Brngr-o-Plnty-art - 8/30/09
"Bringer of Plenty - Freyr in Mytholology and History" by Master Giles de Laval.
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Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Bringer of Plenty - Freyr in Mythology and History
by Master Giles de Laval.
The majority of Scandinavian mythology and literature reflects the Viking love of battle and adventure. Death and violence were never far away, nor was the promise of glory and gold. It is only natural therefore that their most celebrated gods, Odin and Thor, embody the more glorious aspects of Viking life: battle, feasting, poetry, disdain of death, the fighting spirit. However, the more prosaic struggle to survive was just as grim. Lack of arable land and a short growing season meant that fertility and fecundity were pervasive, if less glamorous, concerns for Norse society. The deity of the earth that stands out most prominently in Norse literature is Freyr, described as the god who dispensed peace and plenty to mankind.
Freyr was essentially a fertility god. His image blessed the fields in spring and presided over the harvest in autumn. He is depicted in the Skog Church tapestry holding what may be a fruit or an ear of corn, and a small bronze figure found at RŠllinge in Sweden features an erect phallus, a clear fertility symbol. A gold plaque from Helgo is also thought to represent Freyr embracing the giantess Gerd, relating to the myth of Freyr's courtship, and may indicate the reason Freyr was invoked at marriages. There are also indications that the divine marriage, a ritual of fertility and renewal dating from the Bronze Age, formed part of the cult of Freyr, although this has not been proven.
The story of Freyr's wooing of the giantess Gerd is told by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda. One day, the tale goes, Freyr c1imbed into Odin's High Seat, from which he could see into all the worlds. Far to the north, in the underworld, he caught sight of a maiden so beautiful that when she lifted the latch to her door, her radiance was reflected all over the northern sky. Freyr was overcome with desire for her, and could neither eat nor sleep. Because all of nature ailed with the stricken god, his servant Skirnir was sent to woo the maiden Gerd on Freyr's behalf. She refused the golden apples of youth and the renewing ring Draupnir, demanding as her bride-price Freyr's magic sword, which could fight by itself and would be an asset to the gods in the final battle of Ragnaršk. The sword was duly surrendered, and Gerd became Freyr's bride. It is significant that the only recorded story about Freyr deals with marriage and sacrifice for love, rather than the adventurous or martial exploits of the other gods. The usual interpretation of this myth is the courtship of the earth and sky, resulting in a rich harvest. But there are other layers to the story as well: the radiance of Gerd and the introduction of Skirnir (whose name means Brightness) suggests a solar connection. It is also significant that Gerd, the figure embodying light, beauty and desire (and by implication marriage and fecundity), dwells in the underworld, from where she is brought to be united with the lord of fertility. As well as echoing the classical myth of Orpheus, this links the story to the ritual of the divine marriage, the purpose of which was the return of the sun and spring (represented by light, beauty and love) from the depths of darkness and winter (the underworld).
In addition to the sun, it appears that Freyr had some influence over the weather: wind, rain and snow. A story from the early settlement of Iceland tells that snow would not lie on a certain grave because Freyr loved the dead man too dearly to let frost come between them.
The boar and the horse were animals associated with the cult of Freyr. He possessed a golden boar called Gullinbursti (Gold Bristles), forged by the dwarfs who made Sif's golden hair and Odin's self renewing gold ring Draupnir. This magic boar was said to be able to outrun any steed over land, sea and sky, while the glowing bristles of its mane lit up the darkest night. This description bears resemblance to the symbol of the sun travelling through the underworld. Warriors with boar crested helmets are depicted on 6th century helmet plates, and an Anglo-Saxon helmet from a 7th century burial mound in Derbyshire has a tiny bronze boar as a crest, with ruby eyes and gold studs on its body. Figures of boars were also stamped on a 7th century sword found in the river Ouse, Yorkshire. This is a good indication that the boar of Freyr was believed to bring luck and protection in battle, in much the same way as the symbols of Odin.
The horse was also associated with Freyr: horses were sacrificed to him, and there is reference to an Icelandic tradition where a stallion was dedicated to Freyr, and no one was permitted to ride him under pain of death. Another connection is the horse fights which remained popular in Scandinavia well into the Christian era. They were held in spring in Norway and were believed to ensure good crops. There are also references to these fights in the sagas, although they are not presented as religious rituals. The importance of the horse sacrifice is indicated by horse remains from Skedemosse on …land, and other cults sites in Sweden. The head and feet of the horse were preserved, probably attached to the skin, while the rest of the animal was eaten at the sacrificial feast.
Sturluson has an account of a feast known as a "blood-offering" during the time of HŚkon the Good, the first Christian king of Norway in the early 10th century. The people wanted the king to eat some of the flesh and drink some of the blood of the sacrificed horse, which he as a Christian did not want to do. He compromised by opening his mouth over the steam from the cauldron, but this did not satisfy the people. The next time he attended the feast, he consented to eat some of the liver. This sacrifice and feast was evidently associated with prosperity and good seasons, and it was essential for the king himself to participate.
Archaeological and place name evidence suggests that the cult of the Vanir (the sub-group of gods consisting of Freyr, his twin sister Freyja and his father Njšrd) was particularly strong in Sweden and to a lesser extent Norway, and there is much in Icelandic literature which relates to the veneration of Freyr. There is a close link between Freyr and the dead kings of Sweden who continued to benefit their people after death. Sturluson tells in the history of the Ynglings, the early Swedish kings at Uppsala, that it was Freyr who set up the holy place at Uppsala where the temple stood, and where the 5th and 6th century burial mounds formed a centre of power and sanctity. Because of the prosperity Freyr brought the Swedes during his rule, they worshipped him and took his name, calling themselves Ynglings, after Yngvi-Freyr. His death was concealed from the people until a great burial mound was ready to receive him. The mound had a door and three holes in it, into which treasures of gold, silver and copper were placed. These were the people's offerings for plenty, which they continued bringing for three years, thinking that Freyr still lived. When they teamed he was dead, they realised that must still be helping them, as the seasons had continued to be good, and they therefore called him god of the earth. There is a parallel tradition in Denmark of a king (or series of kings, according to the 12th century historian Saxo Grammaticus) named Frodi, meaning "wise" or "fruitful", and in Norway of Olaf the "Elf of Geirstad", an ancestor of St Olaf. It also recalls the Anglo-Saxon tradition of claiming descent from Woden.
The door in the burial mound implies that it was possible to enter it, and perhaps perform rituals there. Sturluson refers to wooden figures, presumably images of Freyr, taken from the mounds and sent from Sweden to Norway. A number of such phallic wooden figures have been found preserved in peat bogs.
The god as worshipped in Sweden may represent a divine/deified king of the past, a ruler in a golden age and founder of the nation. A similar figure was known to the Anglo-Saxons as Scyld, and is referred to in the epic poem Beowulf. He was said to have come to Denmark as a little child, in a boat laden with treasures (and sometimes a sheaf of corn), and to have become their king, bringing them great prosperity. At his death his people laid his body in a ship, filled it with weapons and riches, and sent it out to sea, so that it might carry their king back to the place from whence he had come.
The idea of a fertility god who travels the land in a wagon and/or over the sea in a ship after death is a familiar one in Teutonic and Norse literature. He brings blessings to the people, visiting them periodically, often as part of seasonal ceremonies. This may be a development of Bronze Age mythology, when the wagon and the ship were potent symbols used to represent the sun's journey across the sky and down into the underworld. Again, this relates to the divine marriage and the death and rebirth of the land. It is told in the Eddas that one of Freyr's greatest treasures was the magical ship Skidbladnir, which was large enough to carry all the gods and their gear, and yet could be folded up and kept in a pouch when not in use. This clearly relates to the ship of the sun: the custom of ship burials of nobility and royalty such as Oseberg and Sutton Hoo may also have their origins in this myth.
There is also archaeological evidence for the practice of carrying the god around the land in a wagon. Several beautiful and elaborate examples have been reconstructed from fragments found in ship burials such as Oseberg and peat bogs such as Dejbjerg. To herald summer, such carts were decked with garlands of flowers around a wooden statue of Freyr, and drawn by horse from village to village as farmers and their families welcomed it with flowers and sacrifices. It is probable that this would also be the ideal opportunity for weddings. The visitation of 'Freyr was believed to ensure an abundant harvest. It also seems that the cart progressed around the 1and in autumn, presiding over the harvest as is mentioned in a story where Gunnar, a young Norwegian in exile in Sweden due to disagreement with the Norwegian king Olaf Trygvasson, was invited by a priestess, called the "wife" of Freyr, to accompany the wagon on its autumnal travels. She was an attractive young woman and Gunnar was very willing to go, but when the cart was stuck in an early snowstorm, Freyr himself came out of the wagon and attacked Gunnar. Gunnar appealed to the Christian god of king Olaf and overthrew the pagan deity. He then put on the robes of the god and took his place as the procession visited the autumn festivities. The Swedes were mightily impressed to find that Freyr could eat, drink, and even get his wife with child (as soon became apparent). They held this to be a splendid omen, and increased their offerings to the bogus god. At this point, king Olaf heard what was going on and summoned Gunnar home. He escaped taking with him his wife and child and a great deal of treasure. This is a late story and seems to have been told to poke fun at the credulous Swedes, who continued their pagan superstitions after Norway had been converted to Christianity, but it does give valuable insight into the practices of Freyr's religion.
From references in Icelandic literature, it seems that Freyr's priests were also chieftains. When the Althing was instituted in 930 AD there were thirty six of these priest-chieftains (go_ar),their number increasing to forty eight by the year 1005 AD. These chieftains had various functions at the Althing and local Assemblies, acting as law-makers and appointing the judges for the courts. The nickname "Freyrsgo_i" (Freyr's priest) is found in Hrafnkel's Saga applied to the hero and to Thord, the ancestor of the Freyrsgydlings, one of the leading families of Iceland up to the 13th century.
Relatively little is known of the rituals of Freyr's sect: the indications of the divine marriage, the spring and autumn progresses and the connection to the boar and horse have already been mentioned. Sacrifice of an ox is mentioned in Killer-Glum's Saga, where Glum's enemy, a worshipper of Freyr, makes such a sacrifice in order to obtain the god's help, and gets the desired result. Glum on the other hand aroused the hostility of Freyr by shedding blood on a field sacred to the god, which stood adjacent to his temple and bore the name Vitazgjalfi, which means "certain giver". It is also recorded that law-breakers were not allowed within the temple precincts. Also surviving is an account of a divination ceremony, where the king of the Swedes acted as the priest, and consulted an unseen god in a wagon. The deity in this case is called Lytir, perhaps a form of the name Freyr (this supposition is supported by the tact that divination rituals were more commonly connected with the sect of Freyr's sister Freyja). Saxo Grammaticus also refers to some kind of dramatic mumming that took place at Uppsala in Freyr's honour, although he decried this as shameful and unmanly.
Like those of the other Norse deities, the cult of' Freyr suffered eclipse and rejection with the arrival of a sometimes aggressively enforced Christianity to Scandinavia. There is an account of Olaf Trygvassson, the zealously Christian king of Norwav (ruled 995 - 1000 AD), visiting the temple of Freyr at Thrandheim, where the people were still sacrificing to the heathen god. The king stopped the sacrifice of a stallion, and removed the figure of the god from the temple. He told the people that it was the devil in whom they had placed their trust, and that the wooden image in the temple had been given powers in order to delude them. The king then chopped up and burned the statue of the god.
Although Freyr is not to modern perceptions as wildly popular as Odin or Thor, there are many indications that he was regarded by the Norse as an important deity, and that his cult was widespread. He remains an important and extremely complex figure with ancient origins and universal significance. Warfare and glory may have been praised by the warrior elite, but more basic to life was the return of spring, the fertility of crops and livestock and the fecundity of marriage, all minor but essential victories in the struggle to survive.
Mark Calderwood, June 1997, revised February 2002
Brian Branston, "Gods and Heroes of Viking Mythology", Hodder and Staughton, Sydney 1985 1978 reprinted 1985
H R Ellis Davidson, "Scandinavian Mythology", Paul Hamlyn, Feltham, 1969
Sir J G Frazer, "The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion", Macmillan, London, 1922 reprinted 1971
James Graham-Campbell, "The Viking World", Frances Lincoln, London 1980 reprinted 1989
Saxo Grammaticus, trans Lord Elton, "Danish History", Folklore Society, London, 1894
Herman Palsson trans, "Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Stories", Penguin, London 1971
Anne Savage, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles", Guild Publishing, London 1982 reprinted 1988
Gerald Simons, "The Birth of Europe", Time-Life Books, 1968 reprinted 1978
Snorri Sturluson trans J Young, "The Prose Edda", Bowes and Bowes, Cambridge, 1954
David M Wilson, ed, "The Northern World", Harry N Abrams, New York, 1980
Copyright 1997, 2002 by Mark Calderwood. <giles at sca.org.au>. While permission for republication is usually granted, permission to republish this article, in part or in full, requires the explicit permission of the author.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.