[In this essay, Heathen priestess, mystic, and author Erin Lale explores the concept of godspouse. She considers how the term differs from historical to modern times; how individuals who identify as godspouses live and relate to one another; and how the figure of the Mead-Woman fulfills an initiatory role in the dedication of godspouses.]
Part 1: Defining Godspice
The first question to consider is: what are we talking about when we say “godspouse?” Modern day people who use the term godspouse to describe themselves are almost all women, to the extent that many people, including some godspice, have decided to use the term nun.
Is a Godspouse a Nun? Yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that a modern godspouse is usually a woman devoted to a specific god who has gone through some sort of process, either in the physical world or in the reality of visions and meditative journeys, which included a symbolic wedding and resulted in her considering herself a bride of the god. The model in our language and culture for what a nun is derives from Christian nuns, and both Christian nuns and Christian consecrated virgins go through a ceremony like that. In that sense, a heathen or pagan godspouse is like a nun.
No, in the sense that not all godspice are women, and historically marrying an entity such as a Valkyrie or giant as documented in the lore was practiced more by men than by women, and such entities can be considered to fall under the general heading of gods as entities receiving worship.
No, in the sense that Christian nuns are generally expected to be members of orders of nuns who live together. They usually have a habit or religious clothing that is recognizable to others in their culture. Other religions such as Buddhism also have monks and nuns. Buddhist monks and nuns also belong to orders that live together and have a recognizable religious uniform.
Godspice are more like a Christian consecrated virgin than like a Christian nun. Christian consecrated virgins go through the same religious ceremonies as nuns and have many of the same religious duties as nuns, but live in the world, are expected to support themselves, and are not subject to each other’s authority.
Godspice usually don’t live with other godspice, although they might form loose associations for group gnosis and mutual support, often over the internet. Some godspice can have a human husband, although godspice of Odin usually don’t.
Some godspice are heathen or Asatru, that is, followers of the Aesir and other Northern gods such as the Vanir. Some are Northern Tradition or Rokkatru or other form of heathenry that includes the gods of Asatru plus some Jotnar. Some are pagan, that is, followers of various other pagan religions such as Wicca. Some are Polytheist, that is, pagans who follow some path, either traditional like Hellenismos or modern like Eclectic Witch, who embrace the doctrine that the gods are individuals who are separate from each other and have their own will and personalities.
Loose associations of godspice devoted to particular gods often form across sects and traditions. They do not have a human authority figure, except for forum managers and event hosts who have the authority inherent in being a host.
Some of these loose associations may develop into their own sects or traditions. I think it’s unlikely that orders of godspice will ever live together in convents, however, at least not heathen godspice. Heathens like to derive their practices from the Lore, and there is a model in heathen Lore to follow. Next I present that model; the following is intended for heathens of various traditions, including Asatru, Northern Path, et cetera, but those of other paths may find it relevant.
Part 2: The Elja Model
The model for how a heathen godspouse relates to another godspouse of the same god derives from how the god’s wives, brides, and mistresses relate to each other in the Lore. A secondary model is how wives of the same human husband related to each other in historical heathen cultures.
Hvernig skal kenna Frigg? Svá, at kalla hana dóttur Fjörgyns, kona Óðins, móður Baldrs, elju Jarðar ok Rindar ok Gunnlaðar ok Gerðar, sværa Nönnu, dróttning ása ok ásynja, Fullu ok valshams ok Fensala.
Kennings for Frigg
How should one ken Frigg? Call her Daughter of Fjörgynn, Wife of Odin, Mother of Baldr, Co-Wife of Jörd and Rindr and Gunnlöd and Grídr, Mother-in-law of Nanna, Lady of the Æsir and Ásynjur, of Fulla and of the Hawk-Plumage and of Fensalir.
The word elja, in the sense of “co-wife” or “sister-wife”, is used to describe Frigga’s relationship to Rindr, and other women — goddesses, jotnar, and humans — who had been brides or mistresses of her husband Odin. This word is also sometimes translated as “rival.” Regardless of the word’s meaning, the relationship Frigga has with Rindr is no relationship at all, as far as we know. They never met in any story in the Lore.
Frigga has met Skadi, but that is only because Skadi lives in Asgard and attends the same social events that Frigga does. Skadi was already divorced from Njord and living in Asgard when she had children by Odin. The bride Odin seduced to gain the Mead of Inspiration never went to Asgard or met any of his other brides. The bride who became the mother of Vali, avenger of Baldr, did not accompany her son to Asgard. These women all remained in their original households. None of them went to live with any of the others. If all of Odin’s brides and mistresses in the Lore all gathered together there would be enough of them to form a monastic community, but they didn’t. His modern human brides don’t all go live together, either.
There are many different gods who have living human brides. Among the heathen gods, the three who have the most living human brides in modern times are Odin, Freyr, and Loki. The Lore also gives us a model of how Loki’s goddess wife Sigyn and jotun mistress (or first wife) Angrboda relate to each other: they also never met in any story in the Lore. Neither of them joined the other’s household. Neither of them became subordinate to the other. They both continued to own their own homes and to have the authority of that ownership.
Human brides of Loki in modern times also continue to live independently of each other. Becoming a godspouse does not entail becoming subordinate to any other godspouse, removing from the world to live with other godspice, or materially supporting or being supported by any other godspouse or religious order. Some of them might be friends with each other, but it is not required, nor even expected.
Among humans in historical times, the term elja was also used to describe the relationship between Njal’s wives, Hrodny and Bergthora. They, too, lived in separate households.
Part 3: Godspice, Divine Ancestors, and the Fairy Marriage in Historical Times
In Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages, Ruth Mazzo Karras writes about unions between humans and non-humans: “Marriage and similar relations with and descent from jotnar, alfar, trolls, dvergar, nornir, vaettir, and other non human beings occurs in saga literature.”
In Iarpskammr: Tribal Taxonomy and Transgressive Exogamy in the Fornaldarsögur, The Legendary Sagas Origins and Development (edited by Annette Lassen, Agneta Ney, and Ármann Jakobsson, University of Iceland Press, 2012), Sandra Ballif Straubhaar writes, “Various royal lines claim descent from gods. The Yngling dynasty of Sweden claimed descent from Freyr, according to the Ynglinga Saga. The prologue to Snorri’s Edda lists many sons of Odin who founded royal dynasties, most notably Sigi, ancestor of the Volsungs, whom Snorri identified as Burgundian kings, and Saeming, ancestor of Jarl Hakon. Saeming was one of Odin’s sons by Skadi. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles list Odin as an ancestor of the kings of the Angles. The Old Dutch / Saxon Baptismal Vow lists Saxneate as ancestor of the kings of Essex. This is not an exhaustive list.”
In The Seed of Yggdrasil, Maria Kvilhaug presents a model in which a seeker finds the Mead-Woman and drinks her mead as a form of initiation, overcomes obstacles on the path, and then goes on to marry a divine entity. Male seekers marry a Valkyrie, and female seekers marry Odin.
The hero in Fjolsvinnsmal seeks the Great Maiden in the world of the dead. He realizes that he has been married to her in his previous incarnations but forgot upon his last death. He realizes that she is the queen of the giant world, and then she wakes up and he marries her. This is an initiatory process whereby a male seeker marries a female power. The equivalent initiatory process for a female seeker would be to marry a male power. Those of another gender might seek one of the gender fluid, transgender, or shape-changing powers. In Jungian terms, the hero is marrying his anima, and the equivalent for a heroine would be her animus, but those terms refer to a part of the person who is undergoing the process, whereas in both ancient and modern heathenry, the god or goddess the human being marries is considered to be a separate being with its own will and its own existence apart from the human.
In the two versions of the myth of Helgi Hundingsbane, the hero is reincarnated several times, and each time he must go through the initiatory process of marrying the Valkyrie. She is called by different names in each incarnation, but she is the same being he married in his previous life. These marriages take place in an otherworld. This indicates that the hero is marrying a spiritual entity in a vision or dream.
This is the same process that a godspouse goes through when marrying a god. A Valkyrie is not precisely the same type of being as a god, but very close. In modern terms, Helgi could be considered a godspouse, although in historical times there was no special term for people in this type of relationship.
The story of Helgi continues with another incarnation of the hero, now named Sigurd, marrying the Valkyrie in the story cycle told in Gripisspa, Reginsmal, Sigrdrifumal, etc. These stories are told as if they referred to historical events in the life of Attila the Hun, and so the spiritual nature of the brides and of their weddings is disguised, although the women are still clearly Valkyries.
Gudrun goes through an initiatory process in which she learns from the Mead-Woman and then marries a thinly-disguised Odinnic figure. In each of these cases, Kvilhaug proposes that the divine being the seeker marries is simultaneously a god or goddess and the seeker’s own inner feminine or inner masculine.
These examples show that in historical times people believed in marriage between humans and spirit beings, including gods and magical entities. These relationships were not considered forms of priesthood, but existed for their own sakes.
In the later folk tale and fairy tale period, the model of a seeker marrying a symbolic inner masculine or inner feminine as a representative of the Great Divine presented the marriage partner as a prince or princess. In Breaking the Mother Goose Code, Jeri Studebaker proposed that the prince or princess in a fairy tale represents a god or goddess and that the symbols and actions in the tale are coded mythological, magical, or initiatory formulas. The marriage of the story’s protagonist to a prince or princess would therefore be a form of the marriage between a human and the Great Divine. In the story of Cinderella, the seeker goes on an otherworld journey in a magical conveyance, assisted by a spirit guide and animal spirit helpers, much like a shamanic journey, and it results in the seeker’s union with her inner masculine / Great Divine in the form of the prince. In the story of Sleeping Beauty, the seeker must gain access to the sleeping inner soul / goddess by getting through a fortress wall which is difficult to pass, much like in the stories in which a Valkyrie is sleeping inside an encircling wall of fire.
Part 4: From Historical to Modern Godspousery
In historical times, some of the humans who married entities such as mountain giants were said to derive magical assistance and other benefits from the relationship. The humans were considered magic users, equivalent to shamans or witches, rather than priests, since priesthood in Iceland and other heathen nations was a social position embedded in social constructs of rank, wealth, and property, rather than a purely god-related devotional life. The hero who marries the maiden in heathen mythology is undergoing an initiation, but afterwards he may not be considered a magic user, but rather a better hero, suitable to become a king.
In modern times, some godspice consider themselves priestesses, either as godspice or in addition to being godspice. Some godspice already had a devotional relationship which may have included priesthood before becoming godspice. Many godspice are temple keepers, but only a few of these temples are open to the public. Most such temples are private chapel spaces within the home, for family and kindred only. The types of priesthood godspice practice today may or may not include the same type of community-oriented priesthood practiced in historical heathen times.
Shirl Sazinsky’s paper, “His Name Means Ecstasy: Exploring Sacred Marriage in Northern European Traditions,” explores the theme of the meeting with the mead-woman, drinking the sacred mead, and then going on to a marriage to a god or other otherworldly being. It summarizes the lore presented at greater length in Kvilhaug’s book and also describes the subjective experience of godspousery as a union with the divine. Her article brings the historical foundations forward to the modern day and shows us the mystery from the inside, through the eyes of a modern initiate.
To be clear, not everyone who meets the mead-woman and drinks her brew also becomes a godspouse. Some go on other paths. Just like in historical times, many who have a vision of drinking the sacred mead are on a hero’s path, in which the mead-woman’s gift helps them advance spiritually and also helps them in their worldly life. An example of this is John Mainer’s poem “To the Dregs,” which describes a vision of drinking the sacred mead which leads to an improvement in the poet’s life, but not to a marriage with a spirit being.
[Written by Erin Lale.]