Gefjun

Gefjun plowing with her four oxen - painting on the ceiling of Frederiksborg Palace, Denmark
Gefjun plowing with her four oxen – painting on the ceiling of Frederiksborg Palace, Denmark

Gefjun (pronounced “GEV-yoon” and sometimes spelled “Gefjon,” “Gefiun,” or “Gefion”) is an ancient Norse goddess of agriculture, fertility, abundance, and prosperity. Her name is derived from the Old Norse verb gefa, “to give,”[1] and her name can be translated as “Giver” or “Generous One.”

Most of our information about Gefjun has been filtered through the mind and pen of the thirteenth-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson. While Snorri’s retellings of Norse mythology can’t be accepted uncritically, his descriptions of Gefjun surely do contain much that is authentic.

As Snorri tells it, Gefjun traveled through Sweden disguised as a homeless woman. When she appeared before the generous King Gylfi, he granted her as much land as four oxen could plow in one day. Gefun summoned her four sons, which she had had by an unnamed giant, and turned them into oxen to plow the land. Not only did they plow the land; they also dragged it from Sweden, where the resulting depression became the lake Mälaren, and out into the ocean, where it became the Danish island of Zealand, upon which the city of Copenhagen is today located.[2][3]

A similar, but shorter and more ambiguous, version of this same story can be found in the ninth-century poem Ragnarsdrápa by Bragi Boddason.[4] This poem probably formed much of the basis of Snorri’s version.

Associations between an earth goddess of prosperity and the act of plowing were common throughout the pre-Christian religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples. The name of the goddess Fjorgyn, which by the Viking Age had come to be used as a synonym for “earth,” is likely derived from a Proto-Indo-European word for “furrow.”[5]

Another example of this tendency is an Old English prayer to an otherwise unattested goddess named “Erce” that was recited when the fields were first plowed in the spring. While it was recorded after the conversion to Christianity, it certainly originated in the pre-Christian period. In it, the Christian god is assimilated to a classic pagan Indo-European role: the sky god who fertilizes the earth goddess in the hieros gamos (“divine marriage”). H.R. Ellis Davidson translates the charm as follows:

Erce, Erce, Erce, Earth Mother,
may the Almighty Eternal Lord
grant you fields to increase and flourish,
fields fruitful and healthy,
shining harvest of shafts of millet,
broad harvests of barley…
Hail to thee, Mother of Men!
Bring forth now in God’s embrace
filled with good for the use of men.[6]

The association with the island of Zealand also suggests a connection between Gefjun and Nerthus, another earth mother goddess whose cult was also said to be centered in Zealand.[7]

There are few other references to Gefjun in Old Norse literature. In the Eddic poem Lokasenna, Loki accuses Gefjun of having exchanged sex for precious jewels, something that the goddess Freya is also said to have done.[8] Since Freya was also an earth goddess of “peace and plenty,” this passage raises the question of the degree to which Freya and Gefjun can be distinguished from one another. Indeed, one of Freya’s other names is Gefn, which is also derived from the verb gefa and also means something like “Giver” or “Generous One.”[9]

In any case, Gefjun’s apparent promiscuity makes Snorri look rather ridiculous when he claims that Gefjun is a virgin and that girls who die virgins go to her company when they die.[10]

In conclusion, then, Gefjun can hardly be distinguished from other Germanic goddesses of the “earth mother goddess” type, which includes Freya, Frigg, Nerthus, Fjorgyn, Jord, Sif, and others. This is not to say that they were all necessarily thought of as being the exact same goddess, but rather that they’re multiplications of and slight variations of the same type of goddess.

Why didn’t the Norse and other Germanic peoples just have one single goddess of this type, then? To modern tastes, that would have made things more efficient by eliminating redundancy. But one of the defining traits of ancient Germanic religion was its lack of systematization and rationalization, and the fluidity that existed between various divine figures. You could say that the “earth mother goddess” of fecundity was a divine model buried somewhere deep within the Germanic psyche (regardless of the degree to which you might ascribe this to “nature” or “nurture”), and that that model was allowed to be expressed in any way that it and its worshipers chose.

After all, polytheistic religions are characteristically permissive and lacking in dogma. Generally speaking, only monotheistic religions, with their insistence on a literalistic, black-and-white distinction between “good” and “evil” and “true” and “false” tend to view a rigid, “one-size-fits-all” codification of their tradition as necessary and desirable.

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References:

[1] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 310.

[2] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning, chapter 1.

[3] Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla. Ynglinga Saga, chapter 5.

[4] Bragi Boddason. Ragnarsdrápa, stanza 13.

[5] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 97.

[6] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 114.

[7] Tacitus, Cornelius. 1948. Germania 40. In The Agricola and Germania. Translated by Harold Mattingly. p. 134-135.

[8] The Poetic Edda. Lokasenna, stanza 20.

[9] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 310.

[10] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning, chapter 35.

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