In Norse Mythology Sif is the wife of Thor and as such one could justifiably expect her to hold a high position among the Asynjur. To the contrary Sif is bearly mentioned in the Eddas. In Snorri Sturluson’s ‘Gylfaginning’ she is not even mentioned in his list of the Norse Goddesses. Sif’s name means ‘relative’, presumably an abbreviation of ‘wife of Thor’ and on this evidence some historians consider that she was invented by the late pagan poets to fill a gap in the Aesir’s family tree.
However two myths survive which suggest that Sif had a more important role than simply an ornament in Bilskirnir. In ‘Skaldskaparmal’ (The language of Poetry) Snorri Sturluson explains why the kenning ‘Sif’s Hair’ is used in place of the word gold. In this famous tale Loki cut off all Sif’s hair for a joke but Thor became very angry and threatened to kill him. To save his own life Loki promised to get the black elves to make Sif a magical wig which would grow like her own hair. Loki succeeded in obtaining the gold wig and by trickery managed to commission many treasures including the hammer Mjolnir and the spear Gungnir. If this kenning was well established in Snorri’s time it suggests that this tale is of some antiquity.
The cutting and restoration of the golden hair suggests a representation of the corn harvest, a golden crop which is cut and grows anew. If one was to read between the lines even further Sif would become a fertility goddess, similar to Demeter of classical legend. There is however a further concept to consider. It is common in early polytheistic religions for a sky god to be coupled with an earth goddess so that the two together bring fertility. Thor is the most obvious sky god among the Aesir and lightning was believed to make the fields fertile. It would therefore make sense for the remnants of the sky/earth union to exist in the marriage of Thor and Sif. It is worth remembering that the last vestige of the Earth Mother in Norse Mythology, Jord, is only mentioned in connection with her son Thor. On this evidence I consider it safe to assume that Sif is a fertility goddess, although it is unlikely that she was actively worshipped during the late Viking period.
In the second myth Sif takes a more active part. In Locasenna from the Elder Edda, Loki returns to the god’s banquet after being banished for killing one of the hosts servants. Eager for revenge Loki insults the gods and goddesses, accusing the men of being cowards and the women of being flirtatious (including Gefjion goddess of virgins!). In the poem Sif approaches Loki with a mead cup saying that as she is being civil towards him, he can say no evil against her. In return Loki calls her a ‘man hating woman’ and accuses her of making Thor a cuckold. Whether Loki was supposed to be spreading lies or referring to lost myths is unclear, but it is interesting that Sif takes a major role in this tale when she is mentioned so little elsewhere.
Sif is described as the mother of the god Ull in several sources and he is definitely not numbered among Thor’s children. Why this reference exists is a mystery, either a myth once existed to explain Ull’s birth or Snorri and his colleagues were equally confused by this reference after several hundred years of Christianity.
A passing mention is made to Sif in Snorri’s Skaldskaparmal where the giant Hrungnir threatens to kill the gods and drag off Freyja and Sif to his own home. Freyja is often included in the myths as being highly desirable to the giants but it is the only such reference to Sif. Freyja and Sif are both noted for their great beauty and Ellis Davidson has suggested that they are manifestations of the same goddess. I consider this to be highly unlikely as they belong to different households among the gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. These probably resulted in a merger of two different tribes of similar religions, long before the Viking Age. Far greater confusion exists over the attributes of Frigga and Freyja for the same reason.
More evidence for a cult of Sif survives in the old Lapp religion which was recorded in the seventeenth century. The Lapps worshipped a thunder god called Hora Galles, a corruption of the Norse ‘Thor Karl’ meaning ‘Old Man Thor’. Hora Galles had a wife called Ravdna, a name which seems to be borrowed from the Norse word ‘raun’ the rowan tree. The Lapps believed that the red berries of the rowan were sacred to Ravdna. The use of Norse words among the Lapps is surely evidence that they were originally titles of the equivalent Norse deities. This is supported in Thor’s case as the Scandinavians have used the expression ‘the Old Man’s out riding’ to describe thundery weather to this century. The rowan is also held sacred to Thor and was named ‘Thor’s Salvation’ as he was said to have been saved from drowning by grasping a rowan branch. It is also interesting to note that Thor’s sacred colour red is also sacred to Ravdna.
Sif appears to have partly filled the gap left by the Germanic earth goddess, Nerthus. She was possibly worshipped on a small scale as a patron of the harvest but to a lesser extent than Frey and Thor.
- Poetic Edda, Snorri Sturluson, Trans. A Faulkes.
- Poems of the Elder Edda, Trans. P Terry.
- Myth and Religion of the North, Turville-Petre.
- Scandinavian Mythology, H R Ellis Davidson.
- Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Rudolf Simek