Frigga and Writing

March 3, 2017

Germane to my post last week on Frigga, here is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Divining with Animal Guides.

The origin of Germanic writing is complex. Late Bronze Age carvings and cave markings from Northern Italy to Sweden show some rune-like symbols, their meaning undeciphered. Readable runic script dates to the second century and was presumably derived from the Etruscan alphabet, with which it shares some symbols. The god Odin is credited with discovering the runes, eighteen of them to start, when he hung upside down from the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nine nights. It is essential to understand that runes are not and were not simply signs that could be manipulated to form language, although they certainly were used for that purpose. Runes have always been magical powers in and of themselves. They disclose hidden truths, they protect buildings, they form spells. They are the force behind what words they speak.

Since Odin found the runes while tied to the tree but did not invent them, we have to look deeper for their source. The deities who nourish Yggdrasil are the Norns Urd, Verthandi, and Skuld. They are the Norns we are usually talking about when we say “The Norns.” The Norns water Yggdrasil’s roots from a pool of water at the base of the tree. They are responsible for giving each person their destiny and can reveal the past, present, and future. They are usually the powers invoked when using runes for divination and they are the powers petitioned for changing life circumstances. In addition to tending the tree, the Norns tend a pair of swans who are said to be the parents of all swans in the world. The Norns themselves wear cloaks of swan feathers.

Another Germanic divinatory goddess is Frigga, who knows the future but seldom speaks of it. According to some sources it is she who bestows destiny on every child. Frigga’s distaff is in heaven and the stars revolve around it, which means she controls the calendar. Frigga wears a crown of heron feathers. Her sacred tree is the birch, probably the White Birch or Silver Birch. The white, supple bark of the birch has been used throughout northern Europe as a medium for writing and drawing. Natives in North America used the Paper Birch for similar purposes. Since bark is a degradable material it would be impossible to know how far back symbolic drawing on birch goes; extant pieces from Russia date to the twelfth century. Not much was recorded in Christian times about Frigga, despite her status as nominal head of the pantheon along with Odin, because clerics worked especially hard to erase all traces of her. Those who in later centuries recorded the Norse legends were men who would not have been privy to feminine traditions anyway. While Frigga is not explicitly documented as a writing goddess, information about her points in that direction.

Birch bark writing from Russia, 13th century. This is a young boy’s school lesson.

Germanic Raven Goddesses

February 26, 2016


The following is an excerpt from my book-in-progress about animal divination.

Despite being extremely social, ravens and crows squabble quite a bit between themselves, fighting over food and territory. They even, rarely, perform “executions,” a practice poorly understood though well documented. Corvids do not routinely harm members of their posse who are ailing and will even protect the disabled and bring them food. The dominant theory is that solitary birds with no allies eventually excite territorial instincts. Whatever the reason, the flock becomes very noisy as a number of birds execute the offender. Once killed, the cacophony abates suddenly and the birds abscond, leaving behind the corpse.

More common than executions of their own kind is mobbing of raptors. Any songbird might take part in a mobbing, but jays and crows are the most enthusiastic, while the larger and less vulnerable ravens seldom bother. Ravens do buzz and snap at eagles, perhaps to draw eagles away from nest sites (although this does not totally explain things). Some ravens hang out around wolf packs, waiting to devour leftovers from a carcass. In the meantime they enjoy teasing the wolves, pulling their tails and scampering off.

The raven-wolf pairing is more conspicuous in Germanic lore than the raven-horse, although both can be found. Two wolves sit at the feet of the god Odin, while two ravens flank his shoulders. The names of these ravens are Huginn and Muninn. usually translated as “thought” and “memory.” Odin the Allfather “sends them out at daybreak to fly over the whole world, and they come back at breakfast-time; by this means he comes to know a great deal about what is going on, and on account of this men call him the god-of-ravens.” There is some controversy over the meaning of “Muninn,” who is mentioned less frequently than his sidekick in extant Germanic lore. Two questions not entertained, to my knowledge, would be 1) Are these ravens really guy-ravens or is this a case of default male bias? and 2) Why two ravens?

The gender of the ravens does matter, since ravens are Odin’s servants and the Valkyries called the daughters of Odin, serve him on the battlefield as well as in Valhalla. In the Poetic Edda the battlefield is referred to as “Huginn’s grove,” so one or both of these same ravens are hovering alongside the fight like the Valkyries. Perhaps Huginn and Muninn are the culmination of a process from a dominant raven-goddess to a raven-goddess subsumed under rule of the Allfather to a subordinate raven deity stripped of feminine association.

That two wolves and two ravens flank Odin is curious. Why not one raven-wolf pair? Why not nine ravens? Two is not an automatically recurring number in Norse lore; nine, and occasionally three, are the most prominent numbers. If this were a story of Semitic origin I would attribute the pair of ravens to cultural emphasis on complementary halves, but that is not the case here. When Odin says he has two ravens, he means that the ravens are two, and we do have to ask, why two?

The idea that the mind of the God is divided into thought and memory is suspect, since this is a dualistic concept that, if it existed at all, would most probably have arisen through Christian influence. The translation of Muninn’s name as “memory” is contested anyway. There are marriages between gods and goddesses, which might explain the raven-pair, though marriages are often ways of blending the pantheons of conquerors with those of indigenous people, so a marriage might not fit with the idea of the ravens as vestiges of an earlier matriarchal cosmology. There are other deities that are commonly thought of in pairs, such as the goddess Frigga and her son Baldur, and the boar-goddess Freya with her boar-brother Freyr. Could Odin’s winged familiars be brother-sister raven deities?

Where the number two arises most frequently is in reference to the Aesir and Vanir, the two branches of pantheons that came together under the reign of the Odin. Feminist scholars theorize that these groups represent an indigenous Old European pantheon (the Vanir) linked to a conquering Indo-European pantheon (the Aesir) . We could also call them two allied Indo-European pantheons – the point is that they represent the confederation of two tribes. This would explain why Odin has two ravens and wolves at his command: they represent the raven-wolf totems of each of these tribes. This is supported by Odin’s revelation in the Prose Edda, “Over the world every day fly Hugin and Munin; I fear that Hugin will not come back, though I’m more concerned about Munin.” To me this speaks of a ruler trying to maintain control of an unruly alliance.


The Elder Eddas of Seamund Sigfusson, Benjamin Thorpe, trans, (London: Norroena Society) p. 143. Accessed at Project Gutenberg February 22, 2016.

Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), p. 191.

Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson: Tales from Norse Mythology, Jean I. Young, trans. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), p. 64.

Unlearning High School Mythology

April 19, 2013

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.

Hera with Prometheus. 4th century b.c.e. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Hera with Prometheus. 4th century b.c.e. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
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.

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.

The World Tree

July 6, 2012

At the axis of the worlds there is a tree linking the underworld, the word we live in, and the the ethereal realm of gods and fallen heroes. This is Yggdrasil (IGG-draw-sill), the divine ash tree. The serpent Nidhogg (NEED-hog) nibbles at its roots while an eagle nests in its high branches. The eagle and Nidhogg are sworn enemies, and the squirrel Ratatosk scampers up and down the trunk carrying insults from one to another. Four stags nibble at the lower branches, pruning foliage so Yggdrasil does not grow out of control. At the base of the trunk, on the ground, sit the Norns, the sisters Urd (oord), Verdandi (VAIR-dawn-dee) and Skuld (schooled). They water the roots each day from a pool of white water. Urd is the oldest of the sisters, and some even say the other two are aspects of herself. From her name come the words “earth” and “weird,” which originally meant fate. The Norns set the fate of each child at birth, carving the details in runes on a wooden plank. Those who consult the runes address the Norns before each divination.

From Edith Hamilton’s Mythology:

Beside this root was a well of white water, URDA’S WELL, so holy that none might drink of it. The three NORNS guarded it, who “Allot their lives to the sons of men/And assign to them their fate.” The three were URDA (the Past), VERDANDI (the Present), and SKULD (the Future). Here each day the gods came, passing over the quivering rainbow bridge to sit beside the well and pass judgment on the deeds of men.

The Three Witches from Shakespeares Macbeth, by Daniel Gardner, 1775. They were called “the weyard sisters” in the play, an allusion to the Norns. (Weird at that time meant fate.)
Hamilton is conflating Germanic and Greek myth a bit here. The three fates (Moirae) of the Greeks are spinners in charge of past, present and future. The names of the Norns translate closer to “fate,” “being” and “necessity.” Hamilton does not make it explicit that the gods sit at Urd’s well because they need the authority of the Norns to pass judgment.

The god Odin (OH-dinn) is also associated with the ash, because he hung upside down from Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights in order to receive the eighteen runes. From a medieval text quoted in D. Jason Cooper, Using the Runes:

I hung from a windswept tree,
I hung there for nine days and nights,
I was gashed, pierced with a spear,
I was an offering made to Odin.
Offered, myself to myself,
On that tree which no man knows,
Or where its roots still run.

The wood of the White Ash is very hard, and so it is often used for tool handles, including magical tools. Recall from previous posts that ash is the preferred wood for the witch’s broom handle.

The ash is also important in Celtic magic, and it’s tempting to delve into the copious amount of material on this tree. I am limiting myself to the connection between the ash and the Norns, however. If there’s anything you want to share about the ash, even if it’s not related to Germanic lore, feel free to leave a comment.


Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes.Wellborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1986.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. (Reprint) New York: Mentor, 1979.

Littleton, C. Scott (ed). Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2002.