Freyr and Gerðr – The Initiation of a God

This article is taken from a chapter of my 2004 thesis “The Maiden with the Mead – a Goddess of Initiation in Norse myths?”

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Gerðr means “Enclosure” and is the name of another daughter of giants in the Skírnismál. The god Freyr sits down in the Hlíðskialf, “the Opening Watch-Tower”,[1] usually the seat of Óðinn and Frigg, from where he sees into all the worlds. He spots a maiden in the courts of the giant Gymir and falls violently in love. His servant, Skírnir, -the “Shining One” or the “Pure One”[2] offers to woo the maiden for him, if the god will only grant him “the horse that will carry him through the dark, sure, flickering flame”, and the “sword which fights by itself against the giants”.[3] Freyr grants him these treasures, and his servant sets off towards the realm of the giants on that magical horse.

 

Skírnir rides through darkness and dewy mountains. St. 10 (see appendix V) clearly states that his is a very dangerous, nocturnal journey through the world of the þursar were the “too powerful giant” may very well take both the horse and its rider. Skírnir encounters savage dogs outside of the fence surrounding the hall of the Maiden. He asks a herdsman who is sitting on a mound how to come past the “dogs of Gymir”. The herdsman, surprised by the request, does not answer but questions whether Skírnir is dead or about to die, before he apparently decides that he is neither, and states that there can be no conversation between him and the daughter of Gymir. It could seem as if one has to be dead or dying in order to “converse” with the giantess. Gerðr, however, who hears the earth trembling and learns about Skírni´s presence, asks him to come into her halls and drink inn mera miǫðr

[4] - the “adored mead” – even though she fears that he is her brother´s slayer. Skírnir crosses the fire-fence, and the Maiden asks him if he is elf, or a god of the Aesir or of the Vanir.

 

Skírnir responds that he is neither elf, Áss, or of the Vanir, and immediately asks her to become Frey´s bride, offering her eleven apples of gold and the ring that drips nine new ones like itself every ninth night. Gerðr flatly refuses. She has more than enough gold in her father´s hall. Skírnir threatens her with the sword, but she again refuses, arguing that Gymir, her father, could well fight back. Eventually, Skírnir makes use of galðr to curse her in the most deliberate ways. Suddenly, the maiden changes her mind, welcomes him and offers him the “crystal cup full of ancient mead” (hrímcálki fullom forns miaðar[5]). She declares that she will meet Freyr within nine nights, in the breeze-less grove of Barri.[6]Freyr, when he learns about her conditions, does not rejoice, but complains about the durance of nine whole nights.

 

4.9: The Structure of Themes in Gerð´s story

As in the story of Gunnlǫð and Óðinn, we may here detect the same structure of themes. The poem begins with a (prose) vision quest theme: Freyr sits down in Óðinn´s seat, from where he may look out upon “all the worlds”. This kind of universal vision from a special, divine kind of position could hardly resemble anything else than a visionary experience. The vision theme follows as Freyr lays eyes on a Maiden in a far-off world whose arms illuminate the oceans and the hills as she walks. She is clearly in another world, different from that of Frey’s, and may only be seen by him through such supernatural sight. Then follows a descending theme where not Freyr, but his “servant”, who is neither elf or god, moves into the lower worlds. Like Óðinn, he has to know how to talk in his encounter with the giant herdsman and the giantess. The trial theme follows as Skírnir moves past the flickering fires and the barking dogs to enter the hall of Gerðr. He is greeted by her, and thus we proceed to the Maiden theme where she offers him a drink and, after a duel of words where Skírnir, like Óðinn, has to show his eloquence, agrees to marriage while offering a drink.

 

As Skírnir returns to Freyr with the message, it becomes clear, at least to my mind, that the descending-, trial- and Maiden- themes will be repeated: Skírnir has made the initiating journey on behalf of Freyr after the latter´s visionary experience, but now, Freyr has to make the journey himself. The Maiden does not pack her belongings to join Skírnir on his way back to the divine realm. Instead, she decides the conditions of their union: that Freyr will have to endure nine nights before their meeting in a breezeless grove. Freyr is right to complain about the durance of those nine nights and worry how he shall survive even one or three of them, for they are probably as tough as the nine nights of Óðinn´s hanging, and will only culminate in a sacred grove where the winds – of the eagle Corpse Swallower – do not reaCh.

                                             

                                                                                                                                  

 

4.10: The Maiden and Her Realm

“…The raging guard-dogs of Gymir (…) the shepherd on the grave-mound, and, together with the grave-mound, contribute to the scenery of the entrance to the world of the dead with its` perpetual tribe of Cerberus.”

                                                                                                            Ursula Dronke[7]

Since we have established Gunnlǫð as dwelling in a realm of death, we must ask ourselves whether Gerðr also does so. Indeed, she does. The dark, wet road, the trembling earth, the wall (of fire) that must not be touched, and the barking dogs are all typical symbols of the world of Hel. The barking dogs motivate a conversation with a shepherd who sits on a grave-mound. The shepherd assumes that Skírnir must be dead or dying, as one would usually be when traveling the Hel-Road. When he realizes that Skírnir is a living soul, he assumes that there may be no meeting with Gerðr. If she is the lady of death itself, this is a logical assumption.

 

We are so lucky as to have very detailed descriptions of the Norse world of the dead.

In Snorri´s story of Hermóðr, we are told how Hermóðr rides to Hel in order to bring Baldr back from the world of the dead:

 

…Hermóðr rode for nine nights through valleys dark and deep so that he saw nothing until he came to the river Giǫll [Resounding] and rode on to the Giǫll bridge. It is covered with glowing gold. There is a maiden guarding the bridge called Móðguðr [Furious Battle]. She asked him his name and lineage and said that there had ridden over the bridge five battalions of dead men. –“But the bridge resounds no less under just you, and you do not have the color of dead men. Why are you riding here on the road to Hel? “(…) Then Hermóðr rode on until he came to Hel´s gates. (…) The horse jumped so hard over the gate that it came nowhere near.[8]

 

In the Baldrs draumar we have a similar description, this time; it is Óðinn who rides to Hel to obtain intelligence about some dark omens:

2….reid hann nidr thathan Niflhæliar til                     He rode down to the Misty Hel

mætti hann hvælpi theim ær or hæliu kom.                 he met a dog of Hel on the road

 

3. Sa var blodugr um briost framan                            Its breast was bloody

oc galldrs fodur gol um længi                                     it barked a long time against the father of spell-songs

Framm reid Odinn folldvægr dundi                            Óðinn rode forth, the road beneath him resounded

hann kom at háfu Hæliar ranni                                   he came to the High Hall of Hel

 

4. Thá ræid Odinn fyrir austan dyr                             Then Óðinn rode to the east of the door

thar ær hann vissi vǫlv læidi.                                      where he knew about a Vǫlva´s grave

Nam hann vittugri valgalldr kveda….[9]                       he sang val-galðr for the wise woman…

 

 

Skírni´s journey would easily fit into the pattern shown in these two sources. He rides a magical steed that has the particular quality of being able to jump through flames –the flames which constitute the fence around Gerð’s hall. So do Óðinn and Hermóðr –they both ride the eight-legged Sleipnir, and a point is made out of how they avoid touching the gate of Hel. The road is dark and long. The earth trembles when Skírnir arrives, so does the Resounding Bridge when Hermóðr rides over it, and Óðinn´s road resounds. Skírnir encounters savage dogs, just like Óðinn. He has to cross a fiery fence; Hermóðr and Óðinn have to cross a fence or a gate. The female warden at the Resounding Bridge remarks that Hermóðr does not have the color of dead men, the male warden or mound-dweller outside of the hall of Gerðr asks Skírnir whether he is dead or marked to die.

 

Gerð´s father is Gymir, which according to Simek could mean “Sea”.[10] Simek suggests that he is a sea-giant, since he is identified with the sea-giant Aegir both in the Lokasenna and in the Skáldskaparmál 23. Aegiris the husband of Rán, mistress of death, and is certainly associated with cauldrons and mead, as shown in the beginning of the Skáldskaparmál and in the poem Hymiskvíða. In chapter 6.10, we shall see that sea-giants are connected to the Maiden in her aspect as valkyria The etymological meaning of Gymir is unclear, but Simek suggests that it could, for example, come from the word geyma, which means to hide, keep safe. In that case, we are reminded of Suttungr who hides the mead (and the Maiden) within the rock-layers. For the time being, I would wish to emphasize that Aegir´s realm also is a realm of the dead.

 

Much else is not to be said about Gerðr, except that she offers ancient or adored mead has beautiful, shining arms which shines up all the lands and the sea, and that she is in possession of lots of gold and an independent mind. She is surrounded by a fence of fire. All in all, it seems safe to place Gerðr right in the heart of misty Hel.

 

 

4.11: The Trials of the Heroes

Freyr is a god and an ancestor of kings, and it is his servant and childhood companion, the Shining One (or the “Clear One” or the “Pure One”), who gets the task of actually traveling to the other world. The servant asks, one could imagine as if in prayer to the god, to have a magical horse and a magical sword, which he is granted. The theme of a chief´s servant actually undertaking the “wooing” part of the quest for the Maiden will be recognized in Ch. 7.2, where this kind of servant resembles a religious professional. The Maiden expects him to be an elf, Áss or wise Vanir, moving about in the Other Worlds. The riddle presented when Skírnir presents himself as neither elf nor god, could be explained by the possibility of him being human.

 

The magical horse and the sword is something Skírnir shares with the hero Sígurðr (Ch.6) with the hero Hermóðr and with the god Óðinn. It is worthwhile to note how the journey to the world of the dead in the Norse material often is pictured on horse-back – horses being a common sacrifice in burial mounds. An older and equally important “steed” to the underworld is the (funeral) ship, which we shall see is the more common vehicle in the Heroic Poems. For women, the journey was often pictured as driving a chart – an image we recognize in Helreið Brynhildar.[11] The magical sword is crucial also in the stories of the two Helgis, which we shall be studying in chapter 6. 

 

Skírnir, like Óðinn, has to enter the deadly realm of the powerful giants in order to encounter the Maiden. It is in the encounter that his trial differs dramatically from that of Óðinn, who obviously receives teachings. Skírnir does not appear interested any teachings at all: he offers gifts to entice the Maiden out of her realm, and when she refuses he threatens and curses her. He appears successful in his task when Gerðr suddenly greets him as “lad”(sveinn[12]) and offers him the mead. We do not learn whether Skírnir drinks the mead, and he continues uninterested in teachings, eagerly asking when she will meet Freyr. Frey’s devastated reaction to her answer is odd. Perhaps it considered a sign of the immense sexual desire of the fertility god, who cannot bear to wait for nine nights. I believe, however, that those nine nights really are long: as long as the nine dark nights that Hermóðr had to endure on his way to Hel, and as hard as the work of nine men that Odin in Snorri´s version had to finish in the fields of Baugi, as dangerous as the nine nights that the god hang stabbed, starving and thirsting, on the world tree. Indeed, Frey’s nights must be as uncertain as the three nights that we will see that Óttarr is granted to learn his sacred genealogy,and as powerful as the nine spell-songs that transport Svípdag to the halls of the goddess.[13]

 

The number nine is no coincidence, it symbolizes something which we can only vaguely deduce from the other settings in which the number appears. Those particular nine nights shall be concluded in a breeze-less grove (lundr lognfarna[14]) – a place where the winds of the death-eagle´s wings do not reaCh. The theme of conquering death may be subtly revealed in this allusion.

 


4.11: The gifts and the threats

“She does not capitulate because he has frightened her, but because she sees some truth in what he says. (…) he has painted the alternative very well.” [15]

             

A few words on the gifts and the threats that the Maiden receives are perhaps necessary. Steinsland has shown how the gifts: apples and ring, and the wand that Skírnir uses to curse with, all resemble royal symbols that may connect the myth to kingship (and thus sacred marriage).[16]  Näsström, moreover, sees the three methods used to conquer Gerðr as representing the three Indo-European “functions” (as described by Dumezil) in society. Gold and riches represent the “third” function: that of the peasants, the sword he uses to threaten her represent the warrior function, while the magical wand and the curses represent the first, priestly function.[17] The curses are perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the myth: they take up a great part of the poem and are extremely aggressive. But as Ursula Dronke has suggested, Skírnir with his curses is only really summing up what Gerðr may in fact expect if she stays in the Underworld: separation from society, despair and longing, relations only to ogres and the world of the dead. With the curses, Gerðr is shown the two opposite worlds between which she may choose: the world of the dead with its devouring monsters and suffering, and the world of divine life, and love.[18] Also Clunies-Ross has argued that Skírni´s curse “functions to remind Gerðr of what is at stake in her refusal to cooperate.”[19] One image is particularly interesting to this study, since Gerðr, in St. 28, is told that she will be more famous than the guardian of gods, where she is gaping behind the fences of Hel. Thus she is imaged as a guardian of Hel – unless she lets herself be taken out of that realm.

 

4.12: Skírnir as the experienced Practitioner, Freyr as the Initiate

I understand Skírnir´s journey to be the initiatory journey of an experienced practitioner on behalf of the god – or the one who represents the god – in order to “woo the Maiden”. When the Maiden has given her terms and her consent, Skírnir, carrier of the magical wand and the treasures of the gods, goes back to his master who has had the initial vision, and tells him the message. I believe that it is only then that the actual initiation experience begins, symbolized in the nine nights Freyr will have to endure before culminating in the consecrating act of Sacred Marriage .

 

As we noted, Skírnir does not himself appear to receive any teachings, but returns hurriedly back to his lord-friend, telling him the terms of the Maiden.  This is when I assume that the real trials begin: the trials of Freyr himself, the king-god. They shall last for nine whole nights, where even the first will be unbearably long. The suffering will only finish when Freyr has reached that breezeless grove of the Maiden. It seems reasonable to assume that Freyr would have to follow a similar path to that of Skírnir´s descent.

 

 

4.13: Summary of and Conclusions to Chapter 4

In this chapter, I have argued that Óðinn´s trials on the world tree is directly linked to his encounter with Gunnlǫð, and that Gunnlǫð dwells in a realm that resemble that of Hel´s, or more generally, a realm of death. Steinsland has shown that there exists a multitude of pre-Christian ideas about the after-life so that our geographical assumptions which strictly place the realm of Hel here and other realms there in the manner of Snorri´s descriptions may not be covering the whole of Norse conceptions about death. One image which, until Steinsland pointed it out, has been largely neglected, is the fact that death often is depicted as a sexual encounter or marriage with a supernatural lady, often identifiable as Rán or Hel, although mentioned by other names.[20]

 

Óðinn´s descent into the death-realm of Gunnlǫð is not only connected to his nine-night´s self-sacrifice, but also to the initiation into his major arts: runes, charms, esoteric knowledge,soul-flight, seiðr, and poetry (eloquence). Through his method of learning – the descent into and the escape alive from the realm of death, he also learns a way of “conquering death”, bringing back with him sacred knowledge and talents symbolized in the precious mead. He has help from the Maiden figure. Through comparative analysis such as that of Svava Jacobsdottir, it is possible to link Óðinn´s experience to kingship inauguration as well. However, the initiation seems to be of a more general character that would easily apply to several religious practitioners in the Norse society. I have argued that Óðinn´s quest is primordeal and archetypical: it creates a mythical pattern for others to follow.

 

In the Codex Regius, the first who apparently follows Óðinn´s example is the Vanir god Freyr, who, significantly, sits down in Óðinn´s own seat in order to have cosmic vision. Much like Óðinn, he peers down and detects the object of his desire: the Maiden, this time in the shape of Gerðr. In the Óðinn-Gunnlǫð section, I detected a structure of themes involving a vision quest theme, a vision theme, a descending theme, a trial theme and a Maiden theme. I have argued that the Freyr-Gerðr story follows a very similar structural pattern and that the contents of each theme in the latter story also resemble the contents of the former to a significant degree.

 

The main difference between the Gunnlǫð and Gerðr stories is, to my view, the emphasis, the outcome, and the existence of a second character in Gerð´scase. The Gunnlǫð story tones down the marriage theme on behalf of the teaching theme, and Óðinn operates by himself. The marriage theme certainly exists, and we learn that Óðinn breaks his ring-oath and betrays Suttungr and Gunnlǫð in the end. The marriage or sexual union is the means by which Óðinn achieves what he is really there for: the mead of poetry, of divine knowledge. The mead appears to function as a symbol for all the arts that Óðinn learns. Emphasis in the story is on Óðinn´s trials and the outcome: his becoming a sage, bringing a sacred treasure from the Underworld into the divine realm or to the “shrine of Earth”.

 

The Gerðr story focuses much more strongly on the marriage theme. The main aim is to convince the giantess to leave her realm, marry the god and become one among the Àsyniur, the goddesses. From other sources we know that there existed a tradition in which Gerðr really became Freyr´s wife and that they had a son who became the founder of a royal line. Steinsland has shown how the union represents a sacred marriage myth which helped to legitimize a royal line, and how it is significant that the marriage is between a god and a giantess, two polar forces in the universe creating something entirely new and powerful, a king figure. The myth possibly also formed a model for rituals of kingship inauguration.[21] While the initiation of Óðinn resembles those of priests, shamans, mystics or ascetics as much as those of rulers, the initiation of Freyr, folkvaldi goda – “the gods´ chief of the people”[22] – seems to point more clearly in the direction of kingship inauguration in connection to sacred marriage. But the religious practitioner is not out of the picture; he appears, in my opinion, in the character of Skírnir, who somehow “makes way” for the young god-king, and in the structural pattern that the initiation follows, which resembles that of Óðinn´s to a significant degree.

 

Finally, something must be said about the “Maiden”. Gunnlǫð and Gerðr, not to say the myths surrounding them, resemble each other closely in function. They dwell in a realm of giants that may be identified with a realm of death. They are strongly protected by physical obstacles and giant fathers. They are both giantesses being wedded to gods. They both have power over a precious, ancient mead, which they serve to their hero in a welcome. They are both associated to gold (golden chair, golden treasures). Gerðr is associated to bright, illuminating shine, something we shall see that she shares with the other Maiden-figures. They are both the focal point of a similar tale of initiation. Their stories follow much the same thematic structure. Their fates depart from each other in the way they are treated by the gods who woo them: Gunnlǫð is deprived of her “whole soul”, and left weeping behind. Gerðr is, in order to kaupa fridr – buy peace – invited to stay in Ásgarðr as a goddess among goddesses, an invitation she eventually, however reluctantly, accepts.

 

The difference is puzzling but not enough to confuse our thesis. In both cases, a point is made out of the life-death-opposition. Óðinn could not have escaped Suttungr´s deadly halls without the help of Gunnlǫð. Her realm is that of death, and through her love and gifts (and perhaps the knowledge Óðinn achieves during his quest), she provides a way for him to fly away. The frost-giants ask themselves whether Óðinn died at Suttungr´s hands or whether he is (alive) among the gods: We know the answer, and it is Gunnlǫð who caused the happy outcome. As I have pointed out before, the embrace of the mistress of death did in fact mean death itself. Óðinn escaped through her help, however unwittingly she provided it.

 

In the case of Gerðr, the structure takes a new turn which is to be evolved in the subsequent stories of the human initiants of the following chapters. Through Skírnir´s curses, we see how Gerðr is shown the two possible turns of her fate: She may become a dweller of the Underworld, a grotesque ogress at the gates of Hel. Such a figure is in fact known from the myths elsewhere and must have been an existing tradition in the concepts of the Underworld. Gerðr may decide to be that, or to become a goddess, a wife of the constantly rejuvenated gods, the opposite of residence among the dead. When Gerðr is made aware of the options, she decides to take Freyr as her lover, but it is up to him to find her through a nine night´s trial. Their meeting in the breezeless grove may very well represent something similar to Óðinn´s flight and subsequent dwelling “among the gods”: a place of no death.

 



[1] Simek, 1996, p. 152. The meaning is disputed, but could come from hlid, “opening”, and skialf, “watchtower”.

[2] Simek, 1996, p. 290, from skirr, “clean”, “clear”

[3] Skírnismál St. 8

[4] Skírnismál, St. 16.  Mera is translated as “precious” (dyrebar) by Holm-Olsen, and as “famous” by Larrington. In the dictionary I could only find mæra, (from mærd, f.), to “honour,”, “adore”, “adorn”.

[5] Skírnismál, St. 37

[6]From barr, “barley” or “conifer”. Simek, 1996, p. 32

[7] Dronke, 1997, p. 390

[8] Faulkes, 1987, p. 50

[9] Baldrs Draumar St. 2, 3, 4

[10] Simek, 1996, p. 126, 127

 

[11] Ellis Davidson, 1964, p. 154,

[12] Skírnismál St. 37

[13] See Hyndluljod, Svipdagsmál, and Ch. 5

[14] Skírnismál, St. 39

[15] Dronke, 1997, p. 395

[16] Steinsland, 1991

[17] Näsström, 1998, p. 140

[18] Dronke, 1997, p. 395. Dronke perceives Gerðr to symbolize the Earth who is “woken up” from the death of winter by the shining ray (Skirnir) of the Sun god (Freyr). This understanding of the myth used to be very common, but has been disputed by amongst others Gro Steinsland, 1991, and others. See appendix..

[19] Clunies-Ross, 1994, p. 140

[20] Steinsland, 1992, p. 319-332

[21] See Ch. 3.1 on Sacred Marriage

[22] Skírnismál St. 3

3 Responses to Freyr and Gerðr – The Initiation of a God

  1. Hello,
    I first found you on Youtube. Your work hits me on a very deep level. I see you as the Kenneth Grant of the North.

    I have a question though. Where would you suggest looking to find practical ways of reproducing the ecstatic states (hanging on the tree for nine nights etc.) that are also true to our ancestral ways?

    Chris

  2. Nick says:

    These tales of initiation really draw me in, i keep puzzling over there meanings and playing with different deep sorts of symbolism’s, but don’t think I have enough pieces to make sense of them.

    Who are these maiden giantesses who dwell in the underworld? Are they merely archetypes that lie deep in our unconscious minds? Are the dangerous lands of the giants symbolic of the heavy forces lurking in our own unconsciousness? Is marriage with a giantess who dwells in these realms then symbolic of one who has become awakened through traversing and ultimately transcending unconsciousness (and therefore death) by uniting a polarity? Is the mead given by the maiden symbolic for the beginning of full awakening?

    Or is it complete folly to try to translate these stories into symbolic comparative understandings? Which then begs the question are these stories of distinct spiritual realms or mythological tales meant to evoke, or perhaps even both??

    Sorry for posting so many questions, hopefully I’m not alone in my both interest and confusion.

  3. Pingback: Gerda and Queenship | Loki's Bruid

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