Friday, April 16, 2010

The Gods and Goddesses, Part One

There is a diverse and complicated pantheon of gods and goddesses in the Norse mythological cosmology, and two of the most intriguing figures are those of Freya and Loki. A detailed examination of their many aspects and tales will intersect with many other gods, goddesses, and mythic figures.

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

On the surface, this seems a bit brutal. However, the strange imagery becomes more intelligible when the name of the goddess is examined. As Odin's many names elucidate facets of his complicated character, so do Freya's. She is, at this point, called "gold-draught." If she is seen as a personification of gold in the way that, say, Thor is a personification of thunder, the episode becomes clear as a representation of the purification of gold through repeated smelting. The spears are the tongs to hold the gold over the smithy's fire, and the repeated burning is the heating of the gold to burn out impurities.

Freya by James Doyle Penrose (1890)

Throughout the mythology, Freya is associated with gold. When her husband leaves her to wander the Earth (more on him below), she cries tears of gold. Because of this story, "Freya’s tears" became a kenning, or poetic circumlocution, used to represent the word "gold" in Norse poetry. Freya's golden necklace Brísingamen ("flaming necklace") appears in connection with the goddess in several Eddic tales. According to Snorri Sturluson, the terms "flame" and "fire" are often connected with gold in poetry of the North "since it is red," so it should not be assumed that Freya's necklace was a thing of fire, but that it was simply made of her favorite metal.

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)

Ritual powers of prophecy are associated with women in the early Germanic world, both in mythological and historical records, and the women who exhibited second sight held positions of great influence in their communities. Tacitus wrote in 98 AD that the Germans of his era "believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and a gift of prophecy; and so they do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies. In the reign of the emperor Vespasian we saw Veleda long honoured by many Germans as a divinity; and even earlier they showed a similar reverence for Aurinia and a number of others." The prophetess Veleda that he mentions was a leader of the Rhineland tribe of the Bructeri. She led in political as well as spiritual matters, serving as an arbiter during negotiations between Rome and Cologne.

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

The notion of womanly magic is a particularly powerful concept in the Germanic world, and it lasted well past the end of the pagan era. In the 1930s, my father grew up in Wolfingen, a German farm colony in what was later known as Yugoslavia. It had been settled in the 1700s by the Donauschwaben ("Danube Swabians"), Germans who followed the Danube down into the rich farmland to the south. Schwaben is a modern term for those who descended from the Suebi, an ancient Germanic tribe who were already well-established when they were encountered by an invading Julius Caesar in the year 58 AD. In my father's village, isolated from Germany itself, folk traditions and practices dating back to at least the 1700s were kept alive. Women in our family were said to possess a sort of second sight – a prophetic power that is at the heart of the concept of seid from the stories of Freya. Of course, nobody was literally practicing ancient pagan magic in the 1930s; the old concept of seid had basically degenerated down to "womanly intuition," which may have been where the concept originated in pre-Christian times. We have evidence, then, that this tradition – specifically connecting women with prophetic powers – lasted at least from 69 AD (the year the prophetess Veleda first came into the historical record) to the 1940s (when the Germans were driven from Wolfingen during the Second World War).

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.


ehatsumi said...

gee, thanks for this link, really helpful! \m/

Anonymous said...

Very interesting.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this & I like the last few sentences referencing Carl Jung. I agree with his theories (& believe nature yields evidence) that information is stored through the centuries.

Jackie LH said...

Wow, thanks for this insightful article. I think all around the world there are many goddesses associated with gold, and that really says something about Jung's notions on collective memories. Very helpful article, thank you.

Next Post Previous Post Home