Rose of Mysterious Union

Although Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795), “Sweden’s Shakespeare” and founder of the notorious Bacchi Orden, memorably sang of the union of Dionysos and Freyja (or Fröja as she appears in the Fredmans sånger and Fredmans epistlar, among other of his works) he was neither the first nor the only Scandinavian poet to do so.

Indeed, as Simon Halink observes in Asgard Revisited: Old Norse Mythology and Icelandic National Culture 1820-1918 this pairing was very much part of the intellectual-creative zeitgeist:

Finnur’s attempts to reconstruct the ancient Eurasian myth-tree, connecting pre-Christian Europe to the exotic cultures of the East, did not go unnoticed in Europe and influenced the writings of mythologists everywhere. His ideas and interpretations dovetailed with the Romantic imagination of Oehlenschläger, whose work can be considered exemplary of the  “peculiar mixture of scholarship and poetry in the nineteenth century.” Oehlenschläger’s famous 1819 collection of poems called Nordens Guder shows clear traces of Indo-European thought, creatively applied. In order to demonstrate the Indian connection of the Old Norse gods, Freyja’s chariot is no longer pulled by two cats – as indicated by the eddic narrative – but by tigers, associated with the Indian origin of her husband Óðr, whom she encounters east of the river Ganges. Óðr, arguably the most obscure of all eddic deities, is presented by Oehlenschläger as an exotic version of the Roman wine god Bacchus, whose chariot was also pulled by tigers.

Adam Oehlenschläger’s vivid account in Om Vanerne (‘The Vaner’, from Nordens Guder) of the epiphany of Óðr-Dionysos:

Him she met beyond the Ganges,
Victor god, in morion bright.
Youths and maids, with flutes and cymbals,
Follow, shouting, joyous throng,
Ocean trembles,
Earth re-echoes with their song.

In his golden chariot seated,
See him in his proud career,
Tawny lions, mottled tigers,
Crouching at his feet for fear;
The forest’s lords the car rolls after,
Maids with timbrels dance before,
Shouts and laughter
Drown e’en father ocean’s roar.

Wondering at th’ unwonted clamour,
Rugged men start from the glade,
Trembling, gazing, leaping, shouting,
Half enraptured, half afraid.
Oddur calm’d their groundless terror,
Charm’d them with his magic lay,
Held his mirror,
Shew’d to peace and wealth the way.

Calls to mind Seneca’s Bacchic Hymn from the Oedipus:

Let the people’s hymn sound with the praise of Bacchus. Bind your streaming locks with the nodding ivy, and in your soft hands grasp the Nysaean thyrsus! Bright glory of the sky, come hither to the prayers which thine own illustrious Thebes, O Bacchus, offers to thee with suppliant hands. Hither turn with favour thy virginal face; with thy star-bright countenance drive away the clouds, the grim threats of Erebus, and greedy fate. Thee it becomes to circle thy locks with flowers of the springtime, thee to cover thy head with Tyrian turban, or thy smooth brow to wreathe with the ivy’s clustering berries; now to fling loose thy lawless-streaming locks, again to bind them in a knot close-drawn; in such guise as when, fearing thy stepdame’s wrath, thou didst grow to manhood with false-seeming limbs, a pretended maiden with golden ringlets, with saffron girdle binding thy garments. So thereafter this soft vesture has pleased thee, folds loose hanging and the long-trailing mantle. Seated in thy golden chariot, thy lions with long trappings covered, all the vast coast of the Orient saw thee, both he who drinks of the Ganges and whoever breaks the ice of snowy Araxes. On an unseemly ass old Silenus attends thee, his swollen temples bound with ivy garlands; while thy wanton initiates lead the mystic revels. Along with thee a troop of Bassarids in Edonian dance beat the ground, now on Mount Pangaeus’ peak, now on the top of Thracian Pindus; now on Naxos, girt by the Aegean sea, which gave him in marriage a deserted maiden, compensating her loss with a better husband. Out of the dry rock there gushed Nyctelian liquor; babbling rivulets divided the grassy meadows; deep the earth drank in the sweet juices, white fountains of snowy milk and Lesbian wine mingled with fragrant thyme.

But I digress. As Halink was saying:

This creative association with exotic cultures is not a direct translation of Finnur’s ideas into poetry; Finnur himself spent only limited attention on the relationship between Óðr and Freyja, and compared them to Venus and Adonis rather than to Bacchus. The Indian connection thematised in Oehlenschläger’s poem has been considered his own creative invention, but the tendency to connect eddic material to other, mainly Mediterranean and Indian mythological systems was linked to the academic comparativism as promulgated in Finnur Magnússon’s lectures, which Oehlenschläger attended. His poetry can be seen as an interesting example of the creative functionalisation of philological theory, which would come to characterise the work of several Icelandic poets as well.

Including Bjarni Thorarensen (1786-1841), who set Freyja and Bacchus in polar opposition as embodiments of the masculine vs feminine, degenerate South vs noble North, true love vs intoxicated lust, etc. in his collection of drinking songs, Drykkjuvísur. Calling Bacchus “worse than a dog” he nevertheless was compelled to concede that the Mediterranean God had a forceful charm about him:

I am leaving your lands, o Freyja!
The bottle
pleases me more:
your power never joins
more than two;
but thirty men or more
seducing Bacchus unites in friendship.

Although Freyja is not mentioned by name, this same ambiguity can be found in Eggert Ólafsson’s Vínleikabragur (‘Wine Parties’ 1767) where he called upon his fellow countrymen to “awaken, and to join all the other nations in their ecstatic celebrations of the Bacchanalia.” However, by the poem’s end the drinking has gotten out of hand and Ólafsson asks Bacchus to depart his homeland for some other country.

I said “by name” because Vínleikabragur anticipates thematic elements found later in Oehlenschläger’s Om Vanerne, such as the rousing of the sleepy Freyja to ecstasy:

Freya, once bewilder’d roaming,
Chanced the treacherous drink to sip:
Oddur, drunk with wine and pleasure,
Watch’d the rich juice kiss her lip:
Oddur now in manhood’s flower,
Grapes and vine-leaves wreathed his hair,
From his bower
Raptured view’d the goddess fair.

Oddur saw how Freya musing,
In a soft delirium lay;
At her feet his burning passion
Told, could Freya turn away?
Feather’d choir their pleasures vaunted,
Violets were their bridal bed,
Earth, enchanted,
Thousand sweets around them shed.

Their time together is sweet indeed, and Oehlenschläger includes references to the joyous and fertility-bestowing ship/wagon processions:

Freya thus was spouse to Oddur,
Still together were they seen,
And when th’ Aser left their city,
Oddur followed too his queen.
In his gold car drawn by leopards,
Sate the warrior with his bride,
Maids and shepherds
Sorrowing paced the car beside.

True, his sunny land t’ abandon,
And vine hills, the god did grieve;
But the grape’s more vapid pleasures
Who for beauty would not leave!
Piled on high, in osier waggons,
Choicest wine with care he stores,
Which in flagons
Rist each noon to Odin pours.

For though all less noble Aser
Quaff but cider, ale and mead,
Still for Odin, raven-monarch,
Oddur’s purple grape must bleed.
Freya’s heart with grief corroding,
When he quitted Valhal’s shore;
Left to Odin
Of the nectar, Oddur, store.

Found in the cults of both the Vanir:

The other gift to Freyr, probably also shared by Freyja, was the ship Skidbladnir. Called the “best of ships” in Grimnismál, Snorri informs us that Skidbladnir was large enough to hold all the gods and their battle-gear, yet could be folded up like a napkin and stored in one’s pocket when not in use. It always “had a fair wind as soon as its sail was hoisted, wherever it was intended to go,” (Skáldskaparmál  35). It was given to him by the Sons of Ivaldi, a group of artisans that Skaldskaparmál characterizes as dwarves or dark-elves. In Hrafnagaldur Óðins 6, Ivaldi himself is designated as an elf, again directly linking the elves to Freyr. Ships played a central role in the prehistoric Germanic religion, figuring prominently in Scandinavian Bronze Age petroglyphs and other pictorial representations of this era such as the Kivik grave. About one hundred tiny bronze and gold leaf ships of uncertain date, some decorated with concentric circles interpreted as solar symbols, were discovered in a clay jar at Nors in North Jutland. Ritual use of these objects seems likely. Besides the ship-burials of Gokstad and Oseberg, hundreds of ship-graves have been found in Norway and Sweden. The ship can be seen as a symbol of both death and fertility. Jacob Grimm first drew attention to an ancient Germanic rite which appears to be connected with this. About the year 1133, in a forest near Inden (in Ripuaria), a ship, set upon wheels,was built and drawn through the country by pauper rusticus („country folk‟) who were yoked to it. We find a detailed report of this procession in Rodulf’s Chronicon Abbatiae S. Trudonis, Book XI. Led by a guild of weavers, it traveled first to Aachen (Aix), then to Maestricht, where a mast and sail were added, then up the river to Tongres, Looz and so on, accompanied by crowds of people assembling and escorting it everywhere. In this it resembles the procession of a fertility deity paraded in a wagon throughout the countryside, so common in ancient Germanic sources. That it was lead by weavers suggests a women’s cult. Wherever it stopped, there were joyful shouts, songs of triumph and dancing round the ship far into the night. The approach of the ship procession was announced to towns, which opened their gates through which gathered throngs went out to greet it. Throughout the account everything is put in an odious light; but the narrative derives its full significance from the fact that it was so utterly exasperated the clergy, who tried to suppress it. The ship is described as a malignorum spirituum simulacrum („vehicle of malignant spirits‟) and a diaboli ludibrium („evil mockery‟). It is said to be associated with infausto omine („inauspicious omens‟) and that maligni spiritus („malignant spirits‟) travel inside it. The author speculates that it may well be called a ship of “Neptune or Mars, of Bacchus or Venus,” clearly connecting it with heathen gods, and therefore it must be burnt or destroyed somehow. It is generally accepted that such cult ships were built on land for the duration of the festival. It is important to note that secular powers, not the clergy, authorized the procession and protected it. It rested within the power of several townships to grant the approaching ship admission.Traces of similar ship processions at the beginning of spring are found in other parts of Germany, especially in Swabia, which became the seat of the Suebi mentioned by Tacitus. Minutes of the town-council of Ulm, dated St. Nicholas’ Eve 1530 contain the prohibition: “There shall be none, by day nor night, trick or disguise him, nor put on any carnival raiment, moreover shall keep him from the going about of the plough and with ships on pain of 1 gulden.” No doubt, among the common people of that region, there survived some recollections of ancient heathen worship which had not yet been entirely uprooted. A continuation of the ships on the rock carvings and the ship Skidbladnir is not unlikely. Rodulf does not say what became at last of the terrea navis („earthly ship‟) but relates how, upon a reception being demanded for it and refused, fights and quarrels broke out, which could only be settled by open warfare. (William P. Reaves, The Cult of Freyr and Freyja)

And Dionysos:

Hermippus in a play called Stevedores launches into a mock-Homeric hymn to Dionysus in which the god is praised as a merchant-shipper (PCG F 63): ‘Tell me now you Muses who dwell in Olympus how many good things Dionysus brings here to men in his black ship since the time he began to carry merchandise over the wine-faced sea. From Cyrene, silphium stalk and ox hide. From the Hellespont, mackerel and every sort of salted fish. From Thessaly, barley and sides of beef and the mange for the Spartans from Sitalkes, and from Perdikkas a great many ships-full of lies. The Syracusans provide pigs and cheese …’ After a lacuna the list goes on to include products that originate from cities throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, from Carthage to Phoenicia. Most modern readers fail to see the humour that such lists of food are supposed to generate. There is none really. It is mainly about sustaining the buoyancy of the audience with effervescent reminders of the festival’s blessings. […] Four Attic vases, produced at the end of the sixth century show Dionysus and satyrs riding wagons, fitted out like ships. Later antiquity’s larger and more international festival economies seem to have required the magnificence of actual wheeled ships. By contrast the images on the Attic skyphoi are very much ‘wagons’ in the shape of ships—and unlikely to be called anything other than ‘wagons’ in ancient texts. Even the Panathenaic ship was referred to as a ‘wagon’ (in Latin currus) as late as the first century AD. In the case of the Tarquinian amphora, the vehicle is mythicised as an actual ship, but incorporates features of the ritual wagon including the piper and the mysterious wicker-like object at the keel. […] Some object that Dionysus Eleuthereus did not come to Athens by ship but overland. We have to respond that the ship is a symbol, not historical reconstruction. In part it suits the Athenian Dionysus because, as we saw, he brings for his festival food and wealth from overseas. But there is something deeper. The utopic vision inspired by the Athenian carnival is one of things spontaneously appearing and spontaneously moving under the influence of Dionysus. In the first messenger speech of Euripides’ Bacchae the presence of Dionysus is revealed by the sudden appearance of springs of water, wine, milk and honey (705-11), and by the effortless coordination, energy and equilibrium of the bacchants’ movements (esp. 693, 755-8). The spontaneous springs of water, wine, milk and honey recall the αὐτόματος βίος of the Cronian Golden Age when the earth freely produced an abundance of food and drink for all men at no cost or effort. This was of course also an ideal embodied by the Dionysian festival where food and wine really were abundant and free. But effortless coordination and equilibrium are also an expression of the processional god. Dionysus sets people and things in motion, particularly in a graceful and rhythmic motion: the power of music to animate the body (even at times against one’s will) is perhaps the supreme expression of this particular aspect of the god. (Eric Csapo, The Dionysian Parade and the Poetics of Plenitude)

But the world – even the world of the Gods – is full of ceaseless change, so Oehlenschläger foreshadows περιπέτεια for the happy couple:

So they lived, the joy of Asgard,
Brighter dawn’d each golden morn,
Secret prayer of love-sick maiden,
On soft sighs, to them was borne.
And could love so pure, so holy,
Like a vision melt away?
Like youth’s folly,
Scarce outlive a summer’s day.

Oehlenschläger’s answer is pretty depressing.

One day while Óðr is riding circuit in his tiger-drawn waggon, Loki steals Idunna, ’s keeper of the golden apples which grant the Gods of Asgard their youthful beauty and vitality. Óðr returns to find their realm laid waste and his beloved wife a feeble crone. He believes that he has been deceived by a wicked sorceress and flees into a dark wood, shunning even the company of his Nymph and Satyr companions so that he may be alone with his loss and bitter anguish.

Loki returns the precious treasure, but even with her bloom and vigor restored Freyja is inconsolable. So Odin summons Hermóður and sets off in pursuit with a Runestaff to punish Óðr for being fickle and breaking his vow. Hermóður eventually finds him in the forest, smites him on the head with the Runestaff and Óðr is transformed into senseless stone, around which vines and wild ivy grow up. Even the golden tears of Freyja cannot return her husband to life.

So ends Adam Oehlenschläger’s Om Vanerne.

The Danish author’s novel treatment of Old Norse mythology inspired many, including Benedikt Gröndal as a boy; later Benedikt (who also was influenced by the lectures of Finnur Magnússon) would translate some of Oehlenschläger’s poems into Icelandic and made his own additions to the lore, such as 1860’s Venus og Freyja (‘Venus and Freyja’) which closes with these verses full of prophetic weight:

Wait Freyja, Óður will come again
from the East with a new brother,
power and endurance resound in their mutual song.
Venus died, and deep under the waves’ rushing
she dwells far away from the stream of ages;
dead flowers mask the white goddess.
But you live on the summit of the magnetic mount,
love warms a glacier-cold path.
As long as a Nordic maiden knows your name
she will love and call upon you.

As Simon Halink relates:

These lines suggest that while Venus has faded away and rests in the deep, taciturn Freyja is on the rise, and about to welcome her long-lost husband Óður (Old Norse: Óðr) home. The stanza seems to be breathing expectation: something great is about to happen. Óður, about whom virtually nothing is known – will finally come home, and bring with him a ‘new brother from the East’; a cryptic description of what can be interpreted as a new beginning of some sort. Just like every damsel in distress requires a heroic rescue, Freyja’s sadness has to provoke an act of deliverance. The eddic sources say nothing about Óðr having any brothers, and the adjective ‘new’ further suggests that poet is here adding a new chapter to the ancient narrative; one which offers not only a revealing justification for Óður’s perpetual absence, but also a brand-new layer of meaning, with great significance for the modern age. The verse creates the suggestion of succession – like that of the signs of the zodiac, or the phases of the moon – in which Venus is waning, becoming a thing of the past, whereas Freyja is about to undergo a transformation which effects the entire Nordic world. The hegemony of classical culture is coming to an end, and a Nordic renaissance – symbolised by a transformed Freyja – lies just around the corner. In order to better understand the hidden message – and to unveil the identity of the enigmatic ‘brother from the East’ – one of Benedikt’s more elaborate poems, also focusing on the theme of Óður’s messianic return, can offer solace. In the poem Brísingamen (‘Freyja’s brooch’; 1871), published eleven years after Venus og Freyja, Óður’s travels are thematised and Benedikt’s resignification of the god’s absence reaches its completion. Freyja is described as searching for her spouse, who had been drawn to the more moderate and cultured lands of the South; a poetic reflection on the perpetual lure of the South, which has attracted people from the North throughout the ages.

In the South, Óður meets Apollo, god of light and poetry, who leads the way to a magical flower which symbolises the warm virtues of the South. Óður takes the flower to Ásgarðr where he presents it to his wife, who is not only the goddess of love but also of war and therefore arguably too belligerent to personify Benedikt’s more Romantic concept of love. The hard, martial element in Freyja’s character is here symbolised by Brísingamen; a piece of mythical jewelry generally considered to be a necklace but here presented as a brooch. Upon Óður’s return, this cold metal object is dramatically shattered and replaced by the flower of the South.

This flower turns out to be quite significant, as Halink goes on to demonstrate:

The literary theme of a quest for a hidden flower with supernatural (transformative) powers did not arise from the Eddic sources themselves, but forms a quintessentially Romantic trope which started with Novalis’s ‘blue flower’: an allegory for the Romantic ideals of nature, inspiration, and the Sublime. This theme already inspired Bjarni Thorarensen’s application of ‘white lilies’ in his Sigrúnarljóð (‘Sigrún’s Song’; 1820), but in Brísingamen the flower is for the first time applied as a symbol not of personal, but rather national transformation and regeneration. This innovative resignification serves as a good example of how the personal (or subjective), the natural, and the national (Volksgeist) are intertwined in the Romantic imagination.

The poem ends with the rather non-descriptive remark that the reunited lovers ‘returned home’, but this does not diminish the monumental message Benedikt tries to convey in these verses. The love goddess Freyja, stripped of her Nordic harshness (Brísingamen) and adorned with the flower of southern love and warmth, personifies Benedikt’s ideal of a balanced symbiosis of Nordic and southern/classical characteristics.

Which naturally reminds one of the Bacchic imagery on vases from Southern Italy and burial goods from Northern Greece:

There are 15 Archaic period mouth-plates in the collection. They show a range of geometric patterns and emblems which coincide with the recorded embossed designs seen on the epistomia from archaic Macedonia, and are generally of an elongated diamond shape with rounded corners, though the frailty of the gold foil means that many of them have torn or ragged edges. […] The rosette may be dismissed as a simple floral motif, but Matteo Compareti argues, in reference to the eight-pointed rosette in particular, that it is also used as an ‘astronomical-astrological symbol’, and that the goddess Inanna was often represented by either a star or rosette. There is a recurring theme of Dionysus and rosettes or flowers that may indicate a link between the motif and eschatological beliefs of a Bacchic mystery religion. A number of Apulian vases show Dionysus presenting a woman with a flower, which Paloma Cabrera describes as ‘the necessary password for the woman, the deceased who, after the transit of death, will require the symbol of her initiation in Dionysos’ blessed paradise and promise of her own transformation.’ For Cabrera, ‘the flower is a symbol of the initiate deceased and brought back to life in the sphere of the god.’ Thus it is possible to read the gold foil rosettes in archaic burials as a reference to initiation, rebirth, and transformation as they are on Apulian vases, though in quite a different form. I believe that rosettes on an epistomion may be read as iconographic representations of an initiate’s expectation for rebirth, though I would be remiss if I failed to mention that many scholars see the rosette on vases as simple filler, especially as it is used on Proto-Corinthian and Corinthian pottery. Yet the placement and context of a rosette-embossed epistomia strongly implies a symbolic and eschatologically relevant meaning was attached to these artifacts. (Lisa Tweten, Evidence of Orphic Mystery Cult in Archaic Macedonian and Thracian Burials)

I find this whole strain of myth utterly fascinating, even if I’ve been shown a different story about what separated Dionysos-Óðr from his girl Freyja.


2 comments

  1. In the Eric Csapo excerpt above, there is the line “and from Perdikkas a great many ships-full of lies”…is that correct, or should it be “lilies” or something like that? It’s an interesting image, no matter what! ;)

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    • Lies are, generally speaking, funnier than lilies. And since this is about comedy – and Athenian Old Comedy at that, if memory serves – my money’s on lies.

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