The Runic language and characters.—The word runa really means “ secret “ ; runes are therefore “ mysterious signs requiring an interpretation.” The shape of the letters leads to the supposition that they were formed in imitation of the Phoenician alphabet.

It is clear that the runes were, from various causes, regarded even in Germany proper as full of mystery and endowed with supernatural power.

After Ulphilas made a new alphabet for the Goths in the fourth century by ingeniously uniting the form of the Greek letters to that of a runic alphabet consisting of twenty-five letters which was nearly related to that of the Anglo-Saxons ; the runes gradually died out more and more, and as Christianity spread, the Roman alphabet was introduced in place of the old Germanic letters.

The runes appear to have served less as a mode of writing than as a help to the memory ; they were principally used to note down a train of thought, to preserve wise sayings and prophecies, and the remembrance of particular deeds and memorable occurrences.

Tacitus informs us that it was also customary to cut beech twigs into small pieces and then throw them on a cloth which had been previously spread out for the purpose, and afterwards to read future events by means of the signs accidentally formed by the bits of wood as they lay on the cloth.

The heroic lays of the old time have died out, and the runes have with few exceptions been rooted out of our fatherland by priestly zeal which looked upon them as magical. Our knowledge of the full-toned, powerful language of our ancestors is therefore very imperfect. But we know that it belonged to the great Aryan branch, and was thus related to the noblest of the Aryan languages, the Sanscrit or holy tongue, and was rich in inflexions.

In the Chinese and Indo-Chinese languages the ancient poverty of expression is still to be found, and even at the present day we find in them monosyllabic roots placed next to each other with hardly a connecting link ; in the Turanian language of Central Asia the people have endeavoured to express the association of their ideas by the use of suffixes, but these suffixes are in themselves complete words, and thus the combination is as distinctly visible as the separate strokes of the brush in a bad painting. The language ot the Teutonic race had already got beyond that point before the different tribes set out on their wanderings in search of a new home. The added words had fused with the others, and were capable of expressing an unbroken current of thought. The language had been developed by means of the Sagas and songs which had been handed down amongst the people from generation to generation.

MacDowell, M. W. – Asgard and the Gods – The Tales and Traditions of our Northern Ancestors, (1884)




Goddess Freya

Freya, the fair Northern goddess of beauty and love, was the sister of Frey and the daughter of Niord and Nerthus, or Skadi.

She was the most beautiful and best beloved of all the goddesses, and while in Germany she was identified with Frigga, in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland she was considered a separate divinity. Freya, having been born in Vana-heim, was also known as Vanadis, the goddess of the Vanas, or as Vanabride.

As soon as she reached Asgard, the gods were so charmed by her beauty and grace that they bestowed upon her the realm of Folkvang and the great hall Sessrymnir (the roomy-seated), where they assured her she could easily accommodate all her guests.

“Folkvang ‘tis called,

Where Freyja has right

To dispose of the hall-seats.

Every day of the slain

She chooses the half,

And leaves half to Odin.”

Norse Mythology (R. B. Anderson).

Although goddess of love, Freya was not soft and pleasure-loving only, for the ancient Northern races said that she had very Queen of the martial tastes, and that as Valfreya she often led Valkyrs. foe Valkyrs down to the battlefields, choosing and claiming one half the heroes slain. She was therefore often represented with corselet and helmet, shield and spear, only the lower part of her body being clad in the usual flowing feminine garb.

Freya transported the chosen slain to Folkvang, where they were duly entertained, and where she also welcomed all pure maidens and faithful wives, that they might enjoy the company of their lovers and husbands even after death. The joys of her abode were so enticing to the heroic Northern women that they often rushed into battle when their loved ones were slain, hoping to meet with the same fate ; or they fell upon their swords, or were voluntarily burned on the same funeral pyre as the beloved remains.

As Freya was inclined to lend a favorable ear to lovers’ prayers, she was often- invoked by them, and it was customary to indite love songs in her honor, which were sung on all festive occasions, her very name in Germany being used as the verb “to woo.”

Freya, the golden-haired and blue-eyed goddess, was also, at times, considered a personification of the earth. She therefore married Odur, a symbol of the summer sun, whom Freya and she dearly loved, and by whom she had two °dur-daughters, Hnoss and Gersemi, so beautiful that all things lovely and precious were called by their names.

So long as Odur lingered contentedly at her side, Freya was smiling and perfectly happy ; but, alas ! this god was a rover, and, wearying of his wife’s company, he suddenly left home and wandered far out into the wide world. Freya, sad and forsaken, wept abundantly, and her tears fell down upon the hard rocks, which softened at their contact. We are even told that they trickled down to the very center of the stones, where they were transformed to drops of gold. The tears which fell into the sea, however, were changed into translucent amber.

Weary of her widowed condition, and longing to clasp her beloved in her arms once more, Freya finally started out in search of him, passing through many lands, where she was called by different names, such as Mardel, Horn, Gefn, Syr, Skialf, and Thrung, inquiring of all she met whether her husband had passed that way. and shedding so many tears that gold can be found in all parts of the earth.

“And Freya next came nigh, with golden tears;

The loveliest Goddess she in Heaven, by all

Most honor’d after Frea, Odin’s wife.

Her long ago the wandering Oder took

To mate, but left her to roam distant lands;

Since then she seeks him, and weeps tears of gold.

Names hath she many ; Vanadis on earth

They call her, Freya is her name in Heaven.”

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

Far away in the sunny South, under the flowering myrtle trees, Freya found Odur at last, and her love being restored to her, she grew happy and smiling once more, and as radiant as a bride. It is perhaps because Freya found her husband beneath the flowering myrtle, that Northern brides, to this day, wear myrtle in preference to the conventional orange wreath.

Hand in hand, Odur and Freya now gently wended their way home once more, and in the light of their happiness the grass grew green, the flowers bloomed, and the birds sang, for all Nature sympathized as heartily with Freya’s joy as it had mourned with her when she was in sorrow.

“Out of the morning land,

Over the snowdrifts,

Beautiful Freya came

Tripping to Scoring.

White were the moorlands,

And frozen before her;

Green were the moorlands,

And blooming behind her.

Out of her gold locks

Shaking the spring flowers,

Out of her garments

Shaking the south wind,

Around in the birches

Awaking: the throstles,

And making chaste housewives all

Long for their heroes home,

Loving and love-giving,

Came she to Scoring.”

The Longbeards’ Saga (Charles Kingsley).

The prettiest plants and flowers in the North were called Freya’s hair or Freya’s eye dew, while the butterfly was called Freya’s hen.

This goddess was also supposed to have a special affection for the fairies, whom she loved to watch dancing in the moonbeams, and for whom she reserved her daintiest flowers and sweetest honey. Odur, Freya’s husband, besides being considered a personification of the sun, was also regarded as an emblem of passion, or of the intoxicating pleasures of love ; so the ancients declared that it was no wonder his wife could not be happy without him.

As goddess of beauty, Freya was very fond of the toilet, of glittering adornments, and of precious jewels. One day, while she was in Svart-alfa-heim, the underground kingdom, she saw four dwarfs carefully fashioning the most wonderful necklace she had ever seen. Almost beside herself with longing to possess this treasure, which was called Brisinga-men, and was an emblem of the stars, or of the fruitfulness of the earth, Freya implored the dwarfs to give it to her ; but they obstinately refused to do so unless she would promise to grant them her favor. Having secured the necklace at this price, Freya hastened to put it on, and its beauty so enhanced her charms that the goddess wore it night and day, and only occasionally could be persuaded to loan it to the other divinities. Thor, however, wore this necklace when he personated Freya in Jotun-heim, and Loki coveted and would have stolen it, had it not been for the watchfulness of Heimdall.

Freya was also the proud possessor of a falcon garb, or falcon plumes, which enabled the wearer to flit through the air like a bird ; and this garment was so invaluable that it was twice borrowed by Loki, and was used by Freya herself when in search of the missing Odur.

“Freya one day

Falcon wings took, and through space hied away ;

Northward and southward she sought her

Dearly-loved Odur.”

Fridthiof’s Saga, Tegner (Stephens’s tr.).

As Freya was also considered goddess of fecundity, she was sometimes represented as riding about with her brother Frey in the chariot drawn by the golden-bristled boar, scattering, with lavish hands, fruits and flowers to gladden the hearts of all mankind.

She also had a chariot of her own, however, in which she generally traveled, which was drawn by cats, her favorite animals, the emblems of caressing fondness and sensuality, or the personifications of fecundity.

“Then came dark-bearded Niord, and after him

Freyia, thin robed, about her ankles slim

The gray cats playing.”

Lovers of Gudrun (William Morris).

Frey and Freya were held in such high honor throughout the North that their names, in modified forms, are still used for “ master “ and “ mistress,” and one day of the week is called Freya’s day, or Friday, even by the English-speaking race. Freya’s temples wTere very numerous indeed, and wrere long maintained by her votaries, the last in Magdeburg, Germany, being destroyed by order of Charlemagne.

The Northern people were wont to invoke her not only for success in love, prosperity, and increase, but also at times for story of ottar a^ and protection. This she vouchsafed to all and Angantyr. W^Q serveci her truly, as is proved by the story of Ottar and Angantyr, two men who, after disputing for some time concerning their rights to a certain piece of property, laid their quarrel before the Thing. In that popular assembly it was soon decreed that the man who could prove that he had the longest line of noble ancestors would be the one to win, and a special day was appointed to hear the genealogy of each claimant.

Ottar, unable to remember the names of more than a few of his progenitors, offered up sacrifices to Freya, entreating her aid.

The goddess graciously heard his prayer, appeared before him, changed him into a boar, and rode off upon his back to the dwelling of the sorceress Hyndla, the most renowned witch of the day. By threats and entreaties, Freya compelled this old woman to trace Ottar’s genealogy back to Odin, naming every individual in turn, and giving a synopsis of his achievements.

Then, fearing lest her votary’s memory should prove treacherous, Freya further compelled Hyndla to brew a potion of remembrance, which she gave him to drink.

“He shall drink

Delicious draughts.

All the gods I pray

To favor Ottar.”

S^emund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

Thus prepared, Ottar presented himself before the Thing on the appointed day, glibly recited his pedigree, and by naming many more ancestors than Angantyr could recollect, obtained possession of the property he coveted.

“A duty ‘tis to act

So that the young prince

His paternal heritage may have

After his kindred.”

S^emund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

Freya was so beautiful that all the gods, giants, and dwarfs longed for her love and in turn tried to secure her as wife. But Freya scorned the ugly old giants and refused to belong even to Thrym, when urged to accept him by Loki and Thor. She was not so obdurate where the gods themselves were concerned, if the various mythologists are to be believed, for as the personification of the earth she is said to have married Odin, the sky, Frey, the fruitful rain, Odur, the sunshine, etc., until it seems as if she deserved the accusation hurled against her by the archfiend Loki, of having loved and married all the gods in turn.

It was customary on solemn occasions to drink Freya’s health with that of the other gods, and when Christianity was intro Worship of duced in the North this toast was transferred to Freya. fae virgin or to St. Gertrude ; Freya herself, like all the heathen divinities, was declared a demon or witch, and banished to the mountain peaks of Norway, Sweden, or Germany, where the Brocken is pointed out as her special abode, and the general trysting place of her demon train on Valpurgisnacht.

Chorus of Witches.

“On to the Brocken the witches are flocking —

Merry meet —merry part—how they gallop and drive,

Yellow stubble and stalk are rocking,

And young green corn is merry alive,

With the shapes and shadows swimming by.

To the highest heights they fly,

Where Sir Urian sits on high —

Throughout and about,

With clamor and shout,

Drives the maddening rout,

Over stock, over fstone;

Shriek, laughter’ and moan,

Before them are blown.”

Goethe’s Faust (Anster’s tr.).

As the swallow, cuckoo, and cat were held sacred to Freya in heathen times, these creatures were supposed to have demoniacal properties, and to this day witches are always depicted with coal-black cats close beside them.<

Myths of northern lands, narrated with special reference to literature and art by Guerber, Hélène Adeline, 1895


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