The Germanic peoples were one of the few ancient groups in which women were treated fairly and considered equal to men. Women could rule, hold public office, go to battle, and had equal legal rights to men (Roberts 77). Women were councilors to their husbands, were considered the voice and morality of the husband’s conscience, and were considered to have an otherworldly insight and authority which could not be ignored. They often played important roles as negotiators and diplomats (Wodening 17). This was particularly essential because the male leaders would often become angry enough with one another to meet in battle. When the female leaders negotiated instead, wars were often prevented.
The saying “behind every great man is a great woman” could not be more true in this instance. While Woden is the king of heaven, he takes council from his wife Frigga. The fact (or secret?) that she is actually in control is demonstrated in the myths where Woden will not listen to her, so she uses cunning to bring about her desired results anyway. For example, there is a continental myth of Frigga which is told by Paul the Deacon in which the Vandals called upon Woden to help them defeat the Winnili, a tribe which was favored by Frigga (Foulke 16). Woden stated that he would give victory to whichever tribe he saw first at sunrise. Frigga instructed the Winnili women to assemble with their men in the view of Woden’s window, which faced the sunrise, and to pull their hair over their faces in the shape of beards. Upon awakening and seeing the Winnili horde, Woden exclaimed, “who are these long beards?” Frigga told Woden that as he had named the Winnili (now known as the Longobards) he must give them victory.
There was another instance in which Frigga used cunning to alter the flow of events to her desire. In Grimnismal, one of the primary poems in the Poetic Edda, Woden and Frigga foster two brothers, one which was good, and one which was evil. Woden does not realize that the brother he favored, king Geiraeth, was the evil one. Frigga tricked this evil brother into capturing Woden on one of his journeys, and when the king found out that it was Woden he had done such a thing to, he fell on his own sword (Hollander 64).
In Norse-Germanic mythology, the first living being is a sacred cow named Adhumla. This Old Norse name is considered obscure, but by using the etymology of Gothic, Ælfric interprets the name as athm/ahma- (breath, spirit), -ila (diminutive suffix: “small”) (conversation). Adhumla can be seen as meaning “little breath,” or that first divine breath, the origin and sacred spark of life. Another name for Adhumla is Feoh, which means “cow,” and is the name of the rune which is inscribed first in the Germanic rune row. Feoh is cognate to Indic vac, where the sacred cow appears as the source of the first holy sound which brings creation and life into being. The similarities between the name of Feoh and that of the Goddess Freo should be noted even though the two names are considered to trace to different Indo-European roots. Adhumla exists in an as of yet uncreated world, where there is only fire and ice. Out of the ice, she licks the form of Bur, the first god, who is raised and sustained on her milk. From this god descends Buri, father of Woden, Ville and Ve, who create the world and give form and life to mankind (Titchenell 93).
Adhumla and Frigga are not often acknowledged by scholars and students of Germanic mythology to be the same Goddess. In the form in which the lore survives, Adhumla and Frigga are not associated with one another, which is a paradox, because Adhumla is the mother of all gods and men in the mythology, while Frigga is not, but is still considered to be the mother of all gods and men. Both could therefore be identified as the same Goddess.
The ancient worship of Frigga probably ended officially somewhere around 1200 AD, though it did continue on unrecorded in the remote countryside of various northern European countries. Therefore, very little survives of traditional rites, rituals and festivals associated with Frigga. Offerings of milk were made to her on the kitchen table at Yule (Thorn 3). Medieval Christians perceived the old religion as a threat, and while they did record much mythology and ritual practice, the Goddesses and their rites in particular were suppressed, as they posed the greatest threat to the male-oriented and dominated sacrality of the new religion.
Frigga can be solidly identified with the Germanic Yule festival, or Winter Solstice. The Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede, in his de Temporalis Anglorium gives an old heathen calendar, and mentions some of the festivals associated with it. There, December 24th (which was the actual time of the solstice in the 800s) was called Modra Niht by the pagans. This must be taken to mean either “the night of the mother” or “the night of mothers.” It does not matter, however, which interpretation is correct, because there is a continuity between them just as there is a continuity between all mothers and the first mother. Yule is a time for celebrating the Mother of the Gods and worshipping her, and must be considered the season of her festival.
This claim can be further substantiated by what is
considered to be the primary myth of Frigga. Once Frigga’s son Balder had
bad dreams which foreshadowed his demise. Out of motherly affection,
Frigga went to every form of life and everything in
existence, such as metal and stone, and made each one take an oath that they would not harm Balder. The mistletoe, however, managed to escape the oath. As Balder could no longer be harmed, the other gods had fun throwing spears and other projectiles at him. However, the trickster Loki attached mistletoe to a spear, under which Balder fell. Frigga then went around to all forms of life again and asked them to weep for Balder, because this would bring him back to life. All creatures complied accept one: Loki, who was disguised as an old woman, would not weep (Titchenell 255). Balder therefore made his journey to Hell, and one myth states that he will return after Ragnarok, which is the distruction that ends a cycle of life. The myth of Frigga and Balder is associated with the descent of the sun down towards its lowest point at the winter solstice, and its subsequent
rebirth in connection with Modra Niht. Frigga is seen in the Balder myth to be connected to all forms of life, all of which can also been seen as her children.
Often in Germanic lore, the phrase “Wyrd is most powerful of all” appears. She weaves the fates of men, and decides when the threads are cut. The Well of Wyrd, which contains all the events which have happened, is also governed by her. She daily waters the World Tree from the well, and in so doing, the inhabitants of the world receive the results of their actions, which had dripped off the tree in the form of dew, the previous day. Interestingly, Frigga is specifically associated with weaving, and her hall is named Fensalir, which means “water halls.” The Germanic peoples identified the constellation of Orions Belt as “Frigga’s Distaff.” Furthermore, Frigga is said to “know the fates, though she says it not herself” (Hollander 96). In the culture of Old Europe, “spindle whorls found with the statues suggest a mythology of the Goddess as the spinner of the thread that is woven into the great web of life, which is later spun in Greece by the three lunar ‘Fates,’ or Goddesses of destiny” (Baring and Cashford 57). Through weaving, water, and a knowledge of men’s fates, Frigga can be linked to Wyrd.
As is the case in many ancient mythologies, Frigga has several aspects. One connection which many scholars often do accept is the identification of Frigga with Freo. The two names are similar and actually both have the same meaning. The name means “lady,” and Frigga is taken to be a possessive form of Freo (Herbert 275). Both refer to the primeval archetypal first Lady. Moreover, Freo is said to be married to a god named Wod, and it is known from other sources that Wod is a shortened variation of Woden. Therefore, Freo and Wod are Frigga and Woden.
Like many Goddesses from many times and places, Frigga is associated with several different animals. As the cow, she manifests the first life. Freo in Scandinavia is drawn in a wagon or cart by two cats, just as Cybele is drawn in her chariot by lions (Baring and Cashford 401). The Mother Goddess of Catal Huyuk
“with her guardian felines is the forerunner of the Great Goddesses of the Bronze Age: Inanna-Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Isis and Sekhmet in Egypt, and the unnamed Minoan Goddess all walk with or upon lions or sit upon a lion throne. In the Iron Age, Cybele, the Great Goddess of Anatolia and Rome, rides in a chariot drawn by lions, in a direct line of descent from the Goddess at Catal Huyuk” (82).
The Great Goddess of the Goths, whose image sits in
the sacrificial bowl of Pietroasa, is surrounded by feline figures at her
feet. Freo and her cats in northern Europe also must appear in continuity
with the Goddess at Catal Huyuk. Many ideas and customs of Old Europe
religions were adopted by the Indo-European conquerors. The Indo-Europeans
inherited many aspects of the Old Europe spirituality and incorporated it into
their own. When studying the religion of an Indo-European people, it is
therefore important to remember that surviving Indo-European religion is
actually an amalgam of Indo-European and Old European religion.
There is however, another image of Frigga from central Germany, where stories were still being told in remote parts during the 19th century. There, she is called Frau Gauden, or alternately, Frau Woden, and is a leader of the famous Wild Hunt myth, on which the Yule night ride of Santa Claus is based. The Wild Hunt bears many similarities to the Paleolithic magic hunt which was associated with shamans, the Goddess and her hunters, and the deep cave sanctuaries carved with many animals. Grimm demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt that this Goddess is indeed Frigga/Holda (Grimm III-927).
Together, Frau and Woden fare the freed spirits over to the Otherworld in the Wild Hunt. By doing so, she can be further identified with Freo, who the Eddas claim to be the receiver of half the dead while Woden receives the other half. Grimm describes Frau Gauden as a rich lady of rank who, along with her 24 daughters, loved hunting so much that as long as she could hunt, she cared not for heaven. One day while hunting, she spoke this desire once again, and her daughters were all of a sudden transformed into dogs, four of which were to pull her hunting-car. The dog, who is known in many cultures to guard the threshold between worlds and to fare the dead over to the Otherworld (Baring and Cashford 72), is a symbol of Frigga. The whole team took off into the sky, where they would hunt forever. During Twelfthnights, Frau Gauden hunts near human habitations. On Yule eve, wherever she finds a door open, she sends a dog in, who wags her tail, but does no harm except keeping the household up at night by whining, which cannot be stopped. If anyone kills the dog, she turns into a stone in the daytime, which if thrown away, returns to the house and again becomes a whining dog at night. The dogs presence brings sickness, death, danger and fire to the household all year until the next Twelfthnights. Thus all should keep their doors closed and locked in the evenings during Twelfthnights. This is also the second myth which associates Frigga with the winter solstice.
Alternately, those who offer service to Frau Gauden
are blessed with good luck. Sometimes she looses her way in the
night. Like Hecate, Frau is associated with crossroads. If Frau
Gauden comes to a crossroads, some part of her carriage will break, and she is
unable to fix it. Once this happened, and the nobly dressed woman awoke a
laborer and asked him to fix her carriage. He followed her to the
crossroads, and fixed her broken carriage wheel. As a payback, she told
him to gather up the deposits of her dogs, and indignant but with a hunch that
it might be beneficial to do so, he took some in his pockets. In the
morning, the man found that the dog deposits had turned into gold, and he wished
he had taken them all, because there was no trace of them any longer to be found
at the crossroads. Similarly, Frau Gauden’s carriage has broken down many
she has required the help of many to fix various parts. All who helped her were rewarded with gold. For one man, the chips he carved off a new pole and pivot for her wagon turned into gold (Grimm III-926). Frau Gauden also loves children and always gives them gifts.
Frau Gauden can also be identified as Frau Holda, who similarly travels at Twelfthnights and has her wagon repaired in exchange for gold (Grimm III-927). Holda may be etymologically connected to the Hel aspect of Frigga. Hel, or Hell, derives from Gothic Halja, “to cover.” The past tense of halja is halida, which is very similar to Holda. Holda would thus mean “the covered one;” Goddess of the invisible realm. Holda was seen as an old gray haired woman (Thorn 5). She is indeed the Queen of the dead and governor of the Otherworld. Frau Gauden is the divine mother of gods and kings descended from her and her husband Woden, and together the two of them comprise the fertility pair.
Today, Theodish Belief plays an important role in the refounding of the Germanic traditions. Our research and practical experience with traditional culture make us ideal sources for information about the relevance of “folk religion” in a modern context. Frigga is one of the Goddesses worshipped in Theodish Belief. Offerings of food, drink, and song are made to Frigga on the winter solstice. In an interview, Garweard explained that “tribal belief provides for the same rewards in modern times as it did in ancient times.” The only difference is in the manifestation of such rewards. For example, instead of granting a plentiful harvest, the worshiper receives a well paying job or some other form of success. When asked the same question Garman Lord replied that, “Anglo-Saxon ‘Theodism’ doesn't much interfere with [his] life in the modern world, but it also must be said that it doesn't always make a very exact fit with the modern world either.” Although many modern holidays have their roots in pre-christian traditions, it is generally seen as deviant to worship the ancient gods and goddesses. Also, the past concept of religion “was much more holistic than the Christian Sunday-morning religion of today, and tended to figure intimately in the ordinary activities of life.” This shortage of awareness, understanding and respect leads to a lack of acceptance that makes people feel uncomfortable. However, Theodish Belief has always been a living religion, freely able to adapt to the times and places we live in. Once certain cultural barriers are overcome, the wisdom contained in the mythology and character of Frigga can be of great benefit to women in the modern age.
In my experience, Frigga is an important archetype for modern women just as she was for ancient women. She is an example of female power, wisdom and intelligence. She is an example of how women can use cunning to counteract male dominance and control. Perhaps most interesting about Frigga is that she is the patroness of mothers and child birth, the Goddess of the household, and she takes such an active "political" role, what to speak of her sole authority and control over the cosmos as Wyrd. Frigga can thus represent for women a balance between the nurturing and the activist roles, and indeed, this connection and balance demonstrates how activism is in fact a nurturing of the natural and manifest world. Furthermore, Frigga is one of the ancestral Goddesses of the Germanic tradition of which the people of Northern Europe have been robbed, with the coming of Romano-Christian culture in the same way the Native Peoples of North America were robbed of their culture and traditions with the coming of the Europeans. Frigga is therefore of double significance to modern women, because she represents not only an important part of a lost culture in general, but she further represents a well balanced and lost heritage of women within that culture; Frigga is an important part of women’s spiritual heritage to which they have a right and should reclaim.
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Foulke, William Dudley. trans. Paul the Deacon, History of the Longobards. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.
Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. Vol. III. James Stephen Stallybrass, trans. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.
Herbert, Kathleen. English Heroic Legends. Frithgarth: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000.
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Roberts, Clayton and David. A History of England. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1995.
Sturlusson, Snorri. The Edda. London: Everyman, 1996.
Titchenell, Elsa-Brita. The Masks of Odin. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1998.
Thorn, Thorskegga. Theod. “Holda.” Watertown: Theod, February 1997, vol. 4-1, pg. 3-5.
Wodening, Eric. The Gods, Book III. (Wednesbury School curriculum) Watertown: Theod, 1994.