View Full Version : Wisdom, Might, and Fruitfulness: Dumézil's Theory in the Germanic Rebirth

Monday, August 15th, 2005, 01:20 PM
Wisdom, Might, and Fruitfulness
Dumézil's Theory in the Germanic Rebirth

by Kveldulf Hagen Gundarsson, from Mountain Thunder (http://www.vinland.org/heathen/mt/index.html)

In fact, in Scandinavian mythology the distinction between Ases and Vanes is a double one. There is first a difference of function between them, the first possessing the overall, royal, magical, juridical, and armigerous direction of the world (Odhinn, Tyr, Thorr), the second being the patron gods of prosperity, fertility, sensual pleasure, even obscenity (Njördhr, Freyr, Freyja). Second, and as a consequence of the first difference, there is an inequality of rank, since as early as Indo-European times the functions had been hierarchized, and fertility (etc.) was merely the third and least important of them, ranking below high magic and martial strength.
--Dumézil, Georges. From Myth to Fiction, p.81

In the last years, there has been much talk of an Asatru theology based on the tripartite theory of Georges Dumézil - most newly, as put forth by Stephen A. McNallen in his article "Magic, Asafolk, and Spiritual Development" (Mountain Thunder, Spring 1992). Briefly summed up, this theory divides the gods and goddesses and society of our forebears into three functions: fertility, war strength, and rulership/holiness. According to this theory, as summed up by Edred Thorsson, "These qualities must be arranged in just this way: sovereignty must rule over force, and generation must serve the whole again under the direction of sovereignty.... In the Troth, the gods Tiw (Tyr) and Woden (Odhinn) are the gods of the sovereign powers of consciousness; Thunar (Thorr) is the god of physical force, and the Wanes (Vanir), and especially Freya and Frey, are the divinities of generation." (A Book of Troth, p.72).

In its most extreme form, the Dumézilian system, when applied to Asatru, describes a society in which Freyr and Freyja would be the deities of farmers and other producers; Thorr the god of warriors; and Odhinn and Tyr the gods of rulers, priests, and the "intellectual" classes. McNallen modifies this position by stating that "each level includes and restates those below it. Thor's powers and duties include those of fertility, but adds [sic] to it his warrior role. Odin is effective in the specialties of farmer/Vanir, and of the warrior/Thor; to these he brings his own unique expertise as a shaman"; he suggests that, as a process of spiritual development, "It might even be argued that the best course would be one that started with the Vanir and worked upward."

The main problem with the Dumézilian theory is that, although all godly and human actions can indeed (with a little creative adjustment) be classified as falling somewhere within the tripartite realm of production, force, or consciousness and rulership, neither historical nor mythological materials show any signs that our Germanic forebears stratified either their society or their gods and goddesses in the manner presented by Dumézil and his followers. In the Dumézilian system, farmers are distinctly separate from warriors. Throughout Germanic society, varied as it may have been through time and place, the free farmer (carl), who was the chief source of food, was also a warrior, as in AngloSaxon England, where he had not only the right but the duty to come to his leader's side in battle, though the legal terms of his military service were limited by planting and harvest! In the democratic society of Viking Age Iceland, the carl had effectively subsumed all three functions: he was farmer, fighter, and leader in one.

The role of leader in early Germanic society seems to have been defined by two terms. The first of these, going back to a Common Germanic *fraua- ("ruler, the first") or *fra-aujan ("the ruler as godly incarnation")1 appears as a word for a human ruler in Gothic (frauja), Old English (frea), Old High German (fro), Old Frisian (fra), and Middle Dutch (vrone). This is the title from which the name Freyr/Freyja came.2 The second, *druhtinaz, is the source of the Scandinavian words for "king" and "queen," adapted for today's English by Edred Thorsson as "drighten." According to Dr D. Greene's massive study of Germanic ruler-terms, The Carolingian Lord, the former word originally implied a judicial function - the ruler/administrator of a folk in peacetime - whereas the latter originally meant the temporary leader of a band, usually a warband, which assembled for a specific purpose and disbanded when the goal had been reached. The writings of our forebears, however, leave no doubt that a ruler was expected to be a mighty warrior. Further, the ruler was responsible for the fruitfulness of his land. The First Lay of Helgi Hunding's-Bane describes how the birth of the hero was thought to betide good harvest-years, and Ynglinga saga tells of the king Domaldi being burned in his house as a sacrifice when the harvest failed.

Our sources also show us that wisdom and magical skills were as likely to appear among the carls as among the kings. The hero Egill Skallagrimsson is one of the most notable examples of a human figure who combined all three functions effectively. As a very successful (and largely, while he was at home, peaceable) farmer and the son of a smith, he was unquestionably in the "third function" on a social level. He was a provider who stemmed from a family of providers, and a family which had a strong antagonism towards the royalty, at that.

However, Egill also made a considerable name for himself as a warrior - as did many farmers of the Viking Age. He is, as well, thought by many to be the best poet of his age, and is certainly one of the best-documented runic magicians from the period. In his poem "Sonatorrek," Egill names himself without any doubt as an Odhinn's man, showing where this farmer's clear loyalty lay.

This leads us to the particular problem of the association of the gods and goddesses with functions and/or social classes. McNallen points out quite accurately that Odhinn encompasses all three of the functions, but gives Thorr credit only for fertility and warriorship, and the Vanic gods and goddesses only for fertility. However, even the briefest analysis of the ways in which the gods and goddesses of the folk appear in both the myths and the historical and archaeological sources that deal with them shows, that the attempt to fit our holy kin in to these neat categories is doomed from the beginning.

That Odhinn is a god of magic and rulership frequently acting in the first function is beyond doubt and needs no further clarification. In addition to this, however, we know that Odhinn was seen very much as a battle-god (second function) at least from the time of Tacitus. Further, we know that he was the chief battle-god of the Vikings, who was called upon for victory. His image was shown armed for war in the great Hof at Uppsala. The gifts he gives his chosen ones are often weapons or armor (though the same source shows him acting in the third function as well, giving wealth to his followers and fair winds to sailors): "he gave helm and byrnie to Hermodhr, and a sword for Sigmundr to receive." (Hyndluljodh 2) A number of Odhinn's heiti refer to his activities in the second function: Herfodhr ("Army-Father"), Her-aautr, ("Army-Gaut"), and Sigrhofundr ("Uplifter of Victory"), among others, and kennings for battle and warriors are usually compounded with various of his names. Likewise, from the beginning of the Common Era to the end of the heathen period in Scandinavia, Tyr was always identified as "Mars." That is to say, by the time of Tacitus, the Indo-European sky-father god had become, like many Germanic kings, primarily a warrior - and this is largely how the Norse knew him. Thus we can see that in the case of these two gods, it had already become impossible at an early period to separate the second function from the first.

In contrast to Odhinn, who is called "weapon-stately" in "Grimnismal," Thorr is never shown in armor, nor does he ever take part in human battles, nor is he ever called upon for victory in war. Thorr surely acts in the second function as the giver of might, bravery, and will and as Warder of the Middle-Garth - but not as the Germanic battle-god. The gods called upon for help in war were Odhinn, Freyr, and, at least in early times (though we have no record of it in the sagas), Tyr. As McNallen points out, Thorr often acted to bring fruitfulness to the field, encompassing the third as well as the second function. However, he is also shown and acts in the first function. Classically educated observers compared him to Jupiter, possibly because of his role as Thunderer, but also because he often held the highest place in Viking worship. In Adam of Bremen's description of the Uppsala hof, it is Thorr who is seated in the high seat, between and above the martial Odhinn (second function) and the phallic Freyr (third function). The Icelandic sagas show that Thorr was strongly associated with the pillars of house and hof. The home's embodiments of the Irminsul, the great pillar upholding the heavens and earth. Not one Icelandic place, or personal name, is derived from "Odhinn," but roughly a quarter of all the personal names in Landizamabok have "Thorr" as the first element. His name is also predominant in place-names, some of which, such as the forest "Thorsmork," were specifically dedicated to him (Turville-Petre, pp. 86-87). The available evidence tends to suggest that Thorr was considered the greatest of the gods in many areas by the end of the Viking Age; his place may have been lessened in our eyes by the fact that we know most about Norse heathenism through the writings of the skalds, whose patron was, of course, Odhinn. Thorr's hammer is the emblem of hallowing, which is a first function magico- religious activity. The runes on the Glavendrup stone (Fyn, ca. 900-925) calls "Thorr hallow these runes." The Virring stone reads "Thorr hallow this memorial." In "Thrymskvidha," the bride is hallowed with the hammer. Snorri describes how, when Baldr's funeral pyre is set alight, Thorr hallowed the bale-fire.

Like Odhinn, Thorr undertakes quests which can only be described as shamanic: he fares forth into the utgardhr, the worlds of wild/magical space, for the purpose of gaining or recovering holy items such as the cauldron for Aesir's ale brewing and his own hammer. In one of these quests, his faring to the hall of the giant Geirrodhr, he even goes equipped with the standard tools of the Norse witch, gloves and an enchanted staff. In another, when he goes to Thrymr's hall to gain back his hammer, he undergoes the symbolic change of gender which is often typical of shamanic practice. One of his heiti is "Deep-Thinker," and the Eddic poem "Alvismal" shows him overcoming an otherworldly wight, the dwarf Alvis, in a contest of wisdom. Although Thorr is tricked by Utgardhloki, this hardly disqualifies him from the first function. Loki, generally thought clever, was tricked as well at the same time, and Odhinn fared worse when he matched wits with Billing's daughter. In short, while Thorr is surely the god most beloved of the common man, the honest farmer, and the doughty warrior, it is a mistake to claim that he, or, for that matter, they, have no place in the realms of wisdom and rulership. The Icelanders of the Viking Age - many of whom fled Norway because the kings there were getting ideas above their earlier station concerning their power over the common folk - would surely have had a few things to say about this idea.

The god who is most unfairly slighted by the tripartite system, however, is Freyr. Perhaps because few tales survive about him, it seems to be easy for many Asafolk to dismiss him as simply a god of fruitfulness, patron of the well-fed farmer. Freyr is certainly a god of fertility: like every good Germanic ruler, he is an open-handed giver of riches who ensures the well-being of his folk. However, like those other fertility- and wealth-gods, Thorr and Odhinn, he is also much more than a deity of fruitfulness, and held a better place in earlier days than the Dumézilian theory gives him. His rank is certainly not lesser than that of the other gods, as Dumézil claims. Among the Swedes he was held highest, even as Thorr was among the Icelanders and Woden among the Saxons. Although the Eddic sources give Odhinn the highest place, Freyr is also called "ruler of the hosts of the gods" (Skirnismal 3). Tyr, certainly a fit god to comment on warlike worth, says that "Freyr is best of all heroes (literally "bold riders" - KHG) / in the Ases' garth" (Lokasenna 37).

The most glaring oversight made by Dumézilians is this: even the most broad minded interpretation of Dumézil, if it is not to overturn the classification of the gods and goddesses altogether, must wholly ignore the fact that Freyr is very much a god of kingship. He was the eponymous father of the Yngling dynasty of Sweden. As spoken of earlier, the very name the Norse knew this god by began as a ruler's title - a title that shows him as the embodiment of the wise and just peace-time leader. His holy symbol, the boar, appeared on the arm-ring Sviagris ("Piglet of the Swedes") which was the greatest heirloom of the Swedish royal line. The Swedes are thought to have held Freyr highest and most holy, and sacrificed most to him, as witness his title "Blot-God of the Swedes." Several kings in Scandinavian legend seem to have been avatars of this god. Saxo describes the reign of three kings named Frodhi as a golden age of frith and fruitfulness. After his death, the last of these was embalmed and carried about in a chariot, even as the image of Freyr was carried about through Sweden in the story of Gunnarr Helming. The name Frodhi, "the Fruitful," is also a title given to Freyr. Something similar is seen with Yngvi-Freyr, a mythical king of the Swedes, of whom Turville-Petre says that "Freyr bore the marks typical of divine kingship. His reign was one of fruitful harvests and peace. He died like other kings, but his subjects continued to revere him after death ... the earlier successors of Yngvi-Freyr were plainly mythical figures and are depicted as king gods.... although not historical, they give an idea of the way in which Scandinavians of that period thought of their kingship." (pp.191-2) In the Germanic mind, in fact - contrary to the Dumézilian insistence on distinguishing between the two - the "third function" of fertility was indissoluble from the "first function" of priestship/rule. As another example of this, Turville-Petre cites Emar Skalaglamm's poem about the heathen king Hakon the Great, which states that Hakon restored fruitfulness to Norway by bringing back the temples and sacrifices of the old gods and goddesses.

In regards to other aspects of the first function, Freyr's servant Skirnir, who some think is an avatar or hypostasis of the god himself, uses runic magic. Even if Skirnir is not a form taken by Freyr or an expression of his might (as Freyr's other "servants," Byggvir and Beyla, are thought to be) it would seem rather strange for the man to have a great store of knowledge and might that falls wholly outside the master's realm. No matter how one interprets Skirnir, his abilities must be taken as reflecting upon Freyr in some manner. Although Freyr himself is not shown using magic, Viga Glum's saga shows him as being the one offended when a holy place is defiled by bloodshed, his might seems to be the source of the area's holiness. In Ynglinga saga, Snorri states that Freyr and Njördhr were díar (priests) among the gods and goddesses, which certainly shows them as acting in the first function in regards to the other deities: they are surely not inferiors. The mighty oaths of Yuletime are sworn upon "the bristles of the boar." It is Freyr, through his own beast, who hears and upholds their holiness - whether they deal with love, battle, or matters of the soul.

Likewise, the oath on the ring is sworn "to Freyr and Njördhr and the all-mighty Ase." There is much debate as to whether the latter of these is Thorr or Odhinn (or whether the oath is deliberately ambiguous), however, there is certainly no sense here that the Vanic gods are, as Dumézil claims, lesser in comparison to the Aesir. The Vanir are often alliterated as "visir Vanir," the wise (or first function) Vanir. When Heimdallr speaks to give good rede in "Thrymskvidha," it is mentioned that he has foresight "like all the Vanir." Dumézil classes Heimdallr as "second function" in his role as warder of the Rainbow Bridge, but he, too, dearly demonstrates the first function quality of wisdom, which we see defined here in terms of the Vanir.3 Freyr and the other Vanir surely do not represent the lowest level of understanding from which one can "work up" to Odhinnic wisdom, as has been suggested.

As well as being a god of kingship, and presumably gifted with the wisdom common to all the Vanir, Freyr is also a battle-god. Turville-Petre mentions that "if (Freyr) was the most worshipped, he must also have been a warrior and defender, and the sources make it dear that he was. He is 'protector of the gods'.... In the Husdrapa, he is said to rule the armies.... Another name for Freyr is Atridhi, probably implying 'one who rides to battle.'" He also cites Thorbjorn Hornklofi's kenning "Freyr's play" for "battle" (p.175). "Husdrapa" calls Freyr "battle-wise," and "boar" is a very common tígnarnafn, "glory-name," given to honor a warrior and applied to such notable figures as Sigurdhr the Volsung and Helgi Hunding's-Bane. The boar appears frequently on finely adorned helmets, such as those found at Bentley Grange and in the royal burial at Sutton Hoo. The boar-helm is also mentioned in Beowulf where it is stated that the function of the image was to ward the warrior. These examples dearly show that the Vanir were highly honored among the Norse and English atheling-warriors and royalty. They were not only the gods and goddesses of the "provider" class, although certainly many of the free farmer-warriors worshipped them, but also held their place among the highest folk.

The goddesses are generally left out of discussions of the tripartite system altogether, or simply lumped together with their masculine consorts and counterparts. Part of the problem here is the fact that, with the exception of Freyja, we have much less data about the goddesses than we do about the gods, making it more difficult to classify them in any way. Still, we can see Frigg acting as a seeress (first function) and a giver of fertility to humans (third function). Her second-function role is harder to recognize, because the Germanic woman's role in battle was usually not to take part in bodily combat, but to provide magical warding for her men (and sometimes to cast spells such as war-fetter on their foes)4, which Frigg does when she works to protect Baldr from everything that might possibly harm him. The Dumézilian theorists of modern Asatru tend to ignore Freyja whenever she acts separately from Freyr, perhaps because even in the best-known myths she is impossible to limit to a single function. While definitely a Vanic goddess and giver of riches, the surviving myths clearly place her within the first function as a magical figure, a figure whose magic works specifically on the consciousness (hugr - Voluspa 22), and a patroness of royal warriors (such as her lover Ottar in the Eddic poem "Hyndluljodh"). As a chooser of the slain, who divides dead fighters half and half with Odhinn (Grimnismal 14), she also has her place on the battlefield. The giantess Hyndla accuses her of riding Ottar, who is in boar-form, to his battle-slaying (í valsinni - Hyndluljodh 6). Her free and wide-ranging sexuality is very similar to Odhinn's own, although more tales have survived of his seductions than of her lovers. They are both deities of romantic pleasure, in addition to their battle and magical functions.

Although the system presented by Dumézil provides a useful set of tools for discussion, as when Freyr's kingly role can be spoken of in terms of "first function," while Odhinn's role as a fertility god lies in the realm of "third function," it also presents considerable dangers in that it tempts even the most experienced and learned of scholars to distort what we know about the ways and beliefs of our ancestors, either by ignoring actual historical evidence or by leaping to impossible conclusions from the most dubious of theoretical material. In Northern Magic, for instance, Thorsson states that "Originally the forms of magic that later came to be classified as seith (Old Norse seidhr - KHG) were probably the magical traditions cultivated in the Vanic realm. This was the magic of the farmers and herdsmen, of the craftsmen and smiths, of the musicians and entertainers." (p. 160). There is not, in fact, the slightest shred of evidence concerning the "original practitioners" of a theoretical Indo-European seidhr, or even its existence. At its best-documented, in the Norse sources, seidhr is a form of magic about which we know very little, although it may bear some similarities to Lappish, Finnish, and Siberian shamanic and magical practices. The apparent grounds for this sweeping and totally unprovable statement are simply that Snorri identifies seidhr as an originally Vanic art (which is borne out by other references to Freyja practicing it), and since Dumézil defined the Vanic gods and goddesses as third function, the practitioners of Vanic-associated magic must originally have been the farmers, herdsmen, and so forth, although the sagas also speak of royal folk as practicing it.

Another problem with the tripartite system is that it sharply stratifies the three great realms of fruitfulness, might, and wisdom/holiness into "the high-higher-highest, the good-better-best of all things" (A Book of Troth, p. 71), creating an artificial hierarchy for both our ideals and our gods and goddesses. This sort of stratification is alien to Germanic culture. It is not our way to set apart, but to interweave, braid, and synthesize. Wisdom, Might, and Fruitfulness: no one of these three is better than the others, just as no one of our gods and goddesses can fairly be said to be better than the others though, as our history shows us, different ones may take the high seat in different times and places, according to the needs and wishes of the folk.

Although many of the particulars of Dumézil's theory are distorting and misleading, it bears a kernel of truth which has allowed it to spread: the understanding of the threefold way of Wisdom, Might, and Fruitfulness, with which all things of worth are wrought. Each of our gods and goddesses is mighty in all three of these realms, and each of us should be likewise. These three things lie at the very root of our being. Nothing and no one can truly be without holding all of them in a like measure, as our gods and goddesses have shown us.


1 de Vries, Jan. Altnordisches Etymologisches Worterbuch, p. 142.

2 The title continued to be used in Anglo-Saxon England ("Frea"); the Norse form "Freyr" developed into a taboo-name for the Vanic god whom the Anglo-Saxons knew as Ing, and was therefore no longer applied to human rulers.

3 There is some debate as to whether this verse is meant to state that Heimdallr is himself one of the Vanir, or whether he is simply being compared to them in regards to the great wisdom which he and they have in common. The ON text is ambiguous, and other references to Heimdallr's parentage are markedly unhelpful.

4 This does not, of course, imply in any way that Asatru women today should not take up weapons and learn the warrior-ways of our folk on an equal footing with their male counterparts. The path of the warrior is open to everyone whose soul is strong enough to bear it, and bodily strength and skill are equally needful for women and men in becoming whole and free.