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The Face of Earth

Jul

14

The Face of Earth


In Germanic sources, Mother Earth holds a prominent position. The evidence (as compiled in the previous chapters) is overwhelming. She is present from the beginning of the record. In Germania, chapter 2, Tacitus informs us that the Germanic tribes in common claim descent from an earth-born god. In chapter 40, he says that no less than seven tribes worshiped Nerthus, who is Terra Mater, Mother Earth. As the first named Germanic goddess, Nerthus takes interest in human affairs and rides among her people in a wagon procession to a lake where her idol is bathed. She is worshiped across a broad geographical area dominated by seven northern tribes. Among them, Tacitus names the Anglii and Langobardi who enter history as the Angles and the Lombards. Among both, we later find evidence of her worship.


The descendants of the Anglii in the Anglo-Saxon Æcerbót record a charm to restore fertility to blighted land, in which earth is addressed as Erce, which may be a proper name; eorþan modor, Mother of Earth; and fira modor, the mother of men. She is exhorted to become fertile, i.e. pregnant, “in God’s embrace.” There the Christian God takes the place of the old sky-god. In the eighth century, the now Christian Lombards speak of a “ridiculous fable” or “silly tale” told by old men in which Godan’s (Odin’s) wife, Frea, once assisted them in their time of need. Odin’s wife instructed them to have their women appear on the horizon at sunrise with their hair arranged like beards. Frea turned her husband’s bed around so that he would see them first upon rising. Taken with this strange sight, he asked: “Who are these long-beards (Langobardi)?” Having given them a new name, he was compelled by force of custom to also grant them victory over their enemies, just as Frea had planned. For this act they revered her, as recorded a century after their conversion to Christianity. The story has a direct analog in the eddic poem Grímnismál more than four hundred years later.


Likewise, in skaldic poetry, among the oldest known compositions of Scandinavia, we find the kenning “Odin’s wife” frequently used to exclusively designate the Earth. In Snorri Sturluson’s fictive account of the development of religion in the Prologue to Gylfaginning, he writes that the generations after the Biblical flood forgot the name of God and knew nothing of their Creator. They reasoned that the earth was alive, gave it a name, and traced their ancestry to it, mirroring Tacitius’ statements a thousand years earlier. In Skáldskaparmál, Snorri informs us that earth was known as Folde, Jörð, Hlóðyn and Fjörgynr, demonstrating that the Earth-Mother was known by many names, although she plays no role in the mythology he expounds. The heathen skalds call her “Odin’s wife” most often, but in our mythological and historical sources, the position of Odin’s wife and queen is always occupied by Frigg, who, not surprisingly, exhibits clear characteristics of being the Indo-European Earth-Mother.

All across northern Europe, throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times, folktales tell of a matronly figure who makes the snow and rain fall. She dwells in ponds and wells from which babies are born. Women and children are often seen in her train. Closely associated with agriculture, spinning and domestic affairs, she visits homes at Yule along with her husband Wodan (Odin), richly bestowing blessings on the industrious and punishing the lazy. She is Mother Nature herself, the old heathen Earth-Mother.

In Christian times, her teaching remains; Earth rewards those who work hard, and deals harshly with those that do not. The people call her Frau Holle, Frau Holda (cognates of the name Hlóðyn, an epithet of Jörd), Herke, Perchta, and Berchta (cognates of Erce in the Anglo-Saxon Æcerbót). The further north one travels, she is known as Frau Wode, Frau Gode (both meaning Mrs. Odin) and Frekka, a designation which corresponds to Odin’s wife, the “beloved” Frigg, whose name first occurs as Frea in the same region. Along with her husband Wodan, she leads the Wild Hunt, sometimes appearing among the people in a wagon, like Nerthus.


In the tenth century, in Merseburg at the very heart of the Frau Holle legends, a heathen charm records the names Wodan, Frija and Volla, an Old High German form of the name Fulla, Frigg’s handmaiden in the Prose Edda three centuries later. These divinities work together to cure balderes volon, “Baldur’s foal,” widely recognized as the first literary mention of Baldur, Odin and Frigg’s famous son. A similar scene is depicted on fifth and sixth century bracteates, where the head of a god, probably Wodan, frequently appears above a horse with quite obviously dislocated forelegs. A brachteate of the same type from southwest Germany, depicts a female with a weaving implement of the same type found in the Oseberg ship burial, suggesting a pre-Christian goddess associated with weaving. Also, in tenth century Germany, farther north, a historian from Bremen records the names of a trio of gods in a temple at Old Uppsala in Sweden. They are Wodan, Thor and Fricco, the latter being a masculine version of the names Frigga and Frekka. The recognition of a divine pair, Fricco and Frigga, adds to an existing pattern of such god names: Freyr and Freyja, Njörð and Nerthus, Fjörgynn and Fjörgynr, Bercht and Berchtold—a phenomenon reflected in the ancient pairs of male and female wooden idols found throughout the same area, and not uncommon in the Indo-European sphere.

In thirteenth century Denmark, Saxo names Frigg once again as the wife of Odin. A generation later on Iceland, Snorri Sturluson names two wives of Odin: Frigg, the mother of Baldur, and Jörd (Earth), the mother of Thor. He also provides a list of minor goddesses, including Hlín, “who protects people that Frigg wishes to save from danger,” (Gylfaginning 35). Despite this, we find the name Hlín used as an epithet of Frigg in the eddic poem Völuspá and of Jörd, the earth, in a skaldic verse recorded in Hávarðar saga Ísfirðing ch. 14, suggesting that the heathen poets whose works Snorri relied on knew the names Frigg, Jörd and Hlín as epithets of one goddess. In the same sources, only Frigg plays an active role.

Nowhere do Jörd and Hlín appear as distinct figures in their own right. In contrast, other minor goddesses, such as Fulla and Eir do appear individually.


The fact that Frigg is Odin’s traditional wife in a broad range of historical sources and that the common skaldic kenning “Odin’s wife” refers exclusively to the earth, suggests the same, that Frigg and Jörd (Earth) are one. Taken together, the evidence converges on a single conclusion. A goddess representing the earth, known as the queen of heaven and mother of the gods, firmly rooted in Indo-European tradition, is attested across Germania from the first records for over a millennium.


In no way is this meant to suggest that all Norse goddesses are one “Great Goddess,” quite the opposite. Freyja, Idunn, Gerd, Skadi and other Nordic goddesses are clearly independent figures with their own associated myths. Nevertheless, a preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that Odin’s wife, Frigg, is the Germanic Earth-Mother, who like all other Germanic deities was known by a number of names. An unbroken chain of evidence demonstrates that Odin and Frigg are the Germanic analogs of the ancient Indo-European Sky-Father and Earth-Mother, consistently occurring since the beginning of the historical record. Distorted images of this divine couple have even survived into modern times in the form of the Wild Huntsman and Frau Holle, attesting to the powerful hold these figures have on the Germanic psyche.

By William P Reeves


An excerpt from the book
Odin’s Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology (2018)
The First Definitive Study of Frigg

Odin’s Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology

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