An exploration of the sacred feminine and its initiatory function in Germanic paganism
Much has been written about the quest and the initiatic journey of the hero, but little attention has been paid to the feminine figures who often function as guides and initiators on those adventures. In Odin’s case, he retrieves the sacred mead by the aid of Gunnljód. It is from her that he receives the sacred drink which gives him power over the runes, or sacred speech. Similarly, in Sigurd’s legend, he is given a draught by the sleeping valkyrie which initiates him in runic magic, and allows him to turn the tides of fate. In those myths, the female figures are the custodians of spiritual power. The valkyries should also be mentioned here, who are described as “serving maids” in Sessrumnir, the hall of the goddess Freyja, and who also guide the souls of great warriors to the divine halls of Åsgård. Here again, we see that the serving of drink happens in tandem with a psychopomp-function from female spirits. The valkyries – “choosers of the slain” – initiate the fallen heroes, bestowing upon them a new spiritual status as they bring them to the divine halls, where they will train as the einherjar of Odin in preparation for the final battle. There is, both in the valkyries and in the female initiators examined above, a striking pattern wherein the feminine is cast in a priestly function, which involves the bestowal of drink. This mythic theme is even more interesting when seen together with the role women had in Germanic societies, and the sacred nature of the housewife.
The goddess of the home
The home, in traditional societies, is a temple governed by the lady of the house. The entrance of a home is as such the passing from mundane to sacred space. House here should not be understood as the modern idea of housing, a storage box for humans, but rather as sacred space: the focal point of one’s life: one’s home, bodily and spiritually. The words for house, home and world in the germanic languages are in fact identical (1). In the old Germanic culture, the house was a temple, and the housewife a priestess. The title and role as such should not therefore be seen through the lens of modern attempts at gender equality, wherein the worth of a woman too often is judged by to what degree she manages to emulate men. Women, in the world of tradition, were by their very nature priestesses, embodiments of the divine through reflecting it in the mundane, and initiators. One of the most important arenas of political maneuverings in old Germanic society was the mead-hall, wherein chieftains and warriors, nobility and commoners, and men and women alike would converge at the verge of the seasons. The mead-hall was often both palace and temple. Within the sanctity of the hall, the women were responsible for serving drinks to the guests. This was not an act of docile servility – but rather a spiritual gesture: in extending the hospitality of the home towards the guests in question, the housewife-priestess symbolically “initiated” the guests into the sacred sphere of the home, and enveloped them in the sacred bonds of hospitality. The housewife – both the ladies of simple farms, and the radiant queens of old thus mirrored the role of the female figures of myth and those of the valkyries. This is also evident in that the name of the greatest Germanic goddess, Freyja, was used as an honorary title for housewives, attesting to sacral association between the warden of the home below and the receiver of the fallen heroes above. The housewife and the house over which she reigns should be seen as identical. Her presence – and through her that of the spiritual feminine principle – is what makes a house a home. As such, she is home, especially in her role as mother, which is the next role wherein we will see the presence of the initiatory goddess.
The mother as initiator
“My mother told me: you are meant to buy a ship and swift oars, and sail to distant shores. Rise up at the prow: steer your noble ship! Far, to foreign ports, cut down foemen many!”Women in the traditional Germanic society performed this gesture of initiation as a sacral function – a direct invitation, and a gentle push, towards the heroic journey.
Another poem is of great importance when examining this theme in a Germanic context. This is the Gróagaldr, or “enchantment of Gróa”, and the Fjölsvinnsmál, which composes two parts of a single eddic poem. In the first part, the Gróagaldr, we are acquainted with a young man by the name of Svipdag who begins the story by summoning his mother, Gróa, from the afterlife. He then tells her that he has been sent “on the unknown way” to meet a figure named “Menglöd”. The boy’s mother, Gróa, then chants nine charms for him, that among other things will loose the fetters if he is bound, and protect him against Christian women! He is then promised, is he to follow his mother’s advise, that he will have wit and eloquence enough to confron the jötun, when he meets them. Later, in the Fjölsvinnsmál, we again meet the young hero, this time standing at the edge of the unknown, on the threshold to the world of the jötun (3). Here, he is confronted by the jötun Fjölsvidr, who asks him what kind of troll he is, moving so close to danger, and beseeches the boy to return home. The boy then declares that he seeks passage, and believes himself deserving of a seat in the “golden hall”. He then inquires as to who holds dominion in these lands, to which Fjölsvidr replies Menglöd, “the jewel-glad”. Then there follows a long dialogue between the hero and the jötun, which follows a remarkably ubiquitous pattern in Germanic myth, namely that of a question-and-aswer dialogue wherein one has to prove his knowledge, and hence one’s worthiness, of initiation. After the dialogue, Svipdag is admitted to the halls of Menglöd, where he is welcomed with a kiss, and embraced by the mysterious female figure.
Here again, we see the earthly perfectly mirroring the divine. Just as Gróa magically arms Svipdag, and Sigrdrifa Sigurd, Egil’s mother admonishes him to seek honor as a viking warrior. There are several other such examples in the old norse sagas. Contrary to common belief, the martial nature of the viking world was not only due to the agency of men. Women, more often than not, inspired and coerced their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands to go to war in defense of their honor and to increase the glory of their family. Germanic women were thus “instigators of victory”, which is the literal translation of the name Sigrdrifa, who initiates Sigurd.
The queen as initiator
“Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings.”
– (A description of Éowyn by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Another sphere wherein we see the same theme embodied is that of sacred kingship. In traditional society, the welfare of the land was seen as synonymous with the spiritual character of the king. The queen was seen as an embodiment of the land over which he ruled. The grace held by royalty was evident in how the prosperity of the earth fared under a given monarch. As such, the king was symbolically wedded to the land through the queen, and just as the welfare of the wife and the children of a family was the responsibility of the husband, so also was the fecundity of nature the domain of kingly power. If the king held the grace of the gods, the land would prosper. If his soul was tainted, the fields would be unyielding.
In Germanic society, the housewife-priestess “held” this power, just as she holds it for Sigurd and Odin, and bestows it upon them through the sacred drink when they pass their trials. The queen of the land was as such the warden of this sacred power on behalf of the people and the land over which a king reigned. The earthly queen, just as the initiatory goddess, bestowed this power on the king through the mead cup. This took place in an important, ancient ritual, the remains of which can be glimpsed in later Norse sources. The queen would enter the mead-hall housing the king and his hird, or warrior-band in a choreographed manner, bringing with her the mead. She would proceed to serve the men according to rank within the military hierarchy, starting from the king, and by so doing cementing the bonds that tied them to each other and their sovereign. When she served the king a cup of mead, he was officially instituted as monarch, a gesture portrayed in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, wherein Eowyn offers Théoden the first drink in Meduseld (3) after the battle of Helm’s Deep, thus fully restoring his royal power.
The marriage between king and queen was a symbolic union of heaven and earth, of the physical and the sacred, a joining of two worlds, the union of which births spiritual power. The queen was the physical embodiment of the land, the feminine element of form, life and nurture. The king was the herald of heaven, the giver and upholder of law and order. Their union brought the grace of gods down to the mortal realm. This motif has its equivalent in the divine realm, wherein we see Odin, the celestial monarch, wedding Jord, whose name simply means “earth”.
In all of the above examples, we see the various offices in which women traditionally acted as initiators of men. Moreover, these different offices perfectly mirror one another. The crucial variable when performing rituals is whether the ritual in question mirrors the divine world. Any ritual that manages to do so reflects spiritual realities into the physical world, so that the ceremonial actions become channels for spiritual power. We began our exploration of the theme in the divine world of Odin and the heroic realm of Sigurd, and later saw how the exact same function was manifested on the earthly plane by the housewife, the mother and the queen, who acted as channels of the divine feminine through mirroring its function on earth.
We must take heed not to fall into the lure of naturalism when examining these topics: an interpretive framework wherein the mythological is reduced to a poetic explanation of natural facts, wherein the gods become naught but stories of natural phenomena and myths mere coping mechanisms for the human reality prior to the advent of material science. With that said, we should not reject the naturalistic interpretation either, but rather view it as a material finger pointing to the moon of spirit. Spiritual reality is manifested in physical facts. The female, on the physical plane, is the initiator of the male, in so far as she, both as mother, wife and nature births and takes away physical life. The feminine stands at the thresholds of change. As demonstrated, the initiatory function of the feminine principle can be active both as a societal institution and as a divine reality. When these mirror each other, spirit incarnates in flesh, and the world is imbued with magic.
As our ancestors emulated divine reality in their rites of initiation, so can we. Although we may not be partakers of an unbroken European pagan line of initiation, we are still free to set out on heroic quests of our own, and by so doing invite the divine to enter our lives. As Sigurd and Odin, we all have thresholds we can cross and strange lands we can seek out, both in the outer world and in the inner sanctuaries of our minds. We all have challenges and fears we can choose to avoid or ignore – or meet heads-on – in an heroic charge of faith. It is that undertaking that invokes the aid of the goddess of initiation. The incantation that summons her is the prayer of heroic labor. The imperative we are left with is thus to travel to the precipices of ourselves, to confront the unbalanced forces of ourselves and the world, and then await the coming of the maiden with the mead.
As such, the different myths become universal, and the wisdom animating them accessible to us. We can also interpret them as stories of integration, of how the male must unite with his feminine quality in order to become whole, or divine (4). When attaining atonement with the feminine, the individual man becomes a king of his own world, and achieves the inner marriage between earth and heaven that we examined when we looked at the queen as an initiator.
- Heim or any derivations thereof such as English home, Norwegian hjem, German heim etc.
- Old germanic society did not have a set age when children became adults. Girls became women when they were eligible for marriage, i.e. after reaching puberty, and boys became men when they could wield swords and do farmwork. Likewise, you were perceived as old when you could no longer provide for yourself, regardless of age.
- The etymology of Meduseld also conforms to the theme of this essay: the medu particle is cognate to English mead, Old Norse Mjad and Sanskrit madhu, and the seld-particle is cognate to an Old Norse word for hall – salir – still in use in modern Norwegian sal. Meduseld is thus Mead-hall.
- The name “holy”, “heilig” or “hellig” all derive from the same root as the word “whole”, denoting that the word holy in essence implies unity.