FREYR (Lord), the son of Njǫrðr and the brother of Freyja, is one of the Vanir hostages in Ásgarðr and is the main fertility god of ancient Scandinavia. According to Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), Freyr is said to be handsome and powerful. The noblest of the gods, he rules over rain, sunshine, and growing plants. People invoked him for peace, good crops, and wealth. He made women happy and freed captives (Lokasenna, st. 37). He is a courageous fighter, and his name occurs in poetic circumlocutions for warrior, such as "spear-Freyr." He is represented as the ancestor of the Swedish kings under the name Yngvi-Freyr (Yngvi is the eponym of the royal family of the Ynglings), a name also associated with Ing (Gmc. Ingw[az]) in the Old English Runic Poem and the eponym of the Germanic tribal group the Inguaeones, but the relationship between Freyr, Yngvi, and Ingwaz is not fully understood.
Among Freyr's prized possessions is the dwarf-made ship Skíðblaðnir (Built of Slats; Grímnismál, st. 44); according to Snorri, it can be folded up and carried in a pouch, but, when needed, it can carry the whole company of the Æsir, weapons and all, and always sails with a favorable wind. The motif of the wonderful boat is significant because of the close association of ships with fertility cults, from their representation on Scandinavian Bronze Age rock carvings to medieval rites. Another important present from the dwarfs is Freyr's golden boar, Gullinbyrsti (Golden Bristle) or Slíðrugtanni (Razor Tooth), who runs faster than a horse and shines brightly at night.
Freyr is involved in few myths. The best known is told in the eddic poem Skírnismál (The lay of Skírnir). Seeing the beautiful giantess Gerðr, daughter of Gymir, from a promontory overlooking all the world, Freyr falls deeply in love with her. Pining away, he sends his servant Skírnir (possibly a double of Freyr, who is elsewhere described as skírr [bright, shining, pure]) to woo her. The journey to Gymir's home is hazardous, and Skírnir reaches it only because Freyr's horse, which he is riding, can jump over the circles of flames protecting the property. At the gate, Skírnir finds savage dogs and a shepherd sitting on a mound, who tells him he must be either doomed or dead to have come so far. Skírnir is nevertheless greeted by Gerðr, who offers him mead. As he begins his plea for her love on behalf of Freyr, he tries to entice her with presents—the apples of eternal youth, a magic arm ring, and Freyr's invincible sword—but he meets with refusal. Switching from blandishments to threats, Skírnir ominously warns Gerðr that she will be exiled and will waste away, ugly and desolate and plagued by lust, for having incurred the wrath of the Æsir; worse still, he will deliver her by magic to a three-headed fiend from hell, to quench her thirst with "stalings of stinking goats" (Hollander, p. 72). Intimidated, Gerðr gives in and promises to meet Freyr after nine nights in a "trysting glade" called Barri.
This myth seems quite archaic, and even if one sets aside the interpretations associating the story with any fertility ritual, there can be no doubt that sex and fertility lie at its core. The myth has also been interpreted as reaffirming the patriarchal structure of Old Norse society, depicting a male-female struggle for power and providing a matrix for resolving conflict between different families through a system of exchange and intermarriage. One of the conditions imposed on the Vanir hostages was that they give up their custom of incest, which left only giantesses for Freyr and his father to marry, as the Æsir did not want the male Vanir to marry upward, into their own group. However, the incorporation of giantesses into Ásgarðr imposed strains on the Æsir's social hierarchy, and at the gods' last battle at Ragnarök, Freyr is killed by the giant Surtr because he did not have his sword, contributing to the defeat of the Æsir as a whole. The loss of the sword, with which Loki insults Freyr (Lokasenna, st. 42), emphasizes the separation of the fertility function from the warrior function and implies the weakening effects of sexual obsession. Snorri's Ynglingasaga calls Gerðr the wife of Freyr and mentions their son Fjölnir, but this may be a post-pagan development undertaken to create a coherent dynastic origin.
Besides Skírnir, Freyr has two other servants (Lokasenna sts. 43–46): Byggvir, meaning "grain of barley" (as suggested by the reference to the quern [a hand-turned grain mill] in stanza 44), and Beyla, whose name Georges Dumézil interpreted in 1973 as a diminutive of the Germanic word for "bee," in spite of insuperable phonological difficulties. Such names would make these figures symbolic of beer and mead, the inebriating beverages used in ceremonial activities. However, it may be more correct to connect Beyla with the Old Norse baula (cow) and to see the couple as representatives of the two aspects of Freyr's functional domain: agriculture and animal husbandry.
Freyr and Gerðr have been identified as the man and woman depicted on Viking Age gold plates from Jæderen, Norway. She holds an object that could be a branch with leaves and a flower, and the man touches her cheek or her breast with his hand in a gesture of endearment. The clear erotic elements in this depiction seem to be entirely in keeping with the sexual connotations of fertility cults.
Little is known directly about the worship of Freyr, but it held a prominent place in Sweden, where he was the principal god as well as the divine ancestor of the royal house. Adam of Bremen (IV:26), writing around 1070 and using eyewitness accounts, describes the triad of gods worshiped at the time in the temple at Uppsala. He notes that the statue of Freyr is endowed with a huge sex organ and adds that all kinds of "lewd practices that remain better unmentioned" accompanied the ceremonies of Freyr's cult. One version of the king's saga about Olaf Tryggvason includes a tale about a fugitive Icelander who joins the priestess of Freyr as she travels from farm to farm in Sweden in a chariot with a statue of Freyr in a wagon; this was believed to bring good harvests. The young man soon takes the place of the statue, and when the priestess becomes pregnant, the people take it as a sign of divine favor. Although this episode is probably intended to mock paganism, the practice it describes is confirmed from other sources, such as Tacitus's account of the procession of Nerthus. A late Icelandic saga (Vatnsdæla saga, ch. 10) notes that one devotee of Freyr carried an amulet of the god around with him in a bag, a practice substantiated by the find in Rällinge, Sweden, of a small yet phallic Viking Age statuette.
Toponymy supplies strong evidence of the spread of his cult: place-names incorporating Freyr are numerous in Sweden, especially in the agricultural area of Svealand. Similarly, the god's name combines with words for fields, meadows, and so on in agricultural regions of Norway, and it appears in a few places in eastern and southeastern Iceland. Here the traditional elements preserved in the Icelandic saga about a chieftain named Hrafnkell attest to the veneration of Freyr; he was a "priest of Freyr" (Old Icelandic Freysgoði ), to whom he had dedicated a stallion. When a servant desecrated the horse by riding it in spite of Hrafnkell's stern warnings, Hrafnkell killed him. However, Hrafnkell's enemies captured the stallion and pushed it over a cliff after covering its head with a bag, as if they were afraid of the power in its eyes. Desecration of horses belonging to Freyr is also attributed to the missionary king, Olaf Tryggvason, who destroyed a sanctuary of the god in Norway.
The horse is not the only animal closely associated with Freyr; several sources relate the offering of a bull or an ox to Freyr. The boar was also considered suitable for sacrifice to Freyr, particularly at Yuletide, a critical period when the forces of fertility needed to be stimulated. Adam of Bremen (IV: 27) reported that at times up to seventy-two bodies of men, horses, and dogs would hang together in a grove near the temple at Uppsala, but he did not say which victims were dedicated to which gods.
The rationale for these sacrifices was presumably concern for good crops; this is suggested by the story of the death of the euhemerized Freyr related in Ynglingasaga (ch. 10). When "King Freyr" succumbed to long illness he was secretly buried, and people were made to believe he was still alive. For three years, their tribute—first of gold, then of silver, and ultimately of copper coins—was poured into Freyr's funeral mound, and good seasons and peace endured. This story has often been compared to the occultation of the Thracian god Zalmoxis, but as Mircea Eliade showed in Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God (1972), this comparison is not valid.
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Edgar C. PolomÉ (1987)
Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)