I am a feminist. And by feminist, I mean I believe (or rather insist) men and women should be treated equally.* Equal rights. Equal pay. Equal value. And that’s that. No man-hating, bra-burning, anti-feminine business for me. *nose wrinkle and grin* That was a bad joke; those are feminist stereotypes. I recognize, though, that some of that man-hating, bra-burning and anti-feminine $#%& had to go down before women could be elevated — socially, economically and politically. But these are not enduring traits of the Feminist Movement.
Part of the reason I was drawn to Paganism was because it acknowledged my views as a feminist. Most pagan faiths pay equal attention to male and female gods. Like many Pagans, I cut my teeth on Wicca, which is heavily influence by feminine divinity. To be honest, I kind of miss the emphasis on female-centered power now that I am practicing Heathenry. It made me feel all “Hell yes!” and Girl emPowered.
There are female gods in the Heathen pantheon, but they aren’t as codified, revered (in my opinion), or mentioned as male gods. I still feel a strong attraction to Heathenry relative to other branches of Paganism, though. I really dig ancestor worship and I really like that the gods are nigh, but not in your face.
In an attempt to reconcile my pining for feminine power and my attraction to Heathenry, I did some research into the Heathen goddesses to find inspiring female figures. My criteria for “inspiring” were:
1. She had to be the protagonist in the narrative or at least proactive. That is, she had to do stuff, not just have stuff happen to her.
2. She had to have some kind of power, whether it be political, social, physical or mystical.
So, did the Heathen goddesses have anything to offer me? Hell yes! Here is my list of inspiring female gods:
I think Freyja is my favorite goddess. (So I write more about her than the others listed here). She is the goddess of just about everything — love, beauty, fertility, gold, sorcery, war, death, and she is the protector of the human race. I really like her because she rules. Literally. She rules over part of the afterworld. Half of those who die in battle go to Odin in Valhalla and half to Freyja in Fólkvangr. In this sense, Freyja is often described as the chief valkyrie because she chooses the dead to take to her part of the underworld. She is one of the few people who confronts Loki when he stirs up trouble (which he does a lot) and when he accused her of promiscuity (which he also does a lot — he accused just about every woman in the pantheon of being a slut). Her animal companions are two cats that pull her chariot and a boar. She possesses treasures of power and beauty, including a cloak of falcon feathers and a necklace of untold beauty called Brísingamen. Who doesn’t admire a woman with fabulous accessories?!
The only thing that kind of bother me about Freyja is that she is said to pine and search for her husband who is oft absent. Boot that brother out and take a lover, honey! You know — her being immortal and all — maybe it’s not so bad having an absentee husband. And through the power of Brísingamen, Freyja’s tears (which she sheds a lot for her absentee husband) fall to the earth as amber. I really like amber jewelry. So, I guess I better deal with her weepiness since she has so much more to offer besides.
My favorite story about Freyja is how she came to own Brísingamen, as told in Sottr Thattr.
Freyja wanders the forest one night and comes upon the Brisings, a family of four brother dwarfs, who had crafted the beautiful necklace that was also their namesake. She immediately became attached to the adornment and tried to pay the brothers for their crafted work in gold and silver. They refused her. They only payment they would accept was a night passion — each. Four nights for four brothers. Frejya accepted. Her lover at the time, Odin, learned of her unusual transaction from Loki, who had spied on her in the woods.** Odin sent Loki to steal the necklace to punish Freyja for sharing four beds. When she realized the necklace was gone, she knew who had taken it and she knew who had sent Loki to do this bidding. Never the wallflower, Freyja went directly to Odin and demanded Brísingamen be returned. He would not concede. They only recompense he would accept was a war among men. Frejya accepted. And another story began…
One of Loki’s three children, Hel is no great beauty and her disposition is described and gloomy. Her appearance is described as half black (maybe burned?) and have flesh-colored.*** Reading about her makes me think of Wednesday Addams (and I like Wednesday). But Hel rules — in Hel, the underworld for all of the nine worlds for those who did not die in battle. Odin appointed Hel over this realm and she holds domain over all who enter, even if they are gods. Hel, the place and the woman, can be found in Niflheim. Can I get a “Hel yes!”?!
There are some who might say “Hel No!” because Hel is jötunn; she is not Æsir. And she is not Vanir (like Freyja or Rán). Being jötunn means Loki and his brood are powerful. But are they good? Nah. Not really. Are they bad? Loki is definitely an instigator. Is it okay to value to an immortal who is chaotic neutral? Hmm…sounds like fodder for another post!**** The way I see it, Hel is her own woman. I see her as neutral more than chaotic (while her papa is vice versa).
Think Triton with a breastplate.
Like Freyja, Rán also claims the fallen for her keeping. She just doesn’t always wait until they’re dead to do it. And sometimes she helps them get dead to move things along. Her domain, the sea, is sometimes called Rán’s Road. She is a true free spirit in that she is unpredictable (some might call her dangerous), determined to get what she wants (some might call her a kidnapper) and experimental (some might call her a necrophiliac).
I also really like Frigg. She is a patron of marriage and motherhood and goddess of love and fertility. But I don’t really identify with her right now. I also like the story of Sif ‘cause I have a thing for hair myths, but she reads like a victim, not a hero.
So I am going to reach out to Freyja, Hel and Rán to get my fill of feminine feisty. What about you, realm? What female figures do you identify with in your faith?
* While I consider myself hard-core feminist in regards to advocating for myself and others (when appropriate), I don’t try to convert other people to feminism. If someone doesn’t agree with the feminism, then by all accounts of the Feminist Movement, his or her opinion is valid and doesn’t require my intervention — unless it turns into discrimination and affects my rights or my wallet. I mention this because I am in the South and have encountered a number of older gentlemen who were very Old School in their understanding of gender roles and appropriate behaviors. Years ago, one particular (much older) gentlemen I knew at work used to flirt endlessly with the (younger) female staff. His favorite thing to say to me, “You have such lovely hair. <pause> Who gets to mess it up?” If I had gone all feminist on him, I never would have heard that. And really, it was the most offensively endearing thing anyone has ever said to me. [This note is totally unnecessary. I just wanted to tell the story of the older gentleman who used to say inappropriate things about my hair in the workplace. ]
** The story I read named Freyja as one of Odin’s lover, not as his wife. Though there is some academic debate as to whether or not Frigg (Odin’s wife) and Freyja are the same god.
*** Some legends describe half of her face as beautiful and the other half a corpse. Neil Gaiman portrayed her that way in his Sandman series.
**** Whether or not its appropriate to worship a jotunn is kind of a hot topic. Lemme just say I am not looking for a goddess to worship. I’m not really the “bend the knee” type. I am looking for goddesses I can identify with. Women whose stories resonate with my own.