In my post on the enigmatic Norse god Hœnir, I mentioned two goddesses, Frigga and Saga. I argued that Hœnir personified poetic memory and inspired speech. His partner, Mimir, was the god of memory, without whom he couldn’t speak at all. Like our gods, Frigga and Saga have access to the knowledge of fate and of history. And like our two gods, one of them tells about it, the other doesn’t.
Our knowledge of a lot of Norse goddesses comes from the very brief explanations that Snorri Sturluson gives in his Poetic Edda. Saga, however, appears an earlier Eddic poem, one of those poems that Snorri used for his manual of mythology.
Under the Waves?
The poem she appears in is called Grimnismál, named for Odin (Grimnr meaning “Masked”, since Odin goes in disguise in this story). He describes the homes of various deities, including Saga’s, which he should know well. As Andy Orchard and Carolyne Larrington translate it:
7. Sunken-Bank a fourth is called and there cool waves
can thunder over the place;
there Odin and Sága can drink every day,
gladly, from golden cups. (Orchard)
7. Sokkvabekk a fourth is called and cool waves
resound over it;
there Odin and Saga drink every day
joyful, from golden cups. (Larrington)
Both translations (and others) imply that Søkkvabekk is underwater. Watery depths as a symbol of memory is not unique to the Norse, but what is interesting is that they aren’t drowning in it or floating in it, they seem to live beneath it, and can drink from it (or some other source), controlling their consumption of the liquid.
It may be that the water that flows over Saga’s home is a way in to her home, which is actually under the waves. In Eldar Heide‘s paper “Contradictory Cosmology” he suggests that mapping the otherworld is a waste of time – it’s simply where we are not. He goes on to say that certain portals to the otherworld existed, and that some of them were extremely deep lakes and other bodies of water.
He suggests that bodies of water such as Odensjön, a small lake in Scania with no obvious source, were possibly seen as portals to the otherworld. Saami noiade would use such deep lakes (sáiva) as passages to the land of the dead, which they would visit in the shape of fish. (2014: 112-3) He also mentions that both Ivar Vidfamne and another Odinic hero, Asmundr (Egels saga einhenda) drown, and their bodies are never found, which suggests that they have travelled bodily to Odin. (2011: 67-8)
So Saga’s home may likewise be accessed by diving deep into the waters, which seems appropriate. Heide (2014 :109) also points out that while Heimdall’s dwelling (also mentioned in Grim.) is in highest heaven, Saga’s is in the depths of the waters, possibly in the underworld. (He lives in Himinbjorg, “Heaven-Mountain”, guarding the rainbow bridge.)
Saga and Frigg
As a goddess that Odin regularly consults, we know that Saga must be fairly important, even if, like Hœnir, her role has become somewhat obscure. Going back to Snorri, in his list of the gods, he gives them by rank, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that he does the same with the goddesses:
Then spoke Gangleri: “Who are the Asyniur?”
High said: “Frigg is the first. She has a dwelling called Fensailr and it is very splendid. Second is Saga. She dwells at Sokkvabekk, and that is a big place.” (Snorri/Faulkes 29)
So we know that Saga ranks after Frigga. (He ranks Freyja fifth, although in another section, on names for the different goddesses, Freyja comes right after Frigga.) Faulkes has Søkkvabekk as a “big place”, but in John Lindow’s book on Norse myth he has it as “a big farm” (264), which brings a different picture to mind. Byock has “a large dwelling” (Loc. 975) – we’re probably meant to imagine a the sort of large farm and buildings that any wealthy person would have.
Both Saga’s name, and that of her dwelling, have been translated in two different ways. You will often see the name Saga linked to the verb “to see”, sja (Lindow and othes), but Simek rejects this (274), and links her name to the verb sejan, to tell, and the noun saga. Both he and Orchard see her name as meaning “Seeress” (299). Simek also points to an alternative meaning for Søkkvabekk: “Treasure-Bank”, and says that Grim. 7 could mean that both Odin and Saga own it (297).
Saga has often been subsumed to Frigga, as an aspect of the goddess who is, after all, Odin’s wife. I don’t find this convincing, and I suspect this tendency to fold all the Norse goddesses into one or two tidy bundles. (First you state that all the Aesir goddesses are really Frigga, then all the others become aspects of Freyja; and everyone knows Frigga and Freyja are really the same goddess, and there you are. Someone once wrote a book claiming to show that all the gods were aspects of Odin – I look forward to the book that does the same with the goddesses.)
I think that there may have been a deep connection between the two, like that of Hoenir and Mimir, although the symbolism is a little different. Hœnir and Frigga live on the edge of the water (Frigga’s home is called Fen-Hall), while Mimir and Saga are in the depths. Both Saga and Minir speak wisdom to Odin from their watery abodes, but while Mimir exacts the pledge of an eye for his wisdom, Saga’s is given freely, joyfully. Neither speaks to anyone else, but while Hœnir needed Mimir to speak, Frigga seems to manage without Saga.
Saga’s connection with waters may have had an echo in place-names. In the Eddic poem Helgakvida Hundingsbana I, the hero Sinfjötli gets into an insult-contest (flyting) with Gudmund, during which he claims:
39. ‘Nine wolves we pair bred on Saga’s Headland
I was the only father to them all.’ (Orchard’s trans.)
He refers to Sogunes, which may well have been named for the goddess. Sinfjötli is an Odinic hero, and wolves are Odin’s animals. It may be a bit of a reach to see a connection here between Odin, Saga, and Sinfjötli, but it is interesting that the only place-name we have for Saga is on the shoreline. (Karlsdottir: 88) When Sinfjötli dies, by the way, an old man with a ferry-boat appears to take him to the otherworld. (Odin, of course.)
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Jesse Byock, Penguin Classics, 2005. (Kindle Editon)
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
The Poetic Edda, Andy Orchard, Penguin Classics, 2013. (Kindle Edition)
Heide, Eldar 2014: “Contradictory Cosmology in Old Norse myth and religion – but still a system?”, Maal og Minne 106/1: 102-43.
Heide, Eldar 2011: “Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond the Water”, in Isolated Islands in Medieval Nature, Culture and Mind, eds. Gerhard Jaritz and Torstein Jørgensen, CEU medievalia 14. Budapest / Bergen: Central European University / Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Bergen. 57–80.
Karlsdottir, Alice 2003: Mythology of the Norse Goddesses: Mythology, Ritual, Traceworking, Runa-Raven Press.
Lindow, John, 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Orchard, Andy 2002: Cassell’s Dictonary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell Reference.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Commentary on Grimnismal 7
A more impressionistic view of Saga
Saga as part of the Norse pantheon
from Alice Karlsdottir’s book on Norse Goddesses
Saga and Frigg
Saga in the Comics
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