A thorough, academic look at the past, present, and future of Norse polytheism. Welch highlights many Norse goddesses as well as other divine females of the Norse pantheon Valkyries, Norns, Giantesses, Disir and in a straightforward manner, makes a definitive case for the primordial goddess.
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GODDESS OF THE NORTH
A comprehensive exploration of the Norse goddesses, from antiquity to the modern age
By Lynda C. Welch
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2001 Lynda C. Welch
All rights reserved.
WHY A PRIMORDIAL GODDESS?
The purpose of this book is to present factual, intuitive, and spiritual evidence for the existence of a primordial Norse goddess. Before we begin, however, we must address the motivation behind this task. Why, indeed, is the need for a primordial Norse goddess so important? For many years, the Nordic worldview has been seen as male-dominated by many academics, heathens and pagans alike, so why should we even bother to explore the ostensibly negligible feminine aspect?
The answer to both of these questions is fairly simple. First, the search for the primordial Norse goddess is of utmost importance as She indubitably exists. She has been forced into the dim shadows of our thoughts by ill-used words that have caused many misconceptions and misinterpretations. This situation has gone on far too long, and it is time to join others in re-examining the long-ignored facts. Second, the almost universal modern practice of ignoring the feminine divine causes an unnatural imbalance among the human race. It is detrimental to society, as it lessens the inner strength of the people as a whole. It ignores the inherent strength of the female and lowers its value to that of an inferior companion to the male.
Today, Goddess study has again become an avenue for concentrating on many different areas of ancient religions. Unfortunately, the Norse Tradition has been almost completely ignored, until fairly recently. This is due to the dearth of consistent Nordic literature or to the misunderstanding caused by much of the literature that does exist. Of course, this misinterpretation can only be blamed on the misperception many Americans have of the Norse people in general. Most of us have been taught very little about these magnificent early people, except to hear that their one purpose in life was to "rape, pillage, and plunder." Because of this horrific image, many choose to actively avoid Nordic literature. This negative attitude actually perpetuates the hold that the monotheistic view has over us, as we are not accurately taught, nor do we have the desire to learn, about the wonderful and long history of the Norse. Fortunately, there are a few remarkable scholars and authors determined to keep the interest in Norse literature alive and well.
For many of us, our limited knowledge is focused on the 250-year reign of the Vikings. While the Vikings were indeed fearsome warriors, their goals were not limited to bringing death to other cultures. Unfortunately, this mistaken picture does not include the fact that the Vikings were in need of land, as their homelands were being invaded by waves of monotheistic people willing to do anything to force conversion on the natives. The Norse people were protecting their own—violently, if need be. They were searching for new homes and were willing to do what was needed to preserve their families, friends, faith, and lifestyle. Needless to say, they failed in their ultimate goal. They did manage, however, to retain some of their beloved culture. Fortunately, a few legends have lived on to touch our minds and hearts.
It has been assumed inaccurately by most that the only characteristic worthy of exploration in the Norse worldview is the male pantheon normally associated with batde and death. Because of this, a great deal of emphasis has been placed upon the god Odhinn. He certainly plays a vital role in the Norse myths, but Odhinn must not be viewed as all-encompassing. He has many divine peers, both female and male. Historically, we know Odhinn was not worshipped as frequently as other Norse deities, most likely because, in the mundane sense, he has little to do with fertility, birth, crops, and love, all of which are important areas of everyday life. Odhinn has various attributes, the most obvious being magic, death, and war. He is called the All-Father of the Norse deities. This title leads many to unconsciously align his status with that of a monotheistic god. This is an incorrect correlation. We are by no means attempting to undermine Odhinn's importance and placement in the Norse cosmos. He certainly is the All-Father, but this title differs greatly from what we are accustomed to believing. To believe that he outweighs not only his male counterparts in importance but also the Norse goddesses is completely false. It should be stated here that this text is not designed to undermine the importance of the Norse gods. It is designed to offer a different and more accurate view of the Nordic goddesses and the vital role they play within the Norse Tradition.
Figure 1. Land of the Norse Goddess. Artifacts have been discovered throughout Northern Europe proving the existence of peaceful native tribes dating back to at least 5900 B.C.E., if not earlier in many areas. Among these artifacts, countless findings are feminine in nature, often exhibiting both divine and unearthly qualities. Many scholars have studied these artifacts in great detail and believe them to point to the religion of these early people. There is no doubt, as many of these scholars will agree, these early people worshipped a primordial goddess encompassing all phases of life—birth, youth, maturity, old age, death, and rebirth. In later years, this primordial goddess came to have numerous aspects with numerous names, many of which are known to us today. This is a map of their land, Northern Europe, where the Norse goddesses were revered, honored, and worshipped.
Considering the vastly misinterpreted goals of the Vikings, and the dismal misperception of Odhinn's character and attributes, it is easy to understand how the concept of fatalism came to be associated with the Norse faith. Fatalism is one of the most frightening ideas for humanity. To deny life after death is abhorrent. It makes us feel that our present lives are spent working toward goals that simply will not matter in a few years' time. Many people falsely believe the Norse people had this outlook concerning their own individual demise, and the demise of their beloved goddesses and gods. This idea is ludicrous. Indeed, the legends make it abundantly clear that each goddess and god had individual halls for the express purpose of housing souls before rebirth. These halls will be explored later at greater length. The important thing to remember is that fatalism is not an idea of Norse origin, but stems rather from later people attempting to twist native concepts to further discourage people from forming an interest in Norse polytheism. These fatal misconceptions can fool us into overlooking the actual truth and beauty of the Norse Tradition, as portrayed in part by the gods and goddesses, and also by the very culture of the people.
It is an acknowledged fact that uniform religious choices ordain society's structure, laws, and biases. This is evident in our personal culture. In recent centuries, women's sole purpose in our society has been the care of the home and the birthing and rearing of children. Women were normally not given control of the home, nor were they allowed to make decisions pertaining either to the home or child. Women were merely considered maids, convenient daycare providers of future male heirs, and guardians of often undesired female children. The tasks of home care and especially child care are obviously important, valued, and skilled functions within any society, but they certainly do not encompass all of the wonderful abilities and talents women naturally possess. Women have been treated as second-class citizens at best, slaves and property at worst. Women have been labeled inferior solely based on their sex. They have suffered the debilitation of twisted superstition and have died horribly as a result. These superstitions led to two of the most heartrending atrocities of our human history, the European and New England witch hunts.
In many cases, women have been considered worthless, dirty, and foul creatures lacking initiative, desire, and intelligence. The physical fact of a woman's menstruation, once believed to be sacred, now was deemed unclean. Women's bodies, once viewed as a beautiful testament to the awesome mystery of creation, were now deemed mere sexual objects. Women's worth in some cultures was considered less than that of livestock and property. Women became cruelly dominated, stripped of dignity, and were forced into oppressive submission, totally against their own inner longings and abilities. The saddest part of this entire affair is that this behavior was not only condoned, but actually approved, by church, government, and the masses.
After many years of persuasion and demonstration, women's voices slowly started to be heard. In our country, women won the right to vote in 1920. In the next decades, it became easier for them to own property. Eventually, it became much easier for them to have their own bank and credit accounts. In the 1960s, women burned their bras as a physical expression of freeing themselves from oppression. They re-acknowledged and lovingly embraced both their bodies and their individual sexuality. Women finally rediscovered the pride their ancestors had in being female.
The Equal Rights Movement continued building momentum. Abortion was legalized, rape and domestic violence were judged punishable acts, and childhood molestation became recognized as a heinous crime. Women came roaring into the workforce, rivaling men in previously male-dominated fields. Educational opportunities expanded. Women finally became respected members of the armed forces, instead of being ridiculed and shamed for choosing to embark upon a military career. Women were slowly proving their indisputable right to be treated as first-class citizens in a country long accustomed to taking every possible freedom away from them. This sexual revolution began to affect other countries as well, and we began to hear almost daily about new advances made by women overseas. We became one of the countries leading the battle for equality of the sexes, and we have yet to accede to the negative influences of derision, discrimination, or hatred.
Women entered politics, and have become respected members of Congress and legislatures. Both their voices and actions continue to support our right to equality. While there has not yet been a female president or vice president, it is only a matter of time. Hillary Clinton is a prime example of our feminine progression. She did not sit back meekly behind her husband, concentrating only on issues he deemed worthy. This First Lady had her own agenda, which she rigorously worked toward achieving. She lent her vibrant voice and all her abilities to enhance the office of the President. Regardless of the scandal and tension that invaded the White House and our country, the former President and Hillary Clinton were symbols of sexual equality in leadership. They demonstrated the beauty and power of true balance.
As we can see, women have come a long way in their fight for equality. But this path is long and winding, and a continuous battle must be waged to reach ultimate success. The biggest obstacle to womens equality actually falls into the realm of spiritual faith. Most women and men in this country have been conditioned to believe that the male is the divinely anointed superior, and the female created solely as a companion. The dominant monotheistic spiritual dogma prevalent in this country presently emphasizes women's submissive role and condones previously mentioned negative attitudes and behavior. It must be noted that there has been headway made in this area as well. Many churches and temples are re-examining their former views toward women, and adjusting accordingly to the current overwhelming demand. Unfortunately, as positive as this new trend sounds, it is still a detriment. Regardless of how one wishes for such a change, the dogma attached to these faiths will always remain the same. This monotheistic dogma teaches its practitioners to worship only the male divine, thus this discrimination will continue to perpetuate the suppression of women as the norm.
Many women and men have historically gone against this monotheistic hold on our society. In recent decades, their voices have become increasingly loud and their message increasingly strong. These foremothers and forefathers of ours may have been forced into silence and secrecy in years past, but this isolation is slowly fading. These women and men have unearthed what many Native Americans know and what our ancestors inherently knew. In their spiritual and emotional strength, they are helping us to rediscover the same beauty. The divine is not a singular, untouchable, aloof male being, but a warm, balanced, and interactive presence of both female and male. These men and women have rediscovered the wonderful mystery of the Goddess and God.
Many of these modern-day pioneers are concentrating their spiritual exploration within the perimeters of traditions known only to our ancestors, who were more in tune with both themselves and their surroundings. Many of us have also heard this wonderfully persistent and unavoidable call, and we are slowly beginning to respond to the lovely voice of the Goddess. We are happily leaping into voluminous texts previously scorned as "myths and fairy tales." We are finding out that these "stories" hold glorious gems of spiritual truth and harmony. It is past time to recover the long-hidden feminine side of the divine. This is the only way we as humans can again come into balance, not only with ourselves, but with others and with the natural world.
Of course, the search for the feminine divine has been an ongoing process throughout the centuries. Examples of this can be seen in the reverence shown for the Christian Virgin Mary, the high regard in which female saints of the Catholic Church are held, and the fact that we still use the term "Mother Nature" to describe the elements. This search for the feminine divine is especially apparent in the American Equal Rights Movement. While women and men fighting for this movement may not have been aware of it, the Goddess was certainly calling to them. These people responded loudly and in unison. Women slowly took their place in the mainstream of society. They refused to remain hidden deep within kitchens, wearing aprons and wiping sweat from their prematurely wrinkled brows. Women have fought and won on many levels concerning equality of the sexes. They have learned again to be proud of their individual sexuality. For each of these battles won, the Goddess smiles quietly and rejoices in watching Her children of both sexes come ever closer to Her loving embrace. These recent advances achieved by women and men are but a few of the subtle signs of the resurgence of the Goddess in our consciousness.
Humanity is slowly coming into closer touch with its natural environment. We are learning and finally acknowledging the appalling destruction we have previously caused the Earth and all Her varied species. We have also accepted the fact that, by continuing this destruction, we will eventually destroy ourselves. We are slowly but surely learning as individuals how to cease such uncaring behavior. We are gradually, but inevitably, learning tolerance for other cultures, religions, and species. This alone is indicative of the Goddess speaking to us, and we are finally beginning to listen. The Goddess does not know the definition of either sexism or racism. She does not acknowledge hatred. She does not condone intolerance of any sort.
Considering these issues, and the fact that polytheism and animism are ancient religious traditions, the question, "Why is a primordial goddess so important?" is not nearly as important as the question, "Why did we neglect the feminine divine?" The second question will be explored at length later in this book. As for the first, the answer is very simple. She is of inarguable importance, for She is a strong elemental part of ourselves, our surroundings, our heredity, and the very ancestry of Earth. Without Her, the gods are incomplete and become, themselves, fractured beings. The Goddess is what nurtures us, sustains us, and shows us the beauty and love inherent in all our surroundings. Through Her very essence, She gives us the gift of a promise of everlasting life. This gift is not one filled with fear, dread, compromise, and conformity, but one filled with beauty, love, challenge, and peace.
To establish a basis for the possibility of a Norse primordial goddess, one must begin with the available material in the Nordic Tradition, and look to other comparable traditions as well. While the focus of this book will certainly be on ancient scholarly works, modern texts will be included for they contain useful information, as their authors most likely started with the same fundamental documentation as we. Some authors of these wonderfully insightful modern works are heathen or pagan, so their spiritual interpretation of the ancient texts is much different from that of authors with a purely academic outlook. By considering both academic and "New Age" works, however, we will arrive at a well-rounded view of the Norse primordial goddess.
In order to assess the multitude of Norse goddesses described in the literature, one should begin with a study of the variety of translations of the Edda and the Prose Edda, both written by Snorri Sturluson in the 12th century. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, also by Snorri Sturluson, is another wonderful and irreplaceable source. One should note, however, that Snorri was, in all likelihood, a faithful Christian in an era when neither the worship, acknowledgment, nor even discussion of heathen gods and goddesses was tolerated, unless they were talked and written about as mere myths. Icelandic sagas and folk or fairy tales from other related Germanic cultures are also extremely important. They all contain many important, albeit hidden, mythological themes and hints pertaining to the existence of the Goddess of the North.
Excerpted from GODDESS OF THE NORTH by Lynda C. Welch. Copyright © 2001 Lynda C. Welch. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Table of Contents
Figures and Tables
Part I: Historical Exploration
CHAPTER 1 Why a Primordial Goddess?
CHAPTER 2 Precedents
CHAPTER 3 Displacement and Fragmentation of the Goddess
Part II: The Fragments
CHAPTER 4 Creation
CHAPTER 5 The Aesir, the Vanir, and the Giants
CHAPTER 6 Giantesses
CHAPTER 7 Divine Seeresses and Guardians
CHAPTER 8 Asyniur
CHAPTER 9 Ragnarok
Part III: Unveiling the Hidden Truth
CHAPTER 10 Piecing Together the Fragments
CHAPTER 11 Understanding Yggdrasill
CHAPTER 12 Mother
CHAPTER 13 Daughter
CHAPTER 14 Grandmother
CHAPTER 15 The Goddess of the North
Part IV: Past to Present
CHAPTER 16 Women in Norse Society
CHAPTER 17 Witch Hunts
CHAPTER 18 The Goddess Remembered in Folk and Fairy Tales
CHAPTER 19 Spiritual Symbols
CHAPTER 20 The Goddess Today
About the Author