Back in the spring I was inspired by Adam Hyllested’s ideas about the Hyldemoer to write my own post about the Elder Mother. This led on to two other posts, on rowan and birch. I assumed that I had exhausted the subject of feminine powers associated with trees, but I was wrong.
A week ago Neorxnawang passed on a link to a paper on the mysterious goddess Ilmr. She appears in a list of goddesses and another of kennings for “woman” in the Prose Edda. Her name also appears in poetry, mostly as – you guessed it – part of a kenning for “woman”. The paper, by Joseph Hopkins, suggests that Ilmr may be an elm goddess, connecting her name to the word almr, elm.
But let’s backtrack a little. There are three ideas about what sort of goddess Ilmr was:
- the pleasant-smelling (ilmr)
- a valkyrie
- the elm lady (almr)
The first comes from Grimm, who links Ilmr to the masculine noun ilmr, “pleasant scent”. (Fittingly for the obscure goddess, he does so in a note at the back.) He doesn’t say whether the noun would have referred to the goddess or her cult. In fact, we know very little about Ilmr, apart from a few references.
Ilmr in the Edda and skaldic poetry
The main references to Ilmr, as I said, appear in Snorri Sturluson‘s Edda, in the section called Skaldskaparmal, a guide for would-be poets. At the end he has lists of names and of suggestions for poetic synonyms for things, and here we find Ilmr, twice. (If you look in Faulkes, for example, you will only find the list of goddesses, although other scholars also mention the second list as well.)
Now shall all the Asyniur be named. Frigg and Freyja Fulla and Snotra, Gerd and Gefiun, Gna, Lofn, Skadi, Iord and Idunn, Ilm, Bil, Niorun.(Nafnalthular: 23, Faulkes 157)
Apart from this, the name Ilmr does not appear at all in Eddic poetry, but it is used nine times in skaldic poetry: Kormakr Ogmundarson (4), Hallfrødr Óttarsson (1), Bjǫrn hítdœlakappi (1), Liðsmannaflokkr (1), Hromundar halti (1) and the Third Grammatical Treatise (1).
Three of Kormak’s are straightforward woman-kennings: Ilmr of the sleeves, or Ilmr of necklaces, all referring to his beloved, Steingerd. He also just uses the name in one place to refer to a woman, without any description. The poet in Liðsmannaflokkr does the same. The others refer to Ilmr of the bracelets and Ilmr of gold, common poetic kennings.
Ilmr as valkyrie?
The one by Hromundar halti, in the Icelandic Landnamambok, is more interesting, because it is a valkyrie-kenning, jalmr Ilmr. The “racket of Ilmr”, or battle, is very close to other battle kennings using valkyrie names such as hríð Hristar (the storm of Hrist) and gynr Gondlar (roar of Gondul).
Another of our skalds, Kormak Ogmundarson, used valkyrie names for woman-kennings as freely as he used goddesses’. So we have to assume that Ilmr was associated with the valkyries as much as the goddesses. Two other minor goddesses, Eir and Thrudr, are listed as goddesses or valkyries in different sources, suggesting that the line between the two was blurrier that we would like to think.
Mundal, for example, points out that both goddesses and what she calls “lower” feminine divinities could both be called dís. Freyja and Skadi were called Vanadís and Öndurdís, but there was also a cult of the dísir (plural) with festivals and shrines.
The valkyries, too, could be seen as a collective, like the dark forms Ragnar Lothrbrok sees in Vikings, hovering about the battlefield, but there are many individual, named, valkyries. Their names are mainly connected to battles, weapons and death. That Ilmr is connected to either a pleasant scent or a tree seems odd for a valkyrie.1
Hopkins’ paper adds “Tree dís” to the list. The word for elm, almr, is close to Ilmr, and other figures, such as the Elder Mother and her ash and alder counterparts, the Askafroa and Ellefru, are part of Germanic folklore.
In Iceland, which was essentially treeless during the settlement period, it is not surprising that tree-cults failed to flourish. However, we know that trees were important to the Germanic peoples, from the accounts of Tacitus to the myths of Yggdrasil the world-tree and the two trees the first people were made from.
There’s something appealing, if rather sad, about the idea of a tree goddess losing her purpose and identity in treeless Iceland, dwindling from a living power and perhaps valkyrie to a mere poet’s abstraction.
Elms and Death
Folklore associates the elm with death, along with the yew. Both Roman and Irish mythology placed elms at the entrance to the underworld, and the Greeks said that one sprang up where Orpheus stopped to serenade his wife, Eurydice, on their way back from Hades’ realm.
Elm wood was long-lasting, so it was used for coffins. As the Trees for Life site says:
Elm’s connection with death does not end there, as its wood is traditionally used to make coffins, though the wood’s durability underground may also play a part in this choice. Perhaps people who knew elms well were reminded of their own mortality when remembering the elm’s reputation for dropping large boughs without warning on otherwise still, warm days; “Elm hateth man, and waiteth” as the old saying goes.
One elm in particular was known as the Prophet Elm because it dropped a branch whenever one of the Eckley family (English landowners) was about to die. Hopkins argues that this pattern of folklore suggests a connection between the valkyrie and the tree-goddess:
In this sense, an ‘elm lady’ as ‘chooser of the slain’ may also be supported by a broader folklore pattern. An association between death and the elm is widely attested in England, where it is “seen as a treacherous tree, hostile to human beings” (Watts 2007: 134). This is at least in part due to a healthy-looking elm’s tendency to suddenly and without warning shed branches, which may injure or kill anyone unfortunate enough to be beneath… (Hopkins: 36)
I’m not sure that one instance of a Prophet Elm makes the elm a chooser of the slain, but the tree certainly has a long and durable association with death. (One reason I had difficulty finding much research on elms is death; Dutch Elm Disease nearly did for elms altogether, although apparently they’re coming back now.)
That elms were also used for bows, causing death at a distance, is also appropriate for a chooser of the slain. Once again, the elm and the yew come together, as both were favoured for this purpose, their inner wood being flexible enough to bend into a bow.
Perhaps the “racket of Ilmr” wasn’t the crash of a bough dropping, but the whizz of arrows flying through the air.
PS – The image at the top comes from theage.com, and is captioned: “The golden elm tree at the bottom of Punt Road hill.”. Photo by Rebecca Hallas.
1. Eir, meaning “peace, clemency” or “help, mercy” is another one, but Snorri lists her as a valkyrie in Nafnaþulur. ↩
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
Hopkins, Joseph 2014: “Goddesses Unknown II: On the Apparent Old Norse Goddess Ilmr”, RMN Newsletter 8: 32-8. (academia.edu)
Holtson, H. S. “Their Holy Places are Groves and Woods”, Hex Magazine 11: 39-45 (p. 42 esp) (pdf here)
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)
Thorpe, Benjamin 1851: Northern Mythology, Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany and the Netherlands: Compiled from Original and Other Sources. In Three Volumes. Scandinavian Popular Traditions and Superstitions, Lumley, vol 2: 167-8. (Google Books.)
Ilmr as “sweet-smelling”
Kennings for Ilmr by Bjorn hítdœlakappi, and the 3rd Grammatical Treatise.
The Viking Answer Lady on valkyries
Trees for Life site
Wikipedia entry on elm mythology (mainly Classical)
Image of Ilmr on deviantart
Valkyrie Name Generator