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Definition: Frey from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In Scandinavian mythology, the god of peace and fruitfulness, son of Njord and brother of Freya. Frey was one of the Vanir, the family of fertility gods, as opposed to Odin, and the Aesir, the war gods. He was especially worshipped at Uppsala in Sweden.

Summary Article: FREY
from World Mythology: Handbook of Norse Mythology

Important god, member of the vanir.

Frey is the son of Njörd, either by his sister when he lived among the vanir or by Skadi. When Snorri says in Gylfaginning that Njörd had two children, apparently by Skadi, he first introduces Frey and Freyja, saying that they were both good-looking and powerful:

Frey is the most noble of the æsir. He rules over rain and sunshine and with that the growth of the earth, and it is good to call on him for prosperity and peace. He also rules over the wealth of men.

This is practically a textbook description of a fertility god. In the warlike culture of the æsir, there is little for him to do, and the mythology only grants him three moments: his entry into the æsir, his marriage, and his death.

Small figure from Rällinge, Sweden, possibly Frey, and if so probably used as an amulet.

(Statens Historika Museum, Stockholm)

Frey joined the æsir as a result of the Æsir-Vanir War, according to Snorri in Ynglinga saga. When a settlement was reached, the two groups “exchanged hostages [here understood as men exchanged as pledges of good faith]. The vanir sent their most distinguished men, Njörd and Frey, and the æsir in exchange sent Hœnir, whom they declared to be a great leader, and Mímir, who was very wise.” Although Hœnir could make no decision without Mímir, whom the vanir finally decapitated, Njörd and Frey were a success, and the æsir made them into leaders of cult.

Frey’s courtship of Gerd is the one full narrative about him in the mythology, although in fact he acts rather passively in it. The story is the subject of the eddic poem Skírnismál and is paraphrased in much shorter form by Snorri in Gylfaginning. To follow the story in Skírnismál: Frey had seated himself in Hlidskjálf, Odin’s high seat, with its view into all the worlds. Looking into Jötunheimar, he saw a beautiful maiden and immediately fell lovesick. Skírnir, Frey’s servant, is asked to look into the matter. Frey explains that the gleaming arms of a maiden at Gymir’s farmstead have captivated him:

7. The maiden is more dear to me than to any young
Man, in days of yore;
No one wishes, of the æsir and elves,
That the two of us come together.

Given Frey’s horse and sword, Skírnir sets out to woo the girl on his master’s behalf. At Gymir’s homestead he is challenged first by a shepherd, then by the girl herself, Gerd. Invited in (though she fears, Gerd says, that he may be the slayer of her brother), Skírnir begins his blandishments. Gerd refuses first golden apples and then the ring Draupnir, saying she has no need of gold. Skírnir now turns to threats: He will kill her and her father; he will tame her through magic. He turns to curses: She will be a laughingstock, forced to live among the giants, with a three-headed giant or with no man at all. The æsir are angry at her. She is forbidden joy of men, will live with a giant beneath the Corpse-gate (Nágrind, one of the gates to Hel’s realm), be offered goat urine. Finally Skírnir goes into some kind of runic threat, and Gerd capitulates. The wedding will be in nine nights, at a place called Barri. Skírnir returns home and tells the news to Frey, who does not rejoice; he laments:

42. A night is long, longer are two,
How will I endure three?
Oft to me a month seemed shorter
Than this half honeymoon.

For most of the twentieth century Magnus Olsen’s nature mythological interpretation of this myth held sway: Skírnir is the sun’s ray, sent down from heaven to retrieve Gerd (“earth”) from the underworld; the tryst will be at Barri (“in the seed”). Most serious scholars of Norse mythology today would point out that the etymologies required to support this reading are questionable and would not have been at all apparent to a medieval audience. The myth can instead be read as part of the ongoing struggle between the æsir and jötnar, in which the æsir nearly always succeed in obtaining valuables, often women, from the world of the giants. The flow of such wealth is nearly always in one direction only. Furthermore, as Margaret Clunies Ross showed, this and the Njörd-Skadi myth serve to place the vanir hierarchically below the rest of the æsir: The æsir can take wives from among the ásynjur, but the vanir must turn to the giants, where the other gods find concubines but not wives.

At Ragnarök Frey will fight Surt (Völuspá, stanza 53). In Gylfaginning Snorri carries Frey’s giving of his sword to Skírnir over to this scene, where, he says, Frey will be swordless and will therefore perish. This is not, according to Snorri, the first time Frey has fought without a sword; at the end of his presentation of the Gerd myth, Snorri says that Frey fought the giant Beli without his sword and killed him with the antler of a hart.

Large grave mounds at Gamla Uppsala, Sweden. According to Snorri’s Ynglinga saga, the historical Frey was buried in such a mound.

(Courtesy of Roger Buton)

According to Grímnismál, stanza 5, the gods gave Álfheim to Frey as a gift in days of yore when he cut his first tooth, and this was therefore presumably Frey’s dwelling place. Snorri, on the other hand, assigns Álfheim to the so-called light-elves. Frey has two precious objects, the ship Skídbladnir (although Snorri in Ynglinga saga assigns this ship to Odin) and the boar Gullinborsti (Gold-bristle) or Slídrugtanni. Both these objects were made by the dwarfs Ívaldi and Brokk, according to Snorri’s Skáldskaparmál (Grímnismál, stanza 43, mentions only the ship). In his account of Baldr’s funeral, Úlf Uggason says that Frey arrived riding a boar with golden bristles, and Snorri understood this to be Gullinborsti and added that it was pulling the cart in which Frey rode.

Lokasenna assigns two servants to Frey, Byggvir and Beyla, whom scholars interpret through etymology as associated with barley and either cows, beans, or bees; all of these can be made to fit with the notion of a fertility god. Loki’s insult to Frey in the poem is a reminder of the sword given up for Gerd and the problem that its loss will pose at Ragnarök.

In Snorri’s version of the Learned Prehistory in chapter 10 of Ynglinga saga, Frey is one of the important early kings of Sweden. He succeeds his father Njörd, who succeeded Odin. He was popular and prosperous like his father. Frey erected a large temple at Uppsala and established his principal residence there, gave it all that was owed him, lands, and money. Then began the wealth of Uppsala, and it has lasted ever since.

In his days the Peace of Fródi began. At that time there was also prosperity throughout all lands. The Swedes attributed that to Frey. The more wealthy the people became through peace and prosperity, the more he was worshipped than the other gods.

The passage goes on to say that Frey married Gerd the daughter of Gymir, that their son was Fjölnir (in the Eddas this is an Odin name), that Frey’s other name was Yngvi, and that for this reason his descendants are called the Ynglingar.

Snorri next tells a curious story about Frey’s death. After Frey dies, his men place the corpse in a mound but do not reveal his death. Freyja takes over the sacrifices, and Frey’s men maintain the body for three years. When the Swedes finally learn of Frey’s death, they believe that their peace and prosperity is dependent on his body being present in Sweden and do not wish to have him cremated. They declare him to be the veraldar god (“world god”) and forever after sacrifice to him for peace and prosperity.

This story bears a close similarity to that of the concealed death of King Frotho (Fródi) III in Book 5 of Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, which also lasts for three years. And Fródi is also famously associated with peace and prosperity. Clearly the two figures played out the same mythic pattern, and many scholars think they may once have been the same figure.

According to Book 1 of Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, the prehistoric Danish king Hadingus carried out a sacrifice to Frey and established an annual sacrifice to Frø (Frey), which the Swedes call Frøblot.

The tale Ögmundar tháttr dytts gives information on what a high medieval Icelandic audience thought about the worship of Frey in Uppsala. Ögmund, an Icelander, has fled the court of Olaf Tryggvason in Norway because he is falsely suspected of the murder of one of the king’s men. Coming to Sweden, he meets and befriends a priestess of Frey. The god is a statue, inhabited by a demon and pulled about on a cart. Ögmund wrestles away the demon through the divine intervention of King Olaf and thereafter impersonates Frey. The Swedes are delighted that their god deigns to eat and drink with them and are impressed when his priestess becomes pregnant. Unlike before, Frey is now willing to be propitiated with gold and fine clothing. Times are good until King Olaf arrives to bring Ögmund back to Norway. Ögmund marries Frey’s priestess and both are baptized.

Place-names showing worship of Frey are especially popular in eastern Sweden. Writing around the year 1070, Adam of Bremen, in his history of the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, described the pagan temple at Uppsala. In it were statues of three gods, one of them, Fricco, who clearly reflects Frey, equipped with an enormous phallus. A small figurine found in Rällinge, Sweden, has a similar feature and has been interpreted as Frey and associated with a statement in Vatnsdœla saga to the effect that a worshiper of Frey carried a figurine of the god. Other Sagas of Icelanders mention people who were priests (goðar) of Frey. The most famous of them, Hrafnkel, the title character of Hrafnkels saga, owned a horse he kept sacred to Frey. The extent to which these materials represent worship of Frey is not clear, but Frey was certainly known as an important deity.

See also Æsir-Vanir War; Álfheim; Aurboda; Beyla; Byggvir; Fjölnir; Freyja; Fródi; Hadingus; Ingunar-Frey; Ögmundar tháttr dytts; Slídrugtanni; Yngvi

References and further reading:
  • Magnus Olsen’s reading of the myth behind Skírnismál is in “Fra gammelnorsk myte og kultus,” Maal og minne, 1909: 17-36. Margaret Clunies Ross’s reading of the mythology, including the hierarchical role of vanir-giant marriages, is in Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Icelandic Society, vol. 1: The Myths (Odense: Odense University Press, 1994). The first serious objection to Olsen’s seasonal hypothesis was by Jöran Sahlgren, Eddica et Scaldica: Fornvästnordiska studier 1-2, Nordisk filologi, undersökningar och handlingar, 1 (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1927-1928), who on pages 209-303 argued that there are parallels with folk tale and saga. More recently, Lars Lönnroth interpreted the myth sociologically in “Skírnismál och den fornisländska äktenskapsnormen,” in Opuscula Septentrionalia: Festskrift til Ole Widding, 10.10.1977, ed. Bent Chr. Jacobsen et al. (Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzel, 1977), 154-178; Lotte Motz attempted a reading more in the heroic realm, in “Gerðr: A New Interpretation of the Lay of Skírnir,” Maal og minne, 1981: 121-136; and Stephen A. Mitchell tried a structural analysis in “For Scírnis as Mythological Model: Frið at kaupa,” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 98 (1983): 109-122. The implications of a presumed sacral marriage, however, animate the literary analysis of Ursula Dronke, “Art and Tradition in Skírnismál,” in English and Medieval Studies, Presented to J. R. R. Tolkien on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Norman Davis and C. L. Wrenn (London: Allen and Unwen, 1962), 250-268, and the comparative analysis of Annelise Talbot, “The Withdrawal of the Fertility God,” Folklore 93 (1982): 31-46. The detailed analysis of Gro Steinsland, Det hellige bryllup og norrøn kongeideologi: En analyse av hierogami-myten i Skírnismál, Ynglingatal, Háleygjatal, og Hyndluljód (N.p.: Solum, 1991), the most recent serious study of the myth as a whole, again departs from the notion of a sacred marriage, but Steinsland associates it both with fertility and with kingship. On Skírnir’s curse, see Joseph Harris, “Cursing with the Thistle: Skírnismál 31, 6-8, and OE Metrical Charm 9, 16-17,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76 (1975): 26-33. On Frey and animals, see Helge Rosén, “Freykult och djurkult,” Fornvännen 8 (1913): 213-244.
  • Copyright © 2001 by John Lindow

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