Hélène Adeline Guerber
Myths of the Norsemen|
Chapter IX: Frey
Frey, or Fro, as he was called in Germany, was the son of Niörd and Nerthus, or of Niörd and Skadi, and was born in Vana-heim. He therefore belonged to the race of the Vanas, the divinities of water and air, but was warmly welcomed in Asgard when he came thither as hostage with his father. As it was customary among the Northern nations to bestow some valuable gift upon a child when he cut his first tooth, the Æsir gave the infant Frey the beautiful realm of Alf-heim or Fairyland, the home of the Light Elves.
Here Frey, the god of the golden sunshine and the warm summer showers, took up his abode, charmed with the society of the elves and fairies, who implicitly obeyed his every order, and at a sign from him flitted to and fro, doing all the good in their power, for they were pre-eminently beneficent spirits.
Frey also received from the gods a marvellous sword (an emblem of the sunbeams), which had the power of fighting successfully, and of its own accord, as soon as it was drawn from its sheath. Frey wielded this principally against the frost giants, whom he hated almost as much as did Thor, and because he carried this glittering weapon, he has sometimes been confounded with the sword-god Tyr or Saxnot.
The dwarfs from Svart-alfa-heim gave Frey the golden-bristled boar Gullin-bursti (the golden-bristled), a personification of the sun. The radiant bristles of this animal were considered symbolical either of the solar rays, of the golden grain, which at his bidding waved over the harvest fields of Midgard, or of agriculture; for the boar (by tearing up the ground with his sharp tusk) was supposed to have first taught mankind how to plough.
Frey sometimes rode astride of this marvellous boar, whose speed was very great, and at other times harnessed him to his golden chariot, which was said to contain the fruits and flowers which he lavishly scattered abroad over the face of the earth.
Frey was, moreover, the proud possessor not only of the dauntless steed Blodug-hofi, which would dash through fire and water at his command, but also of the magic ship Skidbladnir, a personification of the clouds. This vessel, sailing over land and sea, was always wafted along by favourable winds, and was so elastic that, while it could assume large enough proportions to carry the gods, their steeds, and all their equipments, it could also be folded up like a napkin and thrust into a pocket.
It is related in one of the lays of the Edda that Frey once ventured to ascend Odin’s throne Hlidskialf, from which exalted seat his gaze ranged over the wide earth. Looking towards the frozen North, he saw a beautiful young maiden enter the house of the frost giant Gymir, and as she raised her hand to lift the latch her radiant beauty illuminated sea and sky.
A moment later, this lovely creature, whose name was Gerda, and who is considered as a personification of the flashing Northern lights, vanished within her father’s house, and Frey pensively wended his way back to Alfheim, his heart oppressed with longing to make this fair maiden his wife. Being deeply in love, he was melancholy and absent-minded in the extreme, and began to behave so strangely that his father, Niörd, became greatly alarmed about his health, and bade his favourite servant, Skirnir, discover the cause of this sudden change. After much persuasion, Skirnir finally won from Frey an account of his ascent of Hlidskialf, and of the fair vision he had seen. He confessed his love and also his utter despair, for as Gerda was the daughter of Gymir and Angur-boda, and a relative of the murdered giant Thiassi, he feared she would never view his suit with favour.
Skirnir, however, replied consolingly that he could see no reason why his master should take a despondent view of the case, and he offered to go and woo the maiden in his name, providing Frey would lend him his steed for the journey, and give him his glittering sword for reward.
Overjoyed at the prospect of winning the beautiful Gerda, Frey willingly handed Skirnir the flashing sword, and gave him permission to use his horse. But he quickly relapsed into the state of reverie which had become usual with him since falling in love, and thus he did not notice that Skirnir was still hovering near him, nor did he perceive him cunningly steal the reflection of his face from the surface of the brook near which he was seated, and imprison it in his drinking horn, with intent “to pour it out in Gerda’s cup, and by its beauty win the heart of the giantess for the lord” for whom he was about to go a-wooing. Provided with this portrait, with eleven golden apples, and with the magic ring Draupnir, Skirnir now rode off to Jötun-heim, to fulfil his embassy. As he came near Gymir’s dwelling he heard the loud and persistent howling of his watch-dogs, which were personifications of the wintry winds. A shepherd, guarding his flock in the vicinity, told him, in answer to his inquiry, that it would be impossible to approach the house, on account of the flaming barrier which surrounded it; but Skirnir, knowing that Blodug-hofi would dash through any fire, merely set spurs to his steed, and, riding up unscathed to the giant’s door, was soon ushered into the presence of the lovely Gerda.
To induce the fair maiden to lend a favourable ear to his master’s proposals, Skirnir showed her the stolen portrait, and proffered the golden apples and magic ring, which, however, she haughtily refused to accept, declaring that her father had gold enough and to spare.
Indignant at her scorn, Skirnir now threatened to decapitate her with his magic sword, but as this did not in the least frighten the maiden, and she calmly defied him, he had recourse to magic arts. Cutting runes in his stick, he told her that unless she yielded ere the spell was ended, she would be condemned either to eternal celibacy, or to marry some aged frost giant whom she could never love.
Terrified into submission by the frightful description of her cheerless future in case she persisted in her refusal, Gerda finally consented to become Frey’s wife, and dismissed Skirnir, promising to meet her future spouse on the ninth night, in the land of Buri, the green grove, where she would dispel his sadness and make him happy.
Delighted with his success, Skirnir hurried back to Alf-heim, where Frey came eagerly to learn the result of his journey. When he learned that Gerda had consented to become his wife, his face grew radiant with joy; but when Skirnir informed him that he would have to wait nine nights ere he could behold his promised bride, he turned sadly away, declaring the time would appear interminable.
In spite of this loverlike despondency, however, the time of waiting came to an end, and Frey joyfully hastened to the green grove, where, true to her appointment, he found Gerda, and she became his happy wife, and proudly sat upon his throne beside him.
According to some mythologists, Gerda is not a personification of the aurora borealis, but of the earth, which, hard, cold, and unyielding, resists the spring-god’s proffers of adornment and fruitfulness (the apples and ring), defies the flashing sunbeams (Frey’s sword), and only consents to receive his kiss when it learns that it will else be doomed to perpetual barrenness, or given over entirely into the power of the giants (ice and snow). The nine nights of waiting are typical of the nine winter months, at the end of which the earth becomes the bride of the sun, in the groves where the trees are budding forth into leaf and blossom.
Frey and Gerda, we are told, became the parents of a son called Fiolnir, whose birth consoled Gerda for the loss of her brother Beli. The latter had attacked Frey and had been slain by him, although the sun-god, deprived of his matchless sword, had been obliged to defend himself with a stag horn which he hastily snatched from the wall of his dwelling.
Besides the faithful Skirnir, Frey had two other attendants, a married couple, Beyggvir and Beyla, the personifications of mill refuse and manure, which two ingredients, being used in agriculture for fertilising purposes, were therefore considered Frey’s faithful servants, in spite of their unpleasant qualities.
Snorro-Sturleson, in his “Heimskringla,” or chronicle of the ancient kings of Norway, states that Frey was an historical personage who bore the name of Ingvi-Frey, and ruled in Upsala after the death of the semi-historical Odin and Niörd. Under his rule the people enjoyed such prosperity and peace that they declared their king must be a god. They therefore began to invoke him as such, carrying their enthusiastic admiration to such lengths that when he died the priests, not daring to reveal the fact, laid him in a great mound instead of burning his body, as had been customary until then. They then informed the people that Frey—whose name was the Northern synonym for “master”—had “gone into the mound,” an expression which eventually became the Northman’s phrase for death.
Not until three years later did the people, who had continued paying their taxes to the king by pouring gold, silver, and copper coin into the mound through three different openings, discover that Frey was dead. As their peace and prosperity had remained undisturbed, they decreed that his corpse should never be burned, and they thus inaugurated the custom of mound-burial, which in due time supplanted the funeral pyre in many places. One of the three mounds near Gamla Upsala still bears this god’s name. His statues were placed in the great temple there, and his name was duly mentioned in all solemn oaths, of which the usual formula was, “So help me Frey, Niörd, and the Almighty Asa” (Odin).
No weapons were ever admitted in Frey’s temples, the most celebrated of which were at Throndhjeim in Norway, and at Thvera in Iceland. In these temples oxen or horses were offered in sacrifice to him, a heavy gold ring being dipped in the victim’s blood ere the above-mentioned oath was solemnly taken upon it.
Frey’s statues, like those of all the other Northern divinities, were roughly hewn blocks of wood, and the last of these sacred images seems to have been destroyed by Olaf the Saint, who, as we have seen, forcibly converted many of his subjects. Besides being god of sunshine, fruitfulness, peace, and prosperity, Frey was considered the patron of horses and horsemen, and the deliverer of all captives.
One month of every year, the Yule month, or Thor’s month, was considered sacred to Frey as well as to Thor, and began on the longest night of the year, which bore the name of Mother Night. This month was a time of feasting and rejoicing, for it heralded the return of the sun. The festival was called Yule (wheel) because the sun was supposed to resemble a wheel rapidly revolving across the sky. This resemblance gave rise to a singular custom in England, Germany, and along the banks of the Moselle. Until within late years, the people were wont to assemble yearly upon a mountain, to set fire to a huge wooden wheel, twined with straw, which, all ablaze, was then sent rolling down the hill, to plunge with a hiss into the water.
All the Northern races considered the Yule feast the greatest of the year, and were wont to celebrate it with dancing, feasting, and drinking, each god being pledged by name. The first Christian missionaries, perceiving the extreme popularity of this feast, thought it best to encourage drinking to the health of the Lord and his twelve apostles when they first began to convert the Northern heathens. In honour of Frey, boar’s flesh was eaten on this occasion. Crowned with laurel and rosemary, the animal’s head was brought into the banqueting-hall with much ceremony—a custom long after observed, as the following lines will show:
The father of the family laid his hand on the sacred dish, which was called “the boar of atonement,” swearing he would be faithful to his family, and would fulfil all his obligations—an example which was followed by all present, from the highest to the lowest. This dish could be carved only by a man of unblemished reputation and tried courage, for the boar’s head was a sacred emblem which was supposed to inspire every one with fear. For that reason a boar’s head was frequently used as ornament for the helmets of Northern kings and heroes whose bravery was unquestioned.
As Frey’s name of Fro is phonetically the same as the word used in German for gladness, he was considered the patron of every joy, and was invariably invoked by married couples who wished to live in harmony. Those who succeeded in doing so for a certain length of time were publicly rewarded by the gift of a piece of boar’s flesh, for which in later times, the English and Viennese substituted a flitch of bacon or a ham.
At the village of Dunmow in Essex, the ancient custom is still observed. In Vienna the ham or flitch of bacon was hung over the city gate, whence the successful candidate was expected to bring it down, after he had satisfied the judges that he lived in peace with his wife, but was not under petticoat rule. It is said that in Vienna this ham remained for a long time unclaimed until at last a worthy burgher presented himself before the judges, bearing his wife’s written affidavit that they had been married twelve years and had never disagreed—a statement which was confirmed by all their neighbours. The judges, satisfied with the proofs laid before them, told the candidate that the prize was his, and that he only need climb the ladder placed beneath it and bring it down. Rejoicing at having secured such a fine ham, the man speedily mounted the ladder; but as he was about to reach for the prize he noticed that the ham, exposed to the noonday sun, was beginning to melt, and that a drop of fat threatened to fall upon his Sunday coat. Hastily beating a retreat, he pulled off his coat, jocosely remarking that his wife would scold him roundly were he to stain it, a confession which made the bystanders roar with laughter, and which cost him his ham.
Another Yuletide custom was the burning of a huge log, which had to last through the night, otherwise it was considered a very bad omen indeed. The charred remains of this log were carefully collected, and treasured up for the purpose of setting fire to the log of the following year.
This festival was so popular in Scandinavia, where it was celebrated in January, that King Olaf, seeing how dear it was to the Northern heart, transferred most of its observances to Christmas day, thereby doing much to reconcile the ignorant people to their change of religion.
As god of peace and prosperity, Frey is supposed to have reappeared upon earth many times, and to have ruled the Swedes under the name of Ingvi-Frey, whence his descendants were called Inglings. He also governed the Danes under the name of Fridleef. In Denmark he is said to have married the beautiful maiden Freygerda, whom he had rescued from a dragon. By her he had a son named Frodi, who, in due time, succeeded him as king.
Frodi ruled Denmark in the days when there was “peace throughout the world,” that is to say, just at the time when Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea; and because all his subjects lived in amity, he was generally known as Peace Frodi.
It is related that Frodi once received from Hengi-kiaptr a pair of magic millstones, called Grotti, which were so ponderous that none of his servants nor even his strongest warriors could turn them. The king was aware that the mill was enchanted and would grind anything he wished, so he was very anxious indeed to set it to work, and, during a visit to Sweden, he saw and purchased as slaves the two giantesses Menia and Fenia, whose powerful muscles and frames had attracted his attention.
On his return home, Peace Frodi led his new servants to the mill, and bade them turn the grindstones and grind out gold, peace, and prosperity, and they immediately fulfilled his wishes. Cheerfully the women worked on, hour after hour, until the king’s coffers were overflowing with gold, and prosperity and peace were rife throughout his land.
But when Menia and Fenia would fain have rested awhile, the king, whose greed had been excited, bade them work on. In spite of their entreaties he forced them to labour hour after hour, allowing them only as much time to rest as was required for the singing of a verse in a song, until exasperated by his cruelty, the giantesses resolved at length to have revenge. One night while Frodi slept they changed their song, and, instead of prosperity and peace, they grimly began to grind an armed host, whereby they induced the Viking Mysinger to land with a large body of troops. While the spell was working the Danes continued in slumber, and thus they were completely surprised by the Viking host, who slew them all.
Mysinger took the magic millstones Grotti and the two slaves and put them on board his vessel, bidding the women grind salt, which was a very valuable staple of commerce at that time. The women obeyed, and their millstones went round, grinding salt in abundance; but the Viking, as cruel as Frodi, would give the poor women no rest, wherefore a heavy punishment overtook him and his followers. Such an immense quantity of salt was ground by the magic millstones that in the end its weight sunk the ship and all on board.
The ponderous stones sank into the sea in the Pentland Firth, or off the north-western coast of Norway, making a deep round hole, and the waters, rushing into the vortex and gurgling in the holes in the centre of the stones, produced the great whirlpool which is known as the Maelstrom. As for the salt it soon melted; but such was the immense quantity ground by the giantesses that it permeated all the waters of the sea, which have ever since been very salt.
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