Mark Neumayer

author of the Valda & the Valkyries series

Tag: goddesses

Five Mighty Women from Norse Mythology

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Norse Mythology Quick Hits

Women had a large degree of freedom during the Viking Age, especially when compared to their European contemporaries. So it comes as no surprise that the sagas and legends feature some powerful females.  There are a lot to choose from. Which of them top the list when it comes to power? Here are my choices:

Ludwig Pietsch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ludwig Pietsch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hyrrokin

When Baldr died, the Norse gods needed to launch his ship Hringhorni to use it as a funeral pyre. There was just one problem – Hringhorni was the largest ship in the Nine Worlds and no one was able to make it budge. So the gods sent to Jotunheim, the land of the giants. They summoned one particular giantess called Hyrrokin (her names means Smoke-Withered or Fire-Stained.) Hyrrokin knew how to make an entrance. She arrived riding on top of a wolf, using a bridle made out of twisted snakes!  The wolf was so tough that it took four beserkers to hold it down.

Was Hyrrokin able to move the ship? She walked over to it and gave it a single push. The movement was so intense that “fire sparkled from the rollers, and the earth shook all around.” That is one strong woman!

Elli Wrestling Thor from Ars Poetica

Elli Wrestling Thor from Ars Poetica

Elli

When Thor, Loki and Thjálfi visited the hall of the giant Utgard-Loki. The giant sets each of his visitors a challenge. Thor ends up with three challenges (He is Thor, after all.) For his third challenge he announces that he will wrestle any one in the hall. Utgard-Loki says that since Thor is kind of small he can wrestle one of the nurses – Elli. An old woman shuffles up and the wrestling match begins. As hard as Thor struggles, he can not move the giantess Elli. Thor tries and tries but not only can he not defeat the woman, she drives him back until Thor has one knee down on the ground.

Afterwards it is revealed that Elli is the personification of Old Age. Utgard-Loki marvels that Thor did so well because everyone eventually falls to Old Age.  Just look at the story of Idunn. goddess of youth. When she was kidnapped and taken away from Asgard the gods went into a panic as they began to turn withered and gray. Old age frightens even the gods, earning Elli her place on this list.

freyja-scieth

Freyja – detail from work by Scieth-Ailm

Freyja

When warriors die in battle they are brought to their heavenly reward, but not all of them go to Valhalla. Half of the warriors go to Folkvang the hall of the goddess Freyja.  What makes this goddess so powerful that even Odin shares with her? Her anger once made  the halls of the gods shake. She is associated with love, sex, beauty, fertility, gold, magic, war, and death.  That is a pretty potent combination. The Prose Edda says that she is ranked second only to one other goddess – Frigg, but I Frigg seems to get more of her power from being the wife of Odin while Freyja earned my ranking all by herself

 

The Norns by Arthur Rackham

The Norns by Arthur Rackham

Urdr, Verdandi and Skuld

The Eddas refer to a race of Norns but the three most famous are Urdr (fate), Verdandi (happening or present) and Skuld (future). How do the sagas describe these three? We are told in Voluspa they are “Huge of might” and “mighty in wisdom.” The Norns are the weavers of Fate and even the gods are under their power and influence. One of the reasons why Odin travels so much is that he knows the fate which awaits the gods at Ragnarok. While he knows he can not escape that fate he travels and seeks knowledge to ease some of it’s consequences.

The Norns’ importance to Norse mythology is also represented by their role in taking care of the literal center of the universe – Yggdrasil, the World Tree that runs through each of the Nine Worlds. Each morning they draw water from the Well of Fate and create a soothing poultice that they apply to the bark of the World Tree to keep it healthy. They might not be able to lift massive ships or crack skulls in a fight but it is said that no one can fight the fate that Urdr, Verdandi and Skuld have woven for them.

Hel by Thalia Took

Hel by Thalia Took

Hel or Hela

There is not many people that scare the gods. There are not many that the gods have to ask for what they want instead of just taking it. Hela, the goddess of death, is at the top of both those lists. The gods of Norse mythology can and do die.  Hela has power over them all. As one of the three children of Loki and a giantess, she inspired so much fear and concern among the gods that she was cast into Nifleheim where she created great mansions to house the dead.

Brave warriors also fear Hela because her realm is filled with those who have died of sickness or in bed. If they are in her realm it is because they have died a “straw death” and were not worthy to earn a place in the heavens.  During Ragnarok Hela will send her legions of the dead to fight against the gods

 

Summary

I’ve only touched briefly on each of these powerful women. I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough to get you out there and reading more on your own. Be sure and drop me a comment if you have any other powerful females from Norse mythology that you feel deserve a mention.

Rán, the Sea Goddess

The Norse sea goddess Rán has been portrayed as a cruel woman, filled with a greedy desire to drag ships full of men down to the bottom of the ocean so that she may steal their lives and their treasure. She, along with her brother/husband Ægir, are sometimes identified as being neither Aesir nor Vanir, but older beings than the actual gods.

In Fridthjof’s Saga the hero is caught in a storm and mourns the idea the he must soon lay himself to rest on “Rán’s bed.” This saga also has the following passage:

“Gold is good to carry  / When you go a-wooing,
Empty-handed no one  / Comes to sea-blue Ran.
Cold is she to kisses,  / Flee’th from embraces,
But the sea-bride yieldeth / Met with shining gold.”

This ties in with the idea of Rán’s greed, for the men of old would make sure to always carry at least some small bit of gold with them when they were in dangerous waters. This gold would be used to win the favor of the sea goddess should the sailors meet a watery doom.

It seems odd that a society that has such strong ties with the sea would view it in such a negative light. It is not as if the Vikings were afraid of the open waters. They would sail out of sight of the land (something the ancient Greeks would never do) and the Vikings sailed far and wide. They went to sea in ships that were amazingly well-adapted to traveling both on the ocean and inland waters but they also undoubtedly had a healthy respect for the dangers one could encounter when traveling Rán’s road.

I think the key point to remember is that death by drowning was not considered a noble thing, it would not earn you a seat in Valhalla but a place in the undersea hall of Rán.

Who To Trust

norsegodsbookI’ve been reading Norse Gods, Goddesses, Giants, Dwarves, Elves & More – A Complete Guide by H.A. Guerber. It is a hefty book published way back in 1909 that really tries to live up to the subtitle’s claim of being “complete.” (I give it bonus points for being edited by A. Thor.) In addition to the many stories it also gathers together over 60 illustrations. I have the Kindle version which claims to have been “revamped” in 2011.

While I do recommend this book for any fans of Norse mythology, I have to deliver that recommendation with a very big caveat – I am not sure that I can trust all of the stories in this book. This isn’t a scholarly book – it has no index and there are numerous mentions of “various sources” without any naming of those sources.

Don’t get me wrong, the book is an enjoyable read. It presents its information in a clear straightforward style that is entertaining. I have read some other reviews where people complained that it had too many poetry excerpts. I can understand that is just a byproduct of the time when the book was written. My quibble with the poetry has more to do with the author using both quotes from the Eddas and later sources such as Longfellow and Wagner. The similar presentation subtly implies that all the poetry has equal merit in depicting Norse myths. But while I have a certain level of respect for Longfellow and Wagner and the work they have done in helping to popularize the Norse myths, I don’t look to them as experts in the field.

Yet this brings up another issue – how accurate was Snorri? Nancy Marie Brown has a fascinating series of blog posts titled Seven Norse Myths We  Wouldn’t Have Without Snorri. In those posts she lays out her arguments for why she thinks Snorri didn’t just transcribe Norse legends, but made some of them up on his own. She makes some good arguments and the series is worth a read.

The whole issue of what the ancient Norse really believed is such a thorny one. We don’t have the written records for them like we do for the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. So we may never know definitive answers. And that is what can be so frustrating about this field and ultimately about Guerber’s book. I kept reading little bits and pieces of information and thinking “that’s so cool, I haven’t read that before.” But without some explanation about where exactly that nugget of information can from I am hesitant to use it. I’ve been burned by sources before – in my first book, Valda & the Valkyries,  I have Loki claiming to be a fire god because that is what so many sources used to say. I’m a bit gun-shy now. It could be a result of living in the interconnected world of the internet where all the information I could want is at my fingertips. Unfortunately it happens to be mixed in with all of the misinformation that I don’t want and there aren’t always clear signs telling me which is which.

Ultimately I can recommend Norse Gods, Goddesses, etc … as an entertaining read and a good overview, but I would hesitate to endorse it as 100% accurate.

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