Fensalir and Frigg’s foresight

Fensalir, Frigga’s home, has sad associations. Its only mention in Eddic poetry is a verse in Völuspá, which tells us that she weeps at Fensalir after her son Baldr dies. Snorri Sturluson expands on this – he says that it was at Frigg’s home that Loki tricked her into revealing Baldr’s weakness.

The verse goes:

He never washed hands nor combed his head
till he put to the pyre Baldr’s foe; but Frigg lamented in Fen-halls,
for Slain-hall’s [Valhalla’s] woe:
do you know yet, or what?
(Vsp. 33, Orchard’s translation)

As Ursula Dronke puts it, “After this vigorous male satisfaction of vengeance comes the weeping of Frigg, the mother.” (54) So presumably Frigg knows what is coming after Baldr’s death. (The killer referred to, by the way, is Odin’s son Vali, whom he fathered on Rind.) If Snorri Sturluson’s gloss on Vsp. is accurate, Loki visited Fensalir in disguise to learn Baldr’s vulnerability, so it would be a bitter place indeed for his mother. According to him:

But when Loki Laufeyiarson saw this he was not pleased that Baldr was unharmed. He went to Fensalir to Frigg and changed his appearance to that of a woman. (Gylf. 49, Faulkes)

Snorri goes on to quote a dialogue between them in which Frigg innocently lets out that she excused the mistletoe from swearing not to harm Baldr. Loki vanishes, and he next pops up helping blind Hodr aim at his brother. He also mentions Fensalir in the section of Gylfaginning in which he describes the goddesses:

‘Frigg is the foremost [goddess]. She owns the dwelling called Fensalir, and it is splendid in all ways.’ (Gylf. 35, Byock)

The next goddess in the list is Saga, who is closely associated with Frigg, of course. Some have tried to make a connection between the watery homes of these two goddesses and the many finds of treasure and/or sacrifice found in bogs and other watery places. It can’t be proven, of course, but it may be that offerings to the supreme goddess were made by sinking valuable items in water.

Water’s Edge

Orchard (and Simek) translates Fensalir as “Fen-halls”. Fenland is marshland, as anyone who lives in East Anglia or Banff could tell you. These places, where water meets land, have an extraordinary biodiversity and very fertile soil.

Also, in Old English poetry and in Norse literature, the marginal territory of the water’s edge is a place set apart, neither one world nor the other. This wetland environment has led many to connect Frigg’s home with Saga’s home at “Sunken-Bank”.

If you’ve read my earlier posts on Hœnir and Saga, then you’ll know that I see parallels between their relationship and that of Frigg and Saga. Each pair has one partner associated with the water’s depths, and the other with the water’s edge. (Frigg lives at the sea’s edge, in fenland, while Hœnir’s animal may well be a wading bird of some sort.) All four, too, are associated with Odin.

They don’t match up perfectly, but there are consistencies: both Mimir and Saga speak only to one person: Hœnir or Odin, while both Hœnir and Frigg deal with the outside world.

Foresight and its Discontents

We know that Frigg “knows fate” from a line in Lokasenna, a poem in which Loki insults all the deities in turn, and specifically goads Frigg by telling her he was responsible for her son’s death. (Since he was the one who tricked her into revealing Baldr’s weakness, this is a particularly cruel thing to do.) Freyja, showing female solidarity, comes to Frigg’s defense, saying:

29.’You’re quite mad, Loki, when you make mention of your hateful and horrible deeds; Frigg, I think, knows all our fates, though she never speaks of them herself.’ (Orchard’s trans.)

(As a side-note, the giantess Skadi echoes this later in the poem when she, in response to Loki’s boasting about her father’s death, spells out Loki’s fate in detail.) In the story of Baldr, of course, her reaction to the news that Baldr is fated to die is to try to short-circuit the prophecy by getting all things to swear never to harm him. She overlooks the mistletoe, which leads to Baldr’s doom when Loki finds out about this omission.

However, as Alice Karlsdottir points out, Frigg does manage to preserve her son for the new world to come after Ragnarök, when the impossible situation of Baldr’s death at the hands of his own brother is resolved, and the two rule the new world together.

Frigg also advises Odin, even if he doesn’t listen to her. In Vafthrudnismal he asks her advice before going forth to test his wits against the giant Vafthrudnir. She tells him he would be better not going, as Vafthrudnir is the wisest of giants. (Orchard) But Odin tells her he wants to know what is happening in the giant’s hall, and she gives in gracefully to her husband’s quest for knowledge, blessing his voyage.

And in two different stories she tricks him to makes sure that things come out her way, which suggests that she knows something that her husband does not. (The History of the Langobards, and the Eddic poem Grimnismal.)

In both cases she helps out her favourite, and in both cases she tricks Odin to do it. Like him, she actively intervenes to shape fate; she might not speak of what she knows, but she acts on it. According to Grimnismal, Frigg can sit in Odin’s high-seat, Hlidskalf, which allows you to see over all the nine worlds.

This is the only mention of anyone else being able to sit there and look out (in Skirnirsmal Freyr sits there without sanction, and falls unwisely in love with a giantess). We have to assume that Odin reposes great trust in his wife.

A final point

There is a trope in Norse literature which involves someone suddenly being inspired to prophetic speech. This is usually a woman, although there are instances of men being similarly affected. (Quinn) What is interesting about Frigg is that she is able to avoid this, so that while women (as Tacitus tells us) were credited with prophecy, Frigg is able to keep what she knows to herself.

It may well be, too, that in the wake of her attempt to act on what she knew about Baldr, and the way that turned out, she decided to intervene no more.


References:

The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)

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.
Quinn, Judy 1998: “Ok veðr henni ljóð á munni” – Eddic Prophecy in the fornaldarsogur”, alvissmal 8: 29-50. (available online)
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

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5 thoughts on “Fensalir and Frigg’s foresight

  1. […] four Norse goddesses have homes of their own. Out of these, two are given to Frigg and Freyja, who are the preeminent goddesses of the pantheon and might be expected to own their own […]

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