My last post looked at the Norse goddess of death, Hel, who shared her name with her abode, the home of the dead. Norse poetry from the Viking and high medieval eras frequently describes death as “going to Hel”.
But many of the dead weren’t about to go anywhere. In Norse myths and sagas, anyone who wished to communicate with the dead went out and sat on their barrow, or in some cases actually entered it. Clearly, people thought the dead were still powerful in the world, just waiting in their graves to help their families or those who left offerings.
In Norse myth Hel is a place and a person, like the Greek Hades. The word helmeans “hidden,” linked to hylja, “to cover”. Lindow speculates it may have referred to the grave at first, since that is where the dead live (171). Both he and Rudolf Simek (138) seem to think Hel was just a personification of the place, perhaps because unlike Hades, she has very little myth attached to her.
I was seriously tempted to call this piece “Cernunnos: God of Bling”. This may seem a wildly inappropriate way to describe a god revered by neo-Pagans and possibly the divine ancestor of the Gauls, but when so many images of him feature one or more torcs, which are simply enormous gold necklaces, how can you resist?
Odin and Freyja are the “stars” of the Norse pantheon. The most famous god of the warlike Aesir, and the (only) goddess of the Vanir, they are surprisingly alike. Both are magicians, both gather the slain, and both take an interest in mortals.
Back in the spring I was inspired by Adam Hyllested’s ideas about the Hyldemoer to write my own post about the Elder Mother. This led on to two other posts, on rowan and birch. I assumed that I had exhausted the subject of feminine powers associated with trees, but I was wrong.
A week ago Neorxnawang passed on a link to a paper on the mysterious goddess Ilmr. She appears in a list of goddesses and another of kennings for “woman” in the Prose Edda. Her name also appears in poetry, mostly as – you guessed it – part of a kenning for “woman”. The paper, by Joseph Hopkins, suggests that Ilmr may be an elm goddess, connecting her name to the word almr, elm.
This week’s post could easily have been called “fearsome deities“: Odin, whose name means “fury”, and the Morrigan, who steps out of the fairy realm to stir up war and slaughter. It’s not hard to see what they have in common.
Back in 1977 Patrick Ford published a paper called “Celtic Women: the Opposing Sex”. It could have been tailor-made for the Morrigan, a fearsome goddess who spends most of the Tain trying to destroy the hero Cúchulainn. By contrast, Brigid seems to be the “good girl” of Irish myth.
There are many different ways to become god of the dead. You can win the job by chance (Hades/ Pluto), you can be cast into the underworld by other gods (Hel), marry into the job (Nergal), or you can be the first person to die.
Donn was one of the invaders known as the Milesians, after their father Mil. He was the warlike one, while his brother Armaigen was the poet/judge. They eventually did take Ireland, but not easily, and Donn never got to enjoy their victory.
There are many stories in which a heroic character penetrates the otherworld and is challenged by some sort of ogre or other strange being. This challenger may question the hero’s worthiness or ability.
Norse myth has two examples of a female quester who faces a challenge to her fitness and an attempt to thwart her in her aims. In Hyndluljod Freyja has to convince the far-from-agreeable Hyndla to help her protegé win a lawsuit, while in the poem Helreid Brynhildar Brynhild is challenged on her way to Hel by a giantess who questions her ethics and actions.
The Norse goddess Freyja and the valkyries, choosers of the slain, seem to have a lot in common. Both can take bird-form, are associated with war, magic and death, and take mortal protegés and lovers. Add that to the fact that she and Odin took half of all slain warriors each, and many have concluded that Freyja was the leader of the valkyries, the valkyrie goddess if you will.