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Thread: The Nordic Woman: Feminine Magic in the Nordic Myths

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    Lightbulb The Nordic Woman: Feminine Magic in the Nordic Myths

    by Yves Kodratoff
    She went to her chest, - she dressed in silver.
    She put gold on gold, - she covered her two hands with it
    And all along the path, - she taught him the runes upon her white hand.
    She taught him to change the weather - and to send the right wind.

    "Danmarks Gamle Folkviser" (from Scandinavian Popular Songs, Léon Pineau, 1898, p. 29)



    Myths play a critical role in shaping the models that become our frame of reference throughout adulthood. Children accept these stories at face value and register them deeply. Try to tell a child a different version of a tale or myth that they know well and see what happens. Up until a certain age, the child will immediately reject the new version, which shows how well the child has memorized the details of the story. It isn't surprising then that later on in life, a given act could be considered as either normal or disgusting (two perfectly irrational concepts that govern our lives just the same) depending on how it was presented in the myths that fed the child's imaginaation.

    This is why I think that the best way to describe the Nordic woman is to review the Nordic myths. What we find is a view of women that is very different from the view we have today. The main thread, and this is the idea that I want to develop here, is that the Nordic woman is the holder or keeper of magic.

    I would like to discuss the myths related to the supreme feminine powers, the Norns, who are masters of the destiny of men and gods. Since I think that the Valkyries are a manifestation of the power of the Norns, I discuss them at the same time.

    Then come the goddesses, who are said to be as important as gods. However, very few myths about them have been left to us: the goddess of love, Freya, is the one who has left the most traces; the goddess Frigg, wife of the supreme God Odin, is described essentially on the side, so to speak, in the myth of the death of her son Baldr - she is however master over all natural things that surround us; the goddess Idunn, guardian of youth, is also only evoked in one myth.

    I think it is interesting to note the relatively recent re-appearance of these myths in tales and popular legends: the tales of Perrault, Grimm's tales, and some Celtic tales. In addition, I will use some themes coming from shamanism to add continuity to these myths.

    All these old themes show women as being essentially scholarly and protective of men and not protected at all.


    Feminine magic in the Nordic world

    First I'd like to give some examples of the feminine power we find in the Icelandic sagas. There are, of course, also male powers (sorcerers), but it is in general women who are in charge of magic, which is well-illustrated in this anecdote from Eyrbyggja saga (the saga of Snorri, the chief-priest).

    In this episode, some men are trying to kill this guy who happens to be a witch's son. They search her house three times, and three times they can't find him because his mother, Katla, has successively hidden him in a distaff that Katla spins in her house, then in a billygoat whose beard Katla shapes, and finally in a "pet" pig who lays down close to a heap of garbage. They give up their search, completely tricked by the witch. On their way back, they meet their chief's mother, Geirrid, who is also a witch. She joins them and when Katla sees Geirrid, she understands immediately that she will lose against an enemy of the same scale as her. Geirrid covers Katla's head with a sealskin that is held tight around her neck, and they are able find her son. A woman can turn a troop of armed men into fools, but only another woman can defeat her.

    The beginning of this same saga describes a competition between these two women to win the favors of a young man, Gunnlaug. The saga insists on the fact that Gunnlaug is "fascinated by knowledge" and says that Geirrid is his professor. Katla offers to become his professor, by saying that "Geirrid is not the only woman who has thoughts in her head". It is obvious that women held the knowledge, and like all good academics, they are delighted to find new students. It seems that it was normal for these women to have a great sexual liberty, but we will come back to this theme later when speaking of Freya.

    Now I would like to give you an example that is a bit more questionable, but also more detailed. In the Heitharvega Saga (the saga of slaughters of the heather), we often find heroes "singing a stave" where the word stave means runic inscription, as well as simply something written, a verse or poem. Several male heroes sing a poetic text where the word "stave" clearly means "poem". There is however, a woman, Thurid, who wants to push her son, Bardi, to avenge his murdered brother. She serves large pieces of meat to eat, to him and his other brothers, while scolding them a bit, making them feel ashamed for their idleness, and at the same time she adds a stone on the food. Then the saga says:

    Then she walked along the floor howling, and sang a stave:
    "I say that the lovers of battle songs [warriors = people]
    Now soon shall be casting their shame-word on Bardi.
    The tale shall be told of thee, God of the wound-worm, [wound-worm = sword, God of the sword =warrior = Bardi]
    That thy yore-agone kindred with shame thou undoest;
    Unless thou, the ruler of light once a-lying
    All under the fish-road shall let it be done, [fish-road = sea; light of the sea = gold; ruler of the gold = noble man = Bardi]
    That the lathe-fire's bidders [lathe-fire's bidders = brother's assassins] at last be red-hooded. [red-hooded = bloody headed]
    Let all folk be hearkening this song of my singing."
    Then they thrust the trenchers from them with all that was on them, and went to their horses and got ready at their speediest.


    It would be a bit of an exaggeration to claim that Thurid sang a runic song here, since the other heroes of the saga who "sing a stave" are singing a relatively normal poetry and that nowhere is it said that she carved runes. But in none of the other examples in the saga is it said that the singer howls, as Thurid does. In addition, no action follows the song whereas here, the reaction to Thurid's song is immediate and spectacular: these men, in the middle of eating delicious, thick cuts of meat, throw their food out of their way and immediately leave. The runic song associated to Nordic magic, called galdr, is often presented like a howling rather than like a song. It doesn't announce the future as has been commonly presented: it shapes the future. I think, therefore, that here we have an example of magic linked to the galdr that Thurid howls-sings, followed by an immediate effect, as it must, and without using runes. Thurid is not especially presented as a sorceress in the saga, but rather like an energetic woman, full of life: it wouldn't even be surprising if she didn't have any special knowledge of the runes, but she would know what a galdr is. The saga gives us a beautiful example of it, with the classic images that we find in Nordic poetry.

    Before coming to the actual myths, I would like to emphasize the fact that there was a sort of barrier preventing a male from using magic in the Nordic world. For example, the Yngliga saga says explicitly that it is Freya who taught the Nordic shamanism called seidr to the Gods. It is also said that seidr could not be performed, without shame, by men because it made them impotent. Numerous runic inscriptions attest this, using the practice of the seidr, or of magic as an insult. For example, one inscription says: "Let him practice seidr, the one who distroys this monument!"

    Similarly, a passage in the Lokasenna (Loki's Fleeting), where Loki is making fun of Odin, very clearly says that Odin had to have received a sodomy to perform magic. I will explain myself a bit on this topic, since Boyer's French translation is the only one that treats this passage honestly. First, Odin brings up the fact that Loki once took the shape of a mare and gave birth to a colt. There is in fact a myth that relates this adventure. Odin says:

    You spent eight winters under ground,
    And over there you gave birth to babies,
    You have been milked like a cow
    And that, for me, is to be 'argr' ("oc hvgđa ec ţat args aţal ")

    It is clear that Odin associates 'argr' to a man who plays a woman's sexual role. Loki answers tit for tat:

    You practiced magic in Samsey
    There you played the drum like a sorcerer,
    And you journeyed as the sorcerers do,
    And that, for me, is to be 'argr' ("oc hvgđa ec ţat args aţal ")

    In both cases, precisely the same words are used by Odin and Loki, and, even though the dictionary definition for 'argr' gives the imprecise meaning of "extreme vice", it is certainly about a man in the position of playing a woman's sexual role. This accusation was one of the rare insults, or crimes, that could not be erased with financial compensation in the Viking civilization. Now we can better understand why magic, typically feminine, could have been considered an insult in a world that didn't allow an "imprecise" sexuality.

    To conclude this section, I am going to discuss the translation of a poem in the Edda where the reference to feminine power is not absolutely obvious, but it's a conclusion to which we will arrive nevertheless. This poem, the Havamál (the words of the High One), tell us of the creation of the runes:

    Rúnar munt ţú finna
    oc ráđna stafi,
    miöc stora stafi,
    miöc stinna stafi,
    er fáđi fimbulţur
    oc gorđo ginregin
    oc reist hroptr rögna...

    Runes you will find
    And well-explained runic inscriptions,
    Very important runic inscriptions,
    Very powerful runic inscriptions,
    They, tinted by the supreme mage,
    And created by "ginregin"
    And engraved by the Crier of the Gods.


    Before commenting on the meaning of "ginregin", I want to first specify the meanings of the other expressions used in this poem.

    Stafi means "stave" as in the word used for Thurid's songs that I discussed earlier. I have already said that it had the meaning of "runic inscription".

    fimbulţur can be corrected as "FimbulŢýr", meaning "supreme Tyr", Tyr is an ancient god. It could also be corrected as "fimbulţulr" to mean supreme mage, as I did.

    hroptr rögna is the Crier of the Gods, a classic name for Odin. Now, ginregin contains regin meaning "gods", but the exact meaning of this word is unknown. It appears in another poem of the Edda, Alvissimál, where it is said that the ginregin use a different word than the Gods do to designate the night and the wind. Therefore, these divine powers are not identical to the gods. The Nordic myths describe only one other supreme power alternative to the Gods, the Norns, giantesses who decide the destiny of men and the Gods, as we will see. This is why, I think it is reasonable to see "ginregin" as a divinity nature similar to the Norns, feminine divinities, and who invented the runes. To push my hypothesis even further, another famous poem, the Völuspa (the prediction of the prophetess - you will find a translation explained
    here) says that the Norns engraved stavs, that is to say that they wrote some runic inscriptions: they had knowledge of the runes before all other divinities, which goes along well with the hypothesis that they were their inventors.


    The three Norns, the Disir, and the Valkyries

    The Völuspa tells us that the Norns "came out of the sea" shortly after that the Gods themselves began to exist. Until then
    They played tafl under the trees,
    They were happy, didn't lack any gold.
    Until three they arrived,
    Three giant maidens
    Full of their strength
    Coming from the home of the giants.


    The meaning of the poem is clear: a new power arrived, and it "ruined the pleasure" of the Gods. Then this same poem tells us that the Norns decide the destiny of humans, and also of the Gods: which gives us an idea of their power. Among all the myths that speak of them, it seems to me that the Norns play four different roles, under three names and different forms. As the Norns or the Disir, they are the masters of the destiny of humans and the Gods and they excel in sorcery, in particular in the magic of runes. Under the name of the Valkyries, they are warriors, and they initiate Sigurdr to magic.

    First role: the Norns with a fist of iron.

    In general, they are most known as presiding over our destiny, and they direct us without tenderness. For example, they save the life of the widow of Sigurdr, Gudrun, but only so that Gudrun has children put to death before her eyes all over again. As the Gudrúnarhvöt (the exhortation of Gudrun) says:
    I ran toward the beach,
    I cursed the Norns,
    I wanted to free myself
    From the fate that they reserved for me,
    Waves raised me,
    Didn't let me drown,
    Carried me away to the beach
    And I was forced to live.



    The Edda always emphasizes their extreme power. For example, the Hamdismál (the sayings of Hamdir) speaks of them in this way:
    Like the ever-greedy bitch Norns,
    Born and bred in the waste...
    Our fame will last forever
    Though we must die soon,
    No one lives though the night when the Norns have spoken.


    No other power balances theirs, as shown in the Fjölsvinnsmál (sayings of Fjölvin):
    No one can criticize the decrees of Urdr,
    Even when it is deemed wrong.


    Urdr is the name of one of the Norns, but here it represents instead the place where they live, and therefore the three Norns together.

    Second role: the smiling Disir.

    The Norns play a more benign or cheerful role, when they welcome us into this world, and decide our qualities and our shortcomings. As the prose Edda says:
    The understanding and well-breed Norns shape the happy lives, whereas the malevolent Norns are the cause of the hostile destiny that strikes some.


    I suppose that these understanding Norns are also called the Disir because a text says that the Disir must be beseeched during childbirth. In a way, the good fairies of sleeping beauty play the role of the Disir, whereas the old fairy that cursed the little girl plays the role of a Norn.

    Two charms, dated from the 10th century, and written in Old High German, have been found hidden in the wall of a church in Merseburg, in Germany, where their name comes from, the Merseburg charms ("Merseburger Zaubersprüche"). The first of these charms evokes the Disir:


    Original text in Old High German
    Eiris sazun idisi, sazun hera duoder.
    suma hapt heptidun, suma heri lezidun,
    suma clubodun umbi cuoniouuidi:
    insprinc haptbandun, inuar uigandun!

    Once the Idisi [Disir] sat, sat here and there
    Some hefted fetters [on the enemy], some stopped the host [of the enemy]
    Some loosened the fetters.
    Jump the bonds, escape from the ennemies!


    This text, in spite of its conciseness, covers three extremely important themes.

    The first one is the fact that the Idisi are described as seated. This detail, that is mentioned twice, must be important. If we remember that a Nordic shamanic shape, called "utiseta", that is to say, "seated outside" is practiced in this way, it is certainly possible that the shamanic powers of the Idisi are being emphasized in the charm.

    The second is relative to the feminine entities that have the power to stop an army. As we will see, the third manifestation of the Norns, the Valkyries, is indeed that of warriors. But it is also important to remember that a Goth historian of the 7th century, Jordanes, speaks of war sorceresses, called the Alrunes, who were used in the Goth army:

    Filimer, king of the Goths, ... found among his people certain sorceresses, called Aliurunnae by local gossip; suspecting these women, he banished them, and far from his army, he forced them to run, towards the solitudes of the earth.

    It seems that specialists treat Aliorumnaes, Aliorunnae, or Alrunnae as equivalent. Jordanes doesn't provide any date, only genealogies. By assigning 10 to 20 years to every king's reign, one can estimate that Filimer could not have reigned before the year 350 A.D.. It means that the Alrunes, one century earlier, were still practicing. It is an incontestable testimony about Goth women, warriors and sorceresses.

    The third, and most obvious, is the reference to their power to chain and to open chains. This magic of opening appears to have a special importance in Nordic magic. The Havamál also evokes the power to explode chains, but then it is Odin who claims it.


    Third role: the warrior Valkyries.

    They serve Odin and they choose which warriors are going to in battle. There is a striking description of these wild Norns in Brennu-Njáls saga (Njal's saga):


    Blood falls
    From the cloudy canvas
    From the vast cloth
    From the massacre.
    The man's cloth,
    Gray like an armor,
    is being woven;
    The Valkyries
    Will cross it
    With a bloody thread.


    The weft
    Is made of human innards;
    Of heads cut off
    Offers its threads;
    The supports
    Are some bloody spears;
    Bars are covered with iron,
    And of arrows are made the shuttles.

    With swords we will weave
    The web of the battle.

    ...

    Looking around
    Becomes horrible now,
    A cloud as red as blood
    Darkens the horizon.

    The skies are tainted
    With man's blood,
    And the Valkyries
    Sing their song.


    In order to complete this vision of the Norn-Valkyries, I must mention the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus who describes the Valkyries, under the name of Virgins of the Forest, and says that there are three:

    Hotherus... having lost his way in the fog, ended up in the refuge of the Virgins of the Forest. Since these creatures greeted him by calling him with his own name, he asked them who they were. They answered him by revealing their function to him: their main role was to control wars, whose outcome depended on their whims. They were often there on battlefields, where nobody saw them, but their secret pressure brought to their favorites the success that they expected. It was up to them, they said, to grant a victory or impose a defeat, as they so desired.

    ...But Hotherus left again, carrying his steps toward remote lands. He crossed an uninhabited forest when he fell, by chance, on an underground cave where mysterious young girls lived ... Arriving in an enemy camp, Hotherus learned that the three nymphs had left... He quickly followed the traces of their steps in the dew ...

    Thus, to assimilate the Norns and the Valkyries, which might seem absurd when one thinks that there are many more Valkyries than three, becomes more probable when seen in light of Saxo's presentation. In the same way, they don't appear here to be servants of Odin. Another of their roles, as described by Saxo, is to prepare a kind of magical food for Baldr (called Balderus by Saxo), but the impression left by this text is that Baldr depends on them, rather than their being submitted to him.


    Fourth role: the protective and teaching Valkyries.

    It is possible that the Valkyries had a non-mythical incarnation. We know that a young woman, a so-called "shield bearer", was associated to the Germanic warrior. For example, in the Völsunga saga (saga of the Volsungs), Brunehilde speaks of herself in this way:

    "I am a girl of the shield. I carry a helmet and I ride with the war kings. I must help them, and I love battle ... "

    It is not difficult to imagine a parallel existence between terrestrial shield women, and the mythical Goddesses assigned to protect warriors, and therefore, in a certain sense, to choose who will die.

    In myths, when they play this role they are always a king's daughter. They can fall in love with a hero, as happens in the famous cycle of the Nibelungen, when Sigurdr wakes up Sigrdrifa. She teaches him the nine runic songs. The Völsunga saga even gives us some details on the way in which it happened:

    Sigurdr says: "Teach me things of power".

    She [Brunehilde] answer: "You know them better than I. But it is with pleasure that I will teach you everything that you wish on the runes, and on everything that touches the world."

    It is absolutely striking to see a powerful warrior like Sigurdr, who is already very experienced, ask his beloved to teach him. The absence of surprised commentaries by the author of the saga suggests that this attitude was not, perhaps, as rare as we believe. Besides, the Völuspa says explicitly that the Norns knew a lot of things (they are "margs vitandi " = "greatly knowledgeable ones") which confirms their capacity to teach.

    The poem quoted at the beginning of this article also describes a young woman teaching runes to her lover "on her white hand." This woman, donned of precious clothes, evidently evokes a princess, as are the Valkyries. This is also like in the tale of Donkey Skin, again a princess, who must dress in dresses the color of the moon (silver), the color of the sun (gold) and the color of the stars before fleeing toward the neighboring kingdom. It is while donning them, and thanks to the prince's curious spirit, that she acquires the power. The initiation that she gives the prince is not described in Perrault's tale, but the previous examples make us think about a initiation tale, where the princess brings knowledge to her "prince".

    Regardless, Sigurdr is still the only hero to receive such teachings in the poems of the Edda.

    Many kings or princes are protected by the Valkyries, but they don't give them any teaching. For example, the history of king Helgi, found in Helgakvida Hjörvardssonar (Helgi's song, son of Hjörvardr) says:

    There was a king named Eylimi. His daughter was Sváva. She was a Valkyrie and rode the clouds and waters. She gave Helgi his name, and then protected him in battles.

    The poem also says that Sváva doesn't give knowledge to Helgi, but a great deal of weapons. They would have been useless to Sigurdr, already abundantly well stocked in weapons, who seems to have been therefore a "degree above" the other heroes.


    The mythical goddesses: Freya, Frigg and Idunn

    Freya is the goddess of love, and it would be very surprising if she had nun's lifestyle. I don't want to insist on this point here, since it could be seen as distinct from feminine magic. This being said, it is clear that a sorceress who would be treated as a slut or a prostitute as soon as she uses her sex, cannot feel very free in such a context. This is why the sexual liberty of the Nordic goddess is fundamental. Rather than recite Freya's various sexual exploits, (and yet they are not without interest!), I prefer to use sagas that describe, without insisting, sexually free sorceresses: in the sagas, the myth is even closer to day-to-day reality.

    Remember in Eyrbyggja saga where two sorceresses try to attract a young male student. One of them crudely describes the sexual relations associated to this teaching as "stroking the old hag up the belly." As Freya, these women are free. It is striking to note that, since these sagas were told by Christians, the author of Eyrbyggja saga should have stigmatized this behavior while insulting the sorceresses in passing. The absence of this kind of insult shows that to blame the sexual relations they had with their pupils was therefore very far from the spirit of the times: it must have been a completely standard behavior.

    More discreetly, this same saga gives us other facts that follow the same line. In this case it is about a woman, "of great knowledge ", Thorburngunna, who is about 50 years old. She falls in love with a young man of about 15 and, when he rejects her, she shows a spite that shows that she isn't used to this kind of failure.

    In Brennu-Njáls saga, it is even a king's mother, (who we discover later on is a witch) who rather frankly asks a hero of the saga to remain to sleep with her.

    Finally, to illustrate in a very indirect way how important feminine sexual liberty was in Nordic culture, I want to give you a splendid poem, that is a sort of 'paganisation' of the fertilization of the Holy Virgin, that is found in the popular Finnish songs gathered in the 19th century, after christianity would have had enough time to get rid of it, if it had been able to. Once made Nordic, even this Christian myth maintains a sensuality that would be shameful in a civilization where feminine sexuality is disgusting. The Virgin is impregnated by a kind of Northern blueberry whose stem first grows along her body (the song describes the various parts met, as we are going to see) before putting its fruit in the stomach of the Christ's mother by passing through the mouth. Here is this very sensual poem, taken from the Kanteletar, pagan enough to infuriate a Christian:

    She tore a stick from the moor,
    A branch of twisted pine from the hill,
    And lowered the fruit with this stick;
    The fruit touched the earth.
    The plant then rose from the earth
    Toward her ankles
    And from her ankles
    Toward her pure knees
    And from her pure knees
    Toward the bright hems of her skirts,
    Rising from there toward the buckle of her belt
    From her belt toward her breasts,
    From her breasts toward her chin,
    From her chin toward her lips;
    From her lips it stopped
    And bored itself into her mouth,
    Swirled on her tongue
    From her tongue to the bottom of her throat,
    Finally the fruit fell into her belly.
    - Freya sorceress and Goddess of war


    First, Freya is also a Goddess of the dead warriors like Odin. In the Grimnísmál (Grimnir's Sayings), Odin describes the Gods' resting place. The ninth place is described thus:
    The ninth is called the Field-Of-Battle,
    where the shining Freya
    Decides how the warriors can sit down:
    Half of the dead follows the Goddess,
    And the other half belongs to Odin.


    That the goddess of fertility is also a goddess of deaths is surprising, but it corresponds to the older religions, based on a Goddess-Mother. What is unique here is that Freya and Odin share the dead warriors, which makes her a war goddess.

    Either Freya, herself, or a manifestation of the same type of feminine power, appears in the war between the Vanir and the Aesir. It seems that at the origin of this war is a 'sorceress' who comes back to visit the Aesir. She was called "the Shining one" by the Aesir (a feature usually attributed to Freya, actually), and was capable of all kinds of magical operations: foreseeing, trances and the art to casting spells. She was also fascinated by gold and constantly spoke of her desire to possess more and more gold. The Aesir wanted to rid themselves of her and they tortured her, and then burned her. However, she got out whole and alive from the flames. They burned her three times, and three times she was born all over again. The Vanir were furious with the fate reserved to this witch and declared war against the Aesir. Some time later, they reached a state of peace that included an exchange of hostages. The Vanir hostages sent to the Aesir were Njörd, and his children Freyr and Freya who both become important Gods of fertility. It is Freya thus who teaches the Aesir the art of seidr which was customary among the Vanir, as said in the prose Edda. Being able to dominate fire is one of the most important attributes of the great shamans, which has been confirmed time and again by the many testimonies of ethnologists, as well as in many Celtic tales. Throughout this, Freya is seen as a woman of power, an exceptional shaman who certainly doesn't allow herself to be dominated by the other Gods.

    This shaman, though, still seems to be missing the possibility of travelling, at will, in the shape of an animal. The prose Edda gives us an allusion that lets us fill in this void. At one point, Loki must go on a dangerous mission, and he accepts to do it provided that Freya lends him her falcon shape. We get no other information than this, and it is Loki who takes off, but in short, we can see that Freya possessed a falcon shape to perform her shamanic journeys.

    As one last illustration of Freya's importance, but in a negative way, we can say that she has been especially insulted by the christians. The following "poem", found in Brennu-Njáls saga, testifies this resentment:
    I am not afraid to laugh at the gods,
    Because I think that Freya is a bitch;
    It must be one of the two -
    Odin is a dog or Freya a bitch.


    There are so many testimonies of the immense respect in which Odin was held, that these verses, now ridiculous, only show that Freya also had to be respected, and seen just as dangerous by the Christian.


    Frigg, Master of the terrestrial elements


    Frigg, Odin's wife, is presented like the most important goddess, but she is involved in remarkably few adventures in the Edda. She must also have a falcon shape because a text tells us that Loki borrowed it from her, as he borrowed Freya's. But it is rather in the myth of Baldr's death that her importance can been seen. Baldr, one of Odin and Frigg's sons, the God most beloved by humans, had terrifying nightmares in which he sees his own death. To protect him, his mother, Frigg, searches throughout the earth and makes each of earth's elements swear (except one, mistletoe, considered by Frigg as too young to be dangerous) to never harm her son. The prose Edda says that Frigg made them swear that

    fire, water, iron and all metals, stones, earth, wood, illnesses, wild animals, birds, the venomous snakes, would spare Baldr.

    Thus, for example, Baldr could no longer be stoned because stones would refuse to wound him. Loki of course knew how to turn this difficulty around and he arranges for an arrow of mistletoe to strike Baldr. What is interesting here, is that Frigg is able to speak to all the elements of nature to force them to respect her son. It shows a considerable power that is reminiscent of those Mother-Goddesses living in deep agreement with the Earth.

    Idunn, guardian of the youth of the Gods

    Idunn " keeps in her chest " as the prose Edda says, apples that give their youth back to the Gods when they begin to age. She plays a primordial role, therefore, in Nordic mythology, but without participating in many adventures. There is only one myth that describes an adventure of Idunn, and here she plays a slightly ridiculous role. She believes Loki when he tells her that he has some very interesting apples in a neighboring forest, and so she follows him, while bringing along her own apples. Of course, it is only one of Loki's tricks and a giant comes and takes her away. It is implied that she will be used as a companion for the giant. Loki, having been suspected, corrects his mistake, and the end of the story has some positive consequences, but Idunn appears just the same like a bit of a scatterbrain to have believed Loki's story, and in addition, she is soiled by a sexual contact with a being considered to be genetically deficient.

    There is one related myth, somewhat more serious, found in The Song of Odin's raven, an Eddic poem considered a forgery by academics. I have a French version of it on my website, with links to translations of the original version that give the arguments for why it is a mistake to treat it as a forgery, an opinion that I share fully. In this poem Idunn is no longer the Keeper of youth apples, she is the holder of "the greed for knowledge". She falls into the giants' world, but of her own free will, without having been forced. For a short time, she misses the world of the Gods, her home, but her "greed for knowledge" gets away with her, and she becomes what the poem calls a "calamity", in other words a sorceress able to shapeshift and to foresee (and possibly even to control) the future. Instead of being a charming fool as in the classic myth of Idunn's apples, she becomes an independent sorceress who is unwilling to submit to the power of the Gods. Odin sends out a small group to ask for her help (and not to help her) and to try to get her to come back, but she refuses to help them, in spite of all her sadness to see her old friends in hard times, and in spite of their insistence. As says the poem:

    Difficult to incite
    Such a woman
    To provide an answer.


    I can understand a bit why the 19th century academics who decided that The Song of Odin's raven was a forgery, didn't find this poem canonical; a poem that describes a woman leaving her family, her husband, her friends to go satisfy her need for knowledge!

    It is a very beautiful poem, a bit sinister since it happens on the eve of Ragnarök, the day where the Gods are to be judged (and convicted, as we know now). Its fate as a forgery or not deserves a closer academic look; until that happens, it will always be tarnished by the doubt concerning its authenticity.

    We find another insight into Idunn when Loki violently attacks her husband, Bragi, in the Lokasenna, and threatens him physically, because of Bragi's cowardly reputation. Idunn takes his defense courageously, and orders moderation to Bragi. Therefore, she must be less stupid than the prose Edda would like us to believe, but we don't have much more information about her.


    The woman and the witch in tales and popular legends

    The Grimm tales are not especially dedicated to masculine domination since I counted seventeen stories where a male prisoner is saved by a woman, and twelve where a female prisoner is saved by a man. We can't pretend, then, that the main role is assigned to one or the other sex. There are two tales showing the (temporary) domination of a man by a woman.

    In The King of the Golden Mountain, a young shaman accepts his initiation (he will be decapitated then revived) to save a princess. He marries the princess and becomes the king of the golden mountain. He wants to return to see his father, and his wife agrees to help him provided that he never tries to leave the golden mountain nor her, nor their child. Of course, he forgets his promise and he asks his wife to join him at his father's. At first she conceals her anger, but then she takes advantage of his sleep to leave him in a very poor state close to his father, without means to get back to the golden mountain. He decides to fight against his fate, and he leaves to go regain his kingdom. On the way he has to deceive three giants (without killing them) and to acquire enough magic in doing so to return to his kingdom. There, he finds his unfaithful wife celebrating her marriage with another man. He makes himself invisible and stands behind his wife. During the banquet he eats and drinks everything that is served to his wife, which makes her weak and ashamed; she runs out to go cry in her room. He joins her and scolds her for her disloyalty. Then, he goes back to the banquet room where the guests don't want to recognize him. He kills everybody and becomes the master of the golden mountain once again. The tale doesn't say anything about the queen's fate, but it is clear that she is not killed, and therefore stays his wife, and queen. In this tale, the feminine power takes the liberty of rejecting the masculine power, but "masculine stubbornness defeats feminine rigor". The fact that the legitimacy comes from the woman is not contested nevertheless. The hero could have easily killed the unfaithful wife and could have proclaimed himself king. He cannot do it because only the fact that he married the owner of the power renders him the legitimate master of the golden mountain. This tale shows a state where the feminine power is threatened, but not completely destroyed yet.

    The tale, The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces, illustrates a rise of masculine power that ends up forbidding the practice of magic to women. The king's twelve girls go dancing each night and damage their shoes although their father locks the door of their room with a key. A poor soldier solves the problem. He succeeds in fighting against the charm that princesses use to lull their jailors to sleep, and he follows them in their journey to an underground world. The tale describes a real world, but you can't help thinking about a shamanic journey in the under world. There, the princesses dance all night long, and it is the reason why their shoes are ruined in the morning. The secret having been discovered, it is no longer possible for the princesses to practice their art. This tale illustrates perfectly the fact that, after have been fooled for a long time, masculine power finally succeeds in forbidding the shamanic journey to women.

    The initiating female

    We already discussed the Valkyries' role of a teacher. This aspect is found again in the story of Lancelot, raised in a kingdom that had "never known man's power". In Irish tales, it is the greatest war hero, Cuchulain, who, having heard of a powerful female warrior, Skathach, finally manages to be admitted as one of his pupils. She teaches him to perform the eighteen warrior exploits that allow him to stay unbeaten in the future.

    In the Breton tale, The Hunt for the White Pig, Guingamor is the king's nephew. The queen wants to have sex with him, but he refuses. Out of spite she sends him to hunt the "white pig", as the tale says, and everyone knows that this means being killed in the process. He meets a naked girl who is bathing and who is actually a fairy. He steals her clothes but she calls to him and asks him to return them to her. He stays with the fairy three days, which corresponds to three hundred years in normal reality. He wants to go back to his own country, and he gets permission from the fairy, provided he doesn't eat or drink anything in the world of the living. He brings the head of the white pig with him and crosses the river that separates the two worlds. He gets hungry, eats three apples, becomes human again, and dies there and then of "brutal old age". It is by joining the fairy that Guingamor can finish his quest of "hunting the white pig", with the condition of paying for his initiation by a complete transformation of his being. After spending three days with the fairy, he is no longer human. The initiation here looks more like an appropriation by mystical forces.


    Female shamans and witches

    As we have seen, Freya was probably an exceptional shaman, she who taught seidr to the Aesir.

    In the Irish tales we find instead witches who are anxious to take vengeance. For example, in The Children of Lir, the king's wife, jealous of the love that her husband feels for his children from his first wife, transforms them into swans. Similarly, in The Seduction of Etain, the king's wife, jealous, transforms her into a butterfly.

    The Grimm tales, which contain a good number of awful witches of course, also describe feminine power under a less negative light. For example, Grethel is a small kind witch who kills the mean old witch and who is able to save her brother from the spirit world while helping him cross the river that separates the two worlds. In the tale, The Twelve Brothers, their small sister mistakenly causes their transformation in twelve crows. She meets an old witch who initiates her and this allows her to give her brothers back their human shape. This initiation includes the test of remaining seven years without speaking and without laughing. In the end, she undergoes the test of fire, where she comes out alive thanks to her twelve brothers. It is certainly a shamanic initiation, but the initiatee only uses her power to help others, in this case her brothers.

    There are also many tales in which a young and good witch is contrasted with another, old and mean one. Typically, the young witch accomplishes three tasks to free herself and the young man she is saving: she turns into a bush, a church, and finally into a lake.

    Horse shamans and mare shamans

    First, we need to remember that one of the rare Celtic goddesses to have been accepted by the Romans is Epona, the rider goddess that we see represented on many coins.

    We find a trace of this, loaded with negative connotations, in the story of Rhiannon. The women assigned to supervise her and her baby, fall asleep and only wake up to discover that the baby has disappeared. They then kill a puppy, dab Rhiannon with its blood and accuse her of having killed her own child. She is believed to be guilty and, for his punishment, she is forced to sit down at the entry of the city and tell her crimes to the strangers arriving to the city, and to offer to carry them on her back. This is an example of woman-mare, where she is presented as humiliated and unjustly punished.

    The Breton tales give us two examples of horse-shamans. In Yann's Saga, it is a horse who is in fact his master of shamanism and his real father. In Koadalan's Saga, it is a mare who acts as Koadalan's guide. When she has finished playing this role, she asks him to kill her and he sees a very beautiful woman come out of the mare's stomach.

    In the Grimm tale, Ferdinand the Faithful and Ferdinand the Unfaithful, we find a story that is strikingly similar to Yann's saga. Ferdinand the Faithful has a wizard for his godfather who offers him the key to the castle that is "up there on the hill ", and where he will be able to enter on the day of his fourteenth year. He finds a horse in the castle and he becomes able to speak to animals.


    The destruction of the old order


    It is also interesting to look at tales with traces of the destruction of feminine power.

    In the Irish Celtic tales, the hero assigned to destroy the old order is Cuchulain. In particular, in The Theft of Cuailnge's Cattle ("Tain Bo Cuailnge"), he is described as opposing the queen Maeve who is a representative of matriarchal power. Although married to king Aillil, she remains owner of her possessions, she plays the role of war chief, and she is sexually free, as is clearly show in the sort of ritual formula that she always uses when she wants put herself on good terms with a hero. She offers him quantities of riches, and my own friendly thighs, in addition to everything, if it is necessary.

    In addition, she has her own champions. Each among them ends up executed by Cuchulain. The conclusion of their struggle describes Cuchulain's complete victory over Maeve.

    Then Maeve had her period ... and she relieved herself. She dug three big ditches, each big enough to contain a household. This place has been since called Fual Medba, Maeve's Piss. Cuchulain saw her thus, but he kept his hand. He didn't want to strike her from behind. "Spare me", said Maeve. "If I had killed you there", said Cuchulain, "it would have only been justice". But he spared her, because he was not a killer of women.

    In the Armorican Celtic tales the myth of Is brings back the destruction of an old order. This destruction is bound to the history of Kristof, the small boy who was able to start it. Close to the city of Is lives a sort of idiot, Kristof, who spends his time throwing stones in the water with the help of a crooked stick, as the tale says. One day, he notices that a small fish playfully swims behind his stones. He succeeds in cornering it and catching it. The small fish begs him to let it go, which he does. To thank him, Kristof will get all his wishes satisfied if he asks for them in the name of the small fish. Kristof, responsible for bringing wood back to his mother so that she can make him some pancakes, goes to ask a big oak tree to come to him. This big oak, there since time immemorial in front of Is is considered the foundation of the city of Is. Kristof himself will later predict the end of Is because he removed this oak that protected the city from the invasion of the sea during the equinoxal tides. When he had accomplished this, Kristof asks the oak to carry him to his home, by crossing Is. Among the spectators of this oak moving along the streets is Dahud, the king's daughter, who doesn't answer to the friendly greetings of Kristof. He gets angry and wishes that Dahud become pregnant. Dahud denies having had any sexual relations, but no one believes her. A magic test is needed for Kristof to be recognized as being the child's father. Finally, Kristof shows that Dahud was made pregnant by magic, and that she had therefore not lied. On this, Kristof disappears and no one ever hears of him again.

    This beautiful tale contains several myths. Of course, we recognize a magic fertilization. Curiously, this virgin mother, once Kristof disappears, becomes a symbol of sexual liberty and dies later, drowned at the time of the city's disappearance. The city is also protected by a sacred tree, and it disappears with the tree. It is clearly an image similar to the one given by Yggdrasil. Is depends on her oak just as the world is placed under the roots of Yggdrasil. Kristof himself is a shaman who is able to speak to fish. His meeting with the small fish makes him a magician capable of all miracles. This magician will then cut down the foundation of the old society, the oak protecting the city from the equinoxal tides. This is why this tale seems to me to belong to those that describe a hero (a so-called 'solar' hero) who cuts down the old order, such as Cuchulain.

    One of the heros that seems to play a similar role, although less clearly, is the Lancelot of the primitive Saga of Lancelot of the Lake, he is also invincible as Cuchulain. Lancelot is raised by the Lady of the Lake in her land that had known neither man nor man's laws.

    She will only reveal his origins to him when he has killed her enemy, and it was for this task that the Lady of the lake raised him. The enemy is called Iweret, whose name means the man of the yew. To beat it comes back to cutting down the old world that rests on a yew. Lancelot goes into the forest where he must fight Iweret. The meeting must take place under a lime (a pine in other versions) that is ever green, another allusion to the yew. Under this lime springs an ice-cold fountain that evokes for us the source of Mimir, source of wisdom at the foot of one Yggdrasil's roots in the middle world. Also remember that life, in the Nordic creation myth, found its origin in melted ice. That this fountain is ice-cold is therefore meaningful, life comes from it, a new life will now begin there. Lancelot kills Iweret and becomes the king of its three kingdoms. Doing so, he frees himself of the tutelage in which the Lady of the lake had placed him, which symbolizes well man's liberation, if not necessarily woman's servitude.


    Runic inscriptions alluding to women

    It is quite remarkable that at least 25 oldest runic inscriptions contain a feminine name, or an allusion to feminine power. If you count that at best 150 to 200 such runic inscriptions have been deciphered, this gives a good percent of "feminist" runic inscription. Here are this runic inscriptions, with their most probable meaning. I put them under three headings: names, praising inscriptions, insulting inscriptions.

    These runic inscriptions still receive different interpretations. By having a look at http://www.teaser.fr/~lfontaine/nmh/runic.htm you will see how the best acknowledged authors on this topic, namely Krause, Antonsen, and Moltke understood often in various ways these inscriptions (Makaev's opinion will be added soon).


    1. Runic inscription showing a feminine name without comment. It can be guessed that the rune-master was then a woman, since the symmetrical guess is done for male names.

    Forde Fishing Weight (middle of the 6th century)

    Aluko (might mean : small magic)

    Himlingoje Fibula 1 (middle of the 4th century)

    Hariso (means : army, crowd; might mean : female warrior)

    Himmelstalund Cliff Inscription (around 500)

    Braido (means: the large one) or Brando (means: the one who brandishes)

    Hitsum Bracteate

    Fozo : family name, "Fosi", with a feminine ending.

    Lellinge Bracteate

    Salu (repeated twice)meaning: offering.

    Strarup Neckring: (about 400)

    Leţro : (means; (she) made of leather)

    Tanem Stone (around 500)

    Marilih u (might mean: female descendant of Marila, ‘mari-’ means ‘famous’)

    Beuchte Fibula (Niedersachse, 550-600)

    Buirso, aname, Buriso, meaning: little daughter.

    Berga Stone : (around 500)

    Fino (might mean: Finnish woman)

    2. Runic inscriptions alluding to a feminine character in a praising way

    Eikeland Fibula (around 600)

    ‘Me Wir for Wiwio I engrave runes now.’

    wiwio = feminine name also meaning 'fishpond'.

    Karstad Inscription on a rocky wall (middle of the 5th century)

    ‘both of them’

    (a feminine form of the inclusive ‘we’, meaning ‘together we two’)

    Opedal Stone: (1st half of the 5th century)

    ‘Help, Ingubora, my beloved sister’.

    Rosseland Stone (middle of the 5th century)

    ‘I WagigaR eril of Agilamundo’

    Eril is title of nobility, thus the woman Agilamundo who had an "eril" must have been a woman of power.

    Setre Comb (beginning of the 7th century)

    ‘Greetings young girl of the (among the) young girls’

    ‘Magic Na, magic Nana’

    Stenstad Stone (middle of the 5th century)

    ‘Ing's daughter's stone’

    Probably a stone dedicated to Freya.

    Tune Stone (Norway around the year 400)

    ‘ ... to Wodurid the stone, three daughters have prepared the inheritance (but) the most elegant of inheritances’.

    Vimose Woodplane (end of the 3rd century)

    An obscure inscription containing a word, hleuno, a feminine nominative singular, meaning 'fame' or 'protection'.

    Arstad Stone (middle of the 6th century)

    ‘Hiwigaz [meaning: one with strong familial ties]. (or?) Saralu [meaning: protectress]. I, for my friend [i.e. spouse] … ’.

    Asum Bracteate

    ‘Mare. I, Akaz [i.e. leader], the suitable . . . ’.

    Charnay Fibula (France, 550-600)

    ‘to husband Iddo (i.e., the doer). Liano’.

    Liano is a feminine name of unknown meaning.

    Pietroassa gold ring (Rumania, 300-400)

    ‘Sacred temple of the female warriors, or of the female Goths’.

    (Antonsen's interpretation, quite under discussion)

    Hemdrup Stick

    ‘you never won the storming one, Ĺse’

    Ĺse is a feminine surname. It seems to mean that Ĺse was never won over.

    Randbol stone

    ‘Tue, overseer, set up this stone for a like (female)-overseer.

    These staves for Thorburngun will live very long’.

    Moltke understands the first line as: ‘Tue the overseer set up this stone in memory of the equal match (his wife)’. A very beautiful love message beyond death.

    Skabersjö Buckle (buckle itself not later than year 700 but inscription dated c. 1025):

    Sixteen runes z followed by ‘Rade took increase of his money. I, Ĺse, have rewarded (someone) with that’.

    This inscription does not belong to the oldest runic inscriptions, it is here for information only.

    Schretzheim inscription face B:

    ‘(to) Alaguţ they did a favor’

    Contains the feminine name Alagunţ.

    Pallersdorf inscription face B

    ‘Me Arsiboda grace’

    Contains the feminine name Arsiboda.

    3. Runic inscriptions alluding to a feminine character in a derogative way

    Vetteland Stone (middle of the 4th century)

    ‘A female troll is threatening my son’s gravestone’.

    Lund bone-piece 24 (11th century):

    ‘troll cunt be convenient B…’

    This makes up some kind of sexual insult to a woman whose name starts with a B. This inscription does not belong to the oldest runic inscriptions, it is here for information only.

    Conclusion

    You might have noticed that I didn't often give a personal opinion, I especially tried to let the texts speak for themselves. They let us understand how stories on the "marvelous feminine intuition" could have developed, but that they did so while carefully forgetting that this "typically feminine magic" was associated with an academic, medical or warrior expertise and that women were holders of it, and that, in addition, they seemed to have been avidly willing to transmit it to men who were interested.

    We can also understand why, in the guise of the historical teaching of paganism, the Greek and Latin myths are continually repeated to us throughout our studies, while the Nordic or Germanic myths are barely touched.

    The Nordic myths certainly give us the great deeds of the masculine Gods, but they never contest or try to remove the existence of a feminine power. The tales, on the other hand, indirectly give us many testimonies of the elimination of this power. Thus, feminine power seems have been suppressed extremely early in the Roman and Greek tradition, whereas it seems to date from less than 1000 years ago in the Nordic and Celtic civilization.

    Our civilization has succeeded in transforming the yew, a powerful, enormous and budding tree lasting for centuries, into a gloomy, cemetery border. The yew remains however itself although trimmed and retrimmed.

    Bibliography

    The versions of the poetic Edda that I used are

    a French version, Regis Boyer, The poetic Edda, Fayard, 1992.

    a German version, Felix Genzmer, Die Edda, Diederichs München, 1992,.

    an English version, W. H. Auden and Paul B. Taylor, Norse Poems, Faber Faber and London 1981.

    an original version of the Codex Regius, published by Hans Kuhn, Carl Winter, Heidelberg 1962.

    For Snorri Sturluson's prose Edda, I used the translations of F. X. Dillmann, Gallimard, 1991, of Arthur Häny, Manesse Verlag, 1990, and of A. Faulkes, Everyman, 1995. Dillman's translation is especially interesting for his very well-documented notes and his style that is both simple and precise. Faulkes' translation is most complete.

    A very Latinized version of the Nordic myths is in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum (written around 1215), translation J. -P. Troadec, Gallimard 1995. The English translation found on the Internet is of an unimaginably lower quality to Troadec's version.

    The Armorican Celtic legends are taken from Jean Markale's book, The Celtic tradition in Armorican Brittany, Payot 1975. The history of Cuchulain is for example in: The Tain, translation into modern English by T. Kinsella, Oxford University Press, 1970.

    Grimm Tales are published, for example, in:

    Brüder Grimm, Kinder Hausmärchen, Band 1, 2, 3, Reclam, Stuttgart 1980.

    Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Tales, Flammarion, 1967.

    The history of how the tales were recorded is found in the " Band 3 " of the German edition. It is not translated in French or in English.

    Lönnrot Elias' Kanteletar is translated into English by K. Bosley, Oxford University Press, 1992.

    I found Heitharvega Saga in English on the Internet at: http://www.waywyrd.com/midhnott_sol/

    Eyrbyggja saga and Brennu-Njáls saga are published in English by Penguin Classics, and in French by La Pleiade (translations and notes of R. Boyer).

    Snorri Sturluson's Yngliga saga is in French in a translation of I. Cavalié, Editions du Porte - Glaive, 1990. In English, the best is to acquire the complete text of Snorri Sturluson's work which contains this saga among others: Heimskringla or the Lives of the Norse Kings, Dover publications, 1990.

    I only found the Völsunga saga in English: translation by J. L. Byock, University of California Press, 1990.

    The complete work of Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, can be found on the Internet in English, in a translation due to Mierow: http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~vandersp/Courses/texts/jordgeti.html. The quote that I give from Jordanes comes from A. Thierry, History of Attila and his successors, Librairie Académique Didier et Cie, 1864 (Thierry gives the Latin text and the exact translation presented here is far from Mierow's).

    A very partial translation of the Danmarks Gamle Folkvisers (collected by Svend Grundtvig. Part 1. Copenhagen. Thieles Bogtrykkeri, 1853), is accessible to the French-speaking in Léon Pineau, Chants populaires scandinaves, 1898. I haven't found a more recent French translation, nor a complete English or German translation.

    Ruth Beebe Hill, Haunted Yo, Doubleday, 1979,


    A bit of advice as to what works to read first:

    Snorri Sturluson, Edda in Prose, translation of F. X. Dillmann, Gallimard, 1991.

    Völsunga Saga (in English) translation by J. L. Byock, University of California Press, 1990.

    Jean Markale, The Celtic Tradition in Armorican Brittany, Payot 1975.

    Regis Boyer, The Poetic Edda, Fayard, 1992.


    Source:
    http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/feminine.htm



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    Re: The Nordic Woman: Feminine magic in the Nordic myths

    I am a White lady very much interested in Nordic heathenism, so I am most appreciative of this post. I like the the statement "...the Nordic woman is the holder or keeper of magic.", because I feel we women are the heart of the family - nurturing the family within its core, and I feel this could also also apply to practising magic. Thank you!

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    Re: The Nordic Woman: Feminine magic in the Nordic myths

    Yet another interesting thread.Thank you.

    I was not aware of quite how free women could be. Blessed be.

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