Reading · Teaching

Skirnir the Wordsmith

There’s a myth in the Poetic Edda, the collection of the oldest Norse myths, where the fertility god Freyr falls in love with the giantess Gerd. He sees her when he sneaks in to Odin’s throne, Hlidskialf, from which Odin can see what’s going on in all the Nine Worlds.
It is not Freyr’s chair.  Sitting in it when Odin is absent is akin to the myths where Cupid sneaks in to Jove’s throne; it is a usurpation of authority.  Freyr is immediately punished by seeing the shiny-bright arms of Gerd, a giantess, and falling immediately in love. I’m not kidding.  He seems to fall in love with her arms.
But before we judge him too harshly for his improper use of authority, his lame fixation on shiny arms, or his layabout sullenness that causes his parents to send a buddy to intervene, we need to remember that this is mythic land, and having Freyr fall in love with someone whose name means (and who therefore really is) the Earth, can only go well for us on Midgard. If the god of fertility loves the earth, we all benefit.
So it’s an old myth. Really old. It’s written in a dramatic dialogue format, so maybe it was performed as part of the rites of spring. If that’s the case, Freyr misbehaving is cosmically good, like Hades stealing Persephone works out for humanity.
But this is not ancient Greece. Here there be giants.
Freyr is mooning. He’s sulky and crabby, and his parents don’t know what to do with him. They enlist Freyr’s friend to go talk some sense in to him. Skirnir, Freyr’s friend, offers to help him, and Freyr confides his love in the most dramatic of terms—no one has ever loved anyone as much as he loves Gerd. He’s so cute; he doesn’t know he sounds like every other smitten boy in the world.
Skirnir knows, though, and he seizes the opportunity. For the low-low price of Freyr’s magic sword that shines like fire and fights on its own, he’ll go “win” Gerd for him. Desperate Freyr agrees quickly.
Gerd, however, doesn’t.
She doesn’t need money or want fame, which are the first offers Skirnir tries. He has to change tactics. He pretends to curse her, by carving runes on a stick.  I love this part. (Not because I’m for coercing women in to marrying their enemies, but because of the explosive image of that rune stick.)
Skirnir claims to carve runes that will become her future, filled with images of shame and suffering.  She’ll be a guardian of Hel; only a three-headed giant will be her mate, yada yada yada–he claims to know how to effect this future by writing it. If he carves it, it will be.
This leads in to unpacking the image of the rune.  Old Norse runes were very angular.  They could be carved easily on a stick, and they could be discerned from sticks cast on the ground like pick-up sticks.  (Does anyone still play pick-up sticks?) The modern German word for “letter” of the alphabet bears witness to this: Buchstabe means literally (ha!) “beech staves.” Buch gives us beech and book, and the sticks that are cast or carved become letters.  Those letters can be combined to form words of power.
In the end, Gerd agrees to marry Freyr. Their union is a mythic promise, that the earth will be fertile always because it is loved by and bound to fertility itself. In this case (not unlike Persephone’s marriage) the end seems to justify the means. Gerd is coerced, but she is not unhappy in her marriage. And humanity gets two boons—a fertile, blessed earth and an understanding of the power of well-wrought words. After all, the title of the myth is not “Freyr and Gerd’s Fantastic Love Story.” It’s called “Skirnir’s Song.”

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