Hera’s titles included Pais (Girl), Nympheuomenê (Betrothed), Teleia (Adult Woman), and Khêra (Widow), all relating to stages in a woman’s life. One of them, Teleia, could take on several meanings, as you’ll see in the section on the Daidala festival of Platania.
We’re always taught that Odin was head of the Norse gods, and father of most of them. But when the Christians in Scandinavia began to press the pagans to give up their religion, the sign of resistance was Thor’s hammer, not Odin’s spear or valknut.
This may come as a surprise to us, who mostly think of Thor as big and strong and a bit dim, out of his depth when it comes to anything more complicated than smashing giants. But Thor was a very popular deity in the Viking Age, as place-names and personal names show, perhaps because of his closeness to the humans he defended.
Norse myth tends to echo; one story calling to another. There are at least three stories in Norse myth about a young man passing through a wall of flames and other hazards to reach a woman. This would seem to be a straightforward story of a woman sought and won, except that in two of these stories the young man is a stand-in for another, and only one story has a happy ending.
Review of In Search of the Swan Maiden: a Narrative on Folklore and Gender, by Barbara Fass Leavy.
Although this book is called The Swan Maiden, its subject could be described as: “a story about a fairy captured by a mortal man and forced into a tedious domestic existence and, obversely, about a mortal woman courted by a demon lover who offers her escape from that same mundane world.” (Loc. 347)
This is an extremely condensed look at the myth of Njord and Skadi. For a much more detailed study, see my book Njord and Skadi: a Myth Explored.
The myth of Njord and Skadi could also be called the Divine Divorce. Usually, even unhappily married deities stay together, but these two bucked the trend. Skadi married Njord as part of a settlement after the gods killed her father, but the marriage didn’t last.
Popular sources describe this story as a nature-myth, with the sea-god and the mountain-goddess being unable to find common ground. This myth, however, has multiple meanings, and goes to the heart of Norse myth and the god-giant conflict that will bring destruction.
While it’s part of Norse myth that the gods and giants are enemies, it seems that the giantesses were a different story. Odin clearly never met one he didn’t like, and he was far from being the only one to have a fling with one. Even Thor the giant-smasher had an affair with Jarnsaxa. These romances usually resulted in the second-generation gods, such as Thor’s son Magni.
Sometimes, however, the sons of these unions were mortals, or demi-mortals anyway. The Swedish ruling dynasty called the Ynglings and the Norwegian earls of Hladir traced themselves back to the giantesses/goddesses Gerdr and Skadi, respectively.
There are two stories in Norse myth where part of a dead body is transformed by being rubbed with herbs. One of these is the mystical, cosmological story of Mimir’s head, which Odin revived by smearing with herbs and chanting over it. The other is a conversion narrative, in which a preserved horse’s penis is part of a house cult that St. Olaf brings to an end.
So these stories could not be more unalike. But the penis grows and “becomes lively” after the woman of the house covers it in herbs and wraps it in linen. So what herbs do you use to enliven a horse’s penis and a god’s head?
Women seem to have had their own form of genius, called a juno. (This is a contested idea: the Wikipedia article on Juno denies it completely, while the Brittanica site and the Dictionary of Roman Religion are for it.) However, enough scholars seem to accept the idea that I’m willing to see it as valid. I’m sure even in a society as patriarchal as ancient Rome women took pride in their children and their lineage, and those feelings found their own religious expression.
The goddess Skadi has one main myth, but it is a well-developed story, spanning three generations, and involving the feud between the gods and giants. The actual story is scattered around through a variety of sources, but its outline is clear.
(This post was inspired by one written by Nancy Marie Brown at God of Wednesday: A Viking Fairy Tale. She in turn was inspired by a question from a reader, and a paper by Takahiro Narikawa. And on it goes.)
Long before I began this blog, just plain long ago in fact, I did a degree in Medieval Studies, with a specialty in English. This taught me how to dig into a text for its meaning, but we rarely considered the political or historical aspects of the texts. In some cases it would have been difficult to do so.
Who wrote Beowulf? We can guess at his (probably his) politics, and what was happening around him while he was writing, but we know very little about him. Even much later texts have similar problems, such as Gawain and the Green Knight. The poet Simon Armitage hypothesized that the author was from northern England, based on some of the words used, but we don’t know for sure.