Every breath cuts your lungs, rattling through the ache of climbing, climbing, climbing— these fucking, endless stairs!— and you are still so far down.
Your legs shake; the stairs of living stone, worn by eons of descending workers, grind into the soles of your bare feet. Your throat is hot as a rainless summer. Your breasts feel swollen. And dusty. Seared dry. Blood, sweat and substances you cannot name cover your ragged, throbbing body. Not all of it is yours.
Every step is heavier than the last.
The high-pitched clink of hammers striking, the dust and the blistering, baleful heat of the forge you left behind, this stays seared in your memory. Dwarves do not work from nothing; do not toil for nothing, no. And their taste in raw materials— always turned to marvels!— is infamously peculiar.
You knew there was a price; there’s always a price. And you walked down anyway, didn’t you, down there alone? You did not tell anyone your thoughts, nor where you were going. You did not know if you would come back, nor what shape you might return with.
You do not win power by asking for it; you forge it in the doing.
So when you hear him pelting down the steps— Frey?— yes, it’s him, your brother, your mate, your twin— running as only the young Lord could— hear the alarm in his breathing that rasps and gusts, a long way off, you keep climbing, with your weary head held high. You keep one hand on the shifting weight of the necklace, the only thing you’re wearing, that was so hard won. The sweet scent of amber rises from it, covering the sharp salt tang and musk of your naked body. Warm from the heat of your exertion, the beads are lit from within by the fires of your soul.
You’re too tired to greet him, to say anything, when Frey races down those last stairs between you. The clean outside life of him, the strength of his panic, is so different from the slow, deep-earth pallor of the dwarves, men tanned only by the forge flames, whose minds grind inexorably, like the roots of mountains.
His clothes are dark with sweat, but he smells green. Like sun and wind and leafy boughs, and you almost smile. But then you see his face. For a moment, he gapes at you, stunned. And when he takes in the state of you, takes in that this is truly you, he grabs hold of your shoulders as if you might at any second fall and tumble back down those stairs.
His eyes are wild with grief.
You look him in the face. Your voice cracks, raw as a clam whose shell has been broken in the surf.
“You think you have the only kind of wisdom, brother?”
He looks at the mighty treasure that you have won, shining clean and awesome and holy against the salt-sweat, spit, the ichor and tears and cum— this marvel that is all that you are, for all to see, for eternity— your glory and your strength—
and his gaze falters.
Frey’s voice shakes; his hands don’t know where, on your aching limbs, to rest.
“What have they done to your body?!”
“What needed to be done.”
“You’re a mess…”
Blood and… other things… are caked between your thighs. You don’t think about what caused it, what things, that once were you, which came out— hammered, changed, thrust into the burning forge. Possibilities that shimmered, clarified, mercilessly polished and remade.
Frey moves to put a hand on your belly and doesn’t. It hovers there a moment, as if to block away what’s done.
“You’re not…” He swallows. “You won’t have any more children.”
There’s a silence between you, and you’re keenly aware that you have stopped climbing. That he stands where you need to go, one arm lingering at your shoulders to brace you.
“Come on. I’ll take care of you before anyone sees this—”
You shake your head fiercely.
“No. Take me to Eir.”
Your friend, the divine physician. The only one who could possibly heal you is another Goddess, but he’s not thinking straight. Frey tries to pick you up, to carry you out of this miserable place. The stairs are many and high and steep. It would be so easy to give in now, lay against his chest, and…
“I’ll walk on my own two feet—” (Frey looks at you) “—I have to.”
You have to keep walking. If you stay still much longer here, if you stop again, you won’t be able to make it. You try to fend him off. It’s hopeless. He puts your arm over his shoulder, and one of his around your waist, bearing your weight.
(grunt, a stair)
“—if the situation was reversed—”
“—you’d insist on helping me—”
(pause, breathing hard)
“—and I’d take it.”
You relent and lean against him, because he’s right. You don’t want to remember why he’s right, the gaunt, once-hale man you thought a corpse swaying from the world tree; it’s easier to live with your own fatigue and pain than the memory of his.
“If I can’t stand tall—” your breath rasps— “how will I— ever— defend you?”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhh….” He looks up at the miles of stairs above you. “Walk.”
Step, shift, step. Rest. Another stair.
You will stay upright, you will not collapse here, nor fall under the weight of what you have won—
You gave of your body. Your substance, your sinews, your soul, that the greatest craftsmen known could forge this—
There are parts of you missing, now. Locked in the amber and gold-hammered castings of this necklace, strung on the cords of your own flesh, they can never die. They will grow back, stronger. They will be there when your people need them, for you are their shield, their last guard, the innermost defense….
When do you end up in his arms? Your head is heavy, it’s resting on his shoulder. And then…
Brightness. The air smells wet, green, open. Sunshine on a meadow, surrounded by an alpine grove. Your feet touch the ground, but you’re not standing. He’s holding you up, one hand moving near his throat…
Frey lays his cloak down on the grass and you collapse onto it.
He’s holding your hand, the other brushing sweat-soaked hair back from your cheek.
“Stay here, I’ll bring Eir.”
The sunlight is so warm and gentle on your skin, the breezes so hushed that you close your heavy eyes…
* * *
Norse Gods bear famous wounds: an eye traded for wisdom, an ear given to hear the approach of danger, a hand to bind and slow the dire wolf of ultimate destruction. Each sacrifice is an emblem of their power: mighty Oðhin, who sees all in his high seat, is half-blinded; Heimdallr the guardian left half-deaf; Tyr the God of justice unable, forevermore, to swear by his severed right hand in court. While it’s said in the prose Edda that the Goddesses are every bit equal to the Gods, thought is rarely given to what a Goddess might likewise have to sacrifice to win her power or the safety of her people. For nothing in the universe is free. Whether taken, earned, found or given, someone has always worked for what we have.
Freyja’s gaining of her emblem of power, the famed necklace Brisingamen, is often portrayed as a bawdy burlesque barter between a Goddess of desire and four lusty, cunning dwarves. In such tellings, it’s forgotten that Freyja is not only a Goddess of wealth and passion, but, as a deity of fertility, also one potent with creativity. Dwarves are renowned craftsman, makers not only of exquisitely beautiful treasures, but of useful, holy things. However the effort of creating marvels always has a high cost. Even Loki, the master trickster, could not wrest treasures away from the dwarves scot-free.
Brisingamen has been translated as ‘Flaming Necklace’, ‘Ornament’ and ‘Necklace of the Brisings’, dazzling with a radiance that evokes the summer sun. The ring or circle, as a necklace, wreath and solar disk, is an ancient northern Goddess symbol, found in enigmatic Viking silver and bronze-age figurines and stone-age carvings from Scandinavia. The names of two Norse Goddesses imply both an encircling boundary and protection: Gerdr, wife of Frey, means ‘Enclosure’ (such as the wooden palisades which once ringed villages and forts); Hlin, one of the nine “handmaids” of Frigg, Queen of the Gods (possibly an attribute of Frigg herself), means ‘Protector’. A carved stone image of two figures standing by an evergreen tree and ringed by a wreath or necklace, seems to evoke the story of the wedding of Frey and Gerdr. And Freyja herself is closely associated with the building of the mighty walls that encircle the Gods’ city, Asgard. She was notoriously promised along with the sun and the moon— with angry, loud protests— to a Giant builder as payment for raising that wall. Freyja is not a Goddess who takes being promised to someone as if she is a piece of property, and on more than one occasion adamantly refuses to go along with plans the male Gods have made without consulting her. In one story, her outrage is so severe that it shatters her necklace.
Freyja is the most frequently mentioned Norse Goddess, occurring in several tales, and commonly found within Viking-era women’s names. She has long been associated with amber and gold, and with the ambiguous magical practice of seiðhr, which also may mean ‘spinning’ and involve the ritual use of a distaff (also associated with Frigg)— bringing us back to the idea of a thread and a circle or ring. The idea of a Goddess Queen who establishes unimpeachable boundaries, such as the circuit of the sun and moon, has further weight in considering that the Gods Oðhin, Loki and Frey are notorious for breaking them, and that the Norse cosmos functions in several myths on the breaking and re-establishment of order.
It’s not at all clear from the surviving lore whether Freyja was always considered a separate deity from Frigg, or whether ‘Freyja’ is simply a title/role for the primary Northern Goddess used only within Scandinavia. The day of the week Friday may be named for either her or Frigg. Freyja’s magical falcon cloak of flying (owned by either Goddess, depending on the source) must be borrowed by Loki in order to save the gods. The medieval writer Saxo Grammaticus conflates the necklace of Freyja with one owned by Frigg, in a story that implies her unfaithfulness to her husband Oðhin. Frigg and Freyja are also associated with the circular motion of the spindle, connected to the threads of life, lineage, magic and fate. While Frigg means ‘Beloved’, Freyja means ‘Lady’, as her brother Frey’s name means ‘Lord’— the titles you’d more commonly expect of the leaders of the Gods. Although Frigg is named “Queen of the Gods”, curiously, it is Freyja who acts as the Lady of Asgard in surviving Icelandic tales. Like Oðhin, she is a deity of magic and witchcraft, and receives one half of those slain in battle— another role you would expect of his wife, Frigg.
In all the tales in which someone demands Freyja’s hand, it is implied that a powerful sovereignty goes with it, the loss of which would cripple the Gods’ independence. Such an equation of marriage to the Goddess-Queen with the right to rule can be found within Snorri Sturleson’s mythic history of the Scandinavian monarchs, Ynglingasaga, in which Oðhin wanders off and leaves both his wife, Frigg, and his throne to be shared by his two brothers, Vili and Ve, until his return. The concept of a king married to his land and the Goddess who represents it is an ancient one, from Celtic ideas of sacral kingship to Egyptian lore, where the Goddess Isis’ name and her hieroglyphic symbol are the ‘Throne’.
Trying to separate the identity of these two Goddesses gets even blurrier when we look at their partners. Freyja’s mysterious missing husband, according to Snorri, is one ‘Odh’— a name with the same root and meaning as Oðhin, ‘Inspiration’ or ‘Ecstasy’ as in an ecstatic fervor of artistic inspiration. Oðhin, like Freyja, also shares a raptor form— the eagle. Listed as one of Oðhin’s lovers, Freyja is famously accused of sleeping with her (also married) brother Frey by Loki in the Icelandic poem Loki’s Quarrel! None of the Gods refute this, even though we’re told that brother-sister pairings, once allowed by Freyja’s original tribe, the Vanir, go patently against the laws of the Aesir Gods. Instead of arguing that the siblings aren’t lovers, it’s questioned whether the accusation is even worthy of being a slight. This would put Freyja and Frey solidly in the territory of other divine royal couples— such as Isis and Osiris or Zeus and Hera— and even their own parents!
* * *
This essay comes directly from one of my seiðhr journeys as a spaekona, a Norse seer and oracle. It’s part of an illustrated book of encounters with Northern European Goddesses. You can find on my website and blog.
[An illustrator, writer and polytheist for over a decade, Shirl Sazynski paints icons and tells stories rooted in mystical experience and myth. She is a frequent contributor to Eternal Haunted Summer and blogs on Slavic Paganism and Heathenry for Witches and Pagans magazine (One-Eyed Cat). Her work has appeared in several books from Bibliotheca Alexandrina, numerous literary and commercial magazines, several newspapers and galleries, and a launched computer game. She is also a professional tarot and tea-leaf reader and practicing spaekona (Norse seer). More information about her work can be found at shirlsazynski.com.]