Saturday, 15 November 2014

In Praise of Freyja

If a divine figure is associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, 'seidr' (sorcery), war and death, then you can be pretty sure that it is a she and that it represents the 'elan vital' that surges within the best of humanity. So it is with the Nordic Goddess Freyja (or Freya and its many variants).

The Prose Edda calls Freyja 'the most glorious' of goddesses. She rules over the heavenly Folkvangr, where that half of those who die in battle who do not go to Odin's Valhalla will go after death. She is also the most approachable of the Aesir/Vanir to ordinary mortals, especially in prayers about matters of love.

Odin is Aesir and Freyja and her brother Freyr are Vanir - two separate clans of gods who clearly have separate constituencies amongst men. To shift allegiance from Freyja to Odin would be a serious matter.

Her hall is Sessrumnir. She pines for her often absent husband-god Odr and is sought after as a wife by the nature spirits, the Giants or Jotnar. Her slot was eventually and weakly filled with the worship of the Virgin Mary after Christianisation but there is no reason to assume an original Nordic virgin matriarchy, merely appropriation.

Frigg being wife of Odin and both Frigg and Freyja speculatively drawn from a single original Germanic goddess, the question arises whether a clan led by the masculine principle of Odin and one led by the feminine principle of Freyja does not in some way suggest a 'decision'. Certainly Frigg and Freyja share the position of highest goddesses.

Since Odr is cognate with Odin and Odin represents a different form of elan vital - furious, excited, imaginative, declamatory, the world of the mind as well as magic, war and death - then the polarities of a masculine clan with a cypher wife and a feminine clan with an absent husband asks for a unification of Aesir and Vanir as a mystic marriage.

Already we can see what Odin and Freyja share - struggle for resources, battle, magical powers - but Freyja's sexuality and possession (love, beauty, fertility, gold) contrasts with Odin's mental powers of prophecy, imagination and wisdom. The female/male contrast of function within a shared struggle ends with Odin representing ultimate victory and the hunt.

After the war, the Aesir and Vanir maintain cordial relations, mostly in alliance against the raw nature spirits of the Giant world. In one story from the popular Trimskvida, Freyja's refusal to comply with the demands of Thor to fit in with his plans ensures that he has to come up with an alternative one which forces both Thor and Loki into drag - an interesting reversal to say the least.

Was this true to something deep in the human condition that warriors might choose this clan rather than that clan (or be chosen by their nature) for though the two clans are separate, they are unified after a war which neither wins, mirroring the merging of supposedly feminine and masculine values in one good society?

Freyja is the Lady. Her values are aristocratic and high-born, not those of the wife of a carpenter. Her name is cognate with Frau but she is Scandinavian - her cognate Frigg is to be found amongst Germans and Scandinavians alike.

The two clans might as much be about the unification of tribes as having some mystic or hermetic import but, whatever the background, the Scandinavian Freyja, set against the Scandinavian Odin represents a certain purity and power in the unified polarities fitted to the culture.

Freyja will stand up to Loki with great force when Loki slanders each of the goddesses in turn. The exchange in the Lokasenna (part of the late Poetic Edda) is interesting because Loki's taunts are the taunts of the devil yet the devil's morality is conventional whereas the old gods, represented by Njordr, Freyr's father, take a very different view.

Njordr says that a woman having a lover who is not her husband is harmless and that it is Loki who is the pervert. The precise meaning of this is lost in time except that the reversal of the role of the devil at a time when Scandinavia was being Christianised suggests that a free and relaxed sexuality was good and taunting and moralising was bad in the displaced culture.

May we deduce that Loki here is a satirical over-turning of the incoming Church's claims to legislate for sexual propriety amongst the Viking aristocrats of the Middle Ages - in which case, the Devil (Loki) won and Sweden came to have one of the most repressive and unpleasant of official sexual cultures under Protestantism many centuries later.

Even today, Swedish culture is depressingly earnest and po-faced about sexuality - still apparently free in the sense of permitting anything between consenting adults but then taking away what it gives by making consent so tightly defined by essentialist Christian values that its peculiar brand of feminism demonises sex workers and de-erotises anything it touches.

Like all pre-Christian war band deities, Freyja will grant boons to loyal servants but will expect sacrifices to be made of ox blood on stone altars (Hyndluljod).

It was said that she introduced (Heimskringla) 'seidr' (sorcery) to the Vanir. This suggests that her magic (feminine) is different from that of Odin (masculine). Since seidr is a distinctive type of magic, close to shamanism, this argues for Freyja and the Vanir as culturally distinct, speculatively the indigenes of Scandinavia before Germanic farmers arrived though nothing is certain here.

Her animals, unlike Odin's ravens, wolves (later tamed in folklore into dogs) and a monstrous horse, are domesticates, cats that pull her chariot. She may struggle but it is from the hearth. The exception is her many searches for her absent husband which, unexplained, echo the wanderings of Orpheus.

Freyja is also intellectually dominant and an independent domain holder. She not merely stands up to gods like Thor using reason and with strength of purpose but she develops into the last surviving goddess during the era of transition from paganism to Christianity. Somehow Ragnarok is forgotten and she is left standing.

In the fourteenth century, a saga represents the final struggle between Odin and Freyja in allegorical terms in a tale of competing wives who pray to the respective god and goddess - the candidate of Freyja wins.

By the end of that century though, in the Christian-inspired Sorla Tattr, Freyja has become little more than a high class prostitute, concubine to Odin and bartering sex for gold with the dwarves. The story comes from an era when the old gods have been purposefully 'degenerated' into sleazy folk-tales.

The Church did what it could, in this tale and through the pulpit, to diminish Freyja. Her free and noble sexuality was clearly to be used against her in yet another case of Christian cultural dessication. As a folk goddess, regardless of the pastors, she survived in Iceland until the eighteenth century and in rural Sweden until the nineteenth.

Evidence from 1880 suggests that rural Swedes still considered Freyja to be a kind goddess, linked to agricultural fertility and contrasted with the murderous moody Thor, whose name the Christians had fully succeeded in blackening, helped by his character, no doubt, as God of marauders, his hammer symbol once a more direct challenge to the cross.

So, in a manner of speaking, Freyja only 'died' 120 years ago, a remarkable survival even if she was a pale shadow of her strong, feisty, feminine self of the Early Middle Ages. A new 'romantic' Freyja re-emerged in the early nineteenth century but this was an artistic phenomenon amongst the middle classes.

Most famously, the gods and goddesses were re-born in Wagner's Ring Cycle. Late romantic Northern European artists frequently depictic her in quasi-erotic terms that said more about the lust for her elan vital amongst repressed males than it did about the goddess herself.

Is she relevant today? At one level, she has degenerated into an artistic meme for late romantics and symbolists with no meaningful allegiance amongst the folk. But at another the dynamic of her existence as a strong role model for equality, amongst free gods and goddesses fighting raw nature and living life to the full, stands.

This is a goddess who is both everywoman in a free state - in command of her property, intellectually engaged, equal - and an object of respectful desire by any man who would command a tribe or a household. This is the open, tribal society that the Roman crushed with guile and lies and not by force and made closed-in, repressive and cruel.

Perhaps she should be invited back to rule men and gods alike ....