The marriage of Giantess Gerdr (Gerðr) and God Freyr
This is a personal interpretation of poem Skírnisför that has been already told. Gerdr and Freyr’s love shows a cosmic dimension we will try to clarify here.
First of all, all this occurs in the context of Ragnarök - the Gods’ fate fulfillment. The Northern Gods, called the “Æsir” Gods , just as some human persons, hold a destiny the Norns have been writing in runes. Human and godly destinies have in common to handle life and bring death. For humankind also death was known as “human destiny achievement” which tells and explains the adventures of our short lives. For the Æsir, the history proceeds according to a similar scheme with two great differences. One is that the duration of their life is not fixed in advance by their destiny, even within a margin of a few thousands - or million - years. In addition, the Æsir know their destiny but they also know a magic which makes it possible to work on the destinies. They call such magic “shapings” that enable them to delay the date of their death, perhaps forever, who knows? Since they know their fate, they also know that an enemy people called ‘Giants’ will bring their end. These are more gigantic by their strength than by their height, and know their own runes to oppose the Æsir. But the Æsir and in particular their leader, Óðinn (Odin), are intelligent and they know that destroying one’s enemy is very dangerous and one does much better by reaching a covenant with them, if this is possible. Moreover, in very ancient times, much before humankind’s existence, the primitive Gods had no other choice than marrying Giantesses and the main Scandinavian Gods are grandsons or sons of a Giantess. This has been possible due to the Giantesses’ willingness to join the Gods’ family – possibly because they were not enough cared for nor respected by the crude Giants. All things considered, the Giantesses are much more neutral to the Gods, or they even may show a preference for them.
From the above we could conclude that nothing could oppose Freyr and Gerdr’s wedding. Things were more complicated because of a very serious family problem, a typical one at this time. A social environment was a merge of several family clans, each member of which was strongly bonded to the others. When murder occurred between two members of different clans, a sequence of endless vendettas would follow, as is common in clan based societies. In parallel, the most shameful behavior for a woman was to have sex with a murderer within her clan, be them married or not. Sexual relationships were certainly not a casual matter, but even short lived ones would be followed by a gift from the male party as a sign of mutual respect among partners, as so joyously attested in the so-called “legendary sagas.” All in all, we understand that Gerdr and Freyr did ‘play games’ (no detail known about the nature of these games is known, except that they took place in a grove they both remember) together during their youth and it seems that they still have some tender feeling one to the other. Again without any specific detail, we also know that Freyr did kill Gerdr’s brother.
Here are the keys of this tale: How will Freyr manage to marry Gerdr while preserving her dignity and her pride? Besides, does she still share his feelings, does she remember their childish loves? All these personal questions are embedded within Freyr’s knowledge that marrying Gerdr will become a significant part of ‘shapings’ that delay Ragnarök.
The first problem to solve is relative to Gerdr’s feelings. As it often happens in the tales, the girl will launch the first signal although she is under her father’s guardianship. She is too subtle to ignore that Freyr tries to observe her from the god’s dwelling, Ásgarðr. She then decides to send him a signal. One day when she is alone and goes to her private cottage, she gets dressed in light clothes in order to leave uncovered her arms and shoulders. In order to open the door she has to raise it up and push it on a set of boards attached to the ceiling. She is not so tall (remember ‘Giants’ are to specially tall?) and she has stretch herself, raising up as much as possible her arms. She then uses her magic so that her body shines as the one of a sun goddess and that a ray of light strikes Freyr’s eyes. She appears to be more than a “beautiful white armed woman,” the traditional way of describing a specially beautiful Scandinavian woman, she becomes “the beautiful woman whose arms illuminate earth and sky,” as stated by the skald. He understands her message and knows that she is awaiting his help.
The next problem is that the relationship between Gods and Giants has so much worsened that, if one of them goes alone in the country of the others, he will be at once put to death. Freyr would obviously be recognized, if he dared going to Giant’s Home. He thus needs to send an emissary who will argue in such a way that no Giants nor Gods stop respecting Gerdr after she accepts to marry him. Thus, Freyr’s goal is certainly not to make a slave of Gerdr (many commentators obviously believe that Gerdr will become his sexual slave!) but, inversely, to releasing her from all her bonds. As an unknown poet asserted (sung): “No maid nor woman Freyr ever grieved, and he releases all their bonds.” In the civilization we are dealing with, all is unusual and it must be stunning to modern people that the first person launching a Women's Lib action is God of male fertility.
Freyr will thus design a comedy such that Gerdr can join him without shaming her, nor her father and the Giants since the last would waste the pacification effect he seeks. In order to achieve this highly unstable balance, he needs a naive clown who will be able to make believe to everyone, Gerdr excepted, that the gifts he brings and the threats he utters constitute an unescapable trap in which she will be caught in spite of her brave fight. It happens that the elf Skírnir is perfect to play this role: He is Freyr’s devoted servant and childhood friend and as any other elf, somewhat boastful: don’t we call “red elf” someone who dresses in extravagant colored clothes? To obtain his agreement, it is enough that Freyr proposes him to become his envoy to the Giants’, and to agree to what Skírnir will not fail to require to achieve his mission. Skírnir thus receives Freyr’s horse to jump over the fire fence closing Giants’ world and his magic sword that “kills by itself the enemies if its owner is wise.” Of course, Skírnir will believe himself invincible because of this sword and will behave boastful in front of the Giants without realizing that he is not wise so that the sword will lose his magic with him. Skírnir’s threats will then be stated with so much confidence that the Giants (again, except Gerdr) will think that he is able to achieve the deeds he is boasting of.
Skírnir can thus cross the barrier of flames which protects Giant-world . He then meets a shepherd who had sat on a hillock whom he asks where he will be able to join Gerdr. He however calls her a word the meaning of which runs between ‘lover’, ‘slave’ and ‘prostitute’. He thus starts a ‘conciliatory mission’ in a completely inappropriate boorish manner. In this way, he nevertheless displays complete confidence in his mission success. The shepherd refuses to answer and Skírnir kills him… as a good continuation of a display of impressive brutality.
He then sets off again then and rides his horse so noisily that Gerdr decides to send a maidservant to bring him to her. She thus protects Skírnir from the reprisals the Giants may be preparing to avenge the shepherd’s murder. Meanwhile, she claims high and loud that her brother’s death is not forgotten, and she is not leaning towards forgiveness. When Skírnir reaches her place, she asks him to which ‘kind’ he belongs: “Are you one of the elves, one of the Æsir or one of wise the Vanir.” He answers that of none of these kinds and avoids a new question by proposing gifts to her “to buy peace and that Freyr may become “non-loathsome to her.” This understatement means that Freyr wishes to obtain Gerdr’s love.
He offers her the “long life apples” that provide a for ever young life to the Æsir. Giants dream of possessing these apples which would enable them dominating the Æsir. She refuses to become so influential on the Gods’ lives. She specifies that her and Freyr will not become “as one only,” i.e. she evokes a soul merging love, not at all some casual sex as most commentators seem to understand.
He offers then a magic gold ring that duplicates “eight times each nine nights,” but she answers that she is already rich enough as it stands. Of course, the Giants dream to possess this ring that ensures an eternal wealth.
At that, Skírnir is annoyed and threatens to kill her, and her father, with his beautiful magic sword. That beats everything for Gerdr who emphatically protests she will not yield to any kind of threat. Finally, Skírnir gives up these absurd death threats. He may remember his mission or he becomes conscious that a magical sword is not a magical shield, and that he is entering unsafe waters.
It suddenly seems that Skírnir remembers the aim of his travel and he changes his tactics. He will use Gods’ magic to coerce Gerdr. He shapes such an emphatic magic curse that it is hard to choose between fright and laugh when hearing it. As a clumsy wizard, he explains the contents of his curse and how it will become effective. It would be real awkward if Gerdr had not received a teaching in Giants’ magic and she could easily divert or send back this curse. She however stays quiet and attentive when facing Skírnir’ threats. As a knowledgeable magician, she wants to analyze the effect of Skírnir’s show on the outside listeners. Will they be frightened by the curse intensity and thus believe and accept that she has been unable to oppose such a seemingly powerful magic?
This curse starts by stating prophecies about Gerdr’s future if she does not yield: “I will strike you with a stick of taming, girl, to break your resistance to my good pleasure!” This stick of taming is a magic wand that will be carved with runes. But before using this rod, he performs a triple foreseeing session worthy of a furious völva (seeress).
“You will be lonely. High on the mountain you will look around and see nothing but the spectacle of your death. Food will disgust you and you will be disgusting.”
“You will be demeaned. Your ugliness will be watched by everyone and all will know of you. Madness, tears, impatience, and nettles will be your companions. Your sufferings will push you towards your future only friends: self loathing and endless pain. Each one will witness your misfortune and you unable to hide it.”
“You will be driven by hysterical sexual needs. You will weave your way through Giants’ hall, unwanting and repugnant to yourself, for anyone to play with your body in their own way.”
Now, Skírnir stops his premonitory trance and repeats that he has a taming magic wand to use on her. The activation of magic is done in three steps. At first, he announces everywhere, oddly in including Giantworld, that he is putting a loneliness curse upon Gerdr so that all should reject her. He then insists on the fact that she will play an active role in her cursing because she will be disgusted by her own actions. Lastly, in order to launch the curse, he carves carefully selected runes on his rod.
Before definitively sending the curse, again very oddly, he does a last try at convincing Gerdr by saying: “What I carved on wood, I can rub it if a good reason to do it shows up.”
Gerdr stays a long moment quiet, seemingly overpowered by the extent of the curse. She then abruptly yields when she is convinced that no one will be able to blame her for yielding to such a display of magical power. She offers to him a cup of her best mead as a mark of her agreement to share Freyr’s love.
Skírnir answers that his mission is not yet completed since the details of the contract which will bind Freyr and Gerdr still have to be established and accepted by the two parts. In fact, she alone sets them up, and the only one we know of is relative to the wedding ceremony and, implicitly, to the commitment Freyr takes with respect to her.
Their meeting will take place in a quiet grove “that we know both.” This detail shows that Freyr and Gerdr met before and played together in this small wood in the time of their wild youth. The duration of the wedding preparation being normally of three days, Gerdr requires a triple duration, nine days. It is a way of enforcing that their marriage has to be carried on three times in a row, before the wedding night can take place.
Freyr learns the good news from Skírnir but… we do not know what is their full impact. He is obviously happy but the poem describing his reaction is given in the form of a rather obscure numerical riddle. In a sense, this makes of him a kind of Northern wizard at math, yet another mystery about him.
One night is long, two are still more
How will I be able to endure three of them?
One month often appeared less long to me
than half of such a wedding night.
If someone can explain the riddle of “half of such a wedding night,” I will be very grateful!