Eir is a puzzling figure in Norse mythology. Snorri Sturluson, who set out to explain Norse mythology in his Prose Edda, explains Eir in two different ways in the two main books, Gylfaginning and Skaldskaparmal.
Goddess or Valkyrie?
In the first, he calls her a goddess, one of the many minor goddesses who cluster around Frigg, but in the second he calls her a valkyrie.
Third is Eir. She is an extremely good physician.
(Gylf. 35, Faulkes’ trans.)
There are yet others, Odin’s maids, Hild and Gondul, Hlokk, Mist, Skogul. Then are listed Hrund and Eir, Hrist, Skuld. They are called norns who shape necessity.
(Skald. 75, Faulkes’ trans.)
(You could read this last sentence as if Eir was a norn, making you wonder what sort of a being she was, or if anyone even knew.) There’s a lot of inconsistency in Snorri (he makes Thor Odin’s father in his Prologue), but it seems as if he either changed his mind about Eir or interpreted what he knew about her differently in each section.
Modern pagans have mostly shrugged off this inconsistency, mainly seeing Eir as a goddess of healing like the Celtic Sulis, Coventina or Sirona, or the Greek Hygeia. The Ýdalir site does attempt a synthesis, to their credit:
As a Valkyrie, Eir accompanied her battle-sisters. While the other Valkyries chose the slain, Eir would choose who would live and recover, and return to health. As a chooser of life and death, she is sometimes associated with the Norns. Although Snorri does not explicitly name her as one of the asunjar, he also does not name every goddess counted in this number. He does, however go on to say that Eir is among the most important of all goddesses.
They also note that as a valkyrie, Eir would be Odin’s servant as well as Frigg’s. (Simek says valkyries had the power to raise the dead, which could fit with Eir’s healing power.) But Eir may have yet another another identity…
Or one of Menglod’s maidens?
One of the more obscure Eddic poems, Svipdigsmál, mentions Eir as one of the retinue of a goddess called Menglod. (It’s acutally two poems, Groagaldr and Fjolvinsmal; the first starts him on a search to find Menglod, the second is a dialogue with Menglod’s servant as Svipdag ends his quest.)
Fjolvinsmál has Svipdig questioning the surly giant who acts as Menglod’s watchman, and in the course of their dialogue we learn about Eir:
37. Tell me, Much-wise, because I’m asking you,
and because I want to know;
who are those girls who sit peaceably together
at Menglod’s knees?
38. Hlif is one, a second Hlifþrasa,
Thiodvarta is the third,
Bright and Look, Happy and Peaceful,
Eir and Aurboda.
39. Tell me, Much-wise, because I’m asking you,
and because I want to know;
wether they protect those who sacrifice to them
if there is need of this?
40. The wise women give protection, whenever men sacrifice to them
in an altar-hallowed place;
no matter how dire the peril that comes upon men’s sons
they save them from their straits.
Some have questioned whether this Eir is the same as the goddess, since one of her companions has a giant’s name (Aurboda, the same as Gerdr’s mother), and some of the others are pretty generic. (Happy and Peaceful?)
The name Eir can mean “peace, clemency” (Lindow: 105), or “help” (Orchard: 96), so Eir as a name could mean “the Helper” (Simek: 71). Simek, in fact, considers the Eir in Svipdigsmal a separate individual from the goddess/valkryie. Hlif means “protection” (Larrington: n. 38), Hlifþrasa “eager to protect“1 and Thiovarða “guardian of the people“. (Although SImek says Hlif means “dirt” and suggests that Hlif and Hlifþrasa are meant to suggest Lif and Lifþrasir, the Adam and Eve who survive Ragnarok.)
The verse before the one about Menglod’s maidens tells us that they live at “Healing-Mountain”, Lyfjaberg, which heals women’s illnesses and barreness. Eir would seem to fit as a healing goddess, but it’s equally likely that her name might suggest itself to a poet trying to think of names for Menglod’s companions.
A Goddess that’s hard to pin down
In his article on Ilmr, Hopkins says that EIr, Ilmr and Skuld are all listed as different kinds of beings. Ilmr, like Eir, is a goddess in one place, a valkyrie in another. (A poet described battle as “Ilmr’s racket”, a description better suited to a valkyrie than a goddess.) The meaning of Ilmr is most likely either “elm” or “sweet-smelling”, so like Eir (“helper”) she makes an unlikely valkyrie.
Skuld is one of the three norns, and the poem Groagaldr also mentions her as a norn, but the poem Voluspa includes a Skuld in its list of valkyries, and in two lists of valkyries by Snorri, including the one that mentions Eir.
Hopkins points out that of Odin’s by-names, Tror is also a dwarf-name, Grimnir is a giant and goat name, and Fjallar could also be a dwarf or a giant. So people didn’t consider that a name could only apply to one category of being. So clearly names could apply to beings in several different categories.
And the category “supernatural female” seems to have been a pretty fluid one, as both Else Mundal and Hopkins have argued:
Freyja is described very much like an extremely powerful valkyrie (see, for example, Näsström 1995: 86–89). Among the valkyries, norns, dísir, and among at least some of the ásynjur, the general concept seems to be roughly the same. These female supernatural beings may collectively be described as strongly associated with death, wyrd, and prophecy. Perhaps these categories should be understood more as a point of emphasis of their function or character rather than as iron-clad parameters.
Eir’s associations are more benign – her healing ability and her name suggest that she took a benevolent interest in people, and indeed all the goddesses around Frigg in Snorri’s Edda tend to be helpful to humans, whether by giving them land (Gefjun), hearing lovers’ pleas (Lofn), or by protecting them (Syn, Vor). Snorri may have included her because she was another powerful female figure who helped those who needed her.
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, Kindle edition, 2014.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
Hopkins, Joseph 2014: “Goddesses Unknown II: On the Apparent Old Norse Goddess Ilmr”, RMN Newsletter 8: 32-8. (academia.edu)
Mundal, Else 1990: “Position of the Individual Gods and Goddesses in Various Types of Sources – With Particular Reference to the Female Divinities”, in Old Norse and Finnish Religions and Cultic Place Names, ed. Tore Ahlback, Almqvist & Wiksell Internat: 294-315. (pdf here)
Sturtevant, Alfred Morey 1952: “Etymological Comments upon Certain Old Norse Proper Names in the Eddas,” PMLA 67/7 (Dec. 1952): 1145-62. (JSTOR)