Gullveig

Gullveig being speared and burned in an 1895 illustration by Lorenz Frølich
Gullveig being speared and burned in an 1895 illustration by Lorenz Frølich

Gullveig (pronounced “GULL-vayg”) is a female figure mentioned only in two stanzas in the Völuspá, one of the poems in the Poetic Edda. The stanzas describe the events leading up to the Aesir-Vanir War, the war between the two main tribes of deities in Norse mythology, the Aesir and the Vanir.

The two stanzas read:

Now she [the seeress recounting the events of the poem] remembers the war,
The first in the world,
When Gullveig
Was studded with spears,
And in the hall of the High One [Odin]
She was burned;
Thrice burned,
Thrice reborn,
Often, many times,
And yet she lives.

She [Gullveig] was called Heiðr
When she came to a house,
The witch who saw many things,
She enchanted wands;
She enchanted and divined what she could,
In a trance she practiced seidr,
And brought delight
To evil women.[1]

The following stanzas describe failed peace talks between the two tribes of gods and the beginning of the war.

These stanzas tell us that Gullveig was a practitioner of magic, often called “seidr” (seiðr) in Old Norse. As in most ancient societies, magic was seen as highly ambivalent amongst the Norse. Its practitioners often provided valuable services, but their art inherently increased their personal power in ways that others often felt to be underhanded and antisocial.

The second verse’s last lines, “And [she] brought delight / To evil women,” underscore this point. The Old Norse phrase illrar brúðar, “evil women,” is not the least bit ambiguous; brúðar literally means “brides,” but here it clearly means “women” in a more general sense, and illr (here illrar for grammatical reasons) means “ill, bad, evil, malevolent, injurious.” (I’ve seen a few attempts to translate these lines in a way that renders them morally neutral or positive, but these are utterly spurious and are based on nothing more than wishful thinking by people who would do well to come to terms with the fact that historical pagan religions typically had a highly ambivalent view of magic and the people who practiced it.)

“The hall of the High One” is a reference to Asgard, the celestial fortress of the Aesir gods. Gullveig had evidently come to Asgard from elsewhere – in context, almost certainly from Vanaheim, the homeland of the Vanir – and was performing magic that the Aesir deemed to be gravely antisocial and dangerous. Their response was to burn her, which should be unsurprising given the instances of witches being put to death in the sagas due to the frequent malevolence of magic noted above. But, by means of the same abilities that got her into trouble in the first place, she survived.

Magic wasn’t the only alluring yet disruptive force that Gullveig introduced to the Aesir. The name Gullveig is a compound word comprised of the words gull, “gold,” and veig, “alcoholic drink, intoxication” or “power, strength.”[2] Its meaning, then, can hardly be anything other than “the madness and corruption caused by this precious metal.”[3] She is also called Heiðr, which, as a noun, means “fame,” and as an adjective, means “bright, light, clear,” another probable reference to gold. This second name, like the first, has to do with wealth and prestige. Also, it’s surely no coincidence that witches called Heiðr are likewise found in Landnámabók and The Saga of King Hrólf Kraki.[4]

Norse society’s ambivalent attitude toward magic was mirrored by its similarly ambivalent attitude toward wealth. On the one hand, wealth was desirable for the prestige, comfort, and pleasure that it brings, but on the other hand, it was seen as a potentially socially disruptive thing that had to be distributed in such a way that social harmony was preserved.

This latter attitude is indicated in, for example, the stanzas of the rune poems that deal with the meaning of the F-rune, or fehu, literally “cattle” but more broadly “wealth.” The Icelandic Rune Poem has this to say about :

Wealth
source of discord among kinsmen
and fire of the sea
and path of the serpent.[5]

And from the Norwegian Rune Poem:

Wealth is a source of discord among kinsmen;
the wolf lives in the forest.[6]

And from the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, with a slight Christian overlay:

Wealth is a comfort to all men;
yet must every man bestow it freely,
if he wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.[7]

We can also say with a reasonable degree of certainty that Gullveig is the Vanir goddess Freya by another name. Freya weeps tears of gold and owns the golden, jewel-studded necklace Brísingamen, perhaps the most precious piece of jewelry in Old Norse literature. It was she who, according to the Ynglinga Saga, first brought seidr to the Aesir, and who first taught it to Odin.[8] Thus, the connections between Freya and Gullveig’s defining characteristics – magic and material wealth – are quite clear, making an identification of the two quite probable.

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References:

[1] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 21-22. My translation. The original Old Norse stanzas read:

21.
Þat man hon folkvíg
fyrst í heimi,
er Gullveigu
geirum studdu
ok í höll Hárs
hana brenndu,
þrisvar brenndu,
þrisvar borna,
oft, ósjaldan,
þó hon enn lifir.

22.
Heiði hana hétu
hvars til húsa kom,
völu velspáa,
vitti hon ganda;
seið hon, hvars hon kunni,
seið hon hug leikinn,
æ var hon angan
illrar brúðar.

[2] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 123.

[3] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 158-159.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Icelandic Rune Poem at Ragweed Forge.

[6] The Norwegian Rune Poem at Ragweed Forge.

[7] The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem at Ragweed Forge.

[8] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 4. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.

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