One of the principal deities of the Norse pantheon, the lovely and enchanting Freya was a goddess of blessings, love, lust, and fertility. A member of the Vanir tribe of deities, Freya shared her people’s penchant for the magical arts of divination. It was Freya who introduced the gods to seidr, a form of magic that allowed practitioners to know and change the future.

Freya (1901) by Anders Zorn, oil on canvas from the private collection of Samuel Roosevelt. Freya is seen in repose on her throne at Sessrúmnir, her palace in the field Fólkvangr, where half of all the dead gathered. A black cat, one of her symbols, can be seen in the lower right corner. Unlike most paintings of the time, this one portrays Freya in a realistic nude style and a relaxed, languid pose. Most paintings of the period tended to show female nudes in their idealized forms.

Freya was gentler and more agreeable than the other Norse deities. Where Thor accomplished his goals through aggression and Odin and Loki resorted to trickery, Freya achieved her ends with the gentler persuasions of gifts, beauty, and sex. While Freya was often unselfish and helpful, she did have a darker side. Like the male gods, Freya had a taste for blood and fought fiercely in battle. It was said she took the lives of half the warriors ever slain in battle.

Freya was known by a number of epithets, and the variants of her name (Freja, Freyia, Freyja, Fröja, Frøya, Frøjya, and Frua, among others) were as different as the Germanic languages and dialects of her many worshippers. Thanks in part to these linguistic differences, some interpretations of Norse mythology believed Freya to be synonymous with Frigg, Odin’s wife, and sometimes Gullveig, the völva narrator of the Völuspá who recounted the Aesir-Vanir War and predicted the fate of the gods during Ragnarök. 

Etymology

Meaning “the lady,” the name Freya (Freyja in the Old Norse) was derived from the Proto-Germanic frawjon, an honorific title used for a mature woman of high social standing. It was also the root of the word frau in modern German, the honorific title for married women. “Freya” was probably first used as an epithet or nickname by one of the Germanic tribes. However, it would eventually gain popularity and become a personal name.

Freya had many epithets, and was known as the Gefn (“the giver”), Hörn (“flaxen,” probably in reference to her flaxen hair), Mardöll (“sea shaker”), Sýr (“sow,” a creature that stood for fertility much like Freya herself) and Valfreyja (“lady of the slain”).

Additionally, "Friday" was likely named after Freya. The word was believed to be a portmanteau of “Freya’s day."

Attributes

A leader of the Vanir gods, Freya was recognized as the archetypal völva, a practitioner of seidr whose art and ritual could see events before they happened. The volva could then attempt to alter these events, leading enemies to their doom and delivering friends from impending disaster.

Freya made her home at the palace of Sessrúmnir (“seat room,") located in the field of Fólkvangr (“field of the host,") where half of the dead slain in battle went to spend eternity; the other half went to Odin’s hall, Valhalla. As the Grímnismál of the Poetic Edda read:

The ninth is Folkvangr, where Freyja decrees
Who shall have seats in the hall;
The half of the dead each day does she choose,
And half does Odin have.1

While Freya did not typically wield weapons of war, she did possess many accoutrements of a different sort. One such item was a cloak made of falcon feathers that gave the gift of flight to anyone who wore it. When she was not wearing it herself, Freya lent the cloak to companions and collaborators who agreed to do her bidding. Freya’s most prized possession was likely the necklace, or torc, known as Brísingamen (“gleaming torc” or “amber torc”). Brísingamen was made by dwarves and purchased at a dear price. Freya guarded the necklace from any and all would-be thieves with a fiery passion.

In addition to her cloak and “gleaming torc,” Freya rode a glittering chariot that was pulled by two black (or grey) domestic cats. She was usually accompanied by her animal familiar, a hog named Hildisvíni (meaning “battle swine”). One of her common epithets, Sýr (“sow”) likely came from her familiarity with Hildisvíni.

Family

Freya was the daughter of Njord (also Njordr), a god of the Vanir associated with the sea, sailing, fishing, wealth, and the fertility of crops. While her mother’s identity was ultimately unknown, some speculated that Freya was the daughter of Nerthus, an old Germanic deity known as a goddess of “peace and plenty." Nerthus was tied to an archaic ritual involving a cart procession and the symbolic laying down of arms.2

Freya’s brother (and possible twin) was Freyr, a god associated with wealth, prosperity, healthful weather, and male virility. He was often depicted with the phallus that was typical of fertility gods.

In later life, Freya took Odr as her husband. Odr was a mysterious god whose name meant “furious and passionate,” as well as “mind and sense.” He would often be away on long journeys, and it was said that his frequent absence caused Freya to weep tears of gold. With Odr, Freya had two daughters: Hnoss and Gersemi, whose names meant “treasure.”

Much was uncertain about the identities of Freya and Odr. It was likely that Freya was another version of Frigg (Odin’s wife), and as such it appears that Odr may have actually been Odin. The deities’ various names and identities reflected linguistic, cultural, and mythological differences among the Germanic groups that told stories of these gods and goddesses. The Norse mythology that reemerged in modern times was not canonical in the sense that an authoritative version of it did not exist. Rather, separate traditions existed simultaneously, and mythic sources such as the Poetic Edda often transposed these different traditions onto one another.

Mythology

Aesir-Vanir War

As with most Norse gods and goddesses, little was known of Freya’s childhood and early development. In the Ynglinga saga, a book of the Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson, Freya was presented as a leading deity of the Vanir and a player in the Aesir-Vanir War. She was the wife of Odr, with whom she had the daughters Hnoss and Gersemi, who “were so very beautiful, that afterwards the most precious jewels were called by their names.”3

When the two sides reached a peace settlement, Odin asked Freya to oversee the offering of sacrifices. In this role, Freya preserved peace among the gods and maintained the cycles of fertility that kept the world in motion. She was praised and celebrated, so much so that her personal name was applied to all “ladies” of good social standing.

The Ynglinga saga also claimed that Freya introduced the gods to the practice of seidr, the soothsaying art that foretold the destruction of the gods. According to the saga, Freya was said to be the last of the gods—this claim appeared nowhere else in Norse tradition, however.

Freya, the Helpful

Freya’s personality became more developed in other mythic traditions such as the poem Hyndluljód of the Poetic Edda where Freya’s generosity was on full display. The poem featured Ottar, Freya’s favorite servant, wanting to know his ancestry in order to settle a bet. Lending her assistance, Freya transformed Ottar into Hildisvíni, her pig familiar, and took him to a see a wise woman named Hyndla. When the wise woman demured, Freya threatened her to kill her. Hyndla then began to recite a complicated genealogy and identified Ottar’s place within it. Freya, worried that Ottar would not be able to remember the detailed genealogy, further ordered Hyndla to pour the beer of memory. In Freya’s words:

To my boar now bring the memory-beer,
So that all thy words, that well thou hast spoken,
The third morn hence he may hold in mind,
When their races Ottar and Angantyr tell.4

Freya, the Lusted

Stories of Freya often highlighted her sex appeal and desirability. One such story was told in Gylfaginning of Sturluson’s Prose Edda, where Freya became a pawn in a dangerous bargain. The episode began when a hill giant approached the gods and offered to build an impregnable fortress that would protect the gods from enemy jötnar. In exchange, the giant wanted the sun, the moon, and Freya’s hand in marriage. After a short deliberation, the gods consented to the bargain on the condition that the builder had to have completed the fortress by the first day of summer. The builder countered with a condition of his own—he would build the wall in the time allotted so long as he could get help from his stallion, Svadilfari. The gods agreed to his terms, and the giant began his task.

As summer began to near, the builder, relying heavily on the labor of Svadilfari, was coming dangerously close to finishing the fortress. Worried that they would lose Freya forever to Jötunheimr (the land of the jötnar and one of the Nine Realms in Norse cosmology), the gods decided to sabotage the hill giant’s efforts. Wily Loki, the archetypal trickster of the Norse gods, transformed himself into a mare and distracted the stallion. Realizing now that he would not be able to complete the fortress in time, the hill giant flew into a rage. Seeking protection, the gods called upon Thor for aid:

And straightway the hammer Mjöllnir was raised aloft; he paid the wright’s wage, and not with the sun and the moon.5

Thus was Freya saved from an unwanted marriage to the hill giant. The gods also gained a fortress, albeit rather treacherously, and a new foal. While Loki was in the form of a mare, Svadilfari successfully impregnated him with Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse that eventually became Odin’s mighty steed.

In a similar story, related in the Þrymskviða (anglicized as Thrymskvitha) of the Poetic Edda, Freya was coveted by Thrym, the king of the jötnar and master of Jötunheimr. The Thrymskvitha began with Thor awakening to find his hammer, Mjölnir, missing. In order to find it, Loki asked Freya for her cloak made of falcon feathers. She gave it to him freely:

Then Loki flew, and the feather-dress whirred,
Till he left behind him the home of the gods,
And reached at last the realm of the giants.6

Loki discovered that Mjölnir had been claimed by Thrym, who demanded Freya be given to him in exchange for it. When Loki approached Freya with the news, she reacted with such fury that the palace of the gods shook on its foundations and her torc, Brísingamen, fell to the ground:

Wrathful was Freyja, and fiercely she snorted,
And the dwelling great of the gods was shaken,
And burst was the mighty Brisings’ necklace:
“Most lustful indeed should I look to all
If I journeyed with thee to the giants’ home.”

In order to retrieve the hammer, the gods hatched a hilarious scheme. They dressed Thor as Freya, adorning him with her prized necklace and a bridal veil, so that he could enter Thrym’s hall undetected. Loki accompanied him dressed as Freya’s maid, and together the two found Mjölnir and pried it forcefully from Thrym’s possession.

Freya and the Necklace (1913) by James Doyle Penrose. Freya is depicted here as a beautiful and ethereal goddess of the woods wearing Brísingamen, her famous charm.

Freya, the Lusty

If nothing else, the story of Thrym’s theft of Mjölnir showcased how jealousy Freya guarded her own reputation. “Most lustful indeed should I look to all If I journeyed with thee to the giants’ home,” she claimed in her anger. Nevertheless, Freya was known for her promiscuity, a reputation she earned by using both her beauty and her sex as weapons.

The Sörla þáttr, a fourteenth century narrative written (tellingly) by Christian priests, contained a particular lurid account of Freya’s lasciviousness (one admittedly told through the moralizing lens of Christians, who were ill at ease with the customs and behaviors of the pagan Norse). The narrative presented Freya as the concubine of Odin, who was deeply infatuated with the lovely goddess. Slipping away one day, Freya came upon a cave where four dwarves were at work crafting a necklace (while the story does not identify it specifically, this necklace was undoubtedly Brísingamen). Freya, who loved fine things, desired the necklace greatly. The dwarves agreed to give it to her, but only if she consented to have sex with each of them. Freya agreed.

Freya and the Dwarves, illustration by Harry George Theaker, from Children’s Stories from the Northern Legends by M. Dorothy Belgrave and Hilda Hart, 1920. The illustration depicts the scene in which Freya discovers the cave of the dwarves who crafted Brísingamen. One can see similarities with the motif and themes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Disney animated classic, which was based on Germanic folklore. The Disney movie was likely a watered down version of the scene from the Sörla þáttr, which attempted to sanctify the Freya or Snow White figure (ironically, the Sörla þáttr version was an attempt to demonize her).

Loki eventually uncovered the affair—Loki always found out about such things—and went to Odin with the news. When Odin encouraged him to steal the necklace, Loki transformed himself into a flea and slipped into Freya’s sealed bedroom tower. Finding that Freya was sleeping on the necklace, Loki bit her on the cheek and caused her to turn over. Seizing his opportunity, Loki stole the necklace and took it to Odin.

When Freya approached Odin about the theft, he revealed his knowledge of her promiscuity with the dwarves. He told her that he would only return the necklace if she performed a rather odd task: she had to force two kings, each ruling twenty kings, to fight an endless war. Each time the kings slayed each other, they would rise again to fight. This would happen for all eternity until a true Christian (who turned out to be Olaf Tryggvason, the Christian King of Norway from 995-1000 CE) arrived to end the war. Again, Freya agreed.

The Sörla þáttr was a smear piece designed to discredit the Norse pagan religion and to degrade Freya as a whore. Nevertheless, the piece spoke to an aspect of Freya that had been hinted at in older Norse sources. In the Lokasenna from the Poetic Edda, Loki accused Freya of having slept with all the gods and jötnar:

Be silent, Freyja! for fully I know thee,
Sinless thou art not thyself;
Of the gods and elves who are gathered here,
Each one as thy lover has lain.7

The context here was important, however. The setting of the poem was a dinner party at which Loki, deep in his cups, accused every woman (including Frigg) of having slept with others promiscuously. He even accuses Freya of sleeping with her brother, Freyr. The deeper lesson of all this—and likely familiar one—could be that women in Norse and Germanic societies were judged more harshly than men for their perceived sexual improprieties.

Pop Culture

Freya’s cultural popularity witnessed a resurgence with the rise of Germanic nationalism in the nineteenth century. She was mentioned in the Danish national anthem, “Der er et yndigt land” (“There is a Lovely Land”) by Adam Oehlenschläger, which read “it is called old Denmark and it is Freya’s hall.”8 She also appeared as a character in Richard Wagner’s epic operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The work was a seminal artistic production of the nineteenth century and a rallying cry for German nationalism across Western and Northern Europe.

In the most popular modern representations of Norse mythology—the Marvel comics and films—Freya was notably absent. Marvel’s version of Frigga did incorporate some of Freya’s personality, however.

References

Bibliography

  1. McCoy, Daniel. “Nerthus”. Norse Mythology for Smart People. https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-vanir-gods-and-goddesses/nerthus/.

  2. “Grímnismál.” Poetic Edda. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe06.htm.

  3. “Hyndluljód.” Poetic Edda. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe15.htm.

  4. “Lokasenna.” Poetic Edda. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe10.htm.

  5. Sturluson, Snorri. “Gylfaginning.” Prose Edda. Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm.

  6. Sturluson, Snorri. “Ynglinga saga.” Heimskringla. Translated by Samuel Laing. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/heim/02ynglga.htm.

  7. “Thrymskvitha.” Poetic Edda. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe11.htm.

  8. Wikipedia contributors. “Freya.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freyja.

Footnotes

  1. “Grímnismál,” Stanza 14. 

  2. McCoy, “Nerthus.” 

  3. Sturluson, “Ynglinga saga,” ch. 13. 

  4. “Hyndluljód,” Stanza 46. 

  5. Sturluson, “Gylfaginning,” p. 55. 

  6. “Thrymskvitha,” Stanza 4. 

  7. “Lokasenna,” Stanza 30. 

  8. Wikipedia, “Freya.”