Freyja: Goddess of Magic
by Phil Hine
According to Snorri Sturluson, author of the prose Edda, Freyja was "the most renowned of all the goddesses, and that she alone of the gods yet lived." This declaration implies that worship of Freyja had survived in Twelfth-Century Scandinavia. This essay serves as a brief introduction to Freyja, her lineage, attributes and domain, both exoteric and esoteric.
Freyja (like Odhinn) has many titles by which she is known. Freyja itself means "the lady." Her other titles include: Vanadis (Goddess of the Vanir), Vanabrudhr (Bride of the Vanir), Hörn (Mistress of Flax), Gefn (the giver), Syr (the sow), Mardöll (the Sea-bright) and Gullveig (the gold-greedy). Freyja is a member (perhaps the most prominent) of the Vanir, a race of fertility gods who at first fought with, then later, united with the Aesir.
Frejya is generally known as a fertility goddess. As the goddess of love, she is shown to be sexually attractive and free with her favours. She also had links with the dead; half of the slain she shared with Odhinn, and each day decided who would enter her hall Sessrumnir, which lay in Folkvang, 'the Field of Folk.' Freyja also was mistress of magic. She owned a falcon-skin which she would don in order to travel to the underworld, bringing back prophecies and knowledge of destiny. In addition to shape-shifting, she also was the goddess of seidhr and could magically control fire. She drove a chariot pulled by cats, and her totemic animal was the sow.
Freyja is a member of the Vanir, a pantheon of deities which are generally described as 'fertility' gods. There has been some speculation that the Vanir represent an agriculturally-centred, matrifocal people who were invaded, and later assimilated by the tribe who's gods were the Aesir. There is much evidence within the Norse Myths to show that the Aesir did not approve of Freyja's intimacy with her brother, Freyr - and also that Freyja and Freyr were the children of Njord by his un-named sister. Snorri tells us that brother-sister marriages were common amongst the Vanir, and this could well indicate a clash of tribal mores.
According to H. R. Ellis Davidson (Myths & Gods of Northern Europe), the Vanir were gods of increase - in the fields, among the animals, and in the home, and also gave men the power to link with the world of the unseen. She notes that the cult of the Vanir was likely to have included orgiastic and sacrificial rites.
In The Norse Myths, Kevin Crossley-Holland notes that the Golden Age which followed Odhinn and his brothers' creation of the worlds, was brought to an end with the war between the Vanir and the Aesir - the first war. Freyja seems to play a pivotal role in bringing these events about. Crossley-Holland recounts the tale that Gullveig "the witch" visited the Aesir, and "filled them with loathing" by her talk of her lust for gold. They seized her and "riddled her body with spears." Three times they hurled her into the flames, but each time she stepped out, whole and reborn. In awe, the Aesir named her Heidh (the Shining One). When the Vanir heard about the Aesir's treatment of Gullveig, they prepared for war, as did the Aesir. The battle raged without either side being able to gain the upper hand, so eventually the gods sued for peace, and agreed to exchange leaders as proof of their good intention.
As part of the agreement, the Vanir gods Njord and Freyr made their way to Asgard, and Freyja journeyed with them. The Aesir appointed Njord and Freyr as high priests to preside over sacrifices, and Freyja was consecrated as a sacrificial high priestess.
Edred Thorsson, in Runelore identifies Gullveig as an aspect, or title, of Freyja, as does Crossley-Holland. This would certainly fit with Freyja's love of gold, and with the golden rainment which she adorned herself with. Moreover, Freyja is recognised as introducing to the Aesir the practices of Seidhr, acting as Odhinn's teacher in this regard. Crossley-Holland's recounting of the Gullveig myth makes it clear that this 'witch' was a seeress - "she enchanted wands of wood; she went into trances and cast spells." It is well-known that Freyja's cult involved the practice of Seidhr magic (of which, more later).
It is interesting to note that it was not, presumably, Freyja's liking for gold itself which so stirred the Aesir, but perhaps the intensity of her avarice, or desire. Gods or acts of desire & transgression appear to be pivotal in myths of the fall from grace, or the ending of 'primal' or golden ages. It is possible that Freyja, as a goddess of erotic desire and ecstasy, could be viewed as both powerful, worthy of respect, and yet at the same time, somewhat distrusted.
Thorsson notes, in Runelore, that Freyja is a three-fold deity. She is a member of the Vanir, a goddess of Magic, and a goddess of warriors. Davidson remarks that it is possible to see Freyja as a Triple Goddess, with Frigg and Skadi.
In The North Myths, Crossley-Holland recounts the tale of The Necklace of the Brisings, the major myth in which Freyja plays the 'starring' role. The basic story is that Freyja crept out of her hall one night and quietly left Asgard, followed, unbenownst to her, by Loki. She found her way to the smithy of four dwarves - Alfrigg, Dvalin, Berling and Grerr. She lusted after a necklace of gold incised with wondrous patterns, which was the work of the dwarves. She offered to buy the necklace, but the dwarves would have no payment other than for them to lie with her for one night. Freyja accepted this, and afterwards, returned to her hall under the cover of darkness.
Loki made straight for Othinn's hall and told the High One what Freyja had done. Othinn, furious, ordered Loki to get the necklace from Freyja, which he did by shape-shifting into a fly, entering Sessrumnir, and stealing the necklace from Freyja as she lay asleep.
When Freyja woke the next morning and realised the necklace had been stolen from her, she knew that only Loki could have been capable of such an act and that moreover, he would have only done such a thing at Othinn's behest. She hurried to Othinn and confronted him about the necklace, whereupon the High One told her that she could only see it again under one condition - that she stir up war between two kings of men in Midgard, and that she use charms to give the slain new life, so that they could fight anew. Freyja agreed to this and her necklace was returned.
Crossley-Holland, in his notes on this tale, says that given Frejya's role as a goddess of war and death, it is possible that Othinn's final demand may well have been to her liking. It is generally agreed by scholars that the 'necklace of the Brisings' refers to the Old Norse word brisingr, meaning fire - referring to its brilliance. Ellis Davisdson notes that the necklace is a symbol often attributed to mother goddesses.
As for esoteric interpretations of this tale, Freya Aswynn, in Leaves of Yggdrasil, says that the dwarves represent the four elements and the necklace, the fifth, which can only arise from the integration of the four. Thorsson, in Runelore, gives the explanation that the necklace represents the four-fold cosmic cycle of generation and regeneration. Thorsson notes that she may have slept with one dwarf a night, or with all four simultaenously.
The Norse Myths, as recounted by Crossley-Holland, give us some strong clues as towards Freyja's magical abilities. In the myth of Gullveig, she displays her powers before the Aesir, surviving all their attempts to do away with her. In Hyndla's Poem, she surrounds the giantess Hyndla with a ring of fire. Given her erotic character and her love of gold, I would infer that Freyja's magic also covered the powers of enchantment - the casting of glamours and fascinations. I would point to two instances in The Norse Myths which would seem to support this idea: firstly, in The Building of Asgard's Wall, the giant-mason asks to take Freyja for his wife, in return for rebuilding the walls of Asgard. At this point, Freyja is described thusly:
The beautiful goddess sat bolt upright and as she moved the necklace of the Brisings and her golden brooches and armbands and the gold thread in her clothing glittered and flashed. None but Odin could look directly at her.
Secondly, in Thor's Duel with Hrungnir, she tries to beguile the giant who again, is threatening to abduct her:
Odin nodded and Freyja sidled forward. As she moved, all the jewels she was wearing flashed and glimmered, and Hrungnir tried to rub the stars out of his eyes. 'Drink again,' said Freya.
Freyja's cloak of feathers, which she used to enter the underworld is given to Loki on a couple of occasions - which in itself begs a question, as Loki demonstrates shape-shifting powers of his own accord. But the cloak of feathers as an example of bird-costume in general, appears to be a vital ingredient in a wide variety of shamanic traditions, as Mircea Eliade notes in his monumental work Shamanism, from the Tungus of Siberia to the Irish filidh.
Snorri says that Freyja weeps 'tears of gold' in searching for her lost husband, Od. Why she does this is not made clear. Davidson, in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe suggests that this is "a memory of the goddess seeking the slain god of fertility." On the surface, at least, this does suggest a link between Freyja and the cults of Isis or Cybelle. However, Thorsson, in Runelore, gives an alternative interpretation of this theme.
"The name Odh-r simply indicates the force of ecstasy, of the magically inspired mind. To this, indeed, the goddess Freyja is wedded, and it too (as with Odhinn himself) is the chief aim of her strivings. As Odhr wandered, so Freyja wandered after him, shedding tears of gold."
This, says Thorsson, has nothing to do with myths of Ishtar (or Isis) - that Freyja is seeking " the numinous inspiration" embodied in the god.
Freyja is mistress of the body of practices known as Seidhr. As Thorsson explains in The Nine Doors of Midgard, there were two forms of magic practiced in the ancient North - Galdor - which emphasises the development of will and exerting control over one's circumstances, and Seidhr - the magic of 'submergence' in which trance states played a major role. What Seidhr practices actually consisted of has become an issue of some debate in recent years. Jan Fries for example, in Helrunar, uses the term in two ways - firstly he attributes seidhr to the brewing of potions and herbal medicines, particularly those intended to bring about a change of consciousness, and secondly, he makes reference to the 'seething' body of the shaman, entering trance by shaking and trembling 'all-body spasms'. Davidson (op cit), discusses the Volva, a seeress or sooth-sayer, who entered into a divinatory trance at festivals, and was able to answer questions put to her by those present. The volva would be seated on a lofty seat or platform, spells were sung - the volva would be sometimes supported by a large company who acted as a choir and provided music - and the seeress passed into a state of ecstasy. According to Davidson, the volva would be consulted on matters related to the growth of crops, the prosperity of the community and the marriage of young people - all concerns which come within Freyja's sphere of influence.
Thorsson, in Nine Doors, briefly describes three forms of seidhr-craft: sooth-saying or divination, faring forth (travelling in other realms) and love-seidhr (sex-magic). He also mentions shape-shifting as an aspect of seidhr. Randy P. Connor, in Blossom of Bone, says that male practitioners of seidhr were reputed to be able to
"bestow wealth and fame and to take these away. They could bring plenty during a time of famine or cause the land to be blighted. They could cause persons to fall ill, just as they could heal them with herbs and charms. They could bring lovers together and sever relationships. In later times, they aided warriors by magically dulling enemies' swords, halting enemies arrows in flight, raising storms at sea, and unbinding the chains of imprisoned comrades."
All this should serve to give an impression of the possible range of seidhr practices. The subject of seidhr itself deserves close attention in it's own right.
In conclusion, I will offer some thoughts on what possibilities for magical work Freyja offers. Freyja is an archetypal sorceress. She could therefore be invoked by those who would learn the ways of sorcery, divination, and fascination. Indeed Thorsson, in Nine Doors describes an Invocation of Freyja in the sense of a 'blessing-work' in order to learn the powers of seidhr. Thorsson's invocations give a good example of how to approach Freyja appropriately:
"I am come of this stead to honour Freya, to speak of my lusts for her lovely body, and of my greed for her mighty powers of seith. With these words I wish with all my heart she will come to me and be with me in body and soul.
I call upon thee to come faring out of Folkvang and from thy seat at Sessrumnir - to be here with me now. Stride forth in thy guise as Gullveig - the one who thirsts for gold - and make thy holy might known in the shape of Heidh - the shining bright mother of holy Seith."
The force of Freyja is invoked into a mead-horn, for the participant to drink and share with the goddess.
It would also seem appropriate to ask for Freyja's blessing in any act of seidhr-sorcery - Results Magic worked using the Northern Tradition. Workings of an erotic nature of intent might particularly attract her favour.
Freya Aswynn, Leaves of Yggdrasil (Aswynn)
Randy P. Conner, Blossom of Bone (HarperCollins)
Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Norse Myths (Penguin)
H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Penguin)
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy (Penguin Arkana)
Jan Fries, Helrunar (Mandrake of Oxford)
Edred Thorsson, Runelore (Samuel Weiser)
Edred Thorsson, The Nine Doors of Midgard (Llewellyn)