August 9, 2022

Art by Howard David Johnson.

REVIEW: Nancy Marie Brown on William P. Reaves’ book Odin’s Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology

In Odin’s Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology, William P. Reaves attempts to fill in the gaps in Snorri’s Edda.

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In his Edda, the 13th-century Icelander Snorri Sturluson presents Norse mythology through a wisdom match between the clever King Gylfi and three gods—High, Just-as-High, and Third—who sit on thrones in Valhalla.

Asked “Who is the highest and most ancient of all gods?” High responds with a list of twelve names, beginning with All-father. Later he applies the name All-father to Odin—along with 52 more names.

“What a terrible lot of names you have given him!” objects King Gylfi in Anthony Faulkes’ 1987 translation. “One would need a great deal of learning to be able to give details and explanations of what events have given rise to each of these names.”

Responds High, “You cannot claim to be a wise man if you are unable to tell of these important happenings.”

Snorri Sturluson considered himself a wise man. In his Edda and in Heimskringla, his collection of sagas about Norway’s kings, Snorri quotes apt lines from nearly a thousand poems, most of which had not been written down before. But because he wrote for an audience of one—young King Hakon of Norway, brought to the throne at age 14—Snorri’s tales in these two books skew toward the interests of a boy. As I pointed out in my 2013 biography of him, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Snorri wasted few words on women, human or divine. It’s no surprise that he fails to tell us the many names of Odin’s wife, or to relate the events that gave rise to them.

In Odin’s Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology, William P. Reaves attempts to fill in the gaps in Snorri’s Edda, proving himself a wise man by High’s definition. Reaves is webmaster of the site germanicmythology.com, which compiles everything of interest to students of Norse mythology that exists in the public domain. It shouldn’t surprise you that Odin’s Wife is similarly comprehensive—and I mean that as both compliment and criticism. The book reveals “a great deal of learning,” but it has none of the literary appeal of Snorri’s masterpiece.

Original art by Howard David Johnson.

Snorri tells us that Frigg is Odin’s wife and the mother of his son Baldur, while the Earth, or Jörd, is the mother of Odin’s son Thor. According to the Edda, these are two separate goddesses. But as Reaves points out, “while evidence for Odin’s wife Frigg and his wife the Earth are contemporary and congruous—occurring at the same time in the same places and genres—they are never shown together. Like Diana Prince and Wonder Woman, we apparently never see Frigg and Jörd side by side” (p.252). Both goddesses are also called by several other names; one they hold in common is Hlin, which means “protector” (p. 242).

As Reaves lays out his “preponderance of evidence,” the goddess Frigg leaps out of the shadows in which Snorri wrapped her. She convincingly becomes the powerful Earth-Mother and Mother of Gods, including not only Baldur and Thor, but also Freyr and Freyja, whom she had with her brother, Njörd. As Reaves concludes, “She is Odin’s equal in all respects, surpassing him in practical power”(p. 285). That Frigg sits beside Odin on his throne Hliðskjálf, watching (and meddling in) all the Nine Worlds, “should not come as a surprise,” he adds: “The sons of Borr bestowed senses, wit, and spirit on Ask and Embla alike. Women are not subordinate to men. The sources, both religious and historical, are rife with strong, independent women. Both men and women appear on the battlefield, as mythological, historical, and archaeological evidence affirms. Equality of the sexes was a Germanic reality, long before modern times” (p. 285).

For too long have we trusted Snorri—who was known in his lifetime for being untrustworthy. For too long have we failed to read his intentions. Snorri was not compiling a textbook on Norse mythology for 21st-century students or a bible for practitioners of Asatru. He was trying to impress a teenaged king who had been educated by Christian bishops. He was trying to gain influence at that king’s court. He left out of his Edda and Heimskringla anything that wouldn’t further his purpose or please his audience.

Reaves, writing for a different audience and with a different purpose, brilliantly argues that Frigg “is the Germanic Earth-Mother, who like all other Germanic deities was known by a number of names. An unbroken chain of evidence demonstrates that Odin and Frigg are the Germanic analogs of the ancient Indo-European Sky-Father and Earth-Mother.”

Along with dissecting Snorri’s works, he presents evidence from petroglyphs, Roman histories, the Latin writings of churchmen, archaeological finds from the Viking Age and before, skaldic and Eddic poetry, a pagan Anglo-Saxon ritual preserved in Christian form, the Icelandic sagas, folktales and legends from throughout the North, and the work of countless scholars from the 1600s to today. His work is well footnoted (though it could use a bibliography and index) and as the evidence accumulates his conclusion that Jörd equals Frigg seems, as he claims, to be obvious: “Nothing bars this conclusion other than the learned belief that Frigg and Jörd are separate entities, an erroneous notion originating in and perpetuated by Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning. To accept that Frigg and Jörd were indeed viewed as one, we must acknowledge that Snorri’s opinion differs from that of the ancient heathen skalds’ on this point. Understandably, this is not easy for some to accept” (p. 302).

Since I’m well familiar with Snorri’s biography, it’s quite easy for me to accept that conclusion. Other readers, however, may find Reaves’ argument not only hard to accept, but hard to follow. Odin’s Wife is a treasure trove, but Reaves makes you dig for the jewels.

The problem is that, like many books these days, Odin’s Wife is self-published, and one thing self-publishing does not provide is an editor.

A good editor would have cut the book by 10-25 percent. In places I found it mind-numbingly repetitious. For example, after beautifully crafting the case that Frigg equals Jörd, Reaves notes, “The conclusion is so obvious in fact that many scholars of past centuries took it for granted.” (p. 253) He then quotes 26 scholars from 1771 to 1913 who agree with him, sometimes including lengthy passages. I found myself simply turning the pages.

Worse, the structure of the book wraps Reaves’ argument in shadow nearly as well as Snorri did the goddess Frigg. Reaves barely mentions Frigg or Jörd in the first 200 pages of Odin’s Wife. By the time the goddesses appeared in the text, I was so overwhelmed with detail and digressions, I no longer trusted Reaves as a guide. I had no sense of where he was taking me; he provided no mental map.

Rather than laying out a pathway in his introduction, Reaves begins by explaining a theory he rejects: that all Norse goddesses are avatars of one Great Goddess. Nor does he conclude with a conclusion: The last 20 pages of the book contain a thorough accounting of Snorri’s failings and why we treat the Edda as sacred writ (and should not). This is information the reader needs to have to understand the earlier chapters.

As a professional editor, I would have urged Reaves to restructure the book along these lines:

Begin with his conclusion (minus the discussion of Snorri). There, Reaves succinctly describes *Dyeus Pater or Sky-Father as the oldest Indo-European god “whose name can be traced over a vast area” and who unites with Mother Earth in many traditions, including Greek and Roman, Hindu, Hittite, late Celtic, and, as Reaves will explore, Germanic mythology (pp. 297-8).     

Then introduce the goddess Jörd (Earth), as in his current chapter IX. Jörd, Thor’s Mother, and show how Old Norse poets used Jörd as an alternate name for Frigg.

The next three chapters should be those that investigate Frigg: VII. Frigg, Odin’s Wife; VIII. Frigg, Baldur’s Mother; and the central argument of the book, X. The Mother of the Gods, in which Reaves not only equates Frigg and Jörd, but nicely disambiguates Frigg and Freyja as mother and daughter.

To understand the sacred marriage (hieros gamos) of Frigg, the Earth-Mother, with the Sky-Father, we need to understand how Odin got the name All-Father. Reaves’ current chapter, V. Odin, The All-Father, is an excellent rebuttal to the idea that Odin is a late-comer to the Norse pantheon, influenced by Christianity, as many writers and scholars (including me) have argued.

Here I would have suggested Reaves explain why Snorri should not be believed, as introduction to three chapters (I. The Prehistoric Context; II. Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth; III. The Anglo-Saxon Æcerbót) that detail sources older than the 13th century: petroglyphs and other archaeological finds from prehistory; Tacitus and other early writers; and an Anglo-Saxon ritual honoring Mother Earth. These chapters explain how Frigg, as Earth-Mother, might have been worshiped during the Viking Age—vital information that Snorri left out of the Edda.

Reaves’ remaining two chapters, IV. The Frau Holle Legends and VI. The Wild Hunt, discuss sources that are, in general, younger than Snorri. These folktales and legends show the continuation of the idea of the Germanic Earth-Mother and her worship through the Middle Ages to the present day.

Finally, as a conclusion, I would have suggested Reaves rewrite his current Introduction, explaining how the Frigg-Jörd Earth-Mother differs from what other scholars have called The Great Mother Goddess.

In its present structure, Odin’s Wife positions the reader at Reaves’ side, as he slogs through libraries and websites, amassing information, roughly sorting it into piles, and trying to make sense of it. If you enjoy the experience of a lengthy research quest with no stone unturned, no book unread, then read Odin’s Wife straight through from front to back. If you just want to know what Reaves means by subtitling his book Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology, then start with the conclusion and jump around following my outline (or your instincts). In either case, Odin’s Wife will change your interpretation of Frigg. You’ll no longer dismiss Odin’s wife, as Snorri did, as uninteresting in comparison with her husband.

Nancy Marie Brown
Nancy Marie Brown

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of one young adult novel and six general interest books: Ivory Vikings (2015), The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (2015), Song of the Vikings (2012), The Abacus and the Cross (2010), The Far Traveler (2007), Mendel in the Kitchen (2004), and A Good Horse Has No Color (2001).

She writes about Iceland and Vikings, science and sagas. Her books combine extremes: medieval literature and modern archaeology, myths and facts. They ask, What have we overlooked? What have we forgotten? Whose history must not be lost?

For 20 years, Nancy worked as a science writer and editor at Penn State University. She now lives in northern Vermont, where she keeps four Icelandic horses and an Icelandic sheepdog, and spends part of each summer in Iceland, offering history and horseback tours

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