Ottarr and Freyia – The Initiation of an Einheri

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

The name Ottarr means “Fear Warrior”

In this chapter, we shall explore the “Maiden-myth” of the poems Hyndlulióð, the Gróagalðr and the Fjǫlsvinnsmál. The two latter poems are usually studied together as the so-called “Svípdagsmál” since they seem to be connected with each other.[1] The poem Fjǫlsvinnsmál has been transmitted through a rather late manuscript from the 17th century, and most 20th century scholars have disregarded the poem as a late medieval poem not to be reckoned among the “real” Edda-poems but rather as a fairy tale imported from the continent, perhaps Celtic in origin. In his study of the poem, Eldar Heide shows how the poem must be counted among the old Divine Poems and that it is an important source to Nordic mythology, even a key to the understanding of cosmology in the old, pre-Christian religion. The mythical pattern of the Fjǫlsvinnsmál is comparable to other more commonly accepted sources to Norse mythology. Heide chooses to study the Fjǫlsvinnsmál as a separate poem, the way it is presented in the source-material, since it is possible to read it as a complete lay in itself even though the Gróagalðr appears to be closely related.[2] I agree with Heide that both poems are no more “fairy-tale”-like than other Edda poems, and no less Pagan in origin. But I disagree with Heide when he maintains that the Gróagalðr has no function in the Fjǫlsvinnsmál. Heide admits that the two poems may form part of the same story, even if they are two separate lays.[3] As Lotte Motz has argued earlier, the combination of the poems into a “Svípdagsmál” makes sense since the charms of Gróagalðr could appear to be describing an initiation ritual.[4] In fact, the Gróagalðr and the Fjǫlsvinnsmáltogether fit perfectly into the pattern of “Maiden-mythology” that we are discovering in other Edda poems, which means that they must reflect the same older mythical reality hiding behind the Gerðr-, Gunnlǫð-, Freyia- and valkyria-stories. Even if the two poems may be read separately from each other, I find it fruitful to read both together as a “Svípdagsmál”, since Fjǫlsvinnsmál without the Gróagalðr looses the initiatory “vision-quest theme” and trials under guidance from a “master” (in this case a female) that lead Svípdag to the high hall of the Maiden where the ultimate trial begins. Even when read on their own, the two poems reveal parts of the same “Maiden-mythology” that we find in the Hávamál and in the Skírnismál.  Read together, the two poems as separate parts of one story follow the pattern of other “Maiden-stories” perfectly.


Menglǫð is not known from other sources than the jointed “Svípdagsmál”, but she shares many characteristics with Freyia. Scholars have mainly identified her through her name, which is supposed to be derived from men – necklace, gold or treasure – and glǫd, which is supposed to be a derivation of gladr –“bright”, “clear”, “light”, “joyful”, “happy” or “quick”.[5] Many scholars have assumed that the name indicates “the One Who takes Pleasure in Jewels.”[6] Since Freyia is associated with jewels and gold, especially a certain bright necklace called the Brisingamen – the “Fiery Necklace”,[7] the name Menglǫð itself lends to the identification of the two figures. Menglǫð, moreover, is situated behind a dangerous fence which will only open for the “right one”, a feature she shares with Freyia  (and, indeed, with Gerðr). Menglǫð´s hall is also very beautiful, and the story about her is a love story, fitting into the pattern of our popular idea of Freyia as a goddess of love. Besides, Menglǫð is waiting and yearning for her long lost husband, just like Freyia (and Gunnlǫð). Menglǫð is surrounded by maidens, nine in number. As we know, Freyia is associated with a kind of maidens called the valkyriur, who, as we shall see in Ch. 6, usually appear in a collective of nine.


The meaning of Menglǫð´s name is, however, challenged by Svava Jacobsdottir. She argues that the name could be derived from OE mengan – “to mix”, and lǫd – “invitation” or “drink” (like the lǫd in Gunnlǫð). Thus the name indicates the invitation to a mixture – a drink. This is in accordance with the mead-serving goddess of the Irish sources, who often takes her name from the drink she serves.[8] In the interpretation “Invitation to a Drink” we are perhaps perceiving a tradition of a Maiden who is not only associated with, but even identified with, the precious mead. In Ch. 8 we will discuss the vǫlva Gullveig in the light of Maiden-mythology. Her name may be translated as “Golden Drink”.


Menglǫð´s goddess-hood is also challenged by Eldar Heide, who argues that her character is that of a giantess.[9] In my study, the opposition “giantess vs. goddess” is not overly problematic since the Maiden figure, as we shall argue, covers both giantess-, goddess- and valkyria-hood.


The authenticity of the Hyndlulióð has also been questioned by scholars. The poem tells of how Óttarr descends to an Underworld to learn about his “ancestry”. But after being told of what may be accepted as a human, legendary ancestry, his teacher, a giantess who has much in common with a Vǫlva, proceeds to reveal cosmic secrets of a visionary nature much like those of the poem Voluspá. Since Óttarr has descended with the goddess in order to obtain knowledge of his ancestry, most scholars have been rather puzzled about the nature of the teachings. Larrington and Simek among many others claim that the stanzas 29-44 constitute an interpolation of an entirely different poem, namely what Snorri mentions as the Voluspá in skamma – “The Short Prophecy of the Vǫlva”.[10]  However, Steinsland argues that the poem Hyndlulióð is complete in itself, and that the esoteric nature of the teachings is part of Óttarr´s “ancestry”  – he is actually learning that everythinggods, giants, humans, and a great Being, are his “ancestry” – that everything that appears separated and different, are in fact one.[11] My position is similar to that of Steinsland; I believe the St. 29-44 form a logical part of the revelations.


In the “Svípdagsmál” and in the Hyndlulióð we are met with goddess-figures in a role very similar to that of the giantess Maidens in the previous chapter. Freyia´s goddess-hood is unquestionable, she is counted among the most powerful and high-ranking ásyniur – goddesses – in Ásgard. However, she was not originally an ásynja. Like Gerðr, she entered Ásgarðr from another tribe. Freyia´s tribe is the Vanir, whose origin is unknown. Just as the perpetual enmity between the Aesir and the giants, there used to be enmity between the Aesir and the mysterious Vanir. Just as Freyr tried to “buy peace” (frid at kaupa[12]) with Gerð´sclan, the giants, by inviting Gerðr as his wife to Ásgarðr and to subsequent goddess-hood,[13] the Aesir try to buy peace with the almost victorious Vanir through an exchange of hostages. Among the hostages from the Vanir is Freyia and her family. Freyia teaches seiðr  - the art of the vǫlur – to Óðinn, and is a blotgyðja – a sacrificial priestess/goddess. The truce between Freyia´s people and Óðinn´s also results in the creation of the mead of poetry with its subsequent need for a quest to retrieve the mead from the giants as told in the story of Gunnlǫð. As Näsström has shown, sources independent from that of Snorri regard Freyia as a wife or concubine of Óðinn.[14] Snorri, who neatly systematizes the divine world, regards Frigg as Óðinn´s wife, while Freyia is married to “someone called Ódr”. Most scholars assume that Ódr is Óðinn,[15] and that Frigg and Freyia at some point in history were one and the same goddess, Frija.[16] Snorri relates how Ódr suddenly disappeared, and that Freyia was left behind weeping, much the same way as Gunnlǫð was. Indeed, there is also a story of how Óðinn, gone traveling, left his wife Frigg for so long that she took other husbands.[17] Freyia´s story does not finish with passive weeping either, for she started to travel the world wearing different shapes and names, leaving behind her tears of pure red gold everywhere she went.[18] In fact, as Näsström has pointed out, Freyia´s name is actually a title, not a name, meaning “Lady”, much in the same manner that a great god may be called simply “the Lord”. Through comparative analysis of features and characteristics, Näsström has shown that the great “Lady” may hide behind a large number of female deities, even norns and giantesses (see Ch. 3.4).


One part of the Óðinn-Freyia relationship is particularly interesting and puzzling. We are not told how the arrangement came to be, but the Grimnismál St. 14 reveals that Freyia, residing in the ninth world, receives the dead souls of the einherjar – the chosen dead. She decides which of the einherjar (one-harriers) shall sit in her beautiful hall of friendship, and which shall go on to Óðinn´s Valhǫll to become eternal warriors in service of the gods. Significantly, she shares the einherjar with Óðinn – not the other way around. It is clearly Freyia and not Óðinn who is in control of the choice. This information links Freyia to the valkyriur on one side, since they are the spirits who hover above the battle-field choosing who shall fall and taking their souls with them to Valhǫll. The Grimnismál information, which is repeated by Snorri in the Gylfaginning, makes it natural to assume that the valkyriur were as much maids of Freyia as of Óðinn, since they must have taken the souls to the goddess firSt. On the other side, the information above also links Freyia to Hel, the giantess who receives the dead, and who rules in nine worlds. Other sources also establish Freyia as a mistress of death, such as the girl of the saga who cries out that she will not eat until she “sups with Freyia”, meaning that she will starve herself to death.[19] (See app. VI for Snorri´s information about Freyia).




As remarked above, Freyia would receive dead souls, keep some for herself in her serene and beautiful halls of the ninth world, and send others on their way to Óðinn´s Valhǫll – the Hall of the Chosen. Just how this happened is not known, but the Hyndlulióð may give an indication. The poem begins with a speech which sounds rather like an invocation (see app.VII). The goddess, Freyia, is trying to wake up her “sister”, her “girlfriend”, Hyndla, who lives in a rock cave. We learn that it is “the darkest of darkness itself”, and that Freyia wishes to ride to Valhǫll and to the holy shrines. Freyia asks Hyndla to saddle one of the wolves of her stables and ride with Freyia and her choice of steed, a great boar.


Hyndla of the rock cave, the perfect image of a giantess, does wake up, but she sneers at Freyia´s requeSt. It is not a boar that Freyia is riding, it is a man in boar-shape. Her “boar” is really Óttarr, Freyia´s verr – lover or husband. Even so, argues Freyia, Óttarr has always believed in goddesses, and colored red the altars of sacrifice until the rock turned to crystal. Thus, he has behaved in a manner which deserves help and attention. His wish is to have his “heritage”, namely the gold of Valland – the Land of the Chosen. He has wagered this gold with a certain Angantyr, and now he is in dire need of counsel about his lineage.


The fact that Óttarr is presented as a devout worshipper of goddesses seems to convince the giantess. She and Freyia dismount from their respective steeds, the wolf and the boar, and sit down to count up Óttarr´s  “ancestral lineage”. Hyndla starts by counting up the lineages of great men and women, of the gods, of the giants, of the vǫlur and the vitkar (wisards). Throughout her rhythmic account, she keeps asserting that “all are your kinsmen”, addressing Óttarr as “the ignorant”,“the one who has never been away from home” (heimski). Eventually, Hyndla reveals the greatest of secrets: That there is one being greater than all of those accounted for, born by nine giant maidens. This being, which we know to be Heimdall (“the Illuminating World”[20]), encompasses everyone else. Finally, Hyndla reveals some of the reasons behind the end of the world which is to come and indicates a new beginning.


When Hyndla has sung her song of sacred ancestry, Freyia asks Hyndla to give the “ale of memory” (minnis aul[21]) to Óttarr so that he can remember her words “on the third morning” when he and Angantyr shall reckon up their lineage. Hyndla, however, refuses, saying that she wishes to sleep, and tells Freyiato run off into the night like the goat Heiðrún runs with the rams. In the next stanza, she repeats the comparison of Freyia and Heiðrún, adding that Freyia runs wildly about full of desire, and that many are those who have run about her skirts. The stanzas appear insulting, and Freyia responds that she will surround this place with the fire of troll-women (elldi of ividiu[22]) and that Hyndla will never come out unburned. Hyndla responds that everybody wishes to save their lives, but that the ale Freyia serves to Óttarr is full of poison. Freyia has the final word, declaring that the giantess´s words of bad luck shall have no effect, that Óttarr shall drink the precious drink (dyrar veigar[23]), and that all gods shall help him.



5.2: Structural Elements in Hyndlulióð

The “vision quest theme” of the Hyndlulióð is apparent in the allusion to Óttarr´s previous sacrificial activity, which led the goddess to appear and help him. We may not know what kind of effect blood sacrifice may have been expected to have on its practitioner, but it is not unlikely that it could induce a state of mind open to the supernatural powers. This is possibly shown through the fact that Óttarr in some way or other actually becomes the sacrifice. The sacrifice is followed by his descending into the underworld in the shape of a boar. The boar was sacred to the Vanir, usually associated with Freyr. One of Freyia´s names, Syr (sow), however, also associates his sister with pigs. The pigs were important sacrificial animals. They were considered very powerful –in the Hyndlulióð, St. 38, we hear that Heimdallwas strengthened by the blood of the sacrificial boar, together with the power of the earth and the sea.  I find it likely that Óttarr represents the sacrificial boar on its way to the realm of the dead. This element links Óttarr to Óðinn, who sacrificed himself in order to obtain the knowledge of the runes of fate, powerful spell-songs and a drink of Poetry Stir.


The vision theme must be that Óttarr´s activities cause the goddess to appear, changing him into a steed for herself.


The descending theme is obviously when Freyia rides Óttarr the boar into the darkness of darkness itself, where she wakes up the maiden of the rock cave and ask for her help. The utter darkness, the sleeping giantess and the wolves that she rides are all features of the realm of the dead.[24]


The trial theme is not as clear as in the previous examples. Óðinn is directly faced with giants such as Suttungr and Baugi, whom he has to overcome in cleverness, as well as a mountain which is not easy either to enter or to escape from. Skírnir has to overcome barking dogs and a fence of fire, and the threat of the giant Gymir is alluded to. In Óttarr´s case, the fence of fire is mentioned, but only as Freyia threatens to surround Hyndla with it at the end of the poem. From other sources we know that Freyia indeed was surrounded by high walls, even if it is not mentioned in this poem. The trial takes a different form: Óttarr´s wish is to get to Valhǫll (St. 1) and to have the gold of Valland (St. 9), the hall of- and the land of the Chosen Dead, but the gold of that realm is being wagered with a person called Angantyr. Steinsland assumed that Angantyr is Óttarr´s opponent as future king.[25] I take a different standpoint, based on the information that Óttarr´s main aim is, in the poem, stated to be Valhǫll, not kingship. Angan means “pleasure”, and “tyr” is a word for “god”. The “god of pleasure” is Óttarr´s primary opponent and challenge on his path to the hall of the Chosen, and may only be overcome through knowledge of esoteric lore that identifies Óttarr with every kind of being in the universe, ultimately revealing that they are all one. It is not uncommon in the history of religions for spiritual insight and liberation to be placed in opposition to the pleasures of the material world. Only through the knowledge of the underworld presided over by the giantess-Vǫlva, the lady of rocks and wolves, darkness and wilderness, and, crucially, through the drink that makes him capable of remembering what he has learned on the “third day”, may Óttarr have a chance in the wager.


The second trial is to obtain the knowledge from the reluctant giantess, who is persuaded to chant her sacred lore, but not to give him the important mead of memory. We are closing in on the theme of the Óðinn-Gunnlǫð story again: how to get to the mead. Only through the love and care of the Maiden will that be possible. That, through sacrifice and devotion, Óttarr had already achieved.


The “Maiden theme” surface in the fact that Ottarr is Freyia´s verr, which means man, lover or husband, and in Freyia´s declaration that she will offer Ottar the precious mead, the mead of memory.



5.3: Ogress versus Goddess – the Life and Death Opposition

At the end of the poem, Freyia and the giantess stand out against each other: the giantess who, although being the very source of sacred knowledge, can only offer destruction and forgetfulness, promises death and accidents, whereas the goddess promises the drink of memory and the help of all divine beings. In fact, Freyia personifies the alternative to what Hyndla represents, surrounding the ogress of death with a magical fire and offering a drink that makes the hero capable of remembering what he learned in the underworld while “dead”, in the shape of the sacrificed boar. Like Brynhild the valkyria tells the ogress of death to “sink” so that she may be with Sígurðr in eternity[26], Freyia puts fire to the giantess who can promise “few fair things” (fer thu fætt af mer fridra kosta[27]).  The opposition between Freyia and Hyndla is also symbolized in their steeds. Hyndla rides a wolf, the wolf being, in Norse mythology, always a representative of the giant, destructive forces, the devouring, hungry animal. Freyia, however, rides a boar, the pig being the very symbol of wealth, hunger satisfied, and sacrificial power. In the opposition, we are reminded of Gerð´schoice: life as an ogress in Hel or life as a divine bride in Ásgard. Freyia, it seems, represents the latter option.


Steinsland has interpreted Óttarr´s quest for his heritage as a part of kingship inauguration – the king must prove that he has a royal, divine and giant lineage.[28] Although, as we have seen in Ch. 4, the initiations presided over by the Maiden figure may include initiation to kingship, I believe that the “heritage” in question is of a more general religious nature, implied in the intention of going to Valhǫll or Valland stated in St. 1 and St. 9, as well as in the teachings and the challenge of Angantyr.  Óttarr needs good lessons to have his “heritage”- the heritage of all creatures in the universe. Here, only the knowledge of sacred inter-connectedness with all things appears sufficient to overcome the rule of pleasure. This, apparently, is necessary to claim the treasures of the Land of the Chosen Ones, the alternative to extinction in death.

[1] In 1856, Sophus Bugge and Svein Grundtvig decided that the poems Gróagaldr and Fjǫlsvinnsmál must be understood together as a bigger poem: the Svipdagsmál -a title constructed by these scholars. This view  is basically founded on how a very similar story appears in a 16th century Danish fairy tale; the Ungen Svejdal (Grundtvig, 1996(1856). Their theory is commonly accepted today. Heide, 1997, p. 12

[2] Heide, 1997

[3] Heide, 1997, p. 39,40

[4] Motz, 1975, p. 135

[5] Norrøn Ordbok. Simek, 1996, p. 210

[6] Simek, 1996, p. 210

[7] Simek, 1996, p. 44-45. Either from brisa –“to shine”, or from brísingr, “fire”

[8] Jacobsdottir, 2002, p. 45

[9] Heide, 1997, p. 160

[10] Larrington, 1996, p. 253, Simek, 1996, p. 169

[11] Steinsland, 1991, p. 244-251

[12] Skirnismál St. 19

[13] Snorri counts Gerðrr among the goddesses in Skáldskaparmál (Faulkes, 1987, p.59)

[14] Näsström, 1998, p. 89-91

[15]  Simek, 1996, p. 250, Näsström, 1998, p. 90

[16] Ellis-Davidson, 1998, p. 10, Näsström, 1998, p. 136, Simek, 1996, p. 94

[17] Ynglinga saga 3, Gyldendal, 1944, p. 4

[18] Gylfaginning (Faulkes, 1987, p. 30)

[19] Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, Lie, 1970, p.188

[20] Simek, 1996, p. 135

[21] Hyndluljod, St. 45

[22] Hyndluljod, St. 48

[23] Hyndluljod, St. 50

[24] See passage about Ódinn´s and Hermóðrr´s underworld journeys in Ch. 4.4 , and about giantesses riding wolves in Ch. 4.1

[25] Steinsland, 1991, p. 256

[26] See Ch. 6.7

[27] Hyndluljod, St. 46

[28] Steinsland, 1991, p. 256-259

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