Freyr

“Freyr” by Johannes Gehrts (1901)

Freyr (pronounced “FREY-ur;” Old Norse Freyr, “Lord”) is a god who belongs to the Vanir tribe of deities. He’s also an honorary member of the other tribe of Norse gods, the Aesir, having arrived in their fortress, Asgard, as a hostage at the closing of the Aesir-Vanir War.

Freyr was one of the most widely and passionately venerated divinities amongst the heathen Norse and other Germanic peoples. One Old Norse poem calls him “the foremost of the gods” and “hated by none.”[1] The reasons for this aren’t hard to understand; their well-being and prosperity depended on his benevolence, which particularly manifested itself in sexual and ecological fertility, bountiful harvests, wealth, and peace. His role in providing health and abundance was often symbolized by his fylgja, the boar Gullinborsti (“Golden-Bristled”),[2] and by his enormous, erect phallus.[3]

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Freyr was a frequent recipient of sacrifices at various occasions, such as the blessing of a wedding[4] or the celebration of a harvest. During harvest festivals, the sacrifice traditionally took the form of his favored animal, the boar.[5]

His father is Njord, and his mother is Njord’s unnamed sister[6] (presumably Nerthus). Freyr himself has been the lover of numerous goddesses and giantesses, including his own sister, Freya.[7] Apparently incest is a common and acceptable practice among the Vanir (although amongst the historical Germanic peoples it certainly wasn’t).

Freyr’s residence is Alfheim, the homeland of the elves.[8] This could mean that Freyr is the ruler of the elves, but since this is never stated explicitly in the surviving sources, it must remain a fascinating conjecture. The relationship between the gods and the elves is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for a number of possible connections between Freyr and the elves.

Another one of Freyr’s signature possessions is his ship, Skídblaðnir, which always has a favorable wind and can be folded up and carried in a small bag.[9] Its name, which means “Assembled from Pieces of Thin Wood,” suggests that it served as the mythological archetype of ships that were constructed for particular ritual purposes and were never meant to be seaworthy. We know from archaeological evidence that ships played a major role in the pre-Christian religious rites of the Germanic peoples,[10] which is perfectly in accordance with the major role played by ships in the Bronze and Iron Ages, particularly among the Scandinavians.

On land, Freyr travels in a chariot drawn by boars.[11] This is another mythological feature that was reflected in historical ritual. We know from medieval Icelandic sources that priestesses and/or priests of Freyr traveled throughout the country on a chariot which contained a statue of the god.[12] The significance of such processions is described by the Roman historian Tacitus, who vividly depicts the processions connected with the early Germanic goddess Nerthus, whose name is the Proto-Germanic form of the name of Freyr’s father Njord. When the chariot reached a village or town, the people laid down their arms and “every iron object” and enjoyed a period of peace and joyful festivities, reveling in the deity’s kind presence.[13] Such processions and celebrations appear to have been a common feature of the worship of the deities the Norse called the Vanir from at least as far back as the first century CE through the Viking Age.

During Ragnarok, Freyr and the giant Surt destroy each other.

Freyr Throughout the Germanic World

Much like the name of his sister Freya (Old Norse Freyja, “Lady”), the word “freyr” (“Lord”) is only a title rather than a proper name. Freyr’s original Proto-Germanic name seems to have been *Ingwaz, which became Ing amongst the Anglo-Saxons and Yngvi (or Yngvi-Freyr or Ingunar-Freyr) amongst the Scandinavians. (Unfortunately, the meaning and etymology of this name are unknown.) Whenever he’s mentioned in Germanic literature or in foreign works that describe the Germanic peoples, he’s noted for possessing and dispensing the same qualities: fertility, well-being, and prosperity. His connections with chariots and ships are frequently noted, as is his being the founder of various tribes, groups of tribes (such as the Ingaevones), and royal lines (such as the Yngling dynasty of Sweden).[14][15][16]

Thus, it’s hard to overestimate the size of the role played by Freyr in the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples, as well as the esteem with which they thought of him.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and want to learn more about Norse mythology, I recommend picking up one of the books listed in this guide: The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books. And if you’re particularly interested in the worldview of the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples, you might want to take a look at my own book, The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism.

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References:

[1] The Poetic Edda. Lokasenna, stanza 35.

[2] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 48.

[3] Adam of Bremen. c. 1080. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Translated by Francis Joseph Tschan. p. 207-208.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 298.

[6] The Poetic Edda. Lokasenna, stanza 36.

[7] Ibid. Stanza 32.

[8] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, stanza 5.

[9] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 43.

[10] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 289.

[11] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 48.

[12] Flateyjarbók.

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

[14] Ibid. Germania 2.

[15] “Ing” in the Old English Rune Poem.

[16] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 4-13. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.