Hlin: Protector Goddess

Frigg was the Queen of Heaven, but she had many other goddesses around her, including several who functioned as her ladies-in-waiting. Fulla carried her casket and kept her secrets, Lofn sought her permission for unlawful lovers, and Hlin protected those that Frigg wanted to save.

That’s how Snorri Sturluson describes them in the Prose Edda, anyhow. He may be just trying to organize his material by bringing the various goddesses into relation with each other, although Fulla and Frigg are associated in other sources, too. (I’ll be looking at the relationship between Fulla and Frigg in another post.)

“Frigg And Her Servants” (1882) by Carl Emil Doepler. Wikimedia.

Hlin: Another Name for Frigg?

Snorri only mentions Hlin in two lists of the asyniur, or goddesses. The list in Skaldskaparmal just gives their names, but the Gylfaginning one is a bit more detailed, with a thumbnail sketch of each goddess. Of Hlin, he says:

Twelfth, Hlin: she is given the function of protecting people whom Frigg wants to save from some danger. From this comes the saying that someone who escapes finds refuge (hleinir).

In addition, poets used the name Hlin in kennings for women, as they often did with the more obscure goddesses. A stanza attributed to King Magnus Barefoot uses her name as a synonym for “woman” (he also calls the woman Gerdr and Jord – he was out to flatter), as does another by Earl Rognavald.

However, the Eddic poem Voluspa also mentions Hlin, but in a way that could be read either as a kenning for Frigg, or as the goddess herself:

53. The there comes for Hlin a second sorrow,
when Odin goes to fight the wolf
and Beli’s bright bane against Surt:
then Frigg’s beloved must fall.
(Orchard’s translation)

Some translations, like Carolyne Larrington’s, don’t see any ambiguity; she just says “Frigg” for Hlin in the first line, explaining in the notes that Frigg’s first grief was Baldr’s death, and Odin’s death the second. I quoted Andy Orchard’s translation because he keeps the Hlin/Frigg distinction. However, in his book on Norse myth he sees the name Hlin in Vsp. as a kenning for Frigg, and Anthony Faulkes’s translation of the Prose Edda says the same in the index.

Reference works on Norse myth tend to back them up. John Lindow, Ursula Dronke, and Rudolf Simek all see Hlin as simply another name for Frigg, whatever Snorri Sturluson may say. (Simek, though, seems more ambivalent about Hlin – see below.)

Recently, however, Joseph Hopkins published a paper on Hlin in the RMN Newsletter, arguing that Hlin is not Frigg, but a goddess associated with her, just as Snorri said. (The RMN is available online, for free, and worth checking out.) He’s already published on Ilmr and Njorun, two other goddesses with very little lore, and he argues that:

Returning to the passage in Voluspa, Hlin’s ‘second sorrow’ implies a ‘first sorrow’. The Prose Edda assigns two identifying traits to Hlin: a) that she was somehow in the service of Frigg; and b) that she protected people, and more particularly those whom Frigg wished protected. Verifying Hlin’s role as a protectress through a proverb might be a construal of Snorri comparable to his many uses of vernacular etymology. On the other hand, if these two features are based in the contemporary mythology, Hlin’s ‘first sorrow’ can be inferred to be her failure to ‘protect’ Baldr, Frigg’s son, from the danger that ended his life, while her ‘second sorrow’ will be the related failure in the case of the death of Odin, Frigg’s husband.
(Orchard: 35)

Shorn of its scholarly armour, Hopkins is saying: Snorri knew what he was talking about. (Incidentally, Alice Karlsdottir makes the same argument in her book on the Norse goddesses. It seems obvious once you think about it.)

Protector Goddess

It may seem counter-intuitive that Norse scholars would be so reluctant to credit Snorri Sturluson’s description of Hlin and her functions, but there’s no other trace in Old Norse literature of the proverb he cites as his proof, and the word hleinir is extremely obscure. (Hopkins goes into this, but you can also see a summary at the Wikipedia site on Hlin.)

It may sound unkind to suggest that these scholars think Snorri made it up, but they certainly seem reluctant to credit his explanation of Hlin’s name. It certainly is obscure, however, as I learned when I looked it up in An Icelandic – English Dictionary:

hleina, d, to save, protect (?) an GREEK., [A. S. hlænan; Engl. lean; O. H. G. hleinjan; mid. H. G. leinen; Germ. lehnen; Gr. GREEK]: þaðan af er þat orðtak at sá er forðask (forðar?) hleinir, Edda 21.

The Icelandic text quoted for hleina is the saying Snorri uses to explain Hlin’s name, leaving us where we started.

Translators of the Prose Edda have tackled this in their own ways, with Faulkes going for “finds refuge”, while Jesse Byock has “peace and quiet”. As the dictionary entry notes, hleina correlates with the Anglo-Saxon hlænan and English lean, and Arthur Brodeur and Jean Young used this in their translation of hleinir as “lean”; as Young puts it, “he who is protected “leans”.”

Still, there must be a great many folk proverbs that were never recorded in Norse literature, and this kind of folk etymology is often a better clue to a deity’s nature than linguistics. The consensus among those who consider Hlin a separate goddess is that she was indeed a protective deity, just as Snorri said she was.


However, Hopkins does raise another possibility. (32) Jacob Grimm and others linked the name Hlin to another obscure Norse word, hlynr, maple tree. Grimm found this attractive because it connected the Norse goddess to the folkloric “tree mothers” who protected elders, ashes and rowans. Unfortunately, he found the etymology frustrating: he could not see a way from hlîna, to lean, slant, to hlynir and hlin.

Hopkins clearly likes this idea, however. In his paper on Ilmr he suggested that she could be an elm-tree goddess, whose nature was forgotten in treeless Iceland. Another Norse proverb, the rowan is the saviour of Thor, establishes a connection between the two ideas. The thunder-god saved himself from drowning by hanging on to a rowan-tree, which fits with the sacred aura that rowan trees have in northern cultures.

It’s not impossible that Hlin was identified with trees: no one who’s ever sheltered under a tree, or seen a nest in one, can doubt that trees could be protective. But it’s a theory, for lack of other evidence.1

Descended from the mothers?

I mentioned above that Rudolf Simek seemed to be of two minds about Hlin. In his entry on the goddess, he says that Hlin “is really only another name for Frigg”. However, his entry on Saga tells a different story:

Saga should be thought of as one of the not closely defined Asyniur (Hlin, Snotra, Var, Vor) who should probably be seen as female protective goddesses. These goddesses were all responsible for specific areas in the private sphere, and yet clear differences were made between them so they are in many ways similar to the matrons.
(Simek: 274)

Simek takes a special interest in the cults of the disir, matres and matronae, so it’s not surprising that his solution to the problem of Snorri’s many goddesses should be to link them to the Roman-era cults of the mother-goddesses. Other goddesses, such as Gefjun and Idunn, have clear similarities to these goddesses of women, fertility and protection.

Hlin could well be another whose cult grew to the point where it became an individual goddess with a name, rather than an anonymous “mother”. (And of course Hlin, if it does mean “protector”, could easily be a title as much as a name.)

Modern Interpretations of Hlin

Modern interpretations of Hlin mainly see her as a protector goddess. She’s also seen as a compassionate goddess who understands the sorrow of others, who can help those in mourning.

1. Hopkins mentions another theory, from Benjamin Thorpe, that hlin might be related to a word for warmth, hlýn . He doesn’t seem very convinced by it, and no one else even mentions it.

References and Links

Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Jesse Byock, Penguin Classics, 2005.
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
The Poetic Edda, Hollander, Lee M. (trans.), University of Texas, Austin 1962/1990. (2nd edition, revised)
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson, ed. and trans. Erling Monsen and A. H. Smith, Courier Publications, 1990.

Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Orchard, Andy 2002: Cassell’s Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell Reference.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.


For the image at the top, click here.

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