Brísinga-men, Freyja’s Garland of Flames
It is difficult to properly tell this myth because it is essentially known through one lone stanza of years 970 poem which describes drawings on a shield. The other source is much more detailed though hardly reliable since it is a euhemerized version full of Middle Ages worldviews, approximately dating 1400.
The stanza describes without comment what the shield shows. The “son of eight plus one waves,” i.e. Heimdall, fights with Loki to catch back again the “mögr haf-nýra fögru (sea-kidneys very beautiful)” and one knows that a ‘sea-kidney’ is a pearl. Heimdall thus recovered these ‘very beautiful pearls’. The pearls are still used to make necklaces but Freyja rare ancient representations show he carrying a kind of pectoral, or a very broad belt. We find a more detailed description of this collar around line 1200 of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf that describes it as a “mene, sigle ond sincfæt (jewel/necklace/precious and container).” Thus, we can imagine it as a broad dickey made of pearls and that could contain small objects. Lastly, we are sure that Freyja carried a “men Brísinga (jewelry of flames).” as said in the Eddic poem Thrymkvidha (Þrymkviða). The giant Thrym is able to steal Mjölnir and requests marrying Freyja to return his hammer to Thorr. She gets dreadfully angry, shakes Asgard and “stökk þat it mikla men brísinga (jumped of that much the necklace of flames),” i. e. her fury causes the necklace to ‘jump’. If it really jumped out of Freyja’s body, the straps that fastened it yielded to her harsh breaths while a true necklace could only be shaken. And this constitutes the whole, a quite reduced one, of what we know without any doubt of this ornament.
As for the late legend that I evoked above, it was, as it is normal, obviously impregnated of Christianity since the gods are represented as human persons. The original myth has thus been rebuilt there according to a Christian view. Under these conditions, it does not seem to me dishonest to rebuild this myth according to a Heathen view. Of the episodes of the late legend, we will not keep those where Freyja is ridiculed and we will place all the history in a magic atmosphere in agreement with what we know of Freyja and the pre-Christian Viking society.
The myth ‘reconstructed’ according to a Heathen worldview
We know that the goddess Freyja had been adopted by the Æsir, as a kind of hostage at the end of the war between the Æsir and the Vanir. Here is thus one of the Vanir goddess dipped in a new environment, a warrior one. These people undoubtedly looked at her as the high mistress of ‘warrior’s rest’ similarly to Akkadian Ishtar. This deeply offended her, she being a goddess of free women, used to have her share in so-called ‘manly’ duties, similarly to Sumerian Inanna. She soon became conscious that the daily and easy magic to which she was used could not enable her to preserve her rank among warriors used to ranking by strength. She knew of her relative physical weakness and decided to show she was equal to male Æsir in intelligence and to better them in knowledge and willpower. The only testimony left of such women who could lead armies is the one of Brynhild’s daughter, Áslaug, as described in Ragnars Saga Loðbrokar.
She understood that the friendly contact with the earth she had practiced up to now would not be sufficient any more. She then decided to pay a visit to the Dwarves, the Masters of the magic of underground depths. The Dwarves were a little stunned, at first, by the visit of the brilliant goddess who shined inside their caves. But, when they become aware that the goddess wanted to do real work with them and their magic, their mistrust quickly turned to enthusiasm. They organized in the vastest cave a gigantic meeting of chthonic magic. They lifted a large flat squared rock plate on the top of four rounded stones. Freyja was standing at the middle of the slab with the four main magician dwarves placed at the corners. The crowd of thousands of dwarves and their spouses gathered around them, each ready to call upon the earthly powers. We do not know the details of the ceremony. The only one that struck the imagination of the 14th century Christians who told the tale is: “Freyja had sex with the four dwarves.” It is indeed probable that a sexual mystical ceremony took place, perhaps one similar to Tantric Buddhism. Freyja, as a love goddess had certainly her role to play, not so much as a direct actress but as a leader in blending the mystical powers of the two sexes – probably with the help of the magician dwarves. It is slightly miserable to see here a gathering dedicated to the satisfaction of natural needs, even though these needs are perfectly honorable within a Heathen worldview.
The following day, Freyja joyfully thanked the four dwarves for the beautiful ceremony they organized. They nevertheless asserted that the ceremony magic, alone, would be far from enough to impress the warriors: She still needed the mark of a high goddess glare, both shiny and ominous. They asked her to wait until evening to give them time to shape a gift for her. They interlaced quantities of gold wires with shiny pearls. Each golden wire oscillated a little at each of Freyja tiniest moves in such a way that its shine seemed to run along the wire. As if by magic, an onlooker could briefly see a brísingr (a flame) come to life on the broad band of jewels which girdled the middle body of the goddess. This garland of flames became what the magician dwarves knew Freyja needed: to become ‘both shiny and ominous’ in order to stay attractive as a love goddess though slightly threatening to an unwise warrior.
When she came back to Asgard, each god has been filled with wonder to see her thus rigged and she was greeted as a goddess in front of whom all should bow, were them warriors, sailors, peasants or lords. Some other gods got then the idea to ask the dwarves to manufacture magic objects for them. Thus, Freyja is far from being the only one to have achieved this underground voyage towards the dwarves. During the last centuries, the chthonic forces have been reviled as belonging to the devil as if light would ensure some holiness.
Just as the belief in a time cut in three strands, the belief in the danger of chthonic forces became an unconscious truth. Do not let you be robotized by the nonsense of ‘proper’ thinking!
The dwarves thus manufactured
Thórr’s hammer that does not have a ‘too short’ handle as everyone claims. It has exactly the length necessary to catch it, such as a boomerang, when it comes back after striking.
Ódinn’s spear, thin, light and indestructible Gungnir. It vibrates when it is launched with a godly strength, as do the javelins of our modern athletes. When it flies over the heads of the enemy soldiers, all of them are ‘dedicated to Ódinn’ (sentenced to death).
Forged in gold, Freyr’s wild boar and magic boat enable him to move in majesty. Freyr, just as Freyja newly arrived in Ásgard, needed also some lavishness to attract the warriors’ respect.
But such an amount of favor associated to Freyja was bound to wake up Loki’s covetousness. He decided to teach a lesson to this impudent foreign lady. He would have very much liked to kill her but killing a woman was such a horrible deed (in this time) that he himself could not seriously endeavor this solution… moreover he was a bit afraid that the powerful goddess could kill him herself if he took that dangerous path. Ethics and cowardice provided him a neat solution: do nothing more than shaming her. How to shame her than proving she did not deserve her pride if she were unable to safeguard the attributes of her powers? It was enough for him thus to snatch the Garland of Flames, then to carefully conceal it. He who was able to transform into a mare, could just as easily change into a fly to access Freyja’s castle, or into a cat to become one of her favorite pets. Loki, as any predator, is enduring and observant of his victim’s weaknesses. One day, Freyja stopped watching so closely her Garland of Flames, he then seized it and disappeared within the world of the children of time, Midgard.
Æsir, as much warrior-like they might be, were not at all blind or as smug as being unable to notice the social worth of a powerful love goddess. Freyja, being used to the Vanir’s way of life, introduced more fluid, easier relationships within Asgard. Everyone has been seduced by this beautiful goddess, seemingly softness incarnated and really full of spirit, up to the point to become fearful in her angers. Ódinn, first and most intelligent of all the gods, had immediately noticed all her positive sides. He thus convened a council of the gods and they consulted each other on the best way of recovering the Garland of Flames. Fortunately, Heimdall, the guardian of the rainbow connecting the world of the gods and the one of mankind had noticed, as good guardian should, Loki fleeing in the early morning. His piercing sight had even enabled him to see where Loki was hidden. Moreover Heimdall is a warrior who is well worth of Loki, he was this chosen for the mission of recovery of the stolen jewel.
Heimdall went immediately to Loki’s hideout and they fought each other. A witness says that they fought in the sea, each one to them being in the shape of a seal. I believe that they also fought in the airs and on the ground. Finally Heimdall bested Loki and he was able to deliver back to Freyja the marks of her dignity.
Unfortunately, Loki had also fulfilled his aim of shaming Freyja whose dignity had to be restored by a warrior instead of standing by itself. Carelessness in protecting her dignity is by itself shaming. From this time, male protectiveness did not stop its swelling until it became overbearing. Divine cycles are long and Loki-like people are many. Much time and cleverness are still needed for Freyja to recover the same might as the one she owned when leaving the ceremony with the Dwarves.
Brísing or flame?
Translators tend to avoid translating the word brísing (fire, flame) and give it as a noun, Brísing when they cite Freyja’s ‘necklace’. Cleasby-Vigfusson (in the addenda at the end of the dictionary) and Lexicon Poëticum (with many examples without ambiguity) give both to brísingr the meaning of ‘fire, flame’ and translate brísingamen by ‘necklace of fire/flames’. Lex. Poët. reports also the existence of an island (only one old quotation is associated to it) called Brísing. The translation ‘flame’ might have looked a too blazing one to the academics’ taste but it seems to be much better attested than that of a noun, besides a very poorly documented one.
A few citations
“Reið varð þá Freyja / ok fnasaði, / allr ása salr / undir bifðisk, / stökk þat it mikla / men Brísinga.”
“Raging was… Freyja/ and snorted / jumped at this much / men Brísinga.”
« …Hama ætwæg / to þære byrhtan byrig / Brosinga mene, / sigle ond sincfæt ».
Hama carried / in his shiny castle / Brosings’ the necklace-ornament-jewel / necklace and precious container-thing.
Ráðgegninn bregðr ragna
rein at Singasteini
frægr við firna slœgjan
Fárbauta mög vári;
móðǫflugr ræðr mœðra
mǫgr hafnýra fǫgru, much sea’s-kidneys beautiful
átta, mærðar þôttum.
Note:The litteral translation I usually prefer to provide is incomprehensible in this poem because the bonds between words are marked by their case of declension and not by their place. Only line 6 is comprehensible and it is the one I wanted to present to prove that t the word “brisinga men” does not explicitly appear in this poem, as opposed to what so many claim.
Below, two experts’ translations (in bold, their renderings of sea’s-kidneys):
The famed rain-bow's defender,
keeper strives with the wondrous
subtle son of Laufey
at Singastein, for the necklace:
wins the son of eight and
one mothers the brisings’ –
neckring: known I make it
now to you in the poem.
 In this saga, as opposed to the recent TV one, Ragnar’s first wife, Thóra (Þóra) dies of sickness quite early. His second wife, Brynhild’s and Siegfried’s (Sigurðr) daughter, is named Áslaug, as in the TV saga. She will become a woman-war-leader after the birth of her and Ragnar’s last son. Chapter 11 of the saga tells it without doubt. It describes her joining Ragnar’s sons’ troops with her ships and she has land-warriors as well. When she wishes to become the leader of the whole body of warriors, the ship leadership is denied to her but she receives responsibility for all land-troopers. Here is what the saga says about it, in its sagaic tense style:
“Þat er víst,” segir Ívarr, “at þú kemr eigi á vár skip. Hitt skal vera, ef þú vill, at þú ráðir fyrir því liði, er landveg ferr.” Hún kvað svá vera skulu.
Nú er breytt nafni hennar ok er nú kölluð Randalín.
“That is sure,” said Ívarr, “that you come not on our ships. Happen shall be, if you will, that you advise (and rule) for these troops, that (by) land-way travel.” She said then it will happen.
Now changed name hers and (she) is now called Randalin.
(In my ‘translation’, the English words are ordered exactly as the Norse ones – you may recognize many of them).