Who Was Freyr in Norse Mythology?
In the legends that survive from the Viking Age, the most powerful gods loom largest. Odin and Thor, warrior gods who possessed incredible strength, are usually seen as the most popular.
While these gods were important in the Norse world, others were even more widely worshipped. Although the stories do not focus on them as much, their descriptions and archaeological finds make it clear that they were well-liked.
One of these was Freyr, who was a far more peaceful god than most. Although he was also a skilled fighter, Freyr was more closely associated with fertility, prosperity, and natural beauty.
As one of the Vanir gods, some stories even claim that he received more sacrifices and praise from mankind than Odin and his Aesir pantheon.
As a god who represented prosperity and pleasure, Freyr was a popular figure among those who didn’t fight. By making the earth fertile, he blessed people with plenty of food and offspring rather than success in battle or material wealth.
Although the popular conception of the Viking Age is of a culture that honored violence above all else, the popularity of Freyr shows that peace and stability were just as highly-valued. While many other gods inspired fear, Freyr was a god the people could love.
Freyr is often called the Norse god of peace and prosperity.
He was the son of Njord and twin brother of the goddess Freya, making him one of the most prominent Vanir gods. Like his father and sister, he was associated more with plenty and positivity than the more war-like Aesir.
Many historians believe that the two groups of gods had originally belonged to different cultures; the Aesir were the Germanic gods while the Vanir were indigenous to Scandinavia. The story of how the Vanir became incorporated into the dominant pantheon shows how important Freyr and his family were.
The Aesir and Vanir had originally been at odds with one another, with some stories saying that the Aesir were jealous that the Vanir were more popular among the humans. The two groups went to war with one another.
When the two sides met to negotiate peace, they exchanged hostages. While many of the Vanir were all but forgotten, at least in written records, those who went to Asgard remained popular.
Njord, as the wealthiest of the Vanir, was sent as their representative to the Aesir homeland. His children, Freyr and Freya, chose to accompany him.
Many sources say that Freyr was the most well-loved of the Norse gods, with the possible exception of Baldur. As a god of prosperity, he was a favorite of the common people.
Freyr appears to have been particularly important to farmers. He was connected to the earth and brought prosperity not in the form of gold, but with plentiful crops.
The Prose Edda describes Freyr as the god of sunshine and gentle rain. These bring life to the earth and encourage the fertility of all plants and animals.
This is supported by the fact that contemporary accounts name Freyr as the god of male fertility.
Records from the time and archaeological finds show that Freyr was often depicted with a prominent phallus, a widely-used way of denoting fertility gods. Accounts from German sources also say that Freyr was invoked during marriage ceremonies and say that he brought “peace and pleasure” to his followers.
Although Freyr was a god of peace and fertility, some poems show that he was also seen as a skilled warrior.
Most Norse gods were closely tied to warfare in some way. The culture of the Viking Age valued skill in fighting as a masculine trait, so even the most peaceful gods would be expected to give their blessings to warriors.
As the god of masculine fertility, it is likely that Freyr would have also represented the virility of a strong fighting man, as well.
The Norse poets, who were called skalds, often mentioned Freyr in their works. While these sometimes praised him as a god of plenty, they often emphasized the masculine qualities of a fighter.
In one, for example, Freyr is called “battle-bold.” Many others describe his prowess with weapons, particularly the sword.
Freyr may also have been the source of one of the Viking Age’s most potent forms of magic.
The Vanir are often associated with magic; Freya particularly was said to be an expert in its use. Hers was seidr, a more feminine magic devoted to the workings of fate, however.
Odin and the Aesir were more often associated with the magic of the battlefield. Devotion, training, and rituals could give a fighter animal-like strength and make him a berserker.
While most berserkers took on the personas of a bear or wolf and allied themselves with Odin, some seem to have been fervent followers of Freyr instead.
In one poem, Freyr and Njord are said to have given strength to a devoted fighter after being called upon to help drive Eric Bloodaxe out of Norway.
Freyr’s blessing may have been the power of a boar, the animal most closely associated with him. While most Norse sources glorify Odin’s bear cult fighters, the origin of the word berserkers, many historians believe that Freyr gave similar powers through his sacred animal.
One of the most popular myths about Freyr was that of his marriage to a giantess.
Many of the gods married women of the jotnar. While the word is often translated as “giant,” the jotnar were variously terrible monsters and semi-divine beings in different myths.
According to the Prose Edda, Freyr went to Odin’s throne room one day and found it empty. Seeing a rare opportunity, he sat on Hlithskjalf, the seat that allowed Odin to see what was happening in all the worlds at any time.
Freyr looked to the north and saw a beautiful jotunn woman walking into a rich estate. She was so lovely that she seemed to illuminate everything around her and Freyr instantly fell in love.
Freyr became so lovesick that those around him noticed a difference in both his behavior and appearance. Njord was worried because his son seemed sullen and depressed.
Njord asked Freyr’s trusted servant, Skirnir, to find the cause of his son’s illness. Eventually, Freyr confessed to his servant that he was so in love with the beautiful giant woman that he thought he would waste away and die if he could not have her.
He asked Skirnir to find the woman for him and profess his love. Skirnir agreed, but Freyr would have to pay a price for winning his bride.
Then Skírnir answered thus: he would go on his errand, but Freyr should give him his own sword-which is so good that it fights of itself;- and Freyr did not refuse, but gave him the sword. Then Skírnir went forth and wooed the woman for him, and received her promise; and nine nights later she was to come to the place called Barrey, and then go to the bridal with Freyr.
-Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda, Gylfaginning (trans Brodeur)
While Gerdr agreed to marry Freyr, his sword was lost forever. Without this magical weapon, he would be at a disadvantage in later fights.
When he battled against a giant named Beli, for example, he had to do so without a weapon. He was nearly defeated, but managed to kill his foe with a deer’s antler in place of a proper sword.
Like many of Snorri Sturluson’s stories, the loss of Freyr’s sword would come back in a theme of his final battle. The god of peace would have to face his worst enemy at Ragnarok without the benefit of his best weapon.
Freyr’s magical sword was just one of the items closely associated with the god.
Items in Norse mythology are often given great importance. They have names and often have more detailed origin stories than the gods and heroes to own them.
For the gods, these items were often symbols of their specific powers. They amplified their abilities and showed the parts of the world they had dominion over.
Freyr was unique in that his possessions included not just wondrous items, but also an entire world. One source claimed that he was given Alfheim, the homeland of the elves, as a gift to mark the cutting of his first tooth as an infant.
His lordship over Alfheim plays little role in his surviving stories, however. Like most gods, Freyr was closely linked to important items.
Freyr’s attributes included:
- The magical sword: Because it was not named, some historians believe that Freyr’s lost sword was a later addition to the mythology. It could strike on its own, virtually guaranteeing success for its wielder.
- Gullinbursti: The golden boar was Freyr’s sacred animal. It could fly through the air faster than any horse moved on land and gave off light as it pulled Freyr’s wagon.
- Blodughofi: One poem says that Freyr also traveled by riding a horse that could travel through fire. Its name meant “Blood Hoof.”
- Skidbladnir: The swiftest ship in the world would never lose its way or sink. When not in use, it could be folded small enough to fit in Freyr’s pocket.
Apart from the appearance of his magical sword in the Prose Edda, few specific myths survive that detail how and when Freyr used his magical items. While there are mentions of Gullinbursti pulling his wagon, many seem to have been shown in art more often than in literature.
The story of how he got some of these items is well known, though.
Both the golden boar and the folding ship were made by dwarves at the behest of Loki. In the famous story of when the trickster stole Sif’s hair, six great gifts were made for the gods in a wager with the dwarves.
Gullinbursti and Skidbladnir were among the wondrous items that earned the praise of the gods, and nearly cost Loki his head when he lost the bet.
The other items made in that story went to Thor and Odin, generally regarded as the most powerful of the Aesir gods. The fact that Freyr was included as the third recipient instead of another prominent Aesir, or even his father Njord, shows how highly-regarded he was.
His other wondrous items, however, ultimately played a role in his demise. He gave both his sword and his horse to Skirnir went he went to woo Gerdr, both of which would have been invaluable in his final battle.
Freyr is one of the gods, and the only Vanir, who is named in the legend of Ragnarok.
According to Norse belief, the end of the world had been fated from the beginning of time. Many stories, particularly in the Prose Edda, set up the events that lead to this epic battle.
The gods would fight many enemies during Ragnarok, including Loki and his monstrous children. One of the most fearsome, however, would be the fire giant Surt.
Surt would lead giants out of Muspelheim, the primordial world of fire, to assault the world of men. They would try to cross the Bifrost bridge into Asgard, but it would partially collapse beneath them.
In the Prose Edda, many gods are given specific enemies that they will fight against. Freyr will face off against Surt.
Like many of the gods named in the foretelling of Ragnarok, Freyr will kill his opponent but die in the attempt. Although his father will survive and become a leader of the united gods that remain, Freyr will give his life to defeat Surt in the final battle.
Sturluson’s entire collected works, however, provide details that were likely not included in earlier versions of the story. Many of his stories regarding Freyr provide foreshadowing for this final battle.
In Sturluson’s account of Freyr’s marriage, the god sends his messenger with both his magical sword and a horse that can ride through fire. He never regains these items.
Both would have been invaluable in his fight against Surt.
The magical sword increased Freyr’s already well-attested fighting ability. With such a weapon, he likely would have been able to outmatch the giant.
Sturluson also makes note of the fact that Freyr’s horse could ride through fire, although it is not necessary to reach Gerdr’s home. It is implied that this horse could have withstood the fire giants’ powers and helped Freyr in his battle.
Some historians have read an even more tragic detail in the account given by the Poetic Edda.
In this account of Ragnarok, Surt will kill Freyr with a bright sword. In some translations, this is referred to as “the sword of the gods.”
Some historians believe that Surt’s sword was the same one given up by Freyr to win Gerdr’s hand. They see an added layer of tragedy to Freyr’s fate at Ragnarok.
Not all of Snorri Sturluson’s stories showed the gods as fully divine, however.
Writing in the 13th century, Sturluson faced pressure to not make the myths offensive to Christianity, which was by then the dominant religion. While he wrote the myths of the gods that had been worshipped by earlier Norse people, he also made attempts to show them as less powerful.
The Prose Edda begins with the Ynglinga Saga, which follows a common theme of the era. It euhemerizes the gods, rationalizing them as human rulers whose stories were embellished until they became godly.
In this account, Odin was a powerful ruler who brought the Aesir from Asia. Njord and Freyr were leaders of the Vanir, the local people who fought against the invading Asians.
As noble hostages, Njord and Freyr were shown a great deal of respect by their new king. Odin made them priests and after his death Njord took the throne, followed by his son Freyr.
Njord and Freyr’s reigns were a time of peace and good harvests, so the people began to think that the kings were responsible for this fortune. The two Vanir gods were associated with prosperity because they had been good rulers in life.
The Ynglinga Saga claims that Freyr, who had once been a priest under Odin, established the temple at Uppsala during his reign as king. He began the practice of giving his wealth to the temple as a sacrifice to the gods.
Freyr was such a beloved king, the saga claims, that his men sought to hide his declining health as he aged. They kept his death a secret for three years.
To do this, they built a mount near Uppsala as they began to restrict people’s access to the king. Instead of seeing Freyr directly, his subjects took their taxes to the mound.
After Freyr was buried there, people continued to take gifts of food and money to his mound at Uppsala. The practice of making offerings there was established by dutiful subjects who continued to take taxes to their king even after his death.
The Ynglinga Saga attempted to rationalize the gods, but even when it was written it was probably understood to not be a historical fact. The depiction of Freyr and the other gods as early human rulers was an attempt to pacify Christian readers who would take offense at the portrayal of pagan gods.
In contrast to many other prominent Norse gods, Freyr was a god of peace and prosperity.
Associated with both rain and sunlight, he represented the power of generation. He was an earth god who made crops grow as well as a god of male fertility.
As such, he brought peace and prosperity to the Norse people. Although fighting and riches were valued, Freyr was loved for bringing the simple pleasures of plentiful food and offspring.
Despite being associated with peace and plenty, however, Freyr was still a god of fighting. While poets lauded him as the source of goodness, many stories highlighted his strength in battle.
Freyr was important enough to have received two of the gods’ most wondrous items. A boar crafted of gold pulled his wagon and a magical ship ensured he could travel anywhere.
The most impactful story of Freyr’s magical attributes, however, is that of an unnamed sword that could fight on its own. By giving up this sword to marry the woman he loved, Freyr put himself at a disadvantage that may have ensured his death at Ragnarok.
Freyr’s status as one of the best-loved gods of the Norse pantheon shows that Viking Age culture valued more than just fighting prowess. While warrior gods ruled Asgard, the peace-bringing Vanir god of fertility was called the greatest of them for bringing peace and plenty.