Thorgerd Holgabrudr and her sister Irpa were Norwegian goddesses. Some of the sagas relate tales of her rich temples and statues. Her followers gave her rich gifts, and expected her to intercede on their behalf. Her most influential follower was Haakon Sigurdsson, who was essentially the ruler of Norway in the last part of the 9th century.
He claimed descent from Saeming, the son of Odin and Skadi, and was famous as a follower of the old gods, who broke his alliance with Denmark rather than become a Christian. So the tales of Thorgerd and her follower are to some extent tales of how pagans and their gods behaved, for a mainly convert audience.
The close relationship he had with his patron goddess is like that of Ottar and Freyja in Hyndluljod, and like Ottar he frequently offered his goddess riches (and didn’t hold back whatever she demanded, as we shall see). Thorgerd has some similarities to Skadi as well, coming from the north, the daughter of a powerful primordial figure, an independent female with a dark side.
Bride or Daughter?
Holgabrudr means “bride of Holgi”, so some have connected her to the legendary Holgi or Logi who was the first ruler of Hålogaland in northern Norway. Snorri, however, gives Hǫlgi as her father, which falls in with the Skadi (and saga) pattern of giants and their daughters.
They say that a king known as Holgi, after whom Halogaland is named, was Thorgerd Holgabrud’s father. Sacrifices were offered to them both, and Holgi’s mound was raised with alternately a layer of gold or silver– this was the money offered in sacrifice– and a layer of earth and stone.
(Skaldskaparmal ch. 44-5, Faulkes trans.)
A poem by Skúli Þórsteinsson mentions Holgi in a kenning:
When I reddened Reifnir’s roof-fire [shield-fire = sword], off Svold to gain wealth, I amassed warlike Holgi’s mound-roof [gold] in rings. (Faulkes: 112)
(Note that both Thiazi and Holgi were notably wealthy, enough that both could feature in kennings for gold, and his rich burial mound was proverbial.)
Thorgerd could also have been the bride of Hålogaland itself, a sort of tutelary goddess. Her name varies a bit from text to text, although all the variants are meaningful (McKinnell 2014: 269):
- holda– “of noblemen”, in Njals saga
- Holga– “of Hålogaland or of Holgi” in Jomsvikinga saga, Jomsvikingadrapa, and Skaldskaparmal
- Horða– “of Horðaland or the Horðlanders” in Flateyjarbok
- Horga– “of the shrines”, in Jomsvikinga saga and Ketills saga. (There is also a male form, Horgi, in Flateyjarbok ch, 173)
Since we know that she was strongly associated with Hålogaland and its ruling family, and that she had shrines devoted to her, all these versions of her name make sense, and probably reflect aspects of her cult.
Description of her temples
Temples of the Roman type were probably not features of Norse paganism, although open-air shrines to deities, with a hearth for offerings, probably existed. (McKinnell 2014: 277-8) Freyja describes just such a shrine in Hyndluljod, boasting of how Ottar made it for her. They may have been in clearings like Nerthus‘ temple on her sacred island, since Færeying saga mentions that Thorgerd’s temple was in a clearing, and Haakon goes to a clearing to pray during a battle.
That night Killing-Hrapp came to the shrine of Earl Hacon and Gudbrand, and he went inside the house, and there he saw Thorgerda Shrinebride sitting, and she was as tall as a full-grown man. She had a great gold ring on her arm, and a wimple on her head; he strips her of her wimple, and takes the gold ring from off her. Then he sees Thor’s car, and takes from him a second gold ring; a third he took from Irpa; and then dragged them all out, and spoiled them of all their gear.
After that he laid fire to the shrine, and burnt it down, and then he goes away just as it began to dawn. (Njals’s saga ch.87, trans. DaSent)
Clearly in this story Killing-Hrapp wants to destroy the earl’s power by attacking his supernatural protector. (Interestingly, Haakon went off and prayed after finding the burnt-out shrine, then returned to his men and identified the arsonist. But Hrapp was too quick and got away from them.)
Another story tells how Haakon interceded with Thorgerd on behalf of an ally, Sigmund:
“It is not enough,” said the Earl; ” you must seek help from one in whom I have grounded all my trust, Thorgerd, the Maid of Holgi ; let us go and visit her.” They went, therefore, to the temple, where the Earl threw himself on the ground before the image of Thorgerd, and so remained for a long time. The image was very finely adorned, and wore a gold bracelet on its arm. When the Earl arose, he laid hold of the bracelet to draw it off; but the image, as it seemed to Sigmund, bent its wrist. ” She has no friendly feeling to you, Sigmund,” said the Earl, ” and I know not if I shall be able to bring you into favour with her. Your acceptance will be shown by her sharing with us the bracelet on her arm.” Then the Earl took a large amount of silver and laid it on the pedestal in front of her. A second time he prostrated himself on the floor before her, and Sigmund observed that he shed copious tears. After rising from the ground, he laid hold of the bracelet, which the goddess now yielded to him, and he gave it
to Sigmund, saying: “This bracelet I give you for good luck; you must never part with it.” (The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason ch. 281, trans. Sephton)
Færeying Saga, or Thrond’s Saga, tells the same story, but gives details about Thorgerd’s temple that the other doesn’t:
They set forth along a certain path to the wood, and thence by a little bypath into the wood, till they came where a ride lay before them, and a house standing in it with a stake fence round it. Right fair was that house, and gold and silver was run into the carvings thereof. They went into the house, Hacon and Sigmnnd together, and a few men with them. Therein were a great many gods. There were many glass roof-lights in the house, so that there was no shadow anywhere. There was a woman in the house over against the door, right fairly decked she was.(ch. 23, trans. Nutt)
Clearly, the earl and her other followers rewarded her with riches, whether the formal temples were a reality or not. Her favour was not always easily bought, however, and when the Jomsvikings attacked Norway, Haakon had to take extreme measures before Thorgerd would help him:
The earl went ashore on Prímsignd and went away into a wood. He knelt down facing the north and prayed. In his prayers he called upon his proector Þorgerðr Holgabrúðr. But being angry she would not hear his prayers. She rejected all the offers of great sacrifices which he made, and Hákon thought things were looking very black. It came to his offering her a human sacrifce which she likewise rejected. Finally he offered her his seven-year-old son calling Erlingr, and she accepted him. The earl delivered up the boy to his thrall Skopti, who proceeded to kill him. (Jomsvikinga Saga ch. 32, trans. Blake) (pdf here)
Following this sacrifice, the battle began to turn for Hakon; their enemies, the Jomsvikings were assaulted by a hailstorm as well as thunder and lightning. Then Thorgerd herself appeared, shooting arrows from her fingertips. When her sister Irpa joined her, one man said that he had not vowed to fight against witches.
And now Earl Hákon began to recover from the massive pain, and people say he was never quite the same man as he was before, and the Earl now wanted to avenge Þorleif for this embarrassment if he could, calling on his patron deities, Þorgerðr Holgabruðr and her sister Irpa, to project their magic out towards Iceland so that Þorleif would be utterly vanquished, and he offered them great sacrifices and requested news. And when he had received news which was to his liking, he had a piece of driftwood taken and made from it a wooden man, and by the magic and incantation of the earl and the magic and the ecstatic witchcraft of those sisters he had a man killed, took from him his heart, had it put into the wooden man and then had it set on its feet and given a name. It was called Þorgarðr, and he bewitched it so much by the power of the devil that it walked around and spoke to people. Then he put him on a ship and sent out to Iceland on a mission to kill Þorleif “The Earl’s Poet”. Hákon armed him with a halberd which he had taken out of the shrine of the sisters and which had once been owned by Horgi. (Þorleifs þáttr jarlsskálds trans. Cole: 258-9)
I quoted the whole of this anecdote because it’s an interesting mesh of the story of Odin, Lodur and Hoenir making the first humans from wood, and some dimly understood version of the golem story. Still, it’s interesting that Earl Hakon’s patron would protect his good name as much as his kingdom. (I’m assuming that the Horgi who owned the halberd was some version of Thorgerd’s father/husband.)
While Thorgerd may not have retaliated against Killing-Hrapp, it was a different story when the goði (priest) Grimkel burned her temple. He had gone to her for counsel, only to be told that the gods had deserted his friend and he was doomed. His bad-tempered reaction didn’t help matters:
Grimkel went to Thorgerd Horgabrud’s temple and was going to make a pronouncement about Thorbiorg’s marriage, but when he came into the temple the gods were all in a great commotion and were getting ready to leave their pedestals. Grimkel said:
‘What’s the meaning of this and where are you off to, and where will you now direct good fortune?’
Thorgerd said, ‘We shall not direct good fortune to Hord, since he has plundered my brother Soti of that fine gold ring of his and done much other disgrace to him. I will though instead direct good fortune towards Thorbiorg, and such a great light shines above her that I am afraid that it will cause a separation between us. But you will have only a short time to live.’
He then went away and was very angry with the gods. He went home for fire and burned up the temple and all the gods and said they should never again tell him grievous tidings. And in the evening when people were sitting at table, Grimkel Godi suddenly dropped dead and he was buried south of the farmyard.
(Harðar saga ok Hólmverja ch. 19, trans. Faulkes (pdf))
Earlier, in chapter 15 of the saga, Hord did indeed rob Soti’s grave. Soti was a viking, and a huge troll, and after he died he was entombed in a huge mound. Perhaps Hord should have been suspicious when an old man in a blue cloak (Odin, anyone?) offered him a magical sword that would help him break into the mound. The two then stole Soti’s ring, sword and helmet. (Røthe 2006: 8)
Another account of Thorgerd’s temple comes from the Flateyjarbok, a history of Iceland. One of the sagas in it tells the story of Olaf Tryggvason, the great Christianizer, and how he defeated Haakon to become king of Norway. After Haakon died, betrayed by his friend, Olaf went about destroying all vestiges of paganism in Norway, including Thorgerd’s temple. (I have been unable to find a version of Flateyjarbok online, but the following is a summary.)
In chapter 326 of the saga of Óláfr Tryggvason in Flateyjarbók the statue of Þorgerðr and her cult house is described. The beautiful cult house of Þorgerðr is said to have been situated in a clearing in the forest. Inside there was a well-clothed woman sitting on a seat. The king took off her clothes and stripped her of her gold and silver. After this he took the statue of Þorgerðr out and bound it to the horse’s tail and rode along with it to his men. The king then asked them to put the clothes on the statue. This was done and she was seated at a high altar with caskets full of the gold and silver that Jarl Hákon had given her. The king then let her clothes be taken off and he hit her with his club so she broke into pieces. He made a fire where he burned the statues of Þorgerðr and Freyr because he did not wish that Christian men would praise any of the statues and thus bring about evilness and wrong faith. (Røthe 2006: 5)
Goddess or Giantess?
Lotte Motz, who was one of the first scholars to really study the giants in Norse myth, argued that Thorgerd was a giantess. One point in her favour is that Snorri includes her in a list of troll-wives, which seems odd since every other source calls her a goddess. (Faulkes: 156)
However, we know that the line between goddess and giantess could be a thin one, and Skadi, Gerd, Jord (Thor’s mother) and Rind (Vali’s mother) are all giantesses who are counted as goddesses. Ketills saga is also evidence for Thorgerd as a giantess, although the author may not be entirely serious:
One night he was woken by a noise from the forest. He ran out and saw a troll-woman, whose hair fell to her shoulders.
Ketil said: “What are you doing, foster-mother?”
She bridled at that and said: “I am going to the meeting of the trolls. There comes Skelking, king of the trolls, from the north out of the Dumb Sea (the Arctic), and Ofoti out of Ofotansfirth and Thorgerd Horgatroll, and other great monsters from the northern lands. Do not delay me, since you are nothing to me, you who killed Kaldrani.” (ch. 5, trans. Chappell)
Since Thorgerdr’s name is related to that of the goddess Gerdr, another giantess, it seems likely that she too straddled that line between giant and god.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987. (pdf here)
Chadwick, Nora K. 1950: ‘Þórgerðr Hölgabrúðr and the trolla þing: a note on sources’. in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (H.M. Chadwick Memorial Studies), eds. Cyril Fox and Bruce Dickins, CUP: 395–417.
Chadwick, H. Munro 1900: “The Ancient Teutonic Priesthood”, Folklore 11/3: 268-300.
McKinnell, John 2005: Meeting the other in Norse myth and legend , .D.S. Brewer, Woodbridge.
McKinnell, John 2014: “Two Sex Goddesses: Thorgerdr Högabrúdr and Freyja in Hyndlúljód”, in Essays on Eddic Poetry, eds. Donata Kick and John D. Shafer: 268-92.
Røthe, Gunnhild 2006: “The Fictitious Figure of Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr in the Saga Tradition”, in Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006. (pdf here)
Røthe, Gunnhild 2007: “Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr – the fylgja of the Háleygjar family”, Scripta Islandica 58: 33-56. (pdf here)
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
The image at the top can be found here.