Friday, April 6, 2012

Freyr

Freyr (sometimes anglicized Frey, from *frawjaz "lord") is one of the most important gods of Norse paganism. Freyr was highly associated with farming, weather, and as a phallic fertility god, Freyr "bestows peace and pleasure on mortals". Freyr, sometimes referred to as Yngvi-Freyr, was especially associated with Sweden and seen as an ancestor of the Swedish royal house.

In the Icelandic books the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, Freyr is presented as one of the Vanir, the son of the sea god Njörðr, brother of the goddess Freyja. The gods gave him Álfheimr, the realm of the Elves, as a teething present. He rides the shining dwarf-made boar Gullinbursti and possesses the ship Skíðblaðnir which always has a favorable breeze and can be folded together and carried in a pouch when it is not being used. He has the servants Skírnir, Byggvir, and Beyla.

The most extensive surviving Freyr myth relates Freyr's falling in love with the female jötunn Gerðr. Eventually, she becomes his wife but first Freyr has to give away his magic sword which fights on its own "if wise be he who wields it". Although deprived of this weapon, Freyr defeats the jötunn Beli with an antler. However, lacking his sword, Freyr will be killed by the fire jötunn Surtr during the events of Ragnarök.

Written around 1080, one of the oldest written sources on pre-Christian Scandinavian religious practices is Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. Adam claimed to have access to first-hand accounts on pagan practices in Sweden. He refers to Freyr with the Latinized name Fricco and mentions that an image of him at Skara was destroyed by a Christian missionary. His description of the Temple at Uppsala gives some details on the god.

In hoc templo, quod totum ex auro paratum est, statuas trium deorum veneratur populus, ita ut potentissimus eorum Thor in medio solium habeat triclinio; hinc et inde locum possident Wodan et Fricco. Quorum significationes eiusmodi sunt: 'Thor', inquiunt, 'praesidet in aere, qui tonitrus et fulmina, ventos ymbresque, serena et fruges gubernat. Alter Wodan, id est furor, bella gerit, hominique ministrat virtutem contra inimicos. Tertius est Fricco, pacem voluptatemque largiens mortalibus'. Cuius etiam simulacrum fingunt cum ingenti priapo.

Gesta Hammaburgensis 26, Waitz' edition


In this temple, entirely decked out in gold, the people worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Woden and Frikko have places on either side. The significance of these gods is as follows: Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops. The other, Woden—that is, the Furious—carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Frikko, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness, too, they fashion with an immense phallus.

Gesta Hammaburgensis 26, Tschan's translation


Later in the account Adam states that when a marriage is performed a libation is made to the image of Fricco.

Historians are divided on the reliability of Adam's account. While he is close in time to the events he describes he has a clear agenda to emphasize the role of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen in the Christianization of Scandinavia. His timeframe for the Christianization of Sweden conflicts with other sources, such as runic inscriptions, and archaeological evidence does not confirm the presence of a large temple at Uppsala. On the other hand, the existence of phallic idols was confirmed in 1904 with a find at Rällinge in Södermanland.

When Snorri Sturluson was writing in 13th century Iceland the indigenous Germanic gods were still remembered though they had not been openly worshiped for more than two centuries.

In the Gylfaginning section of his Prose Edda, Snorri introduces Freyr as one of the major gods.

Njörðr í Nóatúnum gat síðan tvau börn, hét sonr Freyr en dóttir Freyja. Þau váru fögr álitum ok máttug. Freyr er hinn ágætasti af ásum. Hann ræðr fyrir regni ok skini sólar, ok þar með ávexti jarðar, ok á hann er gott at heita til árs ok friðar. Hann ræðr ok fésælu manna. Gylfaginning 24, EB's edition


Njördr in Nóatún begot afterward two children: the son was called Freyr, and the daughter Freyja; they were fair of face and mighty. Freyr is the most renowned of the Æsir; he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men. Gylfaginning XXIV, Brodeur's translation

Seated on Odin's throne Hliðskjálf, the god Freyr sits in contemplation in an illustration (1908) by Frederic Lawrence

This description has similarities to the older account by Adam of Bremen but the differences are interesting. Adam assigns control of the weather and produce of the fields to Thor but Snorri says that Freyr rules over those areas. Snorri also omits any explicitly sexual references in Freyr's description. Those discrepancies can be explained in several ways. It is possible that the Norse gods did not have exactly the same roles in Icelandic and Swedish paganism but it must also be remembered that Adam and Snorri were writing with different goals in mind. Either Snorri or Adam may also have had distorted information.

The only extended myth related about Freyr in the Prose Edda is the story of his marriage.

Þat var einn dag er Freyr hafði gengit í Hliðskjálf ok sá of heima alla. En er hann leit í norðrætt, þá sá hann á einum bœ mikit hús ok fagrt, ok til þess húss gekk kona, ok er hon tók upp höndum ok lauk hurð fyrir sér þá lýsti af höndum hennar bæði í lopt ok á lög, ok allir heimar birtusk af henni. Gylfaginning 37, EB's edition

It chanced one day that Freyr had gone to Hlidskjálf, and gazed over all the world; but when he looked over into the northern region, he saw on an estate a house great and fair. And toward this house went a woman; when she raised her hands and opened the door before her, brightness gleamed from her hands, both over sky and sea, and all the worlds were illumined of her. Gylfaginning XXXVII, Brodeur's translation

The woman is Gerðr, a beautiful giantess. Freyr immediately falls in love with her and becomes depressed and taciturn. After a period of brooding, he consents to talk to Skírnir, his foot-page. He tells Skírnir that he has fallen in love with a beautiful woman and thinks he will die if he cannot have her. He asks Skírnir to go and woo her for him.

Þá svarar Skírnir, sagði svá at hann skal fara sendiferð en Freyr skal fá honum sverð sitt. Þat var svá gott sverð at sjálft vásk. En Freyr lét eigi þat til skorta ok gaf honum sverðit. Þá fór Skírnir ok bað honum konunnar ok fekk heitit hennar, ok níu nóttum síðar skyldi hon þar koma er Barey heitir ok ganga þá at brullaupinu með Frey. Gylfaginning 37, EB's edition

Then Skírnir answered thus: he would go on his errand, but Freyr should give him his own sword-which is so good that it fights of itself;- and Freyr did not refuse, but gave him the sword. Then Skírnir went forth and wooed the woman for him, and received her promise; and nine nights later she was to come to the place called Barrey, and then go to the bridal with Freyr. Gylfaginning XXXVII, Brodeur's translation

The loss of Freyr's sword has consequences. According to the Prose Edda, Freyr had to fight Beli without his sword and slew him with an antler. But the result at Ragnarök, the end of the world, will be much more serious. Freyr is fated to fight the fire-giant Surtr and since he does not have his sword he will be defeated.
The final battle between Freyr and Surtr, illustration by Lorenz Frølich

Even after the loss of his weapon Freyr still has two magical artifacts, both of them dwarf-made. One is the ship Skíðblaðnir, which will have favoring breeze wherever its owner wants to go and can also be folded together like a napkin and carried in a pouch. The other is the boar Gullinbursti whose mane glows to illuminate the way for his owner. No myths involving Skíðblaðnir have come down to us but Snorri relates that Freyr rode to Baldr's funeral in a wagon pulled by Gullinbursti.

Skaldic poetry

Freyr is referred to several times in skaldic poetry. In Húsdrápa, partially preserved in the Prose Edda, he is said to ride a boar to Baldr's funeral.

Ríðr á börg til borgar
böðfróðr sonar Óðins
Freyr ok folkum stýrir
fyrstr enum golli byrsta. Húsdrápa 7, FJ's edition

The battle-bold Freyr rideth
First on the golden-bristled
Barrow-boar to the bale-fire
Of Baldr, and leads the people. Húsdrápa 7, Brodeur's translation

In a poem by Egill Skalla-Grímsson, Freyr is called upon along with Njörðr to drive Eric Bloodaxe from Norway. The same skald mentions in Arinbjarnarkviða that his friend has been blessed by the two gods.

[E]n Grjótbjörn
of gæddan hefr
Freyr ok Njörðr
at féar afli. Arinbjarnarkviða 17, FJ's edition

Frey and Njord
have endowed
rock-bear
with wealth's force. Arinbjarnarkviða 17, Scudder's translation

Nafnaþulur

In Nafnaþulur Freyr is said to ride the horse Blóðughófi (Bloody Hoof).

The 14th century Icelandic Ögmundar þáttr dytts contains a tradition of how Freyr was transported in a wagon and administered by a priestess, in Sweden. Freyr's role as a fertility god needed a female counterpart in a divine couple (McKinnell's translation 1987
):
“ Great heathen sacrifices were held there at that time, and for a long while Frey had been the god who was worshipped most there — and so much power had been gained by Frey’s statue that the devil used to speak to people out of the mouth of the idol, and a young and beautiful woman had been obtained to serve Frey. It was the faith of the local people that Frey was alive, as seemed to some extent to be the case, and they thought he would need to have a sexual relationship with his wife; along with Frey she was to have complete control over the temple settlement and all that belonged to it. ”

In this short story, a man named Gunnar was suspected of manslaughter and escaped to Sweden, where Gunnar became acquainted with this young priestess. He helped her drive Freyr's wagon with the god effigy in it, but the god did not appreciate Gunnar and so attacked him and would have killed Gunnar if he had not promised himself to return to the Christian faith if he would make it back to Norway. When Gunnar had promised this, a demon jumped out off the god effigy and so Freyr was nothing but a piece of wood. Gunnar destroyed the wooden idol and dressed himself as Freyr, and then Gunnar and the priestess travelled across Sweden where people were happy to see the god visiting them. After a while he made the priestess pregnant, but this was seen by the Swedes as confirmation that Freyr was truly a fertility god and not a scam. Finally, Gunnar had to flee back to Norway with his young bride and had her baptized at the court of Olaf Tryggvason.

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