Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: mythology Page 1 of 2

Mixed-Race Gods?

Hilmar Hilmarsson, current allsherjargoði of the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið, recently said: “The gods are of mixed races.”

From time to time, I’ve dealt with this particular canard that the Norse Neopagans keep trying to trot out in an off-handed manner, in the context of other things, but it’s something that appears with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season, so I thought it was about time I took it on directly.

Let’s take this step by step. When someone like Hilmar says “the gods are of mixed races” he is referring to the fact that some of the gods are either said to have parents who are Jötnar (giants) or who are counted among the Jötnar or Vanir themselves and then marry into the ranks of the Æsir. Týr is an example of the former, with the famous account of his visit to his father Hymir’s hall to get a cauldron in which to make mead. Skaði is an example of the latter, the daughter of the slain Þjazi, who marries Njörðr as recompense.

But are the Æsir and the Jötnar different “races”? That depends on the definition of race, of course. The simplest definition is “a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.”

Given the ancestry of the Æsir and the Jötnar, it’s clear that they are of the same “race”. That is, they are all of them descended from Ymir (in Odin’s case, via Ymir’s descendant, Bestla). Odin is also descended from Borr, whose own father Buri was licked out of the primordial rime-ice independent of Ymir, but there is nothing to indicate that Buri and Borr were of any different “race” than Ymir. All were born of the same rime-ice at the dawn of time; Ymir from the interaction of the ice with the sparks from Muspell, and Buri from being licked out of the ice by the cow Auðumbla. The common factor is the ice, and Odin embodies the merging of the two sons of the ice, Ymir and Buri.

At best, the Æsir and the Jötnar are cousins, and are quick to marry within that boundary if it suits their desires or needs. They share a common descent and heredity, and are thus of the same race, according to the definition. We might refer to these individuals as the “sons of Ymir”.

Thus, intermarriage between Æsir and the Jötnar isn’t an example of interracial marriage. It is, in fact, nothing more than an exchange of individuals between clans (the Æsir and the Jötnar) who both stem from the same seed.

In other words, the Æsir and the Jötnar are the same race. They simply have separated themselves into different clans, much like the Swedes and the Norwegians and the Danes. Different clans, or nations, but the same race.

What further attests to this fact is that when a Jötunn (or a Van, for that matter) marries or is otherwise brought into the Æsir, they are called Æsir thereafter. Thus does Snorri refer to Skaði and Loki as Æsir.

So what about other races mentioned in the lore? We have several; the Vanir, the Alfar, and the Dvergar. Unfortunately the vagaries of what has survived makes the question somewhat less than easy to quantify. We don’t know the origin (or, really, the nature) of the Vanir at all. They simply show up to go to war with the Æsir, leave three of their number to join their former enemies, and then disappear from the lore completely, except for a throwaway line in the description of Ragnarök. There is a strong case to be made that the Vanir and the Alfar are the same (see, for example, Alaric Hall’s Elves in Anglo-Saxon England), but it’s far from settled.

The Alfar are similarly mysterious in their origin, although see above regarding their possible association with the Vanir. They are something of a moot point, however, as there are no examples of an Alfar joining the Æsir.*

For both, however, if the genealogy of Ymir’s line is considered to be accurate, then they must be of  Jötunn origin themselves, because there isn’t any other possibility that is described for us in the written sources. Of course, it’s entirely possible that some now-lost legend referred to the origin of the Vanir and/or the Alfar, but that would be pure speculation, and we can’t draw conclusions from it.

The Dvergar, on the other hand, have an origin which is known to us outside of the continuity of the offspring of Ymir, Buri, and Bor. Snorri tells us they are the maggots who infested the flesh of the slain Ymir, while Völuspá states that they come from “Brimir’s blood and from Blain’s limbs” (both of which could be seen as alternate names for Ymir, and thus reinforcing Snorri’s origin). The point is that the Dvergar are the only group of beings which qualify unequivocally as a separate “race” in the sense of being “related by common descent or heredity.” Everyone else in the lore either comes from Bor or their origin is unknown. The Dvergar give us an excellent opportunity to check to see if there is any example of true, unequivocal, inter-racial mingling in the lore.

And, indeed, there are no instances of one of the Dvergar joining the Æsir, through marriage, adoption, or any other means.

That certainly seems suggestive.

Of course, it is true that we do hear of the goddess Freyja sleeping with the four Dvergar in order to secure the necklace Brisingsamen. But there is nothing in the account to suggest that there was any sort of marriage, no crossing of the boundary between the two races from one clan to another. Indeed, the fact that Freyja did sleep with these Dvergar is held out to be something very shameful, and is used by Loki to taunt her in Lokasenna.

So to recap:

  1. The Æsir and the Jötnar are cousins, and should be considered the same “race”. Their mixing together is thus not proof of “mixed race gods”.
  2. The origin of the Vanir is unknown, but according to the available evidence they would also be of the same “race” as the Æsir and the Jötnar, being descended from Ymir. Thus, their mixing with the Æsir does not count as “mixed race gods”.
  3. The origin of the Alfar is also unknown, but since there is no example of an Alf joining the Æsir, the example is irrelevant.
  4. The Dvergar are expressly stated to have a different origin than the Æsir, so they do count as a separate “race”.
  5. There are no examples of the Dvergar joining the Æsir. The only example we have of a goddess even sleeping with the Dvergar is presented as a very shameful and unacceptable act. Thus, the only example of cross-racial intercourse, not even marriage, is given as a negative thing to be avoided.
There we are. While it may be emotionally satisfying to try to apply modern notions of “progressive” politics as being the norm as seen by our pre-Christian ancestors, and applying it to the lore concerning our gods, when we actually look at the lore that comes down to us, it turns out not to be an accurate portrayal. Once again, politicization of religion to accommodate some left-wing agenda fails, when compared against the facts.

EDIT: Updated slightly to clarify the point of common ancestry between the Æsir and the Jötnar.
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* There is a reference to Idunn being one of the Alfar, but it appears in Hrafnagaldur Óðins, which scholarly consensus holds to be a very late, 16th century, work imitative of the style of the Eddaic poems, but not truly belonging to the corpus. Some disagree, of course, but I’m going with the opinion of modern scholarship. It wouldn’t damage the argument about race either way, especially if they are all still descended from Borr.

Does the Valknut Exist?

The three-triangle symbol

It’s probably not a question very many Asatruar ever ask themselves, but Eirik Storesund, writing at Brute Norse (great name for a blog, btw), says no, The “Valknútr” Does Not Exist. It’s worth reading the whole thing over there; I’m not going to respond to everything he says, at least not verbatim. It’s a very interesting article, though, and worth the time (it’s not too long).

Basically, his article lays out several different arguments:

  • The word valknútr (“slain knot”) doesn’t exist in Old Norse; it is a modern invention using ON words
  • The Norwegian word valknute refers to a completely different symbol in Norwegian
  • Although the symbol appears on picture-stones in many situations that could be described as related to Odinic sacrifice, it appears in many more in non-Odinic contexts
  • It is possible that the three-triangle symbol is actually the ON hrungnishjarta (“Hrungnir’s Heart”) after a suggestive passage in Snorri’s Edda, which would make it associated with Thor, not Odin
  • It is possible that the three-triangle symbol is associated with a horse-cult, based on pictural inscription evidence, which would make it associated with Freyr, not Odin
His conclusion is thus:

From a source-critical viewpoint there can be no doubt that the term *valknútr/valknutis dubious and unhelpful. Evidence suggests that the symbol’s original contents go far beyond the common themes of interpretation, which are none the less fossilized in both scholarly and neopagan discussion. There seems to be more to the symbol than death and sacrifice. 

I can’t offer a good alternative name. Gungnishjarta is too tentative, but maybe I am overplaying the harm a misnomer can do. Nevertheless, I think that the terminology has done more to cloud the symbol, rather than clearing it up. This should concern anybody invested in shedding light on pre-Christian Scandinavia.

The Norwegian valknute
Now, I hadn’t given the matter of the valknut* much thought. Like 99% of the Asatruar out there, I just figured the term and the interpretation were so ubiquitous that it was a given. That’ll teach me to not check primary sources on anything I read, even in a scholarly source. Turns out that Storesund is entirely correct when he says that the term is completely made up, and especially the association of the term with the three-triangles symbol. 
I’m going to go out of order and address the Hrungnir hypothesis next, because I think it’s an easy one. Unfortunately for those who espouse the idea that the hrungnishjarta mentioned by Snorri refers to the three-triangles symbol (such as Rudolf Simek**), the notion is contradicted by a very fundamental fact. Snorri mentions that the symbol known as hrungnishjarta has three points, like the giant’s heart:

Hrungnir had the heart which is notorious, of hard stone and spiked with three corners, even as the written character is since formed, which men call Hrungnir’s Heart.

The problem is, the three-triangles symbol commonly (and now we know mistakenly) known as a valknut has six points, not three. Geometry is not a friend to this hypothesis. Although it’s certainly possible that Snorri was being somewhat less than literal in his description, the only thing I can think of that would really fulfill the three spiked corners criteria is what is commonly known as the triquetra:
That brings us to what would seem to be the most interesting, if difficult to prove, element of the argument; that the three-triangles symbol (TTS) is found more often in a context that is not suggestive of Odinic sacrifice, but something else, possibly related to a horse-cult (which itself is suggestive of Freyr). This is really where it all comes to fruition, because even if the word valknut isn’t the correct ON term for the TTS, that doesn’t mean the symbol itself isn’t associated with Odinic sacrifice. A survey of the inscription evidence is needed to make that determination.
I confess I don’t know of any sources in English that really give a truly comprehensive study of three-triangle symbols on Norse picture-stones. There’s a book in German on the subject of the valknut, which I don’t have (and I’m not sure my German skills would be up to the task of reading), but I’m not even sure it would have the sort of comprehensive survey I’m thinking of.
That said, I will rely on the next best source available, and turn to Google image search, recognizing it is not necessarily comprehensive, and certainly not systematic. We do, however, come up with a number of examples:
Stora Hammar Stone sacrifice scene
This is perhaps the most Odinic context of a valknut on any picture-stone. We’ve got a clear sacrifice, we’ve got ravens, and we’ve got what looks like a spear. It screams “Odin” and is the chief source of the association of the three-triangles symbol with Odin. Odin is even seen in another frame of the stone, riding Sleipnir and being offered a horn of drink by a female:
Note that there’s no valknut here, but there doesn’t need to be. The identification of Odin is certain due to the eight legged horse he is riding. The identity of the figure offering drink is somewhat less certain, however; it could be a valkyrie, it could be Frigg, it could be a mortal noblewoman offering drink to a traveler whose true identity is unknown to her. I tend to think it’s one of the first two choices, however, although it’s very possible this refers to some other myth involving a cave, a dog/wolf, Odin, and the other figures in the panel. 
Tängelgårda stone from Gotland, Sweden
This one is probably a big source of Storesund’s and Hellers’ association of the TTS. There are three of them under the legs of the horse, after all, and another one behind the riding figure’s head. But look at the whole stone, and you’ll see something interesting:
Yes, that’s Odin’s horse sleipnir on the row above the horse with the valknuts between its legs. You can tell because it has eight legs, of course. And it’s worth noting the warriors that are following the figure on the horse; see what they’re carrying? Rings. And what’s a kenning for a King? “Giver of rings” (i.e., one who distributes wealth to his retainers). So here we have context for something Odinic, even if we don’t see a sacrifice per se. Odin is the god of kings, and his horse is right above the image of the leader handing out rings. 
Unless you think the stone is showing a bunch of Viking warriors wielding chakrams, of course…
Ahem
Lillbjars stone
The Lillbjars stone is an interesting one, and is doubtless also related to the possible identification of the valknut with horses. Here we see a figure on a horse. There’s nothing to really identify him as Odin, other than the presence of the TTS and what seems to be three interlocking horns (possibly representing the three droughts of mead Odin stole). As we saw above, a female figure offers the figure on the horse a drink. There’s really nothing particularly Odinic about this figure.
Broa stone
What I find interesting about this image is the fact that it is very, very close to the image we see on the Lillbjars stone, with a ship below and a female figure offering drink to a man on horseback. But here there’s no TTS. The image of a woman offering a horn as a sort of welcome to an incoming warrior, or leader, is a relatively common one. We see it possibly most famously in Beowulf, as Wealtheow offers drink to the guests in the hall. This could easily be a representation of that scene, as a matter of fact; Beowulf with his warriors arrive in Denmark by ship, and he is welcomed with drink. 
There are (many) other images of the TTS, but all the ones I’ve found are out of context; just inscriptions on box lids and the like.
So where does this leave us? 
I think there’s definitely room to question the significance of the TTS, although I think Storesund overstates his case. It’s only seen in one overtly sacrificial context (and that context pretty much can’t be questioned; it looms over the death, there are ravens and a spear, and Odin appears on the same stone in a different panel). But the other instances don’t necessarily map to anything Odinic; one is a “giver of rings” on horseback, and another is a leader of some sort, also on horseback. 
I might argue that the fact that they’re on horseback is incidental; what matters is that they are leaders. Indeed, that seems to be the only element of commonality in the picture-stones that I can tell. We have a sacrifice (which could be a jarl or other leader), we have a giver-of-rings (which is a leader), we have a figure being welcomed by a woman with drink (which is most probably a leader). 
I see a pattern here, but it’s not necessarily Odinic, and it’s not necessarily horse-related. 
Could what we today call a valknut really have been a symbol of leadership/jarldom/etc. to our ancestors? Now that Storesund (rightly) opens up the question, I think it’s worth exploring, although I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusions. It’s consistent with the examples I cited above (although it would imply that the scene on the Stora Hammar stone is a leader being sacrificed to Odin, that’s perfectly possible), but I’m not drawing any firm conclusions, and at this point it would be a hard row to hoe to change the popular conception of what the TTS means, but I think it’s worth a more detailed and comprehensive look than I’ve been able to give here.
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* Most of the time I’m going to refer to this as the “three-triangle symbol” or TTS for purposes of this article
** Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, “Hrungnir’s Heart” entry

Book Review: Myths of the Pagan North

When I first saw Christopher Abram’s Myths of the Pagan North, I figured it was yet another retelling of the myths, maybe with a little analysis thrown in. Boy, was I wrong. This is a wonderful textual analysis of the various sources of northern lore, from runic inscriptions to skaldic poetry to the more familiar Eddaic poetry and Snorri’s Prose Edda. In it, he discusses the pros and cons of each source, giving valuable insights into the timing and motivations for each, and uses specific myths as case studies to demonstrate how different sources treat the same material and how the myths themselves morphed over time in response to changing social conditions.

The chapter on the mythological value of skaldic poetry alone would be worth the price of the book, but his insights into how the stories changed as Christianity became more dominant, and his thoughts on the relevance of the myths to the practice of religion are wonderfully interesting as well.

Highly recommended.

Gods and Giants / Æsir ok Jötnar

Over at Son of Hel, one of his correspondents quoted something which I’d like to riff off of (but by all means, please read Helsson’s response as well; he replies to the whole email, and I’m going to focus on a single sentence). The line is thus:

Hela is not a Goddess at all because she has Jotun genealogy and noted in sources always as a giantess.

First off, it should be noted that “having Jotun genealogy” is by no means a disqualifier to being a god. In fact, the Aesir have exactly the same sort of ancestry:

He is named Búri: he was fair of feature, great and mighty. He begat a son called Borr, who wedded the woman named Bestla, daughter of Bölthorn the giant; and they had three sons: one was Odin, the second Vili, the third Vé.

So we have Odin, son of the jotun Bestla. We also have Hel, daughter of the jotun Angrboda. Not to mention Vidar, who travels with Thor and who will avenge Odin at Ragnarok, who is said to be the son of the giantess Gríðr. And Tyr is said to be the son of the giant Hymir.

If one is disqualified as being a “god,” then the others must be as well.

The quote also says that Hel is “noted in sources always as a giantess.” But you know what? I checked the existing references that mention Hel by name, and can’t find a single one that refer to her as a jotun* (neither, for that matter, are her brothers Fenrir and Jormundgandr so called). Gylfaginning, In fact, Grimnismal implies that she’s not a frost giant, because it specifically separates them:

Three roots there are | that three ways run
‘Neath the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
‘Neath the first lives Hel, | ‘neath the second the frost-giants [hrímþursar],
‘Neath the last are the lands of men.

So what makes a jotun, or ás, or van? Obviously it’s not a simple matter of descent; if it was, Odin, Tyr, and Vidar would be jotuns, rather than Aesir. It’s also important to note that the jotun or aesir group identity can be transferred; we see this repeatedly throughout the sources. First, Freyr, Freyja, and Njord move from being Vanir to Aesir. Then Skadi, daughter of the giant Thjazi, moves from being a jotun to being one of the Aesir after marrying Njord.

The best way to think of these categories — Aesir, Jotunar, Vanir, Alfar — is not as separate “races” or even family lineages. They are tribes, and just as human tribes can see members go from one tribe to another by marriage, so too can one move from jotun to asyngjar through marriage. Just as one can be born into the tribe of the Svear and join the tribe of the Geats by swearing an oath to their leader, so too can be born a jotun and later join the Aesir through oaths of loyalty. And so forth.

But the key here is that nobody is actually going outside their family boundaries. All of the players here can trace their lineage back through to Ymir at the very least, and often much further down in the ranks of the jotuns than that. So this whole issue isn’t at all relevant to human races and ethnicities; these are groupings that in very real terms are social constructs, because they rely on a malleable identification that can be changed through recognized, and ritualized, mechanisms.

All this is why I’m very skeptical of the use of the term “god” in relation to these beings; it’s too generic. In one sense, it’s used to describe anything that is extraordinarily powerful, which would encompass both Aesir and jotunar. But it can also be used as a substitute for ás specifically, to differentiate them from the jotunar. But that brings into question whether beings who started in one category and moved to another can still count (which is what started this discussion in the first place).

So, much like the word “magic” is a clumsy generic substitution for dozens of words with very specific meanings and connotations, and carries with it a load of baggage that doesn’t necessarily apply, so too do I try not to use the word “god” any more, preferring to use the more specific terms Aesir, Jotunar, Vanir, etc.

So where does leave us with Hel? She’s definitely the daughter of a jotun and an ás who used to be a jotun. But she was raised into a position of authority by the chief of the Aesir, and was powerful enough to defy his wishes (refusing to release Balder from Hel). Nowhere that I’m aware of is she directly referred to as either an asyngjur or a jotun, leaving her precise categorization in doubt. Certainly not enough to justify the sort of sweeping generalization found in the quote.

UPDATE (3/26/2017): Updated to correct the reference, at the request of the correspondent.

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* If I’ve missed one, please let me know in the comments.

Why did Snorri pick those myths?

During last night’s Asatru 101 class, which was covering much of the Yule information I’ve been presenting here over the last few weeks, one of the attendees asked a very insightful question in regards to my connecting the myth of Thor’s goats with the celebration of Krampusnacht.

I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like “Do you think Snorri wrote that down in order to explain to his audience why people did that celebration the way they did?”

I think it’s a spiffy question, and certainly deserves a lot more study. I know that Gylfaginning, where the myth originates, covers a lot of ground, but I’d love to go through it, itemize the various myths contained therein, and see if there isn’t a pattern between the specific myths he chose, and various things that were going around him in the 13th century that he felt needed explaining.

Obviously, some of the myths he chose were fundamentals; the creation of the world, the names and natures of the gods, etc. But I wonder if a pattern can’t be discerned from the specific myths that he felt were worthy of inclusion in Gylfaginning. After all, Skaldskaparmal was written specifically to explain poetic kennings. Is it so hard to imagine that parts of Gylfaginning were written specifically to explain folk celebrations, the original reasons for which were largely forgotten by his time?

More to come. I suspect this may be a fruitful line of inquiry.

Gullveig, Heidi, and Freyja

Odin throws his spear over the Vanir

A notable, but often unclear, event is described in Völuspá stanzas 21 – 23:

Þat man hon fólkvíg fyrst í heimi,
er Gullveig geirum studdu
ok í höll Hárs hana brendu;
þrysvar brendu þrysvar borna,
opt, ósjaldan, þó hon enn lifir.

Heiði hana hétu, hvars til húsa kom,
völu velspá, vitti hon ganda,
seið hon hvars hon kunni, seið hon hugleikin,
æ var hon angan illrar brúðar.

Þá gengu regin öll á rökstóla,
ginnheilug goð, ok um þat gættusk:
hvárt skyldu æsir afráð gjalda
eða skyldu goðin öll gildi eiga.

Wikisource gives the literal translation thus:

She [the volva] dispute remember, the first in the home,
when Gullveig geirum [“spears”] supported,
and in Hárs hall they burn her;
three times burned the three times born,
often, not seldom, yet still she lives.

Heidi she height, to the house came
the wise volva, woken she neighbors,
magic she knew, magic she joyfully,
friendly always for angry maidens.

Then went reigns all to their ruling seats,
the high-holy gods held council:
whether Aesir should sacrifice offer,
or should gods all the tribute* own.

* Wikisource has “guild” here, which makes no sense compared to the primary meaning of the ON word gildi.

It’s worth noting that the literal translations of the names are:

  • Gullveig – “gold-drink” (the interpretation “gold-thirst” or greed was an invention of E.O. Turville-Petre and doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny)
  • Hár – “high” (a name for Odin, presumably)
  • Heidi – “gleaming” “honor” “fame” “seeress” “heath”

Many people, rightly in my view, see this as some sort of ritual captured in poetry and metaphor. But it does present certain problems. Most glaringly, the math doesn’t quite work out. If Gullveig was born and burned three times, she should be dead:

born – died – born – died – born – died

…but the text clearly says “still she lives”. Either she was (re)born a fourth time, or there’s something else going on here, like maybe burning her didn’t kill her, exactly. (And it should be pointed out that the ON word borin means specifically “born”; if the author meant “reborn” the word used would have been endrborinn, so the author isn’t just counting rebirths.) It’s also interesting that “still she lives” would imply that whoever (or whatever) Gullveig is, she is still alive at the time the volva in Voluspa is talking.

If the intention was to flesh out the three lives (and by association, three names) of Gullveig, then there would be information about a third name in stanza 23. But it does not complete the expected triptych of the previous stanzas; it begins to describe the Aesir-Vanir war mentioned in stanza 21. If the intention of the poet was to describe the three lives of the creature who started off as Gullveig, why only give details (scanty though they are) about the first two lives?

I don’t think that is what these stanzas are saying. I think they are setting up the events of the war, first showing the Aesir point of view, and then contrasting that with the Vanir point of view, and then describing the start of the war.

Most readers make the assumption that these two figures of Gullveig and Heidi are the same, and the second stanza is merely a continuation of the events in the first. Völuspá is a very tough poem, and tends to jump from subject to subject without warning, and it’s by no means a certainty that stanza 22 is continuing the events of 21. I am going to veer into iconoclasm and state that I do not believe Gullveig and Heidi are the same figure, and stanzas 21 and 22 are talking about two different things.

The traditional view of Gullveig

Gullveig

First we hear about Gullveig, who represents the Aesir ‘s position in the conflict. We know this about Gullveig from the text:

  • Her name means “gold-drink”
  • She was “supported” by spears
  • She was burned three times in Odin’s hall, and “yet still lives”
And, if my theory is correct, she is somehow connected with humans offering sacrifices to the Aesir in the same way that they offered sacrifices to the Vanir, thus beginning the conflict. To my mind, the answer as to Gullveig’s identity is obvious; she is a metaphorical embodiment of the holy mead (or ale) used in sacred feasts and sumbel. This mead, kept in a cauldron supported by a tripod (in Odin’s hall, this tripod is made out of spears, as are the rafters of Valhalla), is passed over the fire three times to hallow it, or metaphorically bring it to life. In essence, she represents the formal ritual structure of those who follow the Aesir, with its use of fire to consecrate and its emphasis on the number three.

And this interpretation also removes the ominous associations with evil that Gullveig has in the minds of many. Her burning is not in the sense of an evil witch being burned at the stake; it’s essential to her being “born”; i.e., sanctified and able to carry the sacrality of ritual. Her life and death is described in the stanza in the same way that the Ballad of John Barleycorn embodies the life and death of the barley plant in the brewing of beer. Her three births are reenacted in every ritual (“often, not seldom”), in the passing of the sacred drink around the fire (“burning” it) three times.

Thus, she is a different individual than Heidi, described in the following stanza, setting up the two sides of the conflict to come.

Heidi

Heidi is more straightforward. Here is what we know about her from the text:

  • Her name has many meanings, including a generic term for seeress (in other parts of the lore, seeresses are often named Heidi, indicating it may be more title than name)
  • She is a volva, or seeress
  • She teaches others (particularly “angry maidens”) the arts of seiðr

Many scholars have associated Heidi with Freyja, and this makes sense based on Ynglinga Saga 4:

Dóttir Njarðar var Freyja. Hún var blótgyðja. Hún kenndi fyrst með Ásum seið sem Vönum var títt. Þá er Njörður var með Vönum þá hafði hann átta systur sína því að það voru þar lög. 

Njord’s daughter Freya was priestess of the sacrifices, and first taught the Asaland people the magic art, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanaland people. (Samuel Laing translation)

But if there is no real reason to associate Gullveig with Heidi other than the fact they are discussed in successive stanzas in Voluspa, then there’s no reason to associate Freyja with Gullveig, and it removes any negative connotations associated with Gullveig into the bargain. This neatly solves one of the problems with the Gullveig-Freyja association (the fact that the Aesir would have burned her to death three times, but it wasn’t the Vanir who initiated the war, but the Aesir), and I daresay this separation provides a stronger justification for the Aesir-Vanir war than the notion that it was launched because the Aesir burned Gullveig to death (unsuccessfully). The root of the war was the question of which tribe, Aesir or Vanir, deserved the fruits of the ritual offerings.

In the case of the Aesir, those offerings were the holy mead, embodied by Gullveig. In the case of the Vanir, those offerings were enabled through the practice of seiðr, taught by Heidi/Freyja.

I think this interpretation of the stanzas makes a lot more sense than trying to conflate the two figures, which causes all sorts of problems with interpretation of the flow of events, especially when Freyja and the actual instigation of the war is thrown into the mix.

Bölverkr’s whetstone

There’s a passage in Skáldskaparmál that a lot of people find a bit obscure. It deals with Odin’s scheme to steal Sutting’s mead:

Odin departed from home and came to a certain place where nine thralls were mowing hay. He asked if they desired him to whet their scythes, and they assented. Then he took a hone from his belt and whetted the scythes; it seemed to them that the scythes cut better by far, and they asked that the hone be sold them. But he put such a value on it that whoso desired to buy must give a considerable price: nonetheless all said that they would agree, and prayed him to sell it to them. He cast the hone up into the air; but since all wished to lay their hands on it, they became so intermingled with one another that each struck with his scythe against the other’s neck.

The question is, why would the thralls be so intent on getting that whetstone? If you ever wondered about the value of a sharp scythe, wonder no more:

Review: Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic

I’ve always been a big fan of Claude Lecouteux’s work, and when I heard he was publishing a reference work relating to Germanic lore, I pre-ordered it at once. It finally arrived, and I’ve had a chance to look through it. And it is everything I had hoped it would be.

The obvious comparisons are going to be made between this work and other reference works on Germanic religion and mythology, such as Rudolf Simek’s Dictionary of Norse Mythology (probably the standard in the field, at least in English), Andy Orchard’s Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, and to a lesser extent John Haywood’s Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age.

Where Lecouteux’s book distinguishes itself from those titles is both in its lack of focus on the Norse material and the Viking era (although it does not distance itself from either), as well as its inclusion of tons of folkloric references, rather than sticking to the same old themes found in Norse and/or Germanic mythology. And that in particular is where this work shines, since this is a focus that all too few such works, let alone Asatruar who endeavor to recreate the Germanic mindset, have.

That the book was originally written in French (and, I presume, published in that language) gives the entries an international appeal that is so often denied to those of us without fluency in a variety of European languages. The sources span the gamut from Germany, France, Poland, Scandinavia, and even further afield. Just having access to condensed entries based on that broad range of material is a reason to get this book.

But to take a few of the more interesting entries as examples of the breadth and depth of the coverage, we have subjects as varied as Hernoss, a sort of idol that was still to be found in Norway in the 19th century, a brief discussion of changelings (children who are stolen from their parents and substituted with supernatural children), a lengthy discussion of Perchta, and Ourk, said to be the name of the leader of the Wild Hunt in a district in the Tyrol. This in addition to the standard entries on Norse gods and mythological themes that one would expect in a book of this type.

All in all, this is a fantastic book, and well worth it for the wealth of folkloric sources, as well as the conventional entries informed by folklore, that it brings to the table. I don’t think it replaces Simek’s Dictionary, but rather it accompanies it well, filling in all manner of gaps. It definitely stands as a worthy addition to any Asatruar’s library. Five stars out of five.

You can buy the book here.

Jealous Gods

Just a quickie for now. John Beckett has a post up on Pathetic Pagan entitled Our Gods are not Jealous Gods. Of course it’s a play on the Biblical verse about Jehovah of Sinai being “a jealous god“, but it makes me wonder whether Beckett has read any classical mythology. Like, ever.

For fuck’s sake, Greek mythology is chock full of references to gods and goddesses being jealous. Hera especially, but also Aphrodite, Athena, and they even had a frigging god, Phthonus, that was the embodiment of jealousy!

And what about Aten? This Egyptian god is largely heralded as the first experiment in monotheism. That’s “jealousy” by definition.

Loki, we are told, was greatly jealous of Balder, and contrived his death because of it. And although they’re not gods, the Eddas and Sagas are replete with examples of women arranging the deaths of people out of jealousy and desire for vengeance.

Those are just a few examples off the top of my head. Mythology has hundreds of similar examples.

Our gods are reflections of ourselves. They’re not some sort of paragons of virtue like Jehovah of Sinai is supposed to be; they feel hate, jealousy, love, desire, and all the rest. They are us. As befits our ultimate ancestors.

Beckett is engaging in a knee-jerk anti-Christian reaction when he tries to make the case that ours are not jealous gods. They are. But they are also loving gods, and giving gods, and all the rest of the spectrum of human emotion. It’s wrong to deny them their… human-ness simply in an attempt to shake one’s fist at the Christian god because of one’s upbringing.

Let our gods be themselves, jealousy and all.

Worlds of Alvíssmál

One of the more seemingly-straightforward poems in the Poetic Edda is Alvíssmál. It describes a dwarf, Alvíss (“all-wise”) who comes to Thor’s hall seeking Thor’s daughter as his bride. Thor distracts the dwarf with a contest of lore, asking him the names of various things “in all the wide worlds”, which the dwarf answers handily. However, the contest takes so long that the sun rises and the dwarf turns to stone (much like the arguing trolls turn to stone at sunrise in the famous scene from The Hobbit).

The tale is a little unusual in that it is Thor, rather than Odin or Loki, who is in the role of the clever trap-layer, but it’s usually seen as little more than an information dump, giving skalds a variety of kennings and synonyms to use in composing poetry.

What is interesting, however, is the way it lays out certain cosmological aspects of Norse myth. Each time Thor asks Alvíss to give the names of an object “in all the wide worlds”, and in each case the dwarf gives six synonyms. And not all of them are the same.

In the thirteen stanzas of the poem that deal with the lore-contest, each one gives the name of the subject of the stanza for both men and giants. But the other four “slots” are sometimes given to the Gods, the Vanir, Hel, and others, including the vague ginnregin (“great gods”). Since Thor specifically asks how the objects are called “in all the wide worlds”, the implication is that each of the creatures named in the stanza live in different worlds. I’ve laid out each stanza, and which creatures/worlds are named here:

(Click to embiggen)

Several things become apparent. The use of the words ásum and goðum for “gods” would seem to be interchangeable, as they are not named together in any stanza, and together would mean the gods were named in all thirteen stanzas. But some of the named beings/worlds are more opaque. Who are the “sons of the gods”? They’re not the gods, since they’re named in stanza 16, which also names the goðum. They’re not men, or dwarves, or elves, or giants, either. So who are they? The same question can be asked of Suttung’s sons. Are they just a sub-group of giants? Then why are they named in the same stanza as the other giants?

So seven of the the “worlds” named herein include:

  • The world of men (Midgard)
  • The world of the Gods (Asgard)
  • The world of the Vanir (Vanaheim)
  • The world of the Giants (Jotunheim)
  • The world of the Elves (Alfheim)
  • The world of the Dwarves (Svartalfheim) – and this assumes that Snorri is correct in associating the dvergar with the svartalfar (“black elves”), which is far from settled
  • The world of the dead (Hel)

Which fit in well with what we know of Norse cosmology from other sources (and interestingly, jives with the “Seven Worlds” that are known to have made up the Anglo-Saxon cosmology, as opposed to the nine in the Norse). But that leaves:

  • The world of the Great Gods
  • The world of the Sons of the Gods
  • The world of Suttung’s Sons

Which are a lot more problematical, owing to the fact that we don’t know what these are references to. Does this mean that there are ten worlds total being discussed? Or is one (and exactly one) just a kenning for some other group? If two or three of those is a kenning for some other group (as we saw with ásum and goðum for “gods”), then we’re left with fewer than nine worlds. If we keep all three as distinct beings, we have ten worlds!

And, given the normal understanding, the worlds we’re trying to populate are Niflheim and Múspel/heim, neither of which seem conducive to any of those three named beings. And here’s another kicker – both of those are only understood as “worlds” (in the same sense that Asgard and Midgard are “worlds”) by Snorri, who was a notoriously unreliable systematizer.

I’m going to leave this investigation here for the moment. The key is definitely in the identity of those mysterious three groups of beings, and that’s a topic that deserves an article of its own.

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