Frigga’s Court

Frigg and Fulla 1874.jpg
Frigg and Fulla 1874” by Ludwig Pietsch (1824-1911) – Murray, Alexander (1874).

Who are the Handmaidens of Frigga?

Norse Goddesses whose names are Fulla, Sjöfn, Snotra, Lofn, Gefjon, Vár, Hlín, Sága, Eir, Syn, Vör and Gná.

The Ásynjur court is composed of twelve Goddesses led by Frigga, just as the Aesir court is composed of twelve Gods led by Odin. Specifically, the Handmaidens are Goddesses of Asgard who have no husband, owe allegiance to no man, and hold Queen Frigga as their highest authority. According to Snorri Sturluson (author of the Prose Edda and not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination) they are every bit as holy and powerful as their male counterparts:

“I must now ask thee,” said Gangler, “who are the gods that men are bound to believe in?”

“There are twelve gods,” replied Har, “to whom divine honours ought to be rendered.” “Nor are the goddesses,” added Jafnhar, “less divine and mighty.” [Gylfaginning, Prose Edda,1906 Blackwell tr.] (1)

While the Gods have two entire books devoted to their adventures (the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda), these unmarried Goddesses only get a total of about two pages. Most have but a single sentence as the sum of their surviving lore.

Why do we know so little about these Goddesses?

Northern deity lore was essentially written down by Christian warrior men — about nearly forgotten warrior Gods — so they could learn to make better praise poetry for Christian warrior lords and kings. It was then transcribed and edited by Christian monks. Sadly, none of these fine people who saved what little we have were particularly interested in preserving the sacred stories of women and Goddesses.

Even when a story is theoretically about a Goddess (the stealing of Freya’s necklace Brisingamen, the cutting of Sif’s hair, the abduction of Idunna, the marriage of Frey and Gerda, the wall-builder wanting to marry Freya), Asgard’s Ladies typically have no active role in their story, other than to be quite upset about it. In literary terms, they have no agency, no ability to make independent choices. Among the thirty-three Goddesses Snorri lists in the Nafnathulur (2), consider this list of ten married Goddesses: Frigga, Freyja, Gerda, Sigyn, Skaði, Iðunna, Nanna, Sif, Sunna, and Rán. They are the ones whose stories survived, simply because theirs are entwined with those of men and Gods. Can you think of any unmarried one who has a story? Take your time, I’ll wait.

The Ásynjur list of thirty three includes eleven more — Rindr, Thrúðr, Jörð, Ilmr, Bil, Njörun, Hnoss, Gersimi, Urdh, Verdandi, and Skuld — whose marital status is unknown. Rindr has a story because Odin rapes her to produce an avenging son (who becomes one of the twelve Aesir). Sif is actually absent from the Nafnathulur (unless the mysterious Ilmr is another name for her) but I believe it makes sense to make her number thirty-four in Snorri’s official list of Goddesses. That makes eleven married Goddesses (with Sif), eleven of unknown status, and twelve Handmaidens by whose duty to Frigga can have no husband.

What surviving lore do the Handmaidens of Frigga have ?

Let’s have a look at what I like to call Snorri’s Catalog of Goddesses, composed of Frigga, her twelve Ladies and Freya (who is an exchange hostage of the Vanir war, and as such answers to Odin rather than Frigga).

Then said Gangleri: “Which are the Asynjur?” Hárr said:

Frigg is the foremost: she has that estate which is called Fensalir, and it is most glorious.

The second is Sága: she dwells at Søkkvabekkr (sunken hall), and that is a great abode.

The third is Eir: she is the best physician.

The fourth is Gefjun: she is a virgin, and they that die maidens attend her.

The fifth is Fulla: she also is a maid, and goes with loose tresses and a golden band about her head; she bears the ashen coffer of Frigg, and has charge over her foot-gear, and knows her secret counsel.

Freyja is most gently born (together with Frigg): she is wedded to the man named Ódr. Their daughter is Hnoss: she is so fair, that those things which are fair and precious are called hnossir. Ódr went away on long journeys, and Freyja weeps for him, and her tears are red gold. Freyja has many names, and this is the cause thereof: that she gave herself sundry names, when she went out among unknown peoples seeking Ódr: she is called Mardöll and Hörn, Gefn, Sýr. Freyja had the necklace Brísinga-men. She is also called Lady of the Vanir.

The seventh is Sjöfn: she is most diligent in turning the thoughts of men to love, both of women and of men; and from her name love-longing is called sjafni (’affection’, but may also derive from ‘sja,’ to see).

The eighth is Lofn: she is so gracious and kindly to those that call upon her, that she wins Allfather’s or Frigg’s permission for the coming together of mankind in marriage, of women and of men, though it were forbidden before, or seem flatly denied; from her name such permission is called ‘leave,’ and thus also she is much ‘loved’ of men.

The ninth is Vár: she harkens to the oaths and compacts made between men and women; wherefore such covenants are called ‘vows.’ She also takes vengeance on those who perjure themselves.

The tenth is Vör: she is wise and of searching spirit, so that none can conceal anything from her; it is a saying, that a woman becomes ‘ware’ of that of which she is informed.

The eleventh is Syn: she keeps the door in the hall, and locks it before those who should not go in; she is also set at trials as a defense against such suits as she wishes to refute: thence is the expression, that syn (denial, refutation) is set forward, when a man denies.

The twelfth is Hlín: she is established as keeper over those men whom Frigg desires to preserve from any danger; thence comes the saying, that he who escapes ‘leans.’

Snotra is thirteenth: she is prudent and of gentle bearing; from her name a woman or a man who is moderate is called snotr (wise, prudent).

The fourteenth is Gná: her Frigg sends into divers lands on her errands; she has that horse which runs over sky and sea and is called Hoof-Tosser. Once when she was riding, certain of the Vanir saw her course in the air; then one spake:

What flieth there? What fareth there, or glideth in the air?

She made answer:I fly not, though I fare, and in the air glide, on Hoof-Tosser, him that Hamskerpir, gat with Gardrofa.

From Gná’s name that which soars high is said to gnæfa (to project, be eminent, to tower over). [Gylfaginning, Poetic Edda,1916 Brodeur tr.]

What else do we know about the Handmaidens?

Eir is listed as a Valkyrie in the Nafnathulur, and among Mengloth’s maidens of healing in Svipdag’s tale (Svipdagsmal, Poetic Edda).

Fulla bears false message to a king so that Frigga can win a bet against Odin: “Frigg sent her handmaiden, Fulla, to Geirröth. She bade the king beware lest a magician who was come thither to his land should bewitch him, and told this sign concerning him, that no dog was so fierce as to leap at him.” [Grimnismol, Poetic Edda, 1936 Bellows tr.] After Baldr and Nanna’s death, we are told “Nanna also sent Frigga a linen cassock and other gifts, and to Fulla a gold finger ring” from their new home in the land of the dead. The Heimskingla mentions “On the gold band of Fulla’s brow” in an unrelated poem.

Gefjon is the only one among them with a full story, and in fact Gylfaginning starts with her tale. The author uses it to write down all the lore he has collected by framing it within King Gylfi’s quest to find and question the Aesir about their accomplishments. The Heimskingla, the quasi-historical account of the kings of Norway, mentions that Gefjon married Skjöldr, a legendary Danish king, and that the two lived in Lejre, Denmark. Snorri’s Nafnathulur names Skjöldr a son of Odin, but in the Heimskringla these are all considered mortal humans.

They are also named in a few kennings, as well as here: “Ægir, who was well skilled in magic, once went to Asgard, where he met with a very good reception. Supper time being come, the twelve mighty Æsir,— Odin, Thor, Njord, Frey, Tyr, Heimdall, Bragi, Vidar, Vali, Ullur, Hoenir and Forseti, together with the Asynjor,— Frigga, Freyja, Gefjon, Iduna, Gerda, Siguna, Fulla and Nanna” [Skáldskaparmál, Prose Edda, 1906 Blackwell tr.]

Everything else we know of them are either scholarly theories or personal gnosis based on modern spiritual experiences.

Why are they called Handmaidens if they’re such powerful Goddesses?

First, they are called maidens because they have no husbands. The Old Norse mær is often translated as “virgin” but this is ridiculous. In the above text we read that “fourth is Gefjun: she is a virgin, and they that die maidens attend her,“ yet we also know from the first paragraph of Gylfaginning (in the same book, by the same author) that she had four sons from a Giant. Putting aside notions of immaculate conception, mær cannot possibly mean virgin. Clearly a woman can have as much sex as she wants, even bear children, and still be a mær. The only meaning that makes sense is “independant woman.”

A maiden could even be in a relationship with another woman and still be such. While there was a stigma upon men who had sex with other men, though only if they were the ones being penetrated, we are fairly sure women were free to discreetly enjoy each other’s company in Viking and earlier periods. If they avoided marriage they would be flannfluga (she who flees the male sex organ), men would be fuðflogi (he who flees the female sex organ), and both would be penalized by law, at least in the later periods. Whatever your preference, you were expected to marry and raise children, so that sort of thing would be done on the side. As exemplified below, a married woman was largely defined by her relationship to her husband. You just couldn’t expect a woman to go against her husband’s wishes, so in order to serve Frigga, these Ladies would have to be free of such attachments.

“Ægir, who was also called Gymir, had prepared ale for the gods, after he had got the mighty kettle, as now has been told. To this feast came Othin and Frigg, his wife. Thor came not, as he was on a journey in the East. Sif, Thor’s wife, was there, and Brag, with Ithun, his wife. Tyr, who had but one hand, was there; the wolf Fenrir had bitten off his other hand when they had bound him. There were Njorth and Skathi his wife, Freyr and Freyja, and Vithar, the son of Othin. Loki was there, and Freyr’s servants Byggvir and Beyla. Many were there of the gods and elves.” [Lokasenna, Poetic Edda, 1936 Bellows tr.]

At the mention of many Gods and Alfar, we can imagine others were present. Since Loki’s slurs are mostly sexual, only Gefjon later gets named and insulted in the tale. The rest of the Ladies, if present, were not involved with men and thus not worth mentioning. There was no shame in women being together. As the old reasoning goes, if there’s no penis involved, how could it possibly be sex?

This brings us to the second point, that of naming them as servants. Certainly they serve Frigga, but why call them “Handmaidens” instead of Ladies or Ladies-in-Waiting ? This is in fact purely a modern convention of Norse Paganism and Heathenry, framing them as minor Goddesses because they are almost ignored in the lore. I hope by this point to have convinced you this was not the case, that in fact they were the ones women prayed to and whom men mostly ignored. I could try to fight this new terminology, and thus make my writing even harder to find for the few who are interested in them. It doesn’t seem a useful war to wage though, seeing as the name is currently well recognized within Northern faiths — and the Ladies themselves don’t seem to care. It distinguishes them from the other groups of maidens (of the mill, of healing, of the sea) and so the name Handmaidens remains.

How can we honor Goddesses who have no lore?

 It would be next to impossible to do so as strict lore-based reconstructionists. However, Northern Tradition Paganism is reconstructionist-derived. We use the lore as a guide to forming relationships with the Gods rather than as sacred truth. These Goddesses are real, we can speak to them and they can answer back. It is up to us to learn their sacred stories directly from them through devotions and prayer, to restore the holiness of women above and below. Do they call to you as well? The writing that follows is the result of years of devotional practice — to learn their ways and recover their stories through personal gnosis. May it serve you well on your path, and may the Goddesses bless you.

Notes

(1) Note on the Twelve: Here Snorri explicitly states that there are twelve Gods. He then goes on to describe fourteen of them along with some of their wives, thirteen if you exclude Odin: Odin (Frigga), Thor (Sif is not named), Baldr (Nanna is not named), Njord (Skadhi), Freyr (his sister Freya is named but his wife Gerda is not), Tyr, Bragi (Idunna), Heimdall, Hodr, Víðarr, Váli, Ullr, Forseti, Loki (Sigyn).

In the Nafnathulur, he lists Odin with twelve Gods:

“Now I shall list the Æsir’s names: There are Yggr (Odin) and Thor and Yngvi-Freyr, Víðarr and Baldr, Váli and Heimdallr, there are Týr and Njörðr, and next I list Bragi, Höðr, Forseti, the last here is Loki.”

Ullr is oddly missing from that list, though it may be with good reason. In the Gesta Danorum, Ullr becomes king of the Gods when Odin is exiled for a decade. Perhaps the pattern of upper world deities could be said to be a court of twelve, a leader, and a potential challenger to the throne (Ullr and Freya) for a total of fourteen.

The Greeks had the same sort of pattern with the twelve Olympians, the Dii Consentes, though they were split into six God and Goddesse pairs. Which deities made that list varied by time and place but there were always twelve of them. Across a number of cultures, the heavens are often divided into twelve parts: Western astrology has the twelve signs of the Zodiac, Hindu astrology has the twelve Rāśi, and even the apparently unrelated Chinese astrology has twelve signs associated with the solar cycle. I’m also told that many mathematicians would prefer a base 12 counting system as it would greatly simply calculations. Describing the motion of planets is why higher math was created in the first place, to describe and predict what happens in the heavens.

Though not historical in any way, I’ve assigned each of the twelve a “birthday month” based on the personality traits they share with a sign of the Zodiac. For those who like astrology, it’s one more way to come to understand them. For those who don’t, it’s just an arbitrary way to assign them a time of honor over the course of the year. I’ve found it very fruitful to focus on one at a time in developing spiritual relationships.

(2) The Nafnathulur is typically not included in translations of the Prose Edda but can be found online.

Comments
  1. Sellacha says:

    An excellent source of information (UPG or not). Thanks a bunch for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s