Gyrfalcon Circling the Spruce: Another Frejya Episode

March 29, 2013

Gyrfalcon. Plumage ranges from dark gray to brown to white and varies greatly. Photo by Omar Runolfsson.
Gyrfalcon. Plumage ranges from dark gray to brown to white and varies greatly. Photo by Omar Runolfsson.

Frejya has appeared to me as a stocky young woman against a backdrop of tall spruce forest, standing on the snow beside the kind of weaving, shallow streams that develop in the north as winter moves into spring. She comes as a spring goddess, evidenced by the height and intensity of the sun. (One of the nice things about a vision is that you can look directly into the sun without feeling pain in your eyes.) When I say she is stocky, I don’t mean fat: her shoulders are broad and she is proportioned like a tall woman. Her rib cage is large, like the stout breast of the gyrfalcon. She has a brown cloak, curling brown hair and glistening brown eyes. Some describe Frejya as blond, but to me she appears in falcon coloring. What those who have seen Frejya mostly comment on, however, is her mouth: a small, very red, well-shaped mouth with lips curved in a joyful yet seductive smile. It is an entrancing smile, a smile that says she knows just about everything. I do not believe that Frejya would have had to have slept with the dwarves to obtain the Brisingamen Necklace; she must have done so only to please herself. To obtain the necklace she would only have had to spread those red lips in the smile no creature could resist. But I digress.

Frejya’s Amazonian proportions and her seductive manner place her in the “maiden” category for those who see goddesses in terms of maiden-mother-crone. Yet the fertile, family-focused boar is usually associated with motherhood, and Norse pagans appear to have regarded Frejya as a benevolent goddess bestowing wealth and favors. Her rune is among the most auspicious, and Cooper describes its divinatory meaning as “Good fortune, fertility, increase in property and success in endeavors.” These are qualities that proclaim “mother.”

Frejya's rune Feoh.
Frejya’s rune Fehu (FAY-who).
The point of intersection between the fir, falcon, and boar is, of course, death. The gyrfalcon is a fierce hunter who winters in the frozen world. The Norway Spruce thrives in cold environments and remains forever green. The boar is also fierce in her own way, and carrion is a major part of her diet. As described in the last post, there are dying and resurrecting gods and goddesses from other European and Middle Eastern cultures with pine, pig, or falcon associations, but we don’t really need these examples to establish the point.

Frejya’s representation throughout the lifecycle suggests an affinity with the sun, which defines the cycle of the year. Her association with both the winter and the summer solstices reaffirm this connection, as does the Yule fire and the summer bonfires. Frejya’s amber necklace represents her command over the sun and hence the passage of time. Those who see Frejya as blond may be focusing on her sun aspect, perhaps dazzled by the brightness of her nimbus. It is interesting in this regard that the Egyptian sun god Horus also takes the form of a falcon.

Although Frejya is a goddess for all seasons and all ages, I want to explore Frejya’s death aspect more closely. I will do so in a later installment of this series.

Frejya’s Three Forms

March 22, 2013

So what does boar, fir and falcon say about Frejya?

Let’s look first at the falcon. Freya’s falcon is probably the Gyrfalcon (JER-falcon), the largest falcon, who likes the northern climates. If she migrates at all, she is driven by scarcity of food, and she will sometimes winter at sea over ice. The Gyrfalcon is the preferred falcon for hunting. She mostly hunts birds, including other raptors, although she will also take small mammals. Other predatory birds leave her alone, as she is fierce. She has a varied hunting strategy and is considered very intelligent. The goddess Frejya has a cloak of falcon feathers reaching to the ground. With her characteristic generosity she loans this cloak to the other gods when they need it to move quickly. Falcons in general are associated with the sun or with death. Other important falcon deities include Circe, the witch who trapped Odysseus and changed his sailors into pigs, and Horus, the Egyptian sun god who avenged the death of his father Osiris and performed an important funerary rite for him.

Boar piglets. Photo by Tiia Monto.
Boar piglets. Frejya and Freyr are brother and sister boar gods. Photo by Tiia Monto.
The boar is the wild predecessor of the domestic pig. While only the male domestic pig is called a boar, in the wild there are boar sows and boar piglets. Boars like most wild animals prefer to avoid people, but both males and sows will charge anything that threatens them. With their huge size and thick skulls they are formidable, even more so if they are adult males with curving tasks. Boars chase away other predators to eat carrion. They are mostly scavengers, digging up roots and grubs in addition to scavenging dead carcasses. Sows prefer to raise young together, and males remain with their mothers until they are full grown. Boars are prolific breeders, something that was never a problem until they became protected in certain areas. The boar has always been preferred quarry for hunters – originally because he provided a great deal of tasty meat, only later because the danger involved provided excitement for sportsmen. The boar was also prized for his dense fur. Frejya often rides on the back of a boar. Her brother Freyr can also take the shape of a boar. Sows in general are associated with motherhood, probably due to their large extended families and high fertility rate. These qualities, plus their generous size, may account for their association with abundance. The crepuscular scavenging and carrion eating habits of boars may account for their being linked with death and the underworld. In both Celtic and Germanic cultures boar was eaten at the winter solstice feasts. Goddesses associated with the boar or sow include the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility Demeter, the Welsh goddess Cerridwyn in the form of a white sow, and the Continental Celtic goddess Arduinna. The Babylonian god Tammuz, the Egyptian God Osiris, and the Greek God Adonis die after being gored by a boar.

The fir or conifer tree thrives in all but the driest and coldest environments. Conifer forests define “tree line” at extreme latitudes and altitudes, the point where plant growth becomes scrubby. Freya’s fir is the Norway Spruce, which despite its name is prevalent throughout the northern and mountainous regions of Eurasia. Like most spruce trees it is a cold loving tree and it is hardy to the Arctic Circle. It is a particularly beautiful tree that is planted as an ornamental in North America. It grows very tall, 100 feet or more, and typically lives a few hundred years. It produces a nice canopy and is used as a wind breaker. It is a fragrant tree that produces a sweet smelling resin. The cones of the Norway Spruce grow very long, up to 8 inches, and they are quite attractive. The fir’s link with Freya probably comes from the evergreen boughs that decorated halls of feasting during the Winter Solstice observances. These festivities lasted several days or weeks. In a sense, with the great fire, drinking, roast boar, festive attitude, and greenery, Pagans were re-creating Freya’s hall of Sessrymnir, while the dark, cold and frozen landscape outside created a simulation of death. The Norway Spruce used to be the quintessential Christmas tree, although the Scotch Pine works better in today’s commercial environment. Trees in the pine family are associated with winter, rebirth, immortality, strength and sometimes fertility, possibly due to the phallic shape of the cone. Pine has been a preferred wood for coffins due to its association with immortality as well as its availability and workability. Other deities associated with trees in the pine family include the Anatolian Cybele, with her dying and resurrecting lover Attis, the Roman-Persian sun god Mithras, the Greek resurrecting god Dionysus, and the Greek healing god Ascelpius. The pine tree is one of the seven important “chieftan trees” in Celtic druidry, associated with the hero Bran who brought the Irish tales of the isles of paradise in the west.

So this is some background on the boar, fir and falcon. With some reflection you can see how the three fit together to give a deeper understanding of Frejya. I will examine the connection between the three more thoroughly in next week’s post.

The Fir and Falcon

March 16, 2013

Norway Spruce forest. The English word "fir" and its equivalents in other Germanic languages refers to an evergreen tree with needles, although in biological taxonomy that definition has changed. Photo by Kristaga.
Norway Spruce forest. The English word “fir” and its equivalents in other Germanic languages refers to an evergreen tree with needles, although in biological taxonomy that definition has changed. Photo by Kristaga.

The Fir and Falcon sounds like a good name for a medieval tavern. I can picture the large room with the riotous crowd, a bit too warm from the bodies and the fire in the hearth. The orange glow in the room flickers and dances in the torchlight even before the mead is poured. The patrons are mostly men, some with their wives or sweethearts, along with a few women of the sort men are happy to drink with but fear to meet on the battlefield. There is only one maid serving, and though her shoulders are broad and her arms strong from lifting innumerable tankards, she has a buxom figure, bright eyes, and lovely red lips that smile easily. She doesn’t mind the appreciative looks from the men, and she will laugh at a ribald joke, but none dare treat her with disrespect. Everyone knows they drink mead and eat boar in this hall at her pleasure. This is the Sessrymnir (SESS-rim-nir), “the roomy-seated hall,” home of the warriors who died most bravely, and it is the goddess Frejya who presides.

Frejya (FRAY-yah or FRY-yah) leads the Valkyries (val-KEER-ease), the nine thin white-armed maidens who carry the dead from the battle fields, and she gets first choice of the slain heroes, a mark of her position in the warrior societies within Germanic cultures. There is much that we do not know about the mythology and magic of the non-warrior societies, particularly as they relate to women. Early recorders of Germanic mythology and tradition were mostly Norse Christians in the first centuries of conversion, who sought both to exalt these traditions and to reconcile them with Christian values of the time. Goddesses did not fare well in this context. Still, there is a larger medieval record of Freya than any other Germanic goddess. We know that the Summer Solstice was her biggest festival, and that on that evening many bonfires would be lit along the shoreline, simulating the special necklace she wore, the amber Brisingamen (BREE-sing-AH-men) necklace. We know that she was appealed to for good harvest, wealth, fertility and love. And we know that the tree she with which she was most closely associated was the fir; the animal, the boar; and the bird, the falcon.

I need to digress here to explain something not generally understood about the Goddess in her biological forms. Many European goddesses have three manifestations, whether or not they are considered “triple goddesses.” (Semitic goddesses, on the other hand, usually have twin forms.) Take for example the goddess Athena. Robert Graves, recognizing Athena as a pre-Indo-European goddess despite the early Semitic influences on Greek culture, looked at two forms of Athena, the snake and the owl, and tried to find a third animal to complete the triad. He chose the goat for Athena’s third form, an association so tenuous and obscure only a scholar with his depth of knowledge could have found it. What Graves did not know, perhaps because his research centered on the Mediterranean, is that Old European goddesses have an earth animal form, a bird or sky animal form, and a tree form. This is what completes the triad. Knowing this we can immediately recognize Athena’s third form as the olive tree. It is represented on nearly all her coins, along with the owl. Cultivation of the olive tree was a huge achievement in agricultural production, and the owl and the snake also furthered agricultural production by keeping rodent populations in check. Looking at owl, snake and olive together backs up Graves’ assertion that Athena is primarily an agricultural goddess, and that her association with technology and highly organized society grew from that primitive role.

So what does boar, fir and falcon say about Frejya? As this article is getting a bit long, the question will be explored in next week’s post.

Eostre and the Egg

March 8, 2013

Sea Duck (Common Goldeneye). Photo D. Gordon E. Robertson.
Sea Duck (Common Goldeneye). Photo D. Gordon E. Robertson.

The egg plays a pivotal role in many creation myths. In the early Greek “Pelasgian” cosmology the great goddess Eurynome “assumed the form of a dove, brooding on the waves and, in due process of time, laid the Universal Egg.” She enjoins the serpent god Ophion whom she had fashioned out of chaos, to help her nurture this egg, and so “Ophion coiled seven times about this egg, until it hatched and split in two. Out tumbled all things that exist, her children: sun, moon, planets, stars, the earth with its mountains and rivers, it’s trees, herbs, and living creatures.”

In a Finnish creation story a sea duck lays seven eggs, six gold and one iron, which fall to the bottom of the ocean, break apart, and reform.

From one half the egg, the lower,
Grows the nether vault of Terra:
From the upper half remaining,
Grows the upper vault of Heaven;
From the white part come the moonbeams,
From the yellow part the sunshine,
From the motley part the starlight,
From the dark part grows the cloudage;
And the days speed onward swiftly….

Spurred by the lengthening days at the spring equinox, birds begin to lay their eggs, and egg gathering forms the basis for many spring rites. The custom of dying and decorating chicken eggs probably began as a way of mimicking the many colors and designs of wild bird eggs that were once gathered in the spring hunts.

In the Netherlands to this day there are spring hunts for the eggs of the wild Lapwing, who makes her nest on the ground. Bird nests probably formed the inspiration for basket weaving, and perhaps before this innovation people gathered their eggs in nests.

Another animal who nests in the tall grass in the early spring is the European Brown Hare, who makes a rudimentary nest or “form” for each of her babies. This is where we get the idea that the “Easter Bunny” is hiding eggs. The hare is also linked with the moon, itself shaped like an egg, because the outline of a hare holding an egg can be seen on the moon’s surface.

Lapwing egg. Photo Didier Descouens.
Lapwing egg. Photo Didier Descouens.

Early German settlers in the Pennsylvania area abandoned the hare and christened “Peter Cottontail” their “Easter Bunny.” This was a sensible decision. Cottontail rabbits are ubiquitous in this region, and while this leporid is technically not a hare, she makes a very well developed nest on the ground, unlike the European rabbit who burrows.

Pagan spring rituals around bunnies and eggs became absorbed by the spring Christian holiday of Easter, which ostensibly has nothing to do with either. While in English the holiday is known as Easter, derived from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, in other countries the holiday is derived from its Latin name “Paschal.” The English Saint Bede, also known as “The Venerable Bede,” wrote early in the eighth century:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

So we have a spring folk custom of a bunny who hides eggs or treats, baskets lined with goodies and fake grass, and organized hunts for colorful eggs, all associated with an old Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) holiday. Moreover, spring hare folklore can be traced to Germany and egg hunts to the (Germanic) Netherlands, among other places. It certainly looks like a traditional Pagan holiday, barring direct evidence to disabuse us of this assumption. Surprisingly, there are many Christians, historians, and even Pagans who have taken on the mission of disabusing us of the notion of Easter as a Pagan holiday.

Part of this hinges on the fact that Bede does not mention hares or eggs in connection with Easter. These can therefore be assumed, if desired, to be of recent origin. It always makes sense to our detractors to assume recent origin for customs embraced by modern Pagans, even in the face of contradictory evidence. The bar for acceptability of evidence can be made extremely high, or, failing that, evidence can be simply ignored with ignorance forming the justification for saying “no evidence exists.”

Brown Hare. Photo Adam Kumiszcza.
Brown Hare. Photo Adam Kumiszcza.

This brings us to the argument that the “only evidence” for the goddess Eostre comes from Bede. The phrase “the only evidence comes from Bede” implies that Bede is not a credible source, or that there is contradictory evidence elsewhere, or that there is such a plethora of written material from Europe’s Dark Ages on pagan customs that we would expect to find contemporary written confirmation. I don’t mind when academic historians spout this nonsense, because it confirms my low opinion of them, but it bothers me when Pagans pick up the refrain. Our detractors are reliably direct in their condemnation when they actually have proof, and so we need to learn to parse the words when the invalidation is subtle. When we hear that so-and-so is the “only evidence” we can be assured that: 1) a written source is being acknowledged; 2) the source is credible; and 3) there is no contradiction anywhere in evidence or plausibility. As far as Pagans are concerned, objections about “the only evidence” are usually an academic’s highest form of validation.

Pagans need to develop a strong skepticism about scholarly sources. Remember: historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists are not our priests. In most cases, they’re not even our friends.


Crawford, John Martin trans. The Kalevela, 1988. Sacred Texts

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.

Hoffman, W.J. Folk-Lore of the Pennsylvania Germans, part 2, 1889. Sacred Texts

Hosking, Rebecca. “The Lapwing – the unsung hero of Easter and farmland icon” Permaculture Inspiration for Sustainable Living, April, 2011.

moonoutline Hunt-Anschütz, A.E. Eostre and Easter Customs. Association of Polytheist Traditions, 2006. Note: I got my quote from Bede from this article. In some ways this article illustrates the type of poor Pagan scholarship I’m talking about. For example, pre-Christian hare associations are legion, and others have traced the introduction of hares into Christianity from Celtic pagan practices (see Hare by Simon Carnell). Do an exhuastive study before stating “there is no reason to believe.” Also, stating “the symbolism surrounding” an item “fits into” Christianity begs the question. Find out how and why something without Biblical associations was “fitted into” Christian practices. In fairness, the author does concede that it’s implausible to say St. Bede was making up goddesses.

WITCHCRAFT IN EUROPE 400-1700: A documentary history, 2nd edition (Review)

March 1, 2013

Edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (University of Pennsylvania, 2001)

Much of the information available to pagans about the witch persecutions of European origin is biased and distorted, if not downright inaccurate. This is even (or especially) true of information from academic sources, which often have a strong antifeminist bias as well as a fear of appearing to validate twenty-first century pagan notions. Reviewing source material can cut through a lot of this prejudice and misinformation to give a more accurate understanding of the prejudice and misinformation that sparked the witch hunts.

Witchcraft in Europe is a collection of sixty-nine texts tracing the evolution of Christian belief about witchcraft. Included are theological writings, excerpts from witch trials, personal accounts by witch hunters, and essays by clerics and non-clerics questioning the validity of witch persecutions. Of particular value are the forty-one illustrations that reflect the understanding of artists of the period about witchcraft.

By looking at documents such as these we are by definition getting a biased account. These men (they are all men) were of similar religion, social class, and education, whatever their beliefs on the witchcraft question, and they themselves were limited in access to accurate data. Still, a look at their thought processes, understanding of the world, and personal motivations reveals a great deal about how the persecutions originated and provides a few insights as to why the fear of witchcraft grew to such monstrous proportions.

The original edition of this book concentrated on the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, and most books about the witch persecutions focus on a narrower period than this, coinciding with the most intense trial activity. The editors decided that a longer view was necessary in gaining an accurate understanding of the development and evolution of beliefs about witchcraft. The longer historical period in itself makes this book superior to most others, although an understanding of history regarding paganism and witchcraft before and after this timeframe is also important.

There is an introduction to each of the texts giving a background of the author along with a summary of his other work, which is very helpful. There is also a forty page introduction, which has some biases. Read the rest of the book and form your own conclusions.

I have had this book on my shelf for years and have read many sections numerous times, but it was not until this year that I actually read the whole 400+ pages in order from start to finish. I have to admit it was painful, alternately tedious and infuriating, but in the end worth the effort.