The Mead and the Maiden – The Initiation of the Goddess

This article is taken from a chapter in my 2004 thesis “The Maiden with the Mead – a Goddess of Initiation in Norse Myths`” (Maria Kvilhaug)

8.1: The Maiden: Encompassing the Three Worlds

 

Giantess, goddess and valkyria – as we have shown in the previous chapter, a “Maiden figure” offering mead to the hero after trials of initiation encompasses all three functions. The giants, the “devourers”, are usually understood as the enemies of the gods, representatives of the chaos before the gods ordered the world, and the ultimate destroyers of the gods. However, as Steinsland has shown, giants, particularly giantesses, were also objects of cult and sacrifice.[1] The giantesses do play an ambigous role in Norse mythology, being the mothers, wives, and lovers of the gods. In the Grǫttasongr (see appendix XII), two giantesses called Fenja (“Heath Dweller”) and Menja (“Necklace-Bearer”)[2] tell their own story. Growing up nine winters deep within the earth, the giantesses finally emerge, shaping the rocks and then throwing the “fast rotating rock boulder” into the hands of humankind. The giantesses proceed to moving among the armies of men, allotting victory to some and death to others. When they come into the possession of king Frodi, they start “grinding” peace and plenty, making possible the Frodafridr –the Peace of Wisdom (see Ch. 6.1), until they realize that they are being abused. This realization, combined with the memory of their glorious past, incites the giantesses to grind once again invasion, war and unpeace, as a warning to Frodi to “wake up” and listen to their ancient tales.

 

Fenja and Menja would actually seem to play the roles of valkyriur and of norns, from the way they allot victory and death, moving among the warriors, and from the way they “grind” the fate of the world. Their giantess-hood is explicitly stated in the beginning of the poem and identifiable in their having formerly dwelled far beneath the ground. Gunnlǫð and Gerðr also dwelled far beneath the rock layers, but Gerðr is invited out of that realm and into the divine one through marriage. As we have seen, Gunnlǫð and Gerðr could appear to be identical since both stand out as the same Maiden character. According to the Grottasǫngr, as soon as the giantesses “emerge”, they become like mistresses of fate.

 

What, then, is the usual relationship between valkyriur and giants? In Ch. 6.4, we saw that the valkyriur were situated in a realm of the dead before they were discovered and taken out of there by heroes such as Atli and Sígurðr. The realm is recognizable both through its names, its rulers and the symbols of “giant in eagle´s disguise” and great serpent. Among other known valkyriur, there is Hljod in the Volsunga saga, the daughter of the giant Hrímnir – the “Frosty One”.[3]  In Ch. 6.9, we saw that there was a certain resemblance between the collectives of valkyriur and giantesses as related to giant fathers.It could certainly appear as if the valkyriur were daughters of giants. The valkyriur also have giant “suitors”. 

 

The valkyriur are often identified as a specialized type of norns. The norns, as the valyries, have a “questionable” paSt. In the Voluspá St. 8, three tussameyiar – thurse maidens (giantesses) – powerful and much knowing, emerge while the (male) gods are having fun in their recently ordered cosmos. The arrival of the three female representatives of the older, giant world mysteriously causes the gods to create the dwarfs and the humans. As soon as the humans are created and the World Tree is presented in the poem, the theme of three maidens is repeated, only this time, the maidens are identified as norns, Urðr, Verdandi and Skuld, allotting the fate of men, carving runes into the wood. We do not, of course, know for certain that the three giantesses of St. 8 are identical with the three norns of St. 20. In my opinion, such identification appears logical. Both events instigate major changes in the universe having to do with destiny. In the Vaftrhudnismál St. 49, we hear of “Mogthrasir´s Maidens”, owning three rivers that flow through the world. They are hamingjor and travel through the world, “even through they were born among giants”. A hamingja is considered the personified fate of a person. The word comes from ham-gengja, which originally referred to people who could make their hamr – their soul independent of their body – walk, yet this understanding appears to have vaned, and hamingja was understood as “fortune giver” in the late Viking age, thus closely associated with fate.[4] Thus, the hamingja could be compared with the fylgja, which has also been identified as the soul when it is separate from the body.[5] The fylgja was also considered a kind of guardian spirit, often seen in dreams or by people with supernatural powers. It could appear either as an animal or as a woman.[6] Else Mundal has shown that there is a fundamental difference between the animal fylgjur and the woman ones.[7]

 

The idea of a woman guardian spirit (see Ch. 3.1), is combined with the idea that the fylgja and the hamingja control the person´s fate. In the Gylfaginning, Snorri relates how everybody has a “norn” who is present at the individual´s birth and who decides his or her fortune through life. These norns (of the individuals) “come from” the well of Urðr, the oldest norn. Snorri apparently understood these “norns” of the individuals as aspects of the original cosmic norns. In my opinion, the norn of the individual that Snorri mentions, the hamingja and the fylgja are overlapping concepts.  Turville-Petre counts the valkyriur among the other dísir such as hamingjor and fylgjur as guardian spirits.[8] The valkyria, a kind of norn, certainly fits into the picture of “guardian spirit”, since she follows and protects her hero and in many ways directs his life, as we saw in the case of the twoHelgis, where the valkyriur appear to remind the hero of his duties and guide his way. Turville-Petre and Ström (see Ch. 3.1) have made connections between the fylgjur – dísir and the soul-concept.This is a very disputable theme,[9] but that the valkyriadísir could be associated with the soul in some way or other does seem to be apparent in the theme of reincarnation where, as Kragerud showed, a big point is made of how the hero and the valkyria belong together even after death and into the next life. A similar theme was touched upon in the story of Menglǫð. The idea of the valkyria-Maiden as – perhaps – the hero´s own soul would certainly give us a new understanding of Maiden mythology. If that was the case, it could seem as if the point of all the trials is that the hero has to wake up the sleeping valkyria of his soul.

 

Apart from this last possibility, we are aware that there could be a very strong connection between the valkyria-norn, the fylgjur and the hamingjor. They are all associated with fate, and they could fit neatly into the picture of individuals´ norns mentioned by Snorri. Thus, the hamingjor who are associated with the three great rivers and who “travel through the worlds”, could be norns and/or valkyriur. In Vaftrhudnismál St. 48, the question about Mogthrasir´s maidens is “who are the maidens who journey in troops, wise in spirit, over the sea?” (Hveriar ro their meyiar er lith a mar yfir – frodgediath ar fara?). The valkyriur of the Heroic Poems are also described as a collective of maidens “riding air and sea”. Indeed, the norns and the valkyriur are often depicted in this dynamic manner. In the Voluspá St. 33, the valkyriur are seen, as they emerge for the first time in history, as “ready to ride the world”. In the first poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, norns arrive at Helgi´s birth and perform a dance-like, dynamic action of throwing and fastening the threads of fate. The Hárbardsljod St. 18, tells of maidens who dig the ground out of the valleys, spinning threads of the sand. (Among them is one, the “linen white”, whom Óðinn greatly desired).  All in all, I believe that Mogthrasir´s maidens could be identified as norns or valkyriur, and, importantly, “they were born among giants.”

 

As the Maiden figure hides behind stories of giantesses wooed by the gods in the beginning of time, and behind stories of the later valkyriur wooed by men who were blessed by the gods, we could detect the myth of a once-giantess who became a goddess, a goddess capable of appearing in many shapes at one and the same time, spinning the fates of the individuals. We should not forget that the valkyriur – as well as fylgjur and hamingjor – are often called dísir, a name used also of goddesses such as Freyia (vanadís). As remarked in Ch. 3.4, the name dís is derived from old Indian Dhisana, a goddess who was one goddess and many goddesses at the same time. When appearing as many, their name was the dhisanas. As Ström and Näsström have argued, the same type of concept is shown in the Norse tradition through the existence of a Disarsalinn, a building used during the great ritual gathering in honor of the dísir, where the king had to be present. Although the dísir were a collective of female deities, the hall was dedicated to the one Dís, probably the “Great Goddess”.

 

The implication of a Great Goddess, here called “the Maiden” who is a giantess in origin, opens up for many more discussions. I will here mention only two, both of which have been touched upon throughout this study. One: the theory of the three wells that are really one. Two: the ogress-goddess opposition. The latter leads me to a conclusion that has to do with the well-known “promiscuity” of the Great Goddess Freyia.

 

 

8.2: The Two-Faced Goddess

8. Mǫgr fann ammo mioc leitha ser,                                The son found Grandmother horrible to look at

hafdi hafda hundrud nío;                                                  Nine hundred heads the old one had

enn annor gecc algullin fram                                            But another came forth, all golden

brúnhvit bera biorveig syni                                               Bright-browed, she brought strong drink to her son

 

                                                          Hymiskvíða St. 8

 

In Ch. 6.7, I argued that the poems Hávamál, Fjǫlsvinnsmál and Sigrdrifumál suggest that the three wells of norns (gods), Mimir (giants) and Hel (Death) are the same, or aspects of each other. The hero learns at all the three wells simultaneously. The Maiden holds residence in Hel and is a teacher of runes (the norns), and the descent to her world is associated with Mimir´s tree and well of memory. A giant always guards the Maiden, whether he be her father or her warden. One of these giants, Suttungr, was compared to Mimir in Ch. 4. The Maiden encompasses the three worlds where the hero receives sacred knowledge and sacred marriage.

 

 

Since the Maiden appears to reside in Hel, or rather in a special, bright place deep in the heart of dark Hel, it is reasonable to question what kind of relation she has to the lady of the dead. Since she is a giantess of origin, it is not unlikely that she, in one aspect, is Hel. We have shown how the Maiden is shown in opposition to an ogress of death, representing an alternative. The Skírnismál poem could give us a clue as to what exactly is the relation between the Maiden and the ogress; there, Gerðr is shown two alternative modes of existence, one as an ogress gaping behind the gates of death, deprived of the company of all but hideous ogres, another as a divine bride in possession of the most precious treasures of the gods. It is clear that the ogress and the divine bride are one and the same Gerðr. Of course, we know that Gerðr married Freyr and became equal with the goddesses, but it is useless, in my opinion, to read myth as if it were linear history. Gerðr is much more than a girl pressed into marriage with a god under threat of becoming an ogress. Gerðr is one of the names behind which the Maiden hides, and her marriage to Freyr should be read symbolically. In other settings, the Maiden is married to Óðinn, to Óttarr, to Svípdag, to Helgi, to Sígurðr, to Gunnarr  - and in each case, she is shown in opposition to the ogress of death, her alternative mode of being. As Hilda Ellis-Davidson has pointed out, it is not unusual for the Great Goddess to appear both as an old hag and a beautiful maiden.[10] Svava Jacobsdottir shows how, in the Irish sources that are equivalent to the Norse Maiden myths, the Maiden herself often appears as an old hag until the hero agrees to marry her. Through an analysis of both Irish and Indian sources, Jacobsdottir concludes that more than kingship inauguration was involved, the idea of an immortal existence must also have been present in the myth of the mead-offering lady.[11] The image of Hel that Snorri provides us with in the Gylfaginning is extremely valuable, for he tells us that the face of the mistress of the dead is blue as death on one side, pink as life on the other.[12] The symbolism should be obvious; Hel is both life and death. The simplest explanation of the hero´s trials in the Maiden´s realm could be this: When visiting the Underworld with all its monsters and trials, the hero must “marry” the rosy-cheeked face of Hel, the Maiden, in order to return to the world alive. The experience or ritual of marriage with the Maiden could carry in itself more implications still, such as the possibility of a hope of an alternative after-life in Óðinn´s Valhǫll, where warriors are continually revived so they may serve the godsor in Freyia´s friendly and serene Folkvangr rather than extinguishment in the dark, serpent-infested Misty Hel. Obviously, as we have shown in the previous chapters, the marriage also included esoteric teachings that would enable the hero to function as a healer, poet, sorcerer, a religious professional and even as a king. In the Hyndlulióð, we see that a wolf-riding giantess, whom Freyia addresses as “sister” and “girlfriend” in the beginning of the poem, is the conveyer of secrets. In other cases, such as in the Sigrdrifumál, the bright valkyria is the teacher. There is certainly no strict border between the ogress and the Maiden – the two faces of the goddess. 

 

8.3: The Great Lover

asa oc alfa, er her inni ero                                                       ..of every god and elf in here

hverr hefir thinn hór verith![13]                                                         each has been your illegitimate lover!

 

Gro Steinsland has argued that the idea of death held great variety in the Norse sources.[14] One idea often ignored by scholars, who, like Snorri, prefer to order the mythic cosmos into neat geographical lines and human-like family relations (“the land of the dead here, the land of giants there, this goddess the wife of that god, this of another”), is the experience of death as an “erotic journey of pleasure”.[15] Through poetry, dying is imagined as a feast and a marriage or erotic union with the mistress of death. (In womens´ case, it would appear to be conceived as a feast, like the girl who wanted to “sup with Freyia” in the Egils saga). Above, we suggested that Hel and Freyia, or the ogress and the Maiden, are two faces of the same entity. Freyia, of course, is known as a receiver of the dead in her own right – her link to Hel is shown through the “Maiden-mythology” that we have been analyzing in this study. Now, Freyia is often presented as “goddess of love”. This title, it seems, stems from the fact that Freyia is perceived as “promiscuous”. In the Lokasenna, she is accused of sleeping with every elf and god in the hall of Aegir the sea-giant, and even with her own brother Freyr. In the Gylfaginning, Snorri can tell us that she liked romantic poems and that she was accessible to people concerned with love. Another source, the Flateyiarbók, relates how Freyia, there the wife of Óðinn, slept with four dwarfs in order to have the beautiful necklace Brisingamén. This information, apparently, has been enough to classify Freyia along with Aphrodite and Venus as goddess of sex and love. However, the accusations of promiscuity are something Freyia shares with all the other goddesses in the Norse pantheon, and her roles as receiver of the dead, of being a vǫlva or a sacrificial priestess are rather more particular and prominent in her character. Medieval Christian interpretators may have focused on the immoral behavior of the Pagan goddess, and failed to realize the meaning and the depth of her loving embrace. If we look back to the Lokasenna, we must remember that the gods are feasting in Aegir´s hall. That hall is a realm of death. Aegir is the giant of the sea. Freyia is also associated with the sea through her name Mardǫll – “Illuminating Ocean”.[16] Aegir´s wife is Rán, who catches the drowned ones in her net. Dying at sea was associated with a feast in Rán´s and Aegir´s hall, and by “climbing Rán´s bed”. When Freyia, receiver of the dead, has been the lover of every elf and Áss in that hall, it is a piece of information that reaches beyond Loki´s superficial accusal of promiscuity. Her embrace is death. In her role as “Maiden”, she embodies the alternative to the net of Rán and the serpents of Hel. Her love provides her “lover” with a new beginning. And as Näsström has argued, her person embodies all the goddesses, – in that case, she cannot be other than the lover of all the gods. 

       

                                            Golden Plate, Roman Iron Age, Uppland, Sweden

 


8.4: The Precious Mead

The “drink of precious mead” (drykk hins dyra miadar), “the ale of memory” (minnis aul), the “Poetry Stir” (Óðrerir), thus is the drink called that the Maiden offers to the hero. It seems possible to decode where the drink comes from, mythically. First and foremost, the Maiden is associated with the three wells below the World Tree, as suggested in Ch. 8.1. Now we know that Óðinn obtained a drink from the well of the giant Mimir, the drink of memory and wisdom, by sacrificing one of his eyes. By hanging nine days on the World Tree, he achieved the runes, which were carved by the norns who dwell at Urðr´s well, and he received the precious drink of Poetry Stir. All evidence suggest that he received it from Gunnlǫð in the realm of the dead. The drink appears to be somehow connected with the three wells and the three worlds beneath the World Tree. We do not know how, but Gylfaginning and the Grímnismál give a clue. In the Grímnismál St. 36, the valkyriur are named who give ale to the einherjar – the One-Harriers. In St. 25, we learn that the “fair mead” that never diminishes is milked (presumedly by the valkyriur) from a goat called Heiðrún. As Else Mundal has pointed out, this goat has a sentral function in the continuation of life in Valhǫll and is thus very important for the safety of the divine cosmos, whose defenders the One-Harriers are supposed to be.[17] Standing on the roof of Valhǫll, Heiðrún (whom we earlier identified with Freyia) eats from the tree Læradr while filling a whole vat of mead every day, enough to keep the One-Harriers eternally revived and feasting. Next to the goat stands a stag who also feeds on the tree, and from its horns drops fall down into Hvergelmir, Hel´s serpent-infested well. Since Hvergelmir is situated at the foot of the World Tree, it becomes obvious that the tree Læradr is the World Tree itself, from which the goat Heiðrún eats. The mead of Heiðrún is directly linked to the well of Hel through the St. 25 and 26; obviously, the eating produces the precious liquids from the goat´s udders and the strange drops from the stag´s horns. The goat´s mead goes to the eternally living One- Harriers, the stag´s liquid falls into Hel. Both liquids are taken from the World Tree. Now, from where is the World Tree nourished? Snorri tells us that it is nourished by the norn Urðr, who waters the tree every morning with water from her sacred well at the heart of the divine world. That well from which the tree is watered, has the effect of revival and renewal, even transformation; anyone who bathes in it comes out shining and transparently white. The water keeps the tree from decay. Ultimately, the mead of the One-Harriers, served by the valkyriur, is taken from that well of renewal. Something, obviously, is given back to the well of Death by the stag standing next to the goat, a symbolism too intricate to be discussed here. Turning our focus back to the goat, we are reminded that her name means Bright Hidden Knowledge, and that she is compared to Freyia in the Hyndlulióð. The comparison makes sense since we have established Freyia as the Great Valkyria, the one to whom the valkyriur take the One-Harriers before the goddess allots seats in her own hall and in Óðinn´s.

 

From this information, we learn that the mead is connected to the three wells and that it is somehow drawn from them through the leaves of the World Tree by an entity who has the shape of a goat but who could equally well be the Great Goddess. The mead has a transformative effect and keeps the drinkers eternally alive. It is associated with “hidden knowledge”. It is associated with memory and knowledge. Through the Maiden-mythology, we learn that it is strongly associated with memory of what is taught in the Other Worlds, that it conveys secrets of the cosmos, the knowledge of runes, fate, healing and poetry. As Sigrdrífa said, it is filled with good charms and runes of pleasure, manliness and power. It is offered by a goddess to a man who is her lover. The goddess may also be an aspect of his soul or his individual fate.

 

Much more is not revealed in the poems themselves. From Ch. 3.2, we recall that Sváva Jacobsdottir compared Snorri´s version of the myth of Gunnlǫð with an Old Indian myth of Soma, sacred drink of the Vedic religion. Soma was also known as madhu (“honey”) which is etymologically connected to the Norse mjǫd – mead. In some myths, soma was in possession of the dhisanas, which would certainly link Indian myth to Norse myth, where the mead is in possession of the dísir. A whole book (the ninth) is dedicated to soma in the Rigveda, and the hymns are many thousands of years old.[18]  According to Brockington, a belief in an intoxicating beverage of the gods, a kind of honey or mead, probably goes back to the Indo-European period. Brockington also draws a parallel between the Indian legends of the eagle and Soma, the nectar-bringing eagle of Zeus, and Óðinn  in eagle´s shape fetching mead. The preparation and the offering of somawas a feature of Indo-Iranian worship, known in Iran as haoma. As a deity, Soma is a sage, a poet, a seer, stimulating thoughts and inspiring hymns. As a drink, it invigorates the gods, and is conceived as conferring immortality on gods and men and is called amrta, the “draught of immortality”.[19] The drink also produced ecstacy and was used by ascetics for inspiration. The ecstacy it caused could soar into the atmosphere, into the company of gods, enable one to see everything and go anywhere.[20] In a list of universal polarities, Soma is placed against Agni alongside with “moon”, “death” and the “female” as opposed to “sun”, “life” and the “male”.[21] Within the schools of Kundalini Yoga, Soma is placed in the topmost cakra, being the quintessence of the body, its “nectar of immortality”.[22]

 

As Michael Enright has argued, ritual drinking has its origins in an Indo-European paSt. The soma and the haoma and the “nectar” of Greek myth are met with again in the myth and culture of the Celts and of the Germans. According to Enright, the particulars of Germanic ritual drinking originated in the Celtic ones. We recall that Jacobsdottir compared Norse myth to Irish ones. Enright shows how the Celtic and Germanic traditions were connected during the Celtic Iron Age. The Celtic and Germanic sources show that ritual drinking was strongly associated with a woman and/or with a goddess, as was the case in many Old Indian myths.

 


8.5: The Maiden Unearthed: Archaeological Evidence

Michael Enright looks to European archaeology when trying to trace the history of the Germanic “liquor ritual” with its “lady with a mead cup” at its center. Going back as far as the fifth century B.C, Enright traces burials of great, high ranking Germanic ladies buried with wine-strainer, spoon-sieves and ladles in hand. Close to these obvious liquor- serving devices are cauldrons, cups and drinking horns. Sometimes the cauldron contains remnants of a drink, either made of barley or honey and always with a wide variety of herbs and fruits. These ladies were buried in such a way “as to suggest both her respected functions as distrubutor of drink as well as her high social status”. Males are also buried with drinking devices, but only the women are left with spoon-sieves and devices for serving the drink – in their hands. The devices are left in their hands and in their belt alongside the keys that conveys their status as lady of the household. It becomes obvious from the rich burials that the status of great ladies was symbolized by their serving of drink. The evidences of “lady with a mead cup” and “liqour ritual” are trans-regional and pan-Germanic, reaching from southern Europe to Scandinavia and lasting for at least a millennium. The control and distribution of alcoholic drink was closely linked with high-born women. Enright sees a link between the lady, the drink and “fictive kinship”. This because the ladies are very often accompanied by a kind of drinking vessel called either Ringgefässe or Drillingsgefässe. The vessels are too elaborate to have ever been suitable for ordinary usage.From inscriptions, it is clear that these were ritual vessels used for the “creation of fictive brotherhood and sisterhood”.[23] The Ringgefässe design found in Germanic graves has its origin in the eastern Mediterranian, “where they have been connected with fertility cults and the idea of a mystic marriage with a goddess.” [24] The Drillingsgefässe are found among many cultures throughout the world and were already being crafted in the late Neolithic. The vessels were used for liquor that would run simultaneously through three different cups, and are connected to the Celto-Germanic triple mother goddesses through finds in shrines and temples dedicated to these “Mothers”. The Ringgefässe consist of three cups/vessels standing on one ring. All the cups are connected to each other so that the same liquor runs through the three vessels at the same time. It is of course a bit speculative, but I am certainly reminded of Gunnlǫð´s keeping three vessels containing the same mead – that Óðinn drank from after swearing a ring-oath. The link between the vessels to women and a “mothers´ cult” continues into the migration period. Enright argues that the finds confirm later texts indicating that women among the Germans were regarded as “having a special responsibility for the public ritual creation of brotherhood.” [25] Scholars agree that the vessels possess a pronounced religious or magical significance. Enright draws a line from the women and the vessels to a goddess cult, more specifically a cult of a prophetic goddess which emphasizes reverence for a staff-bearing prophetic goddess.[26] I have underlined the last words because they are extremely interesting in the light of the next chapter. Enright speaks of a “prophetic womens´ cult” which possessed the same attributes in all regions of Germania. The countours and subtleties of the cult are unclear, but the archaeological finds reveal that the connection with women and various peculiar looking staffs and containers have long traditions in southern Germany going back at least to the fifth century B.C. and perhaps into European pre-history. The “cult staffs” accompany the ladies of the mead and the ritual vessels, as well as spinning and weaving equipment which, as Enright shows, links the woman to fate and divining. The staff, as well as the spoon-sieve and the vessel, “must (…) have had a symbolic association with leading women”.[27] The staffs are always found in womens´ or girls´ graves, together with other objects which could easily be interpreted as magical. The links between women, staffs and cultic drinking vessels are manifold and ancient. Enright argues that the association with prophecy and the magical arts and high ranking women was constant for more than a millennium in the Germanic world. “Neither the antiquity, continuity, intensity nor popularity of the woman/liquor/prophecy complex can now be seriously doubted”.[28] In Germanic society, the concept of aristocratic femininity was strongly correlated to the distribution of liquor. The association of women and liquor and ritual drinking has its natural explanation in the fact that brewing ale and preparing mead were the peculiar tasks of women. But the archaeological evidence also demonstrates that prophecy was a crucial part of the mead-cup motif. The links to staffs and magical objects should also lead us to ask whether the distributor of liquor was also a prophetess. Enright argues that archaeological evidence demonstrates the answer as positive.

 

Enright´s approach is historical and sociological, trying to explain the archaeological evidence of the existence of “professional”, high-ranking ladies who serve mead and carry staff and spindle whorls by their function in society. Primarily, Enright argues that the lady had an important role within the warband where she established brotherhood and hierarchy through ritual offering of drink. The lady who stands out as a queen in late Migration period (such as the time of the Beowulf poem), has her equivalent in “prophetesses” who operated alongside kings in early Germanic society, who originated as “tribal matrons”. For the present thesis, Enright´s summary of archaeological finds is valuable because it shows the antiquity and popularity of the idea of a magical female and the ritual serving of mead. Enright sticks to his sociological explanation, of which he has proof, yet he admits that there are subtleties within the religion of the staff-bearing womens´ cult (and thus, the mead-serving womens´) which are difficult to interpret. Enright emphasizes the continuity, the antiquity of this wide-spread cult. My own interpretations and conclusions about “Maiden-mythology” lead me to assume that the imagery of the Maiden with the mead in the myths somehow reflects at least some part of this cult. Since I have interpreted Maiden-mythology as centered around initiation rites, I cannot agree with Enright that the only main purpose of the Lady with mead was to establish brotherhood and hierarchy in the warband. It certainly was one of the purposes, while the teaching and initiation into sacred knowledge must have been another. The existence of ladies serving mead ritually in actual Germanic society would indicate that the Maiden of the myths had her human counterparts. The other objects, such as the cult staff, the spindle-whorl related to fate and divination, and the magical objects (probably kept in pouches) indicate that she was a religious professional. There is only one woman character in the Norse sources who is definitely connected to the carrying of staffs and the art of divination and sorcery, and that is the vǫlva.

 


8.6: The Ultimate Master of Initiation

21. That man hon fólkvig fyrst í heimi,             She remembers the first war in the world

er Gullveig geirum studdu                                when Gullveig was hoist on the spears

ok i hǫll Hárs hana brendu;                              and in the High One´s hall they burned her

thrysvar brendu thrysvar borna,                       three times they burned the three times born

opt, ósjaldan, tho hon enn lifir.                         often, not seldom; yet she still lives!

 

22. Heidi hana hétu, hvars til húsa kom,          She was called Heiðr when she came to the settlements

vǫlu velspá, vitti hon ganda                              the prophecy-wise Vǫlva, she knew how to make spells

seid hon hvars hon kunni,                                 She performed seiðr wherever she could

seid hon hugleikin,                                           With ecstatic (crazed) mind/soul, she performed seiðr[29]

æ var hon angan illrar brudar.[30]                      She was always sought by wicked women.

 

In the Vǫluspá St. 21 and 22, the first war in the world, that between Aesir and Vanir, is associated with the arrival of a vǫlva called Gullveig and then Heiðr. She is burned three times in the hall of Óðinn, and survives every time. She proceeds to operate in society as a wandering figure performing seiðr and teaching it to the women. Somehow, this is connected with the war which had as its the ultimate consequence that Njǫrdr, Freyr and Freyia took up residence as gods among the Aesir. Freyia teaches seiðr to Óðinn, the mead of poetry is created and lost, with the subsequent quest undertaken by Óðinn in order to retrieve the mead from Gunnlǫð. Thus, our subject of the Maiden is intimately connected with the Aesir-Vanir war and its mysterious instigator, the vǫlva Gullveig.

 

Many interpretations have been presented as to the nature of Gullveig-Heiðr. Näsström declares that Freyia herself must be hiding behind the names, and that her function here is to infiltrate the stronghold of the Aesir with witchcraft, and even if they try to kill her, she returns, continuing her destructive plan, first and foremost through demoralizing the women. Already while operating within the Aesirs´ fortress, the Vanir gods break down the fences of the gods, entering with their galðr – songsof victory. Gullveig, Näsström decides, must mean “Gold-thirst”, which shows her greed for gold, while Heiðr is simply a common name for a sorceress.[31]

 

Clunies-Ross also identifies Gullveig with Freyia through her role as vǫlva (practitioner of seiðr) and of sacrificial priestess (Gullveig, Clunies-Ross argues, is sacrificed) and the connection between her operations before the war and her arrival at the end of it. Gullveig and Freyia perform the same mythological functions. The reasons for the violent treatment of Gullveig have to do with what she represents in relation to the Aesir. The Norse cosmos is divided into polarities where male and female is one of them. The Aesir are fundamentally male, representing the ordered and reasoned world. Gullveig is female and a master of sorcery, which makes her appear threatening to the Aesir. According to Clunies-Ross, she offers herself and her arts to the Aesir, but they will have none of it. Their stabbing her with spears is a symbolical penetration leading to death rather than the kind of penetration leading to fertility desired by Gullveig and the Vanir. The treatment of Gullveig led to the war – apparently the Vanir were angry on behalf of their kinswoman.[32]

 

According to Steinsland, Gullveig may represent the three stages of the cosmic process of time; that she is killed three times and born three times may mean that she is present in each of the stages: the three norns by the well beneath the tree, Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, testify with their names a model of time divided into three.[33]

 

As I see it, the problem with such interpretations as those above is that they go very far beyond what is ever actually said in the text. Snorri does not mention the Gullveig story with a word, just as he omitted the sacrifice of Óðinn. The Gullveig myth may, as Clunies-Ross has suggested, like the sacrifice of Óðinn simply have been “too Pagan” for him. Thus we really do not know why Gullveig was sacrificed, stabbed and burned. The terrible treatment of the mysterious woman has obviously made scholars puzzled and appalled, causing a need to explain why (“she was greedy, she was a witch, she threatened the male order, she demoralized the women”). Both Näsström and Clunies-Ross also seem to forget that in the Vǫluspá, it is Óðinn and not the Vanir who starts the war, which make the explanation about the Vanir getting angry about the treatment of their kinswoman rather awkward. Steinsland´s interpretation aims at a deeper understanding of the symbolism of the stanzas, but it does not explain how Gullveig suddenly appears under a new name and operating as a religious professional, a vǫlva, just after her sacrifice.

 

Näsström sticks to the common notion that Gullveig means “greed for gold”, denoting the evil character of this woman, an idea which is also seen in Rudolf Simek´s dictionary, where she is said to be “the personified greed for gold”. Turville-Petre was among the scholars who first presented this idea. Apparently, this is the common understanding among scholars today.[34] However, as Simek and Clunies-Ross recognize: the literal meaning of the name is simply “Golden Drink”, “Golden Intoxication”, or “ Gold-Power.” [35] None of these interpretations actually denotes “greed” at all. Gold is not always associated with greed in Norse mythology; on the contrary, the Skáldskaparmál shows that gold is often associated with poetry and numinous wisdom. The three possible interpretations of her name that are literal translations, not conjectures, are rather in accordance with the image of the Maiden with the Mead, who is all golden, serving a mead of power. To assume that her name indicates greed for gold is actually an assumption that has no foundation except in the scholars´ wish to explain why Gullveig “deserved” her bad treatment.

 

As we have argued, Gullveig´s treatment did not lead to the Vanir, her people, declaring war, but to Óðinn throwing his spear against the enemy (the Vanir) after a counsel with the other gods about who should “have the sacrifice”. We do not know what sacrifice they are arguing about, but in my opinion, it is not unlikely that it is that of Gullveig. And this is where we should take a closer look at the sacrifice. It is not necessary to make conjectures about what reasons lay behind the stabbing and burning of Gullveig and who did it. The important information is right there in the poem itself. The important information is that Gullveig defied death. She was burned to ashes three times, and reborn every time. Gullveig is presented as a woman who defies the lot of all mortal creatures: death. Hoist on a spear, burned three times, she comes out alive, reborn. In my opinion, the trials undergone by Gullveig reflect Óðinn´s trials on the world tree. My idea seems strengthened by the fact that, after her trials of death, she is presented as a practitioner of seiðr in the society, or more generally, as a religious functionary, something that would logically follow any such death-trial initiation. Her new name is Heiðr, meaning “Bright One” or “Shining One”.[36] This is also in accordance to the Maiden´s usual bright, beaming, golden characteristics.

 

Gullveig could be a goddess, and she might have become one after her trial. Gullveig as Heiðr is said to be a vǫlva  - a type of office that certainly existed in the Norse society; thus, we could be seeing a person, a woman, who challenges the gods´ monopoly on immortality as the first human being in the world to do so. The quest for immortality is certainly not unknown in the history of religions, and defying death is known in its most violent forms among the initiation trials of shamans and mystics all over the world. The gods, of course, are terrified; one of their creatures, a mortal, has conquered death itself. (Such divine terror of human potential is known from many myths across the world, such as in the Genesis and in the Popol Vuh).

 

That is one interpretation. Another would be to see Gullveig as an equally supernatural creature as the gods from the start. The gods and giants of Norse cosmology  are, after all, not eternally immortal, although they stay young for aeons due to the apples of the goddess Iðunn ( – another face of the Maiden? ) Gullveig shows an art that Óðinn coveted, the art of changing fate – of conquering death. The art is closely connected to seiðr, which not only encompassed divination as a foretelling of the future, but also functioned as operative divination – where the future, fate itself, could be altered.[37] Fate, ultimately, is death for all mortals. Seiðr in its most advanced aspect could have been a means to change that ultimate fate.

 

 This would more easily explain Óðinn´s subsequent action of throwing a spear against the Vanir, thus starting the war. Óðinn´s throwing a spear at someone is an action that represents a “kind of magical power the god possessed that would dedicate those warriors to himself as future inhabitants of Valhǫll.” [38]He wanted Gullveig and her associates to come to Ásgarðr. The war led to the trio of Njǫrdr, Freyr and Freyia entering the Aesirs´ world, and Óðinn got what he wanted: Freyia´s teachings of seiðr. When Clunies-Ross argues that Gullveig was killed because the Aesir did not want the sorcery she represented, she must have ignored the fact that Óðinn himself caused the war that led to the possibility of his learning exactly what Gullveig represented, and that he eagerly enough learned it and taught it to the other gods, who must have been quite interested, too.

 

Thus, the “aggression” against Gullveig emerges in a different light. We do not have to look for “aggressors”, nor for their reasons. The “they” who stab and burn her could be just like the “they” who did not give the stabbed and hanged Óðinn drink nor food – “they” could be those who assisted the initiate in her and his trials. That it happens in the halls of the High One indicates that Óðinn observes the trial – and desires the same abilities. Both Óðinn´s and Gullveig´s death-trials and sacrifices lead to their becoming operating professionals: Gullveig becomes a wandering vǫlva performing seiðr and teaching the women, Óðinn  becomes a much-sought sage whose words and actions lead to more words and more actions, and who teaches the priests.

 

In her study on Sumerian mythology around the sacred marriage of the Great Goddess, Anita Hammer points out that, while the older Sumerian religion knows of a female “culture hero”, namely Inanna, who undertakes a journey to the realm of the dead and other tasks that shape culture, later Greek and Teutonic mythologies only know of male “culture heroes”.[39] This is the common conception, and scholars have argued how the Norse ordered, human and divine world is conceived of as male in essence, whereas the world of giants is female in its essence. This would explain why the “culture hero” is always a male – the representative of “this side” is usually male – while the representative of the “other side” is a female.[40] However, it could appear as if Óðinn, Freyr and all the heroes had their predecessor when it comes to trials of initiation and the conquest of death. And she was not a male.

 




[1] Steinsland, 1986, p. 212-220

[2] Simek, 1996, p. 79-80, 211

[3] Simek, 1996, p. 158: “The one covered with hoar-frost”. Volsunga saga 1, Byock, 1999, p.36

[4] Simek, 1996, p. 129

[5] Simek, 1996, p. 96

[6] Ström, 1985, p. 205-206

[7] Mundal, 1974

[8] Turville-Petre,1975, p.  221-235. Ellis-Davidson, 1998, p. 177 believes the concept of valkyrias as guardian spirits belongs to an older tradition.

[9] Else Mundal, 1974, criticizes such notions in her work on the fylgjur of Norse literature because they seem very difficult to prove on the basis of the sources themselves.

[10] Ellis-Davidson, 1998, p. 22

[11] Jacobsdottir, 2002, p. 51

[12] Gylfaginning, Faulkes, 1987, p. 27

[13] Lokasenna St. 30

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

[15] Ibid, p. 319

[16] Simek, 1996, p. 202 : “the one who illuminate the sea”, or “who makes the sea swell”

[17] Mundal, 1992, p. 241

[18] Brockington, 1996, p. 7

[19] Ibid, p. 16-17

[20] Ibid, p. 75

[21] Ibid, p. 129

[22] Ibid, p. 156

[23] Enright, p. 107

[24] Ibid, p. 107

[25] Ibid, p. 108

[26] Ibid, p. 113

[27] Ibid, p. 114

[28] Ibid, p. 125

[29] In the Codex Regius the lines are seid hon kuni/ seid hon leikinn –which would, according to Strömback, 2000, mean “she knew seid, she performed seid ecstatically (crazed)”. The Swedish term used by Strömbäck for my “ecstatically” is “fǫrryckthet”.

[30] Voluspá, St. 21-22

[31] Näsström, 1998, p. 68, p. 91, p. 128

[32] Clunies-Ross, 1994, p. 204

[33] Steinsland, 1991, p. 290. Urdr is made of verda- to become, while verdandi means “becoming”, and skuld marks the future form of the word.

[34] Simek, 1996, p. 122. Turville-Petre, 1975, p. 159. Various scholars such as Müllenhof, Krause, Nordal and Turville-Petre have explained the name as “the drunkenness of gold, hence the madness and corruption caused by this precious metal”  (Clunies-Ross, 1994, p. 204)

[35] Simek, 1996, p. 122, Clunies-Ross, 1994, p. 204

[36] Simek, 1996, p. 135: Heidr, f. means “light”, “beaming”, or “fame”. The masculine noun heidr means “heath”, “honour”. The “light”-meaning semantically fits Gullveig´s name best, according to Simek.

[37] Näsström, 2001, p. 62, argues that seidr and divination could be active and “operative” – where the practitioner could realize his or her desires through divine help if she/he had sufficient magical power.

[38] Clunies-Ross, 1994, p. 206

[39] Hammer, 1999, p. 83

[40] Clunies-Ross,1994, p. 128-129, Heide, 1997, p.

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