Tolkien, Romanticism and Norse Mythology
Two days ago, Tolkien fans toasted the legendary author on what would have been his 125th birthday. J.R.R. Tolkien in some ways is a mysterious person. He was a devout Roman Catholic with a strong interest in Norse Mythology. And it was his writing that took the Norse mythology that he studied and loved, and created an entire literary genre around it.
THE NORSE INFLUENCE
During Tolkien’s education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the then young Tolkien read and translated from the Old Norse on his own time. One of his first Nordic purchases was the Völsunga saga ( a late 13th century Icelandic prose rendition of the origin and decline of the Völsung clan). Both the Volsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied were texts that had roughly the same date and origin. And both of these provided some of the basis for Richard Wagner’s opera series, Der Ring des Nibelungen, featuring in particular a magical golden ring and a broken sword reforged. In the Völsungasaga, these items are respectively Andvarinaut and Gram, and they correspond broadly to the One Ring and the sword Narsil (reforged as Andúril).
So hmmm…Tolkien was inspired by a story about a magical ring, that sounds kind of familiar…
THE ROMANTIC INFLUENCE
One important thing to understand about Tolkien is that he had an intense hatred of industrialization, which he considered to be devouring the English countryside. And much of the forces of evil in Lord of The Rings can be analogous to the forces of industrialization both Tolkien’s time, as well as our time today.
What is interesting to note, is that in the late 19th century and early 20th century there was a movement of “neo-romanticism.” The romanticism of the late 18th century had a strong emphasis on emotion, and the glory of the past and nature, as well as an intense disdain for industrialization. So neo-romanticism was a reinvention of that in later times.
(Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818)
In the Romantic as well as Neo-Romantic movements, there was a romanticized ideal of the past as a time when people were more noble and heroic. Many of these themes are obvious in Wagner’s extraordinary operas (for instance, Flight of the Valkyries). Afterall, as mentioned above, Wagner wrote a certain opera about a certain magical ring and the curse of material greed (very familiar sounding).
Of course, Wagner had very controversial associations, given his anti-semitic ideas, and the Nazis’ love for Wagner. So if Tolkien was inspired by Wagner, he certainly wasn’t going to go around saying so. Especially not after World War II.
But in Tolkien’s work, he did manage to express a sort of Romantic yearning for the glory of the past, as well as a contempt for the power and forces of greed in modern times. The Lord of the Rings Films are also like a work of Romantic art, in Peter Jackson’s emphasis on large, powerful landscapes in which man is only a tiny, and small wanderer lost in the power of nature.
(Landscape from The Hobbit Trailer)
(Here’s a piece of romantic landscape art in comparison. Albert Bierstadt’s Storm in the Rocky Mountains, 1866)
ELVES AND DWARFS
In continuation with the discussion about Tolkien’s norse influences, there are the elves and dwarfs in his story. They’re not something he just made up. They were based on Norse and Germanic mythology. The Prose Edda and the Elder or Poetic Edda contain descriptions of elves and dwarfs.
In Germanic mythology, dwarfs are short, humanoids who dwell in mountains and in the Earth. They are associated with wisdom, smithing, mining and crafting. Dwarfs are also described as short and ugly.
(Here’s a dwarf!)
In terms of elves, there are the Dökkálfar (Old Norse “Dark Elves”, singular Dökkálfr) and Ljósálfar (Old Norse “Light Elves”, singular Ljósálfr). The Dark Elves dwell in the Earth and are swarthy. While the Light Elves live in Álfheimr (one of the nine Norse worlds) and are fairer than the sun to look at.
(Here’s an elf!)
GANDALF THE GREY
The figure of Gandalf the Grey is also influenced by the Norse deity Odin, who was described as a wanderer, an old man with one eye, a wide-brimmed hat and a long beard. In a letter of 1946, nearly a decade after the character was invented, Tolkien wrote that he thought of Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer (Carpenter 1981, #181)”. Much like Odin, Gandalf promotes justice, knowledge, truth, and insight.
(Gandalf fan art)
However, Norse myth wasn’t the only cultural influence. Tolkien’s work was also influenced by Old and Middle English, he based the Elvish language on Finnish, Greek mythology (in terms of the island Numenor being an allusion to Atlantis), Celtic influence in terms of the exile of the Noldorin elves and the parallels of that with the mythical Tuatha Dé Danann, and Arthurian Legend .
Tolkien was also influenced by his own Christian religion as well. The biblical narrative about the fall of man influenced The Silmarillion (in terms of the fall of the elves).
The poem below is from The Fellowship of the Ring. I think it definitely shows the Romantic influences in Tolkien’s work. I.E. the yearning for ancient ways. The contempt for greed.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
Also read: “I Sit Beside the Fire and Think“
Tolkien’s grandson on how WW1 inspired The Lord of the Rings (BBC, 1-3-17)
J. R. R. Tolkien Fans Are Toasting the Lord of the Rings Author on His 125th Birthday (TIME, 1-3-17)
How Did the Ancient Norse Feel About Loki?
(Image Source. Note, it’s very hard to find non-marvel images of Loki)
The Norse trickster Loki has become a hot topic in the last few years. In addition to appearing as the bad guy in the Avengers movie, he was also the theme of the most recent Amon Amarth album, “Deceiver of The Gods” (2013).
His popularity in the media has brought up much debate about “who he was really.” Even in the pagan community (which is already fairly small), there is an even smaller number of people who consider themselves devotees of Loki (Lokeans). They honor him as a patron of change, trickery and chaos. This has been somewhat of a source of contention in the Heathen community, because many Heathens see Loki as the antithesis of everything the Ancient Norse stood for. It doesn’t help that he’s the one fated to fight the Aesir on the day of Ragnarok.
If people today want to worship Loki, I certainly don’t have a problem with it. But I can see how a Lokean honoring Loki at a Heathen gathering may be somewhat like declaring oneself a Cowboy’s fan in a Washington D.C. Sports Bar.
MOST SCHOLARS AGREE THAT LOKI WAS NEVER WORSHIPED AS A GOD
While many people today may see Loki as a “God of trickery or mischief,” the fact remains that most scholars believe that in ancient, pre-christian times, Loki was never worshiped as a God.
SO WHO WAS LOKI?
Loki, son of a jötunn, was a sort of interloper who hung out with the Aesir, sometimes causing mischief and other times helping out (usually as a way to clean up the mess he caused).
In modern times many people interpret Loki as an “evil character.” But the ancient Norse did not have black and white, Judeo-Christian ideals of “good and evil,” like we do today.
Instead there were standards of behavior for how one ought to act in the community. Ideally, people were supposed act with honor and courage, which is the opposite of how Loki acted. Loki in turn was a figure of cowardice and duplicity. Yet he wasn’t entirely terrible, because he was allowed to coexist with the Aesir until he was responsible for getting Baldur (The God of light and beauty) stuck in the Underworld. Then that was when his trickery went too far.
However, despite his trickery, he did help the struggling Gods get Asgard built, by contracting a giant to do the job. The giant asked for the sun, the moon and the Goddess Freya in payment. While the Gods were not too sure about this arrangement, Loki insisted that the giant would never get the work finished in time. When the giant came close to finishing the job, Loki turned himself into a mare and seduced the giant’s stallion, which prevented the giant from getting the job done in time.
There was another situation where Loki helped Thor find his missing hammer in a comedic escapade, where Loki convinces Thor to cross dress and pretend to be a bride at a wedding.
However, Loki’s role as an antagonist cannot be white washed, considering that he will eventually fight against the Aesir during Ragnarok.
LOKI AND ODIN: BLOOD BROTHERS
Yet despite Loki’s mischief, the fact remains that Odin and Loki were blood brothers – a very serious bond deeper than any other. Perhaps this is because Odin saw Loki as being useful, when a job required brains and negotiating, rather than brawn. I have even heard interesting theories that there was a deeper motivation behind Loki’s mischief than people think (I emphasize the word theories here). As mentioned earlier, Loki was responsible for keeping Baldur trapped in the Underworld. However, in the aftermath of Ragnarok, Baldur emerged from the Underworld to return to the land of the living where he and his brother Höðr would rule the new earth together with Thor’s sons. Had Baldur not been trapped in the Underworld, he may have died in Ragnarok. So was there a method behind Loki’s madness? Who knows…
But perhaps the point of Loki was that the Norse saw the world in a much more nuanced way than we do today. The world wasn’t simply a place of good and evil. The world was a place where courage and bravery were ideal, but even so – sometimes there were situations that called for a little trickery, trickery that yielded results that were good, bad and highly comedic.
AMON AMARTH – FATHER OF THE WOLF
Ways that Modern People Have Overlooked Warrior Women as Historical Fact
(Historians have assumed this woman was holding a cleaning tool – um she looks more like she’s ready to cut someone’s head off with that thing than polish the floor.)
Cracked isn’t always the most accurate place for news, but the article I posted above makes some good points.
In modern depictions of the past, such as a TV series like Spartacus, we are shown an image of muscular slave men battling each other to death in the gladiatorial arena, while a woman’s maximum participation is cheering from the sidelines or later rewarding one of the gladiators with a blow job.
However, the truth is that female gladiators were quite common in Rome. There were many graves of decorated gladiators that historians assumed to be male, only to be surprised when the bone analysis revealed these warriors to be women – as if the woman just so happened to fall into the wrong grave!
The assumptions don’t just end there. Most heroic warrior figures, such as vikings or samurai are all assumed to be male, and this depiction is the norm in television dramas, comics and movies. Yet in most warrior societies – such as that of the Spartans, the Mongols, the Celts and the Vikings, the art of war was such an important skill that everyone was expected to know what they were doing – including the women. In ancient Celtic societies, there were even fighting schools where female teachers called a BAN-GAISGEDAIG taught boys the art of fighting and love.
In fact, in a DNA analysis of the Japanese battle of Senbon Matsubaru in 1580, 35 of the 105 bodies tested were female. Not to mention that this is only one of several archaeological finds that show a similar story.
Then there is the fact that most ancient societies had goddesses associated with war and death, such as Athena, Freya, Sekhmet, the Morrigan, Brigid and Kali. In fact, some of these named Goddesses were more terrifying than their male counterparts. If the idea of a woman fighting was really so unrealistic to the people of the ancient world, then why were there Goddesses entirely devoted to warfare?
So today’s reality of women in the military or police force actually isn’t anything new. If anything, it is a return to long term historical trends. Look at the fact that more than 30% of the Kurds fighting the ISIS scum are female. When a group of people are in danger, and bodies are needed to fight for survival, women will be among that number. This is why it is unrealistic for people today to think that women don’t need to know anything about fighting or self defense. What society has a better chance of survival – one where only half the population knows how to fight, or one where 100% of the population can kick some ass?
So next time someone complains that the portrayal of women warriors in historical dramas is “not realistic,” remind them that the more historically inaccurate fallacy is one where there are no women warriors at all in societies that prized the art of battle in all aspects of life.
Masha Scream of Arkona (Source)
LINKS OF INTEREST
Japanese Warrior Women – Onna-Bugeisha
Why I Hate Most Drawings of Women With Swords
Iceland to Build First Temple to Norse Gods Since Viking Age
ORIGINAL ARTICLE (More Information Here)
Ásatrúarfélagið website (The group for which the temple is being built)
For the first time in 1,000 years, a temple to the Norse Gods will be built in Iceland. Most pagans these days tend to worship in each other’s houses or outside somewhere, since our numbers are pretty low. So this will definitely be a historic landmark for Iceland – if not for the whole Pagan community in general.
Icelanders will soon be able to publicly worship at a shrine to Thor, Odin and Frigg with construction starting this month on the island’s first major temple to the Norse gods since the Viking age.
While the number of Norse Pagans is small in Iceland, the rate of growth itself is pretty large. The number has tripled in the last decade. So it makes sense that a temple will be built to accommodate this growing community.
This temple will be a place where weddings, funerals and initiation rites will take place.
After 1,000 years of oppression the old ways will re-emerge once again.
Amon Amarth – Thousand Years of Oppression
New Asatru Site for Dating and Romance
Attention Heathens, Asatru and Vikings of the internet. You will no longer have to raid the nearest settlement to find an adequate wench or knave to warm your bed this winter. There is a new dating site that has started up to help members of the Asatru community connect with one another and hopefully find romance – or lust – or a good time – or at least some pictures of guys with cool beards to look at.
The site is very new indeed. When I did a search for all the women in the world between 18-90, I only came up with 33 lasses total. (Apparently 90 is the age limit for this site, I guess after 90 you were supposed to die valiantly in battle instead of languishing around, getting older and eating up social security checks). If you are looking for a man, prospects are somewhat better. There are about 100 men on the site so far – another reminder that the world of Asatru can sometimes be a sausage fest. But that’s okay, if everyone on the site is okay with each woman having 3 men to herself, I’m sure everything will be just fine!
(Okay…this date actually looks a little awkward…)
Those in the United States will get the best odds, as most of the people I found were U.S. locals. For the rest, you could always try your luck putting together a ship, a crew, and making your way across the ocean as Leif Ericson did long ago (or do something far less epic, like just buying a plane ticket or sit around waiting for the invention of teleportation devices).
When you build your profile, you are given the typical dating site options: are you seeking male or female, are you divorced, single in an open relationship, etc. You are also required to answer questions such as your sense of humor, your interest in shows, whether you smoke, drink and all that other good stuff.
(“What do you mean you don’t like Cannibal Corpse? Sorry. We’re gonna have to see other people.”)
My main criticism is that the profile options need to give you a blank field where you can write in your own response if the preexisting responses don’t apply. For example, you can only be interested in males or females. But what about someone on the site who is bisexual? I actually do have a few bisexual heathen friends, so they would be a bit put off by this restriction. You can also only list a male or female gender, but what if someone identifies as a different gender orientation than either of those options? Also, the site requires you to list your exact location, down to the city you live in. I feel that some people would want to retain more privacy than that. Therefore, they should have an option that allows you to leave the option blank.
Yet with criticisms aside, I know that the site is very new, so they probably have quite a few quirks and kinks to work out. But I think it is a good idea that this site is attempting to do such a thing. It shows that the Asatru community is indeed growing and becoming more recognized. There is also an option to add blogs, classifieds and events, even though this hasn’t been utilized very much yet. It will be interesting to see where this site goes.
(“You mean you also enjoy crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you and hearing the lamentations of their women? You’re a keeper!”)
Gifts and Generosity in Hamaval
STANZA 39 of HAMAVAL:
No man is so generous he will jib at accepting
A gift in return for a gift,
No man so rich that it really gives him
Pain to be repaid.
Gifts were a big deal in Ancient Norse culture. They weren’t just a way to celebrate a holiday. The act of giving a gift is something that bound you to a person. This stanza is a rational explanation of gift giving and human nature. Nobody gives a gift without expecting something in return. We’re taught that that is what we’re supposed to do, but realistically few people are this altruistic. This is why many women are hesitant to accept a drink or a gift from a male stranger, because there is the underlying thought of (if I accept this gift, he thinks he deserves a sexual favor in return). This line of thought extends to political realities. If a donor (like Monsanto or the Christian Right) gives a politician a large sum of money, they are going to expect some political favors in return. So this basic line of thought can be summarized with, “if I scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine.”
A further analysis of the stanza is at the following link.
GEBO: THE RUNE OF GIFT GIVING
The Rune Gebo represents gifts, both in the sense of sacrifice and of generosity. This is an indication of balance. This rune represents all matters in relation to exchanges, including contracts, personal relationships and partnerships. The opposite of Gebo is greed, loneliness, dependence, over-sacrifice, obligation, toll, privation and bribery (Click here to learn more about the runes).
If the Rune of gift giving represents balance itself, this is an indication that gift giving wasn’t a one way street in Norse culture. It was a way to create balance in a relationship as well as to establish a bond between two parties.
A Map of Yggdrasil
Trying to understand the layout of the world tree is something that always confused me, so this simplified picture is pretty helpful.
Watch The Vikings Season 2 For Free, Along With Some Discussion of Season 1
Free Episodes Here on The History Channel
Love it or hate it, The History Channel’s Vikings is back for season number 2. Some folks have criticized the show for its inaccuracies of portraying a “Biker Bar” image of the 8th century Viking World.
HOW TV THINKS VIKINGS DRESSED:
SOMETHING CLOSER TO HOW THE VIKINGS ACTUALLY DRESSED
Vivid colors, flowing silk ribbons and glittering bits of mirrors are not what we typically think of when imagining a Viking in his “digs.” Yet grave excavations reveal that Ancient Scandinavian men may have dressed much more colorfully than originally thought. Swedish Archaeologist Annika Larsson believes that the men could be vain and that the women liked to dress provocatively, with their cleavage exposed and the skirts consisting of a single piece of fabric that was open in the front. But this style of clothing disappeared once the Vikings made contact with the Christians.
Another glaring inaccuracy is the idea that the Vikings did not know where England was. Trading routes along the North Sea date back even before the Roman invasion of Gaul in the first century B.C. This idea is especially absurd considering that The Vikings were expert sea navigators for their time period.
The final inaccuracy I will touch on is the way that the role of Earl was portrayed. He is shown as a sort of local dictator who can make decisions about life and death for his entire tribe. The reality is that The Vikings were a fairly autonomous people who lived rather Democratic lives. Decisions were made through a vote at The Thing. The Earl, also known as the Chieftain, would take a role in helping to make tribal decisions about allocating justice in a legal dispute, choosing areas to explore, tribes to battle and deciding how much food to share in a time of famine. However, as far as we know, the Chieftain did not have the authority to condemn a man to death. The most harsh punishment was being exiled. Exile meant that a man no longer had the protection of his tribe, which means no legal protection if someone else wanted to kill him.
I’m sure there are all kinds of other minute details I could get into, but I’d rather discuss what is GOOD about the show.
Yes, The Vikings is not the world’s most accurate portrayal of the way that the Vikings may have lived, but this show wasn’t just released for History Professors and Heathens. This was a show that was designed to appeal to the general public. In doing so, people who may have known nothing about Vikings may now be intrigued enough to read a book or search the internet for Viking Lore. Sometimes, getting people interested in history is more important than creating something that is 100% accurate.
The Vikings is also a show that captures the emotional themes of the Sagas, if nothing else.
So enjoy Season 2, since it is on the internet for free after all.
One last exciting thing I’ll mention is that Wardruna, the Norse Folk Group containing former members of Gorgoroth, has written more music for the score of the second season. Here is a song that was included in the score of the first season:
Viking Society Offers FREE Sagas, Texts, Lectures and Eddas Online
CHECK OUT VIKING SOCIETY WEB PUBLICATIONS HERE
The Viking Society for Northern Research is making all of their publications available online.
This includes everything they have published from their inception in 1893 to the present day.
Much of this information includes The Eddas, guides to old Icelandic language, lectures on Norse culture and more. Check it out for yourself and enjoy.
Top Norse Blogs of 2013
My personal vote of that which I deem awesome.
The blogs below are the ones I found the must useful in 2013 as resources for learning about topics related to heathenry/asatru. I raise my glass to you and hope for an equally awesome 2014.
A Norse blog hosted by a Religion and Mythology professor. Last year, this blog was best known for kicking off one of the first major attempts to do a worldwide Heathen Census. In addition to having insightful information on the history and culture of the Old Norse people, this blog also supplies many interactive tools for the public such as art contests and the aforementioned census.
This is one of the blogs I see cited the most when I look around different Heathen Forums on the internet. In addition to having much interesting articles about Norse history and culture, there is also a lot of commentary on here about trends among modern Heathens and internet groups.
This blog offers a wealth of information about key tenants of Asatru today, as well as community outreach.
Your Weekly Dose of Norse Mythology
A simple, but informative blog on Norse History and Lore.
Free Audio Books Containing Norse Mythology and Sagas
I got this lovely information from a redditor named “dw___pirate.”
A collection of myths for younger readers. These myths are explained in a simple and easy to understand way intended for children, but also good for newbies.
About the deeds of the sons of Volsung. The language of this audio is more formal and may be hard to understand if you are not more well acquainted with the myths, or if you are not focusing.
This saga contains the events that led to Eirik the red being banished to Greenland (which is actually cold and icy, while Iceland is green and less cold). He also discovers a place called “Newfoundland,” which according to geographic details, is the first European discovery of the American mainland some five centuries before Columbus’s journey.
Heathen Census Results So Far
Last week the website Norsemyth.org posted a Heathen Census.
Here are the results so far. You can also see them Here.
Remember, there is a strong survey bias to this survey.
These results tell a story about the people who took the survey, not all Heathens.
It is possible that Norsemyth.org is more popular in the US than other countries.
Also, the results will continue to be updated until the census closes on December 31st.
Falkenbach – Hávamál
Lyrics on original YouTube link
Genre: Viking/Black Metal/Folk Metal
Lyrical Themes: Epic tales, heathenism, Lore, Norse Tales
So What is Hávamál? It is “the sayings of the high one.” It is a single poem in the Poetic Edda. For those of you who don’t know what the Poetic Edda is, it is a collection of Old Norse poems from the Viking Age. Hávamál basically gives advice for proper living, good conduct and day to day wisdom. The verses themselves are attributed to the wisdom of Odin.
CLICK HERE TO READ HAMAVAL IN ENTIRETY FOR FREE
Some Key Hávamál Quotes:
FROM WISDOM FOR WANDERERS AND COUNSEL TO GUESTS
On courage and cowardice:
“A coward believes he will ever live
if he keep him safe from strife:
but old age leaves him not long in peace
though spears may spare his life.”
On mockery and judgement:
“The miserable man and evil minded
makes of all things mockery,
and knows not that which he best should know,
that he is not free from faults.”
Ancient Norse Women – Warriors, Housewives, Poets and Priestesses
There is still much about the Ancient Norse People that we do not know, so much of our current information is an attempt to fill in the gaps (since the Vikings did not write down their history and the Christians destroyed much of their existing culture). History becomes a guessing game where modern day people impose their fantasies and longings upon the past. Some of these fantasies imagine a place where every woman is a blonde haired vixen with a pointy helmet and a chain-mail bra, smashing through the faces of her enemies with sword in hand. Fantasies on the other end of the spectrum paint a picture of a male dominated society where all men fought glorious battles and women existed as mere prizes to be won.
(Very practical battle armor)
The truth is much more nuanced. Not all men fought battles and not all women had a specific “role.”
Interpreting the past is like trying to sketch a picture of the Grand Canyon from space. You’ll never know the complexity of its contours and grooves unless you are in the Canyon itself. The history of the Ancient Norse people is complex. At the highest end you had women who commanded enough respect and honor to act as a link between man and the Gods (they were called Volvas). At the lower end you had captives won in battle (not as common as you might think, given that rape was only mentioned once in the Eddas).
Rather than listen to hype and stereotypes, the most historically accurate thing we can do is to look at the tales from the Eddas and Sagas, Folk Lore and the archaeological remains of skeletons. These sources show us that Norse Women did hold a respect and freedom in the Ancient Pagan world that declined as Europe became more Christian.
In day to day life, most women presided over the farm work, house work, weaving and childcare; they were also shown to do some business and commerce of their own (scales have been found in women’s graves).
However, there were also Female Skalds (Poets), Shield Maidens (female warriors) and Priestesses. Women also had rights that didn’t exist in other parts of Europe (such as the right to divorce their husbands and own land). Typically a male heir inherited the farm, but it wasn’t unheard of for a wealthy widow to take over an estate if her husband died and if she didn’t have grown sons to run the place.
There were also laws that penalized men for violence against women or from giving women unwanted sexual attention. In the case of marriage, most women did not have the right to choose their groom, he was chosen by the family, and the bride was usually married off between the ages of 12 and 15. However, a woman was allowed to call witnesses to divorce her husband for a valid reason: i.e. he couldn’t provide for the family financially or produce children. In the case of divorce, a woman could take back her personal belongings as well as young children (the older children either stayed with the father or mother depending upon the circumstances).
Here is a brief overview of things that you should know about women in Ancient Norse Societies as well as the prominent women in Norse Religion.
Associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, Seiðr (a typically female sorcery), war and death. She is also the most beautiful of all the Goddesses. Freya rules over the heavenly afterlife field Fólkvangr, and receives half of those who die in battle. The other half go to Odin’s hall Valhalla. She loves music, spring, flowers and is particularly fond of elves. She is the daughter of the Njord (God of the winds, sea and fire) and wife of the mysterious God Odur . Key among her possessions are the Precious Necklace of the Brisings and a cloak of feathers that changes the wearer into a falcon.
Like many of the Norse Gods, Freya is not an extreme of good or evil – rather she is a complex personality. She loves her husband Odur and yet sleeps with four different dwarfs in exchange for the beautiful necklace of the Brisings. Loki, who somehow knows about all scandals, ends up finding a way to reveal Freya’s infidelity to her husband. When Odur finds out, he leaves home and Freya cries tears of gold.
Frigg is the wife of Odin and queen of Asgard. Frigg is a prominent member of the Aesir Gods while Freya is a key member of the Vanir. Frigg is associated with aspects of motherhood and married life. She also has the powers of prophecy, but does not reveal what she knows.
Freya and Frigg are extremely similar. So similar, that some scholars argue that they are both descendants of a singular Germanic Goddess. Both Goddess names are associated with “Friday.” Both Goddesses have the power of divination. Freya’s husband Odur (or Od) is always away on journeys just like Frigg’s Odin. Also, both of these Goddesses have traded sex for jewelry. However, this is just a theory, so it cannot be taken as the final fact on the matter (The Frigg/Freya origin hypothesis).
Sun Goddess, Moon God
The sun from the south, the moon’s companion, her right hand cast about the heavenly horses.The sun knew not where she a dwelling had,the moon know not what power he possessed,the stars knew not where they had a station. (From the poem Voluspa).
In many pagan religions, the Sun is a God and the Moon is a Goddess. Yet in the Ancient Norse Religion, it is the reverse. The Sun Goddess is “Sol” (Old Norse) or “Sunna” (Old High German) and her brother Mani (Old Norse/Icelandic) is the moon. Sol drives the chariot of the sun across the sky each day. She moves very quickly because she is always pursued by the wolf Skoll. Sometimes he gets close enough to take a bite out of her (this is when eclipses happen). In Ragnarok, (the end of the world), Skoll eventually will swallow the sun.
In Norse society it was common for men to travel, whether it be exploring new lands, going viking (pillaging places) or trading. The Norse were renown for their ability as explorers and seafarers. While the men were off traveling, their wives sometimes traveled with them (as in the invasion of Eastern England), but usually stayed at home to supervise the affairs of the farm and the family.
Thus, the mother was a permanent fixture of life for the family: bright, renewing and life giving like the sun. The father was a more transient figure (because of his travels), waning and waxing in appearance like the moon. At least this is a theory that might explain the Goddess Sun/God Moon dynamic. The Sun Goddess and Moon God are similar fixtures in other nomadic cultures (such as the Mongolians for example).
Warrior Women: Shield Maidens and Valkyries
Valkyrie literally means “chooser of the slain.” The Valkyries were sent by Odin to pick up warriors that were slain on the battlefield.
The Love Goddess Freya was considered the greatest of Valkyries. She would ride onto the battlefield in a chariot drawn by two cats and choose half the slain to take back to her home in Fólkvangr. Odin received the other half of warriors in Valhalla.
Shield Maidens, on the other hand, are mortal female warriors. It was a rare opportunity allowed only to women who were exceptionally strong or fierce. In heroic poems some shield maidens have super natural powers, while others are beautiful daughters of kings. Did shield maidens actually exist in real life though? From historical evidence, it appears that they did.
The Historian Saxo gives the following account circa 1200 AD:
“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldier’s skills:
They put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill, and those they could have appeased with looks they attack with lances”. (Books 1-9) —Saxo Grammaticus, History of the Danes, circa 1200 CE.
When people talk about Norse Mythos, there is much focus on the Warrior Tradition: vikings, battle, Valhalla and so on. Yet there is little talk on the Shamanic aspects of Norse life. The Seiðr is a type of Norse magic that was most commonly performed by women known as (volver). Men also practiced Seiðr sometimes, but they usually brought a social taboo to themselves since Seiðr was considered a feminine activity. (For example, Odin learned how to practice the Seiðr from Freya, but was considered unmanly for doing so.)
The Seiðr was an activity in which the Seidwoman would fall into a trance and a choir of women would invoke the woman’s guardian spirit to come to her aid. In her trance, the Seidwoman could ask the spirits about future events such as the weather, battle, farming etc.
Seidr Basics (Wikipedia Article)
It is hard to be objective about the history of Pagan Europeans because so much information was destroyed when the Christians came to power. Also, many Norse and Celtic peoples kept records orally rather than writing anything down. Therefore, much of their history will be lost forever.
New Technology Corrects Gendered Assumptions
Yet new technology is helping to unearth ancient truths. The study of ancient burial sites is rapidly changing conceptions of the past. Up until recently, archaeologists assumed that any body buried with a sword and shield was male. Likewise, when a skeleton was found with jewelry, it was assumed that the body was female. But new practices in the field of Osteologically (the study of skeletons) have revealed that some of these “male skeletons” were actually female bodies buried with weapons and armor (male skeletons have also been found with female items).
The invasion of Eastern England is a notorious example, where either one half or a third of the invaders were found to be female. One of the female skeletons at this site was found buried with armor and weapons (Invasion of the Viking Women Unearthed).
The Oseberg Burial
The Oseberg burial is the richest viking burial ever found. Two women were buried on the Oseberg ship in 834 AD. One was in her 80’s and the other was in her 50’s. Because of the items on the ship, archaeologists are guessing that the older woman was either a Volva or a Queen. The Volvas were highly respected women in Norse Society who acted as the link between man and the Gods. Sometimes they even knew more than the Gods.
More Information About Ancient Norse Women
This article was my best attempt to give you an overview on the basics you should know about the life of Ancient Norse Women in both the realm of the mundane and the sphere of the mystical. Yet remember, we must have a nuanced approach to history. We cannot use generalizations to color in the pages of the past. The Vikings were an independent people who did not use police, guards or monarchs to run their society (not until the later years of Viking History anyways).
They were a self run Society that was controlled through the mechanism of the family and honor. Many women who couldn’t fight took on the role of instigators, and egged their husbands on to fight important battles that effected the family’s future. In chapter 116 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Hildigunnur incited her uncle Flosi to avenge the killing of her husband Höskuldr by flinging her husband’s bloody cloak onto Flosi’s shoulders. Clotted blood from the cloak rained down on Flosi. He responded, “Cold are the counsels of women.” Flosi later took revenge for Höskuldr’s death by burning Njáll and his family in their home (Hurstwic Society).
Other women took the role of ending fights that went on too long, such as the women who threw clothing onto the weapons of the men fighting in chapter 18 of the Vopnfirðinga Saga.
Unlike today, the individual was not the most important unit of society, it was the extended family. It was expected that both men and women contributed their strengths to the best of their natural abilities to preserve the honor and integrity of their kin. When a woman considered whether it was better to contribute her strengths by defending the family’s honor in battle, or staying home to oversee the farm: family and honor were the ultimate sum of the equation, not personal gain.
Therefore there were generally standards about what men did and what women did that developed over centuries of experience. Yet static laws were allowed to be broken if the exception was more beneficial than the norm. Odin learned the Seiðr (feminine magic) to benefit mankind even if it was taboo, and women occasionally left home to fight on the battlefield if that was the best use for an individual woman’s strength.
Yet it doesn’t matter whether a warrior fights their daily battles with a sword or broomstick, a true hero fights for someone or something – not themselves. Those of us in the modern age could learn a lesson from these Ancient Women.
Check out the link below for more information.
Real Women of the Viking Age (Viking World Wiki)
A comprehensive source with numerous links on Ancient Norse Women.
The 13 Odinic Rules of Life
Below are the 13 rules of life given in the high song of Odin and in Sigrdrifumal, in which the valkyrie gives counsel to Sigurd Fafnisbane. Source: Norse Mythology, or the Religion of Our Forefathers (1875). Containing All the Myths of the Eddas, By R.B Anderson.
- The recognition of the depravity of human nature, which calls for a struggle against our natural desires and forbearance toward the weakness of others.
- Courage and faith both to bear the hard decrees of the norns and to fight against enemies.
- The struggle for independence in life with regard to knowledge as well as to fortune; an independence which should, therefore, be earned by a love of learning and industry.
- A strict adherence to oaths and promises.
- Candor and fidelity as well as foresight in love, devotion to the tried friend, but dissimulation toward the false and war to the death against the implacable enemy.
- Respect for old age.
- Hospitality, liberality, and charity to the poor.
- A prudent foresight in word and deed.
- Temperance, not only in the gratification of the senses, but also in the exercise of power.
- Contentment and cheerfulness.
- Modesty and politeness in intercourse.
- A desire to win the good will of our fellow men, especially to surround ourselves with a steadfast circle of devoted kinsmen and faithful friends.
- A careful treatment of the bodies of the dead