Sedna

Our next story takes us to the cold north, near the sea, where an Inuit widower lived with his beautiful daughter, Sedna. Among the most beautiful maidens in the land, the young men perpetually sought Sedn’s hand in marriage, and were continuously rejected. Most versions of the story (and there are several) say simply that Sedna was proud. This is difficult for me to accept. Looking from Sedna’s perspective, any woman could think of a host of reasons she might want nothing to do with the men of her community. Whatever the reason, Sedna continued to reject the men. Until one day, with the warming winds of spring, a handsome stranger arrived. He wooed Sedna and her father, telling them tales of his beautiful home across the sea, where Sedna could live in luxury, surrounded by soft, warm furs, and be amply provided for by his exceptional hunting skills.

Encouraged by her father to begin her life as a woman, Sedna accepted the handsome stranger and went with him to his home across the sea. Upon arriving, Sedna realized she had been sorely deceived. Her lover had transformed from his human skin, which had been a disguise, into his true form, that of a seabird. His home was not the luxurious fur covered mansion he had described. Rather, it was a fetid nest of protruding twigs and bones that jabbed at the skin. The bird-man was not a skilled hunter and provided only meager, probably regurgitated, fish. In addition, none of the bird-people wanted anything to do with Sedna. They teased her and rejected her, and so her loneliness compounded the discomfort of the nest and the pain of deception. Having nowhere to go and no way to return to her homeland, Sedna spent the winter hungry and alone.

When the winds again began to warm, Sedna’s father set out in his boat to visit his daughter. Realizing he had been swindled, the widower father murdered the bird-man in a violent rage. He took Sedna back to his boat and they set course for home. At the same time, the bird-man’s fellows, the other birds, discovered their brother’s corpse and understood what must have happened. Flapping their wings violently over the water, the birds caused the winds to cloud the sky and the sea to swell in a vicious storm. The boat tipped and turned. The widower father became scared and cowardly and decided to sacrifice his daughter by throwing her overboard in attempt to appease the indignant sea birds.  

                Sedna fought her way through the waves and managed to grab the boat’s edge. Clinging to life as she clutched the boat, she tried to climb aboard the boat. Still hoping to save himself, the father cut Sedna’s clinging fingers, one at a time, joint by joint. As her fingers fell into the salty water, her nails became fishbone and the flesh around them grew into fish. Still fighting for her life, Sedna threw her palms over the boat’s edge, holding on with her wrists. Still, her father cut. As her hands fell away they transformed into seals and walruses. Again, Sedna fought her way back to the boat, finally throwing her forearms over the boat’s edge. As the widower father cut her forearms they grew into whales and swam away. From her blood sprouted more sea creatures. At last, after a fatal blow to the eye with the boat’s oar, Sedna herself fell to the bottom of the sea, to Adlivun, the underworld of the sea, where she now resides in a house made of whalebone and sea rocks.

                Those who have glimpsed Sedna say she lives as a mermaid, the head and torso of a woman, with fins instead of legs. The goddess and ruler of the sea creatures, it is Sedna who determines if the sea hunters will be successful in their hunts. If the community acts immorally or loses its way, Sedna may withhold the creatures that feed the people until a shaman makes the treacherous journey to visit her underwater home. The shaman must travel through Adlivun, the land of the dead. As the shaman nears Sedna’s whalebone home, “There was also an abyss, in which an ice wheel turned slowly and perpetually; then a caldron full of boiling seals blocked the way; finally, the horrible dog stood before Sedna’s door, guarding the knife-thin passageway to her home.”[1] Once the shaman reaches the goddess, he massages her aching limbs and gently brushes and braids her long tangled hair. This journey to Sedna is considered one of the most dangerous a shaman can undertake. But should the shaman prove worthy, the goddess will be willing to forgive her people for their mistakes and allow the seals and sea creatures to once again be found by the hunters to feed the hungry people.

                The story of Sedna has much to teach us. Practically, it is told that grandmothers warn the children of The Woman Who Lives Under The Sea (one of the many names attributed to Sedna in her various stories), so that they will stay away from the dangerous places. Metaphorically, one lesson from Sedna’s story is about abuse. Carolina De Robertis offers this interpretation: “No, I wanted to say, he didn’t cut off her hands because he didn’t have to, he had cut them off long before, with years of keeping all authority in his own palms, all the rules and all the power and all the answers emanating from him and no one else. And if you don’t understand that, if you’ve never been in such a family, then you can’t know the way the mind shackles itself and amputates its own limbs so adeptly that you never think to miss them, never think that you had anything so obscene as choice.”[2]

Additionally, the story of Sedna teaches us that we must sometimes journey as the shaman journeys, deep into our psyche, our shadow side, to confront and lovingly soothe the aches and pains we acquire through trauma. Through this compassion, our wounds may transform and flourish into life-saving nourishment. I leave you with this central Arctic song that is said to refer to Sedna, the Half-Woman Half-Fish goddess:

That woman down there beneath the sea,

She wants to hide the seals from us.

These hunters in the dance house,

They cannot mend matters.

They cannot mend matters.

Into the spirit world

Will go I,

Where no humans dwell.

Set matters right will I.

Set matters right will I.[3]


[1] https://journeyingtothegoddess.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/goddess-sedna/

[2] https://landofgoddesses.wordpress.com/tag/dr-clarissa-pinkola-estes/

[3] https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-goddess-of-the-sea-the-story-of-sedna

Freya

Welcome to the first in my goddess series, where I’m diving into the mythology and lore of the goddesses honored around the world. I wanted to start this off with one of the few known goddesses from Norse mythology, Freya.

Freya is a goddess of love, battle, sex, war, wealth, beauty, death, healing, and magic. Seem controversial? She is!

In Norse mythology, there are two main sects of gods and goddesses, the Vanir and the Aesir. Freya belonged to the Vanir and was a Priestess of the Seidr, the most powerful of all Norse witchcraft. A nomad at heart, Freya roamed the countryside sharing her powerful magic. Extremely generous, Freya shared her magic even in Asgard, the home of the opposing deity faction, the Aesir. Unfortunately, the Aesir did not appreciate the gift Freya bestowed upon them. “The Aesir were quite taken by her powers and zealously sought her services. But soon they realized that their values of honor, kin loyalty, and obedience to the law were being pushed aside by the selfish desires they sought to fulfill with the witch’s magic. Blaming Freya for their own shortcomings, the Aesir called her “Gullveig” (“Gold-greed”) and attempted to murder her.”[1] After torturing her, the Aesir bound her and set her on fire. The aesir successfully killed her but they underestimated her power. Freya was reborn. Again, they pierced her skin, tortured, and burned her, and still she was reborn. A third time, and still she was reborn and finally escaped. Enraged by the Aesir’s atrocities, the Vanir deities wanted revenge. They demanded the Aesir  hand over one of their own powerful goddesses equal to Freya. Probably lacking any goddess equal to Freya (I opine), the Aesir, of course, refused. They retorted that Freya had come into Asgard ranting about “Gold, gold, GOLD! It was all she talked about.”[2] Freya had not been obedient to the Aesir and now, having thrice tortured and killed her, were blaming their victim. These events set into motion a monumental war between the Aesir and Vanir. There are many stories to tell about that war but for now, suffice to say, the two sides eventually called a truce, when Freya went to live in Asgard and was made an honorary member of the Aesir!

As the goddess of love, sex, and fertility, Freya is open and unabashed in her sexuality. Many of the stories about Freya feature her sexual exploits. One of the best known stories about Freya is the story of the Brisingamen necklace. The story goes that Freya, in her travels, happened upon four dwarves who possessed this beautiful necklace, the Brisingamen necklace. We already know Freya has often been thought to be somewhat of a “gold-digger.” Well, as the story is often told, Freya had an immense desire for this exquisite necklace. Instead of selling it to her for gold or silver, the dwarves wanted four nights alone with the Goddess. Freya agreed and that is how she acquired the necklace. Simple story, right? Let’s take a closer look. In Norse Mythology, four dwarves are known to represent the four elements – earth, water, fire, and air. “As Freyja slept with each in turn, she gained knowledge of each direction… This wisdom allowed her to embody the essence of life, taking it into herself and claiming it as her own. Freyja’s vast life-giving and revitalizing power is undoubtedly the reason that numerous giants try to steal her or coax her into marriage and the reason that Loki (the Norse god of cunning and mischief) tries to steal her necklace for Odin. Freyja’s power is stored in her necklace, as well as in her body.”[3] In fact, “…the Old Norse root brisingr refers to both ‘fire’ and ‘amber,’ it may be that her task was to gather and return streaming sunlight to the world at the end of a dark, northern winter. In essence, she encircles the Earth to bring back the circle of the Sun, represented by the circle of her necklace.”[4]

In The Poetic Edda, an ancient Nordic saga, Freya is at a party with the Aesir gods, a party to which Loki was not invited. Effectively “crashing” the party, Loki shows up, uninvited as he is, and proceeds to insult the gods and goddesses who had failed to invite this god of mischief to their party. When it is Freya’s turn, he turns to slut-shaming, saying:

Be silent, Freyja! For fully I know thee,

Sinless thou art not thyself;

Of the gods and elves who are gathered here,

Each one as thy lover has lain.

Be silent, Freyja! Thou foulest witch…[5]

Despite Loki’s jealous-sounding words here, in another story, Freya, ever generous, offers Loki the use of her cloak of feathers which allows the wearer to shapeshift into a falcon. Freya’s shapeshifting abilities are probably due to her magical powers as a witch and priestess. As the leader of the Valkyries, the supernatural women who collect fallen warriors from the battle fields, her cloak of falcon feathers allows her to swoop in to the battlefield to gather fallen warriors and carry them away to her great hall in the other world.

Freya has a deep connection with animals. From her cloak of feathers, to her chariot pulled by cats, and her boar of golden bristles, these animals often represent the spirit world, thus showing how easily Freya move between the worlds as a witch and a goddess.

Freya is generous, sexy, lethal, forgiving, and unashamed. She is a priestess, a witch, a goddess, an archetype, a myth, a woman, femme totale. Her story is familiar to those who have themselves been slut-shamed, and those whose stories have been mangled by their enemies. Freya reminds us to take our stories back from our oppressors, to be honest and unashamed of who we are, to find the magic in connection and harmony, to forgive, and to love deeply.


[1] https://norse-mythology.org/tales/the-aesir-vanir-war/

[2] http://www.timelessmyths.com/norse/beginning.html#GodWar

[3] Skye, Michelle, Goddess Alive! Inviting Celtic & Norse Goddesses into Your Life (Llewellyn Publications, 2007), p. 77.

[4] Rysdyk, Evelyn C., The Norse Shaman: Ancient Spiritual Practices of the Northern Tradition (Destiny Books, 2016) P. 64.

[5] Henry Adams bellows, trans., The Poetic Edda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936), verses 30 and 32, pp. 161-162.