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Knowing Freya, part 10: Gullveig

One of the most important events described in Norse myth is the Æsir-Vanir war, a conflict between the divine tribes which resulted in the unification of the two into a single pantheon. There are a number of theories about the meaning of this war. Some historians believe it is a allegory for the conflict between two cultures and the assimilation of their respective religions into one. But it could also be a purely mythical account, aimed at telling us something about the nature of the Gods.

The Æsir against the Vanir. Illustration by Karl Ehrenberg.

In this post, I want to focus on a  mysterious figure central to the conflict: The Goddess Gullveig.

In the 21th and 22d stanzas of the Völuspa, we read:

The war I remember, the first in the world,
When the Gods with spears had smitten Gullveig,
And in the hall of Hor (Odin) had burned Her,
Three times burned, and three times born,
Oft and again, yet ever She lives.

Heid They named Her who sought Their home,
The wide-seeing witch, in seid wise;
Minds She bewitched that were moved by Her magic,
To wicked women a joy She was.

Gullveig was a sorceress and skilled in seid, a form of magic aimed at predicting and shaping the future. This seemed to anger the Æsir, who tried and failed three times to kill Her. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the verses right before the story of Gullveig tells of the Norns and the way They write the fates of humans. That the sorceress Gullveig/Heid could read and alter the threads of fate, perhaps by influencing people’s minds, could have been seen as a disregard for the Norns’ work and as potentially dangerous, hence why the Æsir attempted to get rid of Her.

The Æsir burn Gullveig. Illustration by Lorenz Frølich.

Gullveig is only mentioned once in all surviving Norse myth. One might wonder how a figure so central to the Æsir-Vanir war could only be spoken of one time and then never again. The reason is likely because Gullveig is a by-name of Freya.

This is widely believed among both scholars and Heathens and makes sense for a number of reasons.

The gull in Gullveig means ‘gold’ and Heid means ‘bright’ or ‘shining’. What veig means isn’t clear but it could be ‘power’, ‘strength’ or possibly ‘lady’. Since Freya is a Goddess associated with gold, it would fit for Her to have a by-name which means ‘golden power’ or ‘golden lady’.

Another clue to the identity of Gullveig can be found in Ynglinga Saga, where it is written:

Njord’s Daughter was Freya. She presided over the sacrifice. It was She who first acquainted the Æsir with seid, which was customary among the Vanir.

Here we learn that Freya was the one who introduced seid to the Æsir; which leaves little doubt that She and Gullveig are indeed the same. We also learn that not only Her, but the Vanir in general were practitioners of this craft.

In the next post in this series, I’ll go more in depth into what seid is and how it relates to Freya.


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