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.
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.
The birch was discussed a few months ago in the series on the witch’s broom, but a whole book could be written about this magical tree. This week we turn to the relationship between the birch tree and the Germanic goddess Frigga.Trees going by the common name of “birch” belong to the family betula, which abounds in northern climates, though the various species differ in appearance, habitat, and other characteristics. The two species prevalent in North America are the Paper Birch, which produces the material for the lightweight birch bark canoes that were once the predominant mode of travel in the north, and the Yellow Birch, which is known for its highly aromatic leaf buds. Neither of these characteristics are shared by the White Birch or Silver Birch, the two species Germanic sacred lore is based upon. The White Birch is the most northern growing Eurasian hardwood and the only tree found in Iceland. The Silver Birch has the whitest bark of any betula. In some cases it is impossible to distinguish which tree is being referenced, but fortunately the two are very similar, their chief difference being growing habitat. The following discussion will apply to the White and Silver Birch, but one or more of the magical characteristics of these trees can be found in other birches native to North America.The birch is an attractive tree, often quite tall, that buds early in spring. Deer are dependent on birch twigs during periods of heavy snow, and the inner bark of the tree is edible for humans as well. Birch produces abundant sap that was once used for sweetening beverages. Twigs are traditional material for thatching houses or weaving baskets, and the bark is used for smoking meat or tanning hides. The fragrant wood burns even when wet. Birch is the preferred wood for constructing drums due to its resonance.The birch tree is believed to dispel evil, which is why participants leaving the traditional Nordic sauna are gently flogged with birch twigs. The household broom was once constructed with birch twigs and witches still prefer birch for their brooms. In Germanic provinces in medieval times, young men would decorate birch trees for the May rites in homage to their lady love. Birch was the favored wood for the Maypole.Birch bark was often a medium for runic script, and the rune Boerc corresponds to the birch tree. D. Jason Cooper calls this rune one of “healing, regeneration, and the atonement of past deeds” and it is used magically for increasing fertility and aiding childbirth. In divination, Boerc means abundance, possible marriage, stability, and purification.Boerc is Frigga’s rune. The prose Edda says of Frigga that “she knows the fates of all men, though she speaks no prophecy.” Frigga is known for her propensity for silence, which is another way of saying that she holds the mystery, mistress of truths that are hard to penetrate. She rules the hidden realms, including the realm of the dead.In Germanic lore the most popular death scenario is that half the heroes slain in battle go to Valhalla, the hall of the god Odin, while the other half go to the hall of the goddess Frejya, all feasting in merriment while awaiting the final battle. Those who die of sickness, old age, or other inglorious means, on the other hand, go to the cold inhospitable realms of the goddess Hel. In a competing and less celebrated scenario, the dead go to Fensalir, the hall of Frigga located on a distant sea-island, where they feast in abundance and harmony forever. Frigga is a pre-patriarchal, pre-Indo-European goddess whose inevitable marriage to the chief Teutonic god Odin reflects not only her power and high status, but her rulership of the death realms that Odin penetrated to achieve his status as a shamanic deity.Cooper asserts that “Little is positively known of Frigga’s worship in pagan times, since the Christians were harder on the goddesses than the gods of the north.” What little has been positively discerned has been pieced together from fleeting references in the many texts penned in Christian times. Other things can be inferred about Frigga, however, from her association with gold, spinning and weaving, and the birch tree. Being goddess of death and goddess of sustenance seems contradictory, but it mirrors the generosity of the birch in winter and summer. The spinning wheel is a common metaphor for the cyclic nature of the seasons, and spinning goddesses are almost invariably spider, snake, or sun goddesses. The gold thread that Frigga spins and the golden tears she cries suggests she is linked to the sun. The qualities of the birch, taken together, are also reflective of the sun. Birch leaves turn striking gold (Silver Birch) or a dark red (White Birch) in fall, and the white branches of the tree are awakened early by the rays of the sun. Remember, too, that birch wood burns unseasoned and when wet, suggesting that the tree stores or contains the sun’s fire. Frigga ia an important goddess, one that deserves more attention, and every reference to her, tangential as it may be, is filled with messages. I have limited discussion of her here to the places her story intersects with the birch, but feel free to add more in the comments.SourcesBlount, Martin. “Lady of the Woods – The Birch.” White Dragon.Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press, 1986.Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berekeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.The Gylfaginning at Sacred Texts.Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1940.Monaghan, Patricia. The Books of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Sacred Earth. “Birch (betula sp.) – History and Uses”.
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.
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.SourcesCooper, 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.