Exploring the wider Eurasian influences on central and northern European religion, including Norse, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, Siberian, Mediterranean and ancient Indo-European beliefs and applying them to contemporary practice.
Love & (male) vulnerability in Norse myth: Freyr and the wooing of Gerda in Skirnismal
We stereotype the peoples of Northern Europe as aggressive, looting, sea-faring warriors, hauling back pillaged booty or trade goods from abroad. We stereotype Odin (blame Wagner and his Victorian romanticism for this) as the stern, grim king: father of war. Thor as big-hearted, lustily drinking smiter of evil. While attitudes have recently begun changing, portraying the Vikings' "softer side", that aggressive image sticks-- both inside and outside of Heathenry.
It ignores that there is a third strong image of masculinity, from a triad of Gods honored at the ancient temple of Upsala, Sweden: Odin, Thor and Freyr.
Freyr is not just the God of "Fertility" and "Farming", but the Lord of peace. And a very wise God and king at that. He's also a God of love, courtship and marriage. This shouldn't be surprising, considering that his dynamic sister, Freya, is a mistress of sexuality who ardently appreciates love songs.
Most of what we know story-wise about Freyr comes from the dramatic poem Skirnismal and a story covering much the same elements recounted by Snorri Sturleson in the prose Edda. While there is a later heroic poem Svipdagsmal (which may, in fact, be about Freyr or Odin in the form of a humanized hero seeking his love), Freyr's wooing of the Giant maiden Gerd is the only Norse myth covering the courtship of two deities. The other marriage myth involves Freyr's father Njordh and stepmother Skadi, their arranged peacemaking union, and, ultimately, their amiable divorce.
In the pursuit of love, Freyr is brave enough to give away both his sword and an emblem of his kingship (the arm ring, Draupnir, given by Freyr in Skirnismal) and become very vulnerable. In other words, he's willing to offer up both his status and his role as a warrior to be united with his wife. He's also willing to undergo a rigorous trial, akin to the initiatory sacrifice of Odin hanging nine nights on the world tree to gain the runes, by honoring his future wife's wishes and awaiting nine nights, alone, before he can finally meet her. This from the God who is depicted in ancient sculpture and histories as displaying quite a proud erection. Freyr's not the poster-child for sexual restraint.
Freyr does all of this without anyone's blessing, too. No one wants him to marry Gerd. The Gods are opposed. The Jotuns don't seem too keen on this suit, either.
Oh those unromantic Vikings! What could they possibly know, faring far abroad, about falling in love with foreigners? What could they possibly know, in a culture built from webs of kinship and regional loyalty about opposition to a love match from both families? Possibly your enemies? Especially in lands your own people had just spread out into and colonized from an isolated trading post? Not to mention that the prose version of this tale finally got recorded in medieval Iceland-- a harsh land colonized by Norwegians, Scotts, Danes and other separate peoples seeking independence from their homeland rulers.
Further back in history, one of the common archaeological finds from the iron age to the Viking era are little gold foil stamps of kissing couples, commonly thought by scholars to depict Freyr and Gerd. They're simple and touchingly to the point. They've also primarily been found in Sweden, where Freyr (and not Odin), was predominantly worshiped.
Freyr's sacrifice here to win Gerd is equal to any of the host of other things a deity gives up in attaining a greater worthiness, as mentioned in my previous post on Heathen Gods and Sacrifice (and Transformation).
True love-- a bond between equals that strengthens you both-- is totally worth it. It's worth as much as wisdom, as valor, and it crosses otherwise unshakeable boundaries.
There's an excellent essay on the "Sacred Marriage" of Gerd and Frey as an initiation (and not a power-play) with references here. I also suggest some comparisons with the Celtic myths of Grainne and Diarmuid, and Dierdre and Naoise-- two pairs of "impossible" lovers-- where genders are reversed and very similar motifs involving cursing and opposition occur.
But the best possible thing, if you want to know more about Gerd and Frey, is simply to read the primary source materials rather than secondary explanations or retellings of them. I recommend Carolyne Larrington's translation of The Poetic Edda and Jesse Byock's version of The Prose Edda as easily-found and enjoyable modern sources. Several older free translations can also be found online, but newer versions are preferable.
Sources & Images:
- Freyr & Gerd: The Initiation of a God, Lady of the Labyrinth, http://freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/?page_id=548" target="_blank"
- Skirnismal (The Poetic Edda), translated by Carolyne Larrington
- The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturleson, translated by Jesse Byock
- Svipdag and Menglodd by R.G. Collingwood, courtesy of Wikipedia
- A "guldsgrubber" gold foil decorative stamp or amulet, courtesy of Wikipedia
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