(At the bottom of this post, you can find a list of definitions of the terms used in this post.)
Before anything else, I want to make it clear that I am not going to even attempt to take any moral stance on what is written here, as that is quite beyond the scope of this blog post, and furthermore it would ultimately be pointless and do nothing but hinder my and your arrival at the best possible understanding of the actual content. My goal in posting this is simply the provision of knowledge and the facilitation of discussion in the name of common understanding.
Most people who are aware that Freyr and Freyja were at one point worshiped as gods are also aware that they are siblings. They probably also know that the pair were primarily fertility deities, and then following that, a person might know that this is because they are Vanir gods, and the Vanir are chiefly concerned with fertility.
Less commonly known, however, is that the Vanir were at one point a separate pantheon from the Æsir and other gods that now collectively make up the “Norse pantheon.” If you could travel back far enough in time, you could eventually arrive at a time and place where the Vanir had nothing at all to do with any other Norse deities. This time and place would come across as being strange to the average person–not just because of the difference in time period or location, but also because during this time, the people who worshiped the Vanir were part of a matricentric society that existed in Neolithic Old Europe (approximately 4500-1700 BCE in North-West Europe; the general time period is pushed back by a few millennia as one ventures further south).
During that era and in that area, clans were governed by matriarchs who co-ruled with their brothers or sometimes their uncles. German-American psychologist Ralph Metzner, in his 1994 book called The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe, provides a relatively clear explanation of this through the following snippets (which I’ve selected in order to provide a sufficient background for the main point I want to illustrate further down in this post):
With the shift from a matricentric to a patriarchal social order, from village commons to individual land holdings and ownership, and from matrilineal to patrilineal inheritance of name and property came parallel shifts from endogamous and matrilocal marriage customs to exogamous and patrilocal ones. In the cultures of Old Europe, marrying within the clan lineage (endogamy) was associated with matrilineal inheritance and matrilocality (living in the woman’s family home). In the widely dispersed settlements of the archaic period, women would marry someone from the clan, and the husband or consort would live in the woman’s extended family household, along with her brothers and sisters. Among the descendants of the pre-Celtic Picts in Scotland, matriliny survived into the eighth century and matrilocality, in which the woman stays in her maternal home on marriage, continued into the twentieth century. According to Gimbutas, Old European society was organized “around a theocratic, communal temple community…an endogamous society guided by a highly respected elder—Great Mother of the clan and her brother or uncle, with a council of women as a governing body. The structure was matrilineal, with succession to leadership and inheritance within the female line.”
According to the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the political and economic importance of exogamy is the real reason for the worldwide incest taboo. Possible genetic defects from inbreeding are too delayed and subtle to form the basis for such a powerful prohibition. But grown-up children with children themselves would put intolerable economic strain on the village or clan if they never moved. So the imperative was, “don’t marry in the family (or clan)—marry someone from outside, so that our family can prosper, and theirs too.” For the Kurgan invaders, marrying local women, whether through forcible abduction and rape or through peaceful economic exchanges, must have been one of the principal ways they established themselves in the farming communities of Old Europe. The endogamous practices of the indigenous inhabitants would have been condemned as “incestuous,” as would the co-rulership of elder women with their brothers. [Bragiteilen’s note: I find the classification of even platonic sibling co-governing as incest interesting, and I have to wonder what kind of attitudes the Kurgans had towards sex and platonic forms of physical intimacy that would cause them to arrive at such a conclusion.] Over the three millennia of cultural interaction and migration, intermarriage must have been the principal social glue that led to the hybrid cultures that we encounter as we enter the historical period.
A striking example of mythology as the mirror image of culture, and of mythology confirming the findings of archaeology, is in the myth of the Vanir deities Freyr and Freyja, whose names in the Old Norse tongue simply mean “Lord” and “Lady.” They were brother and sister, children of Njörd and Nerthus, who were also said to be siblings, or were possibly one androgynous being. Freyr was a god of fertility and abundance, especially revered among the Swedes, and Freyja was the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and magic. They were worshipped as consorts and siblings, although in the later period, in which the Aesir were the dominant gods, Freyr marries the giantess Gerdra, and Freyja has a mysterious, mostly absent husband Odr, one of the Aesir. [Bragiteilen’s note: This marriage of a Vanir goddess (Freyja) with an Æsir god (Óðr/Odr) can only have come to be by means of cultural exchange between the matricentric Neolithic/Old Europeans and the patriarchal Kurgan/Indo-European migrants, and therefore they cannot have been each other’s original consorts.] The historian Snorri, who composed the Prose Edda, stated that among the Vanir, sibling marriage was customary, but the Aesir gods condemned it as incestuous and required them each to seek other mates.
This mythological fragment probably reflects the shift from endogamy and brother-sister rule among the Old Europeans, whose gods were the Vanir, to the exogamic, patriarchal structure of the Germanic and Nordic people, for whom the Aesir, as among the Olympians of classical Greece, goddesses play a decidedly lesser role, usually as wives or daughters of the father god, who often has numerous affairs with other goddesses or human women. Thus, the patriarchal code for male-female relationships, both at the human level and the divine, condemns sibling consorts and rulership as incestuous, demands absolute fidelity and loyalty from the woman, and permits promiscuity for the man. The double standard for sexual fidelity is still with us, of course, and is one of the most deep-seated anti-feminine biases of the Indo-European ideology.
Many expressions of Old Europe’s matricentricism survive to this day, painted onto the canvas of history with the brushstrokes of folklore, language, and tradition. The details of this temporal painting might not be immediately obvious to someone who isn’t already in the know, but they are there nevertheless.
One such detail is that of the incestuous nature of Old Europe’s matricentricism, for which I have now provided Metzner’s explanation. Whether undeniably or questionably, explicitly or vaguely, incest was a given in this particular time and place. I personally find it doubtful that these people even had a word for the concept due to them probably not making the distinction in the first place, but that’s just me. The word “incest” as we know it is derived from a Latin word meaning “impure,” and was not even introduced into the English language until the advent of Middle English, almost three millennia after Neolithic Europe had ended, and long after matricentricism had been all but eradicated.
To get to the point: Snorri’s statement that incest was customary among the Vanir is an admission which harkens back to the customs of Old Europe. Given what we can discern of that, and since evidence suggests that the Nerþuz who we more commonly call Nerthus and the Nerþuz who would later become Njörðr were once siblings, and since we know that in later mythology Njörðr spawned Freyr and Freyja together with an unnamed sister-wife, I find Snorri’s claim easy to believe.
Furthermore, it is explicitly stated in the tale of Ragnarøkkr itself that incest will be–or has been, depending on how you interpret the timeline of the gods’ Twilight–one of the many carnal and abhorrent behaviors to which humanity will revert when Ragnarøkkr becomes (or became) imminent. According to the Witch’s Prophecy, every safeguard against society’s inevitable collapse is violated with apparently wild abandon, including whatever economical, isolating, or family-and-community-structural consequences that the prohibition of incest might have been thought to prevent. In two of the three different translations of the Poetic Edda I own, stanzas 45 and 44, respectively, of Völuspá (the poem that foretells Ragnarøkkr, and a hot topic if google’s predictive algorithm is anything to go by) seem to agree that incest is a taboo that is violated. (The third translation, Henry Bellows’, does not include the relevant portion of the poem.) Though the intent behind Dr. Jackson Crawford’s translation of the relevant stanza can be debated, it can also easily be interpreted as intending to include incest in its list of civil violations. (I had hoped that Dr. Crawford would provide clarification on this in his youtube video on Vǫluspá, but, rather frustratingly, he does not.) Furthermore, Dr. Hilda Ellis Davidson also makes reference to incest during Ragnarøkkr in her 1964 book Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, republished in 2006 as Gods and Myths of the Viking Age; in both editions, this sentence is the same: “The bonds of kinship will hold them no longer, and they will commit appalling deeds of murder and incest.”
In Dr. Carolyne Larrington’s (1996) translation of stanza 45:
Brother will fight brother and be his slayer,
brother and sister will violate the bond of kinship;
hard it is in the world, there is much adultery,
axe-age, sword-age, shields are cleft asunder,
wind-age, wolf-age, before the world plunges headlong;
no man will spare another.
Larrington’s phrasing of the second line can be interpreted as regarding platonic atrocities, but only if one were determined to ignore the resulting redundancy of the first two lines together. In this case, the intended meaning seems perfectly clear.
Then, in Crawford’s (2015) translation of stanza 44:
Brothers will fight one another
and kill one another,
cousins will break peace
with one another,
the world will be a hard place to live in.
It will be an age of adultery,
an age of the axe, an age of the sword,
an age of storms, an age of wolves,
shields will be cloven.
Before the world sinks in the sea,
there will be no man left
who is true to another.
It may or may not be worth stating that Crawford does not mention Larrington or her translation of the poem in his, though he has no doubt read it, given his occupation and field of study, and also judging by his list of recommended reading, in which he cites a more recent book by Larrington (youtube video). I’ll let you decide on the relevance of that.
I said at the beginning that my reason for writing this was the pursuit of understanding through knowledge and discussion. That remains true, and so in order to facilitate that, I will leave this open-ended with the offering of this bit of information:
A theory regarding the Æsir-Vanir War that many scholars subscribe to exists, which states that the victory of the Æsir over the Vanir symbolizes the historical domination by the warlike and patriarchal Indo-Europeans over the more pacifistic and matricentric peoples of Old Europe and that type of culture. (I believe that the exchange of hostages after the conclusion of the Æsir-Vanir War reflects the real life cultural exchange between these two groups.) Experts have given us information to consume, and as adherents to various approximations of the common religion of the ancient Germanic and Norse peoples, it is imperative that we take time to reflect on that information. I have stated the bulk of my opinion, and now I look forward to hearing the opinions of my fellow worshipers, just as eagerly as I ever do.
- Endogamy: marriage between members of the same clan, tribe or family
- Exogamy: marriage between members of different clans, tribes or families
- Matricentricism: a community custom which grants ultimate authority to women and places more importance on relationships between women than relationship between men (the “opposite” of this is patriarchy, but to frame the two concepts as equal opposites would be misleading at best)
- Matrilineal: descending through female relationships, from mother to daughter (“patrilineal” is the opposite term to this)
- Matrilocality: the custom wherein a man moves into his wife’s home and becomes part of her household’s extended family upon their marriage (patrilocality is the opposite of this)