Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Gods and Goddesses, Part Three

Like Odin, Freya receives the dead. In Grímnismál, Odin describes Fólkvang ("field of the people"), Freya’s dwelling in the realm of the gods. The very name of her home points to the slain, as the "field of the people" can be seen as a kenning for "battlefield" (field where the fallen lie) or "cemetary" (field where the dead are buried). The poem states,
Fólkvang is the ninth, and there Freyia arranges
the choice of seats in the hall;
half the slain she chooses every day,
and half Odin owns.
Acting as a valkyrie, a "chooser of the slain," she helps to collect those who die in battle and bring them to Asgard, the home of the gods. Odin welcomes the dead warriors he selects to his hall, Valhalla ("Hall of the Slain"), gathering them together to build an army for the final battle at Ragnarök. What Freya does with her dead is never mentioned.

Why is a goddess of love also a goddess of death? The answer can be seen in her connection to gold, the wealth that must be dug out of the ground. Freya is fundamentally connected to the earth, from which all life comes, and to which all life must someday return. The contemporary, popular culture characterization of Freya as the "goddess of love" is a great oversimplification of her character that tries to line her up with the Roman Venus. The Norse mythological corpus, however, gives a far more complex and nuanced characterization of a goddess whose domain seems to be the totality of experience through life and death.

In the later period of the pagan era, Freya came to represent the magical and sexual sides of the Germanic concept of womanhood, and Frigg was given the matrimonial and maternal aspects. When they are brought back together, they represent a conception that is as rich and multifaceted as that of Odin himself – an Allmother to match the Allfather. With the coming of Christianity, the two aspects were exaggerated and separated even further by the scholars who wrote down and organized the mythology.

Mary's tears of gold by Robert Rumas (2000)

The positive aspects of the Germanic goddess were transferred to the Virgin Mary; she is portrayed as Our Lady of Sorrows weeping for her lost son as Freya weeps for her missing husband. Mary also fills the role of Frigg, the mother goddess who intercedes with the father god on behalf of supplicant humans; Frigg plays this role in many tales from the myths and sagas.

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch (1939)

In the medieval period, the aspects of the character that were seen as negative were transferred away from godhood and down into witches. Second sight and arcane knowledge became unholy, and the wise women of pagan times became the outcast witches of Christian times. What was once a social and spiritual role held by the women of the family now became a forbidden and dirty thing. Snorri, writing in a medieval and Christian Iceland, presents a version of Freya that is midway between goddess and witch, and her Earth Mother fecundity (as represented by her cat-drawn wagon) is portrayed as a sort of sexual looseness and depravity.

Freya, cats, and babies by N.J.O. Blommer (1852)

It is clear that the arrival of Christianity brought a change in the status of women in the Germanic world. In the pagan era, women were spiritual leaders and played in major role in the religious and social life of their family and community; often religious/social and family/community amounted to the same thing. What Hilda Ellis Davidson writes of the druids can also be applied to the wise women: "They encouraged and preserved religious learning, and were also associated with divination and prophecy. They undoubtedly played an important political role also, thus paving the way for their own suppression, but it was difficult in any case in the pre-Christian era to separate the religious and secular sides of life."

The term valkyrie literally means "chooser of the slain." This seems to be a concept that descends from ritual to myth to legend to tale. Originally, the valkyries were women who led the ritual sacrifice of human prisoners. They went amongst the captured and literally "chose the slain" – picked out those who they subsequently sacrificed.

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