Get to Know a God – Freyja

'Freyja and the Necklace', 1890. Freya, goddess of love, who wore a necklace as a sign of social status. Illustration from "Teutonic Myths and Legends" by Donald A Mackenzie, 1890.
‘Freyja and the Necklace’, 1890. Freya, goddess of love, who wore a necklace as a sign of social status. Illustration from “Teutonic Myths and Legends” by Donald A Mackenzie, 1890.

Freyja, described as  “the most glorious” of the goddesses, is usually associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, and a specific type of Norse magic called “seiðr” that involves both telling and shaping the future.

Freyja is generally referred to as the Queen of the Norse Gods, the wife of Óðr (Odin). The complication here is that Frigg is also known as the Queen of the Norse Gods and the wife of Odin the All-Father.

Freyja may or may not be the same goddess as Frigg. (That’s a debate that continues among Norse scholars and historians, but we’re going to leave them to it.) If you think Freyja and Frigg are two names for the same individual, simply substitute the name “Odin” for “Óðr” wherever it appears; the truth is, in Old Norse they are the same name anyway. If you think Freyja and Frigg are two different people, then simply assume that Odin and Óðr are also two different people; Odin is the king of the gods, and Óðr is the god of the mind and Divine Madness. Don’t fret too much about the fact that, like Clark Kent and Superman, they are two guys who look a lot alike and are never seen together even though they know all the same people.

Moving on.

Freyja’s a member of a group of gods known as the Vanir, who are known for their associations with health, fertility, wisdom, and the ability to see the future. The other pantheon of Norse gods is the more famous one, called the Æsir; they are the big guns: Odin, Thor, Loki, Baldur, all those guys. At some point, the Æsir and the Vanir have a big ol’ fight, but it ends up with a single unified pantheon, and they all live happily ever after. For a while.

For those keeping track, Frigg is a member of the Æsir; another way of separating the two.

The confusion seems to be reasonable, since Freyja has a lot of names, including Gefn (“the giver”); Hörn (“flaxen,” a reference to her blonde hair); Mardöll (“sea-brightener” or “the one who makes the sea swell”); Skjálf (“shaker”); Sýr (“sow,” pigs were an important symbol of the Vanir); Thröng and Thrungva (“throng”); Valfreyja (“Lady of the Slain” or ‘Freyja of the Slain”); and Vanadís (“the dís of the vanir”; dís translates to “lady” but usually refers to a ghost or spirit of Fate.) Freyja adopted most of these names  while traveling incognito looking for her wandering husband Óðr.

There’s also an epic poem, Lokasenna (part of a poem cycle called the Poetic Edda, in which both Freyja and Frigg appear. In the poem, after Loki and Frigg have engaged in the Norse equivalent of a rap battle in which Loki called Frigg a slut, Freyja chimes in and reminds Loki he is an idiot for bragging about being a terrible person and that Frigg knows everything about everyone, and he should be glad she doesn’t say everything she knows.

Loki turns around and says Freyja has no room to talk, since everybody knows that she’s done the Horizontal Mambo with every god and elf in Asgard, including her brother Freyr; Freyja calls him a liar and says he just wants to brag about his own misbehavior, and so it goes. Eventually, Njörðr, Freya’s father, pipes up and says nobody cares who Freyja has gotten busy with, because everybody does it, and besides, Loki is every bit as much of a slut as Freyja. Njörðr calls Loki pervert, and reminds everyone that Loki has actually given birth to children. (Loki once transformed into a mare and got busy with a stallion from Jotunheim, after which he gave birth to an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, who became Odin’s favorite mode of transport. Yeah, Odin took one look at his grandson and said “I’m going to put a saddle on that kid.” The Æsir are weird, man.)

When she’s not spreading love, fertility, beauty, and gold, or messing with the future, what Freyja mostly does is sit around weeping tears of red gold because her wayward husband spends more time outside Asgard than at home. Óðr/Odin is a travelin’ man, the Ricky Nelson of Asgard.

Freyja’s necklace, named Brisingamen, turns up in a number of later literary works, including Beowulf, The Silmarillion, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Rocannon’s World, and as a Yu-Ki-Oh! card.

The story goes that Freyja, who was by this time a temple priestess and the concubine of Odin, happens upon a group of dwarfs forging a necklace that she thinks is just the prettiest thing she’s ever seen, and she offers to buy it. The dwarfs think she’s just the prettiest thing they’ve ever seen, so they tell her they have plenty of gold and silver, but she can have the necklace if she’ll give each of the four of them a roll in the hay. Freyja goes for it, gives them each a night to remember, and heads back home with her new jewelry. She doesn’t mention her adventure to anyone.

But somehow Odin got wind of it. Okay, “somehow” means Loki ratted her out.

Odin told Loki to bring him the necklace, so Loki transformed into a fly to sneak into her bed-chambers without using the enchanted doorway that nobody could pass through without Freya’s permission. He saw she was sleeping with the necklace on, so he turned into a flea and bit her cheek, which caused her to turn over, and he was then able to get to the clasp and open it. He slipped the necklace off her and made a hasty getaway.

In the morning, Freya found her enchanted doors open (apparently it allows people to leave without permission), and knew instantly what had happened. She went straight to Odin and tells him off for sending Loki and demanding the return of her jewelry.

Odin tells her that considering how she got it, she’s not getting it back, then decides on a complicated task for her to complete to earn it back; she has to get two kings to go to war, each with 20 kings under them, and enchant them all so that every time one dies in battle he will get back up and keep fighting, and this will go on forever until a Christian man of a particular stature goes into the battle and kills them hard enough that they stay dead. Freyja agrees. I think it’s safe to say that this last bit was thought up after Christianity started making inroads in the North and there was a desire to make the Norse gods look bad.

Another of Freyja’s hobbies is collecting the souls of the dead slain in battle, bringing them to her personal plane of existence, Fólkvangr. She has a deal with Odin; half the dead warriors go to Odin’s Valhalla, the other half to Fólkvangr. This indicates she may have some association with the Valkyries, depending on who you ask. Or maybe Frigg does.

A lot of different species of plant in Scandinavia were originally named after Freyja, but eventually most of them were renamed in honor of the Virgin Mary, who also got credit for everything previously attributed to Freyja except the naughty bits. She got to keep those, winding up in the local folklore as something of a floozy, though she also stayed active as a fertility goddess to rural swedes well into the 1800s. There are about 30 places in Norway that incorporate her name into theirs.

In Värend, Sweden, the tradition held that Freyja would arrive at Christmas night; she used to shake the apple trees to produce a good harvest and consequently people left some apples in the trees for her sake.

After a few centuries, Freyja came to be seen as more or less the Norse version of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. She also lent her name to the calendar; Friday is Freyja’s Day, because everyone likes to get an early start on the weekend.

Lessons aspiring goddesses can take from Freyja:

1. Don’t let anyone try to shame you.
2. Don’t be surprised if somebody else gets the credit for your work.
3. Know when to tell the future, and when to shape it.