Freya, a Germanic Goddess

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Freya is one of the most important Germanic Goddesses and she is a form of the Proto-Indo-European Goddess *Pria. Her name is spelled Freyja in Old Norse, Frôwâ in Old High German, Frea in the language of the Langobards and Frea, Fræa, or Freó in Old English. Freya, the modern form used here, is actually Anglicized from the Scandinavian form. In various Indo-European languages she has the epithet Maia ‘mighty’ in Latin; the Germanic form is *mag-, modern English ‘mighty’ and ‘maiden.’ The Roman Goddess Maia gives her name to the month of May, sacred to this Goddess.

Image of Freya from Viking times, photograph by Berig Freya’s domain is the garden, especially a walled garden with fruit trees, properly an orchard with a spring or well. She is responsible for making the flowers bloom and she is always associated with flowers especially flowering trees. As a Goddess of spring time, she is especially associated with romantic love among human beings. Her main festival is called May Day, probably in an attempt to shift focus away from her actual name after the introduction of Christianity.

Early References

Freya’s name appears in the phrase Frea ælmihtig in Anglo-Saxon in Caedmon’s Hymn from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, dated to the year 597. The referent here is one of the Christian gods, but this is probably a standard tag-line used in Anglo-Saxon poetry. A similar expression with almattig “almighty” also occurs as hinn almattig Ás “he, the almighty God” in Old Norse. Here the referent is unnamed and assumed to be Thor by Bellows, but although the forms are masculine, the referent is probably Freya again, since it is mentioned in connection with Freyr and Njordr, and these are three Deities who are normally grouped together.

Another early reference to Freya is given in Historia Regum Britanniae (Book 6, section 98), by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welshman writing in Latin about 1139. Here he is reported to be quoting Hengist who would have spoken in (Anglo-)Saxon.
“...colimus deam inter ceteras potentissimam uocabulo Fream, cui etiam deicauerunt sextam feriam, quam ex nomine eius Fridei uocamus.” “...we worship Frea, the most powerful of the Goddesses, to whom [we] dedicated the sixth day, which we call Friday after her.”
This information is given on p. 125 of The History of the Kings of Britain: (Historia Regum Britanniae) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, edited by Michael D. Reeve and translated by Neil Wright. The Latin word translated as ‘day’ is feriae, a feminine plural noun meaning ‘a religious festival, holy day,’ according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary. This is also the most likely etymology of the word furry as in Furry Day, one of the names for festivals associated with the month of May.

Praise of Frea
The Goddess appears in an Anglo-Saxon context, in Layamon’s Brut. Layamon produced a history of England called Brut using various sources including Geoffrey of Monmouth, but Layamon wrote his version in late Old English or Anglo-Saxon about 1205 CE in the traditional alliterative verse form of Anglo-Saxon. In addition, he greatly expanded his sources, adding in material that is not in the text he was translating. His text includes phrases which praise the Goddess which is one of the standard functions of Indo-European Pagan poetic texts. There are two versions of Layamon’s translation with slightly different wording. The British Library Ms. Cotton Caligula A. ix version (lines 13913-18) reads:


Yet we habbeð anne læuedi;
Þe hæh is & mæhti.
heh heo is & hali;
hired-men heo luuieð for-þi.
Heo is ihate Fræa;
wel heo heom dihteð.
Translation by Frederic Madden (slightly altered)
Yet we have a lady
that high is and mighty.
High she is and holy,
courtiers love her therefor.
She is called Frea,
well she treats them.

Another version of the text gives the fifth line as “yeo his i-hote Frea” which supplies the nominative form of her name in a Midlands dialect given from BL Ms. Otho C. xiii. The same form Frea occurs in the line in the Otho manuscript which corresponds to Caligula line 13931, as “Frea þane friday.” Both texts are published in Layamon’s Brut, or Chronicle of Britain, a Poetical Semi-Saxon Paraphrase of the Brut of Wace, with translation by Frederick Madden, on p. 157-158.

Oddly enough the name of the Goddess Frea or Fræa never appears in the standard dictionary of Old English (Bosworth and Toller) even though Layamon’s Brut is one of the works that was indexed to produce this dictionary. Her name also got left out of the Thesaurus of Old English by Jane Roberts et al. which lists neither Frigg nor Freya among Northern Gods (item 16.01.06.01, on page 660). I guess it slipped their minds. She is also not even mentioned under the spellings Freya, Freyja or Frea on the Anglo-Saxon Paganism article on Wikipedia (as of April 22, 2013) though she still appears on the Simple English version, so she has probably been carefully removed from the standard article. #songs

Songs of Freya

It is necessary when studying a particular Goddess to check and see if people actually worship her. This is important because some personified beings like “Mother Nature” or “Lady Liberty” are not actually worshiped (or maybe they are!). A typical method is to check for invocations, that is prayers directed to a particular Goddess; offerings or other evidence that something is actually given to a Goddess; requests which indicate that she is considered powerful and necessary in some way, and finally songs of praise which show that she is loved and admired. There are other elements besides these, and it is not likely that examples will be found for each Goddess in each language. Following are a number of invocations for Freya given here from the ancient sources. In addition to the example in Layamon given above, these texts show that Freya was worshiped.

An Invocation for Freya is found in Old Norse in the Elder Edda, Stanza 8, in the Oddrunargratr.
Svá hjalpi þér • hollar vættir
Frigg ok Freyja • ok fleiri goð,
Sem þú feldir mér • fár af høndum.
So may the holy ones help thee,
Frigg and Freyja and favoring Gods,
As thou hast saved me, from sorrow now.
This Old Norse text is given from Die Edda edited by R. C. Boer, vol. 1, and the English translation is from p. 472, Elder Edda, translated by Bellows. Note that this is an invocation in the third person, that is, one person is calling on the Goddesses on behalf of another person.

Freya’s Offerings and Sphere of Power
In a stanza from the Younger Edda in Old Norse, in the section called the Beguiling of Gylfi, Section #24, the following text gives at least one person’s view (Snorri Sturluson’s) of what type of offering is appropriate to this Goddess and also what her main area of power or responsibility is.
Henne líkaði vel mansøngr. Á hana er gott at heita til ásta. Songs of love are well-pleasing to her; it is good to call on her for furtherance in love.
The Old Norse text is quoted from p. 29 of the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, edited by Anne Holtsmark and Jøn Helgason, while the English text is from p. 38, Younger Edda, in the translation by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. However, Freya has more responsibilities than that as can be seen by comparing her to other cognate Goddesses among the Indo-European speaking people.

Frost shall Freeze, a little myth of Freya
The Gnomic Verses, or Maxims are typical of wisdom lore or proverbs which are known in the literature (oral or written) of many cultures. There are two sets of Maxims in Anglo-Saxon. One set, Maxims I quoted here, is from the Exeter Book and the other set, Maxims II is in British Library Manuscript Cotton Tiberius II i. Some of the Anglo-Saxon verses include Pagan elements, though generally they have been christianized. However I found this little gem of an Anglo-Saxon myth, embedded in this largely christianized text, but probably from an older common Germanic poem. I have altered it slightly to reconstruct what I believe to be the original form. The verses describe the harshness of winter and then they tell how the Goddess brings spring to the world after the melting of the ice. She causes earth to grow, seeds to sprout and the sun to shine. The description is perfectly in accord with Freya’s powers as the Germanic form of the Indo-European Goddess *Pria, and this myth supports her connection to the festival of May Day. Telling myths about a Goddess is one of the traditional ways that Indo-European Pagans honor their Goddesses.

The text of both the Anglo-Saxon and the modern English translation are given on pp. 116-117, of Anglo-Saxon Verse Charms, Maxims & Heroic Legends by Luis J. Rodrigues. This is a dual language edition, so it is very easy and enjoyable to read. Rodrigues confirms that this is an ancient poem with a Christian veneer though he doesn’t say exactly why he thinks that. He does say, “It is clear that, in some instances, gnomes of earlier origin have been subsequently amended to make them harmonize with the Christian mood and tradition. Such is the passage of seven lines with which the second fitt of Maxims I begins: ‘Frost shall freeze....’ ” p. 28 in Rodrigues.
Text:
Forst sceal freosan • fyr wudu meltan,
eordhe growan • is brycgian,
waeter helm wegan • wundrum lucan
eortha cithas. • An sceal inbindan
forstesa fetre, • Frea ælmihtig.
winter sceal geweorpan,• weder eft cuman,
sumor swegle hat, • sund unstille.
Deop deada waeg • dyrne bidh lengest;
holen sceal inaeled......
Rodrigues’ translation:
Frost shall freeze, fire consume wood,
earth produce growth, ice form a bridge,
water wear helm, wondrously confine
the young sprouts of earth. One shall unbind
the fetters of frost, Frea almighty.
Winter shall pass, fair weather return,
summer hot with sun. Unquiet the sound,
the deep dead wave is longest hid.
Holly shall be kindled....
The italicized phrase Frea ælmihtig replaces the original phrase because the verse form doesn’t fit. The phrase in the text as recorded has felameahtig god ‘very mighty god’ which has three strong beats (FE-la-MEAH-tig GOD) and trails off awkwardly. The requirement in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse is to have two strong beats in each half-line, so there should be only two strong beats here. Replacing it with the absolutely standard tagline “Frea ælmihtig” (as in Cædmon's Hymn, p. 106, Dobbie) brings into view what may be an ancient rehearsal of the power of the Goddess Frea to turn the season to sunshine, warmth and growth.

Releasing the waters from their winter bonds by melting the ice which holds in silence the waves of the sea in the sounds (bays) is normally the prerogative of the Indo-European God known as *Perkunos, usually replaced by Thor among the Germanic speakers. However, the two elements, melting the ice to release the waters and bringing the growth and light of spring are often described together, as they occur at about the same time of the year. There are many Pagan hymns which praise the Gods for their power to turn the seasons, but this type of praise is rare for any monotheistic gods. It wasn’t considered important in a theology which only valued some supernatural dimension where everything would be perfect, either after death of humans or after some imagined apocalypse or both. In the few cases where we do see such a statement, as in the Song of Azarias (found in some versions of the Book of Daniel, Old Testament of Bible), it is presented as proof of the universal power of the “one” god, but it often seems that a Pagan hymn of praise underlies such texts.

Modern Pagans who choose to use Anglo-Saxon or Old English names for the deities tend to use Frea as the feminine form (for Freya, the Goddess) and Freo as the masculine form (for Freyr, the God) in order to distinguish them. This is apparently due to the widespread penetration of the forms of personal names in the Romance languages where names that end in -a are feminine (e.g., Roberta, Ernestina) and names that end in -o are masculine (e.g., Mario). Those who find this whole topic overwhelming might be pleased to know that Bosworth and Toller list freō as the same for both ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ and indeclinable.

Herdsman’s Charm to Protect Cows
The following Middle High German charm is to protect cows when they are turned out into the forest, as they were in spring in northern Europe. It was published in Deutsche Mythologie, Vol. 3, p. 1241. This is found in a manuscript of the 15th century and may be much older, according to Jacob Grimm. It doesn’t have a specific time of year associated with it, but we know that in Germany and western Slavic countries, the cattle were turned out with ritual and songs on April 23rd, that is St. George’s Day. In Sweden they were turned out on Valborg, that is Walpurgis Day, on May first. The exact date would depend on the climate and when the grass was sufficient to support the cattle.
Ich treip heut aus in unser lieben Frauen haus,
in Abrahams garten, der lieber herr sant Mertein,
der sol heut meines pflegen und warten,
und der lieber herr sant Wolfgang, der lieb herr sant Peter,
der hat den himelischen slussel,
die versperrent dem wolf and der vohin irn drussel,
dass si weder plut lassen noch bein schroten.
Des helf mir der man, der chain ubel nie hat getan
und die heiligen V wunden,
behüten mein vieh vor allen holzhunden.
V Pater et V Ave Maria
Today my herd I drove into our Lady’s grove,
Into Abraham’s garden; Be, good St. Martin,
this day my pledge and warden,
and good St. Wolfgang, good St. Peter,
(whose key can heaven unlock),
throat of wolf and vixen block,
against blood shedding, and bone shredding.
Help me, holy one, who ill hath never done,
and [by] his five holy wounds;
keep my herd from all wood-hounds!
[Say] 5 Pater Nosters and 5 Hail Marys
Frau, generally understood as “Lady” may refer to the Goddess Freya, the Virgin Mary, or to any unspecified but highly respected woman. The ambiguity may be intentional, and possibly life-saving, since people could ask for assistance from the Goddess while pretending to refer to one of the Christian deities. St. Wolfgang was probably also chosen (if not invented) because a wolf (god) might be thought to have the power to protect the cattle from other wolves. This is somewhat confirmed by St. Wolfgang’s feast day which is October 31. This is the festival of Halloween/Samhain when cattle are returned to their winter quarters. A similar God is Volos, a Slavic God of cattle who also protects them from wolves but may have the form of a wolf.

This page gives some invocations for the Goddess Freya from ancient sources. More recent sources describe the main festival for her called May Day in English with songs and dances. There is so much information about May Day that I have divided it into separate pages on this website.
May Day Revels, Part 1 includes information about Walpurgis Night, which is the beginning of her major festival in sometimes disguised form. Also on this page are May Day Customs for Children, Hawthorn Tree Songs, and May Dew Songs
May Day Songs includes the Visiting Songs and a Syllabub Recipe.
May Day Revels, Part 2 has Furry Day Dances, Maypole Dances, the Tree in the Wood Song and Morris Dances associated with Maypole Dancing.

References for Freya
Elder or Poetic Edda
Die Edda [in Old Norse], ed. by R. C. Boer, publ. Martinus Nijhoff, s’Gravenhage, 1922.
The Poetic Edda [in English], transl. by Henry Adams Bellows, Princeton University Press, American Scandinavian Foundation, NY, 1936. The Poetic Edda is on the Sacred-Texts website.

Younger or Prose Edda
Prose Edda [in Old Norse], by Snorri Sturluson, ed. by Anne Holtsmark, and Jøn Helgason, Ejnar Munksgaard, København, 1950.
Prose Edda [in English], transl. by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, American Scandinavian Foundation, NY, 1923. The Prose Edda is on the Sacred-Texts website.

Additional Works Cited
The History of the Kings of Britain: an edition and translation of De Gestis Britonum (Historia Regum Britanniae) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Volume 69 of Arthurian Studies, ed. Michael D. Reeve, transl. Neil Wright, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge, 2007.
Deutsches Wörterbuch by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, S. Hirzel, Leipzig, Vol. 4, Part 1, 1878.
Oxford Latin Dictionary, ed. by P. G. W. Glare, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982.
Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm, transl. by J. S. Stallybrass, George Bell & Sons, London, 1882.
An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1898, on the net at Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
Specimens of Early English by Richard Morris, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1887.
Select Translations from Old English Poetry by Albert Cook and Chauncey Tinker; Ginn and Company, Publ.; Athenæum Press, Boston, 1902.
Old English Grammar by Joseph Wright and Elizabeth Mary Wright, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, London, 1925, 1934.
Layamon’s Brut, or Chronicle of Britain, a Poetical Semi-Saxon Paraphrase of The Brut of Wace, with translation, etc., by Frederick Madden, Vol. II, Society of Antiquaries of London, London, 1847. Layamon’s Brut is available on the net at archive.org.
Anglo-Saxon Verse Charms, Maxims & Heroic Legends by Luis J. Rodrigues, Anglo-Saxon Books, Pinner, Middlesex, England, 1993, 1994.
An Anglo-Norman Brut, ed. by Alexander Bell, (Royal 13. A.xxi), publ. for the Anglo-Norman Text Society by Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1969.
A Thesaurus of Old English by Jane Roberts, Christian Kay and Lynne Grundy, Kings College London, London, 1995.
The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems edited by E. V. Dobbie, Columbia University Press, NY, 1942.

The image of Freya (at the top of the page) was photographed by Berig (Own work) and is used here in accord with the provisions of the GNU Free Documentation License) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 Creative Commons License, via Wikimedia Commons. This image in silver of the Norse Goddess Freyja is from the Viking period (800 to 1050 CE) and was found in Aska in Hagebyhöga parish, Aska hundred, Vadstena municipality, Ostergötland, Sweden. It is now in the Statens Historiska Museum, that is the National Historical Museum of Sweden in Stockholm, dedicated to archaeology and history from the Stone Age until the present day. The image is identified with Freya because of the “string of beads” that she is wearing. This is thought to represent the Brísingamen, the necklace of amber beads which is her characteristic possession.

This page was part of the pierce.yolasite.com/mayday page which used to be on Yola before Yola was hacked in November of 2011. They have never been able to fix their data banks but the article is now published here as a separate section with updates and more information and a beautiful new picture of Freya.

© 2010, last updated 4/1/2013, on piereligion.org/freya.html