I hold a Masters in Public History and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.
Who are the Norse?
The Norse are the people of Scandinavia, before it was Christianized. They spoke a language known as Old Norse and lived between the 8th and 11th centuries in what is now northern Europe, Iceland, Greenland, and parts of the Americas. From the early medieval period to today, we’ve also called them the Vikings, though this term is inaccurate since the Norse term for viking only describe sailors and was not extensively used until the Victorian era.
Norse mythology stems primarily from paganism and continued, after Christianization, as Scandinavian folklore. It is related to Germanic mythology, similarly to how Greek and Roman religions are related but not quite the same. We know about Norse mythology primarily through medieval manuscripts, archaeological finds, and folk tradition. Most of this material centers on the plights of the gods and how they interact with other beings, such as humans.
As for women in Norse mythology, their place can be adequately summed by quoting from one of the main medieval manuscripts on the Norse, the Prose Edda:
“All the goddesses may be paraphrased thus: by calling them by the name of another, and naming in terms of their possessions or their works or their kindred.”
Yet, as we’ll find today, these medieval interpretations of Norse goddesses are missing the power behind the myth.
Freyja and Real Magic
We’ll begin with Freyja, the Norse goddess of love, fertility, and magic. Though there are many female characters in the Norse mythological canon, Freyja is the one that we know the most about. In fact, she may be one of the few whose status is equal to male characters. She is shown below in a Viking-era silver pendant found in a grave in Sweden, now in the collections of the Swedish History Museum.
Freyja is described in many ways, but her two primary aspects are love and fertility. She loves erotic poetry and is stated in the myths to be part of “the world’s oldest profession," i.e., a prostitute, which is fairly common for goddesses of love in ancient mythologies. She is also a practitioner of siedr, or Norse magic. In fact, the addition of magic to Norse culture is directly attributed to Freyja, who introduced it to the gods and humans.
Freyja practices a specific type of magic known as divination, or predicting destiny. She also has the ability to rewrite destiny. This aspect of Freyja is very telling because we know that there were human practitioners of magic in Norse culture, known as volva.
The volva were sorceresses and seeresses who traveled from town to town performing magic in exchange for lodging and food. Their social status was ambiguous: they were simultaneously exalted, feared, longed for, celebrated, and scorned. You can see finds from the grave of a volva in Oland, which are now on display at the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. These finds include an 82 centimeter long wand of iron with bronze details; a pitcher, likely from Persia; and a Western European bronze bowl - all of which show how widely traveled the volva might have been.
One of the most famous volva is in the tale of Beowulf. As recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus, the Queen of Denmark is known as a veleda. She is the wife of a war band's leader, and her duties include foretelling the outcome of a suggested plan of action by divination. Additionally, during ritual feasts, the veleda was to serve a special cup of liquor to the war band in order to aid them on their impending quest.
Freyja was likely held in the same regard as a veleda among the Norse. She was the wife of Odin, king of all the gods. As his wife, she split the souls of the dead with him: taking half of those who died in battle to her hall, Folkvangar, while Odin took the other half to his hall, Valhalla. Yet she was powerful in her own right due to her abilities. Like the volva, Freyja was exalted and celebrated for her ability to bring love and fertility to the Norse, but she was feared and scorned for the power and independence she held, especially concerning her magic.
Another clue to Freyja’s power lies in the fact that Freyja appears in both divisions of Norse mythology: Vanir and Aesir. This indicates she is very powerful and respected, especially since she changed little in transferring from one division to another. Additionally, Freyja’s name means “lady” in Old Norse. Therefore, it was an honor for Norse women to be called “lady” because it meant that they were like Freyja.
The Not So Warrior-Like Princess: Lady Sif
In contrast to Freyja, we find the Lady Sif. In Norse mythology, Lady Sif is nothing like what you see in the modern Marvel comics and movies. In fact, we know very little about what Sif was like or what she did. Like this 1909 painting by John Charles Dollman, Lady Sif has been hidden from us, except for her infamous hair.
The primary reference to her confirms that she is Thor’s wife. In The Creation of Thor’s Hammer, her role is almost that of a prop. Loki, Thor’s trickster brother, cuts off Lady Sif’s long, golden hair as a trick. Thor, enraged, threatens to kill Loki, but Loki convinces Thor to let him find an even fairer head of hair for Sif in exchange for sparing his life. Loki has the dwarves fashion a golden headpiece for Lady Sif, which becomes her new hair.
Lady Sif’s hair has been interpreted by scholars to indicate that she is a goddess of the harvest. In Old Norse, the word for a specific species of moss used by the Norse translates to “Sif’s hair” and supports this assertion.
Yet this is all we know about the Lady Sif. Nothing else has been found to suggest that Lady Sif was a warrior or fought alongside Thor, as is portrayed in the Marvel Universe. However, the Marvel universe does make mention of Sif’s hair, when Loki cuts it off, hoping to ruin Thor’s romance with Sif. Thor then has Loki replace Sif’s hair, but Loki - unwilling to pay the price for golden hair - has the dwarves fashion hair from the blackness of the night. These strands begin to grow once placed on Sif’s head, and - unfortunately for Loki - Thor find Sif’s new black hair even more attractive. This is how Marvel explains Sif’s hair, though they fail to explain how Lady Sif has also become a warrior, which is not mentioned in any Norse sources.
The Giant Lady: Skadi
In addition to Freyja and Lady Sif, there are the goddesses Skadi and Idunn who can help us to understand the real lives of Norse women.
Skadi is a giantess in Norse mythology. She became a goddess by marrying the god Njord. Skadi and Njord were not married long, however, and separated amicably when they found that Skadi hated Njord’s seaside home as much as he hated her mountain home. She is depicted in this 1901 painting by H. L. M. entitled “Skadi Hunting in the Mountains.”
In Old Norse, Skadi means “harm." The term may also come from Germanic and Old English words meaning “shadow.” It is also thought that her name is either the namesake of Scandinavia or is derived from Scandinavia, though this has not been confirmed. Her name may also derive from the fact that she is a giant. Giants in Norse mythology are forces of darkness, cold, and death; hence, “shadow” seems an appropriate name.
Skadi lives in the highest northern mountains of the Norse lands, where the snow never melts. She is an avid huntress and skier, known for her bow, snowshoes, and skis. Due to these skills and her association with darkness and cold, Skadi may be a goddess of winter or winter activities like skiing.
Yet scholar Hilda Ellis Davidson has proposed another interpretation of Skadi. To Davidson, Skadi is the mythological embodiment of the separation of the Norsemen from their neighbors, the Sami people of northern Norway. Skadi shows many of the same characteristics used to describe the Sami, such as skiing, bow hunting, and living in the mountains. Skadi was also worshiped extensively in northern Norway, which further supports Davidson’s theory.
Idunn and Immortality
Our final goddess is Idunn, depicted in the 1858 statue by Herman Wilhelm Bissen featured above. Idunn is the owner and dispenser of a mythological fruit that grants immortality. This fruit must be eaten by the Norse gods and goddesses in order to maintain their eternal life. Thus, Idunn’s name means “ever young” or “rejuvenator.”
She is integral to the Norse pantheon, as is related in the tale, The Kidnapping of Idun. In this tale, Loki was made to bring a giant the fruits of Idunn’s tree. During Loki’s attempt to do so, the giant kidnaps Idunn and takes her to his lair. In her absence, the Norse gods begin to grow old and weak, slowly becoming mortal. When the gods learn that Idunn is missing, they send Loki to rescue her. Their immortality is restored upon her return.
Other than this tale, we know very little of Idunn. Like Lady Sif and Skadi, Idunn is shrouded in mystery, often referred to through tales of other gods. This is in direct contrast to Freyja, of whom we know so much.
The Many Roles of Norse Women
As we’ve seen, Norse goddesses inhabit a range of roles. Most of these roles center on giving or taking life, as well as magic. Though often referred to based on their relations to male gods, Norse goddesses inhabited a space which suggests that Norse women held a variety of roles. They could be powerful and independent, like Freyja and her human counterparts the volva and veleda. They could be secondary to their husbands and largely unknown to us, like the place which Lady Sif holds.
Or they could inhabit spaces in-between, like Skadi and Idunn, where they are simultaneously independent - capable of elevating their status (as Skadi does through marriage to a god), divorcing and living without a male counterpart (also like Skadi), or holding roles integral to the well-being of society like Idunn - but they are also tied to the deeds of their male counterparts and never given any stories of their own. They are, like many women, companions to history but never front-and-center, living out their daily lives as wives, mothers, workers, and travelers.
Thus, Norse goddesses show us that Norse women were ascribed many roles, often centering on their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Yet these roles could be expanded to include independent positions of power, roles in war or maintaining society, and lives apart from any male consort.
The Evidence for Powerful Women
Gudrid, the Far Traveler
Perhaps most telling, however, are the stories of real Norse women. Like their mythological counterparts, most are unknown to us. Yet some are known, and their lives are incredibly complex, like Gudrid - who married, had children, and became one of the first European women in the Americas. Gudrid also traversed the Atlantic at least eight times during her life. You can learn more about her in the book, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown. (I highly recommend it - it's one of my favorite reads!)
These women - mythological and real - show us that assuming ancient women were just wives and mothers is the gravest mistake we can make. Ancient women, like the Norse women, had choices. These choices led to some amazing feats, most of which we will likely never know. But of the ones we do know, one thing is certain: women, even when behind the curtain, had a powerful impact on the world around them.