In Norse mythology, Gefjon or Gefjun (with the alternate spelling Gefion) is a goddess associated with ploughing, the Danish island of Zealand, the legendary Swedish king Gylfi, the legendary Danish king Skjöldr, foreknowledge, and virginity. Gefjon is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources; the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson; in the works of skalds; and appears as a gloss for various Greco-Roman goddesses in some Old Norse translations of Latin works.
The Prose Edda and Heimskringla both report that Gefjon plowed away what is now lake Mälaren, Sweden, and with this land formed the island of Zealand, Denmark. In addition, the Prose Edda describes that not only is Gefjon a virgin herself, but that all who die a virgin become her attendants. Heimskringla records that Gefjon married the legendary Danish king Skjöldr and that the two dwelled in Lejre, Denmark.
Scholars have proposed theories about the etymology the name of the goddess, connections to fertility and ploughing practices, the implications of the references made to her as a virgin, five potential mentions of the goddess in the Old English poem Beowulf, and potential connections between Gefjon and Grendel's Mother and/or the goddesses Freyja and Frigg.
A reoccurring theme in legend and folktale consists of a man or, more often, a woman who is challenged to gain as much land as can be traveled within a limited amount of time. This motif is attested by Livy around 1 CE, 5th century BCE Greek historian Herodotus, and in folktales from Northern Europe. In six tales from Jutland, Denmark and one from Germany a plough is used similarly as in Livy's account, though the conditions are often met by walking or riding.
Hilda Ellis Davidson points out a tale from Iceland that features a female settler "whose husband had died on the voyage out, establishing her claim to a piece of land by driving a young hiefer round it." Davidson notes that in Landnámabók, this is recorded as a recognized method for a woman to claim land, and the work further details that "she might not possess more than she could encircle in this way between sunrise and sunset on a spring day." Davidson comments that "this sounds like a ritual taking over of land rather than a legal requirement, like the custom of men lighting fires when taking new land, and it is possible that the women's custom was linked with the fertility goddess." In addition, Davidson notes that Zealand is the most fertile region of Denmark.
Davidson further links folk customs recorded in the 19th century involving ploughs in Northern and Eastern Europe to practices involving Gefjon from the heathen period. Davidson points out that in eastern Europe, a custom is recorded in Russia where women with loosened hair and clad in white would assemble and drag a plough three times around their village during serious disease outbreaks. In Western Europe, yearly ploughing rituals occurring in England and Denmark in preparation for spring sowing which are, in eastern England, held on Plough Monday after the Christmas break. Gangs of young men dragged round a plough, while taking various names. Davidson states that "Gefjon with her giant sons transformed into oxen seems a fitting patroness of ceremonies of this kind."
Davidson finds similar elements and parallels in non-Germanic traditions, such as a folktale regarding the Lady of the Lake from Wales recorded in the 19th century. In the tale, the Lady brings forth a "a herd of wondrous cattle" from the water after she consents to marrying a local farmer. Years later, he unwittingly breaks conditions that she had laid down. As a result, the Lady returns to her dwelling beneath the lake, and calls for her cattle to accompany her, calling them by name. In one version of the tale, the Lady calls forth four gray oxen who were ploughing in a field six miles away. Responding to her call, the oxen dragged the plough with them, and the gash in the land that the plough produced was said to have once been clearly visible.
A woman was recorded in 1881 as having claimed to recall that people once gathered at the lake on the first Sunday of August, waiting to see whether or not the water would boil up as an indication that the Lady and her oxen would make an appearance. Davidson notes that "here again a supernatural woman is linked both with water and ploughing land."
Davidson states that in Germanic areas of Europe, traditions also exist of supernatural women who travel about the countryside with a plough, examples including Holde and Holle (from the western and central regions of Germany) and Berchte and Perchte in traditions from upper Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Davidson explains that "they were frequently said to travel with a plough around the countryside, in a way reminiscent of the journey of the fertility goddess to bless the land in pre-Christian times, and on these occasions they might be accompanied by a host of tiny children; it was suggested that these children who died unbaptized, or human offspring replaced by changelings, but another possibility is that they were the souls of the unborn." Davidson details that some local tales feature the plough breaking down, the supernatural woman gaining assistance from a helper, and the supernatural woman giving him wooden chips, only for the chips to later to turn to gold.
Regarding the plough and Gefjon, Davidson concludes that "the idea behind the taking of the plough round the countryside seems to be that it brought good fortune and prosperity, gifts of a benevolent goddess. Gefjon and her plough thus fit into a large framework of the cult of a goddess associated with fertility of both land and water."
Mentions of Gefjon may appear in Beowulf in five passages (line 49, line 362, line 515, line 1394, and line 1690). Scholar Frank Battaglia refers to these passages as "the Gefion passages," and asks "Does Beowulf oppose the Earth Goddess of ancient Germanic religion? The possibility of such an interpretation follows upon the discovery that the name Gefion, by which early Danes called their female chthonic deity, may occur in the Old English poem five times." Battaglia further theorizes that:
The five Gefion passages seem to highlight the championing of a new order antagonistic to goddess worship. In light of what appears to be an elaborate thematic statement about patrilineage in the poem, the new order may also have entailed a change in kinship systems. Grendel and his mother may stand as types of earlier, matrilineal tribes. Further the hall which is the object of struggle between Beowulf and the first two monsters may symbolize the consolidation of new hierarchical social organization among the northern Germanic peoples.
Battaglia says that if the passages are taken to represent Gefjon, gēafon mentioned in line 49 refers directly to Gefjon's sadness at Skjöldr's (described as having wed Gefjon in Heimskringla) death, and that here "we may with some confidence conclude that in a poem about Scyld's funeral for an Anglo-Danish audience, the word gēafon could probably not have been used without invoking Gefion."
Battaglia posits translations for line 362 (Geofenes begang) as "Gefion's realm," line 515 (Geofon ȳðum wēol) as "Gefion welled up in waves," line 1394 (nē on Gyfenes grund, gā þær hē wille) as "not (even) in the ground of Gefion, go where he will," and line 1690 (Gifen gēotende gīgante cyn;) as "Gefion gushing, the race of giants."
Scholar Richard North theorizes that Old English geofon and Old Norse Gefjun and Freyja's name Gefn may all descend from a common origin; gabia a Germanic goddess connected with the sea, whose name means "giving"
Gefjon appears prominently as the allegorical mother of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark in the forty-page Swedish Romantic poem Gefion, a Poem in Four Cantos by Eleonora Charlotta d'Albedyhll (1770–1835). A fountain depicting Gefjun driving her oxen sons to pull her plough (The Gefion Fountain, 1908) by Anders Bundgaard stands in Copenhagen, Denmark, on the island of Zealand, as in the myth. The Gefion family, a family of asteroids, and asteroid 1272 Gefion (discovered in 1931 by Karl Wilhelm Reinmuth) both derive their names from that of the goddess.