|Goddess of Love, Beauty, and War|
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Important goddess; only named female of the vanir; object of giants’ lust.
Freya is undoubtedly the most widely celebrated of the goddesses or Asynjur, even though Snorri places her second in rank below Frigg, the wife of the god Odin. She is the daughter of Njord (and as such technically one of the Vanir), sister of Frey and lover of many. Her husband Od does not figure largely in the extant evidence, although she apparently wept golden tears for him when he left. It was, after all, apparently by sleeping with four dwarves in turn that she acquired her most treasured possession, the Brisingamen. Several times she is sought after by Giants, most notably by Thrym, by Hrungnir and by the anonymous Master Builder, a giant who undertakes to build Asgard in the episode that ultimately leads to the birth of Sleipnir. Love and sex are her province (in the eddic poem Lokasenna she is accused of being a whore), and her well-decked hall, Sessrumnir, and even her preferred mode of transport (carried in a chariot drawn by cats) attest to her quintessential femininity. Among her other possessions is a cloak made from falcon-feathers, which, according to the eddic poem Thrymskvida, was employed by Loki to find out who has stolen Mjollnir, the hammer of the god Thor. An altogether darker side of her character is witnessed by her connection with battle, where she claims half the slain alongside Odin, and, like him, she is portrayed as engaged in a wisdom contest against a giantess in the eddic poem Hyndluljod. Among the many names and titles recorded of Freya are Gefn ('the giver'), Horn ('flaxen'?), Mardoll ('sea-brightener’), Skjalf ('shaker'), Throng or Thrungva ('throng'), Vanadis ('the dis of the Vanir') and Syr (‘sow’). The last name connects Freya with a pig-cult more usually associated with her brother Frey, and in Hyndluljod Freya is even said to ride on a boar called Hildisvini ('battle-swine'), presumably a counterpart to Frey's Gullinborsti.
Freyja is the daughter of Njord, either by his sister when he lived among the vanir or by Skadi. When Snorri says in Gylfaginning that Njord had two children, apparently by Skadi, he first introduces Frey and Freyja, saying that they were both good-looking and powerful.
And Freyja is the most excellent of the goddesses. She has that homestead in heaven which is called Folkvang, and wherever she rides to battle she has half the dead, and Odin half. . . . Her hall is Sessrumnir; it is great and handsome. And when she travels, she drives her cats and sits in a carriage. She is the most accessible for people to call on, and from her name it is a sign of respect that women of substance are called fruvur [ladies]. She enjoys erotic poetry. It is good to call on her for love.
In the first half of this passage, Snorri was paraphrasing Grimnismal, stanza 14, which he had just quoted. Then, a few pages later, seemingly contradicting his statement that Freyja was the most excellent of the asynjur, Snorri listed her only sixth in the catalog of asynjur, although he did say that she is equal in nobility to Frigg.
She is married to Od, and their daughter is Hnoss. . . . Od went away on long journeys, and Freyja weeps for him, and her tears are red gold. Freyja has many names, and the reason for that is that she called herself by various names when she went about among unknown peoples looking for Od. She is called Mardoll and Horn, Gefn, Sy´r. Freyja owned the Brisinga men.
Od’s journeys are not mentioned in the older poetry, although “Od’s bedfriend” is a Freyja kenning in skaldic poetry, and Freyja’s journeys in search of him are completely undocumented. Her ownership of the Brisinga men is alluded to in Thrymskvida and perhaps explained in Sorla thattr. Thrymskvida also mentions a feather coat that Freyja lends to Loki, giving him the gift of flight. Loki borrows the same item from Freyja in the story of his retrieval of Idun from Thjazi in Skaldskaparmal.
In the extant mythology Freyja exists primarily as an object of lust for male giants. Thrym will only return Thor’s stolen hammer if he gets Freyja in return; the giant who is to build the wall around Asgard demands Freyja, the sun, and the moon as his wages; and Hrungnir boasts drunkenly in Asgard that he will kill all the asir except Freyja and Sif, whom he will carry off. Freyja’s reputation, meanwhile, is somewhat questionable. When asked to go off as Thrym’s bride so that Thor can get his hammer back, she protests that everyone will know her to be most eager for men if she does so. In Lokasenna Loki tells her that she has been lover of all the assembled asir and elves; she even was caught in flagrante delicto with her brother, and then, Loki says, “you had to fart”—an insult or joke whose exact tenor escapes us today. Of course, Loki accuses all the goddesses of sexual indiscretion, but Sorla thattr says flat out that Freyja plies the oldest profession, for she gives herself to four dwarfs in order to obtain a beautiful necklace, perhaps the Brisinga men. In Hyndluljod Hyndla accuses Freyja of being the lover of Ottar, the human whose genealogy the poem explores.
This sexual history, and her fondness for erotic poetry, make plausible Snorri’s assertion that it is to Freyja whom one must turn in affairs of the heart. Presumably this attachment to human love accords with the notion of the vanir as fertility deities. We might reasonably expect a fertility deity to be associated with the dead, but in this mythology, at least, the evidence all goes in the other direction. Odin, the god of wisdom and magic, has the closest association with the dead, and the other vanir, Njord and Frey, have no such connection. Indeed, the word Snorri used for the dead whom Freyja shares equally with Odin refers to those who die in battle. This association with the battle-dead may also underlie Freyja’s connection with the eternal battle of the Hjadningavig, which has obvious parallels to the endless battles of the einherjar.
Freyja is also connected with magic, especially the kind of shamanic magic called seid. In Ynglinga saga Snorri says that Freyja first taught seid among the asir, and many scholars surmise that Freyja is identical with the figure Gullveig in Voluspa, whom the asir cannot kill and who apparently under the name Heid performs seid. Seid, like the dead, is something that Freyja and Odin share. It may thus be pertinent to recall here Odin’s sexual promiscuity and his many names. Finally, the names Od (Oƒr) and Odin (Oƒinn) look like a doublet, parallel to Ull and Ullin, and Saxo has a story in Book 1 of Gesta Danorum about a long absence of Odin from his realm, which some scholars think is parallel to Od’s absences.
We know that Freyja was a potent force in the last years of paganism, in Iceland at least, because of a famous incident recounted in connection with the conversion. Hjalti Skeggjason, one of the supporters of the conversion, was outlawed for blasphemy at the althingi because of a little ditty he recited calling Freyja a bitch (i.e., a female dog; it has been suggested that he wished to suggest that she was a whore). She also appeared frequently as a base word in woman kennings of the early skalds, and many place-names indicate a worship of her.
References and further reading: Treatments of Hjalti Skeggjason’s blasphemous verse include Felix Genzmer, “Der Spottvers des Hjalti Skeggjason,” Arkiv for nordisk filologi 44 (1928): 311–314, and Klaus von See, “Der Spottvers des Hjalti Skeggjason,” Zeitschrift fur deutsches Altertum 97 (1968): 155–158 (reprinted in von See, Edda, saga, Skaldendichtung [Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1981], 380–383). Jan de Vries, “Studien over germaansche mythologie, VII: De skaldenkenningen met de namen der godinnen Freyja en Frigg,” Tijdschrift voor nederlandsche taal- en letterkunde 53 (1934): 210–217, is a comprehensive study of the kennings for Freyja and Frigg.