After the Bronze Age: The Sacred Marriage by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 161-163.

The Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze AgeThe concept of the sacred marriage is not very evident in the literature of the later heathen period, but there are significant clues pointing in that direction. Sets of tiny plates of gold foil dating from the Migration period to the Viking Age have been found, mostly on house sites, in Norway and Sweden. The plates show two figures, a man and a woman, facing one another and sometimes embracing, while at other times a leafy bough is held between them (Pl. 7, 8). The most reasonable interpretation of these little plates is that they were amulets, probably similar to the dalarpenningar used at weddings in medieval Norway, and out into the clothes of the bride. The Christian amulets bore such figures as St. Olaf and the Virgin Mary, and were believed to bring good luck to the married pair (Grieg, p. 166). It seems possible that the gold plates were a woman’s equivalent of the gold bracteates with their warrior symbols, and that they invoked the blessing of the fertility deities on the home and family, while the male and female pair was a popular, naïve version of the sacred marriage of god and goddess.

Freyr_by_Johannes_GehrtsThe ritual of a sacred marriage probably formed part of the cult of the god Freyr. In one late story from Flateyjarbók, he is represented with a priestess as his ‘wife’, and the comic point of the story depends on a Norwegian fugitive getting the wife with child, while he was impersonating the god, to the delight of the credulous Swedes (Davidson, 1964, pp. 92 ff.). In the same way the priest-king, who wore the boar-mask as the emblem of the god, seems to have been regarded as the husband of Freyja. The poem  Skírnismál in the Edda is an account of the love of Freyr for the maiden Gerd in the underworld, and ends with the promise that she will give herself to him in nine nights’ time. Other poems are concerned with a supernatural wooing, when the hero had to ride a horse with magic powers in order to make the perilous journey to the underworld where the maiden was to be found (Ellis, 1943, pp. 175-85).

There is probably a link between these esoteric poems and the supernatural wives of certain heroes in both poetic and prose sources. These help the hero in times of difficulty and danger, and sometimes he stays for a while with his bride in an other-world setting before returning to the familiar world to make a human marriage. This, however, does not seem to be resented by the supernatural guardian, who continues to support him. The brides are sometimes represented as giantesses, sometimes as valkyries, and sometimes as fylgjur, guardian spirits attached to the men of certain families. They have something in common with the spirit wives of Siberian shamans, who are also helpful and protective supernatural beings, not opposed to marriage between the shaman and a human wife (Eliade, pp. 86 ff.).

Frey with sun shield on disk

A number of the gods, including Freyr, Njord and Odin, are said to take brides from among the daughters of giants. It has been suggested that the myth concerning the marriage of Njord and Skadi (p. 152 above), the daughter of the giant Thjazi, was based on an ancient marriage rite between the deities of two different districts, when one was brought to the shrine of the other for the nine nights that made up the festival (Bing, pp. 118-19). There is some implication of a marriage between Freyr and Thorgerd Hölgabrúðr, if she is the same as the Gerd of the Edda poem. There is also a tradition concerning the god Heimdall, who under the name of Rig was said to go up and down the land begetting sons in certain families, and who in Celtic tradition is paralleled by the

Manannán mac Lir
Manannán mac Lir

god of the sea, Manannan mac Lir, and his son Mongan (Chadwick, 1953, pp. 85 ff.). There are indications that the early kings of Norway, in particular Harald Fairhair, possessed many wives in different regions of their kingdoms, and that it was part of their duty to visit them regularly and to have children by them. This may have been one of the functions of the priest-king, representing the god of fertility, and in this way ensuring the continued prosperity of his realm. A somewhat similar picture is given of Jarl Hakon, the worshipper of Thorgerd, since he is said to have been unpopular with local landowners because of his many visits to women. It is to be expected that any kind of sacred marriage rite would be suppressed or misrepresented by Christian writers, and that the picture is bound to be uncertain and confused; certainly such indications as survive point to association with the cult of the Vanir.

What might be seen as the last traces of a divine marriage ritual survived into Christian times in the form of the May ‘riding’, when in medieval times knights and ladies rode in pairs into the wood, led by a Lady of the May on a white horse, and her male companion on a dark one (Potts, pp. 125-7; James, p. 310). It is to be noted that the names Freyr and Freyja mean, literally, ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’.

May Queen and Maypole , The Keep, Dorchester 1845
May Queen and Maypole , The Keep, Dorchester 1845

 

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