Considering that she may have started a cosmic war, we know very little about the Norse goddess Gullveig. Her story comes from the Eddic poem Völuspá, which tells how the Aesir riddled her with spears and then burned her three times but couldn’t kill her.
The next event in the poem is the war between the Aesir and Vanir, the two groups of Norse deities, so it’s always been assumed that somehow the attack on Gullveig started it.
The problem with Völuspá is that it is written in a very compressed style, mentioning various myths without stopping to give the background. It was obviously written for an audience who knew the myths, and simply needed a nudge from a poet or bard to bring them to mind. Reading the two verses below, you can see that a lot has been left out:
21 She remembers the war, the first in the world,
when they stabbed at Gold-Draught [Gullveig] with many spears,
and in the hall of the High One [Odin] they burned her body,
Three times they burned the one thrice-born,
often, over again; yet she lives still.
22. They called her Brightness [Heiðr], when she came to their homes,
a witch who could foretell; she knew the skill of wands,
she made magic where she could, she made magic in a trance;
she was always a delight to a wicked woman.
Larrington’s translation is similar, although she specifies that Gullveig was burned and was reborn three times, while Orchard’s version is more ambiguous. She also calls Heiðr a “seer with pleasing prophesies” who “played with minds” instead of “made magic in a trance”. It makes a difference to how you see her activities.
(I checked two other translations of these verses to see how they viewed Heiðr’s magic: Lee Hollander’s version of the Poetic Edda, and John Lindow’s dictionary of Norse Myth: Hollander backs up Larrington, while Lindow agrees with Orchard; the ambiguity must be in the original Icelandic.)
Whether Gullveig and Heiðr are the same woman or not, both have very suggestive names. Gullveig can be translated as “gold-drink”, while Heiðr means “Brightness”:
GULL, n., in the oldest MSS. spelt goll, gold
VEIG, f., pl. veigar, 1. a kind of strong beverage, drink, 2. metaph. pith, strength, gist; II. in pr. names of women, Gull-veig (Vsp.), Þór-veig, Sól-veig, Álm-veig (Hdl.), Mjað-veig (Maurer’s Volks.)
HEIÐ, n. brightness of the sky
(Cleasby-Vigfusson, An Icelandic-English Dictionary)
Further, in the sagas and other texts, Heiðr is a common name for a völva, a kind of seer or shaman, who travelled around doing magic wherever she went. It’s tempting to see her as a kind of proto-völva. (See below for more on this.) Brightness and Gold make most of us think of Freyja, and many theories about them assume that the two are Freyja, who goes by many names.
I’ll get to the Freyja question in a bit, since it will fit with my discussion of the many theories about who Gullveig was and why the Aesir burned her, but it might be worth looking in a different direction, to see how her story echoes others in Norse myth. These parallels suggest ways in which Gullveig/Heiðr’s power compares to that of the Aesir gods.
- Mimir: Since the war between the Aesir and Vanir breaks out right after Gullveig/Heiðr’s appearance, she could be said to be both a cause of the war, and its first casualty. At the end of the war, the gods Mimir suffered a version of her fate, killed by the other side and then resurrected. He was sent to the Vanir as a hostage after the war, and they beheaded him and sent his head back to the Aesir. (He never spoke during council meetings unless his companion Hoenir was with him, although he was supposed to be wise. The Vanir thought they’d been gypped.) Odin, however, resurrected the head by means of magic, and spoke to it daily. If Gullveig was from the Vanir, and the Aesir killed her, then killing Mimir would make it even. Each side would have lost one, but not permanently, thanks to various magical means. (One theory is that the Vanir had a regenerative power which kept the Aesir from beating them – that would explain why they couldn’t kill Gullveig. Odin, however, couldn’t give Mimir back his body, but could reanimate his head, perhaps as part of his necromancy.)
- Baldr: One Aesir god, however, couldn’t be killed – or so it seemed. Gullveig, riddled with spears, is an antitype of Baldr, Odin’s son. After his mother convinced all living things to swear never to harm him, the gods used to play at killing him, laughing as the spears bounced off his body. As we all know, a dart made of mistletoe penetrated Baldr’s defense, and killed him.
Obviously the Aesir weren’t trying to kill Baldr, and they weren’t playing when they attacked Gullveig. While Baldr’s invulnerabilty was a good thing for the Aesir, since as long as he didn’t die they were safe, Gullveig’s rebirths were a threat and somehow led to war.
- Odin: If these gods of war couldn’t kill a woman with their weapons, they would try something else: fire. While Odin, as leader of the gods and chief magician, probably gave the order to burn Gullveig, he found out for himself how it felt later. The poem Grimnismal has Odin travel to King Geirrod’s court, only to be hung between two fires, since the king believed that he was an evil magician.After he hung there for nine nights, Odin began to recite his wisdom for Agnarr, the only one who showed him kindness. While Odin doesn’t die as a result of his ordeal, he does suffer a great deal, and interestingly, he only reveals his true name at the end, having travelled there in disguise.
The main difference in each case is that Gullveig lives, and they don’t. (Mimir is a special case, since you could argue that if he’s not dead, he’s not really alive, either.) You can see why the Aesir would find this threatening. Also, if Gullveig did turn into Heiðr, or took the alias Heiðr, then she, like Odin, found power in her ordeal. But while Odin undergoes near-death experiences (perhaps because he knows he can die, and will) Gullveig goes all the way, and comes back.
Gullveig and völvas
If we assume that Gullveig and Heiðr are the same person, you have to wonder if she isn’t a proto-völva, or the goddess or protector of all who engage in seiðr-magic, since so many female magicians are called Heiðr, including, possibly, the narrator of Völuspá itself. (Jacob Grimm was the first to put this idea forward.)
Elsewhere Heide appears as the proper name of a number of female practitioners of magic. Whether they, and those women whom they work for, are truly “ill doing” presumably depends on the purpose of their magic, or perhaps on one’s attitude towards female workers of magic in general. The völva who prophecies for King Frodi in Hrolf’s Saga Kraka is called Heith. In Frithiof’s Saga, one of the seidhkonas who raise a storm against Frithiof is named Heide. The name of her sister, Hamglam, is possibly related to hamhlypunni (skin leapers), since the two fare out of their bodies to work their magic….
In the tale of Arrow Odd, a Völva called Heith travels to feasts accompanied by fifteen youths and fifteen maidens who chant the spellsongs. In Landnamabók, another Völva, also called Heith, prophesies good fortune. It is not clear whether all of these women are old, but they are certainly experienced, mature, and respected in their communities.
(Diana Paxson, Heide: Witch-Goddess of the North)
Theories about Gullveig/Heiðr (the Freyja bit)
If you’re wondering why, after all this, I haven’t mentioned Freyja, that’s because several of the theories I’m about to discuss link her and Gullveig/Heiðr.
- Margaret Clunies-Ross: she sees many of the problems that lead to the Aesir’s downfall as coming from their refusal of equality to the giants (who are their kin) and the Vanir. In her theory, Gullveig comes as a representative of the Vanir, perhaps to offer marriage or another alliance, which they violently reject. This leads to war.
- Ursula Dronke: sees the figure of Gullveig as an idol of Freyja, which the Aesir destroy the way that King Olaf destroyed the idol of Thorgerd Holgabrud to lessen her follower Jarl Hakon’s power. The difference is that Gullveig, like gold, is purified by fire, while Thorgerd’s statue ended up destroyed. Freyja/Heiðr spread the cult of the Vanir so widely that the Aesir were losing tribute, thus leading to the war (which she sees Freyja leading).
- Maria Kvilhaug: her theory is an interesting one, as she suggests that instead of torturing Gullvieig, the Aesir gods were witnessing a demonstration of her power. Her ability to defeat death and the fear this power evoked led Odin to declare war on the Vanir. She takes a very positive view of Gullveig, unlike some of the others.
- Britt-Marie Naastrom: her theory is similar to Dronke’s, as she sees Heiðr/Freyja as a spy turning the female Aesir to her side. (Proving once again that Freyja and Odin are very similar: he’s the Aesir’s black ops god.) When the Aesir try to stop her, their violence provokes the Vanir into war.
- Lotte Motz: sees Gullveig’s ordeal as similar to those of Dionysus, Soma, and the Norse god Kvasir: allegories of how the grape or grain is processed to make alcohol. In her interpretation, the other meaning of veig as “fermented drink” suggests that Gullveig was the goddess of fermented drink, and Heiðr’s ability to cloud men’s minds comes from the same source.
- Rudolf Simek mentions another allegorical interpretation; some German scholars have seen the burnings as an allegory of the alchemical purification of gold.
- Gabriel Turville-Petre: interprets Gullveig as “Gold-Drunk” and sees her as a form of Freyja, sent to corrupt the Aesir with greed, lust and sorcery. The Aesir tried to kill her, but failed. (Jaan Puhvel has a related idea: he sees the story of Gullveig/Heiðr as similar to Tarpeia, a Vestal Virgin suborned by the Sabines with either gold or sex, during their war with Rome.) Gullveig seems to attract these moralistic interpretations. (See Norse Mythology for Smart People, for example.)
- Diana Paxson: Heiðr is a title, like Freyja or Freyr, for a goddess of witches and seeresses. Her brightness and golden-ness is a part of her Vanir heritage, like golden Aphrodite or the Hindu Ashvins, and nothing to do with commerce or money.
- Else Mundal puts forward an interesting theory: the half-burnt witch’s heart that Loki ate (and which impregnated him) was Gullveig’s. (pdf here) This idea is also discussed at Bird, Book and Bone, which dismisses it as unlikely.
As Rudolf Simek comments, “The Gullveig-episode gives a lot of room for interpretation.” (123) While the story isn’t entirely clear, its placement between the arrival of the Norns, laying down fate, and the Aesir-Vanir war suggests that Gullveig’s arrival was also a crucial turning-point.
Whether you see her as a powerful goddess, like Kvilhaug, a fifth columnist, or an “evil woman”, it is clear that her arrival in Asgard touched off a series of far-reaching events. It’s too bad we don’t know more about her.
References and Links
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Clunies Ross, Margaret 1994: Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse myths in medieval Northern society, vol. 1, The Viking Society Vol. 7, Odense UP.
Dronke, Ursula 1997: The Poetic Edda Volume II: Mythological Poems, Clarendon Press.
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Motz, Lotte 1993: “Gullveig’s Ordeal: A New Interpretation.” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 108: 80-92. (pdf here)
Näsström, Britt-Mari 2003: Freyja, the Great Goddess of the North, Click and Rose Press.
Puhvel, Jaan 1987: Comparative Mythology, The John Hopkins University Press.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Turville-Petre, Gabriel 964: Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
The image at the top is Dripping Gold by cichutko, at deviantart.