Freyja as Goddess of the Dead

April 5, 2013

Photo by Omar Runolfsson.
Photo by Omar Runolfsson.

Books on Germanic lore usually stress the loving and abundant side of Frejya’s nature and only mention in passing, if at all, her association with death. Cooper cautions “In the necromantic form she has a greed for wealth and can kill by magic. She is an entrapping goddess – better to stay with her side of lust and love.” There are probably several reasons for the hesitation of many to fully explore Frejya’s character. The first is that the god Odin is clearly a shamanic deity whose connections with the lands of the dead are more extensively delineated in written texts. Another reason has to do with Christian disapproval of goddesses and female power. At times a nurturing goddess would be absorbed into the Virgin Mary or declared a saint, but Frejya’s power over death is clearly incompatible with Christianity. We have to keep in mind that Germanic lore was written down for the first time after the Christian conversion by later generations of Christians, after the old religion had been partially dismantled and suppressed. But the male scribes may have ignored Frejya’s necromantic side simply because, as males, there were long-held taboos that kept certain knowledge away from them. Frejya’s cult was probably a feminine one.

The family that wallows together, stays together. Photo by Steve Garvie.
Photo by Steve Garvie.
Frejya’s death aspect is hugely important. Ancestor worship was the basis for ancient religions across Europe, not just with the Germanic tribes. The accumulated knowledge of the society rested with living elders and with those who had passed on. The world of the dead was the source of most divination, healing, spells, songs, and sacred stories. It was also the place where women went to connect with the spirit of their next child, which is why Frejya as goddess of fertility must also be goddess of the dead.

The Germanic practice of voyaging to the lands of the dead is called Seidr (SAYTHE). This is not a straightforward journey even for a god or his priest. The living do not belong in these lands and so must travel in disguise, as one who has died. The gods have accomplished this journey by riding a special animal that is allowed to move freely between the worlds, by taking the form of a mouse, by carrying a sprig of mistletoe which is a plant symbolizing death, by borrowing the falcon-feather cape of Frejya, by drawing blood through a self-inflicted wound, and by carrying the branch of a tree that bleeds red sap such as the alder. Sometimes a priest can travel by obtaining a spell from his mother, who for him was the original portal into the world of the living.

None of this applies to the daughters of Freyja. The priestess who has reached menarche has right of passage by virtue of her ability to bleed, and so she can enter and leave Freyja’s death-world unmolested.

In the next post I will talk about a few of Freyja’s other associations and her relation to the goddess Frigga.

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.

Bird Companions of the Goddess: A quiz

April 12, 2012

Photo by Courtney Johns

How much do you know about the winged companions of the Goddess? If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you’ll recognize many of these. Match the bird in the left column with the European or Middle Eastern goddess (or god) she is frequently associated with.









Baba Yaga









Answers are here.

Feel free to add other goddess and god associations for these birds in the comments.