I’ve been thinking about the construction and survival of myth. I don’t think there’s any argument that myths change over time, and that the myths of any particular culture in the form we have them are not the only forms that ever existed. They are merely the only forms that survived. In fact, the more we know about a particular culture the more likely that we have surviving variants. To a greater or lesser extent, these variants allow us to make guesses about the original form of the myth.
For the Norse myths, the “final authority” is Snorri Sturluson, a 13th century Icelandic poet and historian who preserved what he knew about the religion of his ancestors. Other bits and pieces survive, but we are often indebted to Snorri for giving us the framework in which to understand them. Even so, he was writing more than 200 years after Iceland officially converted to Christianity. We can trust him, but he was not infallible, and just where to draw the line is a matter for scholars to debate.
The question that has caught my interest is whether the goddesses Freyja and Frigga might have originally been the same. Snorri separates them and his interpretation is considered authoritative. By his time I suppose they were thought to be two separate goddesses. But, were they originally separate? Were they separate throughout the Norse world? Indeed, were they even separate in Iceland when it converted to Christianity? These are difficult questions, because there is actually quite a bit of evidence that they might have once been identical. I don’t pretend a scholarly analysis, but I’ve collected some of the points that I find significant.
Their names are similar, although they come from different sources. Freyja and Frigga. Freyja seems to mean Lady and Frigga seems to come from an Indo-European root meaning Love. Among the many-named Norse gods, we might expect that Freyja would be a title for a goddess with another name — and what more likely name than one with sexual overtones?
Moreover, their husbands have similar names, Oðinn and Oðr. In fact, these two names are linguistically related.
Days of the week
The French Vendredi preserves the name Venus, while Friday preserves the name Frigga. If they were different goddesses, it seems more logical to me that the Romans in their Interpretio Germanica would have equated Venus with sexually active Freyja, not with chaste Frigga.
Freyja is presented as promiscuous. Loki accused her of having slept with all the Æsir, and with her own brother. Mostly famously, she slept with four dwarves to obtain the necklace Brisingamen. Frigga, generally represented as chaste, had her own moments. When Oðinn left on a long journey, Frigga slept with his brothers. In a story preserved by Saxo Grammaticus, Frigga slept with a slave in order to get his help in despoiling a statute of Oðinn for the gold on it. This story seems to me to be parallel in many ways to the story of Freyja and the dwarves.
Freyja is married to Oðr, who is absent on long journeys and the tears she cries for him become amber. I think this story dovetails nicely with the story of Odhinn being absent for so long that Frigga slept with his brothers. In fact, in Saxo Grammaticus’ version, Oðinn went into exile in shame because Frigga had slept with the slave. Oðinn’s search for knowledge also seems to me to imply, or perhaps merely reinforce, the idea that he might have been often absent.
Sky and Earth
Oðinn is essentially a sky god, married to both Jörd (the Earth) and Frigga (the Queen of Heaven). However, both Freyja and Frigga can also be seen as earth goddesses. Snorri says, “The earth was his daughter and his wife. With her he made the first son, and that is Ása-Thor.” Freyja, as one of the Vanir, can be easily cast as an earth goddess. Frigga tried to preserve the life of her son Baldr by exacting oaths from everything on earth not to harm him. Rocks, trees and every kind of plant take the oath. She fails to ask the lowly mistletoe, which ultimately becomes the cause of Baldr’s death. The story, it seems to me, suggests that Frigga has authority over the earth; authority more in keeping with Jörd or Freyja than with Frigga’s status as Oðinn’s wife.
Freyja is preeminently the goddess of magic. It is she who taught seiðr to Oðinn. Yet, Frigga is said to know the future, which she does not disclose. What is more likely than that Oðinn learned magic from his wife, who nevertheless withholds some part of her knowledge?
Division of warriors
The Norse believed that the souls of those who died in battle belonged half to Freyja and half to Oðinn. My personal impression is that this division makes more sense if warriors are being divided between husband and wife. I am thinking, of course, of other examples, such as The Nibelungenlied, where Gunther and Kriemhild each have their own band of warriors (and the animosity between the two creates some problems). I find some support in Paulus Diaconus’ story about a dispute between Oðinn and Frigga, where Oðinn favored the Vandals and Frigga favored the Langobards. That story seems to me to yet another echo of the story pattern where husband and wife each have their own war-band.
William Reaves suggests a different interpretation: that Oðinn’s wives Jörd and Frigga were the same (Nine Reasons to Identify Frigg with Jord at http://www.aetaustralia.org/articles/arwrfrigg.htm). He ventures arguments that I’m still thinking about, but his fundamental argument (I think) is that Frigga was the daughter of Fjörgynnr, while Fjörgynn was another name for Jörd. Because Fjörgynnr and Fjörgynn are parallel names (like Freyr and Freyja), Reaves thinks they might have been father and daughter. He notes that in the surviving literature, Thor is twice called son of Jörd and twice called son of Frigga.
I have a different first impression: it seems to me the doubling of names happens with siblings. So, Fjörgynnr and Fjörgynn are more likely to have been brother and sister (like Freyr and Freyja, or Njördr and “Nerthus”). So, Fjörgynn-Jörd should be a niece of Frigga Fjörgynnr’s-daughter. This would make sense if Jörd were the first wife and the mother of Thor, and Frigga were the second wife, as in Snorri.
This leaves me with an elegant, but unorthodox theory that Fjörgynnr-Njördr (the sea) and Fjörgynn-Jörd (the earth) were brother and sister, and the parents of Freyr and Freyja. Fjörgynn-Jörd married Oðinn and they were the parents of Thor. There was a war between the Vanir and the the Æsir, which was settled by an exchange of hostages. Njördr, Freyr and Freyja went to live with the Æsir. Freyja-Frigga married Oðinn, with whom she then shared power, teaching him seiðr, and becoming the mother of Baldr. She betrayed him in her lust for gold. He went into exile. She cried for him, but slept with his brothers. When he returned, they were reconciled. And so on.
As if all of this were not purely spun from my own imagination, I’m still troubled by Snorri’s comment that Jörd was Oðinn’s wife and his daughter. He also says that she had a brother Aud (“Rich”), which seems a likely title for Njördr. From what I can find, Jörd was the daughter of Nótt by her second husband Ánar (“Second”). Could this have been another name for Oðinn? Nótt’s first husband, the father of Aud, was Naglfari (a name associated with a ship). So, it hangs together, but I’ll think about that some other time.
My guesses aren’t the final answer, even for me. I’m just thinking out loud.