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loki

Musings: The Import of Words Over Swords

On one of the mailing lists I'm on, recent conversations have evolved around the use in the modern context of weapons in ritual. As part of that I spoke of how I'm constantly having to re-educate those outside of our community, as well as those within our community that we are first and foremost an agricultural religion. This is something long-time readers of my blog will recall I've touched on previously. In addition to pointing out what I consider to be the obvious (that we are in fact an earth-based religion) I also spoke of how the 'warrior' didn't reign supreme, but that words and thus poets held import too (which I suppose overlaps tangentially to another recent post I've made on the import of words over the horn). So in our tradition Odin is both a God of Warriors, and a God of Poets.

But this distinction isn't solely Odin's, for if we look to the Vanic Goddess Freyja, we also see a Goddess of Warriors and a Goddess of Poets. Sice Freyja's association with poetry is not as commonly known... I tried to group my thoughts together on the matter.



She is the Goddess of love, and is not poetry a thing linked much with love?

Whether it be the rather simplistic type of poems many of us heard in grade school, such as: "Roses are red, violets are blue, strawberries are sweet, and so are you." Or whether it's the more sophisticated love poems as seen exchanged between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barret Browning, or it’s the type of erotic poetry as seen in the Biblical text "The Song of Solomon". Poetry and love have long been intertwined. (Even if specific colloquial expressions have fallen out of favor or only speak to a particular culture, as we see with the Song of Solomon’s “Your Nose is Like a Tower”). Poetry also has very often been incorporated into oral traditions from grand epic stories or sagas, as well as the lyrics of music.

As a quick aside... we have no God whose name means sword, arsenal, army or some such, and yet we do have a Goddess whose name means Saga or Story, which to my mind only further shows as an example of the import of words in this culture. The closest we come to God's name who mean the name of a weapon, is in Odin's Valkyries... named for various pieces of war-type equipment or related to the functions of war. And yet insofar as we can tell, they are at best demi-Goddesses, and not fulfledged Goddesses.

It’s no surprise that poetry also transcends into music which is much used as a vehicle for love and eroticism, for are not the lyrics to a song, poetry? Just look at the lyrics to the Music of the Night from the Phantom of the Opera Musical: "softly, deftly, music shall caress you. Hear it, feel it, secretly possess you..." Rock music was banned on the radio in communities across the U.S. and Britian because it had too much sexual innuendo in it. Think of the Rock Classics Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill, Elvis’ Fever, Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano, Billie Holiday’s cover of the Cole Porter classic “Love for Sale”, etc. Eroticism has long pervaded poetry.

Is it as straightforward as other things in our lore? No. But we cannot just read our lore at the surface level, there is much that can be understood by really thinking about the symbol and meanings of the items associated with our deities, and what can be said in context thereof. For instance, We know that Yggdrasil roots to Urd's well, and those waters essentially give 'life' sustaining waters to the Tree. So when Odin hangs on Yggdrasil which also links back to the Goddess of Death Hel and Helheim, then does that not make Urd a Goddess of Life? Thus as he hangs on the tree, he hangs between Life and Death.

But in this case as it applies to Freyja… we find that there’s more than just Freyja’s connection with love to support her link with poetry. As mentioned in in Turville-Petre’s Myth and Religion in the North “she delighted in love poetry (mansongr) such as was severely prohibited under the common law of Iceland.”

If we look to the Icelandic law known as Grágás we can learn a touch more on the subject: "If a man composes love poetry about a woman it is punished with outlawry. The woman has the right to prosecute if she is twenty years or older. If she does not wish to prosecute, the prosecution lies with her legal guardians."

So what was all the stink about? What’s wrong with love poetry per se? In this instance I think the Viking Answer Lady’s website already has a nice little write-up on the subject in the gu8ise of her article entitled “Courtship, Love and Marriage in Viking Scandinavia”. If you scroll on down to Part III: Love, Courtship and Poetry you’d find the following:


Skalds also made mansongr, "maiden-songs" or love poems, composed despite laws ordaining outlawry or death for the skald who dared to make them:

  • Well considered, the woman's worth the whole of Iceland...
    Heavy though my heart... of Hunland, and of Denmark;
    Not for all of England's earth and kingdoms would I
    Forego the golden-braided girl, ay, nor for Ireland
    (Lee M. Hollander, trans. The Skalds: A Selection of
    their Poems with Introduction and Notes. Ann Arbor:
    University of Michigan Press, 1945. p. 118).

    I little reck... to reach her risked I have my life oft...
    Though I be slain within the arms of my beloved,
    Sleeping in the Sif-of-silken-gowns' embraces:
    For the fair-haired woman feel I love unending
    (Ibid., p. 134).

One reason why love poetry was so ill-regarded by the Vikings may have been due to the fear in pagan times of magical ensnarement of the woman so immortalized by the power of the verses (Foote and Wilson, p. 112). Hávamál credits Óðinn with two runic spells meant as love charms:

  • That sixteenth I know, if I seek me some maid:
    to work my will with her:
    the white-armed woman's heart I bewitch,
    and toward me I turn her thoughts.

    That seventeenth I know, if the slender maid's love
    I have, and hold her to me:
    Thus I sing to her that she hardly will
    leave me for other man's love
    (Hollander, Poetic Edda, p. 40).


The prohibitions against love poetry help to explain why courtships were little practiced in the Viking period. While the goddess Freyja was the patroness of mansongar, and delighted in love poetry, mortal women had to be more cautious. Love poems were viewed in law as a distinct slur upon a woman's reputation, suggesting that the poet had had a more intimate knowledge of his beloved than was considered seemly (Foote and Wilson, p. 112). The reputation of a woman reflected upon the honor of her family: if her honor was tarnished, so was that of her father, brothers, uncles, cousins and sons. Any dalliance with a woman's reputation was likely to bring down the wrath of her entire lineage upon the hapless suitor!

All of the family sagas agree that courtship "was the single most deadly pastime for the young Icelandic male" (Frank, p. 476). The most important, unwritten rule of courtship was that the less a hopeful groom saw of his intended bride before entering into formal marriage negotiations with her family, the better his chances were of staying alive (Ibid.). If an attentive suitor was slow in making his proposal, the woman's relatives were quick to reclaim her honor by taking blood-vengeance on the offending swain (Foote and Wilson, pp. 111-112): eighteen courtships in the sagas end in this manner (Frank, p. 476). There seems to have been a practical reason for the family to take a dim view of prolonged courtships, however, for in the eight cases in the sagas where the family was slow to act, an illegitimate child was the result (Ibid.). Despite the hazards, some courtships did occur. Attentions paid to a woman by her suitor, including visits, conversations, and the making of poems in her praise were expected, and apparently welcomed by the girl, no matter what her family may have thought (Foote and Wilson, p. 111)."


In a couple of the examples above we see Odin also linked to the mansongr tradition.

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