8 Facts About the Norse Goddess Freyja

Freyja is best known as the Norse goddess of love and beauty — but she was also a deity of war, death, and magic.

Mar 13, 2024By Jessica Suess, MPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/Archaeology
freyja norse goddess facts

 

Freyja is the most famous of the Norse deities of the fairer sex. She was associated with beauty and love. But this definition doesn’t begin to describe this complex goddess who was worshipped widely in the Viking Age.

 

Freyja was also associated with fertility and abundance, war and death, and magic and sorcery. In many of these areas, she parallels Odin the All-Father, and seems even more powerful than he is.

 

1. Freyja was a Different Race to Thor and Odin

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Freyr and Freya, illustration by Donn Phillip Crane, 1920s, Source: Germanic Mythology

 

In retellings of Norse mythology, Freyja is often mentioned alongside the famous Aesir gods such as Thor and Odin as one of the most important deities. But unlike Odin and Thor, Freyja was not actually an Aesir. She was a member of a different tribe of gods called the Vanir but lived in Asgard among the Aesir following the Aesir-Vanir war.

 

According to legend, while the Aesir live in Asgard and have a culture organized around legal codes and kingship, the Vanir live in Vanaheim and are more closely linked to nature. They could be considered the hippies of the Norse cosmos.

 

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Freyja, and her bother Freyr, were born among the Vanir. They are the children of Njord and his wife, who also happened to be his sister. Sibling marriage was a common practice among the Vanir, and Freyr and Freyja were also married.

 

The Aesir do not seem to have been able to accept this cultural practice, leading the two clans to war. While the sources suggest that the Vanir may actually have won, the two clans eventually decided on a truce. As part of the negotiations, hostages were exchanged, and Njord, Freyr, and Freyja were sent to live among the Aesir.

 

While the three Vanir were immediately accepted by the Aesir and counted among their number, the marriage between Freyr and Freyja was dissolved. Freyja was instead married to an Aesir god named Odr. The couple had two daughters, Hnoss and Gersemi, who rivaled their mother in beauty.

 

2. Freyja Taught Seidr Magic to Odin

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Silver figurine of Freyja from Sweden, Source: National Museum Denmark

 

The magic practiced in the Viking world was known as seidr. According to legend, the Volva witches that practiced seidr learned the art from Freyja. This type of magic, which was closely linked to divination, seems to have been considered a Vanir art.

 

This may be why Odin appointed Njord, Freyr, and Freyja as the priests and priestesses of ritual sacrifices when they arrived in Asgard. Their knowledge may have made them suitable for the role. However, some scholars have also suggested that one of the causes of the Aesir-Vanir war was disagreement over which gods should receive sacrifices from mankind. Therefore, this appointment may have been part of the truce agreement.

 

In either case, Freyja brought knowledge of the seidr magic with her to Asgard. It was more closely linked with her than her male kin because seidr was considered a feminine art. Among the Vikings, it was unmanly to practice seidr. Some women were Volva witches, while men were more likely to practice rune magic.

 

But when Freyja arrived in Asgard, Odin asked her to teach him. He soon became as proficient as Freyja herself. On one occasion, Loki made fun of Odin for learning such a feminine art. But this doesn’t seem to have bothered the All-Father, who famously would do anything to expand his knowledge.

 

Interestingly, despite her association with seidr, Freyja is never described as a seeress and never delivers prophecies. In fact, when she and her lover Ottar are seeking information about his past, they seek out another seeress, Hyndla. Freyja must force the information from her. In contrast, Odin’s wife Frigg is described as a seeress, but she wisely never tells anyone what she sees.

 

3. Freyja was the Beauty of the Norse Cosmos

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Freyja riding her cat chariot, from the Manual of Mythology, by A.S. Murray, 1874, Source: The Internet Archive

 

Freyr and Freyja, whose names mean lord and lady, were both fertility deities. As a result, various plants in Scandinavia were named after Freyja. However, many names were updated to reference the Virgin Mary after the conversion to Christianity.

 

Freyja is always described as a great beauty, and she may have been considered the most beautiful woman in the Norse cosmos. Her beauty certainly caused several issues for the Norse gods as giants and other enemies desired to take possession of Freyja.

 

According to the myth of the building of the walls of Asgard, when an unnamed builder offered to build fortifications for the gods, in payment he wanted the hand of Freyja in marriage, the sun, and the moon. The gods did not want to make this sacrifice, so they initially intended to refuse the builder. But Loki convinced the gods that they could trick the builder into working for free by making the task impossible and only agreeing to pay if he met impossible requirements. In the end, Loki had to sabotage the builder so that the gods would not have to pay, and Thor would later kill the builder.

 

In another story, the giant Thrym steals Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, saying that he will return it in exchange for Freyja’s hand in marriage. Initially, Thor arrogantly assumed that she would be willing to make the exchange. But Freyja refused to marry the giant or participate in any trick that would involve pretending to agree to the marriage. In the end, Thor had to disguise himself as Freyja and pretend to agree to marry Thrym. When the hammer was brought out to officiate the marriage, Thor stole it back and killed everyone in the giant’s hall.

 

4. Freyja Obtained Brisingamen through Sexual Favors

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Heimdall Returns Brisingamen to Freyja, by Nils Blommer, 1846, Source: Wikidata

 

Freyja was famously the owner of Brisingamen, a brilliant gold necklace created by the dwarves, the master craftsmen of the Norse cosmos. It was such an important attribute of Freyja’s that Thor borrowed it from her when he needed to masquerade as the goddess.

 

According to the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, which was compiled by two Christian priests in the late 14th century, Freyja found herself inexplicably drawn to the forge of four dwarves. She discovered them making the finest necklace she had ever seen. Freyja was immediately filled with a great desire for the necklace and offered the dwarves huge sums of silver and gold for the piece. But the dwarves refused. They said that she could only have the necklace if she agreed to spend a night with each of the dwarves, which Freyja did.

 

What could have been a straightforward transaction was complicated by the machinations of Loki. In the story, Freyja is described as a concubine of Odin, who is presented as an ancient king. Loki saw Freyja with the dwarves and went back to Odin and told him what she had done. Angered by her promiscuity, Odin told Loki to steal the necklace.

 

Loki turned himself into a fly to sneak into Freya’s room and take the necklace. When Freyja awakened and saw that the necklace missing, she quickly realized what had happened. Freyja confronted Odin over the theft, but he said that he would only return it to her if she cursed two kings to fight for eternity or until they are slain by Christian men. Freyja does this, and the two kings fight for over 100 years until the Christian lord Olaf Tryggvason kills them.

 

Another Viking myth mentions in passing that it was Heimdall who returned Freyja’s necklace to her. But it is unclear whether this relates to the story of Loki’s theft or another story that is now lost. In either case, the idea has inspired several pieces of art, including the painting depicted above.

 

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Loki, by John Bauer, from Our Father’s Godsaga, 1911, Source: Runeberg.org

 

The Christian authors of the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason shame Freyja for her sexuality and promiscuity. But this is not something that is seen in the old Norse sources, which generally celebrate Freyja’s sexuality. In the Lokassena, the author Snorri Sturluson has Loki criticizing all the gods. When it comes to Freyja, Loki comments that there is no god or elf who has not been in her bed. But the other gods brush this off, suggesting that having a lover is harmless.

 

In addition to Brisingamen, Freyja had other important items. She rode in a chariot pulled by two cats. She also had a wild boar companion called Hildisvini. Boars were often associated with the Vanir gods and were a symbol of fertility. According to some sources, Hildisvini was Freyja’s lover Ottar. She turned him into the boar so that they could travel together. She also had a falcon feather coat that presumably gave her the ability to fly, since Loki borrowed the coat for that purpose.

 

5. Freyja was a Goddess of War and Death

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Silver Valkyrie pendant, c. 800 CE, Source: Thehistoryblog.org

 

While most people know that Freyja is a goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, it is less commonly known that she was also associated with war and death. Most people have heard of Valhalla, one of the Viking afterlives. According to Viking myth, Valhalla is Odin’s hall in Asgard. He chooses the bravest Viking warriors who die in battle to live there after death. There, the fallen warriors train and feast until Ragnarök, the prophesied end of days. In this battle, they will fight against the forces of evil alongside the gods. Odin was assisted in collecting these souls by the Valkyrie, a group of divine female warriors.

 

But Freyja also presided over an afterlife for fallen warriors known as Folkvangr, which means “field of the people”. According to myth, she actually had the first choice of fallen warriors, before Odin. But we aren’t told the destiny of these dead warriors and whether they are also preparing for Ragnarök. The surviving prophecy says nothing of Freyja’s participation in this final battle, but her brother Freyr is destined to die in the conflict.

 

Folkvangr is said to be in Freyja’s estate called Sessrumnir. In some circumstances, it seems that Sessrumnir is a ship rather than a hall, and some scholars have linked it with the stone ships that were erected around Viking burial mounds.

 

To complicate matters further, Freyja is also sometimes called Valfreyja, which means “lady of the slain”. This has led to the suggestion that she was actually one of the Valkyries and therefore assisted Odin in collecting dead warriors.

 

6. Freyja is the Source of Amber and Gold

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Freya Seeking her Husband, by Nils Blommer, 1852, Source: National Museum, Sweden

 

When Freyja came to live among the Aesir gods, she was married to a god called Odr. Very little is known about him beyond his marriage to Freyja, but his name may mean “divine madness.”

 

According to the sources, Odr often left Freyja alone to go and wander the world. This devastated Freyja, so she would often wander the world herself in search of her husband. In her sorrow, Freyja would cry. When her tears came into contact with the land, they turned into gold, and when they came into contact with water, they turned into amber.

 

7. Freyja May Have Been the Consort of Odin

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Small silver Freyja figurine that also appears to be pregnant, 800 – 1100, Source: Statens Historika Museer, Sweden

 

There are several interesting connections between Freyja and Odin. It starts with her teaching him Seidr magic and is solidified by her association with the warrior afterlife. There is also a parallel between Odin and Freyja’s Aesir husband. Odr is described as abandoning his wife in Asgard to wander the world, and Odin was famously known as the wanderer because he would often abandon his throne in Asgard to wander the world.

 

There are also parallels between Freyja and Odin’s wife Frigg. Frigg is the archetype of the matron of the hall, who was responsible for filling the cups of guests with mead. This made her an important political player. She was also linked with wifely duty and motherhood and Freyja had a “consort” role, that was sexual in nature. Both Frigg and Freyja were called on to assist in childbirth and were often invoked together in spells. Moreover, while Freyja was the goddess of seidr magic, which is associated with divination, Freyja was not a seeress, but Frigg was.

 

These parallels have led some scholars to suggest that Frigg and Freyja were originally one goddess, the consort of Odin, but they were split into two before the start of the Viking Age. This would also explain why so little is known about Frigg, despite the fact that she was clearly a very important goddess. Much of her mythology may have been given to Freyja, leaving her seeming less complete.

 

8. Freyja was the Most Popular Norse Goddess in the Viking World

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Freya, by John Bauer, 1913, Source: Uppsala Auktions, Sweden

 

When it came to ritual worship among the Vikings, Freyja appears to have been the most popular goddess. Surviving material culture suggests that she was actively worshipped across Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and the Isle of Man. There is no equivalent evidence for any other goddess.

 

Snorri Sturluson, the 12th-century Christian Icelandic chronicler of Norse mythology and Viking history, says that Freyja was the most approachable of the gods and, along with Frigg, and was the most important goddess. Freyja is the only goddess to have her own poem in Sturluson’s Prose Edda, highlighting her importance in Sturluson’s eyes.

 

Freyja is also the only goddess described as actively receiving a cult. In the Hyndluljod, Freyja praises her lover Ottar for erecting an altar of stone to her that was reddened with the fresh blood of sacrificed Oxen. This description was probably inspired by genuine cult practices.

 

There are also mentions of women praying to or referencing Freyja within their religious beliefs. For example, in Egil’s Saga, Egil’s daughter stops eating to protest the behavior of her father. She suggests that when she eventually succumbs to starvation, she will meet Freyja in the afterlife.

 

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The Goddess Freya, by George Cruikshank, 1830, Source: The British Museum

 

In another story, King Alrek has two wives, Geirhid and Signy, and he must choose between them. He decides that he will choose the one who brews the best wine. Geirhid prays to Hott, who is interpreted as being Odin, while Signy prays to Freyja. In the end, Alrek chooses Signy.

 

There is also evidence that Freyja was actively worshipped in Iceland during the period of conversion to Christianity. According to records, in the summer of 999 the skald Hjalti Skeggjasson mocked Freyja in a verse. This angered the heathens who accused him of blasphemy, resulting in the temple priest convicting him of lesser outlawry.

 

The etching above from 1830s London may show an imagining of such a religious conflict. It is described as a knight, probably a Christian, facing a grotesque statue of the goddess Freyja as her priests and followers look on.

 

Despite her popularity, worship of Freyja was quickly diminished as Christianity spread throughout the Viking world. As a promiscuous and independent goddess, she was too different from the chaste Virgin Mary to integrate with new Christian beliefs.

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By Jessica SuessMPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/ArchaeologyJessica hold a BA Hons in History and Archaeology from the University of Queensland and an MPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford where she researched the worship of the Roman emperors. She worked for Oxford University Museums for 10 years before relocating to Brazil. She is mad about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the history of esoteric religions, and folk magic and gets excited about the latest archaeological finds.