The Family of Gods
Rather than a pantheon of gods, the Nordic deities are more often portrayed as an extended family, a clan.
This structure can be seen in mythological as well as historic sources. In the tenth century Second Merseburg Charm, for example, the gods named can be identified as a husband and wife, parents and a child, and two sets of sisters . The verse begins: “Phol and Wodan rode into the woods, there the foot of Baldur’s foal went out of joint.” From the context, Phol appears to be the rider of Baldur’s horse, i.e. Baldur himself.
Wodan or Odin is, of course, his father. Nearest Phol-Baldur rides Sinhtgunt and her sister Sunna, the sun goddess. Then comes Odin’s wife Frĳa (Frigga), who is Baldur’s mother, with her sister Volla,
whom we recognize as Fulla, Frigg’s handmaiden, in the Icelandic Eddas. In succession, they each attempt to heal the sprained leg of balder horse, until at last, Odin succeeds. The riding party is thus
a family unit. Based on their relative positions, Sinhtgunt, being first on the scene, presumably because she rode closest to Phol-Baldur, may be Baldur’s wife, Nanna, under an epithet. Her sister
Sunna, the Sun, accompanies her, suggesting a celestial procession.
At the very least, a minimalist reading of the charm yields two sets of sisters, Odin and his traditional wife Frigg, along with the earliest record of their son Baldur’s name. Like‐ wise, in the poem Lokasenna, the gods gathered together for a feast are acknowledged as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daugh‐ ters. At Loki’s instigation, Aegir’s feast becomes a family quarrel with charges of cowardice, infidelity and incest until “Earth’s son” arrives to drive the accuser out. Throughout eddic and skaldic poetry, we are informed of the gods’ familial ties: Earth is Thor’s mother, Thor is Odin’s son, Frigg is Odin’s wife, Baldur is their son, etc.
Even relationships that are no longer understood are enumerated. In Harbardsljóð 9, Thor is said to be Meili’s brother; in Hymiskvíða5, we are told that the giant Hymir is Tyr’s father; and in Hrafnagaldur Óðins 6, we learn that Idunn is Ivaldi’s daughter. Bonds of kinship were obviously important to the ancients. Poems such as Hyndluljod are openly con‐ cerned with the genealogy of heroic figures; members of the god clan appear liberally in their family trees. In at least two Anglo-Saxon genealogies, royal lines descend from Odin and his son Bældægg, commonly recognized as Baldur. In the mythology, the gods function as both a ruling council (Völuspá 6, 9, R23, R25 and R50, among others) and as an extended family or clan, whose members intermarry with both allied and enemy tribes. The divine social order reflects the Germans’ own tribal structure. Rigsthula tells us that one of the gods, Heimdall, ordained the social order among the people, fathering the eponymous founder of each caste by sleeping between the man and wife in each of the three homes he visits. These bonds of kinship are also reflected in their temples, where we often find groups of idols repre‐ senting gods among whom we can discern a family relationship where the evidence permits. In the eleventh century temple at Old Uppsala described by Adam of Bremen, we find Odin and Thor who are father and son, along with a male god named Fricco, whose name connects him to Odin’s wife Frigga or Fricca.
An eyewitness from the tenth-century makes the relationship between these wooden idols plain. In the Rusila of Ibn Fadhlan, a firsthand account of Scandina‐vian merchants along the Volga river in Russia, the smaller icons surrounding the central idol, are said to represent its ex‐ tended family:
Throughout the Icelandic sagas, we discover idols gathered in such groups. Kjalnesinga saga ch. 2 describes a temple at Hof, 100 ft. long and 60 ft. wide with windows and wall hang‐ ings everywhere. The inner sanctuary was circular like the hull of a ship. Thor stood in the midst of it with other gods on either side. In Eyrbyggja saga, in the account of Thorolf Mostrarskegg's temple at Hofstaðir, idols are placed around the platform in a choir-like structure within the temple. In Hrafnkels Saga Freysgóði, Hrafnkel raises a great temple to Freyr at Aðalbol, where he held great sacrifices to the gods.
This temple stood on a rock above a deep river pool and contained images of the gods adorned with robes and ornaments, even though Hrafnkel loved Freyr above all the others and gave him a half-share in
his treasure. In Olaf Tryggvason’s saga, Guðbrandr of the Dales, a good friend of Hakon Jarl, owned a temple dedicated to Thor, which contained figures of Thor and of Hakon's patron goddesses, Thorgerðr
and Irpa. Thor was seated in his car and all were adorned with clothes and ornaments, including rings on their arms. As described, the idol of Thorgerðr stood as tall as a full-grown man and wore a hood on its head. In Jómsvíkinga saga and Þorleifs þáttr jarlsskálds, we learn
that she and Irpa are sisters. This temple and Hakon Jarl's temple at Hlaðir were the two chief centers of worship. The Christian king Olaf Tryggvason systematically destroyed Hakon's temples and despoiled the idols. In his expedition to Trondhjem, Olaf desecrated the temple at Maer, which contained several fixed idols, in the midst of whom sat Thor, “an image of great size, all adorned with gold and silver,” which he burned.
“The moment their boats reach this dock every one of them disembarks, carrying bread, meat, onions, milk and alcohol, and goes to a tall piece of wood set up . This piece of wood has a face like the face of a man and is surrounded by small figurines behind which are long pieces of wood set up in the ground. he reaches the large figure, he prostrates himself before it and says, ‘Lord, I have come from a
distant land, …And I have brought this offering,’ leaving what he hasbrought with him in front of the piece of wood, saying, ‘I wish you to provide me with a merchant who has many dīnārs and dirhams and who will buy from me what‐ ever I want without haggling over the price I fix.’
Then he departs. If he has difficulty in selling and he has to remain too many days, he returns with a second and third offering. If his wishes prove to be impossible he brings an offering to every
single one of those figurines and seeks its intercession, saying,
‘These are the wives, daughters and sons of our Lord.’ He goes up to each figurine in turn and questions it, begging its intercession and groveling before it.” (James E. Montgomery translation).
Numerous poetic references designate the Earth as Odin’s wife and Thor’s mother, and throughout Germanic history we find traces of a powerful Earth-Mother from the earliest records to the close of the
ancient heathen era and beyond. Yet, despite the diverse designations for this figure, Odin is consistently shown to have only one legal wife. Whenever he appears, Frigga most frequently stands at
his side. In the eddic poems and in all historic sources, Frigg, exclusively, is called Odin’s Wife, yet in the skaldic poems, the frequently occurring kenning ‘Odin’s Wife’ always refers to Jörð, the
Earth. This, and other evidence, allows us to identify Frigg as Jörð, the sister of the sea-god Njörð, and mother of Njörd’s famous children.
This idea can be detected in other sources as well. When the heathen king Chlodwig, the first ruler of the Franks (c. 486 AD), rebukes his Christian wife for deriding his gods as nothing but feckless bits of
stone, wood and metal, he responds: "By the will of our gods all things are created and produced. Evidently your god can do nothing, nor has it yet been proven that he [Christ] belongs to the genere of gods.” The word genere (from genus) is Latin for “family, house, ancestry, race, class, noble birth,” and again points to a divine hereditary monarchy, to which Jesus was an outsider. That the gods form a family is self-evident in their leadership. Odin is the All-Father, as well as their ruler. The gods together are esteemed “Frigg’s progeny” (Friggjar niðja) in a skaldic kenning by Egill Skalla-grímsson in Sonatorrek 2.
As the Earth Mother, Frigg’s children rank among the highest gods:
Thor, the twins Baldur and Höður, and the twins Freyr and Freyja all spring from her womb. This naturally explains the kenning Friggjar niðja, “Frigg’s progeny” used of the gods by the heathen skald Egill
Skallagrímsson in his poem Sonatorrek. Just as Odin is known as Alföðr, “All-father,” Frigg is the All-Mother of Asgard. As Odin's only lawful wife, she is the mother of his most prominent sons: Thor,
Baldur and Hödur. As the former sister-wife of Njörd, Frigg is the mother of his famous children: Freyr and Freyja. In effect, Frigg has two husbands: her lawful husband and her brother, both of whom father children by her. With these close connections, Frigg is the epicenter
of the divine family dynamic. She is Odin’s equal in all respects, surpassing him in practical power as shown by the outcome of their disputes in Grímnismál and Historia Langobardorum. She is truly the power behind the throne, not even Odin can oppose her. Frigg’s powerful position beside Odin on his throne Hliðskjalf should not come as a surprise. While men and women had separate roles in Old Norse society, the gods gave the sexes equal gifts. The sons of Borr
bestowed senses, wit and spirit on Ask and Embla alike. Women are not
subordinate to men. The sources, both religious and historical, are rife with strong, independent women. Both men and women appear on the battlefield, as mythological, historical and archaeological evidence affirms. Equality of the sexes was a Germanic reality, long before modern times. This equality is embodied in the godhead, represented by Odin and Frigg.
-William P Reeves
1 Gregory of Tours I, 2. ch. 29: “Ne de genere esse probatur”.
Published in the “Epicist”, number 2