Frigg, foremost of the Norse Goddesses and wife of Odin, has been much ignored in the revival of Norse heathenism. Magic and runes are very much the flavour of the century and non-magically orientated deities are being left by the wayside. In a magical context Frigg falls into shadow besides the sorceress goddess Freyja whose role as the fount of all magical knowledge attracts rune enthusiasts like iron filings to a magnet.
The most familiar of all the myths of Frigg is the story of Balder’s death recorded in the Icelandic Eddas. Learning her son is about to die, Frigg entreats all things on Earth to swear an oath not to harm Balder but this is not successful. She overlooks the mistletoe, Balder is slain and Frigg weeps for the loss of her son. This image of an incompetent snivelling female is not an enticement to the worship of Frigg.
The whole situation is also inconsistent with all the other surviving myths of the goddess. The myth of Balder seems to be a very late addition to the Norse religion, probably added after the conversion and inspired by the death and resurrection of Christ. The dubious nature of this myth is confirmed by the mediaeval historian Saxo Grammaticus who recorded the story in great detail, but with Balder’s slayer as the hero who rescues his lover from Balder.
In the older myths Frigg is the divine noble woman and housewife. The minor goddesses serve her and run her errands. She is the embodiment of womanhood and following Germanic tradition she is fiercely equal in authority to her husband. In no less than three of the myths she pits her cunning against Odin, and on each occasion she gets her way.
Frigg is credited with the ability to see the fate of all mankind, but in her wisdom she is also silent, preventing others from meddling. She seems to act on this knowledge because she sends out the goddess Hlin to protect her followers. One of her names is Saga (the ‘sayer’) suggesting the role of a seeress, a talent apparently shared by Thor’s wife Sif. Saga’s name was recorded in the late mediaeval period as an separate goddess, but her attributes make it clear that Frigg and Saga are identical.
Frigg’s natural ability to see the future is a very marked contrast to Odin’s ceaseless attempts to uncover the future for himself by self sacrifice and questioning giants and wise spirits. Here the traditional roles of the sexes in Germanic religion becomes clear. Men wield physical power, while women take naturally to magical skills and are closer to the divine.
Role swapping between the sexes is unusual and not without cost. Warrior women become ‘unfeminine’ and normally impossible to live with. Male sorcerers take on effeminate traits and by the late Viking Age male magic was considered a perversion. Even Odin is accused of effeminate behaviour in some of the myths. The goddesses represent this ancient and protected female knowledge.
Freyja, being of the Vanir household is concerned with magic rather than fate. She recites charms and brews potions to mould the future to her own desires. Frigg following Aesir tradition has the more straightforward knowledge of the future. She advises her followers to prevent disaster befalling them.
Frigg is also the heavenly spinner. The star constellation Orion is named ‘Friggjar Rockr’, ‘Frigg’s distaff’, in her honour. In this role Frigg is again linked to fate as spinning is employed by the Norns to dispense destiny to mankind. The spindle is a powerful symbol representing female wisdom, virtue and industry. Viking age housewives spun and wove cloth which was often the major source of income for their families, emphasising the power of women in pagan tradition. In the hands of Frigg and the Norns, the spindle becomes a powerful weapon of magic.
Freyja was also hailed as a spinner, which again may have been considered an attribute of magical ability. Every woman in the Dark Ages would have owned a spindle and used it at every spare moment to provide the endless quantity of yarn required for weaving.
As a goddess of women, Frigg is also patron of marriage and child birth. Very much the ideal housewife, she comes across as a keeper of peace and an upholder of moral codes. The details of Frigg’s worship have been lost in the din of battles and family feuding. She is mentioned occasionally in the sagas in marriage toasts and in prayers from barren wives but that is about it. To fill in the rest of Frigg’s cult we must turn to the records of German folklore, where the housewife’s patron has survived as Frau Holda.
The strength of Frigg’s cult in ancient Germany is attested by the tale of Frikka and the Lombards. Frikka and Wotan were supporting opposite sides in a battle, but only Wotan, as god of war, could grant them victory. Frikka tricked her husband by turning his bed and telling the Lombard womenfolk to come to Wotan’s beside at dawn with their hair drawn over their faces. When Wotan awoke he exclaimed ‘Who are these Long Beards?’, thus renaming the tribe and granting them his protection. The goddess’s insight has served her again. No magic is required, she simply has to exercise her powers as house keeper and move her husband’s bed to change the course of history!
The goddesses of German folklore Holda, Percht and Berchte are very similar to Frigg. They are especially concerned with spinning and domestic order. It is possible that their names were cult names for Frigg which were substituted during the conversion to avoid persecution.
The existence of Holda’s counterpart Freke adds weight to this argument. Holda appears as a noble woman or a witch wife and has many roles. Her duties as provider of fertility are particularly evident, she wakens fruit trees in spring, grants fertility to women and protects the spirits of unborn children. Any child that dies unchristened returns to her care. Holda also controls the weather, snow is produced when she shakes her bed, fog is the smoke from her fire and thunder is heard when she works her flax.
Even as a sky goddess Holda retains the role of the housewife. Most of the lore concerning the goddess shows her interest in womens’ work. She travels around peering in windows, rewarding the hardworking and punishing the idle. She teaches the skills of flax growing to men and cloth making to women. She draws maidens to her hidden land to test their housekeeping skills. Holda is highly protective of sacred holy days and punished woman who span during the twelve days of Christmas (the time of Holda’s greatest influence) and on Sundays.
Both Frigg and Holda are patrons of woman, childbirth, housework, spinning and moral codes. Holda’s power over fertility is almost certainly shared by Frigg, but has been poorly recorded. The early German tribes worshipped the Earth goddess. This role has been adapted to produce Frigg, goddess of motherhood and female wisdom and Freyja, goddess of human love and magic, both a far cry from a fertility goddess. The old Teutonic Earth goddess survives in the Norse Eddas as Jord (Earth). She is titled as the first wife of Odin, Frigg’s rival and the mother of Thor.
It is interesting that Frigg is shown as displacing the old Earth goddess and they may have very strong connections. Spinning is not only a means to provide wealth and work magic, it is a creative power. The fertility of a woman producing children, and her exclusive role in the production of cloth was compared across Europe. The fates of Classical, Teutonic and Baltic mythology all spin to produce life, thus life and fate are in the hands of women. Frigg’s control over nature is clearly shown when she asks all of creation to swear not to harm Balder.
Although the context of the tale may be relatively recent Frigg’s authority over the Earth is very evident and is probably from an older source. The Eddas refer to both Frigg and Saga living in low lying halls surrounded by lakes. Frigg’s hall is called Fensalir ‘marsh hall’ and here she spends each day with Odin talking and drinking from golden cups. Frigg’s residence is somewhat at odds with her role as queen of heaven and suggests a more ancient tradition of an Earth Goddess living by her sacred lake.
Holda is also connected to water. Women bathe in her sacred pool as a cure for infertility. Spinners punished by Holda throw bobbins of yarn into streams to appease her. One wonderful tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm (Frau Holda) recounts the fate of an unloved daughter who span each day by a well outside her mother’s cottage. She pricked her hand on the spindle and dipped the spindle into the well to remove the blood. The spindle dropped from her hand and disappeared from sight. The girl was horrified knowing her mother would be furious and she jumped into the well to end her miserable life. At the bottom she found herself in Holda’s land where she was given tests to determine her kindness and skill in housekeeping. Holda was impressed by the girl’s industry and sent her back covered in gold.
This story also survives in Scandinavia and such tests could easily have been attributed to Frigg. The magical journey to meet the goddess is especially interesting. Blood sacrifice, the spindle as a symbol of the goddess, and the fall into the well which can only be a metaphor for a ritual induced trance to contact the divine!
Holda is a winter goddess, honoured especially over Christmas. This period is also sacred to the female protective spirits of Scandinavia known as the Disir, who were invoked on the first day of winter. No mention is made of Frigg holding more power in the winter time, but her star constellation is only clearly visible during the winter months.
Winters in the north are hard and illness and starvation would have been a continuous worry. The importance of the minor goddesses as protectors of the household would have been enhanced by such fears. Trapped indoors by heavy snows with little farm work to distract them women would have concentrated all their energies on spinning with Friggjar Rockr shining brightly above them.
Prudence Jones believes that the constellation Orion’s Girdle represents a distaff, a long rod to which the fibres were tied to keep them tidy for spinning. However, the mythological significance of the distaff is minor compared to the spindle with which the spinner creates the thread. The stars of Orion’s Girdle are too closely spaced to imply a long staff. If the nearby stars Rigel and Betelgeuse are included, the constellation resembles a spindle, with a whorl formed along Orion’s Girdle, and its upright shaft between the other two stars. This produces a constellation of a very respectable size, equal in height to Orion.
There has been a lot of confusion between the roles of Frigg and Freyja. They are often merged in over zealous attempts to tidy up the myths. This attitude is very wrong for the Viking period as there are several references to the goddesses being worshipped side by side.
The divine households, the Aesir and Vanir, reflect very different views on life. The choice between the two goddesses would have been a matter for personal preference. Myths were shared between them, which has added to the confusion. Frigg’s role of celestial spinner is borrowed by Freyja. Freyja’s cloak of falcon feathers is borrowed by Frigg. They both have an equal claim on the ancient Earth Mother myths. This role sharing, so prevalent in the Norse religion, caused the merging of pagan and Christian ideas during the conversion period, the death and rebirth of the innocent god Balder, the apocalyptical monsters of Ragnarok, the terrors of Hel, are all disturbingly Christian and products of the same merging of beliefs.
In conclusion, Frigg is the patron of women. She gives guidance and knowledge to maidens as they learn the skills required for adult life, inspiration and protection to mothers and housewives, and peace to the elderly. As a goddess of fertility she is a patron of farmers. The man who is taught to grow flax by Holda, is welcomed to her land when he reaches old age after a long and prosperous life. She protects her worshipers by bending fate and her spinning represents the life force of mankind.
- Baring & Cashford The Myth of the Goddess. Penguin Arkana, 1993.
- Davidson, HRE. Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Routledge, 1993.
- Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. London, 1883.
- Grimm. Household Tales. Pann Books, 1977.
- Gundarsson, K. Teutonic Religion. Llewellyn, 1993.
- Jones, Prudence. Northern Myths of the Constellations. Fenris Wolf, 1991.
- Motz, Lotte. The Winter Goddesses: Percht, Holda and Related Figures. Folklore, Volume 95 ii, 1984.
- Thorn. T. Holda. Folkvang Horg issue 2, 1995.
- Thorn. T. Spin Me a Yarn, Spinning Folklore. Darr, 1995.
- First published in Talking Stick issue 23 Autumn 1996