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Knowing Freya. Part 8: Chooser of the slain and Queen of Folkvang

Freya is a Goddess of many names. One of them is Valfreya, meaning ‘Freya of the slain’ or ‘Lady of the slain’. The reason for this is mentioned in the 14th stanza of Grímnísmál, a poem in which a disguised Oden tells the young Agnar about different realms and which Deities rule over them:

”Folkvang is the ninth, and there Freya arranges the choice of seats in the hall; half the slain She chooses every day, and half Oden owns.”

Why Freya, of all the Æsir and Asynjor, gets this special privilege is not told. But is quite interesting that a Goddess usually associated with love, life and beauty is also associated with war and death.

Ride of the valkyries by Johan Gustaf Sandberg.

Because of this and Her name Valfreya, She is sometimes referred to a the Leader of the valkyries, who are the female spirits who collect the souls of the fallen soldiers. While that title is not actually used anywhere in the lore, it isn’t hard to imagine Freya leading the harvest of souls, pointing to which She wants for Herself.

One might wonder what Her standards are. No surviving sources tells us, so we can only speculate. Is it the bravest who She wants? Does it matter what side of the war they stood on? Perhaps it is their nobility of character? One has a hard time imagining that, for example, evil-minded and cowardly soldiers who massacred innocent civilians would be given a seat at a Goddess’ table.

Within Folkvang, which means ‘The people’s field’, there is a place called Sessrúmnir and we are told in the 24th chapter of Gylfaginning that it is great and fair.

Sessrúmnir can mean ‘sitting hall’ but can also mean ‘place with many roomy seats’. And Sessrúmnir is mentioned among a list of ships in the end of the Snorri’s Edda. This has led some historians to theorise that there is a connection between Sessrúmnir and the many burial ships found throughout Scandinavia. Which could further mean that there is a connection between Freya and the mysterious Goddess whom the roman historian Tacitus referred to as ‘Isis of the Suebi’ and whose effigy was pulled on a ship shaped chariot.

Something interesting is that not everyone who was buried in a ship or ship-like structure was someone who died in battle. One of the skeletons found on the Oseberg ship, for example, was of someone about 80 years of age and who had suffered from severe arthritis. If ship burials were somehow associated with Freya, this could point to Her being a Goddess not only of slain warriors but of the dead in general.

A story that hints to this is found in Egil’s Saga. When Egill Skallagrímsson refuses to eat, his daughter Thorgerd says: ”I have had no evening meal, nor will I do so until I join Freya. I know no better course of action than my father’s. I do not want to live after my father and brother are dead.”

This shows there was a belief you could go to an afterlife with Freya without dying in battle.

The ancient Norse believed in different realms the soul could travel to after death, such as Valhalla and Helheim, but it’s not always clear where they stand in relation to each other. The exakt location of Folkvang, for example, is not known from any of the surviving lore. And to further complicate things, there was also a belief in reincarnation.

Overall, the ancient Norse views of the afterlife were a lot more nuanced than the idea that each person deserves either eternal bliss or eternal torture. Many Heathens today also believe that the world beyond is far more complex than that and probably far more than our own.

Viking age burial site in Anundshög, Sweden


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