The Return to Mago blog is running a series of articles I have written about the Sow Goddess, entitled The Old Sow. There will be four articles, which I believe each stand on their own.The research for this series was more arduous than any I have undertaken in a long time. In my experience when research becomes time consuming it is either because there is a huge amount of information about the subject–or very little. In this case, it was both. The archeological record for worship of the sow goddess is quite large, and the information available in myth and folklore is substantial as well. However, this information is also very scattered considering the amount of it, and I had to pull data together from many sources. Robert Graves in the 1949 book The White Goddess emphasized the importance of the sow in pre-patriarchal religion. This book has always been controversial, but Graves is correct on this point. It’s quite amazing that no one has taken on an extensive study of the topic. Though my series of four short articles is hardly exhaustive, I urge everyone to follow these articles and become more familiar with the Sow Goddess. I will be posting updated links to the articles as they are published.
While Frigga’s worship was prevalent in all regions of Germanic settlement, Frejya’s worship seems to have been concentrated in the Nordic countries. This supports the hypothesis that she was a latecomer to the pantheon, her relative prominence a sign that she was the principal deity of an indigenous people.When Germanic tribes adopted the Roman calendar, the sixth day of the week, which the Romans dedicated to the goddess Venus, became Frejya’s day. Although Venus and Frejya are not terribly similar, Frejya does have the most Venusian qualities of the pantheon. Where Freyja was not the dominant goddess, the sixth day was dedicated to Frigga. The English Friday was clearly derived from Frigga, although in Scandinavian languages the name of the day probably came from Frejya.Frejya is closely aligned with her brother the boar god Freyr, who is like his sister in many ways, aiding the harvest, bringing wealth and protecting children. While Frejya’s symbol is the vulva, Freyr’s is the phallus, and he was worshiped at a huge phallic monument. Frejya also has a lover, the god Oder, who has a tendency to wander, and Frejya will wander herself in search of him, leaving the earth cold and barren. Frejya wears a necklace of amber which she obtained from the dwarves. She also wears a cloak of falcon feathers and leather tunic and leather leggings. She has a lovely red mouth and is generous with her affection and her possessions. Frigga is wife of the Germanic god Odin, who is the chief male shamanic deity. Odin obtained most of his magic by threatening and confronting various goddesses and priestesses. He is no match for Frigga, however, who can always best him in a battle of wits. Before Odin arrived on the scene, Frigga’s principal male deity was probably her son Balder. She doted so much on her son that she extracted promises from every living thing on earth never to harm him. She overlooked the poisonous mistletoe, since it is such an innocuous looking plant, and was tricked into revealing her oversight. Frigga’s loss of her son and their subsequent reunion mirrors the dormancy and regeneration of vegetation. In pre-patriarchal societies, the role of goddesses as sisters and mothers rather than wives is emphasized, since children belong to the mother’s family.Frigga cries tears of gold when she mourns and has a great love of adornment, wearing precious jewels and a showy crown of heron feathers. She dresses in finely woven cloth. Her spinning wheel revolves in the night sky as a constellation. Frigga is a generous goddess like Frejya, but in one area she is famous for her stinginess: she usually refrains from divulging prophecy, even though she knows everything which is to come.This is by no means a complete picture of either Frejya or Frigga, but by now a picture should be emerging of two goddesses who can neither be conflated nor made entirely distinct. The best way to get to know them is to take a meditative journey to meet them face to face.This is the final installment of this series on Frejya and Frigga. Also see an earlier post on Frigga as goddess of the birch. The following list of sources is for the entire series (seven installments).BBC. “Boar Watching.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Wild_boar#p0087k14BBC. “Pigs Have Evolved to Wallow in Mud.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_9464000/9464994.stmBarrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: Diamond Books, 1996.Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press, 1986.Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Gyrfalcon.” http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/gyrfalcon/lifehistoryGimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Miriam Robbins Dexter, ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.Guerber, H.A. The Norsemen. London: Senate, 1994.Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Druid’s Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2008.Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Ombrello, T. “Conifer Cones.” http://faculty.ucc.edu/biology-ombrello/pow/conifer_cones.htmSullivan, Janet. “Picea Abies.” U.S. Dept of Agriculture, 1994. http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/picabi/all.htmlTaylor, Thomas (trans). “The Orphic Hymns.” http://www.theoi.com/Text/OrphicHymns1.html#15.Tekiela, Stan. Trees of New York. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Boooks, 2006.Vikernes, Varg. Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia. London: Abstract Sounds, 2011.Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.
The Greek pantheon became large and complex because so many cultural influences shaped Greek history. New gods became incorporated through outside invasions, trade interactions, and the conquest of other states. The foundational strain of Greek civilization, called the Pelasgian culture by ancient Greek historians and part of the wider civilization of Old Europe by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, placed goddesses at the center of worship. Indo-European invasions introduced a patriarchal religion headed by a sky god Zeus. In time other deities were introduced through trade (e.g., Aphrodite) or conquest (e.g., Hecate). Meanwhile devotion to pre-Indo-European goddesses such as Artemis or Athena persisted.Like nearly all polytheistic societies, the Greeks absorbed new deities by incorporating them in a common religious framework. A favored way of doing this was to marry one of the old goddesses to a new god. The goddess Hera became the wife of god Zeus and Persephone the wife of Hades. Since marriage was seen as subjugation of the goddess, where the cult of a goddess was particularly strong she remained virgin, as in the case of Artemis or Athena. Another way of creating order in the pantheon was to assign specific functions to different deities. Thus Aphrodite was not allowed to do any “work,” but must (officially) stick to her realm of romantic love. Sometimes a deity with a weaker following would become the priestess of a deity with a more robust cult, especially if these deities had similar functions. Thus the Arcadian bear goddess Callisto was said to be a priestess of Artemis. The ecstatic Dionysus was followed by the wild goddesses known as the Maenads. Other times deities with similar functions would be subsumed under the name of the deity with the more powerful cult.When the Romans adopted the Greek religion they pursued this strategy with abandon, and nearly all of their deities had a Greek equivalent that the Romans considered identical. The Romans believed that the gods in all other pantheons were identical to their own, even pantheons from cultures they considered very different from theirs. In some cases the deities probably were the same. For example, Father Zeus, Zeus Pater, not only has an identical position and personality to the Roman god Jupiter, the names sound very similar. Deities from other cultures may have been integrated into the Roman pantheon at an earlier time, or similar deities could have a common origin in an earlier Indo-European or Old European culture.In the Middle Ages the Roman, but not the Greek, names for deities were known to most people in Roman Catholic countries. Common people called the old gods by their Roman names or by the name of the fictitious saint they had been reinvented as or by the original name in their own language. Scholars in all but a few monasteries in Ireland read Latin but not Greek, and so Greek literature was unavailable to them. With the Renaissance came the rediscovery of Greek literature along with renewed interest in the Greek and Roman deities and perhaps the apogee of Western literature and art. From this time the greatest literature in English has sought inspiration from the old gods. This inspiration has been understood to be, at least officially, one of symbol and of metaphor rather than of worship. This interpretation has emphasized the functional aspects of the deities. So Hera becomes Marriage; Pan, Nature; Aphrodite, Love; Zeus, Authority. This is how we learn Greek mythology in high school.I asked at the school in my village if Greek mythology was still being taught, and I was told, “Yes, of course! The children get a brief introduction in grade school and more thorough exposure in high school.” I think they were a bit shocked that I would even ask the question. But it is important to keep in mind why children are forced to learn the Greco-Roman pantheon. It is so they can understand ancient literature, Renaissance literature, literature of the Romantic era, and the small amount of art history they are exposed to. It is not about understanding the gods. So we know Hera as the jealous wife of Zeus who presides over marriage, Demeter as the goddess of motherhood, Persephone as ruler of the death realm, and Artemis as forest maiden who hunts critters.The problem is that not even the Greeks understood their gods in this way. Take this classical hymn to the goddess Hera:
O Royal Juno [Hera] of majestic mien, aerial-form’d, divine, Jove’s [Zeus’] blessed queen,
Thron’d in the bosom of cærulean air, the race of mortals is thy constant care.
The cooling gales thy pow’r alone inspires, which nourish life, which ev’ry life desires.
Mother of clouds and winds, from thee alone producing all things, mortal life is known:
All natures share thy temp’rament divine, and universal sway alone is thine.
With founding blasts of wind, the swelling sea and rolling rivers roar, when shook by thee.
Come, blessed Goddess, fam’d almighty queen, with aspect kind, rejoicing and serene.
Hera is not only the goddess of marriage and the wife of Zeus, she is the creator of everything, the sustainer of life, the protector of people, the force that drives the wind, the waves, and the torrid rivers. She is a big deal.The problems in how we conceptualized the Greco-Roman gods in our high school English class increase exponentially when we begin applying this methodology to other pantheons. Our understanding becomes not only grossly reductionist, but wrong.Let’s look again at the Germanic pantheon. The Germanic tribes, like the Greek, had a steadily growing collection of deities to sort out. Unlike the Greeks, who lived for millennia in the same place and found themselves conquered and reconquered, the Germans grew their pantheon by conquering others and absorbing the local gods, then repeating the process many times as they moved westward. It is common wisdom that the gods of the Vanir branch (including Freya and Freyr), are the Old European gods and the larger Aesir branch (which includes Frigga, Odin, Thor and many others) is the Indo-European one, but the Aesir includes plenty of Old European deities that were absorbed at an earlier time. I have heard Odin described as the old warrior and Thor the young warrior; Skadi the winter goddess and Idunn the spring goddess; Frejya the woman warrior and Frigga the hearth goddess. These depictions are totally accurate but completely wrong.Sometimes a discussion of Germanic mythology from a functional perspective describes the afterlife as the Hall of Valhalla presided over by the god Odin. Only warriors go there, so Odin is the god of the warrior death realm while the goddess Hel is queen of death for ignoble people. But further reading of the myths reveals that half the slain in battle (actually the preferred half) go to Frejya’s Hall of Sessrymnir. Hel’s death field is a sheet of ice, but there is a death goddess by the name of Mengloth who lives on a hill in the underworld called Lyfjaberg. Frigga greets the dead from her island of Fensalir. The god Heimdall meets his faithful in his hall of Himinbjorg. The Germanic tribes seem to have sorted out their gods not by dividing functions, but by allocating real estate in the afterworld. They were a people who lived very close to death, after all.Unlearning high school mythology allows us to make better sense of the Germanic mythology penned by the first generations of Christians, and perhaps even to discern some of their conceptual errors. Next week we will again look at the goddesses Frejya and Frigga, and hopefully understand them in a better way.
Frejya has other associations besides the boar, fir, and falcon. As hinted before, she is linked with the sun and through her sun connection with the cycle of the year. Some other associations with Frejya include spring flowers, butterflies, the myrtle tree, the cuckoo, the swallow, cattle, and goats. Her magical symbol is the vulva. She shares many attributes with the goddess Frigga, including again the sun, fire, the element of gold, the ability to influence dwarves, possession of magical jewelry, the apple tree, and the falcon. Like Frigga she has numerous maiden attendants. Both goddesses are associated with love, marriage, midwifery, fertility, and abundance. Both rule important death realms.Frigga has some associations not normally mentioned in connection with Frejya. She is the goddess of the birch tree and her special symbol is the chalice. She is linked with the heron. Her association with motherhood is more strongly emphasized, and her possession of special keys underscores her matronly qualities. Frigga is considered more of a queenly goddess than a maidenly one. She has many magical qualities, but the most important are prophecy and the power of silence. Her silence may signify that there were powerful taboos against revealing aspects of her cult to outsiders. Frigga is goddess of weaving and keeper of the spinning wheel. Spinning and weaving are tasks that today are glossed over and dismissed, but they were extremely important in the ancient world. Frigga spins thread with a sky wheel, and as commander of the wheel of the sky she controls weather.In Western understanding of pantheons there are two contradictory and equally wrongheaded tendencies. The first is to subsume deities with the same attributes or functions under a single godhead. According to this tendency Frejya and Frigga as goddesses of love, fertility, death, and the sun must be the same goddess. The second tendency is to divide attributes and functions between deities. By this logic, Frejya is goddess of maidens and Frigga of marriage; Frejya possesses the apple while Frigga controls gold. To recognize the problems with conceiving of deities in this fashion, we need to go back to Greek mythology and how our understanding of that mythology has evolved and bled into other pantheons.So next week I will be discussing certain aspects of Greek mythology — but trust me, this is very pertinent to understanding Frigga and Frejya.
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. 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.
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.”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.
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.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.
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.