Knowing Freya. Part 9: Brisingamen

The Norse Powers and Deities are described has having a number of fascinating objects. Odin has a magic spear that never misses. Frey has a sword that fights on its own. And who can forget Mjölnir, Thor’s mighty hammer which both crushes Jötunn skulls and blesses weddings?

But few objects in Norse lore are quite as enigmatic as Freya’s necklace Brisingamen. Brising can be translated as ‘glowing’, ‘flaming’ or ‘fiery’ and men can mean ‘jewellery’, ‘torc’, ‘ornament’ or ‘necklace’. Exactly what it represents is not told in any of the surviving sources but we can make a guess based on what we know.

Let’s start with a story of how Freya supposedly acquired the famed jewellery.

In the Sörla þáttr, a propaganda piece written by Christian priests, we read that a euhemerised Freya once came upon a cave where four dwarfs were working on forging a necklace. Taken by it’s great beauty, she tried to bargain for it and offered them gold. But what the dwarfs wanted was to each spend a night with her. She agreed and the necklace was hers.

There is the possibility that the story was entirely created by the writers of Sörla þáttr and had nothing to do with anything the ancient Heathens actually believed. But the best propaganda is the one that contains just enough truth in it to be twisted into something else. What if this is a genuine myth, just distorted through the lens of patriarchal Christian values?

Freya is a Goddess associated with sex, abundance, love and fertility. ‘Dwarf’ in Germanic/Norse Paganism isn’t an offensive term for little people, but refers to lesser spiritual beings that inhabit the Earth and mountains. They are almost certainly identical with the dark elves who inhabit Svartalfheim. The idea that a Goddess of fertility and wealth would ‘mate’ with elemental spirits of the Earth, perhaps to create gold and growth, doesn’t seem shocking but even necessary.

It is also interesting that the dwarves are exactly four, like the dwarves of the four directions. But that could simply be a coincidence.

Brisingamen is attested in a few other sources. One of them is the Thrymskvidha. In this old tale, a Jötunn steals Asa-Thor’s hammer and demands to get Freya’s hand in marriage before he agrees to return it. Thor orders Freya to put on a wedding dress and come with Him to Jötunheim. This angers Freya so much that She snorts loudly, making the hall of the Æsir shake and the Brisingamen fall apart. Perhaps this means that whatever Brisingamen is, it can reflect the Goddess’ mood.

Later in the story, Thor disguises Himself as Freya in a wedding dress to trick His way into Jötunheim. An integral part of the outfit is of course Brisingamen, which shows that the Goddess is rarely without Her favourite piece of jewellery.

Thor as a bride and Loki as bridesmaid. Illustration by Carl Larsson.

In another interesting tale, told in different versions in different sources, Loki turns Themselves into a flea and steals Brisingamen while Freya is asleep. In the Sörla þáttr, the necklace is shown to Odin – who is here described as a human king and Freya’s husband – and thus her infidelity is revealed. In exchange for giving it back, he demands that she make two kings fight a bloody war until Ragnarök. A Christian king later comes and breaks the curse.

In Skáldskaparmál, it is told that after Loki had stolen the necklace, Heimdall fought Them for it. The two Gods struggled in the form of seals out on a island at sea and Heimdall won. Hence Heimdall is called ‘Retriever of Freya’s necklace’.

What this story is supposed to represent isn’t clear. There are theories that Brisingamen being taken out at sea is a metaphor for the sun setting over the horizon, and Heimdall – the Son of nine sea Goddesses – retrieving it represents the sun rising again. This would mean that Brisingamen is a solar symbol.

That the sun, without which nothing on Earth could grow and live, would be seen as the glorious jewel of a fertility Goddess does makes a lot of sense.

Heimdall returns Brisingamen to Freya. Painting by Nils Blommér.

But it is hard to make a strong case either way, considering how little we know. Brinsingamen could also be connected to wealth. Perhaps even to one of Her Daughters, whose names (Hnoss and Gersimi) both mean ‘treasure’.

The only thing we know for certain is that Brisingamen is something or someone of great importance to Lady Freya.

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