The Old Man of the Sea

I’ve been wondering why ships, storms and fish keep coming up over the last couple weeks. I mean, it’s been fun teasing out this Dionysian thread (especially since most folks – scholars and devotees alike – are unaware of or tend to ignore or downplay it) but it feels like something more significant than that is going on, that this is an important piece for understanding Dionysos in his various Northern guises, and Óðr in particular.

So little has come down concerning him. We know he has the same root as Óðinn in battle frenzy and poetic madness, and ties to both the männerbund and Wild Hunt. He is the husband of Freyja, and together they had daughters named Hnoss and Gersemi, meaning Precious and Treasure respectively. Óðr would frequently go out adventuring – until one day he failed to return. Freyja was so grieved by his loss that she shed tears of red gold or amber. Eventually the heartache became a kind of madness, and so she set off in search of him adopting different disguises and names as she traveled through different lands. And that’s essentially what we know of Óðr. You can stretch it a bit through etymology, comparative mythology and looking at figures with similar names in the Sagas, folk songs and the like, as well as later continuations of the lore such as the German and Scandinavian Romantics but that doesn’t increase our understanding by much.

Even accepting the identification of Óðr and Dionysos we are still left with huge gaps and unanswered questions, such as: how did he meet Freyja, and what led up to them getting married? Which of the Nine Worlds did he come from? Was he considered part of the Vanic pantheon, and if so what role did he have in it? How has that changed since their integration with the Æsir? For that matter, what involvement did he have in the Æsir-Vanir War? What was the nature of these adventures he kept going on? Did others accompany him? What was his relationships like with his fellow Gods, both those well disposed towards him and those who were not? 

I’ve slowly been piecing together some of his backstory through a blend of research, direct revelation via dreams, visions and random occurrences, UPG and pure speculation, as well as spit-balling with colleagues. Before I consider it an official part of Starry Bear mythology I try to find verification through the lore, check with those who have a stronger background in Heathenry and perform divination when warranted. Vetting such as this can be a long and tedious process, after which I have to take this information and translate it into something comprehensible to my audience through essays, poetry, blog posts and whatnot. Eventually all of this will make its way into a book or series of books, but for now let’s just say that there are a great deal more Starry Bear myths than I have thus far shared.

And I was thinking about one of those last night, and how it may have something to do with why I keep coming back to ships, storms and fish when thinking about Óðr.

Njörðr is his father, you see

Depending on the story (and I need to work out some of the contradictory details before I feel comfortable sharing them) this was due either to adoption or marriage into the Vanir clan, and possibly both.

Njörðr may not be as well-known these days as Óðinn, Loki and Thor (or even his own children Freyja and Freyr) but there are strong indications that he once enjoyed a great deal more popularity. Consider, for instance, the abundance of place-names honoring him throughout Scandinavia, such as Nærdhæwi (now Nalavi, Närke), Njærdhavi (now Mjärdevi, Linköping), Nærdhælunda (now Närlunda, Helsingborg), Nierdhatunum (now Närtuna, Uppland) in Sweden; Njarðvík in southwest Iceland; and Njarðarlög and Njarðey (now Nærøy) in Norway.

Furthermore, in Vafþrúðnismál (where Óðinn, disguised as Gagnráðr, faces off against the wise Jötunn Vafþrúðnir in a battle of wits) it is stated that Njörðr rules over quite a lot of hofs and hörgrs (temples and altars) and will even survive the destruction of his fellow Gods at Ragnarök. In Grímnismál he is described as having a princely nature and being entirely without malice; according to chapter 23 of Gylfaginning Njörðr controls the movement of the winds, can calm both sea and fire, possesses abundant wealth and should be invoked for seafaring, fishing and by people who are in need, as he often grants land and valuables to those who beseech him properly.

Njörðr’s name means something akin to “power” or “vitality” and is linguistically linked to the Germanic Nerthus and Old Norse Njörun, both potent Goddesses of the Earth. He has a mysterious wife (and by Vanic custom likely his sister) whose name has not come down to us, though many speculate she is one of the above two. He was also briefly married to the Jötuness Skaði (who delights in snow, mountains, skiing, battle and little else) though she left him after becoming homesick during her stay at Nóatún by the sea, his home away from Ásgarðr. In chapter 4 of Ynglinga Saga Njörðr is appointed by Óðinn as the Chief Priest of the Gods there, having come to Ásgarðr as a hostage to end the terrible Æsir-Vanir War. From Sólarljóð we learn that Freyr and Freyja are not his only children; indeed Njörðr is said to have nine daughters, with Ráðveig being the eldest and Kreppvör the youngest. None of the others are mentioned by name. Though not found in the surviving lore, Sigyn is sometimes regarded as his foster-daughter by contemporary Heathens. 

In the few myths that survive Njörðr comes off as good-natured and something of a comical figure. After slaying the Jötunn Þjazi the Æsir agree to three acts of reparation, one of which, according to Skáldskaparmál is that Skaði be allowed to choose a husband from among them. Tricksy Óðinn insists on the stipulation that she do so without seeing any part of the candidates but their feet. Skaði goes down the line and chooses the Áss with the loveliest feet, whom she assumes is the handsome and vigorous Baldr – only to discover that she’s picked the aged Njörðr instead. (Scholars suggest that here “feet” is to be taken as a euphemism for penis, adding extra humor to the scene.) Although they try to make the best of it, Skaði wants to live in the abandoned hall of her father Þjazi, especially after a night in Nóatún where, according to the Codex Regius manuscript, she bitterly complains:

Sleep I could not
on the sea beds
for the screeching of the bird.
That gull wakes me
when from the wide sea
he comes each morning.

Now Njörðr could have simply dismissed these words as the precociousness of a new bride, demanded she remain with him and attempt to break her will until the marriage could be properly consummated – but he doesn’t. In fact, I suspect he saw through her proud ruse. The Jötuness wasn’t just dissatisfied with her new lodgings and spouse, Skaði was grieving the loss of her father and wanted to be surrounded by the things that held her memories of him, but couldn’t because she needed to save face and look tough before her former enemies the Æsir. So Njörðr brings her back to Þrymheimr and releases her from the contract.

Furthermore, in the Lokasenna he shrugs off and deftly deflects the poisonous words of Laufey’s son, demonstrating confidence, cleverness, grace and a biting wit of his own. For instance when Loki mocks him for being sent as a hostage to Ásgarðr and suggests that the daughters of Hymir attempted to sexually humiliate him by using him as a chamber pot and pissing in his mouth Njörðr responds that though the circumstances were far from ideal his gain was greater than what he suffered, for he ended up with a son loved by all and regarded as a prince among the Æsir. Loki then changes his approach, attacking Njörðr’s children. Concerning Freyja, he accuses her of being a sorceress, claims that she’s slept with all of the Gods and Elves in attendance, and even brings up that time she was caught by the Gods in flagrante delicto with Freyr and let loose a noisy fart in surprise. To which Njörðr replies that it’s not really a big deal if a woman has lovers in addition to her husband and anyway who is Loki to pronounce moral judgments since he’s a faggot who gave birth to a horse. At which point Loki says that that noble son of Njörðr’s was the bastard product of a secret incestuous union, so he shouldn’t expect anything too good from him – prompting Tyr to step in and proclaim: 

37. “Of the heroes brave | is Freyr the best
Here in the home of the Gods;
He harms not maids | nor the wives of men,
And the bound from their fetters he frees.”

Although no myths have been transmitted regarding his martial prowess, we can be sure that they existed, for the Skáldskaparmál numerous times gives Njörðr as a kenning for “warrior” and hails him as “God of chariots” and “benefactor of heroes.” According to the Ynglinga Saga Njörðr succeeds Óðinn as King of the Gods, and his reign is conspicuous for its piety, peace and prosperity. He establishes rites for those who perish during Ragnarök and oversees the blóts himself until Freyja eventually takes over for him.

Considering all of that, we can see the strong impression he must have made on Óðr, especially if what I’ve been shown is correct and the latter arrived at the court of Vanaheimr as a feral child or a haughty youth, to be raised alongside the numerous children of Njörðr. Desperate to win the approval of his surrogate father, Óðr must have excelled as a fighter, a seaman, and a farmer and later, when he reached an age of maturity, volunteered to go on quests and raiding parties. The culture and values of Njörðr’s people must have become dearer to him than those he was born into, for they correspond a great deal with what we find at Nysa and among the Bacchants. Personality-wise it is almost as if Óðr becomes a second Njörðr, treating those he encounters with wisdom, grace and good humor. Indeed, one might even say that he is more like him than Njörðr’s own birth-son Freyr – and considering what a daddy’s girl Freyja is (how often is she referred to simply by the heiti “Njörðr’s daughter”?) this may go a long way towards explaining her initial attraction to Óðr.

This applies both to his positive and negative traits – note that Njörðr and Skaði spend much of their brief marriage apart, and his other wives are rarely in the picture. Njörðr prefers the quiet and isolation of the sea to the hustle and bustle of Ásgarðr, only attending state functions and festivities such as the fateful drinking-party at Ægir’s when he has to. He is not generally involved in the plots and schemes of the Ásgardian court, except to clean up the messes others (and especially Óðinn) have made. He has no problem throwing down when needed (note that he successfully leads the Vanir in their bloody and ultimately destructive war against the Æsir) but his reign is characterized by its peaceful and drama-free nature. It should be pointed out, however, that these same attributes in Óðr bring about tremendous suffering.

Anyway, these are just some of the thoughts I was having last night, which I felt like sharing with you guys.

3 thoughts on “The Old Man of the Sea

  1. While, as you know, I’m definitely NOT of the archetypalist school of interpretation when it comes to any Deities, I kind of wonder…

    Though there are a variety of Greek Sea Deities of both binary genders, obviously the one everything thinks of most readily is Poseidon. That the latter is involved in various ways with the potentially eschatological situations that occur under Zeus’ reign makes me wonder if the fact that Njörðr reigns later and survives Ragnarok (which I didn’t know before now!) may lend it some potential closeness to Poseidon’s situation…or perhaps Thetis’, who obviously has connections to several of those situations as well, and to Dionysos…

    Just more spit-balling, of course, but anyway, those are my thoughts, useful or not! ;)

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    1. The whole thing of Neptune’s name being the Latin Indo-European reflex for the word “nephew” and being related to “fire-in-water” and so forth is also important, and that comes up with various folks related to Poseidon in Greek myth (including Theseus!), and so I also wonder if that root is in any way related to Njörðr’s name as well….

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