She went to her chest, - she dressed in silver.
She put gold on gold, - she covered her two hands with it
And all along the path, - she taught him the runes upon her white hand.
She taught him to change the weather - and to send the right wind.
"Danmarks Gamle Folkviser" (from Chants populaires scandinaves,
Léon Pineau, 1898, p. 29)
Myths play a critical role in shaping the models that become our frame of reference throughout adulthood. Children accept these stories at face value and register them deeply. Try to tell a child a different version of a tale or myth that they know well and see what happens. Up until a certain age, the child will immediately reject the new version, which shows how well the child has memorized the details of the story. It isn't surprising then that later on in life, a given act could be considered as either normal or disgusting (two perfectly irrational concepts that govern our lives just the same) depending on how it was presented in the myths that fed the child's imagination.
This is why I think that the best way to describe the Nordic woman is to review all the Nordic myths where we find a view of women that is very different from the view we have today. The main thread we find, and this is the idea that I want to develop here, the Nordic woman is the holder or keeper of magic, which explains the way I have chosen to describe the Nordic myths.
I would like to discuss the myths related to the supreme feminine powers, the Norns, who are masters of the destiny of men and gods. Since I think that the Valkyries are a manifestation of the power of the Norns, I discuss them at the same time.
Then come the goddesses, who, as we are told, are as important as gods, but, alas, few myths about them have been left to us: the goddess of love, Freyja, is the one who has left the most traces; the goddess Frigg, wife of the supreme God Odin (written as Óđinn in Old Norse - ON), is described essentially on the side, so to speak, in the myth of the death of her son Baldr - she is however master over all natural things that surround us; the goddess Idunn (written as Iđunn in ON), guardian of youth, is also only evoked in one myth.
I think it is interesting to note the relatively recent re-appearance of these myths in tales and popular legends: the tales of Perrault, Grimm's tales, and some Celtic tales. In addition, I will use some themes coming from shamanism (both American and Siberian ones) to add continuity to these myths.
All these old themes show women as being essentially scholarly and protective of men and not protected at all. The myths are as they are, and I have nothing to do with that, but this might displease some Americans males who find that feminism is no longer, as of recently, politically correct.
Feminine magic in the Nordic world
First I'd like to give some examples of the feminine power we find in the Icelandic sagas. There are, of course, also male powers (sorcerers), but it is in general women who are in charge of magic, which is well-illustrated in this anecdote from Eyrbyggja saga (the saga of Snorri, the chief-priest).
In this episode, some men are trying to kill the son of a witch called Katla. They search her house three times, and three times they can't find their victim who is hidden by his mother, successively in a distaff that Katla spins in her house, then in a billygoat whose beard Katla shapes, and finally in a "pet" pig who lays down close to a heap of garbage. They give up their search, completely tricked by the witch. On their way back, they meet their chief's mother, Geirrid (Geirríđr), who is also a witch. She joins them and Katla, seeing Geirrid arrival, understands immediately that she will lose against an enemy of the same scale as her. Geirrid covers Katla's head with a sealskin that is held tight around her neck, and they are able find her son. A woman can turn a troop of armed men into asses, but only another woman can defeat her.
The beginning of this same saga describes a competition between these two women to win the favors of a young man, Gunnlaug. The saga insists on the fact that Gunnlaug is "fascinated by knowledge" and says that Geirrid is his professor. Katla offers to become his professor, by saying that "Geirrid is not the only woman who has thoughts in her head". It is obvious that women held the knowledge, and like all good academics, they are delighted to find new students. It seems that it was normal for these women to have a great sexual liberty, but we will come back to this theme later when speaking of Freyja.
Now I would like to give you an example that is a bit more questionable, but also more detailed. In the Heitharviga Saga (the saga of slaughters of the heather, Heiđarvíga Saga), we often find heroes saying a vísa (a sort of poem). Several male heroes sing such a vísa. There is however, a woman, Thurid (Ţuríđr), who wants to push her son, Bardi (Barđi), to avenge his murdered brother. She serves him large pieces of meat to eat, to him and his other brothers, while scolding them a bit, making them feel ashamed for their idleness, and at the same time she adds a stone into the food. Then the saga says:
Then she walked along the floor howling (gólfinu), and said a vísa:
I say that the lovers of battle songs [warriors = people]
Now soon shall be casting their shame-word on Bardi.
The tale shall be told of thee, God of the wound worm,
[wound-worm = sword, God of the sword =warrior = Bardi]
That thy yore-agone kindred with shame thou undoest;
Unless thou, the ruler of light once a-lying
All under the fish-road shall let it be done,
[fish-road = gold; ruler of light once a-lying under the fish-road = noble man = Bardi]
That the lathe-fire's bidders at last be red-hooded.
[lathe-fire's bidders = brother's assassins] [red-hooded = bloody headed]
Let all folk be hearkening this song of my singing.
Then they thrust the trenchers from them with all that was on them, and went to their horses and got ready at their speediest.
It would be a bit of an exaggeration to claim that Thurid sang a runic song here, since the other heroes of the saga who "sing a stave" are singing a relatively normal poetry and that nowhere is it said that she carved runes. But in none of the other examples in the saga is it said that the singer howls, as Thurid does. In addition, no action follows the song whereas here, the reaction to Thurid's song is immediate and spectacular: these men, in the middle of eating delicious, thick cuts of meat, throw their food out of their way and immediately leave. The runic song associated to Nordic magic, called galdr, is often presented like a howling rather than like a song and the word used to say that a galdr is "sung", as translators use to say, is gala properly meaning to crow or to howl. It doesn't announce the future as has been commonly presented: it shapes the future. I think, therefore, that here we have an example of magic linked to the galdr that Thurid howls-sings, followed by an immediate effect, as it must, and without using runes. Thurid is not especially presented as a sorceress in the saga, but rather like an energetic woman, full of life: it wouldn't even be surprising if she didn't have any special knowledge of the runes, but she would know what a galdr is. The saga gives us a beautiful example of it, with the classic images that we find in Nordic poetry.
Before coming to the actual myths, I would like to emphasize the fact that there was a sort of barrier preventing a male from using magic in the Nordic world. For example, the Ynglinga saga says explicitly that it is Freyja who taught to the Gods the Nordic shamanism called seidr (seiđ or seiđr). It is also said that seidr could not be performed, without shame, by men because it made them impotent. Numerous runic inscriptions attest this, using the practice of the seidr, or of magic as an insult. For example, one inscription says: "Let him practice seidr, the one who destroys this monument!"
Similarly, a passage in the Lokasenna (Loki's Fleeting), where Loki is making fun of Odin, very clearly says that Odin had to have received a sodomy to perform magic. I will explain myself a bit on this topic, since Boyer's (footnote 1) French translation is the only one that treats this passage honestly. First, Odin brings up the fact that Loki once took the shape of a mare and gave birth to a colt. There is in fact a myth that relates this adventure. Odin says:
You spent eight winters under ground,
And over there you gave birth to babies,
You have been milked like a cow
And that, for me, is to be argr (oc hvgđa ec ţat args aţal)
It is clear that Odin associates argr to a man who plays a woman's sexual role. But Loki answers tit for tat:
You practiced magic in Samsey
There you played the drum like a sorcerer,
And you journeyed as the sorcerers do,
And that, for me, is to be argr (oc hvgđa ec ţat args aţal)
In both cases, precisely the same words are used by Odin and Loki, and, even though the dictionary definition for argr gives the imprecise meaning of "extreme vice", it is certainly about a man in the position of playing a woman's sexual role. This accusation was one of the rare insults, or crimes, that could not be erased by financial compensation in the Viking civilization. Now we can better understand why magic, typically feminine, could have been considered an insult in a world that didn't allow an "imprecise" sexuality.
To conclude this section, I am going to discuss the translation of a poem in the Edda where the reference to feminine power is not absolutely obvious, but it's a conclusion to which we will arrive nevertheless. This poem, the Havamál (the words of the High One), tell us of the creation of the runes:
Rúnar munt ţú finna
oc ráđna stafi,
miöc stora stafi,
miöc stinna stafi,
er fáđi fimbulţur
oc gorđo ginregin
oc reist hroptr rögna...
Runes you will find
And well-explained runic inscriptions,
Very important runic inscriptions,
Very powerful runic inscriptions,
They, colored by the one of supreme wisdom,
And created by 'ginregins'
And engraved by the Hroptr of the Gods.
Before commenting on the meaning of ginregin, I want to first specify the meanings of the other expressions used in this poem.
Stafi means 'staves', the one upon which runic inscriptions are carved.
fimbulţur can be corrected as "FimbulŢýr", meaning "supreme Týr", Týr is an ancient god. It could also be corrected as "fimbulţulr" to mean supreme wise one, as I did.
hroptr rögna is usually translated as the Crier of the Gods, a classic name for Odin. Nevertheless, the proper meaning of the verb hrópa is 'to slander' and I think this obviously improper qualification of Odin can be only understand in view of the very old custom of 'shrieking distrust', known as a diaspad in the Celtic mythology. For instance, Kulhwch threatens Arthur's doorman in such a way: "If you do not open it (the door), I will bring disgrace upon your Lord … and I will set up three shouts (diaspad) …"
Now, ginregin contains regin meaning 'gods', but the exact meaning of this word is unknown. It appears in another poem of the Edda, Alvissimál, where it is said that ginregin use a different word than the Gods do to designate the night and the wind. Therefore, these divine powers are not identical to the gods. The Nordic myths describe only one other supreme power alternative to the Gods, the Norns, young giantesses who decide the destiny of men and the Gods, as we will see. This is why, I think it is reasonable to see ginregin as a divinity similar to the Norns, feminine divinities, and who invented the runes. To push my hypothesis even further, another famous poem, the Völuspá (the prediction of the prophetess - you will find a translation explained on my site: http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/) says that the Norns engraved staves, that is to say that they wrote some runic inscriptions: they had knowledge of the runes before all other divinities, which goes along well with the hypothesis that they were their inventors, and that, without any feministic intent.
The three Norns, the Dísir, and the Valkyries
The Völuspá tells us that the Norns "came out of the sea" shortly after that the Gods themselves began to exist. Until then
They played tafl (footnote 2) under the trees,
They were happy, didn't lack any gold.
Until three they arrived,
Three giant maidens
Full of their strength
Coming from the home of the giants.
The meaning of the poem is clear: a new power arrived, and it "ruined the pleasure" of the Gods. Then this same poem tells us that the Norns decide the destiny of humans, and also of the Gods: which gives us an idea of their power. Among all the myths that speak of them, it seems to me that the Norns play four different roles, under three names and different forms. As the Norns or the Dísir, they are the masters of the destiny of humans and the Gods and they excel in sorcery, in particular in the magic of runes. Under the name of the Valkyries, they are warriors, and they initiate Sigurdr (footnote 3) (Sigurđr), the main war hero of these myths, to magic.
First role: the Norns with an iron fist
In general, they are most known as presiding over our destiny, and they direct us without tenderness. For example, they save the life of the widow of Sigurd, Gudrún, but only so that Gudrún has children put to death before her all over again. My translation of the Gudrúnarhvöt (the exhortation of Gudrún) may look a bit awkward but it follows tightly the ON text. It says:
I went until the beach,
I consciously angered against the Norns,
I wanted to kick off
Where stands their calamitous power,
Raised me, did not drink me
The high waves,
Because ground (was) all around me,
In order to force life upon me.
The Edda always emphasizes their extreme power. For example, the Hamdismál (the sayings of Hamdir) speaks of them in this way:
As the Norns' dogs [i.e., wolves]
Those are greedy,
The measure of all wealth …
A human can't survive more than one day ending
After the Norns' sentence.
No other power balances theirs, as shown in the Fjölsvinnsmál (sayings of Fjölvin):
To a word of Urdr (Urđr)
No human says [objects]
Even if uttered by mistake.
Urdr is the name of one of the Norns, but here it represents instead the place where they live, and therefore the three Norns together.
Second role: the smiling Dísir
The Norns play a more benign or cheerful
role when they are, as in
The understanding and well-breed Norns shape the happy lives, whereas the malevolent Norns are the cause of the hostile destiny that strikes some.
I suppose that these understanding Norns are also called the Dísir because a text says that the Dísir must be beseeched during childbirth. In a way, the good fairies of sleeping beauty play the role of the Dísir, whereas the old fairy that cursed the little girl plays the role of a Norn.
Two charms, dated from the 10th century,
and written in Old High German, have been found hidden in the wall of a church
in Merseburg, in
Original text in Old High German
Eiris sazun idisi, sazun hera duoder.
Once the Idisi [Disir] sat, sat here and there
suma hapt heptidun, suma heri lezidun,
Some hefted fetters [on the enemy], some stopped the host [of the enemy]
suma clubodun umbi cuoniouuidi:
Some loosened the fetters.
insprinc haptbandun, inuar uigandun!
Jump the bonds, escape from the enemies!
This text, in spite of its conciseness, covers three extremely important themes.
The first one is the fact that the Idisi are described as seated. This detail, that is mentioned twice, must be important. If we remember that a Nordic shamanic practice, called "útiseta", that is to say, "seated outside," is done in this way, it is certainly possible that the shamanic powers of the Idisi are being emphasized in the charm.
The second is relative to the feminine entities that have the power to stop an army. As we will see, the third manifestation of the Norns, the Valkyries, is indeed that of female warriors. But it is also important to remember that a Goth historian of the 7th century, Jordanes, speaks of war sorceresses, called the Alrunes, who were used in the Goth army:
Filimer, king of the Goths, ... found among his people certain sorceresses, called Aliurunnae by local gossip; suspecting these women, he banished them, and far from his army, he forced them to run, towards the solitudes of the earth.
It seems that specialists treat Aliorumnaes, Aliorunnae, or Alrunnae as equivalent. Jordanes doesn't provide any date, only genealogies. By assigning 10 to 20 years to every king's reign, one can estimate that Filimer could not have reigned before the year 350 A.D. It means that the Alrunes, one century earlier, were still practicing. It is an incontestable testimony about Goth women, warriors and sorceresses.
The third, and most obvious, is the reference to their power to chain and to open chains. This magic of opening appears to have a special importance in Nordic magic. The Havamál also evokes the power to explode chains, but then it is Odin who claims it.
Third role: the warrior Valkyries
They serve Odin and they choose which warriors are going to in battle. There is a striking description of these wild Norns in Brennu-Njáls saga (Njal's saga):
From the cloudy canvas
From the vast cloth
From the massacre.
The man's cloth,
Gray like an armor,
is being woven;
Will cross it
With a bloody thread.
Is made of human innards;
Of heads cut off
Offers its threads;
Are some bloody spears;
Bars are covered with iron,
And of arrows are made the shuttles.
With swords we will weave
The web of the battle.
Becomes horrible now,
A cloud as red as blood
Darkens the horizon.
The skies are tainted
With man's blood,
And the Valkyries
Sing their song.
In order to complete this vision of the
Norn-Valkyries, I must mention the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus who
describes the Valkyries, under the name of Virgins of the
Hotherus... having lost his way in
the fog, ended up in the refuge of the Virgins of the
...But Hotherus left again, carrying his steps toward remote lands. He crossed an uninhabited forest when he fell, by chance, on an underground cave where mysterious young girls lived ... Arriving in an enemy camp, Hotherus learned that the three nymphs had left... He quickly followed the traces of their steps in the dew ...
Thus, to assimilate the Norns and the Valkyries, which might seem absurd when one thinks that there are many more Valkyries than three, becomes more probable when seen in light of Saxo's presentation. In the same way, they don't appear here to be servants of Odin. Another of their roles, as described by Saxo, is to prepare a kind of magical food for Baldr (called Balderus by Saxo), but the impression left by this text is that Baldr depends on them, rather than them being submitted to him.
Fourth role: the protective and teaching Valkyries
It is possible that the Valkyries had a non-mythical incarnation. We know that a young woman, a so-called "shield bearer", was associated to the Germanic warrior. For example, in the Völsunga saga (saga of the Volsungs), Brunhild, speaks of herself in this way:
I am a girl of the shield. I carry a helmet and I ride with the war kings. I must help them, and I love battle ...
It is not difficult to imagine a parallel existence between terrestrial shield women, and the mythical Goddesses assigned to protect warriors, and therefore, in a certain sense, to choose who will die.
In myths, when they play this role, they are always a king's daughters. They can fall in love with a hero, as happens in the famous cycle of the Nibelungen, when Sigurd wakes up Sigrdrífa (footnote 4). She teaches him the nine runic songs. The Völsunga saga even gives us some details on the way in which it happened:
Sigurd says: "Teach me things of power".
She [Brunhild] answer: "You know them better than I. But it is with pleasure that I will teach you everything that you wish on the runes, and on everything that touches the world."
It is absolutely striking to see a powerful warrior like Sigurd, who is already very experienced, ask his beloved to teach him. The absence of surprised commentaries by the author of the saga suggests that this attitude was not, perhaps, as rare as we believe. Besides, the Völuspá says explicitly that the Norns knew a lot of things (they are "margs vitandi" = "greatly knowledgeable ones") which confirms a feminine capacity to teach.
The poem quoted at the beginning of this article also describes a young woman teaching runes to her lover "on her white hand." This woman, donned of precious clothes, evidently evokes a princess, as are the Valkyries. This is also like in Perrault's tale Donkey Skin (Grimm's Allerleirauh , "All kinds of skins"), again a princess, who must dress in dresses the color of the moon (silver), the color of the sun (gold) and the color of the stars before fleeing toward the neighboring kingdom. It is while donning them, and thanks to the prince's curiosity, that she acquires the power. The initiation that she gives the prince is not described in Perrault's tale, but the previous examples make us think about an initiation tale, where the princess brings knowledge to her 'prince'.
Regardless, Sigurd is still the only hero to receive such teachings in the poems of the Edda.
Many kings or princes are protected by the Valkyries, but they don't give them any teaching. For example, the history of king Helgi, found in Helgakvida Hjörvardssonar (Helgi's song, son of Hjörvardr) says:
There was a king named Eylimi. His daughter was Sváva. She was a Valkyrie and rode the clouds and waters. She gave her name to Helgi, and then protected him in battles.
The poem also says that Sváva doesn't give knowledge to Helgi, but a great deal of weapons. They would have been useless to Sigurd, already abundantly well stocked in weapons, who seems to have been therefore a degree 'above' the other heroes.
The mythical goddesses: Freyja, Frigg and Idunn (Iđunn)
Freyja is the goddess of love, and it would be very surprising if she had nun's lifestyle. I don't want to insist on this point here, since it could be seen as distinct from feminine magic. This being said, it is clear that a sorceress who would be treated as a slut or a prostitute as soon as she uses her sex, cannot feel very free in such a context. This is why the sexual liberty of the Nordic goddess is fundamental. Rather than recite Freyja's various sexual exploits, (and yet they are not without interest!), I prefer to use sagas that describe, without insisting, sexually free sorceresses: in the sagas, the myth is even closer to day-to-day reality.
Remember in Eyrbyggja saga where two sorceresses try to attract a young male student. One of them crudely describes the sexual relations associated to this teaching as "stroking the old hag up the belly." As Freyja, these women are free. It is striking to note that, since these sagas were told by Christians, the author of Eyrbyggja saga should have stigmatized this behavior while insulting the sorceresses in passing. The absence of this kind of insult shows that to blame the sexual relations they had with their pupils was therefore very far from the spirit of the times: it must have been a completely standard behavior.
More discreetly, this same saga gives us other facts that follow the same line. In this case it is about a woman, "of great knowledge ", Thorgunna, who is about 50 years old. She falls in love with a young man of about 15 and, when he rejects her, she shows a spite proving that she isn't used to this kind of failure.
In Brennu-Njáls saga, it is even a king's mother, (who we discover later on is a witch) who rather frankly asks a hero of the saga to remain to sleep with her.
Finally, to illustrate in a very indirect way how important feminine sexual liberty was in Nordic culture, I want to give you a splendid poem, that is a sort of 'paganisation' of the fertilization of the Holy Virgin, that is found in the popular Finnish songs gathered in the 19th century, after Christianity would have had enough time to get rid of it, if it had been able to. Once made Nordic, even this Christian myth maintains a sensuality that would be shameful in a civilization where feminine sexuality is disgusting. The Virgin is impregnated by a kind of Northern blueberry whose stem first grows along her body (the song describes the various parts met, as we are going to see) before putting its fruit in the stomach of the Christ's mother by passing through the mouth. Here is this very sensual poem, taken from the Kanteletar, Pagan enough to infuriate a Christian:
She tore a stick from the moor,
A branch of twisted pine from the hill,
And lowered the fruit with this stick;
The fruit touched the earth.
The plant then rose from the earth
Toward her ankles
And from her ankles
Toward her pure knees
And from her pure knees
Toward the bright hems of her skirts,
Rising from there toward the buckle of her belt
From her belt toward her breasts,
From her breasts toward her chin,
From her chin toward her lips;
From her lips it stopped
And bored itself into her mouth,
Swirled on her tongue
From her tongue to the bottom of her throat,
Finally the fruit fell into her belly.
Freyja sorceress and Goddess of war
First, Freyja is also a Goddess of the dead warriors like Odin. In the Grimnísmál (Grimnir's Sayings), Odin describes the Gods' resting place. The ninth place is described thus:
The ninth is called the Place-of-the-Host,
Where the shining Freyja utters
Her choice about sitting in the Hall:
Half of the dead follows the Goddess,
And the other half belongs to Odin.
That the goddess of fertility is also a goddess of death is surprising, but it corresponds to the older religions, based on a Goddess-Mother. What is unique here is that Freyja and Odin share the dead warriors, which makes her a war goddess as well.
Either Freyja, herself, or a manifestation of the same type of feminine power, appears in the war between the Vanir and the Ćsir. It seems that at the origin of this war is a 'sorceress' who comes back to visit the Ćsir. She was called "the shining one" by the Ćsir (a name usually given to Freyja, actually), and was capable of all kinds of magical operations: foreseeing, trances and the art to casting spells. She was also fascinated by gold and constantly spoke of her desire to possess more and more gold. The Ćsir wanted to rid themselves of her and they tortured her then burned her. However, she got out whole and alive from the flames. They burned her three times, and three times she was born all over again. The Vanir were furious with the fate reserved to this witch and declared war against the Ćsir. Some time later, they reached a state of peace that included an exchange of hostages. The Vanir hostages sent to the Ćsir were Njörd (Njörđr), and his children Freyr and Freyja who both became important Gods of fertility. It is Freyja who teaches the Ćsir the art of seidr which was customary among the Vanir, as said in the prose Edda. Being able to dominate fire is one of the most important attributes of the great shamans, which has been confirmed time and again by the many testimonies of ethnologists, as well as in many Celtic tales. Throughout this, Freyja is seen as a woman of power, an exceptional shaman who certainly doesn't allow herself to be dominated by any other God.
This shaman still seems to be missing the possibility of journeying at will, in the shape of an animal. The prose Edda gives us an allusion that lets us fill in this void. At one point, Loki must go on a dangerous mission, and he accepts to do it provided that Freyja lends him her falcon shape. We get no other information than this, and it is Loki who takes off, but in short, we can see that Freyja possessed a falcon shape to perform her shamanic journeys.
As one last illustration of Freyja's importance, but in a negative way, we can say that she has been especially insulted by the Christians. The following "poem", found in Brennu-Njáls saga, testifies this resentment:
I am not afraid to laugh at the gods,
Because I think that Freyja is a bitch;
It must be one of the two -
Odin is a dog or Freyja a bitch.
There are so many testimonies of the immense respect in which Odin was held, that these verses, now ridiculous, only show that Freyja also had to be respected, and seen just as dangerous by the Christian.
Frigg, Mistress of the terrestrial elements,
Frigg, Odin's wife, is presented like the most important goddess, but she is involved in remarkably few adventures in the Edda. She must also have a falcon shape because a text tells us that Loki borrowed it from her, as he borrowed Freyja's. But it is rather in the myth of Baldr's death that her importance can been seen. Baldr, one of Odin and Frigg's sons, the God most beloved by humans, had terrifying nightmares in which he sees his own death. To protect him, his mother, Frigg, searches throughout the earth and makes each of earth's elements swear (except one, mistletoe, considered by Frigg as too young to be dangerous) to never harm her son. The prose Edda says that Frigg made them swear that
fire, water, iron and all metals, stones, earth, wood, illnesses, wild animals, birds, the venomous snakes, would spare Baldr.
Thus, for example, Baldr could no longer be stoned because stones would refuse to wound him. Loki of course knew how to turn this difficulty around and he arranges for an arrow of mistletoe to strike Baldr. What is interesting here, is that Frigg is able to speak to all the elements of nature to force them to respect her son. It shows a considerable power that is reminiscent of those Mother-Goddesses living in deep agreement with the Earth.
Idunn, guardian of the youth of the Gods
Idunn "keeps in her chest" as the prose Edda says, apples that give their youth back to the Gods when they begin to age. She plays a primordial role, therefore, in Nordic mythology, but without participating in many adventures. There is only one myth that describes an adventure of Idunn, and here she plays a slightly ridiculous role. She believes Loki when he tells her that he has some very interesting apples in a neighboring forest, and so she follows him, while bringing along her own apples. Of course, it is only one of Loci's tricks and a giant comes and takes her away. It is implied that she will be used as a companion for the giant. Loki, having been suspected, corrects his mistake, and the end of the story has some positive consequences, but Idunn appears just the same like a bit of a scatterbrain to have believed Loki's story, and in addition, she is soiled by a sexual contact with a being considered to be genetically deficient (footnote 5).
We find another insight into Idunn when Loki violently attacks her husband, Bragi, in the Lokasenna, and threatens him physically, because of Bragi's cowardly reputation. Idunn takes his defense courageously, and orders moderation to Bragi. Therefore, she must be less stupid than the prose Edda would like us to believe, but we don't have much more information about her.
There is one related myth, somewhat more sinister, found in "The Galdr of Odin's raven," a poem considered a forgery by the academics. It is available on my site and on Northvegr's. My own conclusion is that it is obviously a late poem composed after the 14th century. Nevertheless, calling it a 'forgery' reflects only the lack of ability of the academics to understand its meaning.
In this poem Idunn is no longer the Keeper of youth apples, she is the holder of "the greed for knowledge." She falls into the giants' world, but of her own free will, without having been forced. For a short time, she misses the world of the Gods, her home, but her "greed for knowledge" gets away with her, and she becomes what the poem calls a "calamity", in other words a sorceress able to shapeshift and to foresee (and possibly even to control) the future. Instead of being a charming fool as in the classic myth of Idunn's apples, she becomes an independent sorceress who is unwilling to submit to the power of the Gods. Odin sends out a small group to get help from her (instead of providing help to her) and to try to get her to come back, but she refuses to help them, in spite of all her sadness to see her old friends in hard times, and in spite of their insistence. As says of her the poem:
Difficult to incite
Such a woman
To provide an answer.
I can understand a bit why the 19th century academics who decided that The Song of Odin's raven was a forgery, didn't find this poem canonical; a poem that describes a woman leaving her family, her husband, her friends to go satisfy her need for knowledge!
It is a very beautiful poem, a bit sinister since it happens on the eve of Ragnarök, the day where the Gods are to be judged (and convicted, as we know now).
The woman and the witch in tales and popular legends
The Grimm tales are not especially dedicated to masculine domination since I counted seventeen stories where a woman saves a male prisoner, and twelve where a man saves a female prisoner. We can't pretend, then, that the main role is assigned to one or the other sex. There are two tales showing the (temporary) domination of a man by a woman.
In the King of the
The tale, The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces, illustrates a rise of masculine power that ends up forbidding the practice of magic to women at the same time. The king's twelve girls go dancing every night and damage their shoes although their father locks the door of their room with a key. A poor soldier solves the problem. He succeeds in fighting against the charm that princesses use to lull their supervisors to sleep, and he follows them in their journey to an underground world. The tale describes a real world, but you can't help thinking about a shamanic journey in the world below (footnote 6). There, the princesses dance all night long, and it is the reason why their shoes are ruined in the morning. The secret having been discovered, it is no longer possible for the princesses to practice their art. This tale illustrates perfectly the fact that, after have been fooled for a long time, masculine power finally succeeds in forbidding the shamanic journey to women.
The initiating female
We already discussed the Valkyries' role a
teacher. This aspect is found again in the story of Lancelot, raised in the
Lady of the
In the Briton tale, The hunt for the white pig, Guingamor is the king's nephew. The queen wants to have sex with him, but he refuses. Out of spite she sends him to hunt the "white pig", as the tale says, and everyone knows that this means being killed in the process. He meets a naked girl who is bathing and who is actually a fairy. He steals her clothes but she calls to him and asks him to return them to her. He stays with the fairy three days, which corresponds to three hundred years in normal reality. He wants to go back to his own country, and he gets permission from the fairy, provided he doesn't eat or drink anything in the world of the living. He brings the head of the white pig with him and crosses the river that separates the two worlds. He gets hungry, eats three apples, becomes human again, and dies there and then of "brutal old age". It is by joining the fairy that Guingamor can finish his quest of "hunting the white pig", with the condition of paying for his initiation by a complete transformation of his being. After spending three days with the fairy, he is no longer human. The initiation here looks more like an appropriation by mystical forces.
Female shamans and witches
As we have seen, Freyja was probably an exceptional shaman, she who taught seidr to the Ćsir.
In the Irish tales we find instead witches who are anxious to take vengeance. For example, in The Children of Lira, the king's wife, jealous of the love that her husband feels for his children from his first wife, transforms them into swans. Similarly, in The Seduction of Detain, the king's wife, jealous, transforms her into a butterfly.
The Grimm tales, which contain a good number of awful witches of course, also describe feminine power under a less negative light. For example, Grethel is a young witch who kills the mean old witch and who is able to save her brother from the spirit world while helping him across the river that separates the two worlds. In the tale, The Twelve Brothers, their small sister mistakenly causes their transformation in twelve crows. She meets an old witch who initiates her and this allows her to give her brothers back their human shape. This initiation includes the test of remaining seven years without speaking and without laughing. In the end, she undergoes the test of fire, where she comes out alive thanks to her twelve brothers. It is certainly a shamanic initiation, but the initiate only uses her power to help others, in this case her brothers.
There are also many tales in which a young and good witch is contrasted with another, old and mean one. Typically, the young witch accomplishes three tasks to free herself and the young man she is saving: she turns into a bush, a church, and finally into a lake.
Horse shamans and mare shamans
First, we need to remember that one of the rare Celtic goddesses to have been accepted by the Romans is Epona, the rider goddess that we see represented on many coins.
We find a trace of this, loaded with negative connotations, in the story of Rhiannon. The women assigned to supervise her, her and her baby, fall asleep and only wake up to discover that the baby has disappeared. They then kill a puppy, dab Rhiannon with its blood and accuse her of having killed her own child. She is believed to be guilty and, for his punishment, she is forced to sit down at the entry of the city and tell her crimes to the strangers arriving to the city, and to offer to carry them on her back. This is an example of woman-mare, where she is shamed and unjustly punished. Notice however that she never loses her dignity: she is punished because she refuses to speak with the women who accuse her and the tale says explicitly that very few asked to be carried on her back.
The Armorican tales give us two examples of horse-shamans. In Yann's Saga, it is a horse who is in fact his master of shamanism and his real father. In Koadalan's Saga, it is a mare who acts as Koadalan's guide. When she has finished playing this role, she asks him to kill her and he sees a very beautiful woman come out of the mare's stomach.
In the Grimm tale, John the Faithful, there is a relatively brief apparition of a magic horse. In Ferdinand the Faithful and Ferdinand the Unfaithful, we find a story that is strikingly similar to Yann's saga. Ferdinand the Faithful has a wizard for his godfather who offers him the key to the castle that is "up there on the hill ", and where he will be able to enter on the day of his fourteenth year. He finds a horse in the castle and he becomes able to speak to animals.
There is another magic horse in the tale, The Goose-Girl. A princess is replaced by her servant who also steals her horse. The servant is afraid that the horse will denounce her, and so she cuts off its head. The head of the horse welcomes her real mistress each time they meet, the king overhears this strange social intercourse and re-establishes the right.
The destruction of the old order
It is also interesting to look at tales with traces of the destruction of feminine power (see below and Increase of Male Power).
In the Irish Celtic tales, the hero assigned to destroy the old order is Cuchulain. In particular, in The Theft of Cuailnge's Cattle ("Tain Bo Cuailnge"), he is described as opposing the queen Maeve who is a representative of matriarchal power. Although married to the king Aillil, she remains owner of her possessions, she plays the role of war chief, and she is sexually free, as is clearly show in the sort of ritual formula that she always uses when she wants put herself on good terms with a hero. She offers him quantities of riches, and
my own friendly thighs, in addition to everything, if it is necessary.
In addition, she has her own champions. Each among them ends up executed by Cuchulain. The conclusion of their struggle describes Cuchulain's complete over Maeve.
Then Maeve had her period ... and she relieved herself. She dug three big ditches, each big enough to contain a household. This place has been since called Fual Medba, Maeve's Piss (footnote 7). Cuchulain saw her thus, but he kept his hand. He didn't want to strike her from behind. "Spare me", said Maeve. "If I had killed you there", said Cuchulain, "it would have only been justice". But he spared her, because he was not a killer of women.
In the Armorican Celtic tales The myth of Is brings back the destruction of
an old order. This destruction is bound to the history of Kristof, the small
boy who was able to start it. Close to the city of Is
lives a sort of idiot, Kristof, who spends his time throwing stones in the
water with the help of a crooked stick, as the tale says. One day, he notices
that a small fish playfully swims behind his stones. He succeeds in cornering
it and catching it. The small fish begs him to let it go, which he does. To
thank him, Kristof will get all his wishes satisfied if he asks for them in the
name of the small fish. Kristof, responsible for bringing wood back to his
mother so that she can cook him some pancakes, goes to ask a big oak tree to
come to him. This big oak, there since time immemorial in front of Is is considered the foundation of
the city of
This beautiful tale contains several myths. Of course, we recognize a magic fertilization. Curiously, this virgin mother, once Kristof disappears, becomes a symbol of sexual liberty and dies later, drowned at the time of the city's disappearance. A sacred tree protects the city, and it disappears with the tree. It is clearly an image similar to the one given by Yggdrasil. Is depends on her oak just as the world is placed under the roots of Yggdrasil. Kristof himself is a shaman who is able to speak to fish. His meeting with the small fish makes him a magician capable of all kinds of miracles. This magician will then cut down the foundation of the old society, which is the oak protecting the city from the equinoctial tides. This is why this tale seems to me to belong to those that describe a hero (a so-called 'solar' hero) who cuts down the old order (often called 'earthly' or 'chthonian'). In the Celtic culture Cuchulain is such a hero.
Another hero who seems to play a similar
role, although less clearly, is the Lanzelet of the primitive saga of
Lancelot of the
When he is of age, the merminne
sends him to kill the same Iweret as in the better known story. Before, he
learns how to fight on a horse, and overcomes a countless number of knights. Merminne
or Lady of the
Runic inscriptions alluding to women
It is quite remarkable that at least 25 oldest runic inscriptions contain a feminine name, or an allusion to feminine power. If you count that at best 150 to 200 such runic inscriptions have been deciphered, this gives a good percent of "feminist" runic inscription. Here are these runic inscriptions, with their most probable meaning. I put them under three headings: names, praising inscriptions, insulting inscriptions.
These runic inscriptions still receive different interpretations. By having a look at the runic part of my site, you will see how the best acknowledged authors on this topic, namely Krause, Antonsen, Moltke and Makaev understood often in various ways these inscriptions.
1. Runic inscription showing a feminine name without comment. It can be guessed that the rune-master was then a woman, since the symmetrical guess is done for male names.
Forde Fishing Weight (middle of the 6th century)
Aluko (might mean : small magic)
Himlingoje Fibula 1 (middle of the 4th century)
Hariso (means : army, crowd; might mean : female warrior)
Himmelstalund Cliff Inscription (around 500)
Braido (means: the large one) or Brando (means: the one who brandishes)
Fozo : family name, "Fosi", with a feminine ending.
Salu (repeated twice) meaning: offering. Antonsen sees here a feminine name.
Strarup Neckring: (about 400)
Leţro : (means; (she) made of leather)
Tanem Stone (around 500)
Marilihu (might mean: female descendant of Marila, ‘mari-’ means ‘famous’)
Beuchte Fibula (Niedersachse, 550-600)
Buirso, a name, Buriso, meaning: little daughter.
Berga Stone : (around 500)
Fino (might mean: Finnish woman)
Vaerlose Fibula (around 200)
A name, meaning ‘good magic.’ Seen by Moltke as alugodo, a woman’s name, owner of the fibule, because this fibule comes from a woman’s grave.
2. Runic inscriptions alluding to a feminine character in a praising way
Eikeland Fibula (around 600)
‘Me Wir for Wiwio I engrave runes now.’
wiwio = feminine name also meaning 'fishpond'.
Karstad Inscription on a rocky wall (middle of the 5th century)
‘both of them’
(a feminine form of the inclusive ‘we’, meaning ‘together we two’)
Opedal Stone: (1st half of the 5th century)
‘Help, Ingubora, my beloved sister’.
Rosseland Stone (middle of the 5th century)
‘I WagigaR eril of Agilamundo’
Eril is title of nobility, thus the woman Agilamundo who had an "eril" must have been a woman of power.
Setre Comb (beginning of the 7th century)
‘Greetings young girl of the (among the) young girls’
‘Magic Na, magic Nana’
Stenstad Stone (middle of the 5th century)
‘Ing's daughter's stone’
Probably a stone dedicated to Freya.
Tune Stone (
‘ ... to Wodurid the stone, three daughters have prepared the inheritance (but) the most elegant of inheritances’.
Vimose Woodplane (end of the 3rd century)
An obscure inscription containing a word, hleuno, a feminine nominative singular, meaning 'fame' or 'protection'.
Arstad Stone (middle of the 6th century)
‘Hiwigaz [meaning: one with strong familial ties]. (or?) Saralu [meaning: protectress]. I, for my friend [i.e. spouse] … ’.
‘Mare. I, Akaz [i.e. leader], the suitable . . . ’.
Charnay Fibula (
‘to husband Iddo (i.e., the doer). Liano’.
Liano is a feminine name of unknown meaning.
Pietroassa gold ring (
‘Sacred temple of the female warriors, or of the female Goths’.
(Antonsen's interpretation, quite under discussion)
‘you never won the storming one, Ĺse’
Ĺse is a feminine surname. It seems to mean that Ĺse was never won over.
‘Tue, overseer, set up this stone for a like (female)-overseer.
These staves for Thorgun will live very long’.
Moltke understands the first line as: ‘Tue the overseer set up this stone in memory of the equal match (his wife)’. A very beautiful love message beyond death.
Skabersjö Buckle (buckle itself not later than year 700 but inscription dated c. 1025):
Sixteen runes z followed by ‘Rade took increase of his money. I, Ĺse, have rewarded (someone) with that’.
This inscription does not belong to the oldest runic inscriptions, it is here for information only.
Schretzheim inscription face B:
‘(to) Alaguţ they did a favor’
Contains the feminine name Alagunţ.
Pallersdorf inscription face B
‘Me Arsiboda grace’
Contains the feminine name Arsiboda.
3. Runic inscriptions alluding to a feminine character in a derogative way
Vetteland Stone (middle of the 4th century)
‘A female troll is threatening my son’s gravestone’.
‘He shall become a retti (Krause: sorcerer) and an arg woman who breaks it!’
Obviously, the scholars tend to translate 'arg woman' by 'witch.' It can also be seen as a 'macho' insult: "you guy are just like a woman who likes anal sex."
‘troll cunt be convenient B…’
This makes up some kind of sexual insult to a woman whose name starts with a B. This inscription does not belong to the oldest runic inscriptions, it is here for information only.
You might have noticed that I didn't often give a personal opinion, I especially tried to let the texts speak for themselves. They let us understand how stories on the "marvelous feminine intuition" could have developed, but that they did so while carefully forgetting that this "typically feminine magic" was associated with an academic, medical or warrior expertise and that women were holders of it, and that, in addition, they seemed to have been avidly willing to transmit it to men who were interested.
We can also understand why, in the guise of the historical teaching of Paganism, the Greek and Latin myths are continually repeated to us throughout our studies, while the Nordic or Germanic myths are barely alluded to.
The Nordic myths certainly give us the great deeds of the masculine Gods, but they never contest or try to remove the existence of a feminine power. The tales, on the other hand, indirectly give us many testimonies of the elimination of this power. Thus, feminine power seems have been suppressed extremely early in the Roman and Greek tradition, whereas it seems to date from less than 1000 years ago in the Nordic and Celtic civilization.
Our civilization has succeeded in transforming the yew, a powerful, enormous and budding tree lasting for centuries, into a gloomy, cemetery border. The yew remains however itself although trimmed and trimmed again.
The versions of the poetic Edda that I used are
- several Old Norse versions. The first complete edition is due to Rask (1818). All the more modern versions are based on the first 'normalized' version of the poetic Edda (then still called 'Edda Sćmundar hins fróđa') due to Theodor Möbius (1860). If, at least, you can read short German sentences, the version of Hugo Göring (1904 - I have the 4th edition, 1922) includes an exhaustive Glossar (in German) that explains the sometimes twisted grammatical forms of words found in the poems, exactly as they are in his edition. Besides, Rask's designation of the manuscripts he used (given in Latin) has not been followed later, and Göring provides an exhaustive list, using the still modern names.
- the best translation, when available, is the one of Ursala Dronke who produced yet only the first two volumes (Heroic poems - 1969, Mythological poems - 1996) of the four she promised.
- an English version, W. H. Auden and Paul B. Taylor, Norse Poems, Faber Faber and London 1981.
- a French version, Régis Boyer, The poetic Edda, Fayard, 1992. Note that Boyer makes his own compotation of the poems and skips some important ones.
- a German version, Felix Genzmer, Die Edda, Diederichs München, 1992.
For Snorri Sturluson's prose Edda, I used the translations of F. X. Dillmann, Gallimard, 1991, of Arthur Häny, Manesse Verlag, 1990, and of A. Faulkes, Everyman, 1995. Dillman's translation (in French) is especially interesting for his very well-documented notes and his style that is both simple and precise. Faulkes translated the whole works, whereas the other two translations are not complete.
A very latinized version of the Nordic myths is in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum (written around 1215), translation J. -P. Troadec, Gallimard 1995. Unfortunately, the English translation found on the Internet is very bad.
The Armorican Celtic legends are taken from
Jean Markale's book, La tradition celtique en
The history of Cuchulain is for example in: The Tain, translation into modern English by T. Kinsella, Oxford University Press, 1970.
Grimm Tales are published, for example, in:
Brüder Grimm, Kinder Hausmärchen und, Band 1, 2, 3, Reclam,
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Contes, Flammarion, 1967.
Many English versions are available at amazon.com.
The history of how the tales were recorded is found in the "Band 3" of the German edition is not translated in English.
Elias Lönnrot's Kanteletar is translated into English by K. Bosley, Oxford University Press, 1992.
I found Heitharvega Saga in English on the Internet on the Northvegr foundation site.
Eyrbyggja saga and Brennu-Njáls saga are published in English by Penguin Classics, and in French by La Pléiade (translations and notes of R. Boyer).
Snorri Sturluson's Ynglinga saga is in
French in a translation of I. Cavalié, Editions of the Porte - Glaive, 1990. In
English, the best is to acquire the complete text of Snorri Sturluson's work,
Heimskringla or the Lives of the Norse Kings,
Völsunga saga is found as::
translation by J. L. Byock,
The complete work of Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, can be found on the Internet in English, in a translation due to Mierow: http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~vandersp/Courses/texts/jordgeti.html. The quote that I give from Jordanes comes from A. Thierry, Histoire d'Attila et de ses successeurs, Librairie Académique Didier and Co, 1864 (Thierry gives the Latin text and the exact translation presented here is far from Mierow's).
A very partial translation of the Danmarks
Gamle Folkvisers (collected by Svend Grundtvig. Part 1.
Jenny Jochens’ book, « Old Norse Images of Women », 1996, The University of Pennsylvania Press, shows a scholarly approach to the theme "after all, macho ideas were already very strong in Viking times." In spite of this preconception, and while she points at many anti-women facts, she cannot but acknowledge the relative feminism in Nordic civilization.
 Boyer explains very clearly in his notes that the text is referring to passive homosexuality. However, his translation is: "M'est avis que c'était couillonnade." I am of the opinion that it seems far from the real use of the word "couillonnade" in French. To his credit, it is necessary to recognize that an exact translation would have been unacceptable in an academic work. One should say: "And that, it is what I call being fucked in the asshole." Indeed, passive homosexuality designates a state of the masculine libido, whereas, for a man, being argr corresponds to 'getting fucked in the ass' because the argr man could have been forced to undergo this treatment, or to have practiced it occasionally, without his libido being involved at all. Note that the same word for a woman is used to describe her as being in a state of extreme sexual excitement. Unless you ignore everything of extremely horny women, you know that it concurs well with the meaning for men.
3 From Wagner's work, we know Sigurdr as Siegfrid, his German name.
4 Sigrdrifa is more commonly known under her German name, Brunehilde.
5 The giants are considered as monsters who produce monsters when they couple outside their race. However, it should be noted that the Gods have willingly had children with giantesses, who are considered to be very desirable.
6 Remember that there are three classic destinations in shamanic journeying: the upper world, the world below, and the middle world.
7 The English versions often mistranslate by being very pejorative, for example, they say "Maeve's damned place". The literal translation doesn't contain anything especially insulting for Maeve.