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
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
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 – detail from work by Scieth-Ailm
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
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 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
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.