Friday, March 23, 2007
Attis and Frey
The cult of Attis may appear bizarre and slightly frightening to us now, but in fact it had parallels throughout the world. It may surprise some people to discover that one of the most powerful gods of old Europe was an emasculated god.
Frey or Freyr was the twin brother of Freya, and both were of the family of gods known as the Vanir. Worship of Frey was as widespread as worship of Odin and Thor.
The emasculated nature of this god is concealed somewhat by the allegorical nature of the most famous tale told of him, which is the Skirnismal, a poem about his courtship of the etin's daughter Gerd.
Frey disobeyed the law by seating himself on Odin's High Throne, Hlidhskjalf. This privilege belonged to Odin alone and as is often the case in old myths and fairytales, Frey was punished for his transgression.
As he sat upon the High Seat, he beheld a woman far in the North. Her white arms gleamed with light and his heart was overwhelmed by her beauty. He became obsessed with her, and neither would eat nor drink. He neglected his duties. When a fertility god languishes, the entire earth suffers. Plants wither on the vine. There is blight and famine...
At the request of Skadi and Njord, Frey's servitor Skirnir went to his master to try to discover the cause of his malaise. Frey told him about the vision of the woman he had seen: 'her arms gave forth light wherewith shone all air and water.'
This is no ordinary woman. This is the Earth Goddess herself in the guise of Gymir's daughter Gerd.
For those who are unfamiliar with ancient Northern tales, 'giant' or 'etin' may be misinterpreted. Giants in nursery tales, like that of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' are portrayed as monstrous rather stupid bloodthirsty creatures who are easy to deceive. In fact, he Etin or Giants may have been the original lords of Earth. Aesir and Vanir both encountered the Etin kind when first they walked on the Earth, and the Etin possessed primal elemental powers that neither the Aesir nor Vanir ever had.
For the most part, Aesir and Vanir are at war forever with the etin kind, in the same way that humanity is at 'war' with Nature, attempting to kerb her greater excesses and to diminish the force of her destructive acts. In some situations, however, gods wed Etins and the offspring of these marriages tend to be beings of enormous potency.
Loki wed an etin named Angrboda. From that mating came the Ouroboros serpent that encircles the earth, the Fenris wolf who will swallow the Sun at Ragnarok and the goddess Hel, half-living, half-rotted, who rules over the realm of the dead.
There is a sense of great foreboding in the Skirnismal, and in fact, the price that Frey pays for marriage to Gerd is high.
Skirnir volunteers to ride to Gymir's hall to court Gerd on behalf of his master. He only asks that Frey lend him 'your steed, which can bear you through the dusk, the flickering walls of flame and your sword which brandishes itself unaided against the Etin race.'
Skirnir rides to Gymir's hall. Before the gates he finds a mound with a shepherd sitting upon it. This is a traditional Northern motif, actually, and symbolises entry into the other realm. Grave mounds were considered to be the entrance to the other realm. Those who sat upon them either were seers or in this case, guides to the otherworld.
Skirnir asks the cowherd how he should approach Gymir's daughter, despite the presence of the Etin's hounds. The cowherd responds: 'Either you are death-doomed or a departed one', giving further evidence of the fact that Gymir's hall is in the 'other realm' and that Skirnir's 'journey' is that of a shaman.
Skirnir retorts that there are far better choices than whining about his fate for one who is prepared to die, then states: 'the day of my Death is fixed, by Fate is my time determined.'
Now Gerd is introduced into the poem. She asks what the cause might be of the terrible sound and the shaking of the Earth, an earthquake so powerful that the wide fields and halls of Gymir tremble'.
The shepherd replies that it is no more than a man who has dismounted and who allows his horse to graze unbridled. This is a clue to Frey's own power. The fact that a huge earthquake is the result of Skirnir's act of dismounting the steed demonstrates the power of the messenger of the Lord of the Earth.
Gerd then bids the stranger enter and offers him a draught of mead, 'although my heart forebodes that my brother's killer darkens the door with his shadow.'
She then asks Skirnir: 'Are you one of the elves, are you one of the gods, or one of the wise Vanir? Why have you ridden here through the wild ring of flame?'
Skirnir replies that he is not elf, god nor Van, but that he has braved the ring of fire to offer her eleven golden apples if she will accept Frey's courtship.
Gerd dismisses his offer. There is an implication here that the golden apples are the apples of immortality in Idun's care, so her instant rejection of the offer only serves to emphasise her own power.
Skirnir then offers her the ring Draupnir, set upon Baldr's funeral pyre. From this ring every ninth night, eight rings of equal weight will drop.
Gerd declares she has no need for gold, that she shares her father's incredible wealth.
Skirnir then threatens to behead her with the sword he holds. Gerd tells him: 'I never will suffer compulsion to please any man.'
Finally, Skirnir threatens her with a runewand empowered with a terrible curse: 'I score three Thurs runes, then I score three more runes: filth, frenzy and lust (' ergi, oendi and othola'). He tells her that she will be doomed to be sent where no son of man nor god will see her again, with earth behind her, on an eagle's mound, forever facing Hel. She will be wed to the three-headed troll at the gates of the land of the dead. 'Every day to the Halls of Frost you shall creep, crawl without choice, without any hope of choice.... Hear me, Etins, hear me Frost-trolls, sons of Suttung, hear me! What I predict, what I forbid: No joy of man to this maid, no love of man to this maid.'
Gerd capitulates at the threat of this horrible fate, and calls for the mead cup to pledge her love to Frey. She tells Skirnir that she will meet Freyr at Barri after nine nights to give herself to him.
Skirnir in return is forced to leave Frey's sword in her keeping. At the last battle of Ragnarok, Frey will lament the loss of his sword...
When Skirnir returns with the good news, Frey declares: 'Long is one night, longer are two. Endless is the thought of three. Many a month has moved more swiftly than this half of a bridal eve.'
Although the Skirnismal itself makes no reference to the fact that Frey's sword is the price that he pays to wed the etin's daughter, this fact is related elsewhere in the Eddas. The equation of the sword with Frey's manhood can be made based on a number of elements involved in his cult.
The priests of Frey, like those of Attis, dressed in women's gowns and wore their hair long and unbound. Frey's worship was connected to that of the old Earth goddess Nerthus. There is a description of an annual ritual wherein the statue of the goddess was pulled in a waggon to a sacred lake and there bathed. This is identical to the rite performed on the last day of the Festival of Attis, wherein the statue of Cybele was taken in a waggon to the river and ritually purified.
Freyr or Frey was a priapic god, although not a god connected with any sexual exploits. Those were reserved for his twin sister Freya who is the subject of countless tales of unrestrained sexual performances. Statues of Frey often were ithyphallic. Interestingly enough, ithyphallic gods are not sexually active gods but in many cases are deities who undergo castration periodically. Dionysus was depicted as an ithyphallic god at one season and as a god denuded of his manhood at another. Ouronos was castrated by Chronos. Osiris was castrated and the goddess Isis was forced to fashion an artificial member for him in order to obtain his seed. The castration rites connected with Attis have been preserved in literature and history in dramatic form.
In many ancient religions, therefore, the cult of a priapic god was linked to the cult of the same god when castrated. This castration event was the ultimate hierogamos or sacred marriage between the god and the Earth.
Dionysus declared that unless the vine was cut, it could not live, and in fact, grapevines must be pruned severely in order to flourish. Christ declared: 'I am the true Vine and my Father is the husbandman.' He further declares that even the branches that bear fruit must be cut in order to produce more.
The act of castration is the ultimate act of pruning. Those who experienced this sacrifice joined a class of being that dwelled both in this realm and the 'other'. Neither men nor women, they devoted themselves solely to the Divine. The power inherent in the ritual of castration made it the ultimate sacrifice. In the ancient mystery religions, this great sacrifice produced life for the entire world.