Usually thought to mean “woman/priestess who performs sacrifice,” an alternate interpretation is “woman/priestess who receives sacrifice.” In Heimskringla, Snorri explains that, when the Vanir come among the Æsir as hostages, Freyja is a blót-gyðja and teaches the Æsir seiðr; after all the other gods have died, she continues the sacrifices. While some read this as meaning Freyja will survive the Ragnarok, others have speculated that Snorri was aware of worship of Freyja that continued after the official conversions of the north, possibly even during his lifetime. Davidson references a ship on wheels that was taken in procession in 1133; the ship was led by weavers, warned against by clergymen, welcomed with delight by townspeople, and danced around by half-naked women. She believes the procession and its accompanying revelry were related to worship of the Vanir, especially Freyja. Näsström, while detailing the conversion process, states that the area around Uppsala remained a center of heathen resistance until the twelfth century; according to her, worship of Freyja may have continued in remote rural areas of Sweden into the fifteenth century, though in many of those instances Freyja was conflated with the Christian Mary.
“The Giving One,” generally interpreted as referring to the fertility aspect of Freyja. Its similarity to the name Gefjon has led Näsström and others to conclude that Gefjon and Freyja are one and the same. Gefjon is said in Gylfaginning to receive dead maidens in her hall, as Freyja is sometimes thought to (as in Þorgeðr’s words to her father after Böðvarr’s death in Egil’s Saga), and under this interpretation, Loki’s reproach to Gefjon in Lokasenna, “the white boy gave you a jewel/ and you laid your thigh over him” refers to the theft of Brísingamen by Loki and its recovery by Heimdall.
Most often thought to derive from hörr, meaning “flax,” the name Hörn appears in a number of place-names, such as Harnevi, Jarnevi, and Jarnberga. According to Tillhagen, flax was thought to protect against evil and give fertility, and it was referred to as “the seed of the woman.” Näsström and Davidson both interpret this name of Freyja’s as indicating her connection with agricultural activities as well as spinning, weaving, and the production of linen, particularly the creation of bridal clothing. Ingunn Ásdísardóttir connects the name and its associated spinning and weaving to Freyja’s involvement with seiðr.
The name Mardöll is one of the more problematic of Freyja’s heiti. The first part of the name may come from marr, meaning “sea.” The second part, “-döll,” may mean “shining,” “fair,” or “white,” whereas “-ðöll” likely means “fir” or “tree.” Sea Fir does not seem to make much sense, so most interpretations center around versions of “Shining Sea” or “The one shining over the sea.” Mardöll often appears in kennings for gold (especially in forms like Mardöll’s tears, weeping, or eye-rain), which has led many to believe that the name itself indirectly refers to Freyja’s love of gold and adornment; the “Shining Sea” may be a kenning similar to Ægir’s fire. Snorri seems to relate the name to Heimdall and Loki’s fight as seals in the sea for Brísingamen. The name may refer to celestial bodies; Giebel speculates that “the one shining over the sea” could refer to a star; he favors the star called Stella Maris, a by-name for Isis that was later associated with Mary. Others, seeing Brísingamen as symbolizing the sun, believe that the name indicates sunshine on the ocean. Along similar lines, multiple goddess-based internet sites say that Mardöll is a Scandinavian moon goddess, and that the name refers to the way the moon appears over the Scandinavian seas. Yet another interpretation, popular with those who seek correspondence with Greek and Roman deities, is that the name hints at sea foam and the shining, fair goddess who comes from it, Aphrodite/Venus.
A name for Freyja in skaldic and eddic poetry, Óðs Mey is another source of controversy. In the poetry, the name is most often used to evoke the image of Freyja overcome by sorrow, tender and vulnerable in contrast to her usual appearance of strength and confidence. Óðr’s identity is disputed; while many believe him to be Oðin, others are adamant that Óðr is a separate individual. The name Óðr has many possible meanings, including “agitation,” “poetry,” “intellect,” “furious,” and “terrible,” all appropriate for connecting him with the Valfather; as well, both figures are well known for wandering. Simek and Lindow both note that Snorri keeps the two clearly separate, however. Grimm believed that Óðr was identical to Óttar from Hyndluljóð, and Rydberg identified him with both Óttar and Svipdag, the protagonist of Grógaldr and Fjölsvinnsmál; various modern scholars tentatively agree with aspects of these identifications. Dronke prefers an interpretation of Óðr’s name as “spirit/breath that survives death,” making him an ideal husband for a goddess of resurrection; she (along with Bugge and Falk, among others) sees the story of Óðr and Freyja as being similar to that of the funeral of Adonis and Aphrodite’s subsequent tearful, disarrayed run through the wilderness. Freyja’s weeping for Óðr is likely the source of another one of her names, Þrungva ("She Who Pines/Longs").
The etymology of Skjálf is debated; some believe it has its origins in *s(w)er, a hypothetical Indo-European root meaning shield or protect, reflecting Freyja’s powers as a guardian, while others relate it to scylf or scelf, meaning tower or scaffolding, perhaps referring to the raised areas sometimes found in cult places. In Ynglingatal and Heimskringla, Skjálf is the name of the woman who is responsible for Agni’s death by hanging from a golden chain or by a rope attached to an elaborate torc; in Heimskringla, Snorri further says that Skjálf is a Lappish princess. The Skilfingars, the name of the Yngling dynasty after Agni, may be named for Skjálf, thus making Freyja/ Skjálf a parallel to Freyr/Yngvi.
Because swine are so strongly associated with the Vanir, the name Sýr is usually interpreted as “sow,” another reference to Freyja’s fertility aspects. An alternate interpretation relates it to the same conjectured root of Skjálf, *s(w)er, “shield, protect”. Particularly in the earlier pre-Christian period, it may well be that both meanings were intended, a very common occurrence in Germanic prose and poetry. Though it was first proposed by Rydberg, many modern scholars, including Davidson, Näsström, and Simek, agree that the character Syritha (who, after wandering for a time, is wooed and married by a man named Óttar) in Book 7 of Saxo’s Gesta Danorum is probably Freyja/Sýr.
Wall hangings found in the Oseberg ship burial depict, among other things, shield-bearing women who appear to have the heads of swine or perhaps are wearing boar helms or masks. These women are thought by some (Davidson and Ingstad among others) to represent servants of Freyja or perhaps the goddess herself.
The name Valfreyja means, simply, Lady of the Slain, comparable to Oðin’s title of Valfather. It is related to another of Freyja’s by-names, Eigandi Valfalls, the Possessor of the Slain. In Gylfaginning and in Grímnismál she is said to receive half the slain; further, the implication of the Grímnismál stanza referring to Fólkvangr is that she chooses her half first. Some have argued that Freyja’s warriors are of a different kind than Oðin’s; theories include that her warriors are mainly defensive, while his are offensive, or that Freyja’s warriors enjoy more of the attributes of the third function of Dumézil’s tripartite theory (wealth and prosperity, primarily), while Oðin’s possess more of the first (specifically, medical/magical knowledge). Based on references such as Þorgeðr’s words in Egil’s Saga mentioned above and interpretations of the Oseberg ship burial, Freyja is also thought by some to receive dead maidens and noblewomen in her hall. As a feather-garbed chooser of the slain, the Valfreyja has long (at least since Grimm) been thought to have a connection with the valkyries; many go so far as to name her their queen or chief.
Näsström interprets the motif of the independent valkyrie who feels passion for a mortal hero as a hypostasis of Freyja, who is simultaneously chooser of the slain and goddess of lust and love. She speculates that, much as may have occurred with Tyr, Oðin’s association with warfare and nobility eventually reduced Freyja’s role as war goddess and Great Valkyrie.
A kenning composed of Vanir and Dís, Vanadís is usually interpreted as “Woman or Lady of the Vanir.” Some interpret the name as meaning that Freyja is a goddess of the dísir; Larrington writes that the dísir are “female fertility spirits . . . or female ancestors” and “as spirits of the dead, they are associated both with Hel and Freyja,” and the name Vanadís should be interpreted as Dís of the Vanir. Those who believe the alfar to be male ancestors ruled by Freyr favor such interpretations, seeing Freyja as his female equivalent with the dísir.
Other Possible Names:
Gullveig and Heiðr
Gabriel Turville-Petre identified the figures of Gullveig and Heiðr from Völuspá with Freyja, and his identification remains popular with many today. Dronke believes Gullveig’s name combines gull, meaning gold, with two meanings of veig, “martial strength” and “intoxicating drink.” Those who favor an identification of Gullveig and Heiðr tend to see Gullveig’s triple execution at the hands of the Æsir as a shamanic or initiatory ordeal similar to Oðin’s hanging or his time between the flames in Grímnismál; Freyja endures the ordeal and returns as Heiðr, whose name may mean “the bright one” or “the heath dweller,” and as Heiðr, Freyja is in the fullness of her power in seiðr. These interpretations are popular with heathens like Diane Paxson and other seið-working Troth folk.
Dronke interprets Gullveig as a golden image of Freyja, an idol similar to that of Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr, that the Æsir try to desecrate and destroy; Heiðr is a human volva and seiðkona who inducts people into the cult of the Vanir. In the war between Æsir and Vanir that follows, the “unfailing killing power of Oðinn” meets the “unfailing regenerative power of Freyja”; neither side is able to triumph completely, so the two clans unite their powers.
The story of Menglöd and her rescuer/suitor Svipdag appears in two poems that, though they appear only in 17th century manuscripts, likely date from the 13th century. Grógaldr and Fjölsvinnsmál are together known as Svipdagsmál, a name coined by Bugge in 1860. Because Menglöd’s name means “one who takes pleasure in jewels” or “necklace-glad” and because in three of the manuscripts in which the poems occur, they are separated by Hyndluljóð, a poem that deals explicitly with Freyja and her lover/worshiper Óttar, Menglöd is often thought to be Freyja, with Svipdag (“suddenly dawning day”) variously identified as Óttar, Óðr, a Skirnir-like character, and/or a Suebi fertility god named Dagr.
Probably meaning “the flaming/glowing jewelry or adornment,” the necklace of the Brísings seems to be to Freyja what Mjolnir is to Thor or Gungnir is to Oðin. Though the tale of her gaining it in exchange for spending one night apiece with each of its four dwarven smiths can be found in most contemporary books of Norse mythology, the story originally appeared only in Sörla þáttr in the Flateyjarbók. The same story has Loki subsequently steal the necklace and give it to Oðin, who will only return it if she agrees to make two kings and their respective armies fight eternally. She agrees and causes the armies of two kings, Högni and Heðinn, to fight each other; each night, she resurrects them to battle again the next day. Eventually, Olaf Tryggvason arrives and ends the curse. There are earlier versions of the story of the eternal battle of Högni and Heðinn, but in these it is Högni’s daughter Hildr, abducted by Heðinn, who resurrects the two each day; none of the earlier versions feature Oðin, Loki, Freyja, or Olaf. Because Hildr’s name may mean “battle” and because she possesses the ability to resurrect the dead, Näsström readily identifies Hildr with Freyja; others are less certain, believing that the monks responsible for Sörla þáttr grafted the gods and Olaf onto an earlier, unrelated story to discredit the old gods and glorify Olaf’s Christianization of the north.
In the fragments of Húsdrápa preserved in Skáldskaparmál, Loki and Heimdallr assume the shape of seals and battle in the sea near a place called Singastein for Brísingamen. In the poem, the adornment is called “hafnyra,” meaning “sea-kidney.” Some believe this may refer to the practice of gathering amber from the sea shore, and that thus the necklace should be seen as being decorated with amber. Birger Pering suggests that Singastein should be read “signastien,” meaning “magic stone.” Näsström believes “hafnyra” may be the same as “vettenyrer,” “wight kidney” or “sea bean,” called “lausnarsteinn” (“delivery stone”) in Iceland, a reddish-brown dehydrated plant gathered from the ocean that was used to make childbirth go more smoothly. The Brísingamen would thus reflect Freyja’s connection with childbirth and fertility, as when during a difficult birth she is invoked along with Frigg in Oddrúnargrátr.
Woman-shaped figurines bearing double neck-rings have been found in deposits dating from the late Bronze Age; some archaeologists have named these finds “the Goddess with the Neck-Ring” and have associated this goddess with Freyja, though there is no specific evidence that these figurines were cult objects.
Literally “feather skin/shape,” Freyja’s bird guise is usually presented as a falcon-feathered cloak. Among the wall hangings found at the Oseberg ship burial are a number of depictions of bird-headed women; Davidson interprets these as likely showing Freyja in her falcon form. In her essay “Frigg and Freyja: One Great Goddess or Two?” Ingunn Ásdísardóttir observes that only Snorri says that Frigg has a fiaðrhamr; in the Eddic poems and in the story of Iðunn’s abduction, the falcon shape belongs to Freyja. Ingunn speculates that Freyja’s fiaðrhamr is related to “various winged and/or beaked figures on the Swedish rock carvings, in the Kivik grave as well as on the Gotland stones”; further, she believes Freyja’s falcon shape helps confirm a connection between the goddess and the valkyries and is related to her gathering the slain, evoking the image of birds of prey and the hawks of Oðin feeding at a battle field.
Loki’s borrowing of Freyja’s fiaðrhamr may reflect the idea that special means (such as Sleipnir) are needed to travel between the worlds.
Among many modern heathens, the falcon is considered one of Freyja’s sacred animals.
Freyja, particularly in modern times, is strongly associated with cats. She is said to have a cat-drawn chariot, which Snorri in Gylfaginning describes her driving to Baldr’s funeral. Some of the vehicles found at the Oseberg ship burial have cat images carved into them; in one case, the sledge posts are cat heads, while the wagon’s end panel has a repeated picture of a cat who may be fighting or dancing with a serpent. Some interpret her chariot as reflecting a wagon procession with an idol of the goddess being taken from town to town as seen with Nerthus and Freyr; Davidson among others speculates that such processions were a regular feature in worship of the Vanir.
Grimm believed that the word köttum may have originally been fressum; fres is an Old Norse word that can mean both tom-cat and bear, and he thought it more likely that Freyja’s chariot was originally drawn by bears. Additionally, because ancient Germanic poets freely used related words to preserve their poems’ meter and consonance, the word köttum could be used to indicate all sorts of similarly sized or shaped animals, including rabbits, ermines, weasels, and badgers.
The description of the seeress in Eiríks saga ins rauða includes mention of catskin gloves and headpiece, prompting many to speculate on a connection among cats, Freyja, and seiðr.
According to the Viking Answer Lady, kittens were often part of the gifts given newly married women to help set up their new household; she relates this in part to Freyja’s influence.
Nearly every modern piece of fiction featuring Freyja mentions her cats in some fashion. The most infamous instance is of course Diane Paxson’s Brisingamen, in which Freyja’s cats are Trégull (Tree Gold) and Býgull (Bee Gold), names that have managed to find their way into not just various online mythology sites but even into a few poorly-researched books about Norse mythology and heathenry.
In the poem Hyndluljóð Freyja tells Hyndla that it is not Óttar on the road but Hildisvini, a boar with golden bristles made for her by the dwarves Dain and Nabbi. The name Hildisvini means “battle swine;” in addition to being the name of the boar/Óttar in Hyndluljóð, the name appears in poetry as a kenning for helmet, since according to Snorri in Skáldskaparmál, a helmet called Hildisvini was captured by Aðils, son of Óttar, along with another helmet, Hildigöltr (“war boar”) and a ring, Sveagriss (“Swedish pig”). Boars decorating helms occur numerous times in Beowulf. Additionally, in the Germania, Tacitus speaks of the Æstii as ones who “worship the mother of the gods, and wear as emblems of this cult the masks of boars, which stand them instead of armor or human protection and ensure the safety of the worshipers even among their enemies.” The boar as an emblem of protection and an armor decoration may be related to the possible double meaning of the name Sýr.
According to Näsström, not only did the boar provide protection, but in connection with the word “eofor” (boar), it designated rulership, as in the heiti jofurr for king or chieftain. The name appears as well in personal names, such as Eofor in Beowulf. Additionally, the title is used for the person (usually the chieftain or king) who occupies the outermost edge of the svinfylking (“swine array” or boar snout) fighting wedge, directing its activities.
Näsström interprets Hildisvini in Hyndluljóð as being both boar and helmet and sees the entire poem as representing Óttar’s initiation into warrior-hood; specifically, with divine assistance, he becomes one of Freyja’s warriors (who Näsström believes are distinct from Oðin’s) who, upon his death, will go to Fólkvangr. Other interpretations of the poem include that Óttar’s seeming transformation is related to the idea that witches would ride a sleeper (or the sleeper’s spirit) in some form throughout the night or that Óttar’s being ridden by Freyja is indicative of some sort of “horsing” ritual to gain privileged knowledge.
Fólkvangr and Sessrúmnir
In Gylfaginning and in Grímnismál Freyja is said to rule over Fólkvangr, “folk/people-field” or “battle/army plain”; while most interpret Fólkvangr as one of many possible destinations for the dead (along with Valhalla, Hel, Ran’s realm, the grave mound, and so on), others believe Fólkvangr may instead represent the various battlefields on which Freyja acts as a selector of those who will die in battle.
Snorri adds that her hall is called Sessrúmnir (“seat roomer”). The name Sessrúmnir is also given as the name of a ship in Skáldskaparmál, prompting various attempts at connecting the hall of the Valfreyja with ship burials or processions on land of wheeled ships, though in my opinion a ship with spacious holds could very well be called something like “Roomy-Seated” without it having anything to do with Freyja.
From the surviving texts, place names, and hints at continued worship after the official conversion dates, it seems Freyja was the most widely worshiped of the pre-Christian Germanic goddesses; today, Freyja is easily the most popular and most readily recognized of the Germanic goddesses. Forms of her name are quite common names for girls in Scandinavia and the United Kingdoms. In 1813, the Swedish chemist Nils Gabriel Sefström named an element (atomic number 23) Vanadium in Freyja’s honor. She appears in most Norse mythology-themed video games, including as a playable character at the beginning of Valkyrie Profile; in Marvel comics, she is called the Enchantress, a sometimes ally, sometimes enemy of Thor. Ships, especially yachts, are regularly named for her, there is a line of underwear and swimsuits called Freya, and she has been a frequent subject of painting, sculpture, song, and poetry. This popularity has some negative consequences; many people, rather than researching and learning more of what is already known of the goddess, simply make things up that they feel fit with the goddess, which at the very least can result in credulous folks looking very silly later.
She is popular with heathens, Wiccans, and other neo-pagans of various stripes; as a complex and multi-faceted deity, Freyja receives worship from neo-pagans of nearly every ideological persuasion. Freyja’s strength of character, her use of magic, and her association with sexual love make her very interesting to people rejecting many of the attributes of modern conservative monotheist faiths. Like Skaði, Freyja is perceived as a strong, independent woman, and as such is frequently worshiped by feminists and those who seek to rule over their own bodies and love as they choose. Her seeming indifference to strict socio-sexual mores make her popular with polyamorists and others with unconventional sexual preferences, and she also appeals strongly to those who were involved in the emergence of many of the neo-pagan faiths and/or who have embraced the1960s-1970s counterculture ideology of free love and magick. Unfortunately, the unconventional, free love aspects of her worship are sometimes taken to an unhealthy extreme in which worship of Freyja is used as an excuse to behave in irresponsible, harmful sexual behavior. Similarly, while erotica and art featuring the human body are often used in her worship, there are those who simply use Freyja as an excuse to hang centerfolds on their wall.
Heathens interested in using seiðr, pagan witches, and other neo-pagans whose faith centers around the use of magic often worship Freyja as a sort of primal sorceress. Many Wiccans identify Freyja, whose name means Lady, as the aspect of the female divine with which they most often choose to work. Her popularity as a goddess of magic has led to many interesting (and, in my opinion, often inaccurate) ideas, such as the above-mentioned interpretation of Mardöll as a moon goddess (because, of course, all goddesses are lunar).
The possibility of two classes of warrior, a defensive warrior devoted to Freyja and an offensive warrior devoted to Oðin, has received quite a bit of acceptance in modern heathenry. Some have gone so far as to speculate that, since Freyja is not mentioned in accounts of the Ragnarok, she holds her warriors in reserve; while Oðin’s einherjar fight on Vigrid plain, helping to cleanse the worlds of chaos and evil, Freyja’s warriors wait until the end of the battle, when they will help rebuild and defend the new worlds. Many heathens who support their country’s military but prefer missions that are more immediately defensive and home-focused (such as defending the borders and coasts and helping with disaster relief) as opposed to missions that are more offensive in nature (such as invading countries or providing support to overseas governments) are numbered among Freyja’s worshipers. The warrior and battle aspect of Freyja also seems to attract other modern neo-pagans who seem to see her as sex and violence wrapped up in one divine package; many illustrations floating around the internet portray her as a sort of Frank Frazetta-esque fantasy warrior (though never as well done), impossibly proportioned, scantily clad if at all, and bristling with phallic weaponry (spears and very long-bladed swords seem to be the favorites).
Personal Worship and UPG
Despite not being a magician, a soldier, a polyamorist, or any of her other stereotypical worshipers, I believe that of all the gods and goddesses, the only one I may worship more frequently than Freyja is Ullr (it’s a pretty close thing, but I don’t really tally my offerings and the like, so I can’t say for certain). Able, the protagonist of Gene Wolfe’s Wizard Knight, says of the Lady of Fólkvangr “The first time you see her you fall on your knees and draw your sword, and lay it at her feet . . . She smiles and makes you get up, and tells you very sweetly that she understands you’d die for her, and swears she’ll be your friend always.” It’s something like that for me. To know any of the gods, even just a brush in passing, is a profound experience for a human, something that has to permanently leave its mark. For reasons unknown to me, I’ve had more than one encounter with the goddess, and they’ve changed me. I may not be one of her typical devotees (indeed, I often instinctively dislike many of the people I encounter who tell me they regularly worship or work with her), but my dedication is as sincere and heartfelt as any.
I have personal reason to believe that, even if Freyja is not directly related to the valkyries, her raptor shape is related to her choosing/receiving certain of the dead.
In addition to hailing her regularly at blót and sumble and offering libation, I occasionally compose poems in her honor. They aren’t mannsongr-type poems, which coming from me would be a lot like a flycatcher’s song coming from a crow; instead of trying to be something that I’m not, I try to present her with some of the best of what I am, and it seems to produce good results. I’ve decorated the drinking horn I use most often with hails to and a symbol of the goddess, so that regardless of whatever other purpose I may be using the horn for, I am also hailing her; similar decorations can be found on a wind chime near my house, in the hope that the chime may function in a similar manner as a Tibetan prayer wheel, offering her praise whenever a strong enough wind blows. When I’m not wearing a Mjolnir, I usually wear either a boar or a pendant modeled after the Uppland valkyrie, especially on Friday (which, though in English is probably named for Frigg, in many other areas takes its name from Freyja).
The Shield, the Sow, and the Shining Sea,
Whether giant’s brew brought or Brísingamen won,
Few are so fair or so fierce as she.
Warriors come by Vanadis’s decree
To her Field of Folk when all is done-
The Shield, the Sow, and the Shining Sea.
When stone-reddener makes his desperate plea,
Worthy answers are won for Innstein’s son,
For few are so fair or so fierce as she.
Cat driver, boar rider, seið-worker, free
She flies, falcon-feathered, under the sun;
The Shield, the Sow, and the Shining Sea.
Dwarves’ demand, Thrym’s enthrallment, Builder’s fee;
Desired by many, but owned by none,
For few are so fair or so fierce as she.
Hail good Lady, Hail Great Giving One,
Whose generosity is never outdone;
Named Shield, and Sow, and the Shining Sea,
For none are so fair and so fierce as thee.
Davidson, H.R.E.1964. Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe
---. 1998. Roles of the Northern Goddess
de Vries, J. 1956-1957. Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte
Dronke, U. (translator). 1997. The Poetic Edda: Volume II: Mythological Poems
Gundarsson, K. 2006. Our Troth: History and Lore
Larrington, C. (translator). 1996. The Poetic Edda
Lindow, J. 2001. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs
Nasstrom, B. 2003. Freyja, the Great Goddess of the North
Simek, R. 1996. Dictionary of Northern Mythology
Steinsland, G. 1989. Det Hellige Bryllup og Norron Kongeideologi
Sturluson, S. Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes 1987
---. Heimskringla, tranaslated and edited by Monsen, E. and Smith, A.H. 1990
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