By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
In the Eddas and sagas, Valkyries are mortal human women born of mortal human parents. It is not their origin, but their service to Odin, which bestows on the Valkyries certain supernatural powers. Freyja and Gondul are both mentioned as strong Valkyries who drive the myths forward.
Freyja: The Commander of Valkyries
The Valkyries are not goddesses, but they are some of the most prominent female figures in Norse mythology. And it seems likely that the goddess Freyja is their commander, or can even be counted, at times, as holding the job of Valkyrie.
The Old Icelandic story, called The Story of Hethin and Hogni, provides some reason to think that Freyja is closely connected with the Valkyries. She holds the narrative tight in her grip, determining the way forward.
The same mythical story has another Valkyrie who introduces herself as Gondul.
Are Freyja and Gondul the Same?
This name, Gondul, is known elsewhere as the name of a Valkyrie. Does Freyja take the name Gondul when she is working for Odin as a Valkyrie? It could well be, since Gondul seems to be the chief Valkyrie in, for example, a poem called ‘Hakonarmal’ composed in honor of a Norwegian king’s entrance to Valhalla. And, to have a goddess at the head of the Valkyrie corps seems likely enough.
Freyja, as Gondul in this story, certainly acts as a Valkyrie: as an instigator of armed conflict between men, creating the dead warriors who the Valkyries will bring to Odin for his army in Valhalla.
Another reason to think Freyja might be the chief of the Valkyries is that Odin himself says Freyja ‘chooses half the dead who fall in battle’. While this isolated remark has made some modern readers see Freyja as keeping her own separate afterlife for dead warriors, a more economical explanation is that she is simply the main or most powerful chooser among the Valkyries. Valkyrie, after all, translates to ‘chooser of the slain in battle’.
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Freyja as Seen in Other Stories
But there are other sides to the goddess Freyja as well. Loki accuses her of being promiscuous, of having slept with just about everyone.
In one story, we even see Freyja in the company of a human lover, who she seeks to get a powerful witch to help. This is the poem called the ‘Poem of Hyndla’ (Hyndluljoth), which is usually included in the Poetic Edda because of its content, though it is not found in the Codex Regius manuscript of the Poetic Edda.
Here we read that Freyja went to the cave of an anti-goddess named Hyndla, and woke her up, saying she wanted to ride to the enclosure of the gods, and to Valhalla specifically, alongside her.
Freyja said that Odin might do some favors for Hyndla if she’d agree to come with her to Valhalla. And Freyja offered to sacrifice to Thor on Hyndla’s behalf—seeming to take more the role of a priestess or devotee than of a goddess—and said she would intercede with Thor, even though he hates the anti-gods.
Freyja’s true purpose in consulting the witch, however, was to learn the family tree of her human lover Ottar’s ancestors—Ottar needed to hear this because he is planning to fight an enemy who challenged him about the worthiness of his ancestry.
Freyja: A Typical Valkyrie
The main point for us to observe here is that the goddess Freyja can be seen in a romantic liaison even with a human man. And that this makes her all the more like the Valkyries.
The lesser Valkyries, human as they are, are very often the love interests to the human heroes of the Norse poems and sagas.
The Intriguing Character Of Freyja
Freyja is certainly a complicated and intriguing character. And she reminds us that a culture’s gods are not necessarily embodiments of its highest values and moral precepts.
Just as Odin departs from the expected man’s role by dressing as a witch, Freyja departs from the proper woman’s sphere in her truly prodigious sexual explorations. She is not above even selling her favors in exchange for material gain, in the case of the four dwarves who make her necklace.
Freyja: A Strong Female Figure in Norse Myths
Other than Freyja and the Valkyries, and some of the antagonistic anti-goddesses that heroes encounter in their adventures, there are not many active supernatural female figures in the Norse myths.
This might strike you as somewhat surprising because the Norse sagas are strikingly different from other medieval literature in the way women are portrayed.
We see women occupying much more active roles in these stories than in, say, the King Arthur universe. They inherit property, choose to marry or divorce, and in some unusual cases even take up arms and fight alongside men.
But, Freyja Is Not an Example to Live By
No man or woman could live as Odin or Freyja does, but they are not held up as moral exemplars either. The gods are not characters in fables with a moral to convey—they are not living lessons in good conduct.
Freyja’s role among the gods is by no means one that a mortal woman of any status could imitate—without grievous consequences.
It is often seen that, like a dream, the myths follow a certain storyline without regard to whys or hows that a deliberate author would have to contemplate. And the gods, like characters in a dream, also behave without whys and hows that are perceptible to us mortals.
Common Questions about Valkyries Who Drive the Norse Myths
It seems likely that the goddess Freyja is their commander, or can even be counted, at times, as holding the job of Valkyrie. She is simply the main or most powerful chooser among the Valkyries. Valkyrie, after all, translates to ‘chooser of the slain in battle’.
Freyja is a complicated and intriguing character. She reminds us that a culture’s gods are not necessarily embodiments of its highest values and moral precepts.
There is a possibility that Freyja takes the name Gondul when she is working for Odin as a Valkyrie. It could well be, since Gondul seems to be the chief Valkyrie in, for example, a poem called Hakonarmal composed in honor of a Norwegian king’s entrance to Valhalla.