The goddess and the jewel

From Bronze Age images through the goddesses of the Eddas to the maiden Menglod (necklace-glad) in the story of Svipdag, jewellery was more than an adornment to supernatural women of Norse myth. Although we don’t know all the lore about goddesses and their necklaces, some does survive.

The Fårdal goddess

The image above shows a statuette found in Denmark in the 8th century. The female figure wears only a string skirt (similar clothing has been found in burials) and a necklace. An undulating snake found along with her may be her steed, since her raised hand may well be holding reins.

Another figure, a human-shaped knife handle from Itzehoe, also wears the skirt and necklace. While these two are distinctively female, other figures of somersaulters may or may not be, but they still wear the the skirt and jewellery. One intriguing paper I’ve read while researching connected these necklaces to Celtic torcs, and noted that offerings by women also included neckrings. (Eluêre: 20: pdf)

While these female figures may not hold up their necklaces like Cernunnos does with his torc, his big gold neckring spoke of prosperity and an ability to provide for his followers, no doubt the message that a goddess’ necklace also sent.

Freyja and Brisingamen

The first reference to Brisingamen, Freyja’s necklace, comes in the Eddic poem Thrymskvida. It’s uncertain when the poem was composed, so it may well also date from heathen times. (It later became a ballad, which remained popular into the 19th century.)

Briefly, the story goes that a giant steals Thor’s hammer, and demands Freyja as his wife in exchange for returning it. When the Aesir approach Freyja, hoping she’ll take one for the team, her response isn’t what they hoped for:

Freyja then was angry and snorted with rage,
all the halls of the Aesir trembled at that,
the great necklace of Brisings fell from her.
‘You’ll know me to be the most sex-crazed of women,
if I drive with you to the land of the giants.’
(Þrymskviða, Larrington’s trans.)

Instead they disguise Thor as Freyja, a disguise unlikely to fool even the dimmest giant, so they give him Brisingamen to help things along. Although the poem doesn’t mention Brisingamen again, the parallel with Thor’s hammer is clear: both deities have attributes that symbolize their special powers.

The skaldic poem Husdrapa, by Ulf Uggason, describes how Heimdall and Loki fought for possession of Brisingamen. We only know this verse because Snorri Sturluson quoted it in his Prose Edda, but we can infer that the two gods were not fighting over a mere necklace – Brisingamen had to be more important than that.

I’ve gone into this in more detail in another post, but it seems likely that it had healing powers, which would fit with Freyja’s role as a goddess of fertility and regeneration. (And note that in Oddrun’s Lament, another Eddic poem, Freyja and Frigg are called on to aid a birth.)

Freyja, Frigg and the lust for gold

Arguments about whether Frigg and Freyja are the same goddess have gone on for a long time, with scholars like Grimm assuming that they were the same, while many others disagree. (See my links post on Frigg for more up-to-date views on the subject.)

They do have their similarities: Odin is husband of one, lover of the other, both own a feather cloak, and both of them have a necklace that is the subject of a story. (And Christian versions of how they got those necklaces do not reflect well on either.):

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.
(Gesta Danorum book 1, Elton’s trans.)

It chanced one day that Freyja went to the rock and found it open, and the dwarfs were forging a gold necklace, which was almost finished. Freyja was charmed with the necklace, and the dwarfs with Freyja. She asked them to sell it, offering gold and silver and other costly treasures in exchange for it. The dwarfs replied that they were not in need of money, but each one said that he would give up his share in the necklace…. [omitted: for nothing else except  for her to lie one night with each of them.] And at the end of four nights they handed it to Freyja. She went home to her bower and kept silence about it as if nothing had happened.
(Sörla Þáttur, ch. 1, Kershaw’s trans.)

Most writers, popular and scholarly, assume that the Freyja story is more likely to be the original one, as the Frigg story seems out of character. Certainly, Saxo was unlikely to be very knowledgeable about the exact lore of the different pagan goddesses.

But there seems to be a lot more lore about Freyja and a necklace, while Frigg’s golden necklace is mentioned nowhere else. Perhaps hers never became iconic in the same way… or maybe Saxo mixed up his goddesses.

Gefjun, just to make it more confusing

One of the Eddic poems, Lokasenna, muddies the waters even further by bringing in another goddess who did something immoral (for a human) to get a necklace (or jewel, depending on translation):

Loki said:
‘Be silent, Gefion, I’m going to mention this,
how your heart was seduced;
the white boy gave you a jewel
and you laid your thigh over him.’
(Lokasenna 20, Larrington’s trans.)

So did they all have one? Did you need to have a necklace to be an important goddess in Norse myth? Or did Loki get it wrong? Some writers have seen all these necklaces connecting up to the earlier Bronze Age figures, and the necklace itself possessing the sort of magical power we associate with Brisingamen.

That may be why so many goddesses have a necklace – it may well have been a symbol of a goddess’ power, even if only one ever became famous enough to have a recognizable name.

Menglod and Svipdag

I can’t leave this topic without mentioning Menglod, whose name literally means Necklace-Glad. (The men– is the same word as the men– in Brisingamen, literally the necklace of the Brisings.) In the poem Svipdagsmal the young hero Svipdag sets out seek his destined wife, Menglod, and the poem ends when he finds her.

Although it seems at first glance that Svipdag is the main character, his stepmother sets him on his quest, his dead mother’s ghost helps him fulfill it, and finally he meets Menglod, who seems to be supernatural. Apart from the gatekeeper, who quizzes him, all the heavy lifiting in the plot is done by women.

Menglod, who’s basically sitting around waiting for her hero to come, doesn’t come off as very goddess-like, but some have seen her as a version of Freyja. Her gatekeeper, Fjolsvith, could be seen as a form of Odin, although it makes the poem seem even more like a jumbled-up bit of Norse myth than if we assume that Menglod is Freyja.

Menglod’s name does seem to hark back to the mystique of Brisingamen, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean that she is Freyja. She may well be a minor supernatural figure, who borrowed a little bit of Freyja’s glamour.

But the necklace theme does run from the Bronze Age figures through to this rather minor character in a heroic poem, making you think there must be some sort of idea of a powerful pice of jewellery, a feminine equivalent of Thor’s hammer, whose legend was resonant enough that when a poet wanted a name for a glamourous, desirable supernatural figure, he could think of nothing better than a woman who rejoiced in her necklace.

2 thoughts on “The goddess and the jewel

  1. Gullveig Press

    I think it’s interesting that Odin has Loki steal Freya’s necklace. People tend to focus on Loki as the bad guy, but He’s following Odin’s orders. Heimdall is actually rebelling against Odin by helping Freya. It hints at the power of the necklace and that Odin wants Freya’s life giving power.

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    1. Gullveig Press

      (This is if you think that Heimdall and Loki were fighting for the necklace and it was connected to the other story – I hear A LOT of people combine the two.) But the facts that Odin tried to steal it and that Loki worked for Him I find intrigu ing as Odin has a history of sleeping with women to steal from them,but this time He makes Loki do the theft. It points to the close relationship between Odin and Loki, and to Odin’s hunger for more magickal knowledge. It is also as far as I know the only story where Freya is associated with war. As She’s a fertility (and more) Goddess, of course they’d be reborn and fight for eternity.

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