In Norse Mythology, Freyja (sometimes anglicized as Freya or Freja), sister of Freyr and daughter of Njord (Njǫrđr), is a prototypical Norse fertility goddess. While there are some sources suggesting that she was called on to bring fruitfulness to fields or wombs, Freyja was more explicitly connected to the ideas of love, beauty, sex, and interpersonal attraction. This connection to the feminine begins at the etymological level, as her name itself means "lady" in Old Norse (cf. fru or Frau in Scandinavian and German).
Simultaneously, Freyja was also a goddess of war, death, and wealth. She was said to receive half of the dead lost in battle in her hall, whereas Odin would receive the other half. Finally, she was also credited with potent magical abilities and for introducing seiðr magic to the Aesir (a clan of Norse gods).
Given her various spheres of influence, it is not surprising that Freyja was one of the most popular goddesses in the Norse pantheon.
As a Norse deity, Freyja belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system shared by the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. This mythological tradition, of which the Scandinavian (and particularly Icelandic) sub-groups are best preserved, developed in the period from the first manifestations of religious and material culture in approximately 1000 B.C.E. until the Christianization of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900-1200 C.E. The tales recorded within this mythological corpus tend to exemplify a unified cultural focus on physical prowess and military might.
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates three separate "clans" of deities: the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. The distinction between Aesir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried and reigned together after a prolonged war. In fact, the most significant divergence between the two groups is in their respective areas of influence, with the Aesir representing war and conquest, and the Vanir representing exploration, fertility and wealth. The Jotun, on the other hand, are seen as a generally malefic (though wise) race of giants who represented the primary adversaries of the Aesir and Vanir.
The primary role of Freyja, who was one of the most exalted of the Vanir, was as a goddess of love and sexual desire.
Freyja's considerable, multifaceted dossier of characteristics is summarized in Snorri Sturluson's thirteenth-century mythographic text, the Gylfaginning:
Thus, Snorri's account can be seen to describe a complex, multi-modal character: one who is equally comfortable on the battlefield or in the bedroom. The same author's guide for skaldic poets (the Skáldskparmál) provides the following kennings (poetic allusions) for the goddess's name:
The most peculiar of these names, "Goddess Beautiful in Tears," refers to the mythical tradition that, when upset, the goddess would weep tears of gold (which is perhaps an implicit nod to the traditional association between the Vanir and wealth). The other attributes introduced above (Freyja's sexual appetites, her associations with death and magic, and her stock of magical items) will be explored in more detail below.
Many tales of the goddess describe her as a being of profound sexual license. As Turville-Petre notes, "as a goddess of fertility and sensuality, Freyja was naturally associated, even identified with prolific and sensual beasts" (like cats, sows and others). On a similar note, Dubois makes the general case that the "exotic" Vanir were frequently depicted with "appetites akin to animals in rut."
Such descriptors seem apt, as Freyja's sexual desires were often the subject of myths, whether she was having congress with Óttar (a mortal youth), offering her body to four dwarves in exchange for a piece of jewelry (the oft-mentioned Brisingamen), or simply enjoying some erotic poetry.
Though likely an exaggeration, the Lokasenna goes the farthest in describing this aspect of the goddess's character:
In the selection from the Gylfaginning quoted above, Snorri notes that "wherever she [Freyja] rides to battle, she gets half the slain." This same perspective is elaborated on in the Grímnismál section of the Poetic Edda, which describes the abodes of the gods:
These associations are further confirmed in the heroic "Egil's Saga," where Thorgerda (Þorgerðr), threatens to commit suicide in the wake of her brother's death, saying: "I shall not eat until I sup with Freyja." This can be interpreted as a conviction that she expected to pass to Freyja's hall upon her death.
In spite the mythic evidence above, it is possible that this association arose from a faulty identification between Freyja and Frigg (the wife of Odin), which is discussed in more detail below. Bellows, in a footnote to his translation of the Poetic Edda, avers that "Freyja [when interpreted in this warlike context] represents a confusion between two originally distinct divinities: the wife of Othin (Frigg) and the northern goddess of love. This passage appears to have in mind her attributes as Othin's wife. Snorri has this same confusion, but there is no reason why the Freyja who was Freyr's sister should share the slain with Othin." However, it is not necessary to totally dismiss the possibility of a goddess representing both fertility and militarism, as the Sumerian Inanna presents a valid counter-example.
One of Freyja's most important characteristics (in both the mythical and religious spheres) is her well-documented affinity for the magical arts. Specifically, she is credited with introducing the shamanistic magical tradition know as seid to the Aesir (though Odin eventually became the greater master of this form). As suggested in the euhemeristic Ynglinga saga, "Njord's daughter Freya was priestess of the sacrifices, and first taught the Asaland people the magic art, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanaland people."
Additionally, many surviving tales of Freyja associate her with numerous enchanted possessions, including a cloak of robin feathers, which gave her the ability to change into a bird. Other sources depict her as the owner of a golden boar named Hildisvín (the Battle-Swine), and of a cat-drawn chariot. Finally, she is often associated with beautiful jewelry, loving such riches to such an extent that she named her daughters "Hnoss" and "Gersemi" (where both names literally mean "jewel").
Over and above the mythic tales introduced above (to catalogue the goddess's many characteristics), Freyja also figures into other accounts in the Norse corpus. One of her most frequent roles is as a target for the lust of giants.
In one instance, in the early mythic past, a giant builder appeared before the Aesir and offered to build a wall around their fortress at Asgard. His fee, which was payable only on the condition that he successfully built the wall without aid in a single winter, was that he would receive the sun, the moon, and the affections of Freyja. When it became apparent that the unnamed builder was actually going to succeed (largely due to the supernatural abilities of his magical steed), the Aesir found it necessary to resort to trickery to avoid paying his exorbitant wage. A similar situation is seen in the Poetic Edda's Thrymskvitha, where the giant Thrym boasts that he will not return Thor's stolen hammer without a promise of the beautiful goddess's hand in marriage:
An account that provides an insight into an entirely different aspect of the goddess's character depicts her marriage to Odr, a traveler who rarely returns home to visit his heart-sick wife:
This passage is most intriguing for its suggestion of a possible connection between Odin and Odr. This theory is supported by the notable linguistic parallels between Odr and Odin, coupled with the facts that nothing (aside from these passages) is known of the mysterious Odr, and that Freyja and Frigg are often analogized.
Throughout the history of the region, Freyja remained one of the most popular goddesses in the Norse pantheon. One yardstick of this prevalence is the quantity of toponyms (locales named in honour of the goddess), of which "between twenty and thirty" have been found "in Norway alone," while, "in Sweden, the place-names corresponding to the goddess are even more numerous and varied." Further, as she was associated with magic (as discussed above) and childbirth, it seems reasonable to assume that observance of her cult would have also taken place at a more individualized/less institutionalized level.
More notable still is that the classical sources (including Snorri's Prose Edda) acknowledge that Freyja possessed numerous names:
A reasonable explanation for this phenomena is that Freyja presented a "syncresis-point" for the various local fertility goddesses throughout the region. In this way, the meaning of Freyja's name ("woman") becomes more understandable, as it can be seen more as a title than as an actual moniker. Intriguingly, the same toponymic evidence discussed above can also demonstrate that cults dedicated to Freyja's various pseudonyms (Mardoll, Horn, etc.) also existed.
Since rural Scandinavians remained dependent on the forces of nature throughout history, it is hardly shocking that fertility gods remained an important part of folk belief. For these reasons, Freyja retained elements of her role as a fertility goddess, even in the rural Sweden of the 19th century. In the province of Småland, there is an account of how she was associated with sheet lightning:
Such beliefs were also common elsewhere in the Swedish countryside. In Värend, Freyja could arrive at Christmas night and she used to shake the apple trees for the sake of a good harvest. Consequently, people came to leave some apples in the trees for her sake. Likewise, it was dangerous to leave the plough outdoors, because if Freyja sat on it, it would no longer be of any use.
The Danish verb "fri" means "to propose." In Dutch, the verb "vrijen" is derived from "Freya" and means "to have sex/make love." The (obsolete) German verb "freien" means "looking for a bride." The derived noun "Freier" (suitor) is still used, though more often in its second meaning "client of a prostitute."
In Avestan, an ancient Indo-European language found in the Gathas, "frya" is used to mean "lover","beloved," and "friend." The Sanskrit word Priya- has approximately the same meaning.
Many farms in Norway have Frøy- as the first element in their names, and the most common are the name Frøyland (13 farms). However, whether Frøy- in these names are referring to the goddess Freyja (or the god Freyr) is questionable and uncertain. The first element in the name Frøyjuhof, in Udenes parish, are however most probably the genitive case of the name Freyja (the last element is hof 'temple', and a church was built on the farm in the Middle Ages, which indicates the spot as an old holy place). The same name, Frøyjuhof, also occur in the parishes of Hole and Stjørdal.
In the parish of Seim, in the county of Hordaland, Norway, lies the farm Ryland (Rýgjarland). The first element is the genitive case of rýgr 'lady' (identical with the meaning of the name Freyja, see above). Since the neighbouring farms have the names Hopland (Norse: Hofland 'temple land') and Totland (Norse: Þórsland 'Thor's land') it is possible that rýgr (lady) here refers to a goddess, which in that case would most probably be Freyja.
Several plants were named after Freyja, such as Freyja's tears and Freyja's hair (Polygala vulgaris), but after the introduction of Christianity, they were renamed after the Virgin Mary. This may suggests the Norse goddess's closest homologue in Christianity (though numerous differences between the two evidently exist).
Freyja might be considered the counterpart of Venus and Aphrodite, although she has a combination of attributes unknown throughout the mythologies of any other ancient Indo-European people. In fact, she might be regarded as closest to the Sumerian Inanna (or the Mesopotamian Ishtar) as being involved in both love and war.
Britt-Mari Näsström posits in her "Freyja: Great Goddess of the North" that there is a tenable connection between Freyja and the other Goddesses worshipped along the migration path of the Indo-Europeans. Some shared characteristics include concern with love, fertility (and sometimes war), and portrayal with either one or two cats or lions as companions. Some of these parallel figures would include: Durga, Ereshkegal, Sekhmet, Menhit, Bast, Anat, Asherah, Nana, Cybele, Rhea, and others. That the name Freyja translates to the deliberately ambiguous title of "Lady" (discussed above) infers that, like Odin, she wandered and bore more names than are perhaps remembered in the modern age.
Given the similarities between Frigg and Freyja, with the former as the highest goddess of the Aesir and the latter as the highest goddess of the Vanir, it is perhaps unsurprising that scholars have debated a possible relationship between them. Specifically, many arguments have been made both for and against the idea that Frigg and Freyja are really the same goddess. Some arguments are based on linguistic analyses, others on the fact that Freyja is only mentioned in Northern German (and later Nordic) accounts, while still others center on specific mythic tales. However, both goddesses sometimes appear at the same time in the same text. This final fact would seem to imply that Frigg and Freyja were similar goddesses from different pantheons who, at initial contact, were syncretically conflated with each other, only to be distinguished again at a later date.
Some sources, both modern and historical, attribute the name of "Friday" to Frigg, a naming convention that is attested to in an Old English account:
However, this association with Aphrodite/Venus may result from a confusion (or an identification) between Frigg and Freyja (who is more often affiliated with sexuality and romantic love). If this is true, it would be more logical to refer to it as Freyja's day.
Two other natural phenomena were also given the goddess's name: the constellation Orion, which was called Frigg's distaff or Freyja's distaff by Nordic astronomers, and the chemical element Vanadium, which is named after Freyja's alternative name "Vanadis" (goddess of the Vanir).
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