The Unsung Goddesses - The handmaidens of Frigg
-by Geoff Nacht Engel Davison, October 2018
Saga (seeress), Eir (healer), Gefjun (care of unmarried girls), Fulla (plenty), Sjofn (love) Lofn (forbidden love), Var (oaths), Vor(wisdom) Syn(truth) Hlin (protector), Snotra (clever), Gna (flyer). Their names aren't as familiar a the Freyja, Frigg, Sif and Idun the wives of the gods we know so well. And this is because very little is known about them, the writing concerning them sparse to say the least - sometimes no more than a single sentence. I thought we should celebrate them here so I have pulled together as many references to them as I can find.
The Gylfaginning the first part of Snorri Sturluson's 13th century Prose Edda, deals with the creation and destruction of the world of the Norse gods, and many other aspects of Norse mythology. Here in chapter 36 these goddesses are described as maids often mistranslated as virgins but in reality the word just meant unmarried women.
"Ganglere asked: Which are the goddesses? Har answered:
1. Frigg is the first; she possesses the right lordly dwelling which is called Fensaler. "
Frigg being a major goddess is covered in depth elsewhere so I will not dwell too much on her here.. Suffice it to say thar some sources say that Firgg and Freyja are different aspects of the archetypal mother Goddess and that these Handmaidens of Frigg can also be seen as personifications of qualities of this supreme goddess. Certainly there is precedent in skaldic kenning (riddles) for using alternative crytpic names for.major gods and goddesses (eg Grmnir - the hooded one for Odin). Alternatively they may be fragmentary remnants of earlier goddesses who have been absorbed into the cult of Odin and Frigg.
2. *The second is Saga, who dwells in Sokvabek, and this is a large dwelling. "
The origin of the name Sága is generally held to be connected to the Old Norse verb sjá, meaning "to see" and that she is understood to be understood to be a seeress. Elsewhere, in Lokasenna, Frigg is also described as a seeress so perhaps Sága is a personifications of that aspect of Frigg.
3. *The third is Eir, who is the best leech."
Leech being the old word for healer or doctor. The name Eir is also associated with metal ore and copper in particular so she is often depicted as having red hair. She is said to heal using a white flower and to sit on Lyfjaberg (the hill of healing).
4. "Fourth is Gefjun, who is a may, and those who die maids become her hand-maidens."
Gefjun has several mentions. Associated both with virginity and ploughing important aspects of Norse life. She is verbally attacked along with many of the gods by Loki in Lokasenna during which Odin hints she has power to see the future:
"Loki: Be silent, Gefion! I will now just mention, how that fair youth thy mind corrupted, who thee a necklace gave, and around whom thou thy limbs didst twine?
Odin: Mad art thou, Loki, and little of wit, The wrath of Gefjun to rouse; For the fate that is set for all she sees. Even as I, methinks.
And another story about her from Gylfaginning says she created the island of Zealand.
King Gylfi was once the ruler of "what is now called Sweden," and that he was said to have given "a certain vagrant woman, as reward for his entertainment, one plough-land in his kingdom, as much as four oxen could plow up in a day and night." He didn't know she was the goddess Gefjun who took four oxen from Jötunheimr and her plough "cut so hard and deep that it uprooted the land, and the oxen drew the land out into the sea to the west and halted in a certain sound." Gefjun there placed the land, and bestowed upon it the name Zealand. Where the land had been taken from a lake stands.
5. "The fifth is Fulla, who is also a may, she wears her hair flowing and has a golden ribbon about her head; she carries Frigg's chest, takes care of her shoes and knows her secrets."
Again little is written of her but her name is derived from the old Norse word for bountiful and obviously related to our word full (plenty)
6 " The sixth is Freyja, who is ranked with Frigg."
Freyja has been covered in depth elsewhere.so we will skip over her here
7. "The seventh is Sjofn, who is fond of turning men's and women's hearts to love, and it is from her name that love is called Sjafne. "
This is the only reference to her and it's is believed she is most likely another aspect of Frigg/Frejya
8. "The eighth is Lofn, who is kind and good to those who call upon her, and she has permission from Alfather or Frigg to bring together men and women, no matter what difficulties may stand in the way; therefore "love" is so called from her name, and also that which is much loved by men. "
The root of her name lof-, means "praise." or "comfort". Some scholars theorise that Lofn may simply be another name for the goddess Frigg. She is described as gentle in manner and as an arranger of marriages, even when they have been forbidden.
9. "The ninth is Var. She hears the oaths and troths that men and women plight to each other. Hence such vows are called vars, and she takes vengeance on those who break their promises. "
Her name means "pledge" in old Norse. In the Poetic Edda poem Þrymskviða, the blessed of Vár is invoked by the jötunn Þrymr after his "bride" (who is actually the god Thor disguised as the goddess Freyja) is hallowed with the stolen hammer of Thor, Mjöllnir, at their wedding:
"Then said Thrym,:Bring the hammer in, the bride to consecrate; lay Miöllnir on the maiden's knee;unite us each with other by the hand of Var"
10. "The tenth is Vor, who is so wise and searching that nothing can be concealed from her. It is a saying that a woman becomes vor (ware) of what she becomes wise. ".
Very little known other than her name is related to the old Norse word "Vorr" meaning "careful"
11. "The eleventh is Syn, who guards the door of the hall, and closes it against those who are not to enter. In trials she guards those suits in which anyone tries to make use of falsehood. Hence is the saying that "syn is set against it," when anyone tries to deny ought. "
And that is about all we know of her.
12. "The twelfth is Hlin, who guards those men whom Frigg wants to protect from any danger. Hence is the saying that he hlins who is forewarned. "
In the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá, Hlín receives a mention regarding the foretold death of the god Odin during the immense battle waged at Ragnarök:
"Then is fulfilled Hlín'ssecond sorrow,when Óðinn goesto fight with the wolf,and Beli's slayer,bright, against Surtr.Then shall Frigg'ssweet friend fall."
The death of Odin (the stanza's "second sorrow") implies a first death. Scholars all but universally view this as a reference to the death of the god Baldr, Frigg and Odin's son.
13."The thirteenth is Snotra, who is wise and courtly. After her, men and women who are wise are called Snotras."
There is some speculation that Snorri may have invented Snotra from the Old Norse word snotr ("clever"). But other scholars (Simek) say she should included as one of several vaguely defined figures seen as female protective goddesses that are each responsible for specific areas of the private sphere. certainly cleverness (guile) and wisdom were highly valued qualities in Norse times.
"The fourteenth is Gna, whom Frigg sends on her errands into various worlds. She rides upon a horse called Hofvarpner, that runs through the air and over the sea. Once, when she was riding, some vans saw her faring through the air. Then said one of them:
What flies there? What fares there? What glides in the air?
I fly not, Though I fare And glide through the air On Hofvarpner, That Hamskerper, Begat with Gardrofa.
From Gna's name it is said that anything that fares high in the air gnas.
And there you have it a brief summary of the unsung goddesses we have recognised today.