by Jodie Forrest
(First published in THE MOUNTAIN ASTROLOGER)
The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's painting, 'The Sun' (left) shows a huge, radiant solar disc rising over a fjord, where a diminutive house clings to a rocky cliff overlooking the water. Munch's sun emits kaleidoscopically multicolored rays of pulsing, almost animate, light, all streaming out from that immense central core, illuminating and virtually setting fire to the landscape below. The original hangs in the Festival Hall at the University of Oslo. A print hangs in my office and often stops first time clients in their tracks.
Perhaps Munch painted his impression of Scandinavia's famous midnight sun. In the more northerly parts of Scandinavia, around the summer solstice, the light doesn't completely fade from the sky. Friends who've traveled there at that time report that they felt happy, almost euphoric, and that the native Scandinavians, however undemonstrative, seemed to react with equal energy. On the other hand, around the winter solstice, the dark doesn't completely leave either. Melancholia, depression, substance abuse,and violence may all increase then. Some Scandinavians install banks of full spectrum lighting in their homes to counteract the loss of light.
One might think that solar deities would assume great importance in the land of the midnight sun. However, at first glance, Norse mythology doesn't include the radiant solar beings one might expect. Instead we find a myth about the Sun and the Moon, which seems to assign equal importance to each luminary. Then there's the goddess of love and fertility, Freyja, who has the distinctly solar attributes of free will, magical powers, and libidinous sexuality. As you will see, her other traits are darker, and are shared with the chief Norse god, Odin; both he and Freyja are associated with war, magic, and the dead. Perhaps because the extremes of light and dark make the climate threatening and precarious to life in the North, in its cosmology both the Sun and the Moon are deeply connected to life and death on this planet.
This Sun/Moon connection is glimpsed in the Norse myth about a mortal man of our world, Midgard (earth), whose name was Mundilfari. He fathered a son and a daughter who were so lovely that he called the boy Moon and the girl Sun. Angered by this hubris, the chief Norse god, Odin, and the gods known as Aesir, stole the children and assigned them to guide the chariots of the Sun and the Moon through the sky. The boy was to lead the Moon, and the girl was to follow, leading the Sun. Wolves would hotly pursue both of them, the wolf Hati chasing the Moon, and the wolf Skoll chasing the Sun. In the beginning of Ragnarok--the period during which the doom of the gods and the destruction of life on Midgard would take place--the wolves would continuously catch the Sun and Moon and devour them, at least for a time.
Notice that the Sun in this myth is feminine. Was this just an arbitrary linguistic phenomenon for the ancient Norse, or did they experience the Sun as a powerful, radiant, feminine energy at the source of all things? Did they recognize a feminine power that behaved in solar ways and moreover, one that had dark and light elements, much as the Northern Sun has extended periods of light and darkness? If this kind ofconnection seems farfetched, remember that the Norse not only had a dark of the Moon, they also had a dark of the Sun.
Unfortunately, we know far less about Norse mythology's goddesses than its gods. What I have chronicled above is most of what remains about the Sun goddess myth. Much of the Norse pantheon comes from the 13th century Icelander, Snorri Sturluson, and there are many details and interpretations that have been lost. Interestingly, Sturluson professed to be a Christian, yet made the unusual claim that the goddess Freyja alone of the gods still lived. Freyja, like Aphrodite or Venus, is the goddess of love, beauty, abundant fertility, and, along with some distinctly solar deities, she is also associated with death, conflict, encounters with one's personal underworld, sacrifice, and transformative powers. These traits derive from the ancient Great Goddess's multifaceted nature. The further back we delve, the more we approach the energy field of the Great Goddess, before she was split into the deities of many mythological pantheons.
The Great Goddess was extremely powerful in almost every sphere of mortal life. She ruled over fertility, abundance, love, and the changing cycles of life on Earth, which included birth, transformation, and death and decay. She was the Earth Mother, the Queen of Heaven, the Lady of the Plants and the Beasts, Nurturer, Protector, Lover, Giver of Wisdom, and The Queen of Death. Love and Death: the Great Goddess ruled them both. And if our 21st century society makes it all too easy tounderestimate their importance--and Hers--then take a moment to remember that our two most powerful primate instincts are self-preservation and sexuality.
Freyja and her brother Freyr, who was the god of peace and plenty, were the twin children of the sea-god Njord and his sister Nerthus. They formed part of the tribe of Norse nature and fertility gods called Vanir. The other, later tribe of Norse deities, were the more warlike and patriarchal Aesir, of whom Odin was the chief. In the solar myth above it was the Aesir, not the Vanir, who were offended by the mortal man naming his children Sun and Moon. The Aesir and the Vanir fought a war, some say over the Aesir's treatment of a witch, Gullveig, who lusted for gold. She may have some connection with Freyja, who was also fond of that metal. The Vanir knew all manner of sorcery and often used spells, but the Aesir battled on until both sides called for a truce, and the Vanir were more or less assimilated. And so Njord and his children, Freyja and Freyr, came to live with the Aesir, who forbade brother and sister marriages common among the Vanir. There, Freyja taught Odin the magical arts of the Vanir tribe.
In his book, The Well of Remembrance, Ralph Metzner discusses current archaeological thought concerning the Norse myths about these two tribes of gods. The Vanir may have been the deities of the older inhabitants of Europe, who probably lived in peaceful matrifocal societies where kinship marriage was more common. In about 4300 BCE, there began a wave of invasions by more war-like and patriarchal tribes from the steppes of Asia. These tribes brought their gods with them. Minoan-MyceneanCrete was perhaps the last Goddess-oriented culture, and it finally fell in approximately 1400 BCE. The myth of war between these two tribes of gods may reflect the long clash of these two cultures, as well as Freyja's archetypal origins as a much older, matrifocal goddess of fertility, sexuality, death, and magic.
Sturluson tells us that Freyja was beautiful and golden--a solar attribute--and that when she wept, she wept tears of gold. She craved that sun-ruled metal. When four dwarves crafted a lovely gold necklace called Brisingamen, Freyja wanted it so badly, and the dwarves wanted her so badly, that she agreed to their terms: she spent one night with each dwarf in exchange for the necklace. Loki, the Trickster demigod, learned of the bargain and told Odin, who directed him to steal the necklace. When Freyja demanded it back, Odin's terms were that she should stir up war between two mortal kings, and use her sorcery to retrieve the slain warriors, so that the fighting would continue.
Both the number four and the metal gold are symbols of wholeness and integration. This myth parallels the Aphrodite/Ishtar stories of decent to the underworld to claim a beloved, whose presence makes the Earth fertile with new life, as the Sun does. However, the Brisingamen story marks a great difference between Freyja and the Greek Aphrodite, despite their shared love of gold, despite the fact that Aphrodite married the lame smith Hephaestos, who courted her with gold. Aphrodite has a magic girdle that makesher irresistibly attractive, but she barters nothing to anyone. Freyja, the love goddess, barters her particular powers for those of the dwarves, exchanging, as Metzner writes, magic for magic. Perhaps a different cultural perspective is at work here: it was a Norse belief that no knowledge, power, or awareness ever came without a price. The extremes of light and dark in the northern climate suggest other possibilities: Freyja enters the shadowy underworld of the dwarves for four nights to buy and maintain her solar powers of beauty, fertility,and the emergence of new life--in other words, to bring the Sun back to the dark world.
The myth is extraordinary in many ways, not the least among them its interplay of light and dark. Freyja weeps tears of gold--the question arises of why, how and in whom pain produces gold. She has a supply of metal close at hand, but not, apparently, the means or the inclination to make a necklace herself. The four dwarves may correspond to the four directions or the four elements. Dwarves are strongly connected to the earth element, and they were seen by the ancient Norse as ugly, brutish, cave-dwelling beings, whom the light of the sun would turn to stone. Consumed by the craving for precious objects themselves, they are great craftsmen and metalsmiths. Unable to see the sun, they are driven to work the gold that is sacred to the Sun, and shines as the Sun does. Because of her own craving for the necklace, Freyja sleeps with these underworld creatures willingly. Like many fertility deities, she is sexually active, but in other myths, she adamantly and wrathfully refuses to sleep with various giants when asked to do so by the Aesir in order to extricate them from some predicament. Clearly, even after the Vanir's surrender to the Aesir, Freyja doesn't behave according to patriarchal custom; she chooses her own lovers and bargains and doesn't appreciate suggestions to the contrary. In short she behaves like a solar goddess, with an ego and an attitude.
The Brisingamen story may hold a hint of the Frog Prince fairy tale, one of those meanings seems to be the need to accept one's instinctive, wet and slimy, 'frog side', or one's shadow, in order to be whole. But the dwarves don't turn into handsome princes when Freyja kisses them. Moreover, she immediately,although temporarily and through betrayal, losses the necklace the necklace to Loki and Odin. The necklace is often mentioned in conjunction with Freyja and appears an important attribute of hers. It maybe a power object, perhaps not unlike Aphrodite's girdle. Necklaces traditionally are associated with theGreat Goddess, and they can represent the sexual parts of the body or hold the power to avert the evil eye.
The Brisingamen story really contains two bargains. In the first, Freyja, of her own free will--a solar ego--trades her sex magic to the dwarves for the necklace, a power associated with the Great Goddess and all she rules. But Loki the Trickster and Odin, both Aesir, can't accept this bargain, and they force a second one upon Freyja: sorcery used as war magic and bartered to Odin to get her necklace back. Freyja chose the first deal as a powerful goddess acting according to her own nature, but the second was forced upon her by two male deities after a betrayal by one of them. Again, we see the faint reflections of a goddess culture overrun and assimilated by a patriarchal one, with its goddess's solar traits assumed by the patriarchal culture's gods.
Among Freyja's 'dark of the sun' characteristics, which may hint of her former stature among a more matrifocal society, she was associated with war, the dead, and sorcery. Half of those who died bravely belonged to Odin and they went to his hall, Valhalla, but the other half were Freyja's and she had first choice of them. Therefore, she was head of the Valkyries, the armored shield-maidens who choose the slain and occasionally decided the outcome of the battles.
Norse and Germanic people believed in women's natural psychic abilities, and women Seers were sometimes asked to sit on war councils. Freyja was the patron goddess of the Norse seers called volvas,or seidkonas, who practiced a form of magic called seidr. Seidr means 'spell' or 'enchantment', and also,'boiling' or 'seething'. It could include sex magic, prophecy, shapeshifting, sendings, curses, fettering opponents, communicating with Elves or the dead, healing, midwifery, vision quests, giving council, andthe use of spirit animals. Freyja had a falcon-skin cape that would let its wearer travel in the shape of a bird, and she used it as a shaman would, to go to the underworld and return with prophecies and with knowledge of individual destinies. The Aesir sometimes borrowed her cape if they needed to travel beyond Asgard. Seidr, however, was mostly performed by women. Odin was the only god who practiced it, and, again, he learned it from Freyja, acquiring traits that were perhaps originally hers.
To sum up, we have one abbreviated Norse myth about the Sun and the Moon themselves, in which they are under constant threat and eventually doomed. There is also the dearth of recorded information about the love goddess, Freyja, but we do know that she had strong solar attributes, although she played manyother roles in Norse mythology, many of them dark and reflective. Freyja's versatility may reflect the extreme astronomical and meteorological conditions in the land of the midnight sun, and its harsh weather and short growing season. Perhaps the gods and goddesses have less strictly defined roles in climates where the distinction between day and night is less clear. And, of course, the shift away from a matriarchal society may account for Freyja's assumption of both solar and more lunar characteristics.[blockquote]CAN'T GET ENOUGH NORSE MYTHOLOGY? Check out these other resources on our site:
Jodie Forrest's Nordic-Celtic historical fantasy trilogy --The Rhymer and the Ravens: The Book of Fate; The Elves' Prophecy: The Book of Being (out of print); and The Bridge: The Book of Necessity. The novels unfold in Nordic-Celtic ninth century Europe during the Viking Age, and in the mythic realms that parallel it: Elfland and Asgard. For more information about the philosophical framework of the world of these novels, see Dag Rossman's article, Ancient Nordic Spirituality, and our site's page about The Norse Runes.