Freya/Menglod, by Jenny Nystrom (illustrator) and Gunnar Forssell (xylographer), in Fredrik Sander's 1893 edition of the Poetic Edda.

Freyja, Femininity Personified

Freyja's hair—Polygala vulgaris—a species of the genus Polygala.
Freyja’s hair—Polygala vulgaris—a species of the genus Polygala.

Since I started this blog over two years ago, Freyja has been a frequent co-star. Thor dresses as Freyja to retrieve his hammer Mjolnir from a thief; she’s part of the wage sought by the master builder of the walls of Asgard; she keeps the giant Hrungnir occupied until Thor can return to clean up after Odin’s mistake; she lends Loki aid in retrieving Idunn from the giant Thjazi; she is accused of pernicious promiscuity by Loki in his swan song Lokasenna. She’s in all the major stories, the golden, fiery queen of love, fertility, sex, beauty, and more.

Much more, in fact, and her role in pre-Christian Germanic life is clearly more rich than simply the literature we’ve received would indicate. Scholarship on Freyja points out that her name is of the same root as the German “Frau,” which functions roughly as “Mrs.” – her name isn’t a name so much as it’s a title. Whatever name Freyja had originally, she became so synonymous with the ideal feminine that she simply merged with the word for “lady”. You may have noticed that Odin’s wife Frigg (Frigga) has a very similar name; most scholars have grown to accept that Freyja and Frigga are the same goddess, or at least, the same goddess with slightly different names from different periods in Germanic history. Freyja’s husband is a god named Odr, famous for always traveling far from home, so that Freyja is often forced to seek him out. It’s easy to see that Odr, “ecstasy, inspiration, fury,” is most likely just a different form of Odinn, and this may even have been obvious to the skalds who recited the tales of the gods, but less obvious to the Christian scholars and copyists who wrote down what has been transmitted through history to us.

But what are the traits of Freyja herself? We know Thor to be tempestuous and violent, like the storms he personifies. Loki is playful and scheming. Odin is wise and inquisitive. The most famous goddess is… mostly a bit player in the stories of the male gods.

And yet: we learn of her integrity in Thrymskvitha: she will not marry a giant simply because Thor lost his hammer. When all others shun the drunken, violent giant Hrungnir, Freyja brings him drink to keep him occupied, showing that she is an ideal hostess, but also wily enough to know that a more permanent solution will be around shortly. In both the stories of Thor’s trip to Thrym and Thjazi’s theft of Idunn, Freyja lends her magic powers to Loki so that he can negotiate a deal: she has the wisdom to see that the son of giants is useful, and the skill with magic to use him to the benefit of the Aesir. And even though Loki resentfully accuses her of sexual misconduct during his flyting in Aegir’s hall, the accusation fails to stick because she is not bound by Loki’s sexual morality – as mother, lover, daughter, and more, Freyja embodies every kind of sexuality, every kind of relationship, and she easily deflects Loki’s criticism (see Lokasenna 29-32; Loki seems to hate her most of the Aesir).

"Freyja awakes Hyndla" (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.
“Freyja awakes Hyndla” (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.

Freyja gets one poem all to herself, called Hyndluljoth, Hyndla’s Song. In this poem, Freyja seeks the aid of a giantess, a seer named Hyndla. Freyja has taken on the task of helping the warrior Ottar, one of her many lovers, to claim his inheritance. In order to do so, he will need to prove that his ancestry is more deserving than that of a rival, a man called Angantyr. While Freyja disguises Otta as her boar Hildisvini to make the trip to their destination, Hyndla sees through the disguise, and seems bored (sorry for the pun) by the whole affair, eventually listing dozens of names that include Sigurd and others of the Volsung dynasty, the most famous of all the heroes in the Norse tradition.

The main things we learn of Freyja from this story are confirmation of some of her traits told in other stories. Hyndla mentions Freyja’s promiscuous sexuality in an insult after Ottar’s lineage has been stated – again her role in fertility and sex is highlighted. The fact that Hildisvini, the “battle-boar” is involved, highlights Freyja’s role as chief war goddess, something I’ve discussed more in-depth in a discussion of the Valkyries: Odin takes half the war dead, and Freyja the other half, to her own afterlife realm called Folkvang. And finally, there is a reminder of Freyja’s role as goddess of witchcraft, as she raises flames around Hyndla when the giantess threatens to disobey a request.

Freyja, then, is every bit as complex as any of the male gods, as we can see from just a few snippets of action, where she is far less represented than the stars of the Eddas Thor, Odin, Loki, and Heimdall. She’s not merely a goddess to invoke in the spring, or in times of love – she can be a vengeful goddess of war or a truth-seeking wielder of magic, just like her husband Odin. Freyja is femininity, in all its forms.

 

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