The myth of Skirnir’s (Skírnir) travel to Iötunheim
Freyr’s courting of Gerdr
A small introduction to the tale
Everyone agrees that the poem Skírnisför tells the story of a fight but who are the real fighters? The poem speaks of a “god Freyr’s envoy,” Skirnir, who must coerce a giantess, Gerdr (Gerðr), to wed Freyr, although she does not want it. This negotiation would not be of interest if it did not hide a larger conflict than that of a kind of rape programmed by Freyr on Gerdr’s body.
Academic commentators have initially thought of a “royal marriage” (this ‘hierogamos’ which is systematically alluded to), a ceremony known by multiple examples in the ancient civilizations. But this type of suggestion explains only a small number of the details of the poem. More recently, these commentators thus proposed two new interesting interpretations, of which we roughly say that they are the ones of the he-* and the she-commentators.
Since the 19th century most male commentators have seen in this poem an episode of the fight between Æsir and Giants. Skirnir represent the Æsir side and Gerdr represents the Giant one. Giants and Æsir are two civilizations foreign to each other and forced to cohabit, willing or not, on our planet. During the ‘bad’ periods, this is war, and the two sides’ behavior is the one of a mutual destruction. During the ‘good’ periods, this is peace, and their mutual behavior is rather the one of a constructive exchange. The poem contains several examples of these two behaviors. This ‘male oriented’ version of the poem stresses the character of Skirnir and his reactions vis-a-vis Gerdr’s refusals.
Not earlier than 1973 female commentators (together with a few male sympathizers) see in this poem an outrageous sexual anecdote: a quite ferocious episode of the fight between men and women. According to the expression of a commentator, “Gerðr is facing a lifetime of rape, congress with a man she does not want, while the alternative is a lifetime of congress with monsters she may well want, while still being able to feel disgust and shame for wanting it. She must choose between violation of the body and violation of the mind.” This feminist version is a little alarming and we shall propose another ‘feminist’ version in which Gerdr keeps her dignity. This version has the positive side to at last stress Gerdr’s reactions in front of Skirnir’s threats.
In fact, it seems to me that the two approaches combine easily, when we think of the existence of war captives becoming slaves in Scandinavian civilization. We understand that Freyr undertakes a war-like action against the Giants by forcing Gerdr to let herself kidnapped so that she becomes a kind of slave. In the ancient Scandinavian civilization it seems that a slave has no physical freedom but he/she was free of his/her thinking.
Even though all commentators could not miss the magic aspects of Skirnir’s behavior, it remains that very few them took into account the possible Gerdr’s magic capacities in spite of existing “runes of the Giants.” Besides, as a ‘princess’ among them, Gerdr has certainly been initiated to the knowledge of magic. During the implicit pause in the poem, between Skirnir’s last curse and Gerdr’s acceptance, we can reasonably suppose that she has been weighing the pros and the cons of her refusal vs. acceptance. Doing this, she certainly evaluated Skirnir’s display and took her decision after her evaluation of it. We add this third interpretation - that Gerdr is not too much afraid in front of Skirnir’s pomposity or even perhaps amused by it - which keeps Gerdr’s pride. The two cited new academic interpretations make of her a victim, especially the feminist one.
It is quite striking to note that both university interpretations of the two different conflicts are presently illustrated in an incredibly violent way for first and in a recurring way for the second. We will now revive a myth and, obviously, it is not necessary to believe that there is a god Freyr who dispatches his emissary to bring back a Giantess he likes. However, neither the fights between foreign civilizations nor conflicts between the two genres stopped since historical records exist. The actors’ names in the myth change whereas the myth is eternal.
The context of this myth is the one period of relative peace during which Æsir are somewhat besting the Giants. It could be also entitled either “a love episode of the conflict among gods and giants” or “How to force a foreign woman to join you in bed” or else, following my interpretation, “How a clumsy use of magic may lead to success.”
Homage to Ursula Dronke for her masterly edition and translation in Poetic Edda II, 1997 and thanks to the academics who clarified (for me) the two new understandings of the poem: Carolyne Larrington, Stephen A. Mitchell, Richard Cole.
The tale itself
At the beginning and the end of this tale, its action takes place in the world of the gods, Asgard. The central part of the poem occurs in Giants’ home, Iötunheim. Skirnir is god Freyr’s messenger who travels to the Giants’ in order to allure, on his behalf, a beautiful giantess, Gerdr.
1. First act: the drama is set up
The god Freyr, pushed by some mysterious intuition, went to sit down in Odinn’ magic chair, the one from which all the worlds could be looked upon. He watched Giants’ world, Iötunheim, and his glance fell as if by chance on the beautiful giantess Gerdr who was moving towards her country cottage-boudoir. She was so beautiful that her sight made Freyr shiver all over. The skin of Gerdr’s arms was so white and shiny that “her arms, by their light, brightened all the air and water” - in this time, doors were opened by raising their lower part to push it on a supporting shaft fixed to the ceiling – this explains why Gerdr had to raise up her arms. He then fell passionately in love for her.
Nevertheless, there was a ‘however’. Both remembered well that time of their crazy youth, when Freyr had killed Gerdr’s beloved brother. How could he present himself as a lover in front of her to ask her to marry him? She was going to reject him at once!
A solution would have been to forcibly remove her but two reasons prevented this course of action.
Firstly, as another poem says (sung) “Girl nor woman, Freyr never has bothered them he releases all their unwanted links.” Gerdr was a simple giantess and ‘therefore’ did not deserve the respect due goddesses or women. He nevertheless felt unable to be harsh with his beloved one.
Secondly, at this time, relations between Æsir and Giants were in a peaceful phase and an abduction could have started a vendetta, which Odinn was keen to avoid.
Freyr was thus doubly wedged in his desire. He did not find a solution to this dilemma, became sullen about it, he ‘did not feel well within his skin’ (if this is already explained) and had the feeling that his Hamingja had left him.
Njörd, Freyr’s father, and his wife, Skadi, became quite worried. Skadi required of Skirnir, Freyr’s servant and friend, to look why Freyr’s mind was so burdened.
Skirnir goes to Freyr and asks him why “he spends all his days seating in the hall.” Freyr confides his concerns to him: his heart has fallen for a Giantess whose “arms, by their light, brighten all the air and water.” He also reminds Skirnir that Gerdr knows that he, Freyr, is her brother’s killer.
Skirnir understands the difficulty of the task that Freyr entrusts to him and claims, to be able to achieve it, Freyr’s horse, able to jump over the magic barriers (“made of shivering flames”) that protect Gerdr’s residence. As Skirnir knows that he will have to be protected of Giants’ attacks, he claims Freyr’s sword “that strikes by itself the enemies if his holder is wise.”
Skirnir is going to leave and says to the horse to take him along to Iötumheim: “Either we will return together or we will together be grasped by the hideous giant,” that is Gerdr’s father.
2. Second act: the arrival of Skirnir at the Giants’
When he arrives, he meets a shepherd to whom he asks where to find Gerdr. The shepherd answers: “Are you doomed to die? You will never see the splendid girl.” Skirnir points out to him that chattering is useless and that his destiny drives him: “My time (my death) has been worked out for some day and my whole life lies in front of me.” It seems that killing this shepherd was part of his destiny, since he kills him on the spot and this shepherd disappears from the story.
Skirnir understands that Gerdr’s residence is nearby and carries on in full gallop. Gerdr hears the noise and says: “What is happening? The ground quivers and my father’s hall shakes in this din!” A maidservant announces a lone rider and Gerdr’s hospitality overrides her fear: “Let us accommodate him in our hall and serve to him our best mead… although I fear that he is the god who assassinated my brother!”
She speaks to Skirnir and does not recognize Freyr, hence she asks him who he is and why he comes here: “Are you of the Elves or son of the Æsir or the wise Vanir? Why did you cross the quivering flames and keep us company?”
He answers: “I came to seek peace and that you stop calling Freyr the most hateful living being.”
3. Third act: Skirnir proposes a truce
At first, he offers her the golden apples of long life. These apples prevent the Æsir from aging. Freyr together with the whole Æsir body had to agree on this proposal since these apples are so important for them. We saw that they have been entrusted to Bragi’s wife, Idunn, who will let herself kidnap, with the golden apples, by a Giant. Gerdr would have undoubtedly been a stricter guardian than Idunn… but we cannot retell history: Gerdr refuses a first time to attach her life to Freyr’s one in spite of this honorable and respectful gift. Gerdr understands however that Freyr’s proposal is not simply sexual. She states it by saying: “Freyr and I will not live together as long as our lives last.” She very clearly evokes a life shared by two beings bound by a marriage and she rejects that. She is obviously not concerned by passing fancies which may be already took place before he kills her brother.
Freyr knew well that marrying her brother’s assassin is a supreme shame for a Scandinavian woman whose role, among others, is to fustigate the males of her family when they balk to risk their life to avenge the family honor. He had thus envisaged a second gift to alleviate Gerdr’s scruples, a gift corresponding to an enormous wergild: Draupnir ring, provider of eternal wealth since it reproduces itself “eight times each nine days.” Freyr could not certainly propose Draupnir without Odinn’s agreement since he joined it as a sacrifice on Baldr’s funeral pyre and could recover it only on the hope of Baldr returning to life, as we saw in the myth of “Baldr’s death.” Once again, the union of Freyr and Gerdr visibly exceeds the stake of their lives and relates to the balance of the whole universe. Despite everything, Gerdr rejects the spiritual value of this ring and it chooses to consider only its money value. She declares that she is already rich enough with her father’s wealth.
Skirnir seems to be furious of Gerdr’s stubbornness at refusing these magnificent gifts that would have given her a statute close to Freyja’s or Frigg’s among the Æsir. Freyr’s sword he now owns makes him confident and he feels free to utter prophetic threats and even curses to convince Gerdr to yield.
4. Fourth act
Scene 1: The conflict starts
Skirnir tends to rise above himself since he now owns a magic sword: He threatens to slice off Gerdr’s head if she does not submit to his will. Gerdr does not seem very concerned by this ridiculously brutish threat. She haughtily answers: “I will not agree to give pleasure to a man who threatens to mistreat me. You behave as a fool, Skirnir, and I know that Freyr would not approve of your threats. My father will anyhow protect me and if you pursue on this track, I know that you both will meet there your death.”
Skirnir’s answer shows that he misunderstood her words: “With my sword, I can kill your giant father,” as if Gerdr had not already said that they would kill one another.
It now seems that Freyr’s plan comes back to Skirnir’s mind: he must stop being so boorish and follow the plan next option, and make use of magic in order to impress Gerdr. From now, and until the end of act 4, Gerdr silently listens to Skirnir’s prophecies and curses. We enter the magic part of the tale, the most mysterious one for us. Gerdr, who certainly is aware of Giants’ runes, understands what takes place and she silently gauges the forces that are shaped to cut her down if she refuses Freyr’s proposal.
Scene 2: Prophecies of loneliness, public humiliation and wretched sexual life
Skirnir completely changes his tactic: he threatens Gerdr of a wand: “I will strike you with a taming stick, girl, to break your resistance to my good pleasure!” This magic wand will later be carved with runes. Before using the rod, he begins a foreseeing display, one worthy of an infuriated völva.
“You will be alone. Hung out on a mountain you will look around and only see, on all sides, again and again, images of your death. Food will nauseate and you will become yourself a nauseating sight.
You will be humiliated. Your ugliness will be looked upon by everyone since everyone will know you. Madness, tears, impatience, and nettles will be your companions. You will be pulled by the breakers of your pain towards a beach, where your two unavoidable companions are waiting for you: they are self-dislike and suffering. Everyone will watch your misfortune and you will be unable to hide it.
You will not be able to control your sexual needs. Your body will be at the disposal of each giant and you will have to join them each day. You will slip through their hall, desire lacking, in order to make your body available to everyone. Each one of your pleasures will cause you intolerable pain. Your mate will be a three headed misshapen giant and no one else. You will become a slave to your sexual needs though they never will be fulfilled.”
Scene 3: Curses (‘shapings’ or sköp) of loneliness, public humiliation and wretched sexual life
Now, Skirnir leaves his premonitory trance and comes back to the magic wand and recalls that he will tame her with it.
“You will be alone. The fury of the Æsir gods, Odinn, Thorr and Freyr will fall down on you and reject you. Mountain Giants! Frost Giants! Hear me! Dwarves and Elves, hear how I prohibit, how I reject this woman’s right to the joys of companionship with other living beings!
You will be humiliated. The giant of whom you will become property will take you along to the doors of Hel and there, some bad guys will serve goat piss to you instead of mead. You will be eager to drink it and as soon it is swallowed, nausea will force you to vomit it. Woman! Such will be your desire. Woman! Such is my desire.
You will not be able to control your sexual needs. To begin, I carve the rune of Giants that shapes a woman’s worst fates. I add to it the ones of sexual fury and frenzy. In order to close their cursing circle, I carve the worst of your Giantess’ ancestral heritage.
What I carved on wood, I can scrape it if a good reason to do that arises…”
5. Fifth act: Gerdr yields
Gerdr undoubtedly evaluated the firmness of Skirnir’s and Freyr’s stand. She however is herself a witch, and she can recognize the strength and the weaknesses of the ‘shapings’ which can shape a destiny. We will never be sure of what really decided her for acceptance but there are only three reasonable possibilities.
She marveled at Skirnir’s performance and has been terrified by it. She then willingly yields in front of an unavoidable obligation. Becoming one of the Æsir goddesses is perhaps more appealing than surrendering to the pressure of her giantess’ hormones and becoming a strumpet among the Giants.
She might have loved Freyr during her youth and her brother’s murder prevented her from expressing her love. She marveled at Skirnir’s performance and has been soothed by it. Magic compelling strength is known in the Scandinavian ancient world. She can now hold the point that she has been unable to resist Skirnir-Freyr’s magic. This can allow her to evade the humiliation of being looked upon as a woman who betrayed her family line by marrying her brother’s murderer.
She might have been a trained magician and have noticed how clumsy Skirnir’s curses have been. Uttering a curse is not without danger when the cursed person is aware of being cursed. This person can build her/his defenses and immediately retort by striking down who is cursing: here Skirnir, and also Freyr since magic does not know distance. In this case, she marveled at Skirnir’s performance and has been moved by it. Freyr accepts a magic fight with her, he knows that he is likely to lose it… and he prefers losing the combat than her. Resentments and wraths should melt in front of such a proof of love.
At any rate, she remains quiet for some time, lost in her thoughts, weighting the value of the above three solutions pushing her towards acceptance. When she takes her decision, she does it without hesitation as the proud magician she is.
“Now, I drink to your honor young man, take this sparkling horn of old mead.” She nevertheless needs to save face by a last sentence: “I would never have believed that I should fall in love with the one of the Vanir!” We guess that she has always loved Freyr if not all Vanir.
6. Sixth act: course of the marriage
Skirnir stresses the point that his mission will not be over until some clauses of the contract that will bind Freyr and Gerdr are not yet accepted by both parts. In this section of the myth, Skirnir is oddly neutral and he accepts without restriction all conditions Gerdr states. She decides that Freyr and she will meet in a grove they all know, Barri. We can guess that this is the quiet place where Freyr, with his trusty servant, Skirnir, made acquaintance with Gerdr a long time ago. This explains why she could fall in love with him during their youth. She adds the requirement that the marriage will require a nine nights preparation time instead of the usual three nights of the ancient Scandinavian marriage.
Skirnir textually repeats the conditions stipulated by her and this records an accepted contract, irrevocable for the two partners.
The triple length of the preparation is not at all a simple whim: it underlines that her and Freyr will have to be ‘three times married’. One first marriage erases the shame of marrying her brother’s killer, a second one erases the sacrifice of leaving behind her giantess’ nature, and the last one is consecrating the pleasure of an ordinary marriage.
Freyr certainly accepts these conditions but he wants to state that their marriage will abide to the usual rules and Gerdr will have to take her housewife place. For this, Freyr adds to the contract a clause unspecified by Gerdr. This reminds us the famous trick played by the Æsir to Skadi (Skaði) who wanted to choose her husband among the Æsir and stated she could make her choice while she could see them. They respected the contract by showing her their feet only. Here, Freyr produces a numerical joke in order rework the nine waiting nights requirement. A normal marriage lasts three days and what we call the “wedding night” is the third night. Freyr implicitly requires that the ninth day is their wedding night. This brings his waiting time down to height nights. In a somewhat tortuous way of speech, he claims that the last three days will be the real marriage days, the six first ones not being counted as marriage days. Thus, Freyr will join Gerdr in Barri at the evening of the eighth day, and his longing will last height nights. We can guess that this change will be accepted by a Gerdr obviously very concerned by her respectability.
Three remarks aside from the tale
1. On the poem underlying meaning
First of all, we skipped the ‘hierogamos’ aspect of the poem. The few remarks made on the cosmic importance Freyr and Gerdr union show that the traditional analysis is to be considered. In fact, this traditional analysis explains only a reduced number of the details provided by the poem. They are explained differently, as the tale underlines it.
We insisted on the two following aspects: fights between Giants and Æsir and fights between masculinity and femininity. Finally these two interpretations are contained in one of the “reasonable possibilities:” She marveled at Skirnir’s performance and has been terrified by it. Terror is the main component of war, whatever the nature of the war.
The two other possibilities I propose are that she has been reassured or moved by it. These two cases were hardly proposed by commentators because both rely on the importance magic in the old Scandinavian world. Magic is ridiculed in the modern world and it ‘therefore’ is valueless as an explanation - apparently even in a world that gave a paramount importance to it.
2. On Freyr’s “numerical joke" in the last stanza
Freyr speaks of three long ‘nights’ and wonders how he will be able to þreyja, i.e., ‘to desire’ (1st meaning) or ‘to endure’ (2nd meaning) them. One month appears less long to him than a half hýnótt (‘demi night of before the wedding’)
As Gerdr specified nine whole nights, one can understand that Freyr’s “long nights" are the third, the sixth and the ninth where only the last one is really ‘wedding night’. Freyr adds then that only one month seemed to him less long than siá half hýnótt (‘such half night before the wedding’). In fact, the ‘nights of before the wedding’, do not include the third, the sixth and the ninth are six and their half equals three nights. But hýnótt means also ‘wedding night’ without specifying which night it is. Freyr uses hýnótt double meaning to recall that the wedding nights are normally three and that the third is dedicated to the pleasure of the newly wed. The mathematics are very simple, by declaring this, Freyr simply points out that 6/2 = 3 = 1+1+1. This seems to me an explanation of the last stanza of the poem that appears rather obscure. At any rate, Freyr’s jokes on the number of the nights show that he has fun and tries to steal one waiting night from Gerdr by calling on her sense of humor. This opposes the comments of most readers who understand here some whining.
It is also possible to see in the expression ‘to endure the three nights’ a joke on the double meaning of þreyja. Skirnir’s prophecies and curses outrageously call on Gerdr sexual needs. Freyr makes pretense to complain by wondering how he could be able to stand the first two nights in the absence of Gerdr and how it will be able to keep enough his desire during the third night to serve her bride during one night as much as during three nights, in order to satisfy her. The word gaman, which we translated by ‘pleasure’ in “Gerdr will offer pleasure to the son of Njörd” can also mean ‘sport game’ and this last meaning agrees well with the idea that Gerdr evokes a competition in love when she accepts Freyr’s proposal.
3. On Skirnir’s stupid behavior
Skirnir is explicitly in charge of a mission of conciliation for Freyr.
Stanza 11, when speaking of Gerdr to the first person he meets, he uses the word ‘man’ which mean ‘liege woman’ and by extension ‘easy woman’ or worse. This is not a respectful way to speak of a woman. The shepherd he meets answers Skirnir a little sharply.
Stanza 12, Skirnir thus kills the first person he meets, an attitude of a rare imbecility, especially for a conciliator.
Stanza 14, his arrival is very noisy up to the point of “shaking Gymir court.” There again, his lack of tact is noteworthy.
Stanzas 19 and 21, he throws at Gerdr’s face the splendid gifts of Freyr, thus partially removing their value. This is clumsier than really stupid and too soft language might have been regarded as nonsignificant by the text authors.
Stanza 23, he throws a tantrum when Gerdr refuses, indeed in a somewhat haughtily way, and he jumps at once up to death threats, a deeply stupid attitude.
Stanzas 24 and 25, Gerdr reacts with dignity and announces that if there is confrontation between Skirnir and her father, both will be killed. The only answer of which Skirnir is able is to insist on his capacity to kill his opponent, something Gerdr already said. He thus did not understand Gerdr’s words.
The prophetic stanzas and the cursing stanzas (26-36) are awkward. A prophecy should be less heated and should not be followed at once by a curse. If Gerdr has any magic ability, which is very probable, such a behavior is suicidal. [Comment: This last argument calls upon quite well-known magic knowledge. I use it here because it enables us to understand why Gerdr is possibly more amused than frightened by his theatrical behavior.]
Conversely, after stanza 39 and, it seems that Skirnir behaves in an intelligent way since he accepts without discussing the condition of a wedding lasting three times a normal time, as imposed by Gerdr. It remains that a more skillful negotiator could undoubtedly have been able to bargain better with Gerdr. Freyr must negotiate a one day reduction through his numerical enigma.