Odin and Freyja: one’s grim, one’s golden, but they are a lot alike

Odin and Freyja are the “stars” of the Norse pantheon. The most famous god of the warlike Aesir, and the (only) goddess of the Vanir, they are surprisingly alike. Both are magicians, both gather the slain, and both take an interest in mortals.

The Aesir and Vanir went to war when they first met, but after they fought each other to a standstill, they made peace and exchanged hostages. Freyja also became Odin’s concubine, although that was probably her own decision. You can imagine the two of them eyeing each other up during peace talks, as they realized how much they had in common.

Among the traits they share are:

  • assembling armies of the dead: Odin and Freyja share those fallen on the battlefield. (Grimnismal 14) We’re never told what Freyja wants the dead for, but Odin is assembling an army against the day of the Ragnarök, the final battle between the gods and giants. Since Freyja’s home is named Folkvangr, which can be read as People-Plain or Battlefield, it seems likely that she’s assembling a Vanir army of her own. Among their by-names are Valtyr, or God of the Slain, and Valfreyja, or Lady of the Slain. (Saxo Grammaticus, who wrote in Latin, refers to Odin once by the name Pluto, the Roman god of the dead.)
  • magic skills: both Odin and Freyja are magical experts. The Ynglinga saga tells how Freyja actually taught Odin a form of magic, seidr, which was practiced by the Vanir. According to the same saga, Odin already knew many forms of magic, including shapeshifting, berserker rage, astral travel, necromancy and of course the runes. Freyja had another form of magic that Odin did not; she could restore the dead to life.
  • stories about getting wisdom from a volva/giantess: the poems Voluspa and Baldrs draumar show Odin getting a supernatural woman to tell him what he needs to know. While Voluspa is told by the volva, who occasionally breaks off to ask Odin if he has what he wants, he doesn’t get to say anything, while Baldrs draumar is a dialogue, in which Odin questions a giantess. The poem Hyndluljod, which features a dialogue between Freyja and the giantess Hyndla, crosses these two genres, as Freyja questions Hyndla, who breaks off to declaim about the family origins of the gods and giants.1 Both Baldrs draumar and Hyndluljod end with the giantess slanging off her questioner, but only Freyja gets the last word. (Odin may have been depressed by learning that his son’s bad dreams were only the beginning of his woes.)
  • patron god/dess: Odin was patron god of many heroes, while only one tale of Freyja showing special favour to a mortal survives. Freyja’s motivation in Hyndluljod is to help her mortal worshipper (and possible lover) Ottar, who needs to know his genealogy to get his inheritance. (The beginning of the poem mentions the many heroes that Odin favoured, as if justifying Freyja’s actions, or Ottar’s.) Odin is also a patron of rulers, many of whom claimed him as a divine ancestor. (The Prologue to the Prose Edda tells how he travelled from Asia, leaving sons who founded royal dynasties in his wake.)
  • stirrer of strife: both Odin and Freyja are known to stir up conflict, although once again more stories survive about Odin than Freyja. Both Sorla thattr and Ragnarsdrapa tell how two armies were set to eternal war, unable to die. (While Sorla thattr names Freyja as the instigator of this, Ragnarsdrapa calls her Hild, although most assume that’s another of Freyja’s names. Odin intervenes directly in several sagas (Hrolf Kraki’s saga, for example), and is accused by several heroes of plotting to take souls for his Asgardian army. (Among other things, he plays a very nasty trick on King Vikarr in the story of Starkadr, turning a mock execution into a real one at the last second.)
  • traveller: several Eddic poems begin with Odin faring forth to test his wisdom against a giant’s, or testing the hospitality and wisdom of a protegé, or just wandering around. (Two stories involving him, Hoenir and Loki seem to be completely unmotivated. They’re just out wandering around when they encounter the giant Thiazi, or accidentally kill Otr.) Odin seems to like being on the move. Freyja’s journeying is more focused. According to the Prose Edda, she travelled the world searching for her husband, Odr, weeping tears of amber as she went.
  • many names: Odin is leader here, with more than 200 heiti or by-names, but Freyja has a number of other names too, according to Snorri. Wikipedia lists nine, all from the three books of the Prose Edda.2 Snorri also says that she got many of her by-names during her travels in search of her husband.
  • sleeps around: this may be thing that “everyone knows” about Freyja, the Northern Aphrodite, but Odin gets around too. It is clear that he took his title “All-Father” very seriously, siring any number of sons, including many ancestors of royal and aristocratic families. Both deities were not above using their charms to manipulate others into giving them their valuables. Odin seduced the giant maiden Gunnlod into letting him take three sips from the mead of poetry, while Freyja slept with four dwarves in exchange for her necklace Brisingamen.
  • shapeshifting: we know that Odin can assume the form of an eagle, as he used it to escape from the giant Sutting after he stole the mead of poetry. Freyja has a falcon-form which she lends to Loki when he has to search for Thor’s hammer, stolen by a giant. So presumably Freyja can change to falcon shape, although we never see her do it.

 

raven_and_cat
Raven and Cat.

You could maybe add “warlike” to this list, on the basis of Freyja’s home, Folkvangr, and her by-names, including “Throng” (Throng, Thrungva) and Valfreyja, or Lady of the Slain. We never see her in battle though, and although modern pagans often think of her as leader of the valkyries, there is no reason to connect them. Odin is a war-god, whose name comes from the word for “fury” and who gave the Norse some of their battle-formations.

1. This part, known as the Short Voluspa, is probably an insertion, not part of the original poem.
2. In case you don’t want to click, they’re Gefn, Hörn, Mardöll, Skjálf, Sýr, Thröng, Thrungva, Valfreyja and Vanadís.


Links:
A more modern version of the Ynglinga saga (pdf)
Prose Edda translation at Sacred Sites
Hrolf Kraki’s saga (pdf)

Source for the image at the top

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