Last week my main Heathen group, which is focused on the Vanir, did a myth embodiment of the Skirnismal, aka how Freyr won his jotun wife Gerd. This exercise is one that we’d done twice previously–first with the myth describing the Marriage of Njord and Skadi, and second with the myth of how Freya won Brisingamen. Both times the activity yielded up some great insights into the Gods involved as well as a lot of hilarity. (And how often does one activity give you both of these things, I ask?)
One of the things that I think this type of exercise does best is to fully flesh out the characters–in our case last week, the Gods Freyr and Skadi; the Jotun (Godddess-to-be?) Gerd; and the eponymous Skirnir, who, as we found out, is neither Aesir nor Vanir nor jotun nor alf. (Actually, nobody knows quite what he is; though we do know he’s one of Freyr’s oldest friends, and also his servant). This myth showcases Freyr at his youngest, most immature self–moody, passionate, and self-centered. Not being that close to Freyr myself, I hadn’t had much reason to work through my own issues with this myth. My biggest issue with the Skirnismal, and the reason that I had put off doing this myth as long as we did, had always been that in the myth, it really does look like Freyr (through Skirnir) is threatening Gerd with some bodily and psychological harm should she decide not to marry him, and what is up with that? (The threats are both cruel and highly creative.) It’s coercion at the very least, and, personally, I didn’t see any way around dealing with that aspect of the myth.
However, this coercion aspect is actually what makes it the perfect fodder for myth embodiment. The whole point, in fact, is to try to understand the motivations and point of views of all concerned. (This technique is also successfully used to help families and communities heal themselves after tragedy or trauma. It’s amazing what putting yourself in another’s shoes will do for healing a relationship.) So, I did some research, had some great discussions around it with a few Freyrspeople, and went boldly on with the embodiment.
What is myth embodiment?
Briefly, myth embodiment is a technique by which each character or aspect of a given story is acted out. For example, the “characters” in the Skirnismal are Freyr; Gerd; Skirnir; Skadi; Freyr’s Sword; Freyr’s horse; the shepherd on the mound; the walls around Jotunheim/around Gerd’s hall; Odin’s high seat; the Taming Wand; and the flames around Gerd’s hall. We roleplay the entire myth, scene by scene, pausing in between to check in on each character: “Gerd, what are you feeling?” “Odin’s high seat, what’s your opinion on the situation?”, etc. Once the characters have given their opinions, we have a short discussion around the points and issues that have been brought up. Nothing is scripted, and no acting skills or accoutrement are needed. Just an open mind and a willingness to look silly for a bit.
The basic outline of the Skirnismal, and our group’s discussions thereof, are as follows:
1. Freyr gets bored and decides to go sit in Odin’s high seat (Hlidskjalf). (We had some in-depth, amazing discussions as to a) why he would do this; b) how he had access to do this; and c) what his experience in the high seat was like, seeing as how he could, in fact, see everything from up there).
2. He sees Gerd, a lovely jotun maiden, walking through the courtyard at her father’s hall. He is overcome by the beauty of her shining white arms (white arms; it’s a Nordic thing), and falls hopelessly, completely, unequivocally, (one translations says “violently”) in love with her. The myth emphasizes that his feelings for her are obsessive, overwhelming, and disruptive. (Brief discussion as to whether he actually fell in love or in lust or some combination of the two, or something else entirely.)
3. He mopes about in his hall, not eating or sleeping, until Skadi notices as sends Skirnir, his old friend and servant, to check on him. In the meantime, the sun stops shining, the rain stops falling, and everything that helps to make the earth a happy and fertile place stops. (A mopey and sad Freyr does no one any good.) Our discussion about How Freyr was feeling was actually pretty short, as the guy who played Freyr was almost non-verbal, such was the primal state of his longing at that point. (Since we are also told in this section of the myth that Skirnir is none of the usual races [Aesir, Vanir, alf, or human], our group had a long discussion as to what he might be. Our general conclusion was that it was possible that he was a mixed-race being, with enough of each “race” in him to be able to go to and fro into those worlds relatively peacefully.)
4. Skirnir asks him what happened; he thinks Freyr is angry or has been hurt. Freyr goes on about how he’s in love with Gerd, but that it’ll never work because she’s a jotun and no one wants them to ever get together. Skirnir promises to go make an attempt for him, seeing as how, due to custom, he can’t go on his own. He asks to be given for Freyr’s sword that never misses and to borrow the horse that can leap through flames. (This scene brought up a lot of discussion as to if this was The Sword, the one that Freyr gives away, the one that Surt kills him with at Ragnarok. Our group thought that yes, this is that sword, and that possibly Skirnir later trades it to Gerd’s father to further sweeten the marriage deal. How else would Surt, a fire jotun, have gotten it?)
5. Skirnir makes his way to Gerd’s hall, having first talked with a pessimistic shepherd on a mound outside of Jotunheim “(It’ll never work; it would take a miracle!”). Skirnir then battles Jotunheim’s and Gerd’s walls, jumping through the ring of fire around her hall, and possibly killing her bother in the process (she says that she might hear “my brother’s slayer” outside). Gerd wonders what all the noise is and asks her handmaiden to let Skirnir in.
6. Skirnir comes in, states his purpose, and begins the negotiations. He first offers Gerd the apples of ever-lasting life (or possibly 11 apples; the translation is iffy). Gerd is not interested. Next he he offers her Draupnir, Odin’s golden arm ring that copies itself nine times every nine days (how did he get that, we wonder? We thought that maybe it’s to show off the Vanir’s alliance with the Aesir). Gerd is still not interested; she has plenty of gold and jewels in her father’s hall. Skirnir then jumps directly to the threats, saying that he’ll cut her head off with his fancy sword that never misses. Gerd continues to be unimpressed, saying that her father would kick his ass if he tried.
7. Finally, Skirnir throws down the true gauntlet–a harsh litany of creative threats that could only have been thought of by bored Vikings on long winter nights. He first says that he will tame Gerd with his Taming Wand (true story), such that he will have complete control over her so that she will: never see men again; sit high up in the mountain alone; stare for all time at the gates of Hel; and turn so ugly no man would ever want her. Then he threatens her with a rune charm, which he is in the process of writing (“carving”). As he carves, he says:
29. Tears and torment are thine; Where thou sittest down | my doom is on thee of heavy heart and double dole.
30. In the giants’ home | shall vile things harm thee Each day with evil deeds; Grief shalt thou get | instead of gladness, And sorrow to suffer with tears.
31. With three-headed giants | thou shalt dwell ever, Or never know a husband; Let longing grip thee, | let wasting waste thee.
33. (missing text) Othin grows angry, | angered is the best of the gods, Freyr shall be thy foe, Most evil maid, | who the magic wrath Of gods hast got for thyself.
34. Give heed, frost-rulers, | hear it, giants. Sons of Suttung, And gods, ye too, How I forbid | and how I ban The meeting/joy of men with the maid,
35. Hrimgrimnir is he, | the giant who shall have thee In the depth by the doors of Hel; To the frost-giants’ halls | each day shalt thou fare, Crawling and craving [male companionship] in vain,
36. Base wretches there | by the root of the tree Will hold for thee horns of filth (some translations say “urine”) ; A fairer drink | shalt thou never find, Maid, to meet thy wish,
37. I write thee a charm | and three runes therewith, Longing and madness and lust; But what I have writ | I may yet unwrite If I find a need therefor. (Translation by Henry Addams Bellows, 1936; http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe07.htm)
In other words, all kinds of disgrace, degradation, unfulfilled lust, and other bad things will happen if she doesn’t marry Freyr. Luckily, though, he hasn’t yet finished carving his charm, so if she agrees, none of this will ever actually have to happen.
Our group had a long discussion about the nature of these threats, and we came to a couple of conclusions:
–First, Gerd’s a jotun. Her culture, like the Klingons, respects violence and strength. So, Skirnir had to prove that the otherwise peaceful Vanir (and their allies, by association) could lay some serious smackdown if they had to–enough to make even a jotun sit up and take notice.
–Second, Skirnir was in a state of serious need, and also at a keen disadvantage. Freyr, after all, was the one who was in pain; Gerd hadn’t even heard of Freyr before Skirnir stomped in. She had no reason whatsoever to suddenly and drastically change her life in the way that Freyr had requested she do. She was quite happy living at her father’s well-appointed hall, after all, and was not pining after some strange, mopey Vanir god. But for the sake of Freyr, the Vanir, and the fertility of the earth itself, he had to seal this deal, and as quickly as possible. It really was a “do or die” moment for Skirnir, especially considering that he was trespassing in Jotunheim all by himself (with a powerful sword and horse, certainly; but still, he was all alone in enemy territory).
–Third, in threatening Gerd with a rune charm, he is also showing off the fact that Freyr and his people now have the knowledge of the runes (Aesir magic) as well as their usual Vanic magic. Double whammy. The interesting thing is that he’s already combined the knowledge of the runes with Vanic magic–threatening her specifically with “longing and madness and [unfulfilled] lust”? Totally a Vanic area of expertise.
–Along those same lines, this is one of the few places in the surviving lore where we get hints of what “Vanic Magic(tm)” actually includes. Lust–longing–madness; degradation and separation from the rest of your community. (I can see the madness aspect being Odinnic magic, too; but not the others, really.) So, it could have been that the tale-tellers added in this extraordinary level of detail in order to pass down magical knowledge from generation to generation. And, well, it does make the story that much more interesting.
–And then there’s the whole “fertility of the earth/winter melting into spring” aspect of this myth, with Gerd representing the frozen, hard earth, and Freyr representing the warming sun. We see Freyr being used in this way–to make the earth fertile and ready for seed–in several folk charms, so we know that there definitely was some association between him and the fields being fertile. There are also some places, iirc, where he is used as kenning to indicate the sun itself. In that sense, then, there really was only one possible outcome; Gerd would be married to Freyr, and Spring would conquer Winter. (One of the group also pointed out that she often associates Gerd with a walled garden, and that since Freyr was moping, the rain had stopped flowing; therefore it was possible that her garden was suffering as well. Given that CA is currently in the middle of a horrible drought, this made sense to many of us.)
And so, of course, after these threats, she gives in and offers Skirnir some chilled mead. She agrees to meet Freyr in nine days at the “barley field”, because why not. (Also, the barley connection may be due to Byggvir–which etymologically could be related to “barley”–who is another of Freyr’s servants). Skirnir rides back and tells Freyr the good news. He mopes that nine days is too long to wait, but that he’ll deal with it anyway. They then get married and live happily ever after (or at least until Ragnarok).
My biggest takeaway, personally, from last week’s exercise was to read this myth, and the threats contained therein, as a form of courting–it was Skirnir showing Gerd, a jotun princess who probably already had everything, that the Vanir did have some cool and useful powers. Thus, an alliance with them would actually be a useful and desirable thing. So, I see it now as Skirnir throwing down some serious swagger and boasts, but not threats, per se. It makes this myth much more palatable to me as a modern worshiper.