Freya, Freó, “the Frowe,” Frouwa, *Fraujon
You lead the dance among the witches,
and bring the people joy and riches.
Radiant Lady, ever dear,
Freyja, hasten to us here!
—Diana L. Paxson
Freyja is probably the best-known of the Norse goddesses today, and also the most misunderstood. Today, Freyja is often depicted as a wanton sex Goddess, slinking about looking for passions to stir. She’s called the lady of desire and of lust, of romance and sensuality...
But that’s not the Freyja known to her worshipers today, or at least, that's not the only Freyja.
The Freyja most known to her worshippers is the dawn-bringer, the shining-sun and the healing hand. To them, she is the renewer, the protector, the restorer and the one in whom we may fully trust. She is the sorceress, the seeress, and the high priestess. She is the gift-giver and the frith-weaver.
In short, she is the gracious lady, the holy one, the teacher and the guide and maybe even the very founder of our faith.
The Many Names of The Lady
It might surprise you to know that the name “Freyja” is not her actual name; it is a title which means “Lady,” just as Freyr means “Lord.”
The earliest form of her title would have been something like *Fraujon in Common Germanic; this in turn is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *per-, “first; foremost.”
In Gylfaginning 35, Snorri gives us several epithets used for her in poetry: Hǫrn (which is related to hǫrr, “flax”), Sýr (“Sow”), Gefn (“Giver”), and Mardǫll (“Sea-Brightness,” another name which may refer to amber, or else to gold, which is often called “fire of the sea”). In Sǫrla þáttr she appears using the name Gǫndull, “Staff.” A verse preserved in Skáldskaparmál 75 (verse 435) adds the names Þrungra (“One Who Presses”? “One Who Yearns”?) and Skjálf.
Which of these names was her “true name”? That’s unknown. And honestly, not important. Many of our gods have multiple names and epithets, some more mysterious or puzzling than others, expressing different facets of their being.
Interestingly, the world “Freyja” in Scandinavia was often used with a specific kind of pre-Christian “priestly” role.
The word húsfreyja or húsfru, “lady of the house,” appears several times in the sagas, and each time it does, it is used for a woman who is leading a Heathen ritual in a private home. The mother of the family in Vǫlsa þáttr, and the woman who is holding sacrifices to the álfar in the poem Austfaravísur, preserved in Óláfs saga helga, are both called húsfreyja (Sundqvist, “Female Cultic Leaders,” pp. 146-147). The words freyja and fru weren’t applied to ordinary women until after the conversion, which suggests that the Norse word was religiously significant.
Symbols of Freyja
Fólkvangr: Freyja’s Hall
Snorri names Freyja’s hall as Sessrumnir, “Roomy-Seated.” Some sources suggest that women could go there after death: Egil Skallagrimsson’s daughter Thorgerd promises to die with her grieving father, saying that she will not eat until she dines with Freyja (Egils saga 78). But the other name of her hall is Fólkvangr (“Army-Plain”), and Grímnismál 14 explains her connection to armies (and also shows why her hall needs the seating space):
Fólkvangr er inn níundi, en þar Freyja ræ›r sessa kostum í sal; halfan val hon kýss hverjan dag, en halfan Óðinn á.
Folkvang is the ninth [hall], and there Freyja decides the choice of seats in the hall; half the slain she chooses each day, and half Odin has.
The swine is holy to Freyja, one of her names is Sýr, “Sow.”
Freyja’s worshippers may have worn boar-masks at times; some of the figures on the Oseberg tapestries are wearing boar-masks and long feminine clothing, and carrying shields (Gunnell, The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia, pp. 61-63). Like her brother, Freyja rides on a gold-bristled boar made by dwarves; hers is Hildisvín, “Battle Swine” (Hyndluljó› 9).
Freyja and Cats
Freyja has also been portrayed in a wagon drawn by two cats. A recently discovered Viking Age metal fitting depicts a seated woman holding handfuls of her hair, surrounded by two cats with curling tails; this is almost certainly Freyja (Pentz, “Viking Art,” pp. 20-21). The association with cats may be because of an early medieval cultural association between cats and magic.
Freyja in Medieval Germanic Heroic Literature
Freyja’s depiction in Medieval Germanic Heroic Literature is not always flattering, or at least, it’s not meant to be. We’re going to go through each of our popular conceptions about Freyja that derive from her description in Medieval Germanic Heroic Literature and see if there’s anything to them.
What we find, mostly, is a liminal and transgressive figure who plays on the anxieties of a deeply gendered society.
Separating the Goddess from the Myth
We’re going to dispense entirely with any pretense to mythic literalism here. The bawdy tales about Freyja are going to remain just colorful literature from a bygone age. We want to look deeper, here into the sources. For our purposes, myths and stories about Gods say more about the people who wrote them than about the Gods and Goddess themselves.
Most of what people claim to know today about Freyja is pulled from the pages of the myths. But the Freyja we see in those stories is more a product of the Medieval imagination and anxiety about women than anything approaching her status within pre-Christian belief or where her place should be today for those of us who worship her.
Is Freyja the Goddess of sex?
There are some tales about Freyja’s sexual exploits. But for the tales of her exploits, ask yourself this: is Freyja depicted as engaging in more sex acts than Odin? Or Loki? It’s certainly implied, but what’s in the literature isn’t much to go on. While some later Heathens might say that there is some kind of mystical explanation for this, we want to suggest something a little more simple.
People are sexist and their interpretation of Freyja as a Goddess of sex is because she’s characterized in the literature as a woman having sex. Why isn’t Odin the God of sex even though he’s just as frequently caught in flagrante in the literature? Or why isn’t Loki thought of as a sex God even though Loki has sex even with farm animals?
The answer is simple. Freyja’s agency in sex would have been read in medieval Germanic society as a “manly” and thus “unnatural” characteristic, which has to do with the highly circumscribed roles of men and women in that society. Where Odin, read as a man, would be seen as simply doing manly things like cheating on his spouse, Freyja would be seen as usurping a man’s role in sex and thus doing something unnatural.
Freyja the Thrice-Burned Sorceress
Vǫluspá 21-22 mentions two female figures who cause strife among the Æsir in the early days of the world.
Þat man hon folkvíg
fyrst í heimi,
er Gullveigu geirum studdu
ok í hǫll Hárs hana brenndu,
ﬂrisvar brenndu, ﬂrisvar borna,
þó hon enn lifir.
Heiði hana hétu
hvars til húsa kom,
vitti hon ganda;
seið hon, hvars hon kunni,
seið hon hug leikinn,
æ var hon angan
She remembers the battle,
the first in the world,
when they studded Gullveig with spears
and burned her in the High One’s [Hár’s] hall,
three times they burned her,
three times she was born,
often, not seldom, yet she still lives.
They called her Heiðr
when she came to houses,
the deceitful seeress,
she worked her magic,
cast seiðr where she could,
cast seiðr on entranced minds,
ever was she a delight to wicked wives.
Whatever the case, burning Gullveig (Gold-Thirst) three times does not kill her; she returns three times, and she still lives and returns as Heiðr (the Bright One). Gullveig and Heiðr are assumed to be the same being, and both are identified with Freyja, who is also associated with gold, strife, and magic.
Much like the rest of early Medieval society, magic and sorcery was also deeply tied to assumptions about the proper roles of genders. To do magic or sorcery was considered a “womanly” or “feminine” form of power.
In Njall’s Saga, for example, Queen Gunnhildr got back at a lover who spurned her by casting a spell on him:
‘I want to give you this gold bracelet,' she said when they were alone, and clasped it around his arm.
‘You have given me many good gifts," said Hrútr.
She put her arms around his neck and kissed him, and said, ‘If I have as much power over you as I think, the spell I now lay on you will prevent you from ever enjoying the woman in Iceland on whom you have set your heart. With other women you may have your will, but never with her. And now you must suffer as well as I, since you did not trust me with the truth.'
You can see Queen Gunnhildr here as a Freyja-like figure in many respects. Or that Freyja’s role in the literature was more one of a type than any genuine description of her character.
Make Love And War? Freyja as instigator of strife
Like most famous women characters in Medieval heroic literature, Freyja played the role of peace-maker as much as she did battle-instigator. This was a role commonly assigned to beautiful women in poems and sagas, which led to a skepticism and distrust of a woman’s beauty in poems like the Havamal.
This follows that like Freyja’s agency in sex, her as an active agent in warfare would also have been read as fundamentally unnatural. Far from being a “feminist” figure in Medieval literature, showing Freyja as a warrior was meant to reinforce her status as a transgressive, even horrifying, figure.
Freyja’s magic and her burning at the hands of the Gods that caused the war between them. She was the inciting incident.
Sǫrla ﬂáttr tells how Freyja stirred up deadly enmity between two kings, using her magic to keep resurrecting them and forcing them to repeat their battle endlessly (transl. Waggoner, “Tales from the Flateyjarbók VI,” Parts 1-2).
Freyja is fulfilling a medieval trope about a woman’s role in conflict
In the literature of the Sagas, strong women, goaded indecisive men to act when the men had resolved to do nothing, or had not resolved to do anything.
In chapter 116 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Hildigunnur incited Flosi to avenge the murder of her husband by flinging her husband's bloody cloak onto Flosi's shoulders. Clotted blood from the cloak rained down on Flosi which resulted in the classic line from the Sagas: "Cold are the counsels of women."
In chapter 48 of Laxdæla saga, Guðrún incites her husband and her brothers to take revenge on Kjartan, Bolli's beloved foster-brother with this speech:
"With your temperament, you'd have made some farmer a good group of daughters, fit to do no one any good or any harm. After all the abuse and shame Kjartan has heaped upon you, you don't let it disturb your sleep while he goes riding by under your very noses, with only one other man to accompany him. Such men have no better memory than a pig. There's not much chance you'll ever dare to make a move against Kjartan at home if you won't even stand up to him now, when he only has one or two others to back him up. The lot of you just sit here at home, making much of yourselves, and one could only wish there were fewer of you."
Once again, Freyja in Germanic Literature plays a role very similar to the role played by many other women in Germanic Literature and like them, she becomes a vessel for the anxieties and fears of a society deeply dominated by gendered rules. She takes the “man’s role” of exhortation to action when men won’t take the role themselves.
Freyja the Sorceress and Teacher of Magic
Those who come to Heathenry from a Wiccan background sometimes find that the Wiccan Lord and Lady seem to match many of the features of Freyja and Freyr in the old lore. To be sure, Gerald Gardner’s imagination may have been ablaze with old stories about them when he sat down to codify Wiccan belief. We’re not going to say one way or the other. If Wiccans want to worship our Shining Lady and our Abundant Lord and bring them gifts, then we’re not going to complain.
But it makes sense to see at least anecdotally that many who come from Wicca feel a close connection to either Odin or Freyja (not Freyr, because he isn’t connected to magic). Wicca itself is a tradition that values the pursuit of wisdom and craft, and many Wiccans see their own personal journeys for those values reflected in the characters of Odin and Freyja.
Many Heathens today who practice some form of magic regard Freyja or Odin as their patron or tutelary deity–in that Freyja and Odin guide them and teach them to expand their knowledge and power to work their will in the world.
Raudhildr speaks for many Heathens who are devoted to her (“Freya’s Fires,” Idunna no. 35, p. 27):
She is the core of fire at the center of my being. She is the storm that washes over me in sleep. She is the heart of the dream. She is the lover of my soul. She is darkness unspeakable and light beyond bearing. She is the mist that rises on the meadow. . . . There are times She overwhelms me and I can do nothing but stand frozen in Her terrible brilliance. Sometimes, it is Her darkness that swallows me, and I am burned by a fire I can not see. . . .
In my life, I am moved into places of resistance that I do not understand and then into the twin-flames of pain and transformation. She does not ask me for my leave. It is as though the world shifts around me and I find I once more face the burning. Yet, She brings an unfathomable beauty into my days. She pours out joy like mead. Peace flows through my heart like water. Her love is a never-failing fountain of strength. I would never willingly be parted from her.
Modern Heathens who are close to her definitely experience her in this way, as Patricia Lafayllve writes:
It is only after several years of contemplation, direct experience (via trance), research, and conversations with others that I can begin to grasp what Freyja is like. She is full of vigor, capable of anything, and answerable only to herself. . . . She has always held me to my vows, even the vows I wish I could wiggle away from. She has supported me even when I was at my lowest moment. She is capable of great love, and an implacable ire when she is wronged. She is often referred to as inconstant, but I do not consider her to be so. Rather, she is true to herself, and her own agenda, and sees no real reason to explain herself.
As a woman, I now strive to walk within my own power, know my limits, and challenge myself to overcome them. In this, I believe I am closest to what this complicated deity expects of me. Truth is, in itself, ruthless, and Freyja can embody that ruthlessness when it comes to self-development. She holds me to a high standard and in our frequent conversations often compels me to strip myself of excuses and merely be what I am. It has been a difficult lesson, but I will admit I would not have things any other way. (“Freya—One Woman’s Experience,” p. 12)
Freyja the High Priestess and Founder of the Gifting Cycle
Some modern Heathens have the belief that Freyja has a very important role to play with regards to the relationship between Gods and men: Freyja among all the Gods was the one who taught the ritual of Blot and began the gifting cycle.
She is the only one among the Gods called a Priestess, and specifically in Scandinavian languages, her name is a way to indicate that someone was a Priestess as we said earlier. Also, in most passages when Freyja wants something, she doesn’t use craft to get it, she often will offer something in return for it. This essence of a gift for a gift is the cornerstone of our faith, and it is itself Freyja’s gift.
It is this act, this very act of gift giving, that we as Heathens repeat every time we make our offerings. Freyja, the Lady Herself, is the foundation of our faith. It isn’t Odin with his wisdom, Thor with his might. No. it is Freyja and Freyja alone. The one who taught the very Gods themselves how to engage each other with the gifting cycle.
And in this sense, she is the rock, the “Saint Peter” if you will, upon which Heathenry itself is built. The High Priestess who founded the principles of the rites that we perform today.
The Goddess of Love
Still, Freyja is today seen as the "Goddess of Love." But one of her more famous modern devotees, Patty Lafayllve, writes that this epithet doesn't do Freyja justice when we only think of love in a single dimension, though when we expand our idea of love, the picture of the Lady becomes more clear:
Saying that Freyja is a goddess of love, when this kind of love is meant, diminishes her as a deity and relegates her to a cliché—“goddess of love.” Love is so much more than romantic. And so is Freyja.
Love is unfathomable, physical, liminal, and ineffable. Love can be as subtle as a quiet breeze, and as hard as a slap across the face. Love changes. Love may start platonic, then develop into filial, or move into the romantic, and back again along the scale. Love can be immense, and love can be so tiny it is nearly silent. There are as many ways for there to love as there are pebbles on a rocky shoreline. It is impossible to list all forms of love in a single essay.
Calling Freyja a goddess of love means missing out on all that she is. She is immense, and tiny, physical and ineffable, changeable and constant all at once. Let us think, when we think of Freyja, of all the various forms and feelings encompassed by the word “love.”
This can only deepen our understanding of just how important thi deity is to the world. It is love that provides a creative spark, and like Freyja is a muse for poetry and a search for meaning. Love colors our perceptions, and a lack of love leaves us bitter and cold.
John Lennon said it best—“all we need is love.” And that love, in all its complexity, creation, and potential ruin, is also Freyja.
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This article was created with substantial excerpts from Our Troth Vol. 2 which was edited by Ben Waggoner and has been used here with the editor's permission. This article also contains substantial contributions from the insights and practices of many members of The Troth, whether quoted directly or unquoted. If you want to read the full book, please find our publications page here.