Freyja (often Anglised as 'Freya') is the most popular goddess honoured by modern Heathens, the pagan tradition inspired by the ancient religions of Scandinavia, England, the Netherlands and Germany. Freyja's independent personality makes her an ideal role model for the modern Heathen women and her interest in sexual pleasure makes her an ideal patroness for many full blooded Heathen men.
Historically speaking Freyja is known from Scandinavia where she is the chief goddess of a divine household called the Vanir. Only a handful of the scores of ancient Heathen deities are specified as Vanir, including Freyja's father Njorđr, a god of the sea, wind and fire, and her brother Freyr, the god of fertility. The other well known Heathen deities, such as Thórr, Ođinn, Týr, Loki and Frigg belong to the rival Aesir household.
These two households can be seen as two pantheons within one pagan religion, some followers of Heathenry will dedicate themselves solely to the Vanic deities and this variant of Heathen is called Vanatru (Norse for 'true to the Vanir') while others will invoke deities from either household as personal preference or need dictates.
While exploring Vanatru and its main goddess, it is important to understand that Heathenry was and still is an oral tradition. It does not need to be tied down with set rules and doctrines. Its lore, myths and songs will change and evolve as new storytellers weave the tales afresh in their unique style. In ancient times Heathens were isolated in small farming communities and vast regional differences would have occurred in the gods and goddesses worshipped and the tales told about them, while social differences would have added further variations. The professional bard in a chieftain's hall would have put across a very different faith to that whispered among the slaves and servants or told by skilled women storytellers in the weaving sheds. The result is a rich and varied mix of contradictions.
In the thirteenth century, over 200 years after the adoption of Christianity, an Icelandic scholar called Snorri Sturluson attempted to record what remained of the Heathen lore in his book 'Edda'. Over the next hundred years numerous books on Icelandic history were written (the Sagas) and a book of mythological poetry called the Poetic Edda. The creation of these books is both a blessing and a curse for modern Heathens, a blessing because they have preserved an impressive amount of mythical lore which would otherwise have been lost, and a curse because they have fixed what had been an organic oral tradition down on paper. It is all too easy to see these texts as the only interpretation of ancient Scandinavian Heathenry. Fortunately they contain sufficient clues and contraditions to show how complex and varied the religion was.
The Vanir have fared badly under these thirteenth century scholars and are little mentioned. Snorri's Edda in partcular is dominated by the myths and attributes of the god Oðínn which suggests to me that Snorri's main source of the material was an individual trained to be priest or magic worker dedicated to Oðínn. Freyja's brother Freyr is barely mentioned, despite being a popular god among the pagan Icelanders, while Freyja appears most often as a pawn in the bargaining between the gods and the race of giants.
It is likely to have been the sexual nature of the Vanic gods and goddess which led to their tales being so poorly recorded by Christian scholars. The idols of the god Freyr showed him with a large erect phallus and it is likely that the complaints of Christian priests concerning obscene Heathen hymns would have been linked to his worship.
Freyja's sexual role is attested by her connection with 'love songs' of which she was the patroness. Love songs were made illegal by an Iceland parliament in the Heathen period, not I suspect due to vulgar wording which would not have offended early Heathens, but due to their use as magical charms. Freyja has a strong interest in magic and ancient Heathen spells were often worked in the form of songs or poems called 'galdr'. There was a strong prejudice against unethical magic in this period, be it to gain an unfair advantage in battle or to snare an unwilling man to a woman's bed.
The most famous tale of Freyja's sexuality is the explanation of how she won her magical necklace Brisingamen which is recorded in the Sorla Tháttr. Freyja was travelling during a storm and was forced to shelter in a cave, exploring further away from the light she came upon a forge at which four dwarves were working. The dwarves stared at her in amazement and desire (there are no female dwarves in Heathen mythology and they are unable to venture into daylight so they were doubly excited!). The dwarves talked among themselves, agreed on a plan, and set to work making a beautiful necklace that even a goddess would find irresistible. Their work finished, they held the prize up for inspection. As they hoped Freyja fell in love with the necklace instantly and offered them any treasure in payment. The dwarves refused all offers of gold and said if she wanted it she would have to spend a night with each of them. Unable to gain the necklace any other way she consented.
Unknown to Freyja the trickster god Loki had been spying on her. He went straight back to Ođinn's hall in Asgarđr and told him what he had seen, sending Ođinn into a jealous rage. When Freyja returned to Asgarđr proudly wearing her new necklace, Ođinn punished her for her infidelity. He told her to set two armies to war and then keep resurrecting the fallen warriors so that the war would never end.
This tale is a wonderful example of the contraditions in the ancient Heathen myths, here Ođinn and Freyja are married, whereas in Snorri's accounts Ođinn is married to the Aesir goddess Frigg.
Further clues to Freyja's sexual availability come from the Poetic Edda's 'Loki's Flyting' in which Loki insults the gods and goddesses when they are all gathered for a feast. In many cases Loki's insults can be identified from surviving myths so it is likely that the author of the poem meant all the accusations to be true. Of Freyja Loki has this to say:
'Be quiet, Freyja!' That you are not faultless I have plain proof:
all the elves and Aesir assembled here have had you for a whore.'
'Be quiet, Freyja! You're a foul witch and brew baleful poisons;
the gods found you in bed with your own brother, Freyja, when you farted.'
As the divine embodiment of sexual pleasure it is not surprising that Freyja would be free with her favours among the gods. The reference to elves is also appropriate as the Vanir have close links to the elven race and her brother Freyr is the ruler of the elven realm. These are the the 'light elves' of Heathen mythology who closely resemble humans and inspired the elves of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. Loki's reference to the elves being present at the god's feast shows that they have accompanied the Vanir deities and may even be numbered among them.
Loki's reference to incest is also justified. In Ynglinga Saga we are told that before the Vanir came to live in Asgard it was their custom for brothers and sisters to marry. Freyr and Freyja are the children of Njorđr and Njorđr's sister who is not named in the Edda's and sagas. Njorđr does however have a linguistic link with a more ancient goddess of the Danish Angle tribe (from whose name 'Anglia' and 'England' derive). This goddess was Nerthus and she was associated with fertility, cattle, lakes and human sacrifice. We know of her worship from the Roman historian Tacitus.
Freyr and Freyja with their similar names and attributes were clearly originally husband and wife. There are half-hearted attempts in the mythology to make them more respectable, Freyja is given a husband called Óðr, and Freyr has a giantess wife called Gerðr. Óðr is remarkable only for his absence, he is a wanderer and Freyja weeps tears of red gold when he travels. He is not mentioned in any other context, a poor consort for this powerful and important goddess. The giantess Gerðr appears only in the tale of how Freyr gained her as a wife, she is mentioned in no other myth, again a shadowy consort for an important deity. It is possible that for devotees of Freyr and Freyja they were always seen as husband and wife right up to the conversion to Christianity. Óðr may represent Ođinn who is also famed as a traveller. The tale of Gerðr may have started as a tale of a brief relationship, doubtless once one of many for the god of male sexuality.
Freyja is also hailed as a great beauty. In the Eddic tales the giants repeatedly scheme to try and win Freyja as a wife but without success. These tend to be tales that highlight the powers of the Aesir gods and consequently Freyja takes a relatively minor role within them. One example worth mentioning is the tale of how Thórr had his thunderbolt hammer stolen by a giant. The giant insisted on Freyja being sent to him as his bride before he would return the weapon. The desperate Aesir begged Freyja to marry the giant but she refused. The Aesir were then forced to dress up Thórr as the goddess to persuade the giant to return the hammer. The very fact that Thórr could be persuaded to undergo the humiliation of wearing a wedding dress (men wearing effeminate clothing was a taboo among the Aesir) attests to the strength of Freyja's character and the respect garnered amongst the gods.
Another major role of Freyja is goddess of magic, hence Loki's mention of potion based witchcraft quoted above. She is particularly associated with a practice called Seiđr which appears to be a shamanic form of magic. Seiđr spells are powered by chanting, sitting on burial mounds or platforms, trance and contacting spirits to aid spells or look into the future. In ancient Heathenry it was used in battle to transfer the strength of your enemies to your own warriors.
Interestingly one of Ođinn's prized possessions, a throne from which he can see anything in any realm, may originate from the Seiđr worker's platform used in shamanic magic, and have been created using the skills of the Vanir.
Ynglinga Saga states that it was Freyja who taught the magical arts to the Aesir gods and goddesses, giving her a surprising superiority over Ođinn.
She owns a feather cloak which enables the wearer to shape change into a falcon. She also has strong links to the cat, the witch's familiar; two cats pull Freya's chariot.
Many of Freyja's magical skills relate to battle. The battle lore of Heathenry is probably the most familiar part of the mythology, Ođinn's hall Valhall is where the dead warriors are carried by Valkyries, to fight and drink through eternity. And yet in the Edda, Snorri states that half of the battle dead are taken to Freyja's hall in Folkvang. This brief reference shows Freyja as equall to Ođinn (remarkable considering the Aesiric bias of the Edda), she stands out as a Valkyrie queen, and possibly in Vanic tradition, their teacher and mother.
Folkvang (the fields of the folk) was not just the afterlife for warriors but also for her ordinary devotees and especially for lovers.
Where Valkyrie magic is described the battle maidens work charms at a weaving loom, using skulls as loom weights, intestines as threads and spears as weft beaters. Weaving in pagan Scandinavia was a female skill so this magical technique is more likely to have its origin in Freyja's teachings than Ođinn's.
There are also clues to the warlike dominance of the Vanir in the tale of the battle between the Aesir and the Vanir which leads to the two households coming together. The battle is briefly mentioned in the Elder Edda which makes it clear that the Aesir faired badly:
'Ođinn's spear shot into the host – that was the first war fought in the world
The wall of Asgarđr proved too weak – the victory was won by Vanir magic.'
Could this be Freyja – the mistress of battle spells - overcoming the Aesir battle gods Tyr, Thor and Ođinn?
A common battle talisman among the Scandinavian Heathens was the boar, which was often included in the ornamentation on helmet crests. The boar, a symbol of both ferocity and fertility, is the sacred beast of the Vanir. The god Freyr rides a chariot drawn by a golden boar called Gullinborsti 'goldbristles' while Freyja also has a golden boar called Hildisvini. Freyja also uses the name Sýr (sow) as a byname.
The boar Hildisvini appears in a poem from a fourteenth century text called the Flateyjarbók. One of Freyja's worshippers called Ottar needs to know his ancestry to win a bet but being rather dim-witted he cannot remember their names. He calls on Freyja and sacrifices to her in payment for her help. Freyja appears, shapeshifts him into a boar, climbs onto his back and rides him into the underworld, the land of the dead. Here Freyja guides him to the spirit of a witchwife and asks her to tell them who Ottar's ancestors are. The witchwife obliges but names so many ancestors that Ottar cannot remember them. Freyja then asks the witchwife for a potion to improve his memory but she refuses to help. Freya then threatens the witchwife with magical fire until the witchwife relents and gives Ottar the potion. Interestingly, the witchwife refers to Ottar as the goddess's lover.
This tale has strong parallels with the practice of Seiđr magic, in essence it is a shamanic journey using a power animal to gain the help of the ancestors.
Freyja can come across as a very powerful and intimidating deity but she also has a more humble domestic side to her interests. Her name means 'lady' with linguistic links to the modern German 'frau'. She is known as the Vanadis 'the lady of the Vanir'.
Freyja has links to the crafts of spinning and weaving, one of her bynames is Horn, the Norse word for flax, the plant from which linen cloth is made. She also has a star constellation named after her, one of the Heathen names for the three stars of Orion's Girdle is 'Freya's distaff', a tool used to hold the fibres while spinning.
Most folk in Heathen Scandinavia lived on small, almost self-sufficient farms, trading their small surplus for metal tools and luxury items. The most valuable trade goods produced on farms would have been bolts of good quality cloth produced laboriously on the drop spindle and the warp weighted loom. This industry was entirely controlled by the housewife, who would have delegated tasks to the menfolk during the long winters when most outdoor work was impossible.
The spinner's distaff is a symbol of both wealth and female authority. Wealth is repeatedly mentioned in connection with the Vanic deities and Freyja's fabulous necklace Brisingamen and her ability to weep tears of red gold emphasise this strongly. Even her daughters are named Hnoss and Gersimi after Norse words for 'precious'/'treasure'.
Another tale from Iceland shows Freyja to have a wide interest in domestic skills. Two housewives agreed to have a contest to see who could brew the best ale (ale making was a regular household task in the early middle ages). The first housewife called on Freyja for help and Freyja gave her advice on how to make an excellent ale. The second housewife called on Ođinn, Ođinn agreed to ensure that she won the contest if she would sacrifice her child in payment. The second housewife sacrificed her child and won the contest. This tale appears to be a warning of taking matters to extremes but the idea that Freyja could be invoked for recipe tips rings true. No doubt housewives hoping to impress at important events, or wishing to please a lover, would make gifts to Freyja hoping for a flash of inspiration, or to see the goddess herself in a dream or vision.
Freyja's connection with brewing brings to mind a common image in pagan Scandinavian art, a stylised female figure with fine clothes, necklaces and a knotted headscarf holding out a drinking horn. This represents the both the housewife welcoming her guests and the goddess welcoming the spirits of the dead to the afterlife. Some of these images may well depict Freya. In a Vanic context the horn could also be a symbol of the vagina, a connection also made in modern Witchcraft. Ellis Davidson (see booklist) points out that Freyja's necklace may have the same meaning, based on Freudian theories.
So how is Freyja seen and honoured by modern Heathens? Freyja has a number of distinct roles which give very different images of the goddess. She can be the seductive goddess of love, appearing either naked or in erotic garments. She can be the noble housewife, skilled in every domestic duty and respectably attired with the keys of the household hanging from her belt. She can be the wise witchwife with her feather cloak and potions. She can be the goddess of war clad in bloodstained armour to claim her heroes.
Her modern symbols are the heart symbolising love, the necklace for wealth and her sacred beasts, the cat, falcon and boar.
Freya is in essence everything a modern woman might wish to be, so her image needs little updating. She is both guide to the ancient farmwife and the modern business women. Probably the most common modern adaption of her roles is to see her as a patroness of alternative lifestyles and sexual practices.
For male devotees there can be a different emphasis, not only is Freyja a guide and protector but also a potential lover. Self loving is sometimes used as a form of worship in her honour.
Freyja has an important role with regard to the afterlife offering a home for spirits where skill in warfare is not an entry requirement. Freya's realm of Folkvang is considered by many modern Heathens to be the abode of cat spirits, and Heathens will invoke the goddess to protect ill or dying cats.
What should be clear from this article is that there is no limit to this goddess's potential, it is an easy step to see her as the most powerful and the most complex of all the Heathen gods and goddesses.
Translations of early literature:
Edda, Snorri Sturluson, trans by Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, 1995, ISBN 0-460-87616-3.
Poems of the Elder Edda, trans by Patrica Terry, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8122-8220-5.
Academic work on ancient Heathenry:
A Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Rudolf Simek, D.S Brewer, 1993, ISBN 0-85991-369-4.
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, H.R. Ellis Davidson, Penguin, 1964, ISBN 0-14-013627-4.
Modern works on Heathenry:
Galdrbok, Nathan J. Johnson & Robert J. Wallis, The Wykeham Press, 2000, ISBN 0-9549609-1-2.
The Book of Seidr, Runic John, Capall Bann, 2004, ISBN 186163 229 0.
www.thorshof.org – for modern retellings and reconstructions of Vanic myths.