Understanding the Meaning of Norse Gods’ Names

From Witches&Pagans #34

Gods’ names are not just labels, but words.


Heathen ritual focuses primarily on relationships. If you’re hailing the Gods and calling upon them, it’s important to get to know them first.

In the past, our ancestors knew the Gods by the literal words used to describe them: words that evoke epic personalities, untrammeled power, and the intimate relationships between them. Words whose meanings dance with robust symbolism and witty jokes. Modern speakers of Norse languages still understand some of the old words, which breathe life into their ancestral cultures. But for native speakers of English, much of that heritage has been stripped away.

Grasping the symbolic meaning of the ancient stories can be very difficult when both scholars and modern worshippers don’t translate the names of persons, places, and things into English. Exotically evocative words — like Gullinbursti, Mjollnir, and Heidrun — are left untranslated. These exoticized names become mere sounds labeling a person or thing, rather than the previously-understood verbs and nouns describing qualities known to our ancestors — words, like “Thunder” or “Victory,” about the Gods’ functions, how their power flows through our universe, and their roles in myth.

This lack of translation hides much of the narrative beauty, and respect for our ancestors’ abundant intellect (and sense of humor!) from these tales. Instead, we’re left with images popularized by comic books, historians (and even some modern Heathens) who think that our ancestors believed in a literal randy goat who drips cosmic mead from her udders while standing on the roof of a building shingled by banged-up warriors’ shields. Over and over again, I hear the idea that all Vikings thought they had to die gloriously in battle to go to Valhalla for an eternity of getting drunk and smiting each other.


Two horrible fallacies


This “untranslating” trend feeds into a tendency to dismiss humanity’s past as benighted by crippling ignorance of natural phenomena and metaphysical science. “Ah, man, Vikings thought clouds were this cosmic giant named Ymir’s brains. Gross!”

There’s also a modern trend in some circles to take these stories as true literal divine history, and then grasp for applications based on that assumed understanding of a line of myth. Thus, Frey can’t fight with his sword on Judgement D — oops, I mean Ragnarok — because Snorri Sturleson said so. So Frey must be a God who dislikes blades, right? Not a god who wields the divine power to begin life/ creation by (cellular) division, recognized in so many cultures as symbolized by the Sword. Then we scramble for reasons why swords were not allowed into his sanctuaries, rather than trusting in the ritual to let the proper power flow.

Neither the skeptical and dismissive nor the reverently literalist approach is appropriate. Both lead to ignorance about the personality and nature of the Gods. Scholarship is essential to gaining insight into the past as a foundation to build upon, but direct, personal knowledge of the Gods through gnosis is also vitally important to living ritual and worship.

Let’s get past this prejudice, rooted in the derision felt by medieval Christian monks and their Graeco- Roman predecessors for our Northern European ancestors, and equally found smug, post-modern skepticism. If we can reach beyond these filters, we’ll gain a deeper, living understanding of our Northern European Pagan religions in the process.


An Example: the Death of Baldr


Here’s one way that lack of understanding plays out in belief about a Norse myth.

Let’s take the most famous and, it seems, controversial tale in Norse lore — the Death of Baldr. You can read one form of it in the Prose Edda by 12th century Icelandic Christian poet Snorri Sturleson, widely available in English.

In summary, the story goes like this:

Frigg and Odhin’s son Baldr was the most beautiful and beloved of all the Gods. Baldr was the “it” guy. Everybody wanted to be around him. The room just felt sunnier the moment he walked in. His life was perfect, until one day he began to be tormented by nightmares about his impending doom. The Gods searched relentlessly for ways to prevent this. His father, Odhin, questioned an angry, dead witch. His mother, Frigg, devoted all of her countless wisdom and charms to making Baldr — seemingly —invulnerable. Frigg, in her mightiness, banned all things from causing him harm.

All things… except one. Since her strapping son was so vigorous and strong, Frigg left out squishy little, harmless-looking mistletoe.

But invulnerability gets boring, so the Gods started having fun by throwing sharp, pointy hurty things at Baldr and laughing when they bounced off and did no harm. Baldr’s brother, the blind god Hodhr, heard all the merriment, but it sucked, since he couldn’t see to throw a javelin. Loki, never one usually to avoid a party, saw this, got annoyed, and decided that all this arrogance should stop. So he put a deadly mistletoe dart in Hodh’s hand and directed the poor, lonely god to strike his own brother in the heart instead of missing him entirely.

Baldr dies instantly! The Gods are thunderstruck, the whole world rent by grief. The Aesir are out for blood, and Hodh is killed, but that still doesn’t fix things.

So they beg Hel, Goddess of the Underworld, to give Baldr back. Hel says that she will, on one condition: that every single thing in the world cry for him. Because, everyone loves Baldr, right? Noooooo problem. Except that one horrid old lady (suspected to be Loki) will not cry. So Baldr stays dead!

But it’s all going to be ok, because Baldr comes back to life, along his brother, after Ragnarok, ruling a just Utopia.

There’s more to it — and two other versions that say nothing about Loki (Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum and Baldrs Drauma in the Poetic Edda) — but this is the version of the story that most people know.

Now, put in the names as our ancestors would have known them, translated into modern English. As a result: does a story about the tragedy of bright, shining beautiful Courage (Baldr), who everyone loves, being killed by Blind Ignorance or Strife (his brother, Hodhr), make more sense?

Does it, instead, feel more right that the death of Courage in the world would make the Gods and everyone else but the old hag, sarcastically named Thanks, weep? (Gee, thanks Baldr, I can just hear the bitter old bat saying.) Do we not see this tragic story play out every day, again and again, in the evening news?

Does it also make a lot more sense that in a culture where the two married “chief” Gods, Odhin and Frigg, are named Ecstasy and Beloved that people might have a sensitive and thoughtful understanding of human nature, love itself, and the cosmos? (Rather than being mired in an ethos solely rooted in pillaging their neighbors and spending the afterlife roaring drunk?) Perhaps these globe-trotting, passionate, pragmatic people understood tragedy on both a personal and universal way similar to our own.

But a story about Baldr being killed, taken literally, can whip up a passion about injustice — and just as fervent resistance to one of the divine forces mentioned in this tale as either Evil McEvil (Loki) or some Mr. Pomposity (Baldr) who “deserved” it. I’ve even seen this story cited to inspire the perversely Christianized idea that God is perfectly okay with sacrificing His own beloved Son in the long chess game of prevailing against Armagedd — I mean, Ragnarok. (I don’t know about you, but that kind of god does not inspire love in me, nor trust as someone deeply interested in humanity’s fate. I also can’t see a god of Ecstasy whose wife is named “Beloved” behaving like that.)

Does Baldr exist outside the constructions of the human mind? Outside the abstraction of a word, “Courage?” Yes, I believe so. I experienced him as a Person who visited me in trance during a time that required steadfast determination. Quite a tall, grinning big-hearted blond, twenty-something Norseman who was accompanied by a cheerful young band of warriors. He was incredibly encouraging, but also mildly overbearing — completely in the nature of masculine Courage. He simply did not understand the limitations of a terrified mortal woman trying to rebuild her life. But he still wanted the best for me. His Father, Odhin, ground in mindful thought, intervened, helping both of us come to a better understanding of the situation at hand.

Can a quality of existence itself, Courage, also have sentience and individuality, rather than having to strictly be a now-dead being with a humanlike astral form? That’s the beauty of combining personal gnosis with scholarship. (Interestingly enough, that understanding of Baldr representing courage may also explain why Baldr does not seem to have been widely worshiped by the Norse, despite the centrality of this tale to Snorri’s narrative.)

Let’s not get lost in a vast knowledge of lore-based details and scholars’ intellectually-based arguments while missing the main, spirited points which are better understood by the human heart and intuition. Our ancestors lived in an animistic world, believing many objects and creatures had souls and mind. If we can expand our potential for what can have mind or meaning, the universe becomes a richer, more breathtaking, accessible place, one which we can interact with and feel daily response from; even as its other mysteries deepen for us.

So I will heartily raise a cup thanking Courage, mourn his loss in the world during times of despair — and celebrate his return whenever any one of us rises to the occasion.
Many thanks to Maria Kvilhaug, author of Seed of Yggdrasil and “Lady of the Labyrinth” on Youtube for her translations and insight into the Baldr myth. Thanks also to Ash Grimsbury for his excellent article in Witches and Pagans #32, “Heathen English”, which sparked my deeper thoughts on the use of Gods’ names in ritual. Other translations come from Norse scholars Rudolf Simek, Carolyne Larrington and Jesse Byock.

The sidebar guide to popular Norse Gods’ names compiled here is the result of both scholarship and my working directly with these Gods in relationships developed through trance and ritual. It is by no means comprehensive, but I hope it will be a useful springboard for you to deepen your own relationships with them.


Baldr

Meaning: Courage, Shining

Baldr was not widely worshiped that we know of. However, he is listed in one of the Merseburg Charms, a Saxon healing spell for a broken leg, and seems linked from ancient times to initiation rituals and transformation, perhaps for young men coming into adult masculinity as warriors. Saxo Grammaticus portrays him as a warrior.


Eir

Meaning: (The) Helper, Mercy

Physician of the gods. All types of wholistic healing and wellness and their connected sciences: herbalism, chemistry, surgery, acupuncture, energy work, psychology, nutrition, etc. fall under her auspices.


Frey

Meaning: (The) Lord; i.e. Sire

Brother/lover of Freyja. Lord of the Elves, the male ancestors merged into the land. He flows within masculinity, kingship, directed creation, vital force, stamina, regeneration, fertilization, potency, refined creativity, song, oracles, seasonal cycles, peace, defense, agriculture, the dead and civilization. As a god of both the physical body and world, he is within all men. In Sweden his functions and Odhin’s are conflated.


Freyja

Meaning: (The) Lady

The main, primal ur-goddess. Head of the Disir, the ancestral goddesses. As a lover of many, her power interacts with the rest of the universe constantly. Femininity, magical trancework and journeying, seidhr, divination, raw creation, fate, childbirth and the lovemaking that leads to it fall under her domain, as do solar cycles, the untamed wilderness and female sovereignty.As a goddess of the physical body and world, she is within all women. As wife of Odhr/ Odhin (Ecstasy) she can be seen as an earlier or more primal form of Frigg. In Germanic lands and the Merseberg Charms, they are often conflated.


Frigg; Frau Holle; Saga

Meanings: Beloved; Love; Story; To See; Say/ Tell

“Matron” and Queen; a goddess of wisdom, maturity and the upholding of civilization. Connected with fate, seidhr, divination, magic, childbirth, marriage, moist places, weaving, and women managing a household or society.

As Frau Holle, she has the classic witch depictions including a black pointy hat, long nose, a broom, and black cats! Also associated with dead souls and, like Odhin, with the Wild Hunt.

As Saga, goddess of storytelling/history.


Gerd

Meaning: Boundary/Enclosure; the same root word found in “Asgard”

Frey’s wife, she who is borders and boundaries, the sacred grove and latent manifestation and potential brought through from the Otherworld. A giantess, so a primal power rather than one closer to humanity.


Hel

Meaning: The Hidden One

Both a goddess and a Realm, Hel is Death itself, the state of Death as a conscious being, and the realm we think of as the Underworld. Also a giantess, said to be Loki’s daughter by Angerboda (Grief-Bringer).


Loki

Meaning: Lock? Closure? Passion?

Both a giant and a god; Loki is a primal power. He is the vital spark of inspiration, creation, and passion. Gusto. Doing that which is needful and taking the consequences. That which disregards boundaries and restriction until forcibly checked. Can you contain the wind, or tell it where to go? Close companion of Thor and blood-oath brother of Odhin.


Nerthus, Hertha, Erce, Erda

Meaning: Earth

Primeval, moist earth. Pools, lakes and wells. An ancient matron goddess of civilization and cultivation, sacrifice, oracles and mysteries and enforcer of peace. Earth as receiver of the dead.


Odhin; Odhr

Meaning: Ecstasy

Wisdom, the mind, inspiration, poetry and communication. The divine furor. The thirst for knowledge and knowledge itself. Ecstasy within the creative act. The single minded focus of ritual and trance magic. Battle frenzy. Death, the dead and their wisdom.

Odhin governs memory, intellect, and the continuance of knowledge, as well as winds, air and all that issue from them. He is present in language, speech and symbolism (thus we see his marriage to Saga) and the power of the Word. Rapid movement. God of Galdr (voice-magic/ song) and Runes (sigil magic).


Sif (Sib)

Meaning: Blood Relative

“Earth” as Thor’s wife: goddess of cultivated land. The moist bed from which lightning’s energy springs and returns. Foundations, family, heritage and maternal support. Her mightiness is implied by the name of her daughter, Thrud (Powerful).


Sigyn

Meaning: (Woman of) Victory

Goddess of Victory. In my own experience, a Goddess of Loyalty and Devotion. Victory holds the vessel above Loki, ameliorating his suffering. The same root word sig flows through the heroic names Signy, Sigmund, Sigurd and Siegfried.


Thor

Meaning: Thunder

Lightning, thunder and all electro-magnetic activity. A god of hallowing, protection and journeying as well as skies and weather, Thor has both a generous nature and wrath against destructive forces in tune with lightning gods throughout Indo-European cultures.

Thor’s power courses through the body and mind, but resides most strongly in the beating heart (which has an electromagnetic power many times greater than the brain), perhaps another reason why he is Thunder and not Lightning!