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Forgotten Viking Goddesses

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Frigg was the Queen of the Viking pantheon, the wife of Odin, and the mother of the beloved god, Baldr. However, Freyja – goddess of magic, war, erotic love, and treasure – was probably the more venerated and popular female deity in the Viking Age. Never far from the Viking’s mind was Rán, the goddess of the sea. Many stories of these goddesses come down to us through the Eddic poems, the sagas, and the works of medieval lore masters like Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).

Other goddesses have left us fewer stories but were still very important. There was Idunn, the blessed goddess of youth and spring. Lovers of Norse lore also know Sif, the beautiful wife of Thor, and how Loki replaced her stolen hair with locks of living gold.

Skaði (or Skathi / Skadi) was the snow skiing protector of the wild who was so fierce that even the gods paid her compensation rather than fight her. Skaði is alternately referred to as Öndurguð (Old Norse 'ski god') and Öndurdís. 

But the Vikings had many other goddesses too. Unfortunately for us, Viking lore was an oral tradition, not a written one. By the time anyone wrote these stories down (starting in the 12th century), a lot of it had been lost. This article will look at the traces of information that remain about these forgotten Viking goddesses, who they were, and what clues they give us about the people that worshiped them.

How many Viking Goddesses were there?

So, how many goddesses did the Vikings worship? This seems a straightforward question, but it is not. Snorri Sturluson is our best source for answers because he was a prodigious lore master writing just a hundred or so years after the Vikings. Snorri wrote the Prose Edda, a sort-of handbook for preserving Norse poetry. He also wrote the Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway) and several other sagas. In the Poetic Edda, Snorri offers a list of 16 Aesir goddesses. But before his book is through, he mentions several others not included in his list.

Though Snorri is an excellent source, he is imperfect at times. He is not shy about introducing Christian slants to appeal to his medieval readers. He was also limited by time and distance. Writing in 13th century Iceland, he could not have always known who people were worshiping in 9th century Sweden, for example.

Another difficulty with Viking goddesses is that there is not always a clear distinction between a god/goddess and a Jötunn (plural, Jötnar). “Jötunn" is usually translated as "giant" in English, but the real meaning of the word was more like "titan," a supernatural creature that was usually – but not always – hostile to the gods. The Jötnar could be lovers, wives, or parents of gods. Some gods, like Skathi and Loki, were Jötnar that had been adopted into the Aesir tribe.

Like Viking society, the gods were divided into tribes – namely the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir and Vanir exchanged members to keep the peace, just as human tribes did. There may also have been some unaffiliated gods, such as Thor's mother, Jörð (the Earth Goddess, or at least an earth goddess).

The Viking world was a spirit-haunted place. There were other supernatural beings besides gods and giants. There were Norns (the spirits that governed or administered Fate) and Valkyries. There were the Disir (the female guiding spirits of the Ancestors) and the Fylgja (guiding animal spirits, similar perhaps to the Patronus in the Harry Potter series). There were elves, dwarves, trolls, and Väsen (earth spirits and creatures). Therefore, who was a goddess and who was not could be a tricky question – and probably not one the Vikings themselves would have spent time on. Vikings looked to all these spirits for help, and they held all of them in awe. They made offerings (called blots) to these various spirits, too, in appointed places and at specified times.

Who is God of What in Viking Lore?

Accustomed to Greek, Roman, or Egyptian myth, we usually think of ancient gods as presiding over one thing or another. Mars is the god of war, Venus is the goddess of love, and so forth. The gods and goddesses of the Vikings were not exactly like this, though. Norse deities were more like people – that is, they had personalities, relationships, and overlapping spheres of influence.

Even though there was a lot more to a Viking deity than being “the God of Thunder” or “the Goddess of Love,” we still might talk about them that way. This is simply because it helps us modern people learn the basics of their attributes as we become acquainted with them. In the case of these “lost goddesses" we will be looking at now, their basic features may be all the knowledge that really remains available.

The Lost Goddesses

In addition to Frigg, Freyja, Skathi, Sif, Jörð, Rán and Idunn, the Eddas tell of the following goddesses:

Saga is the second goddess Snorri speaks of after Frigg, which suggests that she is of very high status. But the Edda later says that Freyja is on par with Frigg. If this parity is so, Saga's placement on the list may suggest that she is third in the pantheon – though this could be an artificial construct or an erroneous conclusion. All we are told about Saga is that she lives in a grand mansion called Sokkvabekk. The word "saga" means "saying," and so Saga may be a poetry goddess. Since poetry was indispensable to the Vikings, this would account for her high rank. The most notable of the poetry gods (besides Odin) is Bragi. But we know that the Vikings did have female poets and skalds (bards), so we would not be surprised to find a poetry goddess, too.

Eir is the third goddess mentioned in this passage in the Prose Edda. Eir is the goddess of medicine and "the best of doctors.” Few specifics are known about Viking medicine. Based on impressions in the lore and in later Icelandic folk medicine books, it seems Viking medicine was laced with magic, prayers, and superstitions. But it is also clear from the literary and historical record that some Viking medicine was effective. Historical heroes like Harald Hardrada and saga heroes like Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue suffered from grievous wounds on the battlefield but made full recoveries. Saga heroes like Egil Skallagrimson demonstrate that medicine was not just a specialized skill but was a talent within the realm of any cultivated man or woman.

Gefjun and Fulla are mentioned next to each other, and both are given the distinction of "virgin goddesses.” In Norse (and other traditional) societies, this tends to suggest youth. Indeed, Fulla is mentioned as having her hair unbound flowing from a golden band around her head (a trait someone in that era would expect of a young teenager). Fulla is associated with Frigg and attends her as a servant or lady in waiting. She carries Frigg’s “ashen box” (no explanation of this is offered), looks after her shoes, and exchanges secrets with the Queen Goddess.

From what little information we are offered, Gefjun (“She Who Gives”) comes off as much more sober and mature than Fulla. “She is a maiden, and all those who die as virgins serve her.” This cryptic line seems to set out an alternate type of “Valhalla” for women and girls who died before their time or lived non-traditional lives. But as usual, any details are now unobtainable. Gefjun (alternatively spelled Gefion) is mentioned in most lists of the Aesir, underscoring her importance in the pantheon.

In another section of the Prose Edda, Snorri gives a completely different account of Gefjun. In this section, Gefjun is a mother and a consort of a king who, through her supernatural powers, carves out the island of Sjaelland (Zealand) in Denmark. A common belief is that one of Snorri’s goals in the Prose Edda is to align Norse pagan lore with legendary history, and so it is unclear how much of this account of Gefjun is authentic. In the Eddic poem Lokasenna, Loki also accuses Gefjun as being anything but virginal. It is therefore not unlikely that either 1) there are at least two different traditions of this goddess, or 2) Gefjun’s role has been somewhat misunderstood. It may be more helpful to consider Gefjun as a creative goddess and goddess of giving rather than a restrictive goddess of chastity or innocence.

Love Goddesses

The Vikings had at least three love goddesses in addition to Freyja. The first of these was Sjofn, who “turned the thoughts of men and women towards love.” The second was Lofn (whose name means “Loving” and is almost certainly the source of the English word “love”), who was the goddess of marriage unions. Men and women would turn to Lofn in cases of forbidden love or when the object of their desire seemed impossible to obtain.

Var was a love goddess who held the oaths of lovers in sacred trust. She took vengeance on men or women who were untrue to these oaths. You can read more about romantic love in the Viking Age here.

Protector Goddesses and Goddesses of Wisdom

The Prose Edda then describes a series of protective goddesses of wisdom and cunning. The first of these is Vor, whose name means “Careful.” Vor is so wise and knowing and “inquires so deeply” that she misses nothing. Vor seems to represent “women’s intuition.” In Viking poetry and sagas, it is common to find women praised for wisdom, shrewdness, and judgment.

The next of these goddesses is named Syn, which means refusal. Syn is the goddess of locks, doors, and gates (in both the literal and figurative sense, most likely). Syn’s sphere of influence extended to courts of law. Law and litigation were passions of the Vikings (believe it or not) and account for much of the sagas' action. Syn's name became synonymous with defensive maneuvers in the legal battles in Iceland and Nordic frontier states.

Hlin (whose name means “Protector”) is the agent of Frigg who helps those blessed by that goddess to find safety and escape from their enemies. Hlin’s name became a synonym for ‘tranquility’ (hleiner) because she could help people rise above their problems.

Last but not least in this category is the goddess Snotra. Snotra is wise and courtly, strong of mind but deft with words. Snotra’s name was applied for the Old Norse word, “snotr,” which was an honorific term for a clever man or woman. Beowulf's author used the word snotra for 'wise' and 'prudent'.

Messenger Goddesses and Heavenly Beings

The messenger goddess is named Gna. Something like a Nordic female Mercury, Gna travels through the skies on errands for Frigg. She rides a magical, flying and sea-treading horse named Hofvarpnir (Old Norse: "Hoof Kicker"). Some have theorized that she is the 'goddess of fullness.' Seeing Gna could be an omen of dangerous or auspicious events.

Sol is the name of the Viking sun goddess. In most Indo-European paganism, the sun is male. But the Vikings thought of the sun as a goddess who sped across the skies in a blazing chariot, pursued by evil wolves. Sol’s chariot is made from sparks from Muspellheim (the World of Fire). Her horses are named Arvak and Alvsinn. It is implied (but uncertain) that Sol was originally a mortal woman but became a goddess.

Another such goddess is Bil, a girl child who follows the moon (the god, Mani). Bil and her brother Hjuki may refer to planets like Venus and Mars that are often seen near the rising moon, but this is never really elaborated on. Many ancient peoples hung their livelihoods on astronomy and astrology. The Vikings would have relied on such understanding for navigating and farming. However, no specifics have come down to us on Viking conceptions of astronomy – only clues buried within their poetry. Any detailed knowledge that may have existed is lost with the oral tradition.

Rán’s Daughters

The sea goddess, Rán, was married to Aegir, the Jötun ‘old man of the sea.’ They had nine daughters, who had charge over waves. The names of these daughters convey the awe the Vikings had of the sea, with all its thrill, challenges, and terrors. These goddesses included Blóðughadda (Bloody Hair), Dröfn (Foamy Sea), Hefring (Lifting Sea), Dúfa (Pitching), Uðr (Frothing), Himinglæva (Transparent), Kolga (Cold), Hronn (Welling), and Bylgja (simply, Wave).

Scholars have speculated that Rán’s nine daughters could be the same as Heimdalr’s nine mothers, meaning that mighty god was born of the waves. However, this is disputed.

Sigyn

Sigyn is the devoted wife of the notorious god of mischief and malice, Loki. She is the mother of at least two of Loki's children, named Váli, Nari, and/or Narfi - all of whom appear to be associated with the dead. However, Loki's far more frightening offspring - Fenrir the Wolf, Jormungundr the World-Coiling Serpent, and Hel, Queen of the Underworld - were not Sigyn's children but born from the fearsome Jötunn Angrboða (Sorrow Bringer). Sigyn's name means something like "Victory Companion" or "Victory-Lover," and so it is thought that Sigyn was a goddess of victory. However, like so many women who make a bad match, the fame and glory she may have once had were brought low by the misdeeds of her husband.

Loki earns the wrath of the gods by orchestrating the murder of the beloved god, Baldr. When the gods finally catch him, they transform one of Sigyn's sons ( Váli or Narfi) into a wolf. The werewolf then rips his brother Nari open, and the gods bind Loki with his son's entrails. The goddess Skaði (who hates Loki for a variety of reasons, and who once hoped to marry Baldr) then suspended a poisonous serpent over Loki's head. The serpent drips poison down on the bound god - but Sigyn stays by her husband, catching the drops of venom in a bowl so that Loki does not suffer. When the bowl fills, though, Sigyn must leave the cave of torment to toss the caustic liquid away. While she is gone, Loki receives his punishment, and shakes and screams in agony. The Vikings believed this was the cause of earthquakes and other seismic phenomena. The Eddic poem Völuspá says that Sigyn is miserable with this fate, though whether she is angry at the treatment of her husband or angry at him for deserving it (or both) is open to interpretation. Still, the image of Sigyn's tireless vigilance, loyalty, and self-sacrifice has inspired many artists over the last thousand years or more. Sigyn may be a goddess of victory, but she is a symbol of devotion.

Dark Goddesses

In the Saga of the Jomsvikings, Hákon Sigurdsson (not to be confused with Hákon the Good) defends his realm in Norway against a force of Danes and elite Jomsviking heroes. When the tide turns against Hákon, he tries to enlist the help of two goddesses, Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr (Thorgerdr Holgi’s-bride) and her sister, Irpa.

The name “Hölgabrúðr” does not only imply the wife of Holgi (the legendary founder of the province of Holgaland) but rather that Thorgerdr is the wife/protector of Holgaland/Hörðaland itself. Thus, Þorgerðr and Irpa are thought to be two local goddesses of protection, and plenty. We may even speculate they could have been Vanir, though this is never expressly said.

But then the story takes a turn for the worst.

When Hákon’s prayers and offerings do not work, he turns to a human sacrifice. When the human sacrifice also does not bring an omen of the goddesses’ favor, Hákon sacrifices one of his own children. Finally interested, Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr and Irpa give Hákon’s Norwegian Vikings victory in a sea battle over the Danes and Jomsvikings. The surviving Jomsvikings are captured, and face execution stoically in the climax of the saga.

Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr and Irpa are mentioned in several other sagas, often in association with Hákon. They are usually mentioned together, though sometimes Þorgerðr is mentioned alone. There are records of a temple in southern Norway (near Gudbrandsdal) where these two goddesses were joined by Thor. Unfortunately, not much else is known about them.

Human sacrifice was a feature of Viking and other pagan Germanic religions, however, it was usually reserved for extreme situations. Hákon’s sacrifice of his son, therefore, is plausible – but it may just be a dramatic trope in the action-oriented Jomsviking Saga. The Jomsviking Saga even calls Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr ‘Þorgerðr Hörga-troll’ firmly making this local goddess into a dark and bloodthirsty cheater of battles. In other sagas, this negative personification continues, with Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr becoming associated with death prophecies and necromancy. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know what is authentic and what is later bias. History is written by the winners, and so obfuscation and vilification are common when it comes to abandoned goddesses. That being said, the world of our ancestors was a hard place, where not every person (and not every supernatural force) would have been fair or kind.

Goddesses of the Dead

Vikings thought the dead may end up in various afterlife settings, including Valhalla (the Hall of the Slain, where Odin’s warriors resided) and Hel. Our English word “Hell” is derived from these same ancestral legends of Hel. The Viking underworld was simultaneously "north" and "beneath" in a realm that was forever out of reach until it was impossible to escape. Hel was not a place of punishment, though. Writing later, Snorri speaks of areas in Hel where the faithless and traitors suffered, but this could have been 1) Christian syncretism or 2) just one feature or location within Hel. Aspects of Hel are described in several Eddic poems, including Alvissmal and Baldrs draumar. In these poems, Hel seems like a melancholy place, but it vaguely parallels the world of the living.

The Queen of Hel is the goddess, Hel. Hel is the daughter of Loki, the notorious god of trouble, from his illicit affair with the Jötunn, Angrboda (Sorrow-Bringer). Hel has brothers, including the wolf, Fenrir, and the World-coiling Serpent, Jörmungandr. Hel is a complex character who merits her own article, which is forthcoming. Hel is fated to lead the forces of the dead against the gods at Ragnarok.

An overlooked goddess of the underworld is Nanna, the wife of Baldr and daughter or the otherwise unspecified cosmic being, Nep. Baldr was the most beloved of the gods. When he was murdered through Loki's treachery, Nanna's heart burst, and she was burned by his side in Baldr’s ship burial. Nanna later appears in Hel, drinking mead by Baldr’s side. After Ragnarok, Baldr is fated for reincarnation in the reborn world. Perhaps Nanna will be too. Until then, this gentle goddess is a symbol of the beauty of love lost to death, surviving on in memory.

Conclusion

Viking lore is a bottomless horn of symbolism, wisdom, drama, and texture. It is populated by many gods, goddesses, spirits, demons, heroes, and creatures. It is truly a tragedy that so much of it is lost to us. What we do have, though – even in these slim volumes of surviving lore – continues to animate the imagination. Perhaps someday archeology may uncover more information on these forgotten goddesses. In the meantime, they are honored by our inquiry

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References

  1. Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. (translated by J. Byock). Penguin Classics. London, England, 2005
  2. The Poetic Edda. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2015.
  3. The Saga of the Jomsvikings. N. F. Blake (translator). Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd. Edinburg. 1962.
  4. McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. Columbia. 2016
  5. Rodgers, D.G. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP. USA. 2018
  6. Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
  7. Skjalden. Aegir and Ran. Nordic Culture. August 4, 2020. https://skjalden.com/aegir-and-ran/

 

Image Sources: Wikipedia and SonsOfVikings.com

 

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