Free hold


Gefjun, Gefjon, or Gefion (possibly from Old Norse geð fiá meaning "chaste") is one of the Asynjur in Norse mythology. She appears only a few times in surviving sources, and mediæval sources talk of her mainly as a goddess of chastity. However, modern scholarship suggests that she may originally have been a fertility goddess connected with ritual plowing, and even that she was originally the same fertility goddess as Freyja.

It has also been suggested that she is the origin of Grendel's mother who appears in the epic Beowulf.


Gefjun's plowing

The oldest surviving account of Gefjun deals with how she pulled a piece of land from Sweden and thereby created the Swedish lake Mälaren and the Danish island Zealand. This account is the 9th century skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa which was composed in honour of Ragnar Lodbrok by Bragi the Old, the court skald of Björn at Haugi, the king of Sweden. This skaldic poem is preserved in Ynglinga saga, a part of the Heimskringla, and in Gylfaginning, a part of the Prose Edda. In these sources, the poem is inserted into prose sections with comments by Snorri Sturluson.

Gefjon dró frá Gylfa
glöð, djúpröðuls öðla,
svá at af renniröknum
rauk, Danmarkar auka;
báru yxn, ok átta
ennitungl, þar er géngu
fyrir vineyjar víðri
valrauf, fjögur höfuð.
Gefjun drew from Gylfi
gladly the wave-trove's free-hold,
Till from the running beasts
sweat reeked, to Denmark's increase;
The oxen bore, moreover,
eight eyes, gleaming brow-lights,
O'er the field's wide: booty,
and four heads in their plowing.

In Gylfaginning, Snorri explains the stanza as follows:

King Gylfi ruled the land that men now call Sweden. It is told of him that he gave to a wandering woman, in return for her merry-making, a plow-land in his realm, as much as four oxen might turn up in a day and a night. But this woman was of the kin of the Æsir; she was named Gefjun. She took from the north, out of Jötunheim, four oxen which were the sons of a certain giant and, herself, and set them before the plow. And the plow cut so wide and so deep that it loosened up the land; and the oxen drew the land out into the sea and to the westward, and stopped in a certain sound. There Gefjun set the land, and gave it a name, calling it Selund. And from that time on, the spot whence the land had been torn up is water: it is now called the Lögr [Løgrinn] in Sweden; and bays lie in that lake even as the headlands in Selund.
The lake name Lögr is the translator's rendering of Løgrinn, the poetic name (heiti) of Lake Mälaren in Old Norse literature. This name is derived from lögr meaning "fluid", and it is a cognate of the English lake.

In the Ynglinga saga, Snorri gives a more euhemeristic account adding the information that it was Odin who had sent Gefjun wandering to king Gylfi. He also adds that she married Skjöldr, a primordial Danish king (in the translation Zealand is rendered as Sealand and Mälaren as Laage):

Then he [Odin] sent Gefion across the sound to the north to discover new countries; and she came to King Gylve (Gylfi), who gave her a ploughgate of land. Then she went to Jotunheim, and bore four sons to a giant, and transformed them into a yoke of oxen. She yoked them to a plough, and broke out the land into the ocean right opposite to Odins. This land was called Sealand, and there she afterwards settled and dwelt. Skjold, a son of Odin, married her, and they dwelt at Leidre. Where the ploughed land was is a lake or sea called Laage [Løgrinn]. In the Swedish land the fjords of Laage correspond to the nesses in Sealand.

It is possible that there is a ritualistic plowing ceremony behind this myth, and that Gefjun is to be considered a fertility goddess. Similar stories also appear in different traditions and the oldest one is that of Dido.

The archaeologist Birger Nerman maintained that the myth of Gefjun's moving a part of Sweden to Denmark had a historic basis in a migration of a group of warriors from the Swedish heartland in the Mälaren basin to Zealand, where they had taken control, in the early 3rd century AD. This is based on Jordanes information that the Dani (Danes) were of the same stock as the Suehans (Swedes) and had taken the old land of the Heruli and expelled them from their lands. Nerman also referred to archaeological support for his theory.

Gefjun as a chastity goddess

In the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson informs that Gefjun is a virgin and that she receives the girls who die while maidens:

The fourth is Gefjun: she is a virgin, and they that die maidens attend her.

This is a trait which is also ascribed to the Roman goddess Diana and consequently, Diana was translated into Old Icelandic as Gefjun in Breta sögur. In this saga, Artemis was also rendered as Gefjun and in Trójumanna saga Gefjun was identified with Minerva/Pallas Athena.

In Völsa þáttr, her role as the goddess of virgins appears to be confirmed, because Gefjun is summoned by a maiden during her reluctant participation in a session of phallic worship:

Þess sver eg við Gefjun
og við goðin önnur,
að eg nauðug tek
við nosa rauðum.
Þiggi mörnir
þetta blæti,
en þræll hjóna,
þríf þú við Völsa.
I swear by Gefjun
and the other gods
that against my will
do I touch this red proboscis.
May giantesses
accept this holy object,
but now, slave of my parents,
grab hold of Völsi.

On the other hand, in Lokasenna, in the older Poetic Edda, Loki accuses her of having had a liaison, but Odin warns that Gefjun is just as omniscient as he is.

Gefjun kvað:
19. "Hví it æsir tveir
skuluð inni hér
sáryrðum sakask?
Loftki þat veit,
at hann leikinn er
ok hann fjörg öll fía."
Loki kvað:
20. "Þegi þú, Gefjun,
þess mun ek nú geta,
er þik glapði at geði
sveinn inn hvíti,
er þér sigli gaf
ok þú lagðir lær yfir."
Óðinn kvað:
21. "Ærr ertu, Loki,
ok örviti,
er þú fær þér Gefjun at gremi,
því at aldar örlög
hygg ek, at hon öll of viti
jafngörla sem ek.
Gefjun spake:
19. "Why, ye gods twain,
with bitter tongues
Raise hate among us here?
Loki is famed
for his mockery foul,
And the dwellers in heaven he hates."
Loki spake:
20. "Be silent, Gefjun!
for now shall I say
Who led thee to evil life;
The boy so fair
gave a necklace bright,
And about him thy leg was laid."
Othin spake:
21. "Mad art thou, Loki,
and little of wit,
The wrath of Gefjun to rouse;
For the fate that is set
for all she sees,
Even as I, methinks.

Grendel's mother

Some scholars have linked the myth of Gefion with the figure of Grendel's mother in the Old English heroic epic poem Beowulf.

In his 1991 article, "The Germanic Earth Goddess in Beowulf", Frank Battaglia develops the correlation between Ides and Dis (p. 433) by linking Grendel's mother with Gefion, one of the Asynjur in Norse mythology. He asks:

does Beowulf oppose the Earth goddess of ancient Germanic religion? The possibility of such an interpretation follows upon the discovery that the name Gefion, by which early Danes called their female chthonic deity, may occur in the Old English poem five times....the five Gefion passages seem to highlight the championing of a new order antagonistic to goddess worship. In light of what appears to be an elaborate thematic statement about patrilineage in the poem, the new order may have entailed a change in kinship systems. Grendel and his mother may stand as types for earlier, matrilineal tribes.

Battaglia offers five passages (and their translations) which he argues reference Gefion: l.49 (géafon on gársecg - "Gefion on the waves"), l.362 (ofer geofenes begang - "over Gefion's realm"), l.515 (geofon ýþum- "Gefion welled up in waves"), l.1394 (né on gyfenes grund - "Ground of Gefion"), and l.1690 (gifen géotende - "Gefion gushing"). Battaglia links these terms to Grendel's mother (the merewif or Kuhn's 'water-woman', woman of the mere') through their reference to water (Klaeber offers a number of spellings for this word in his glossary: geofon as "sea, ocean" and offers the alternate spellings, "gifen, 1690", "geofenes, 362" and "gyfenes, 1394"). Indeed, Battaglia notes that "in Old English poetry, geofon is a word for ocean which has been seen since Jakob Grimm (1968, 198) as related to the name Gefion of the Danish Earth Goddess...power to divide land and sea is shown by representations of Gefion in Norse literature.

Author John Grigsby makes a similar argument in his 2005 book, Beowulf & Grendel: The Truth Behind England's Oldest Legend, suggesting that Grendel's mother is drawn from the fertility goddess Nerthus with whom he equates Gefion.

Possible connections with Frigg and Freyja

Because Gefjun rarely appears in myths, modern scholars speculate much on this figure. In her only appearance in the Poetic Edda, when Loki claimed that she is not a virgin, Odin said:
"Mad art thou, Loki, and little of wit,
The wrath of Gefjun to rouse;
For the fate that is set for all she sees,
Even as I, methinks."
These words really fit his wife, Frigg. (Freyja said the same thing:
"Mad art thou, Loki, that known thou makest
The wrong and shame thou hast wrought;
The fate of all does Frigg know well,
Though herself she says it not.")

As there is little evidence that a goddess called Gefjun was ever worshipped, some scholars maintain that Gefjun is simply an avatar of Frigg or Freyja (who are often identified with each other). All three of them are fertility goddesses who served by women after death, and who practice magic and prophecy. In addition, all have a precious necklace.

Freyja also has many names, indicating that she was worshipped under many aspects: Mardöll which is related to the sea, Hörn which is related to the field, Sýr which is related to the earth, and Gefn means "giver (of life)". In Latin, Friday is "Day of Venus", and in Germanic countries, Friday is the "Day of Freyja". Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, in earlier times before she was identified with the Greek goddess Aphrodite, was a goddess of gardens and fields. She also had different functions: Venus Felix, the bringer of good fortune; Venus Victrix, the bringer of victory; and Venus Verticordia, the protector of feminine chastity. Freyja, the Norse goddess of fertility, love and beauty, is also a goddess of wealth and battle. Considering this pattern, scholars speculate that Gefjon may be an avatar for Freyja, and only later was identified as an individual goddess.



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