In my quest to understand the somewhat enigmatic figure of the goddess, my overall impression was that she, or her known story in the context of Norse cosmology, is incomplete. She shows up in enough primary sources to get a sense of her personality on a superficial level. However there are questions that arise that aren’t quickly or easily answered and so I found studying her to be a bit like peeling an onion, following her down many rabbit-holes only to end up with more questions.
In order to get to the bottom of who she was/is, I found myself reviewing all who are or could be related to her, which led me to a much longer study. Having not read any of the primary or secondary text myself yet, I will attempt to point out what stood out to me the most (without writing a book in the process!).
What we do know is that she is the breathtakingly beautiful goddess of love, beauty, sex, war and death, overseeing the Valkyrie and riding into battle herself some of the time. She’s the goddess of the witches, practicing Seidr, which was a Vanir witchcraft that she brought with her and shared with Odin when she moved to Asgard.
She is dsir, the ancestress of all female beings. Her animals are cow, sow, boar and the cats that pull her chariot. She loves jewels, gold and beautiful things, the most precious being the Brísingamen necklace that she acquired from four dwarves (the four elements) by sleeping with them each for a night.
She is a shapeshifter who can visit the underworld when wearing a cloak of falcon feathers. She has daughters Hnoss and Gersemi, by her husband, the little known Od (Oth), whom she grieves because he’s always wandering away. When she weeps for him she cries tears of gold and some say amber.
Deeper down Freyja is Vanir, an older set of gods who fought in the Great War of the Gods against the younger Aesir. Neither side could win this war and so after finally calling it a draw, each side paid tribute to the other with citizens. Freyja, with twin brother Frey and their father Njörðr, was sent to live with the Aesir, in exchange for three Aesir sent in the other direction. There, she lives in Asgard in her own hall called Sessrúmnir, the ‘hall of many seats’ that sits on a field where, like Odin, she collects the honoured dead from battle. Apparently she is given up-to half of the dead and Odin gets the rest.
Who the Vanir actually were seems to be a bit of a mystery. Beyond the theory that the ancient Saxon earth-goddess Nerthus may be either Njörðr’s sister or the female aspect of him, we can find only the trinity Frey, Freyja and Njörðr listed among their ranks. We know that they are a more ancient set of gods than the Aesir, which lends to the possibility that these newer Aesir gods supplanted the Vanir after the Great War. This probably reflected happenings on earth among warring tribes. The older gods then were mostly forgotten by the time anything was written down.
Freyja has many names with stories attached that are attributed to her. Interestingly, in the form of Gullveig, she was burned three times by Odin and was resurrected three times. After the last time, she came back with knowledge of magic. This is reminiscent of the phoenix as an archetype, but also of the ‘shaman’s death’ that occurs when the spirits call a potential shaman to the path – whereby the shaman is spiritually dismembered, falls gravely ill or is subject to a mental break, as a test of their metal or a tempering for the path of magic. This then was probably where Freyja learned Seidr through sacrifice and direct revelation. Also interesting is that this whole exchange most likely started the war of the gods, when the Vanir came to avenge the treatment of Freyja. However, if Odin, the Shaman King of the gods, was her tormentor, it is possible that he was playing the role of ‘temperer’ or inducer; he was the one who called her to the shaman’s path and caused her transformation.
More on sacrifice though, if we look at the necklace Brísingamen, Freyja also sacrifices herself here for a gain. Perhaps it’s just a beautiful necklace, but more likely it’s a powerful talisman of some kind, forged in the bowels of the earth by the four elements themselves. That Freyja understands she must sacrifice in order to gain knowledge and power is similar to Odin hanging from the tree Yggdrasil to gain the wisdom of the runes. Sacrifice then, is a virtue. Freyja offered what she had as a woman to offer – something that only she could offer, her highest prize. Perhaps in line with the Norse custom of hospitality, where guests are given the best food and drink in the house, that Freyja was willing to give herself for the necklace reflects the respect she had for the whole transaction and/or could parallel the power of the necklace. Another thought is that sex magic is known to be some of the most powerful magic - what if these nights with the four elements actually helped to enliven or empower the necklace and turn it into the talisman that it became?
Though Freyja is a mother, her story doesn’t dwell upon it much and in fact, due to her sexual appetites, her youthful beauty and adventurous spirit, she doesn’t fit well with the Mother archetype. She’s more like the eternal maiden of spring, like Oester or Persephone. She is said to be cognate with Aphrodite/Venus, the other love goddesses, Inana/Ishtar who was also a goddess of love, beauty, war and witchcraft and Cybele who also had a chariot drawn by two lions. However, my general instinct or feeling regarding Freyja is that she is much more ancient. In proto-indo-European roots I found Pria/Parvati, the Hindu goddess of love and devotion, who also has a beloved necklace that was stolen from her and who weeps gold, jewels and amber. She is worshiped on Fridays, as is Freyja and notably, Venus and Aphrodite.
There are more questions of course: are Frey, Freyja and Njörðr actually a trinity deity or; if Nerthus was the twin sister of Njörðr and mother of his children, were Frey and Freyja then evolutions of these more ancient gods or; are Frey and Freyja actually the same Being, just male/female aspects, reflecting the divine forces of yin and yang (similar to the Wiccan Lady and Lord or Shiva-Shakti) and; what is her relationship to the primordial giants and of course; are Freyja and Frigg, Queen of the gods actually the same person, maybe playing different roles at different times? Both wives to Odin/Od?
In my research of Freyja it was hard to initially get a personal sense of her. More research is needed. However, I’d like to do a mental exercise – a sort of word association game. I’ll list those associations I found in her and her possible other emanations (Aphrodite/Astarte/Ishtar/Inana/Pria):
War, death, Lady of the Slain, Vanadis – ancestor of the Vanir, valkyrie, witchcraft, Seidr, mother, wife, lover, weeper, harlot, slut, sexual agency, beauty, youthfulness, the spring, flowers, jewels, gold-loving, gardens, Friday, seduction, beguiling, shapeshifting, falcon feathers, power, the sun, Great Goddess, primordial, resurrecting, mother of time, the evening star, wave maker, undefeatable, sacrificing, resurrecting, the phoenix, beautiful spirit, Faery, Sky God, fruit trees, May Day, the phallus, music, dancing, singing, romantic love, the chariot, the feline, the feminine ancestor, fertility, abundance, femme fatale, destructive force, battle lust, pot-stirrer, instigator, sovereignty, the land, the King, sacred twins, fire, water, the cow, fertility, abundance, adventure, independence, shaman, mystic, Goddess of the Witches.
So, as a god she is like Kali, a primordial destructive and regenerative force. A life giver, or a death-blow. In human form she seems much less powerful and uses manipulation, sex and seduction to do what she needs to do. But we have to separate our modern Christianized notions of sex and propriety from this much older version of what it was/is to be female. Powerful, feline, huntress, lover of culture and beauty, friend to many - she is always lending her stuff out after all, Freyja seems to claim, and allow us to reclaim all of the negative stereotypes of strong or sexually independent women that we have today; harlot, hussy, slut, home-wrecker, prostitute, bossy, loudmouth, gossip, feminist.
Just what we need in the world today! Hail Freyja ya’ll.
Comments welcome as always.
From Norse Mythology for Smart People
The Holy Twins http://www.northernpaganism.org/shrines/freya/praising-freya/the-holy-twins.html
Cult of Nerthus http://www.northvegr.org/secondary%20sources/religion%20culture%20history/the%20cult%20of%20nerthus/001.html
The shaman’s death http://mirrorofisis.freeyellow.com/id45.html
Norse Hospitality http://public.wsu.edu/~kimander/hospitalityvikings.htm
Who is Freyja? Katherine MacDowell © 2009 Ocean Seminary College
featured image: Ofbyld:Freyja riding with her cats (1874) by Ludwig Pietsch (1824-1911)