The Germanic goddess Frigg comes across as the ideal wife and mother in most accounts – Norse myth focuses on her grief for Baldr and her wfely strategems for getting Odin to favour her side in disputes. However, there are two stories that show Frigg in a very different light – were they attempts by Christian writers to discredit her, or is there more to the story?
Saxo grammaticus and the unchaste wife
The first story comes from the Danish writer Saxo grammacticus. (His surname means “the learned”; fitting for someone who was either secretary or clerk to the Archbishop of Denmark.) As you might expect, Saxo was no friend to paganism, and in his Gesta Danorum or History of the Danes he never misses a chance to score off the pagans.
I’m going to quote him at some length to give you some idea of his style, which is very unlike the terse language of the sagas:
But his queen Frigga, desiring to go forth more beautified, called smiths, and had the gold stripped from the statue. Odin hanged them, and mounted the statue upon a pedestal, which by the marvellous skill of his art he made to speak when a mortal touched it. But still Frigga preferred the splendour of her own apparel to the divine honours of her husband, and submitted herself to the embraces of one of her servants; and it was by this man’s device she broke down the image, and turned to the service of her private wantonness that gold which had been devoted to public idolatry. Little thought she of practicing unchastity, that she might the easier satisfy her greed, this woman so unworthy to be the consort of a god; but what should I here add, save that such a godhead was worthy of such a wife? So great was the error that of old befooled the minds of men. Thus Odin, wounded by the double trespass of his wife, resented the outrage to his image as keenly as that to his bed; and, ruffled by these two stinging dishonours, took to an exile overflowing with noble shame, imagining so to wipe off the slur of his ignominy.
The death of Odin’s wife revived the ancient splendour of his name, and seemed to wipe out the disgrace upon his deity; so, returning from exile, he forced all those, who had used his absence to assume the honours of divine rank, to resign them as usurped; and the gangs of sorcerers that had arisen he scattered like a darkness before the advancing glory of his godhead. And he forced them by his power not only to lay down their divinity, but further to quit the country, deeming that they, who tried to foist themselves so iniquitously into the skies, ought to be outcasts from the earth.
Saxo obviously wants to discredit Frigg with this story, which combines the misogynist tropes of women’s unchastity and their greed for adornments. (He was probably a bit of a puritan.) It’s worth noting that while he makes Odin the victim of his wife’s scheming, he is equally hard on him in other places, implying that he achieved godhood through fraud and deception.
The whole tale seems like a garbled version of the story of how Freyja got Brisingamen by sleeping with the four dwarves who made it for her. You could imagine Saxo, who was probably not all that familiar with the finer points of pagan myth, adapting a discreditable story for his own purposes, without worrying too much about exactly which goddess was meant.
(Leaving aside Frigg for a moment, it’s very hard to imagine Odin leaving Asgard because of shame – if one thing marks all Odin’s activities, it’s his utter lack of scruple or inhibition in furthering his ends. It seems a complete misreading of his character, and a misunderstanding of what makes a god.)
Snorri: One Bride for Three Brothers
The other story comes from Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga, a history of the Swedish Yngling dynasty. Like Saxo, Snorri treats the gods as extraordinary humans, but he’s not as critical of them as Saxo. (Nevertheless, he is more judgemental here than he is in his Prose Edda, a sort of handbook of Norse myths, perhaps because the Ynglinga saga was intended to be history, not literature.)
This story is harder to dismiss, since while Snorri Sturluson was a Christian, he was genuinely interested in pagan myths, and less likely to use them to point a moral. (And a lot less sententious, thank goodness.) Its very oddness makes it stand out, and makes it one of those unexplained bits of Norse myth:
Odin had two brothers, the one called Ve, the other Vilje, and they governed the kingdom when he was absent. It happened once when Odin had gone to a great distance, and had been so long away that the people of Asia doubted if he would ever return home,that his two brothers took it upon themselves to divide his estate; but both of them took his wife Frigg to themselves. Odin soon after returned home, and took his wife back.
Ynglinga saga ch. 3
Presumably he’s referring to Loki’s insult in Lokasenna, when he says to Frigg:
Shut up, Frigg! You are Fjorgyn’s daughter
and have been most eager for men,
when Vili and Ve you allowed, wife of Vidrir (Odin),
to embrace you!
There may be some story buried behind these two tales, as Saxo also tells how another deity, Mith-Othin, took over while Odin was in disgrace, although he doesn’t say that Frigg became Mith-Othin wife as well.1 Some pagan writers have celebrated this, seeing it as sauce for the goose, since Odin has so many affairs. A few even see a ghost of an old sovereignty myth lurking behind all this.
Snorri’s version, however, essentially treats Frigg as a chattel, handed back and forth between brothers. While there may well be some sovereignty myth lurking behind all this, it’s well buried. Even if Vili and Ve (or Mith-Othin) needed Frigg to rule, that’s not the same as Frigg choosing them as rulers. The Lokasenna verse gives her a more active part, but only so Loki can slander her.
A more encomical explanation is that Snorri wished to explain the verse in Lokasenna. Just before he tells the story of Vili and Vé, he says that Odin was away a great deal, and it may well have occured to him that if Odin was away all the time, the two brothers may well have had designs on his wife.
References and Links
Karlsdottir, Alice 2003: Mythology of the Norse Goddesses: Mythology, Ritual, Traceworking, Runa-Raven Press.
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
The image at the top can be found here.