Gefjun: goddess or giant?

My last post on Gefjun touched on the question of her status. She is counted among the goddesses, but so are Skadi, Gerdr and Jord, all of whom are giantesses by birth. John Lindow has argued that she was obviously a giant or other primal being, although others have seen her as an earth goddess. So is she a goddess, a giantess, or both?

The only real myth about Gefjun tells how she “entertained” the Swedish king Gylfi, and he rewarded her with as much land as she could plough in one day. Gefjun either already had four sons by a giant, or else went off and conceived and bore them for the occasion, turned them into oxen and managed to plough enough land to make the large island of Zealand.

This was the giveaway that the oxen were imbued with giant strength: they ploughed deeply enough to cut Zealand away from Sweden entirely, and Gefjun gave it to the Danes. Far from anyone being angry with her for this, Odin rewarded her with marriage to his son Skiold, king of the Danes.

Lindow’s argument is based on the idea that since Gefjun had four children with a giant, she can’t be a goddess, since while the gods could have offspring with the giantesses, they kill any giants who try the same thing with the goddesses.

Both Lindow and Preben Meulengracht Sørensen see Loki’s “not-quite-one-us” status as springing in part from his parentage: according to them, while his father is undoubtedly a giant, his mother, Laufey, is probably a goddess. This wrong-way family is a sign of Loki’s own “wrongness”.1

Against that, we have Snorri Sturluson’s own words, in the Prose Edda version of Gefjun’s story:

Now this woman was of the race of the Aesir. Her name was Gefiun. (Faulkes: 7)

Which would seem to settle the matter. It’s also notable that in his list of the goddesses, he mentions Frigg and Freyja, then Gefjun, and many more, then the valkyries, then he mentions Jord and Rind, and relates the story of Gerdr. He’s clearly keeping the giantess-goddesses separate from the rest.

Benefiting Humans

It is true that the distinction between god and giant is somewhat artificial, in the sense that both received worship and were seen as powerful, wise and magical. The story of Gefjun does show how the two were different, and also shows how Gefjun is more like a god than a giantess.

The main distinction between gods and giants is that while the giants have similar treasures and abilities, they don’t put them to use. In most of the myths they don’t use them to help humans, although the sagas tell a different story. Even then, it tends to be individual heroes rather than humanity generally who benefit. (The story of Kvasir is a perfect example of this. As a Vanir god he travelled around sharing his wisdom freely. After he’s killed, a giant hides the mead fermented from his blood in a cave. Odin liberates it and shares it with poets.)

Rasmus Tranum Kristensen says that the gods chose to split from their kin, the giants, and killing Ymir was the defining act of establishing themselves as a separate people. The gods then created humans, and were their patrons. So it’s natural that the gods would be closer to humans, while the giants might benefit them if approached, but generally are further from humans and their concerns.

Gefjun took Zealand, either on her own or under Odin’s orders, and gave it to the Danes. So we see her using a giant attribute, enormous strength, to benefit humanity. (Okay, maybe not the Swedes.) This has echoes of the Master-Builder story, where the gods make a contract with a giant to build the walls of Asgard, hoping to outwit him. Both stories show the gods harnessing the giants’ power to do what they cannot. (And both Gefjun and Loki use sex to further those ends.)

Cosmic Creation

Another point is that Gefjun creates land (and destroys it, from the Swedes’ point of view). The giants do not create the world we live in, the gods do. In fact, they rip the first giant, Ymir, apart to do it. A different creation myth (Völuspá) has Odin and his brothers lifting the lands out of the water. (Unless you want to imagine them fishing around for Ymir’s body in the flood of his blood.)

Unlike Greek mythology, in Norse myth it’s very clear that the Aesir themselves made the world, and set its bounds. Later, post-Christian, traditions attributes local landmarks to giants, but that’s like saying the Devil or Paul Bunyan (and his ox, Babe!) made them. Christian people were unlikely to attribute them to Gefjun, Odin or Thor.

Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox. Wikimedia.

Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox. Wikimedia.

While Gefjun’s ploughing isn’t a primal creation, it is a cosmic event, akin to other feats by the gods. Both versions of Gefjun’s story are based on a 9th-century poem by Bragi Boddason, also known as Bragi the Old. It’s called Ragnarsdrapa, and it’s often romantically connected to Ragnar Lothbrok. It describes five scenes depicted on shields:

  1. Gefjun’s ploughing,
  2.  Thor hauling up the World-Serpent,
  3. Thiazi’s eyes thrown into the sky as stars,
  4. the eternal fight between Heidinn and Hogni, and
  5. Hamdir and Sorli’s attack on King Jormunrekk.

The first three are all connected to the Aesir and are violent acts, or proceed from violent acts. Thiazi was murdered by the Aesir for kidnapping Idunn, and Odin (or Thor) plucked out his eyes and threw them into the sky as recompense. Thor’s fishing expedition was cut short when he hooked the World Serpent, who encircled the earth. The commotion as the god pulled it up was so intense his frightened companion cut the line.

In the same way, Bragi’s description of Gefjun’s act is somewhat ambivalent, as he calls Zealand oðal, meaning freehold land, in line 2, but later (line 8) calls it valrauf, plunder of the slain. Clearly this is an act of divine violence to stand beside the other two.

Bragi probably intended a parallel between the image of Gefjun ripping the land apart and Thor dragging the Midgard Serpent out of the water. Both would have been noisy, dramatic deeds, and good images for a shield. While Gefjun relies on giant strength to accomplish her feat, Bragi obviously intends us to compare the two acts, and deities.

Beyond the Binaries

The line between goddess and giantess is a blurry one. However, Snorri was clear that Gefjun was of the “race of the Aesir”, and I don’t see how we can just ignore him to suit our own theories. He accords goddess status to Skadi and Gerdr as well, while placing them among the giant families.

Gefjun is the other “test case” for the theory that there can be no sexual traffic between giants and goddesses. For the most part, this theory works, as it explains Loki, why giants who wanted a goddess had to die, and why Njord couldn’t marry an Asynia. But the theory breaks down when it comes to Gefjun, who not only mated with a giant but had children with him, and did so of her own free will. She is the only goddess we know of to do this.

She does the same things that Odin and Thor do, and for the most part she gets away with it. I suspect her role as patron of the Danes helped there. Her intercourse with a giant is for the benefit of the Aesir and humans, so it’s an acceptable transgression, unlike Laufey‘s.

There is another reason people might think Gefjun is a giantess. I think there’s some difficulty too in imagining a goddess doing something as violent and active as hacking land apart; it seems like something Thor should be doing, or some hulking giant.

dooley and Karlsdottir both envisage Gefjun as a strong, practical woman who gets things done. No doubt many medieval Scandinavian women spent time behind an ox and plough, as the men were off raiding or trading.To them it wouldn’t seem strange, just servile, for a goddess to turn to and plough her own land.

It’s also a salutary reminder that humans make categories, and goddesses transcend them.

1. Another proponent of this theory, Margaret Clunies-Ross, mentions Gefjun once in her book Prolonged Echoes, and then only in a footnote.


References:

Clunies Ross, Margaret 1994: Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse myths in medieval Northern society, vol. 1, The Viking Society Vol. 7, Odense UP.
dooley, d. Kate 2006: The Spindle Hearth: A Sourcebook for Goddess-Centered Living, Yarrow Press, Asheville-Lewisburg.
Karlsdottir, Alice 2003: Magic of the Norse Goddesses: Mythology, Ritual, Tranceworking, Runa-Raven Press.
Kristensen, Rasmus Tranem, 2007: “Why was Oðinn Killed By Fenrir? A Structural Analysis of Kinship Structures in Old Norse Myths of Creation and Eschatology”, in Reflections on Old Norse Myths, Studies in Viking and Medieval Scandinavian, eds. P. Hermann, J.P. Schjødt, and R. Kristensen: 149-69. (first page here)
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP.
Mundal, Else 1990: “Position of the Individual Gods and Goddesses in Various Types of Sources – With Particular Reference to the Female Divinities”, in Old Norse and Finnish Religions and Cultic Place Names, ed. Tore Ahlback, Almqvist & Wiksell Internat: 294-315. (pdf here)
Olsen, Karin 2001: “Bragi Boddason’s Ragnarsdrapa: a Monstrous Poem”, in Monsters and the Monstrous in North-West Europe, eds. Karin Olsen and Luuk A. J. R. Houwen, Peeters Publishers: 123-40. (Google Books)
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer.
Sørensen, Preben Meulengracht (trans. Joan Turville-Petre) 1983: The Unmanly Man: Concepts of sexual defamation in early Northern society, Odense University Press.

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