The merry wives of Asgard: Odin and his women

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The merry wives of Asgard: Odin and his women

Frigga - Frea

Excerpts from the book Odin’s Wife by William P. Reaves

Odin is said to have at least two wives, Baldur’s mother, Frigg, and Thor’s mother, Jörd, as well as giantess concubines such as Gunnlöd and Rind. In this regard, he is compared to other Western Sky-Fathers of Indo-European descent, coupled with an Earth Mother figure.

In modern accounts of Old Norse mythology, the Earth goddess Jörd is best known as the mother of Thor. Upon inspection, however, it becomes apparent that the skalds more often refer to Earth as "Odin's wife," typically substituting one of his many epithets for his name. At least 19 kennings of this type are recorded, as enumerated by Eysteinn Björnsson author of the digital Lexicon of Kennings:

beðja niðjar Bors, "bedmate of son of Borr" (Egill, lausvisa 21, Eg.30)

vina her-Gauts, "mistress of host-Gautr" (Bragi: Ragnarsdrápa 5 = Skáldskaparmál 156)

ekkja Svölnis, "widow of Svölnir" (Þjóðólfr, Haustlöng 15, Skáldskaparmál 66)

vára Svölnis, "wife of Svölnir" (Eyvindr: lausvisa 12, Hkr. I.102)

brúðr val-Týs, "bride of slain-Týr" (Eyvindr: Háleygjatal 15, Fsk. 86)

man Yggs, "maiden of Yggr" (Tindr, Drápa 8)

bifkván Þriðja (barrhödduð), “(fir-tressed) trembling wife of Þriði" (Hallfreðr, Hákonardrápa 3, Skáldskaparmál 10)

brúðr Báleygs (breiðleit), "(broad-faced) bride of Báleygr" (Hallfreðr: Hákonardrápa; Skáldskaparmál 119)

brúðr Yggjar, "bride of Yggr" (Eyjólfr dáðaskáld, Bandadrápa 3, Hkr. I.118)

víf Óska (munlaust), "(without doubt) wife of Óski" (Óttarr svarti, Óláfsdrápa sænska 2, Skáldskaparmál 383)

beðja Þundar, "bedmate of Þundr" (Grettir, Ævikviða 7, Grettis saga 42)

elja Rindar (ómynd) "rival of Rindr (without a bride-price)" (Þjóðólfr, Sexstefja 3, Fsk.186, Skáldskaparmál 122)

drós Þrós, "lady of Þrór" (Haukr, Íslendingadrápa 17)

víf Hárs, "wife of Hárr" (Nóregskonungatal 20)

man Yggjar, "maiden of Yggr" (Nóregskonungatal 47)

mála bága ulfs, "beloved of enemy of wolf" (Snorri, Háttatal 3)

rúna vinar Míms, "wife of friend of Mímr" (Snorri, Háttatal 3)

mála geir-Týs (græn), "(green) girlfriend of spear-Týr" (Sturla, Hákonarkviða 21)

beðja Svölnis,"bedmate of Svölnir" (Einarr Gilsson, Selkolluvísur 20)

These constitute the most common type of earth kenning, occurring about three times as often as the “Thor’s mother” type or at a 3:1 ratio. In these examples, the paraphrase “Odin’s wife” is understood as a circumlocution simply meaning “earth.” In these strophes it is difficult to decide whether the reference is to the mythical Jörd or literally to the land, [Meeting the Other, McKinnell, p. 155]. While Earth is well-known as “the wife of Odin” in the poetic sources, it should be noted that Odin is never called “the husband of Earth.” Instead, he is designated as the “husband of Frigg” three times.

angan Friggjar, “‘delight of Frigg,” Völuspá56

faðmbyggvir Friggjar, “dweller in Frigg’s embrace,” Haraldskvæði 12

frumverr Friggjar, “foremost husband of Frigg,” Hallfreðr vandræðaskald, Lv.

To this list, I am tempted to add faðir Baldrs, “Baldur’s father”, since Baldur is famously the son of Frigg. While Odin is known to have had other lovers than his wife Frigg, there can be little doubt that the first thing that would have occurred to a heathen audience hearing the expression “Odin’s wife” would have been his constant companion since the earliest recorded sources. Godan (Odin) and Frea (Frigg) first appear as husband and wife in the eighth century History of the Lombards. They next appear together on German soil in the tenth century Second Merseberg Charm as Wotan and Frija. On Iceland, a tenth century skaldic kenning refers to the gods as Friggjar niðja, “Frigg’s progeny,” [Egil’s Saga, ch. 79]. In eddic poetry, she and Odin appear together as husband and wife in Völuspá, Grimnismál, Vafþrúðnismál, Lokasenna, and Hrafnagaldur Oðins. A generation before Snorri Sturlusson composed his Edda, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus also presents them as husband and wife. In contrast, Odin and Jörd are never shown together. Unlike Frigg, Jörd does not play an active part in any known myth.

In skaldic poetry, we thus encounter a logical paradox without precedent. There the recurrent poetic paraphrase “Odin’s wife”, which means “Earth”, rather than characterizing Odin’s traditional spouse as the earth-goddess, is exclusively interpreted as a reference to a virtually unknown giantess! Because Snorri presents Frigg and Jörd as distinct personalities, we have been conditioned to think of them as separate entities.

Although Loki addresses Frigg as Viðris kvæn, “Vidrir’s (Odin’s) wife” in the eddic poem Lokasenna (st. 26), we are expected to interpret the same kenning in skaldic verse as one, and only one, of his giantess-concubines. In skaldic poetry alone, the expressions: “Odin's wife, bride, lady, beloved, bedmate,” etc. are exclusively taken to mean Earth (Jörð). Yet in all other poetic and prose sources, “Odin’s wife” is understood to mean the goddess Frigg. This is not only illogical, but unnecessary. Following the same reasoning, we could just as easily understand the term "Odin's wife" to mean any female with whom Odin has had sexual relations. Instead of referring exclusively to Jörd, we might imagine that the kennings in question indicated Frigg, Gunnlöd or Rind, since, by this definition, they too are Odin's "wives." Yet this is clearly not the case. In the context of skaldic poetry, the expression “Odin’s wife” obviously indicates the Earth. Since Frigg is recognized as Odin’s wife in every other instance, it seems reasonable to conclude that Odin’s wife Frigg is identical to Jörd, the Earth. Only Snorri’s statements in the Prose Edda prevent us from drawing this conclusion with confidence.

A study of Jörd’s known epithets may shed light on this matter. Thor is unquestionably the son of Odin and Earth. This is amply affirmed by poetic examples where Thor is known as “the son of Odin” (Völuspá 55) and more often as Earth’s son. The poetic examples we have expand our knowledge of Jörd, providing us additional epithets by which she is known [Haustlöng 14, 17, Lokasenna58, Þrymskviða 1, Þórsdrápa 15, Völuspá 56.] They are: Jarðar sunr, Jarðar burr;Jörd’s son; Hlöðynar mogr, Hlödyn’s son, Fjorgynjar burr, Fjörgynn’s son; Grundar svein, Ground’s son. Thus scholars recognize the names Fjörgynn, Hlóðyn, and Grund as synonyms of Jörd.

In fact, all of the Old Norse divinities have alternate names (heiti). In the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson lists alternate names of Odin, Thor, and Freyja, among others. Strangely, the oldest and most frequently mentioned Germanic goddess, Odin’s wife Frigg, has none. Instead scholars frequently suggest she has been split into two goddesses, Frigg and Freyja, and that Freyja “developed” out of Frigg, in a span of roughly 300 years, between the time of the earliest attestation of Odin’s wife Frea around 700 AD in the History of the Lombards, and the earliest Eddic poems, often dated as early as 1000 AD, where Frigg and Freyja portrayed as distinct and separate beings (Lokasenna, Grimnismal, Oddrunagratr) despite being poetically compared in the poem Voluspa to emphasize their parallel features. This lack of additional names and epithets for Frigg is so pronounced H.R. Ellis Davidson once remarked:

“Although the conception of a mother goddess remains a shadowy one, and Frigg in particular is an obscure figure, it is no longer customary to dismiss her as of little importance, and to explain her away as a pure literary creation. As Odin’s wife and the queen of Asgard, she plays a consistent part in the poetry, and the lack of detail about her in myths and the failure to find place names named after her may be due to the fact that she was remembered under other titles.”

And indeed she was. By turning to poetic passages outside of Snorri’s Edda, we can add one more: Hlín. In the strophe that appears in Hávarðar saga ísfirðings, chapter 14, lines 5-6 read:

þann vissak mér manna mest alls á Hlín fallinn

"No man fell upon Hlin to a greater advantage for me, than this man."

The heathen expression means that no man’s death was of greater benefit to the poet than this one’s. Here Hlin is used as a byname of Jörd. “To fall upon Hlin” means “to fall to the ground,” “to die.” Thus Hlin is a poetic synonym for Jörd, the earth. In poetic sources, where the name of a goddess can be used as the base of a kenning for woman, the name Hlin occurs frequently, indicating her divine status. As such a base, Hlin was a favorite. For example, the skald Kormak, who uses an unusual number of woman-kennings with goddess names as the base in his verse, utilizes the name Hlín  most frequently (six times). As seen above, Hlin is used as a byname of Jörd in Hávarðar saga ísfirðings 13, while in VöluspáR52, Hlin is used a byname of Frigg. The opening lines read:

Þá kømr Hlínar

harmr annarr fram,

er Óðinn ferr

við úlf vega

… Then comes Hlin’s

second grief to pass,

when Odin goes

to fight the Wolf…

According to this strophe, Hlin’s “second grief” occurs when Odin goes to fight the wolf. The final lines state “then ‘Frigg’s delight’ (Odin) shall fall.” The name Hlin, which means ‘protector’, used here for Frigg, is probably ironic since she is helpless to protect her husband. Similarly, Snorri says of Hlín: “she is given the function of protecting people that Frigg wishes to save from some danger,” (Gylfaginning 35, Faulkes tr.), which “relies upon an etymological link between Hlín and hlein, ‘peaceful refuge.’”

Snorri’s identification of Hlin as an independent goddess while quoting this strophe from Völuspá has understandably caused some confusion among scholars. In the index to his translation of Snorri’s Edda (1988), under Hlin, Anthony Faulkes writes: “…perhaps another name for Frigg; her first grief would have been the death of Baldr.” Rudolf Simek (1984) states: “Presumably, Hlin is really another name for Frigg and Snorri misunderstood her to be a goddess in her own right in his reading of the Völuspá stanza.” Most translators accept the identification of Hlin and Frigg, and some go so far as to replace the name Hlin with Frigg’s in this strophe. In her 1996 translation of the Poetic Edda, as well as her 2014 revision, Carolyne Larrington replaces Hlin with Frigg and notes that Frigg’s second grief was the death of her husband Odin; her first being the death of her son Baldur. This is the most common interpretation of the strophe. The heathen skalds thus use Hlín as a byname of both Frigg and Jörd, but no other goddess.

In Gylfaginning 35, Snorri lists Hlin as a minor goddess, the twelfth Asynje and a servant of Frigg. Snorri portrays Hlin, Jörd and Frigg as distinct goddesses. They are all listed twice as Asynjes: once in Gylfaginning 35-36 and again in the þulur where all three names appear in a list of the Asynjur. Despite this, Hlin’s status as an independent goddess is not supported by the older poetry, which is Snorri’s acknowledged source.

At this point, the only thing that prevents us from concluding that Frigg, Jörd, and Hlin are alternate names of a single individual is Snorri’s treatment of them as three distinct personalities. An attempt to explain this apparent contradiction by suggesting that the name of one of Odin’s wives can be substituted for the name of any other, since in poetic kennings the name of any goddess can be used as the base for a woman-kenning, is patently absurd! It would be equivalent to saying that the name of any one of Odin’s sons could be substituted for the name of any other; that Thor could be used in place of Baldur and visa versa. This ill-considered supposition finds no support in the extant poetic sources. Instead, we find that Frigg and Jörd are both referred to as Odin’s wife, and that the byname Hlin (as well as the poetically unattested expression “Gunnlod’s rival,”) can be used to designate either. As Karin Olsen notes “Unfortunately, most goddess names are so little used outside of skaldic poetry that we have to rely heavily on Snorri’s interpretations of them.”[1]In this case, however, we have valid reasons to doubt his explanation.

[1]“Woman Kennings in the Gísla Saga Súrssonar: A Study” in Studies in English Language and Literature: Doubt Wisely (1996), edited by M. J. Toswell, E. M. Tyler, p. 269.

-William P Reaves