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The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia




Chapter 2

The Remaining Gods and Other Objects of Worship

The third god mentioned by Adam of Bremen as worshipped at Upsala is (Fricco or) Frey, a name which appears to be identical with the Teutonic word represented in Old English by fréa, lord or king. Adam's statement is fully confirmed by the Icelandic sources, and there are also general references to the prevalence of the cult in Sweden. (1) In a somewhat legendary source it is even stated that an image of Frey, which was worshipped at Thrandheim in Norway, had been sent there from Sweden. The story of Gunnar Helming also makes mention of an image of Frey in Sweden which was carried about the country, and to which sacrifices were offered, but the value of the statement is very doubtful. Saxo Grammaticus, speaking of a sacrifice of black oxen offered to Frey by the mythical hero Hading, adds that this had continued to be a yearly custom, and 'the Swedes call it Fröblod,' i.e. Frey's sacrifice. The frequent occurance of Frey- in Swedish (and Danish) place-names has been already mentioned, and indicates the prevalence of the cult in both of these countries.

The worship of Frey, however, must also have been very popular in Norway, from which it passed to Iceland with the early settlers. As late as 998 the men of Thrandheim are represented as refusing to break their image of Frey at the command of King Olaf, 'because we have long served him and he has done well by us. He often talked with us, and told us things to come, and gave us peace and plenty.' At the great festivals it was customary to drink to Frey (along with Njörd) in order to secure peace and prosperity. A talisman on which the image of Frey was 'marked in silver' is mentioned as having been owned by one of the petty kings of Norway about 872; this was given by King Harald to Ingimund, and tradition associated it in a mysterious way with the place where the latter finally settled in Iceland.

In Iceland itself the traces of a popular cult of Frey are very clear, and more than one prominent person mentioned in the sagas bears the title of Freys-goði, or 'priest of Frey.' Of one of these, Thorgrím, brother-in-law of Gísli Súrsson, the saga says that 'he intended to hold a festival at the beginning of winter, and greet the winter, and sacrifice to Frey.' When Thorgrím was murdered, and had been laid in a grave-mound, it was noticed that the snow never lay on the south or west sides of the mound, and the ground never froze there: 'and it was supposed that he was so highly esteemed by Frey for the offerings he made to him, that the god did not wish it to freeze between them.' Great attachment to this deity also appears in the story of Hrafnkel, who loved no other god more than Frey, and gave to him joint possession with himself of all his most valuable things. Among these was a horse, which on that account bore the name of Freyfaxi. Another Freyfaxi belonged to Brand in Vatnsdal, and most people believed that he had a religious reverence for the horse. Horses owned by Frey are also mentioned as existing in Thrandheim in the days of Olaf Tryggvason (about 996).

At Eyafirth in Iceland there was a temple of Frey, which is mentioned several times in the saga of Víga-Glúm. Thorkel, says the story, went to Frey's temple, taking with him an old ox, and addressed the god thus: 'Frey,' said he, 'you have long been my confidant, and have received many gifts from me, and repaid me well. Now I give you this ox, so that it may come to pass that Glúm will leave this land as much under compulsion as I do now. And show me now some token whether you receive this or not.' Thereupon the ox bellowed, and fell down dead, and Thorkel then believed that Frey had accepted his gift. The saga also mentions that Frey would not allow outlaws to make his temple there a sanctuary. Glúm himself afterwards had a dream that many men had come there to see Frey. He asked who they were, and they said, 'We are your departed kinsfolk, and are making intercession with Frey that you may not be driven away from this ground; but Frey answers shortly and angrily, and recalls the ox that Thorkel gave him.' Then Glúm awoke, nd had less liking for Frey all the rest of his life.

According to the mythological accounts, Frey was the son of Njörd and brother of Freyja. he had great personal beauty in addition to his divine powers. 'He rules over rain and sunshine and the produce of the earth, and it is good to call on him for peace and plenty. He also has power over the prosperity of men.' He was believed to own the ship Skíðblaðnir, and to ride on the boar Gullinbursti (Golden-bristle). This association of Frey with the boar appears also in the following passage of one of the mythical sagas (Hervarar Saga): 'King Heidrek sacrificed to Frey; he should give to him the largest boar that could be got. They considered it so holy, that over its bristles they took an oath about all important matters. That boar was sacrificed by way of an atonement; on Christmas eve it was led into the hall before the king, and men then laid their hands on its bristles and made their vows.' In another and earlier mention of the sónargöltr (boar of atonement), however, it is not stated that the practice was connected with the cult of Frey, and in the absence of direct historical evidence the reality or significance of the rite remains doubtful.

As mentioned above, the mythology regarded Frey as the son of Njörd (Njörðr), a god of whom very little is really known. It has been supposed that the Nerthus, mentioned by Tacitus as being worshipped in common by a number of Germanic tribes, is the same as Njörd, but the fact that Tacitus speaks of Nerthus as a goddess and explains the name as meaning Mother Earth, makes the identification a very doubtful one. According to Snorri, Njörd 'rules over the course of the wind and calms the sea and fire. He is to be called on for voyaging and fishing. He is so rich and wealthy that he may give lands and treasure to whom he will.'

The worship of Njörd in Sweden and Norway is implied in the fact that places named after him are found in certain parts of these countries. When he is mentioned in the Icelandic writings, it is usually in conjunction with Frey. The practice of drinking the second toast to Njörd and Frey 'for peace and plenty' has been already mentioned. In the old heathen form of oath, taken by suitors and others at the legal assemblies, the deities invoked were 'Frey and Njörd and the Almighty God' (probably Thor). The two names are also combined by Egil in a verse (of 934) in which he prays that Frey and Njörd may be angry with King Eirík, while in one of his poems (about 962) he refers to them as the givers of wealth. With this may be compared the proverbial expression 'as rich as Njörd,' which occurs in old Icelandic. In one of Hallfred's verses (of 996) Frey and Njörd, Odin, Thor, and Freyja, are all mentioned together in contrast with God and Christ: in another (of the same time) the poet says, 'I am forced away from Njörd's offspring and made to pray to Christ.' These passages are sufficient to show that the cult of Njörd was closely connected with that of Frey, and make it probable that he was a deity of some importance even in the popular religion, but at best he remains a somewhat vague figure among the Scandinavian gods.

Of the remaining gods known to us from the mythology there are only the faintest traces in the historical sources. Even the original war-god Ty was so completely supplanted by Odin, that no distinct evidence is to be found for his worship in any part of Scandinavia, although Snorri describes him as 'the bravest and stoutest-hearted of the gods,' who had a great share in deciding the victory in battle; 'on him it is good for men of valour to call.' His name was, however, retained in poetic appellations of men (sometimes even of Odin), and was used in the epithets tý-hraustr for a very brave man, and tý-spakr for a clever one.

Still more uncertain is the question how far such deities as Heimdall, the wakeful warder of the gods, Bragi, the special god of poetry, and some others, really held a place in ordinary religious belief as distinct from the mythcreating fancy of the poets. Even such a striking mythological figure as the peace-maker Baldr, the most beautiful and lovable of all the gods, is strikingly ignored in all historical references to the old worship (the statements in Frithjof's saga being of no value in this respect). This is also the case with nearly all the goddesses, not excepting Frigg herself, the wife of Odin, the mother of Baldr, and the highest of them all, according to Snorri. It would appear, however, that Frigg had to some extent retired into the background before another goddess Freyja, the sister of Frey. We have already seen that when the days of the week received their Germanic names it was Frigg who was equated with the Roman Venus; but in the Scandinavian mythology it is Freyja, not Frigg, who is the goddess of love. Snorri describes Freyja as riding in a chariot drawn by two cats, 'and wheresoever she rides to battle, she has half the slain and Odin the other half.' This association of Freyja with Odin, which seems to imply that Frigg was almost on the point of being displaced by a rival goddess, also appears in the verse for which Hjalti Skeggjason was found guilty of blasphemy. It is implied, too, in a passage in Egil's saga, in which Thorgerd is represented as saying, 'I have had no supper, and will have none, until I come to Freyja. I know no better counsel for myself than my father's: I will not live after my father and brother.' The fact, too, that in the mythical sagas Freyja is almost the only goddess mentioned, indicates that her name had been remembered as one of special note in the old religion.


1. Compare the vow of Hallfred and his companions mentioned on p. 19.

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