous to presume some philosophical speculation concerning ‘soul’ and ‘love’ in his brief notices about Óðr and Freyja. It is more likely that he and earlier mythographers separated Óðinn from Freyja, leaving the short-form Óðr as her partner.

In this case, as in that of Freyja’s many different names, we are dealing with the problem of the difference between mythology as a learned construction, and the cult as it was experienced by the people. From other religions we know that the same god or goddess could appear under different names, usually owing to the fact that he or she once had a by-name, which related to a cult-place or a specific function. The Greek god Apollo, originating from Asia Minor, had many such by-names—as, for example, Epikouros (the Helper), which later appears as an independent god. The reverse development is found in the personification of the healing-hymn, the Paian, a god in the Greek-ruled Knossos, who appears as such in the Iliad but was later identical with Apollo (Burkert 1985:145). The great goddesses of the eastern Mediterranean in particular carried many different names in different areas—as, for example, the Phrygian Kybele, who appeared under the names of Artemis and Rhea in the major cities of the west coast of Asia Minor, while the Romans called her Magna Mater, and the Gauls Berecynthia, among other names (Näsström 1990:40–5). In many cases it is fruitless to search for the original name behind specific variants; we are only able to call attention to the fact that one god or goddess could appear under different names in different places, whereas their function and attributes are the same.

Freyja’s name Mardoll/Marþoll appears in kenningar for gold: for example, Mardallar tár (Mardoll’s tears); þárs Mardallar, Mardallar grátr (Mardoll’s weeping); Mardallar hvarma fagrregn (the fair rain of Mardoll’s eyelids) (Egilsson 1966:393). The name has been interpreted as a compound of marr- (sea) and -doll or -þoll, where -doll is probably a feminine form of -dallr, meaning ‘the shining’ (Snorri/Lorenz 1984:440; Turville-Petre 1964:153). ‘The One shining over the sea’ could imply a connection with a certain star like Stella Maris used as a by-name of Isis (Giebel 1990:167) and later of the Virgin Mary. Another possible interpretation of ‘the shining’ is that it is an allusion to Brísingamen (the shining adornment), which was Freyja’s principal possession. Brísingamen was, according to an older hypothesis a symbol for the sun, and the name Mardoll, was connected with the sunrise and the sunset in the sea. These attempts to explain obscure myths or myth-elements as meteorological or cosmological phenomena have their obvious weakness, and the question about the origin of the name Mardoll must therefore remain open.

A connection between Mardoll/Freyja and Brísingamen and, on the other hand, Heimdallr, is possible. Heimdallr was the one who fought with Loki about Brísingamen. It is told in Úlfr Úggason’s Húsdrápa:

Ráðgegninn bregðr ragna rein at Singasteini frægr vid firna sloegium farbata magr vári ; módaflugr ræðr átta moeðra ok einnar mogr áðr fogru hafnýra.

The wise powerful guardian [=Heimdallr] of the way of the gods [=Bifrost] travelled together with the very cunning son of Farbaute to Singastein; the brave son of one and eight mothers managed first to reach the beautiful sea-kidney. (Úlfr/Jónsson 1967:136)

The episode is related by Snorri in Skáldskaparmál, where he describes Heimdallr: ‘He is also the visitor of Vågaskär and Singastein—where he and Loki fought about the Brísingamen…they appeared in the form of seals’ (Snorri/Jónsson 1926:83). An emendation of the name Singastein gives *signastein (magic stone), which creates an analogy with hafnýra (sea-kidney) in the next strophe. Hafnýra, a brown or red stone, was used in folk-medicine to facilitate deliveries and in Iceland was called lausnarstein (delivery stone). It is possible to associate this colour with ‘fire’ (Müllendorf 1886:217–18), which is the literary translation of the word brísing, and which makes Brísingamen identical with the ‘holy stone’ and the ‘sea-kidney’. The adornment would then rather refer to Freyja’s function as helper in childbirth (Pering 1941:222; see Grundy: 60). It is possible that the allusion is to the stanza in Lokasenna where Loki accuses Gefjon of having intercourse with the white young man, sveinn inn hvita, who gave her the adornment (Eddadikte/Helgason 1971:II, 50). This white young man could then be an allusion to Heimdallr, who in Gylfaginning is called hvíti-áss (Snorri/Jónsson 1926:30). Gefjon is, as we shall see, another aspect of Freyja. The fertility aspect which Heimdallr shares with Freyja is also appropriate here. But, instead of Mother Goddess, it is the father-god, Ríg-Heimdallr, who begets the three social classes during his journey on earth. However, the names of Mardoll and Heimdallr contain further correspondences to Freyja; Heimdallr translates as ‘the One shining over the world’, and Mardoll as ‘the One shining over the sea’.

Horn/*Härn is probably derived from horr, meaning ‘flax’ or ‘linen’, and survives in many place-names, such as Härnevi (Brink 1990:50). We know that cultivation of flax arrived early in Scandinavia and was surrounded by many magical perceptions: it protected against evil and gave fertility to mankind (Tillhagen 1986:16–19). The flax itself was connected with women, even being called the ‘seed of the woman’, and some records show that it had be sown on a Friday and that women dressed in their best clothes took part in the sowing on the day hallowed to the great goddess of the North (Tillhagen 1986:24–8). The spinning of flax was connected with her in folklore, and the product, linen, was the dress of the bride. Freyja, the protectress of love between man and woman, was the natural protectress of weddings, and for the bride the phrase ganga und líni meant the wedding.

Gefn means ‘the giving’, alluding to the fertility aspect of the goddess, and comparable with Gabiæ and Aligabiæ, names of the so-called Matres or Matronæ (de Vries 1970:II, 293). The name is, as mentioned earlier, another form of Gefjon, who appears in the Eddic poetry and in Snorri’s mythology as an independent goddess. Gefjon is unique in the Nordic pantheon since she is not married. Snorri calls her moer (maiden) and adds henne pióna poer er meyjar andaz (those who die as maidens serve her) (Snorri/Jónsson 1926:35). On the other hand, Gefjon also carries the qualities of a fertility goddess, as in her skemtan (liaison) with King Gylfi and the creation of Sjælland, or the above-mentioned episode with the white young man. In the late Breta-sogur three gods appear, Saturnus, Jupiter and Gefjon, behind whom we recognize Óðinn, þórr and—to complete the Dumézilian triad—Gefjon-Freyja (Hauksbók/Det Konglige Nordiske Oldskriftsselskab 1892–6:240–1).

Sýr is usually interpreted as ‘the sow’, alluding to a coarse symbol of the fertility-goddess, or, in obsolete explanations, as a form of totemism, where the goddess appears in the shape of an animal (Phillpotts 1920:169). The most appealing etymology, however, derives from the IE stem *s(w)er-, meaning ‘to protect’, ‘to shield’. During the course of time the word lost its original meaning and became interpreted as the homonymous ‘sow’ (Schrodt 1979:114–19). However, the double meaning of the word was used in Ólávs saga helga, where Óláv’s foster-father, Sigurþ, carries the by-name Sýr (Snorri/ Aðalbjarnarson 1951:7). It is hard to believe that a man in his position would accept being called ‘the sow’ by his subjects. But, in Hreiðars páttr we find the other meaning of the name, when his enemies make a pun of it and present him with an amulet in the form of a silver pig, which raised his anger (Hreiðars þáttr/Sigfúson 1945:254). The pun is thus the evidence of the fact that sýr carried two meanings, especially as we also find the name in kennings like sarlaxa Sýr and Folk Sýr, used in positive senses (Egilsson 1966:557). Likewise, when a goddess like Freyja is called Sýr it is preferable to choose the archaic alternative. However, there is an affinity between the boar and the twin couple Freyr and Freyja, in relation to their warlike characters rather than to the aspect of fertility (Davidson 1964:98–9).

Ðrungva appears only in this enumeration and was probably derived from prá (pining) (de Vries 1970:618), and alluding to the love-goddess longing for her partner. Under the name Mengloð (the One, who is gladdened by adornment) Freyja here appears again as the loving and yearning woman. This Eddic poem, in literary form close to folk-song, relates the meeting between Mengloð-Freyja and her beloved:

My wish have I won: welcome be thou
with a kiss I clasp thee now;
the loved one’s sight is sweet to her
who has lived in longing for him

Full long sat I on Lyfiaberg,
bided thee day after day;
now has happened what I hoped for long
that, hero, thou art come in my hall.

Heart-sick was I, to have thee I yearned,
whilst thou didst long for my love.
Of a truth I know: we two shall live
our life together.

This is an invitation from the goddess to her partner to unite with her in a holy wedding, which in its deepest sense is a manifestation of the creation and the cosmic order. The cosmic perception is expressed in myths and is performed in a ritual where the union between them is demonstrated through symbolic forms.

Discussions about cultic weddings have attracted great interest among other toponymic scholars, who have seen a connection in the existence of male and female place-names close to each other. This could mean that gods like Ullr and þórr were united in a cultic wedding with the fertility-goddess under the names Njärð, Horn and Freyja, which were reflected in placenames like Ullvi-Härnvi in Bro, Uppland, and Torstuna-Härnvi in Västmanland (Hellberg 1986:49; Brink 1990:50). This is sometimes considered highly speculative, yet there is nothing that disproves this theory if one compares with other religions. Apart from those with a monotheistic and unisexual perspective, most celebrate holy weddings in the form of processions, leading a god to his divine bride, or vice versa. These constitute a regular element in the festival calendar. The implicit meaning of such a ceremony is, in many cases, not only direct symbolic coitus to strengthen fertility in people, beasts and soil, but also a token of agreement, economical exchange, etc., which united one village with another. Holy weddings could take place between the king and the goddess or between the king and the queen, who represented the god and the goddess. Moreover, a discrepancy between the myth and the ritual is rather common in these examples. A well-known example is the hieros gamos on Samos between Zeus and Hera, which was expressed in myth and ritual, but which only existed as ritual in Athens, whereas the myth is explicitly told in Iliad 14, 295 (Widengren 1969:117ff., 155ff., 253ff., 390).

The literary sources, such as that of Mengloð’s greeting, as well as the story about Freyr and Gerðr in Skírnismál (Eddadikte/Helgason 1971:II, 30), are further expressions of the phenomenon, but cultic weddings between a male and a female deity from different villages are not attested in them. The closest to such a wedding appears in the short passage about Freyr, his priestess and the cunning Gunnar Helming in Flateyjarbók, which relates how a woman played the role of Freyr’s wife during his travels in the kingdom of Svear (Flateyjarbók I/Vigfúson & Unger 1860:337–9). The place-name theory, however, presupposes a wedding between two gods.

Skjalf appears in Ynglingatal as a Lappish/Finnish princess (Ynglingtal/ Noreen 1925:201) abducted by King Agni, together with her brother Logi, from their father, Frosti—as Snorri tells us—whereas Ynglingatal mentions Skalf with the kenning loga dís. These two versions of the course of events, and a third in Historia Norwegiae, agree in that fact the Skjalf hanged her husband (when he was drunk, according to Snorri, who is obviously delighted by such explanations). Skjalf could be the mother of the dynasty of Skilfingar, the name of the Ynglinga dynasty after Agni; this is also mentioned in Beowulf (Beowulf/Swanton 1978:36). As an eponymous heroine of a royal clan she provides a female parallel to Freyr and the Ynglinga dynasty. (For the interpretations and etymologies of Skjalf, see Gade 1985:59–71.)

Hanging is usually connected with the cult of Óðinn, and, according to Dumézil’s tripartite theory, belongs to the first function, that of the priestking (Dumézil 1973:127–54). Nevertheless, according to the Historia Norwegiae there was another royal victim, Dómaldi, hanged in sacrifice to the goddess Ceres—probably Freyja—in the dynasty of Ynglingar. When Adam of Bremen discusses the hanged male victims in the holy grove of Uppsala, he does not mention to whom these sacrifices were performed. Scholars prefer Óðinn in this connection, but there is nothing to contradict the possibility of another god or goddess. There is also a possibility that this sacrifice coincided with the dísablót in Uppsala before the Christianization process, since this blót was moved back a month in order not to coincide with the Christian Easter. Adam relates that the great blót took place in the vernal equinox, which should be identical with the original time of the dísablót. His note that the svear sang ‘many indecent songs’ during the festival could suggest a fertility rite (Adam av Bremen/Svenberg 1984:225). There is a close relationship between Freyja and the anonymous collective of goddesses called dísir regarding their functions. They received sacrifice in the Dísarsal, which literally means ‘the hall of the (great) dís’. It is probably the identity of Freyja that is concealed behind the single dís representing the collective as a pars pro toto. Therefore, was it Freyja herself who received the male sacrifices in the grove near the temple? The suggestion is indeed, at this point, conjecture only, but it is as credible as the statement that the recipient was Óðinn.

And, finally, Freyja is also called Vanadís (Sturlason/Jónsson 1926:90), which is a kenning composed of Vanir and dís (the woman of the Vanir, 35) and equivalent to Vana goð/gyðja in the same passage. Her many names would, in my opinion, reflect the manifold functions which belong to her, and although the fragile sources might leave us little information regarding their origin, yet we can interpret them and compare them with different myths in order to deepen and elucidate our understanding of the image of Freyja, the great goddess of the North.

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