Time has obliterated many of the pagan elements of Scandinavian culture, and much of the pre-Christian belief system has vanished from hman memory. But while the cults of Thor and Odin no doubt included lore and practices now lost to us, the cults of the Vanir deities are even more obscure, perhaps because certain features offended Christian sensibilities.
When writing my last post on Heimdall, I wondered if his name was connected to one of Freyja’s by-names, Mardoll. It’s usually translated as “Beauty of Light on Water”, perhaps inspired by the sun sparkling on the sea. It’s an appropriate name for Freyja, too, since her father controlled the waters, and she was the most desirable of goddesses.
The Scandinavians were a coastal people, who relied on the sea for food, trade and travel. Winter was when ice closed up harbour entrances and people stayed home; sun shimmering on the water meant spring had come and travel could begin again.
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman, W.W. Norton, 2017.
Earlier this year I reviewed Carolyne Larrington’s The Norse Myths, a lavishly illustrated introduction to the Norse myths for a popular audience. While Larrington’s book is more scholarly and objective, Gaiman’s book is laid out as a series of stories; retellings rather than analysis.
The Norse gods have different ways of getting around: Odin and Heimdall have horses, Freyr has a boar, and Thor has two goats to pull his wagon. Freyja’s choice was a little more unusual: she had two cats to pull her chariot.
Considering that she may have started a cosmic war, we know very little about the Norse goddess Gullveig. Her story comes from the Eddic poem Völuspá, which tells how the Aesir riddled her with spears and then burned her three times but couldn’t kill her.
Since the next event in the poem is the war between the Aesir and Vanir, the two groups of Norse deities, it’s always been assumed that somehow this attack on Gullveig started it.
Thorgerd Holgabrudr and her sister Irpa were Norwegian goddesses. Some of the sagas relate tales of her rich temples and statues. Her followers gave her rich gifts, and expected her to intercede on their behalf. Her most influential follower was Haakon Sigurdsson, who was essentially the ruler of Norway in the last part of the 9th century.
After my last post, on Freyja and Odin, I had a response on Reddit that intrigued me. The poster was responding to my deliberately provocative description of Freyja as the only Vanir goddess, pointing out that there were other females associated with the Vanir or Vanaheim.
Unfortunately, the comment was lost or deleted, but they did have a point, so I decided to discuss their candidates for Vanir goddesses here.
The Norse Myths: a Guide to the Gods and Heroes, by Carolyne Larrington, Thames and Hudson, 2017.
As the title suggests, this book is intended as an introduction to Norse myths, aimed at readers with little or no knowledge of the subject. The author, Carolyne Larrington, is an academic who has written several popular books, including a translation of the Poetic Edda. She has also written books on the green man and the women in Arthurian myth, and co-edited The Feminist Companion to Mythology.
Gefjun will be forever be famous as the goddess who gave Zealand to Denmark. The Danes immortalized her feat with a fountain in Copenhagen harbour, showing her and her oxen ploughing out the land.
She has many similiarities to Odin, as a goddess who travels between worlds, tricks mortals, and straddles moral and sexual boundaries. Far from being an earth and ploughing goddess, Gefjun is a magical and complex figure.