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 Njördhr and Skadhi

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Silver Wind
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PostSubject: Njördhr and Skadhi   Wed Nov 28, 2007 4:53 pm

One of the most unlikely unions in any of the Nine Worlds is that of the Vanir God Njördhr and the giantess Skadhi. Skadhi was the daughter of the giant Thjazi (Thjassi), who blackmailed Loki into using his cunning to deliver the Goddess Iduna and her apples of youth into his power. During the subsequent rescue of Iduna, Thjazi was killed by the Aesir. Skadhi, wearing full armor, marched into Asgard to demand wergild - the blood price exacted by Norse law for killing a man. She scorned the Aesir's offer of money, claiming she had plenty of gold in father's home back in Jotunheim. She wanted only two things: One of the gods must become her husband, and someone must make her laugh, some thing she claimed she had not done since the death of her father. Loki took care of the second part by tying the beard of one of Thor's goats to his balls and capering around the high hall of Asgard, finally collapsing onto Skadhi's lap. Even a giantess could not resist this, so it seems.

As for the other demand, the Aesir agreed to grant Skadhi a husband, but she had to pick him out by viewing only his feet. Skadhi had a notion to marry Balder, and she figured that since he was the most beautiful of the gods, he must have beautiful feet. She was somewhat disappointed to find out the feet she picked belonged to the sea god, Njördhr, the father of Freyr and Freyja, whose feet were particularly white and beautiful from his constant walking through the sea and sand. Nevertheless, the two tied the knot and went off to live in Njördhr's sea home, Noatun. But Skadhi couldn't long endure the sound of waves and gulls, and finally the pair moved to her home in Jotunheim, Thrymheim, the "home of clamor." Here it was Njördhr was who kept awake at night by the sounds of wolves and stormy winds. The couple tried commuting for awhile - nine nights in Noatun, nine nights in Thrymheim - and finally wound up becoming the archetypal "separated couple," each returning to his or her home.

In inspecting this myth, let us first examine the two deities involved. Njördhr is reckoned among the Aesir, but was originally of the other race of Cods, the Vanir. Long ago the two groups had a bitter war, which was eventually resolved peacefully with the exchange of hostages. Odhin's brother and his giant advisor Mimir went to live among the Vanir, and Njördhr and his son Freyr came to Asgard. Some accounts have Freyr and Freyja born after Njördhr came among the Aesir, which would make Skadhi their mother, but more references have Freyr being one of the original hostages, which would mean he and his sister were born in Vanaheim. In the "Lokasenna," Loki accuses Njördhr of begetting these children with his sister. Brother and sister relationships seem to have been fairly common among the Vanir.

There are other Vanir pairs vaguely mentioned, among them Ullr and Ullin. At any rate, in Asgard, Njördhr makes his home in Noatun - "Enclosure of Ships" or "Place of Ships" - in other words, a harbor.

Being a hostage did not mean Njördhr occupied a second-rate status. On the contrary, as "visiting royalty" he is accorded a high place and named as one of the twelve Aesir appointed to be judges and lawmakers. He and his son Freyr are called the blótgodhar, or "sacrificial priests" They were díar, priests of particularly exalted kind, among the Aesir. One who had to perform legal business, pleading, bearing witness, passing judgment, etc., swore an oath on the holy arm ring of the priest: "So help me Freyr and Njördhr and the all-powerful God (áss)." Here Njördhr and Freyr seem to be sharing equal status with the All Father, Odhin. And in the myth of the giant Aegir's feast, Odhin and Njördhr were first to enter the hall. Here Njördhr seems to be taking the place of honor which would have belonged to Odhin's brother Hoenir, with whom he was exchanged as hostage.

At a sacrifice, one would drink the first toast of honor to Odhin for victory and the success of the king. Next, one would drink to Njördhr and Freyr for fruitful harvests and peace. Egil Skallagrimsson cursed Eric Blodaxe by asking Freyr and Njördhr to drive him from the land. In another passage he uses their names again, saying they had blessed a friend with riches. Njördhr's name also figures in many temple and place names, usually places connected with water: heads of fjords, rivers, islands in lakes. Many of his cult centers seem to have been situated on islands. The name Njördhr is said by some scholars to be an Old Norse equivalent of the (possibly) female Nerthus, the German fertility Goddess mentioned by Tacitus in his Germania, who was also connected with islands. Maybe this is the twin sister left behind in Vanaheim. Or perhaps, as some have thought, Njördhr was once a Goddess who somehow underwent a sex change through the years. The other alternative is that the fertility Goddess of the Germans was really a God all the time.

Njördhr is closely linked with the sea, as are all the Vanir. He rules the course of the winds and sea. He also controls men's wealth. He is so prosperous and rich that he is able to bestow plenty of lands and gear on those he favors. Men of exceptionally great wealth were referred to as "rich as Njördhr." His riches especially pertain to the sea and to ships; thus he is called on for voyages, hunting, fertility, wealth, fishing, and seafaring. He and his son Freyr, the god of fruitful crops, are closely related and almost always called upon together. A possible explanation for this is that in the North, as much, or more, food comes from the sea as from land. Women and men prayed for a double harvest, and Freyr and Njördhr are invoked together as symbols of this harvest. Freyja, the third, symbolizes fertility of animals and humans. Fertility arises from new life on earth, which ultimately rose out of the sea. Another link between these three Gods is their invocation at marriages. Njördhr and Freyr are both fertility Gods who marry giantesses who symbolize darkness and winter. Gerdh, Freyr's wife, and Skadhi are even from the same family of mountain giants. Thus, the myth of a fertility God allied to a goddess of winter and death is a recurring theme. Fertility and death are intimately related, especially among the Vanir.

The ship, closely associated with Njördhr, was an important symbol in the North. The ship often appears side by side with the horse, both linked as fertility symbols (and both also associated with Freyr). Model ships were given as offerings, and sometimes actual ships were burned as sacrifices. The ship is also a funerary symbol. Graves were made in boat shapes, and the very wealthy were sometimes buried in real ships. Even after the Christianization of the Norse countries, a person's body was often given a Christian burial, while his goods and grave offerings were buried in a ship after the old custom (keep all your bases covered!). Even Odhin's son Balder was supposed to have been buried in a ship, showing the power of this symbol. The ship-burying custom was also found in England, particularly among the Angles. These sacrificed ships and treasures were supposed to go with the dead to the misty realms of the underworld. Perhaps the ship was linked with passage to the divine realms.

The giantess Skadhi's name is related to the ON (Old Norse) skadhi, or "harm, injury," as well as the Gothic skadus and Old English sceadu, or "shade, shadow." The masculine noun skadhi was the ON word for magpie. Skadhi's father Thjazi had two brothers, Idi and Gangr, their father was Ölvadi, who was very rich in gold. After Ölvadi's death, the brothers divided his wealth by giving to each as much as he could carry in his mouth. Gold is thus spoken of in kennings as "a mouth-tale of giants," or "speech, word, or talk of giants." Thjazi was also kin to Gymir, Gerd's father, and was spoken of as the "dark-loving giant," "the giant of marvelous might," and "the hideous giant." After splitting up with Njördhr, Skadhi is said to have born children to Odhin and/or Ullr, the hunting God of the Bow. Norway traced its eldest line of kings to Saeminger, a son of Odhin and Skadhi. Loki also claimed to have been her lover, but one can't rely on what Loki says. It is Skadhi who hung the serpent over Loki's head when he was bound. Loki is thus called the "wrangling foe of Skadhi."

Although a giantess, Skadhi was also called a Goddess and was honored. There are temples and place names for her, and she is recorded as being among the Aesir guests as Aegir's feasts, as well as other activities. She is called the "shining bride of the Gods," her home is her father's holding, Thrymheim. She is connected with hills and mountains, where Thrymheim is, as well as with skis, snowshoes (she is called Snowshoe Goddess and Lady of the Snowshoes), the bow, and hunting. She is pictured as adventuring through the hills in full armor, accompanied by howling wolves, shooting wild beasts with her bow.

As a Goddess of winter, darkness, death, and destruction, Skadhi's link with Njördhr perhaps symbolizes the link between fertility and death. As Njördhr and Freyr symbolize the sea and land harvests respectively, and Freyja symbolizes the fertility and produce of domestic animals, Skadhi symbolizes the harvest of the hunt, an important source of food in winter. As the ship was used for travel in the warm months, guided by the power of Njördhr control over the wind and waves, the sledge and sleigh and skis, symbols of Skadhi, were used to travel in winter over the ice and snow. The alternation between the two God's dwelling places would seem to indicate the passage of the seasons. It is interesting to see a variation on the usual theme of winter married to summer, in that it is the male deity who represents fertility and warmth, and the female who is the bringer of darkness and death.

Although Njördhr and Skadhi are pictured as eventually parting company, there is no indication that they parted with ill-will, or that their marriage was necessarily terminated. Like many human couples have discovered, one can love and yet be unable to live together with someone whose tastes differ too widely from one's own; this does not mean that love dos not exist. That is why I tend to do rituals to Skadhi and Njördhr at the spring or autumnal equinoxes, those times when darkness and light are equal, and Njördhr and Skadhi meet once again at the turning of the year.

by Alice Karlsdottir, from Mountain Thunder, Issue 7, Winter 1992.

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