Individual and Collective Forces in Old Norse Sources

From: “The Position of the Individual Gods and Goddesses in Various Types of Sources – with Special Reference to the Female Divinities”

By philologist Else Mundal in Old Norse and Finnish Religions and Cultic Place-Names edited by Tore Ahlbäck (Almqvist&Wiksell International, Stockholm 1990)

(Summarized by Maria Kvilhaug)

If we compare the Old Norse written sources with the place name material, these sources seem to give – at least at first glance – a somewhat divergent impression of which gods really were the most important in Old Norse religion. In the written sources the gods are arranged in a patriarchal family structure with Óðinn on the top (the word patriarchal is here used in the broad sense of an extended family with a father figure in command). But if we try to rank the gods in order of precedence on the basis of the number of instances in the toponymic material, Óðinn  would be found a good way down the list…in the Norwegian toponymic material both Ullr, Freyr, Freyja and Njörðr would be ranked before Óðinn…

When precisely Óðinn, the god of war, is the principal god in the written sources, this may have some connection with the fact that he was the main god for the social groups that possessed the highest power…In the warrior culture surrounding the Vikings and the king`s men, the god of war, Óðinn, was of course very important; and with the culture of these circles the scalds, too, were associated.

There is hardly any doubt that the milieu with which the scalds were associated played a central part both in the passing down of traditions and in the forming of the myth material in the last phase of paganism. The written sources must be judged against that background. If we look at the toponymic material, we have from the Norwegian territory about twice as many…place names with the names of Thòrr, Freyr, Freyja and Njörðr as place names with the name of Óðinn, and where Ullr (the form Ullinn included) is concerned, the number of toponymic names with Ullr/Ullinn are about three times as many as the names with Óðinn.

…If we take a new look at the written sources, we find an established family structure with Óðinn at the top. This is most clearly formulated by Snorri. But in the ranking of the gods Snorri obviously had problems. It seems that he also had some idea of Freyr as a god of equal importance to Óðinn.

In Gylfaginning Snorri first mentions Óðinn…whilst as the leading god among others he mentions Thórr, followed by Baldr, but after this he…says of Freyr: “Freyr er enn ágætasti af ásum”, – Freyr is the most renowned of the gods.

Other sources may equally indicate that among the male gods precisely these four, Óðinn, Thórr, Freyr and Njörðr, had a central position in the cult in the last phase of paganism. In Heimskringla, Hákonar saga góða, ch.14…Snorri describes how at the heathen sacrifice in Trøndelag they first drank to Óðinn in order to obtain victory and power, and then drank to Njörðr and Freyr in order to obtain a good year and peace. This source does not mention a toast to Thórr…Magnus Olsen has already pointed out that the toponymic material gives only a few uncertain instances of worship of Thórr in the regions north of the Dovre (Olsen 1915). Oddr munkr, on the contrary, says in Saga Ólafs Tryggvasonar, ch. 56, that a statue of Thórr was placed in the pagan temple at Mære…it is tempting to believe that Snorri knew more than we might expect, and that Oddr`s description on the other hand is based on a general conception of Thórr as a very important god…

In some of the Landnáma editions…it is related that, according to Ulfljótslög, the person who took an oath on the ring in the pagan temple should invoke Freyr, Njörðr and áss hinn almáttki [“the almighty ás”].The identity of the latter figure is a matter of discussion.[1]

In Sonatorrek, Egill Skallagrímsson speaks of himself as a worshipper of Óðinn. In the stanza which, according to Egils saga, ch.55, he recited when he raised the níð-pole against Eirik Bloodaxe, he requested Óðinn`s and the gods anger on the king, and thereafter invoked Freyr, Njörðr and landáss [“the ás of the land”]. The god Egill calls landáss in st.28 is probably the same god as he calls landálfr [“the elf of the land”] in the next stanza; in both cases most scholars think that he means Thórr.

In the Eddaic poem Skírnismál, st.3, Freyr is called fólkvaldi goða, “the chieftain of the gods”, and in a similar way he is spoken of in Ulfr Uggason`s poem Húsdrápa, st. 7.

…What then of other gods? As pointed out before, the name of Ullr was the most frequent in the Norwegian toponymic material, but he is far from being so central in the written sources. This may partly be explained by the fact that Ullr in the last phase of paganism no longer held such a central position as he did previously, but the disagreement between the two types of sources may also partly be explained by geographical differences. According to the toponymic material, the cult of Ullr was widespread in Norway in the regions south of Dovre…Already Magnus Olsen emphasized that the Norwegian toponymic material indicated considerable geographical dissimilarities over which gods were worshipped within a region…the same point has lately been lade by Lars Hellberg regarding Sweden (Hellberg 1986).

It is not surprising that such local variation within Scandinavia is not reflected in the written myths which are mostly Icelandic. But it is yet interesting to notice that as late as the thirteenth century…there must have existed an idea about geographical dissimilarities within the cult. In Hallfreðar saga, ch.5, we are told of some heathen Icelanders who come to Norway…they make a vow to Freyr if they get a fair wind to Sweden, and to Thórr and Óðinn if they get a fair wind back to Iceland.

In contrast to Ullr, Týr is a god who is hardly mentioned in the Norwegian toponymic material (1 example), while in the myth material…equal rarity. The explanation may partly be that Týr, like Óðinn, is a god of war. If his cult belonged to an earlier phase, some instances…may have been lost. But Norway was probably an outlying region with regard to the cult of Týr.

Among the goddesses, the name of Freyja is the only one which is particularly frequent in Norwegian place names…The number of occurrences of the name of Frigg, on the other hand, is extremely limited in the Norwegian…material. But 5 place names in the eastern part of Norway composed with Dís- bear witness to a cult of female divinities.

But the goddesses are not the only ones missing from this material:…the name of Týr is very infrequent. The name of Heimdallr is not mentioned…and the same may be said of other gods known from the myths. It is of course possible that gods and goddesses may have been popular in the myths without being important in the cult. The multitude of female divinities, above all, and some of the gods who are known only as peripheral myth figures, are suspected of belonging to the myth literature only. This may very well be right in some cases, but to draw conclusion on the basis of missing instances is always an unsound scientific method.

We will always, therefore, have to ask the question: are there conditions connected with the cult of some of the divinities which may explain why their names are not to be found in the toponymic material?

With regard to the goddesses, I suppose they are – in spite of the fact that Snorri gives some of the lesser known ones responsibility in special fields – less specialized than the gods. This is perhaps a situation which made it natural to worship them as a collective force.

In any case, a word like dísablót [“sacrifice to the goddesses”] indicated that female divinities were worshipped as a collective, and this fact may partly explain why the individual goddess – with the exception of Freyja – disappears as an individual and becomes invisible in the toponymic material. Place names composed with Dís- bear witness to a cult, not of one female divinity, but of a collective of them. – As I will show later, the relation between the individual goddess and the collective is in my opinion very interesting.

Folke Ström says (Stråom, 1961) that in Norway, the dísir [“goddesses” – but actually referring to all kinds of female powers] were the object of a public cult only in the southern and eastern part of the country; in these regions the cult connected with the hörgr [public temple] fell under the public cult. All the Norwegian place names formed with Dís- thus belonged to a region where the dísir probably were the objects of a public cult. If this is correct, it also indicates that the chances of becoming visible in the toponymic material were far less for divinities worshipped in the private cult than for divinities who had a central position in the public cult, but they still may have been very important in religious life.

How and to what extent the cult is incorporated in the political structure of the society may also greatly affect the patterns formed by the sacred place names…

In the written sources, and most clearly in Snorri, gods and goddesses are arranged in a patriarchal family structure. This structure is very different from the goddess/priest structure found in an old source like Tacitus: Germania. In addition, the archaeological material with its many finds showing statues of goddesses with clearly marked sexual organs, together with picture material, indicated that the worship of a goddess had a central place in the cult in the period before the Old Norse society. Also the worship of a couple, a goddess and a god, which several scholars claim to have found in the toponymic material, is something which perhaps does not necessarily contradict the patriarchal family structure in the written sources, but which nonetheless seems to bear witness to a situation with more equality of status between god and goddess than we can expect to find in a patriarchal family structure.

…Even though the patriarchal family structure is most clearly formed by Snorri, this was far from Snorri`s idea. The family structure is very well instanced in the older kenningar in the skaldic poetry, and Paulus Diaconus writes in his History of the Langobards at the end of the eight century that Frigg was married to Óðinn…

What conditions operated in forming the conception that the world of the gods was organized like an extended family with a male god on top, is in itself an interesting question. Somehow, the conception must be connected with developments in society. If developments in religion and mythology move towards a situation where male gods took a more and more dominating position, it may of course be tempting to regard  this as a reflection of – and perhaps a justification of – men`s position in society. But since our knowledge of the pre-Norse society and its religion is very insufficient, it is difficult to draw conclusions regarding this field…In the last phase of paganism the tendency to give one male god a leading position could perhaps be strengthened by the influence of Christianity.

If the starting point was a religion where sex was of no importance in the rank of the god or goddess, one would assume that the arrangement of gods and goddesses in a patriarchal family structure would automatically lead – at least outwardly – to reduced status for all the goddesses in relation to the gods. But if we go to the written sources…

In Gylfaginning, ch.20, Hár states: “Tólf eru æsir guðkunnigir” – there are 12 æsir of the gods`family. But Snorri lets Jafnhár at once throw in a remark: “Eigi eru ásyniurnar uhelgare of eigi megu thær minna.” – “The ásyniur [ goddesses] are no less holy, and their power is equal to that of the gods.”

According to the general conception in the Old Norse period, men who fell in war came to Óðinn in Valhöll…but the sources also give the information (Snorri ch.24, Grímnismál, st.14) that Freyja and Óðinn shared the number of fallen men equally. The sources also frequently state that the goddesses know the fate, and they thus seem to be more closely related than the gods to the fate-making norns, who in fact are the highest power in the universe of Old Norse mythology.

The myth material also describes situations where a god and a goddess enter into competition with each other…[Grímnismál, The History of the Langobards…]…the myth material also gives examples of situations where a god, Óðinn, punishes a female divinity who is opposed to his power and decisions [Sígrdrífumál, Helreidr Brynhilds, Oddrúngrátr…]…

…what I find interesting in this connection is that this kind of mythic material may reflect a sort of competence struggle between male and female forces, where the female forces are in retreat. Also when Snorri in Ynglinga saga, ch.4, gives the information that Óðinn learned seiðr from…Freyja – it may reflect the reminiscences of a male god making his way into the field of the female divinities. The same may be the case when Óðinn in the written sources sometimes points out that he knows fate, while it is clear from other sources – e.g. Baldrs draumar and Völuspá that he did not. The ability to acquire knowledge of fate, which the norns had decided, was a specialty of the half mythological figures, the völur, and, as pointed out before, the goddesses are also said to have knowledge of fate.

Lotte Motz maintains (Motz 1980) that Snorri describes the goddesses as more equal to the gods than his sources permitted…I can hardly see any reason why Snorri should give such a description in defiance of his sources, and the reason why the description of the goddesses seems to be self-contradictory on this point may in my opinion rather be that conceptions really were incoherent, and that this incoherence may partly be a result of the incorporation of the goddesses in the patriarchal family structure which could form or strengthen the conception of a subordinate position in contrast to other – and older – conception of the goddesses.

On the other hand, I quite agree with Lotte Motz wen she states that the goddesses as described by Snorri are judged according to the standards of women`s behavior in a patriarchal society. This way of judging goddesses….appears in his sources as well, e.g. in Lokasenna as far as sexual morality is concerned. Lokasenna, however, is a very special source…the comedy in the situation may have something to do with the fact that the goddesses are judged by the wrong set of norms…

…it is her [Freyja`s] sexual character which the [Christian]scald Hjalti stresses in the stanza for which he was outlawed in Iceland in the year 999:

”Vil ek eigi goð geyja / grey thykki mér Freyja” [“I will not abuse the gods, but Freyja is a bitch”] (Islendingabòk, ch 7)

It has been emphasized that Hjalti is giving word to the opinion of a Christian, but the negative judgment of a fertility goddess may be the result of several factors working together. Both in heathen and in Christian society it was fatal for a fertility goddess to be judged according to the norms of ordinary women`s sexual behavior. But since they were incorporated in a family structure made to reflect Old Norse society, the scene was set for such a judgment. A male fertility god, on the other hand, had nothing to lose if judged by the norms of men`s sexual behavior in Old Norse society.

Something that strikes us when we compare the part gods and goddesses play in Old Norse mythology is that there are so many goddesses` names. In fact, the sources give more names of goddesses than of gods, but we know next to nothing about the majority of them. About some of the names it is said that they are alternative names for Freyja, and some of the goddesses are regarded as hypostases of Frigg. This hypostasis theory seems to have given them a very odd, intermediate state between being and not being existing goddesses. But if we have hypostases, we will get more goddesses out of one, and the last one will be as “real” as the first one.

The large number of names of goddesses have been partly explained as the result of the skald`s needs to vary kenningar since names of goddesses are used as basic words in kenningar for women. The skaldic language is certainly our primary source for many of these names, and Snorri presumably mentions them mostly because the Edda is a textbook for skaldic poetry which is intended partly to explain the old kenningar and partly to provide patterns for making new ones. But if a kenning is to function, one condition is that it gives associations to something known. Names of goddesses could not function as a basic word in kenningar for women if they did not give associations to goddesses people knew beforehand.

…Some of the names of goddesses belong completely to the world of poetry, but the multitude of them and the so-called hypostases do after all bear witness to the strength and the vital productivity of the conceptions linked with female divinities. If some of the more unknown goddesses are hypostases of Frigg, it is not likely that they belong to the last phase of paganism, but rather to an earlier period when Frigg was more central…On the other hand, we notice that the many children of the gods who were probably added to the gods` family in the last phase of development of the myths are, with the exceptions of the daughters of Freyja – Thrúðr I consider to be older – all sons. This may give us an indication of the direction in which developments run.

When the goddesses in spite of their quantitative predominance in the myth material are overshadowed by the gods, about whom much more is told, this may, as I will later suggest – have something to do with how and to what extent they are incorporated or not incorporated in the family of the gods.

The fact is that far from all the goddesses are incorporated in the patriarchal family structure of the gods. In Gylfaginning, Snorri obviously had his difficulties with the great number of single goddesses. They have given him problems of the sort single ladies used to vause when the table was being laid in bourgeois circles, and Snorri simply chose to gather them in a chapter of their own – together with Frigg and Freyja…

In addition, some fragments of the constellation goddess/priest, god/priestess are to be found in the Old Norse myth and fable material. The myths of Freyja on several occasions mention lovers from the human world. Hyndlyljóð says that Freyja`s lover, Óttarr, made a hörgr and worshipped Freyja.

The relationship between Gefjun and Gylfi could probably also be judged in the light of a goddess/priest constellation, although the myth in the shapes we have it does not invite such an interpretation.

The best example of the constellation goddess/priest or god/priestess – in the actual case god/priestess – in Old Norse sources is the story of Gunnarr helmingr (Flateyarbók)…

All things considered, there is quite a lot of material in the Old Norse myths that does not fit in with the family structure of the gods.

The conceptions of the reciprocal relationship between the goddesses – or the conceptions as they have been passed down to us – are also clearly influenced by the family structure in which the goddesses are incorporated or not incorporated.

Snorri has relatively far more to say about the goddesses who, through marriage or family, are connected with male gods. The others are most often little more than names [in Snorri`s presentation].

As basic words in kenningar the names of many of the “unknown” goddesses are rather frequent. Most frequent in the skaldic material is the name Hlín with 25 instances. In Völuspá it seems that Hlín is another name for Frigg. The name Frigg on the other hand is only used in 3 kenningar. The name Freyja and names that are said to be other names for Freyja are frequently used. If Hlín is a name for Frigg, the names of both goddesses, Frigg and Freyja, are very frequent in skaldic poetry. If Hlín and Frigg were not regarded as the same goddess, the instances of the names of Freyja become overwhelming compared to those of Frigg, and we will have a lot of instances of a goddess`name, Hlín, the name of a goddess about whom we know almost nothing. And the fact is that a lot of the names of the “unknown” goddesses are approximately as frequent…as the names Nanna and Thrúðr.  The name Iðunn, strange to say, is not used in kenningar for woman at all…But on the other hand, names of goddesses that Snorri does not even mention in the Gylfaginning, such as Njörun, Nauma and Ilmr, are frequently used.

Of course it is a possibility that many of these names belong to the world of poetry, and not to the cult, but the problem is that they are not to be found in the myth material either. And if we glance at the material which might offer a parallel, names of gods in kenningar for men, we find that the names of gods uses as basic words in kenningar for men are the same names as those known from the myths. This state of things…entitles us to ask the question: what has happened on the female side of the gods `world?

In view of the patriarchal family structure, the relationship between Frigg and Freya is also interesting. Where goddesses are concerned, Snorri obviously had difficulties in making up his mind about which of them were more important…In Gylfaginning he contradicts himself on several occasions. In ch.24 he states that “Freyja er ágætust af ásynjum” – Freya is the most renowned of the ásynjur. But later, in ch.35, …he begins with Frigg and states that she is the leading one, but when he lists Freya as number six, he nonetheless remarks that she is the leading goddess besides Frigg. When Snorri partly regards Frigg as the leading goddess, his reasons are probably her position in the family structure of the gods. As Óðinn´s wife, she has the position of a “First Lady” and consequently the highest rank on the female side. If her rank were to be stipulated on the basis of people`s image of her, much seems to indicate that not Frigg but Freyja was the leading goddess. She is the one who plays the largest part in the myths, her cult is very well instances in the toponymic material, she is the one who receives half the number of fallen men, and in the kenningar …her name is used much more frequently…

If it is correct that several of the goddesses Snorri lists in Gylfaginning ch.35 are hypostases of Frigg, it is also reasonable that Frigg was a very central goddess in the period when these hypostases came into existence.

…In the scientific literature about Old Norse mythology the female divinities are very often divided into two groups. In the first group we find the goddesses, in the second group we have the so-called “lower female divinities”. These divinities are collective forces like nornir, valkyrjur and dísir. The fylgjur (in the shape of a woman) have a somewhat different position, but I will list them with the others. There are sides of their character which indicate that they are connected with the cult of forefathers or, more precisely, the cult of foremothers (See Mundal 1974). Occasionally the authors picture them as of supernatural size, something that emphasized their divine character.

One of these subgroups, the valkyrjur, are to some extent incorporated into the gods` family structure in the work of Snorri. They are made servants, Óðinn`s maid-servants, and they execute the woman`s work of filling up the drinking cups in Valhöll…

The relationship between the individualized goddess and the female collective forces, as described in the sources…have something to do with how collective forces were generally estimated. In the writings of learned authors in the Christian period there are some indications that they looked upon the worship of spirits and collective forces as something primitive and silly. In Hauksbók we can read:

“Some women are so unwise and blind about their needs that they take their food and bring it out to heaps of stones and mountain caves and consecrate it to the spirits of the land [land vettír] and thereafter they eat it in order to make the spirits of the land friendly and in order to have more luck with their farming…”

….The heathen sacrifices called the dísablót and álfablót seem to have been very important sacrifices in pagan society, and they must have consisted mainly of sacrifices to the collective forces of dísir and álfar.

Judging from several provisions in the kristindómsbólkr [Christianity issues] of…laws, the worship of collective forces (vættir) were the pagan remnants which were the most difficult to eradicate…the collective forces must have been very important.

It is very difficult to prove, on the basis of the written sources, that the gods were generally regarded as more powerful than the collective forces, and the division into “higher” and “lower” divinities cannot therefore be justified on the basis of the relative strength of the groups.

What seems to form the basis of the division is the fact that gods and goddesses were individualized, whilst the collective forces were not. But it is not obvious that such groupings of individualized and collective forces were particularly important in Old Norse society.

On some occasions gods/goddesses and collective forces (vættir) are referred to in a way that removes the distinction between them. In Oddrúnargrátr, st.9, the word vættir, “spirits”, is used in a way that also seems to include the goddesses – “hollar vættir, Frigg ok Freyja ok fleiri goð”[“sacred spirits, Frigg and Frejya and more goddesses” – summarizer`s note: the word vættr is a feminine noun meaning entity, being, life, creature, used for supernatural beings]. In the provisions of the laws that forbade the worship of heathen forces – and that of course includes the gods – the heathen forces are normally spoken of as heiðnar vættir, “heathen spirits”. In the last case, the wording may of course be influenced by the Christian way of thinking which reduced the heathen gods to evil spirits, but the wording may also reflect that there was no sharp distinction between gods and vættir in the Old Norse way of thinking. There is also…reason to believe that gods and collective forces were worshipped together.

Where the relationship between individualized female goddesses and the female collective forces is concerned, there are some points that I would like to emphasize, points which make it difficult to draw a sharp distinction between the “higher” and “lower” female divinities.

The fact is that the individual goddess – and giantess – may also be referred to by the name of the collective dís. This is the case with both Freyja and Skaði, and also the female characters of the other subdivisions of female divinities may be called by the name dís, which in fact may be used in such a way as to include all the divine female characters, individualized goddesses and collective forces alike.

Ynglinga saga, ch.29, mentions dísar salr, “the temple of the dís”, and if the idea of such a temple in connection with a cult is based upon tradition, it is important that the form dísar is genitive singular, but the cult is called dísa blót, “sacrifice to the dísir [plural]”, and as a parallel to dísa blót we have dísa thing, “the thing [parliament] of the dísir”. In both cases the form dísa is genitive plural.

When it comes to the cult of the female divinities, we see that concepts of one individual goddess and the female collective merge into one another. There is no sharp division between the dís (sg.) and the dísir (pl.), and if we look at the other subdivisions of the female collective forces, the same thing may be observed.

With regard to norns, one to three of them may be individualized in the myths and given a special name, but a concept of them as a collective force without individualized characters is also found in the sources, i.e. nameless norns that come to every newborn child to form the child´s fate (Snorri Edda ch.15).

It is the same thing with the valkyrjur. Here, too, named individualized figures may be extracted from the collective in the skaldic and Eddaic poetry.

It is true of the fylgjur [female guardian spirits]too. A man or a family may have one, a few, or a large collective of fylgjur.

Where the female divinities are concerned, we see again and again that the conceptions of the individual and the collective merge into each other. This holds good for the goddesses towards the collective forces as a whole, and it holds good within each subgroup of female collective forces.

The same thing cannot be observed on the male side of the god`s world. A slight parallel could perhaps be the relationship between the gods of the vanir family and the álfar, “the elves”, or between the god…called landáss and landálfr, and the landvættir, “the spirits of the land”. But in any case, the merging into each other of an individual and a collective is far less obvious on the male side than on the female side.

Not only the division between the individualized goddess and the female collective is diffuse on the female side. The division between goddess and giantess is also very diffuse in the mythic material, considerably more so than on the male side. And it is even more remarkable, perhaps, that the division between human characters and divine characters is also very vague with regard to some of the subgroups of female divinities. The valkyrjur are partly spoken of as divine characters and partly as human beings. It is the same thing with the völur, who may be human women, but who occur among the gods and giants as well. Finally, the word gyðja is used both for goddess and priestess in the Old Norse language, and could indicate a sort of identification of the goddess and the priestess.

To regard the different groups of female collective forces as “lower divinities” is particularly problematic with regard to the norns. Since they are fate-making divine figures, who create fate for men and gods alike, they are in fact superior to the gods. But it is also very problematic to separate the individual goddess from the female collective and regard the collective as something “lower”. Somehow they belong together and form an indivisible unity. The valkyrjur are usually spoken of as belonging to Óðinn, although it would perhaps be more correct to attach them to Freyja, who shared the fallen men with Óðinn.

[1] The problem has been considered recently by Helgi Thorláksson in Thorláksson 1986.

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