Figured this might be a bit specific for the Althing, so I'd throw this in an ask. I hope you, or anyone you know, have some spare words or resources on the Gullveig figure from Völuspá. Most of what I've found follows the "vague feminine entity = Freya" trend which seems unfulfilling and doesn't jive for me in this case. Been working my way through Rydberg's compelling arguments in "Teutonic Mythology," but hope there are other theories I can't dig up on my own. þökkum! (Thanks [i think...])
Velkominn, vinur minn,
(Welcome, my friend,)
I MUST SAY that this is a huge topic, and it is one that I feel unworthy, or rather unprepared, to take on. It has also taken me several attempts to properly answer it. As a historian, I study aspects of Icelandic law and society, not mythology; I am far more familiar with the sagas of men, rather than the sagas of gods. I am well-acquainted with the lore, of course, but not nearly to the extent of others.
Still, I have read the words of a few others who have pondered this problem. @thorraborinn has made at least two posts regarding this debate (here and here), both of which I have carefully read through and put much thought into. I have also read a bit of John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs and H.R. Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. I have even considered the footnotes of translators Carolyne Larrington and Lee M. Hollander.
Now, I do not have nearly the same familiarity with the subject as they do, but I will still do my best to place my thoughts and impressions on the table for discussion. I just hope that I do not error along the way, and may I request forgiveness and patience from others if I do manage wander astray. With that said, I shall continue, and so here is the text in question for us to review before and while we discuss this matter:
22. “She remembers the first war in the world,
when they stuck Gullveig with spears
and in the High-One’s hall they burned her;
three times they burned her, three times she was reborn,
over and over, yet she lives still.”
23. “Bright One they called her, wherever she came to houses,
the seer with pleasing prophecies, she practiced spirit-magic;
she knew seid, seid she performed as she liked,
she was always a wicked woman’s favorite.”
24. “Then all the Powers went to the thrones of fate,
the sacrosanct gods, and considered this:
whether the Æsir should yield tribute
or whether all the gods should share sacrificial feasts.”
25. “Odin hurled the spear, sped it into the host;
that was war still, the first in the world;
the wooden rampart of the Æsir stronghold was wrecked;
the Vanir, with a war-spell, kept on trampling the plain.”(1)
WITH SO FEW WORDS to work from, our troubles are many. As Thorraborinn has said, gold meant many things to the Norse, especially given that they saw the world through a different cultural lens than we currently hold today. He also mentioned the problem of the name Heiðr (translated as ‘Bright One’ above), which is often attributed to many other vǫlur (sg. vǫlva). Furthermore, as also noted by Thorraborinn, there is the issue of seiðr being the only quality beyond gold to define who Gullveig is.
After all my reading, most of the interpretations put forth have chosen to merge Gullveig and Freyja, for there are many parallels that can be drawn. I have a feeling that this is due to the limitations of our material, because we simply do not have enough to safely pull the two apart; Freyja is the only figure whom we are able to evaluate Gullvieg against. She is the standard upon which we can base our conclusions, but even then there is more to be desired. Perhaps the problem is that we are always left comparing Gullveig to Freyja, when we may be able to see more clearly by treating Gullveig alone. Who is she, why did she come to Æsir, and why did the Vanir go to war over her? The problem in answering these questions, though, is that we have no evidence when we do not use Freyja as a basis; we only have an argument of logic and plausibility.
Yet, I do have one thought to share, although it has little evidence to defend it (as well as having plenty of problems with it). Usually I make a great effort to provide various sources and notations, but I do not see that as being particularly helpful in this situation.
Let’s assume, despite the ‘evidence’ to say otherwise, that Gullveig is not Freyja. Instead, let’s say that Gullveig was a minor Van deity. Even Thorraborinn played with the thought of Gullveig being another daughter (or other degree of kin) of Njord’s, and this is not a heretical idea to ponder. After all, there were other Vanir beyond the later counted three among the Æsir. Time has unfortunately chosen to devour their names and memories. In better words than my own, “the most likely answer seems to be the vast assembly of gods of fertility from many different localities, or which a few names like Ing, Scyld, and Frodi have come down to us, while many more are utterly forgotten.”(2)
Thus, I suspect that Gullveig is a Van whose name has faded into a similar obscurity, and that we are now left here to our endless pondering as a result. I then believe that Gullveig’s roles were ‘transferred’ to Freyja after memory had confined the Vanir to the three that we all know. After all, Freyja’s ‘character’ is fairly complex; her realm is not flat, but multifaceted. She takes men from battle, she taught the Æsir seiðr, she is a goddess of female fertility, and even of love. The situation is similar to how Odin took over the role of ‘Warlord God’ from Tyr, who held such status in the time of the Romans (see Davidson for more on that, if you’d like). In other words, she is the Van who took on the roles of those who were slain by time. Now, perhaps I am utterly mistaken. I have no true evidence for such a claim, rather logical assumptions. My argument does not necessarily clear any gaps in the narrative, but it does serve to explain how we managed to find ourselves in such a mythological mess.
In the end, both sides of the debate are correct (assuming that my perspective on the matter has any grounds to actually stand upon). Gullveig is Freyja, or rather aspects of Gullveig came to make up Freyja in the minds of later authors as Gullveig’s presence continued to fade from memory. Yet, that also means that Gullveig is not Freyja. Gullveig was and is an independent entity that only later became merged with Freyja (where Gullveig was perhaps once a local, regionalized cult). Gullveig continued to live, and so did her power. Her power just came to be expressed through the surviving names of her kin, like the battle-victorious Freyja. Either way, the answer never seems to be very satisfying for us.
THAT IS ALL I CAN OFFER, at least for the moment. I am sure that my theories have plenty of holes in them. As I said before, I am no expert in this realm of understanding, and I therefore do not have the depth of familiarity with it to fill in the gaps of my own narrative. My words are not meant to be absolute. Rather, they are meant to enhance and encourage further contemplation and discussion. I do not expect to be ‘right’, yet I should not be condemned to utter falseness either.
Regardless, my words have not answered any of our missing details, such as how Freyja came to be among the Æsir (though, if the Vanir merged with the Æsir after the war, that alone would have provided the opportunity), nor why Gullveig is so strongly linked to gold (however ‘gold’ was being invoked here, that is). Answering those questioned requires substantial digging, which is something that I suspect others would be far better at than myself (especially since I am so often preoccupied with other aspects of the Norse realm).
Anyway, I will stop my rambling. If I don’t, I will never be able to answer because I always find something to edit, remove, or add. That said, this is not the most organized answer that I have ever produced, but I hope my various thoughts will spark some sort of intriguing discussion or other revelation down the road. If not, I just hope no ‘damage’ has been caused. I hope this is what you were looking for in asking me about this topic. I am terribly sorry that it took my so long to respond, but, as I mentioned earlier, it was quite difficult to manage. I just hope I have not erred too much in my ramblings.
Með vinsemd og virðingu,
(With friendliness and respect,)
1. Carolyne Larrington trans., The Poetic Edda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 6-7.
2. H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (repr., 1964; London: Penguin Books, 1990), 124.