An argument for Gullveig as Vanic
I’ll be upfront: my own thoughts are that Gullveig is the dark witch aspect of Freyja — lusting for power, lusting for gold, lusting for war, insatiable in Her hungers and nearly immortal. Freyja, though a popular and important goddess, has lost many of Her heiti and even Her personal name (Freyja means ‘lady’). So many names have been confused and fused over the centuries that it’s not inconceivable that Gullveig is a völva aspect of Freyja’s but no longer clearly attributed.
First let’s examine the only time Gullveig definitely shows up in the myths, in Völuspá, apparently to precipitate the Aesir-Vanir war:
21. The war I remember, | the first in the world,
When the gods with spears | had smitten Gollveig,
And in the hall | of Hor had burned her,
Three times burned, | and three times born,
Oft and again, | yet ever she lives.
22. Heith they named her | who sought their home,
The wide-seeing witch, | in magic wise;
Minds she bewitched | that were moved by her magic,
To evil women | a joy she was.
(The Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows)
That passage from Völuspá significantly predates the only other (oblique) reference to Gullveig, a connecting, interpolated passage in the Völuspá hin skamma, stuck in the middle of Hyndluljóð:
43. A heart ate Loki,– | in the embers it lay,
And half-cooked found he | the woman’s heart;–
With child from the woman | Lopt soon was,
And thence among men | came the monsters all.
(Hyndluljóð, translated by Henry Adams Bellows)
So all we’ve got is a thrice-burned, thrice-born witch, who probably provided the half-cooked heart that Loki rescued from the fire and ate.
Most scholars agree that Gullveig kicked off the Aesir-Vanir conflict, perhaps through being the first Van to contact the Aesir and Her poor treatment at Their hands. That alone seems to suggest that Gullveig must be a Van; although some think that the Aesir and Vanir were one people before the war, and make Gullveig a Jotun who divides Them. (I doubt this, because I disagree with the viewpoint that the Jotnar are always inimical to humanity and to the Aesir; it defies logic and lore.) Wikipedia notes, “Starting with scholar Gabriel Turville-Petre, scholars such as Rudolf Simek, Andy Orchard, and John Lindow have theorized that Gullveig/Heiðr is the same figure as Freyja, and that her involvement with the Æsir somehow led to the events of the Æsir–Vanir War.” Lindow (since it’s his book that’s to hand) also observes that “since Ynglinga saga says that Freyja first brought seid to the aesir, it is not impossible that Gullveig is Freyja,” and that Her bringing seid was either a war strategy or what started the war (Norse Mythology, pg. 155).
Other suggestions — besides Gullveig as Freyja or as a separate Van — is that Gullveig may be Angrboda, or a pre-triplicity Norns.
Most people who identify Gullveig with Angrboda seem to be following in Rydberg’s footsteps. Rydberg fails to convince, partly because his conclusions are generally haphazard, ranging from the incisive to the sloppily speculative, and especially since his theory for Gullveig seems based upon three data:
- Gullveig is impossible to kill with fire and spears, and becomes the old witch Heiðr.
- Loki has a relationship with Gullveig (through eating a heart which is probably Hers and becoming pregnant from it) and a relationship with Angrboda which is well-attested.
- Angrboda is alive, old and practicing magic, like Heiðr.
By this standard, Odin could be Gullveig. We’ve no other information on the myth of Loki eating the half-burned heart, though the fact that Angrboda is name-checked with Her children in the stanza before Hyndluljóð 43 suggests that whoever’s heart He’s eating, it’s not Angrboda’s. (Although there is a minority who suggest that Angrboda and Gullveig both have been burned and that Hyndluljóð doesn’t refer to the same episode as Völuspá.)
For context, Rydberg has been criticized for “his hazardous etymologies, his identification of different mythical figures without sufficient grounds, his mixing up of heroic saga and myth, and, above all, his bent for remodeling myths in order to make them fit into a system which (they say) never existed” (Gadde, Frederik. “Viktor Rydberg and Some Beowulf Questions,” Studia Neophilologica 15:72). But Rydberg syncretized Gullveig-Heiðr with Angrboda, and then syncretized Gullveig-Heiðr-Angrboda with Aurboda and Hyrokkin, which makes Gullveig-Angrboda-Aurboda-Heiðr-Hyrokkin Gerda’s mother (and presumably her own grandpa), which offends my sensibilities as a polytheist and doesn’t make much sense. All the ‘proof’ for G.A.A.H.H. is predicated on intellectual backflips after first making the flimsy assumption that Gullveig is Angrboda.
As for the Norns, the argument’s a bit more convincing: three burnings, three births, three Norns. Before Gullveig, the Aesir are almost childlike, playing with valuables and peaceably wasting time; after Gullveig, the argument goes, the newborn Norns whip Them into shape and start stuff happening. Except the Norns argument still doesn’t satisfy the Heiðr connection, the Vanic connection which I’ll get to momentarily, or the fact that the Norns are apparently older than the Aesir. The Norns actually seem to be the three foremost members of an ancient sub-race or tribe of Jotnar, all of whom are little-N norns and who range in alignment. Besides, Völuspá mentions what is probably the Norns in stanza 8:
8. In their dwellings at peace | they played at tables,
Of gold no lack | did the gods then know,–
Till thither came | up giant-maids three,
Huge of might, | out of Jotunheim.
And again in stanza 20:
20. Thence come the maidens | mighty in wisdom,
Three from the dwelling | down ‘neath the tree;
Urth is one named, | Verthandi the next,–
On the wood they scored,– | and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there, and life allotted
To the sons of men, and set their fates.
Basically, the Norns’ appearance consistently predates Gullveig’s appearance and the three Norns are never linked — though it would be easy — to the singular Gullveig/Heiðr.
So what’s ‘Gullveig’ even mean? Gullveig’s a compound name of the style common in the Norse myths — GULL + VEIG — similar to Gulltoppr (Heimdallr’s horse) or Beowulf. The conventionally-accepted Völuspá is a combination of two manuscripts, Codex Regius and Hauksbók, which vary. Codex Regius has gvll ueigo and Hauksbók has gullueíg. For a name with such a contentious translation, it seems wise to go to the originals.
Cleasby-Vigfusson has (and Zoëga corroborates):
GULL, n., in the oldest [manuscripts] spelt goll:– gold
VEIG, f., pl. veigar, [A.S. wæge; Hel. wêgi], a kind of strong beverage, drink; 2. metaph. pith, strength, gist; II. in pr. names of women, Gull-veig, Þór-veig, Sól-veig, Álm-veig, Mjað-veig
Which gives us either ‘gold-drink’ (mead, presumably) or a vague metaphorical comment on the strong influence of greed for gold. Simek gives us “‘golden-drink, golden-intoxication’ or ‘golden-power’; at any rate ‘the personified greed for gold'” (Dictionary of Norse Mythology, pg. 123) and says “veig… is obscure, but usually means ‘alcoholic drink’, but also ‘power, strength’ and perhaps also ‘gold'” (pg. 124). Mead makes sense in the context of intoxication, lust, unquenchable thirst, and certainly puts Gullveig towards the Vanic end of things. Relatedly, Queen Medb — again, mead or she who intoxicates — whose seat of power is practically my backyard, is a fascinatingly Vanic-y Irish deity with a great deal of parallels with Freyja, being a sexually-voracious, wealth-loving, war-making goddess. (Killed with a piece of cheese.) Given the parallels in Norse culture between mead and poetry, poetry and galdr/incantations, and between poetry/incantations and war, it’s not an entirely illogical sort of name.
After Her transformation, Gullveig is known as Heiðr. In the lore, there are several mentions of a ‘Heiðr’ besides the description of the transformation of Gullveig in Völuspá, but it’s unlikely that any of them actually refer to Gullveig-Heiðr.
Heiðr can be an adjective, meaning bright or cloudless, but only referring to the sky, as in bright stars or a bright day or a clear sky. It can mean a heath or a fell; Cleasby-Vigfusson states that it can also denote “a [proper] name of a sybil… [frequent] in [compound] names of women, usually dropping the h, Ragn-eiðr, Baug-eiðr”, much like the construction we see in Gull-veig. Lastly, Heiðr can refer to honour (both as the noun and the verb to honour or worship).
Which is all nice, though it doesn’t really fulfill at least Simek’s claims that Heiðr is ultimately etymologically similar to Gullveig. (I don’t know where he gets it, but Simek translates Heiðr as ‘light, clear’ but also ‘fame’.) Bellows goes with ‘Shining One’, but that contextually only makes sense if Heiðr is a celestial body. ‘Honour’ seems straight-forward but doesn’t make much sense in context or the culture, either for Gullveig or for a witch who gladdens evil women.
More interesting, more probable and indeed more Freyjan is Heiðr as a fee, payment, worth, value. Consider the (abbreviated) Cleasby-Vigfusson entry:
HEIÐ, f. a fee, stipend, payment; the phrase, haptsœnis heið, the atoning fee of the gods = poetry, a song; heið-menningr, m. a nickname; heið-sær, adj. sowing gold, open-handed; heið-þegi, a, m. = heiðmaðr, esp. of a king’s man, answering to the mod. soldier; for all these words vide Lex. Poët. II. hence [metaphorical] worth, value; lítils heiðar, of small worth, of small repute.
Considering that part of what kicked off the Aesir-Vanir war is the paying of wergild for Gullveig, Heiðr as ‘fee, payment, or worth’ makes much more sense than leaning on the shaky “gold is shiny, therefore bright, therefore clear” logic.
The reason I say it’s unlikely that the other Heiðrs in the lore refer to Gullveig-Heiðr is that, as Lindow notes, Heiðr is “a common name for seeresses” in the sagas (such as Landnámabók, Hrólfs saga kraka, etc.), which Bellows agrees with. It would be a mistake to conflate the magical realism of the sagas — which are late period and surprisingly historically accurate — with the fantasy of mythology. Heiðr and Hrossthjof (“horse-thief”) are listed as the children of the Jotun Hrímnir in Hyndluljóð, though it’s not clear that Hrímnir’s Heiðr is even necessarily a woman; contextually, ze could easily be a man with an etymology relating back to the heath or fell definition (and the only other reference to Hrímnir doesn’t mention any kids). A few writers, including Bugge, maintain that Heiðr is the name of the dead völva narrating the poem.
Therefore I feel confident that it’s more probable than the alternatives that Gullveig-Heiðr is the völva aspect of Freyja and the burning may well represent a mythic initiation from young and lusty witch to wise, occult völva.
(I suppose if you’d like to get really Neopagan about it, you have your choice of young, spring maiden aspects of Freyja, though Maris prefers Mardoll specifically; you have Freyja-the-mother, with Hnoss and Gersemi; and in Heiðr you have the old witch, the völva crone. I maintain that a fourth aspect should be recognized, to match the actual phases of the moon, making it: waxing crescent, Mardoll; full moon, Freyja-as-mother; waning crescent, Freyja-as-warrior-queen; dark/new moon, Heiðr the völva. </digression>)
WE HAVE FOUND A WITCH, MAY WE BURN HER?
To examine briefly the attributes of Heiðr and völvas in general: Heiðr is described as someone who visits people’s houses, as ‘wide-seeing’, wise in magic (‘ganda’ in the original) and able to manipulate people’s minds. This is all pretty well-established völva stuff.
A völva is a female magician, in that she works magic, seiðr and galdr, especially incantations and enchantments; and a seer, as she practices spá, prophecy and perhaps remote viewing. Völva means ‘carrier of a staff or wand’, specifically and tellingly only a thick, blunt, rounded stick (yeah, they did sex stuff with it; I got your ergi right here). Völur were in fact mistrusted largely due to their arts of seduction and ability to snare minds, and Freyja was — is — regarded as the foremost völva in the Nine Worlds.
Seiðr, spá and galdr were the völur’s stock-in-trade, and while others are known to practice one or all of these arts, seiðr is distinctively Vanic. (I would also argue that spá is, and that everyone practicing spá is either Vanir or taught by one, including Sif and Frigga, but that’s another essay. In a roundabout way, Thrymskvida supports both that and my UPG that Heimdallr is a Van, by observing that Heimdallr “could see well into the future, / like other Vanir” (Lindow, pg. 170).)
Gandr as a description for a völva’s magic is problematic, in that it doesn’t have a clear definition, though it’s clearly related to or is the same magical practice as seiðr. It’s generally used as part of a compound, and ranges in meaning from “anything enchanted” or “an object used by sorcerers” to snakes or serpents (Jörmun-gandr) to wolves (‘gand’ is part of heiti for Fenrir and other wolves) or spirits or ghosts, but also means magic or witchcraft itself. There is also a confusion/connection between wolves and brooms: “In nursery tales a witch is said to ride on a broomstick; in old lore they were said to ride by night on wolves, which are hence in poetry called ‘the steeds of witches'” (Cleasby-Vigfusson). While the wolf symbolism would seem to reinforce the argument that Gullveig-Heiðr is Angrboda, I think that’s only a superficial similarity; while Angrboda may practice gandr Herself, the magic that the Jotnar practice is distinct from the seiðr that völur like Freyja practice. It is Odin’s relationship to wolves, not Angrboda’s, that is more relevant.
To summarize about the völur and their obvious similarities to the cult of the Vanir:
They have historical ties to groups practicing war magic, prophesy and travelling in carts:
The Cimbri of Jutland (Denmark) — it’s unclear if they are Celtic or Germanic, perhaps both — were among the tribes attacking the Roman empire. The warriors were accompanied by their wives and seer-priestesses: “these were grey-haired, clad in white, with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, girt with girdles of bronze, and bare-footed” who would sacrifice prisoners-of-war and prophecy in their blood, which they collected in vessels, and entrails. (The Gundestrup cauldron
may be one of these sacrificial vessels.) “During the battles [the priestesses] would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons [that the women and children travelled in] and in this way produce an unearthly noise. [Cimbri – Wikipedia]
Wagons/carts are a distinctive aspect of the Vanic cult, and factors into Roman-era descriptions of Vanic ritual: Tacitus describes the wagon-centric practices of Germanic tribes worshipping Nerthus. A völva was buried in Denmark in a cart, barefoot in a long plain dress, with her wand and other tools; another völva was buried in Sweden with her wand, wagon and “a silver pendant which represents a woman with a broad necklace around her neck“, probably Freyja. (Wands have been found in about 40 female graves, usually those of wealthy women; and chariot/cart burial is usually regarded as an Iron Age Celtic practice, which ties into my stump speech on the Vanir cultus being a Germanic-Celtic mash-up.)
As far as their appearance goes — besides being old enough to go grey and probably being barefoot in a plain (white) dress — in Örvar-Odds saga and Eiríks saga rauða, völur dressed in a long blue or black cloak and carried a wand or staff. A blue-black cloak, a grey hat and a staff (with a couple of wolves around and an evil serpent or two in the past) sounds a lot like a certain Mr. Wednesday, who would be the #1 Most Likely Guy To Go Around Dressed Like a Völva, given the fact that Freyja personally taught Him (argr) magic. (I’ll let you speculate on the Freyja/Óðr/Óðinn connection and, for example, the joint burial in Birka, where a völva and a warrior were buried together with her wand and his spear.) Also, given the repeated connections between völur and Denmark, Samsø — an island just off the Jutland (or ‘Cimbrian’) peninsula — is where Odin learned seiðr from Freyja. (Samsø is interestingly notoriously rife with magic in the sagas, though it has more a feel of contamination than of natural numen — though perhaps where the latter arises, the former follows.)
The last interesting bit to be currently squeezed from the Gullveig-Heiðr is Freyja argument is the snippet from Hyndluljóð, in which Loki eats the half-cooked heart of a woman and is impregnated with all kinds of creatures. Loki’s argr nature is well-established in the myths; he gender-shifts enough to bear children at other times and is likely the old Jotun hag Thokk/Thaukt, who at least one (modern) writer identifies as a crow shapeshifter (which is a völva-y animal anyway, associated with witches, war and a female figure on the Gundestrup cauldron).
Two interesting things connect Gullveig-Heiðr-Freyja and Loki. Firstly, Loki has a special relationship with Freyja which is not generally explained in the lore. My UPG is that Loki learned seiðr/gandr from Freyja — perhaps not as much as Odin, but during the same mythically-early general time period in Samsø. (I’d hardly suggest that Loki was less of a magician for having learned less seiðr, given that He’s ridiculously talented in Jotun and other magics as well; He may have assisted in instructing Odin). But Freyja affords Loki privileges that no one else has, such as the use of Her falcon cloak; if She is Gullveig, and Lopt (an air aspect of Loki’s) is the mother of Her witch-children, it starts to explain some things. Secondly and relatedly, in Lokasenna, directly before Loki accuses Odin of going about Samsø as a völva, Odin accuses Loki of living under/on the earth eight winters as a milkmaid and bearing children. While we’ve lost whatever myth Odin is referring to, Loki’s accusation is accurate and the rules of flyting are quite particular, so we can be confident that Loki did as well. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that both references to Loki’s magical pregnancy — for which we have no other information — might refer to the same lost myth.
If Gullveig-Heiðr isn’t Freyja Herself, I think it’s clear that Heiðr is at least a talented völva and definitely a Van. (And there’s also a neat little ritual based off the Gullveig myth that you should check out.)