Of all the goddesses, Freya is probably the most complex and enigmatic. Her name simply means "woman" and leads etymologically to the modern German word Frau. After examining both her Scandinavian and her German characterizations, it will become clear that she synthesizes several elements of the early Germanic view of womanhood. Much as Odin has his many names and aspects, Freya appears in various guises throughout the mythic corpus.
Freya is often identified with Gullveig ("gold-draught"), a character who appears in the section of the Eddic poem Völuspá ("Prophecy of the Seeress") that immediately precedes a description of the first war in the world - the conflict between the Æsir (the war gods) and the Vanir (the fertility gods). "She [the prophetess who narrates the poem] remembers the first war in the world, / when they buttressed Gullveig with spears / and in One-eye’s hall they burned her; / three times they burned her, three times she was reborn, / over and over, yet she lives still."
|Smelting gold with crucible and tongs|
|Freya by James Doyle Penrose (1890)|
Völuspá continues: "Heid they called her, wherever she came to houses, / the seer with pleasing prophecies, she charmed them with spells; / she practiced seid wherever she could, with seid she played with minds, / she was always the favourite of wicked women." The proper name Heid means "brightness” and reinforces the identification of Freya with gold. Seid is a form of magic or sorcery associated with female practitioners in the Eddas and Sagas. Its only male practitioner was Odin, and there are several instances where he is accused on unmanliness on account of his practice of it. From various accounts in the Icelandic Sagas, seid was a sort of shamanistic practice that involved a costumed prophetess sitting on a high seat and delivering responses to questions about the future, much as the prophetesses of Völuspá and Baldrs draumar ("Baldur's Dreams") answer the questions of Odin.
|Veleda in Walhalla Temple (circa 1842, Germany)|
How does Freya help to bring about the first war? She introduces desire to the gods. Prior to her arrival, they apparently existed in a blissful state. Unlike the Biblical Eve, however, Freya is not portrayed (at this point in the mythology) as a temptress who uses her wiles to manipulate in pursuit of her own goals. It is, instead, her innate desirability that brings out the weakness and lust of the other gods. By personifying gold and magic, she represents both wealth and power, and the uncontrollable desire for these two forces is what sets in motion the events that, inexorably, lead to Ragnarök. The seeds of destruction appear very early in the mythological time-line; the gods, it seems, are doomed by their own failings almost from their very beginning.
|Wolfingen / Karavukovo - town center|
In light of the connection of hanging with Wodan, the primary god of the continental Germans, it is also interesting to note that there were instances of suicide by hanging in our family, the last one occurring in the 1990s. Maybe Carl Jung is right when he argues that there is a collective memory of a people - that certain psychological concepts survive throughout the ages. We have to wonder whether psychological makeup is expressed in religion, or whether religious concepts determine individual psychology.