Book of Myths - Jeanie Lang

Freya, Queen of the Northern Gods

"Friday's bairn is loving and giving," says the old rhyme that sets forth the special qualities of the children born on each day of the week, and to the superstitious who regard Friday as a day of evil omen, it seems strange that Friday's bairn should be so blessed. But they forget that before Christianity swept paganism before it, and taught those who worshipped the northern gods the story of that first black "Good Friday," the tragedy in which all humanity was involved, Friday was the day of Freya, "The Beloved," gentle protectress, and most generous giver of all joys, delights, and pleasures. From her, in mediaeval times, the high-born women who acted as dispensers to their lords first took the title Frouwa (=Frau), and when, in its transition stage, the old heathenism had evolved into a religion of strong nature worship, overshadowed by fatalism, only thinly veneered by Christianity, the minds of the Christian converts of Scandinavia, like those of puzzled children, transferred to the Virgin Mary the attributes that had formerly been those of their "Lady"—Freya, the goddess of Love.

Long before the Madonna was worshipped, Freya gave her name to plants, to flowers, and even to insects, and the child who says to the beautiful little insect, that he finds on a leaf, "Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home," is commemorating the name of the Lady, Freya, to whom his ancestors offered their prayers.

In her home in the Hall of Mists, Freya (or Frigga), wife of Odin the All Father, sat with her golden distaff spinning the clouds. Orion's Belt was known as "Frigga's spindle" by the Norsemen, and the men on the earth, as they watched the great cumulous masses of snowy-white, golden or silver edged, the fleecy cloudlets of grey, soft as the feathers on the breast of a dove, or the angry banks of black and purple, portending a storm, had constant proof of the diligence of their goddess. She was the protectress of those who sailed the seas, and the care of children as they came into the world was also hers. Hers, too, was the happy task of bringing together after death, lovers whom Death had parted, and to her belonged the glorious task of going down to the fields of battle where the slain lay strewn like leaves in autumn and leading to Valhalla the half of the warriors who, as heroes, had died. Her vision enabled her to look over all the earth, and she could see into the Future, but she held her knowledge as a profound secret that none could prevail upon her to betray.

"Of me the gods are sprung;

And all that is to come I know, but lock

In my own breast, and have to none reveal'd."

—Matthew Arnold.

Thus she came to be pictured crowned with heron plumes, the symbol of silence—the silence of the lonely marshes where the heron stands in mutest contemplation—a tall, very stately, very queenly, wholly beautiful woman, with a bunch of keys at her girdle—symbol of her protection of the Northern housewife—sometimes clad in snow-white robes, sometimes in robes of sombre black. And because her care was for the anxious, weary housewife, for the mother and her new-born babe, for the storm-tossed mariner, fighting the billows of a hungry sea, for those whose true and pure love had suffered the crucifixion of death, and for the glorious dead on the field of battle, it is very easy to see Freya as her worshippers saw her—an ideal of perfect womanhood.



But the gods of the Norsemen were never wholly gods. Always they, like the gods of Greece, endeared themselves to humanity by possessing some little, or big, human weakness. And Freya is none the less lovable to the descendants of her worshippers because she possessed the so-called "feminine weakness" of love of dress. Jewels, too, she loved, and knowing the wondrous skill of the dwarfs in fashioning exquisite ornaments, she broke off a piece of gold from the statue of Odin, her husband, and gave it to them to make into a necklace—the marvellous jewelled necklace Brisingamen, that in time to come was possessed by Beowulf. It was so exquisite a thing that it made her beauty twice more perfect, and Odin loved her doubly much because of it. But when he discovered that his statue had been tampered with, his wrath was very great, and furiously he summoned the dwarfs—they who dealt always with fine metal—and demanded of them which of them had done him this grievous wrong. But the dwarfs loved Freya, and from them he got no answer.

Then he placed the statue above the temple gate, and laboured with guile to devise runes that might give it the power of speech, so that it might shout aloud the name of the impious robber as the robber went by. Freya, no longer an omnipotent goddess, but a frightened wife, trembled before his wrath, and begged the dwarfs to help her. And when one of them—the most hideous of all—promised that he would prevent the statue from speaking if Freya would but deign to smile upon him, the queen of the gods, who had no dread of ugly things, and whose heart was full of love and of pity, smiled her gentle smile on the piteous little creature who had never known looks of anything but horror and disgust from any of the deathless gods. It was for him a wondrous moment, and the payment was worth Death itself. That night a deep sleep fell on the guards of Odin's statue, and, while they slept, the statue was pulled down from its pedestal and smashed into pieces. The dwarf had fulfilled his part of the bargain.

When Odin next morning discovered the sacrilege, great was his anger, and when no inquiry could find for him the criminal, he quitted Asgard in furious wrath. For seven months he stayed away, and in that time the Ice Giants invaded his realm, and all the land was covered with a pall of snow, viciously pinched by black frosts, chilled by clinging, deadening, impenetrable mists. But at the end of seven dreary months Odin returned, and with him came the blessings of light and of sunshine, and the Ice Giants in terror fled away.

Well was it for woman or for warrior to gain the favour of Freya, the Beloved, who knew how to rule even Odin, the All Father, himself. The Winilers who were warring with the Vandals once sought her aid, and gained her promise of help. From Hlidskialf, the mighty watch-tower, highest point in Asgard, from whence Odin and his queen could look down and behold what was happening all the world over, amongst gods and men, dwarfs, elves, and giants, and all creatures of their kingdom, Freya watched the Vandals and the Winilers making ready for the battle which was to decide forever which people should rule the other.

Night was descending, but in the evening light the two gods beheld the glitter of spears, the gleam of brass helmets and of swords, and heard from afar the hoarse shouts of the warriors as they made ready for the great fight on the morrow. Knowing well that her lord favoured the Vandals, Freya asked him to tell her which army was to gain the victory. "The army upon which my eyes shall first rest when I awake at the dawning," said Odin, full well knowing that his couch was so placed that he could not fail to see the Vandals when he woke. Well pleased with his own astuteness, he then retired to rest, and soon sleep lay heavy on his eyelids. But, while he slept, Freya gently moved the couch upon which he lay, so that he must open his eyes not on the army who had won his favour, but on the army that owned hers. To the Winilers, she gave command to dress up their women as men, and let them meet the gaze of Odin in the dawning, in full battle array.

"Take thou thy women-folk,

Maidens and wives;

Over your ankles

Lace on the white war-hose;

Over your bosoms

Link up the hard mail-nets;

Over your lips

Plait long tresses with cunning;—

So war beasts full-bearded

King Odin shall deem you,

When off the grey sea-beach

At sunrise ye greet him."

—Charles Kingsley.

When the sun sent its first pale green light next morning over grey sky and sea, Odin awoke, and gazed from his watch-tower at the army on the beach. And, with great amazement, "What Longbeards are those?" he cried.

"They are Winilers!" said Freya, in joyous triumph, "but you have given them a new name. Now must you also give them a gift! Let it be the victory, I pray you, dear lord of mine."

And Odin, seeing himself outwitted and knowing that honour bade him follow the Northern custom and give the people he had named a gift, bestowed on the Longbeards and their men the victory that Freya craved. Nor was the gift of Odin one for that day alone, for to him the Langobarden attributed the many victories that led them at last to find a home in the sunny land of Italy, where beautiful Lombardy still commemorates by its name the stratagem of Freya, the queen.

With the coming of Christianity, Freya, the Beloved, was cast out along with all the other old forgotten gods. The people who had loved and worshipped her were taught that she was an evil thing and that to worship her was sin. Thus she was banished to the lonely peaks of the mountains of Norway and of Sweden and to the Brocken in Germany, no longer a goddess to be loved, but transformed into a malignant power, full of horror and of wickedness. On Walpurgis Night she led the witches' revels on the Brocken, and the cats who were said to draw her car while still she was regarded as a beneficent protectress of the weak and needy, ceased to be the gentle creatures of Freya the Good, and came under the ban of religion as the satanic companions of witches by habit and repute.

One gentle thing only was her memory allowed to keep. When, not as an omnipotent goddess but as a heart-broken mother, she wept the death of her dearly-loved son, Baldur the Beautiful, the tears that she shed were turned, as they fell, into pure gold that is found in the beds of lonely mountain streams. And we who claim descent from the peoples who worshipped her—

"Saxon and Norman and Dane are we"—

can surely cleanse her memory from all the ugly impurities of superstition and remember only the pure gold of the fact that our warrior ancestors did not only pray to a fierce and mighty god of battles, but to a woman who was "loving and giving"—the little child's deification of the mother whom it loves and who holds it very dear.