As per Norse mythology, there existed many gods and goddesses. They may have been more than those we know of today. There are those whose information is in abundance although still not complete like Odin, Thor, or Freya. Other Norse deities are merely mentioned and nothing more is known about them.
Gullveig is among such Norse deities. Despite being considered one of the most powerful Norse goddesses, she is only mentioned once. After that nothing more is said or known about her. The rest are just speculations on whether she could be Freya in disguise or the goddess Heiðr reborn. In this post, we focus on discussing who Gullveig is, what she represents, and the different facts that are known about her.
Who is Gullveig?
Gullveig is said to be a goddess or at least a powerful female being in Norse mythology who is strongly associated with the reason for the Aesir-Vanir war. She is only spoken of once in two stanzas of the poem, Völuspá, in the Poetic Edda. The stanzas describe how she went to the hall of Odin where she both impresses and horrifies the gods there with her magic. According to the stanzas she is described as a witch who with her magic brought delight to evil women. Just as people used to treat witches, the Aesir gods were said to have staked her with spears and burned her alive. They did so three times but each time she managed to resurrect herself. It is believed that on the third rebirth, she was named Heiðr, a Volva who practiced seiðr magic.
After the two stanzas, the poem talks about the first war, the Aesir-Vanir war, which leads to the assumption that Gullveig could have caused the war. Based on the fact that she went to Asgard and was able to practice magic, means that she was not originally an Aesir but was coming from somewhere else. Although there is no proof, many speculate that she was most certainly from Vanaheim, home of the Vanir. The ill-treatment she received from the Aesir is believed to have been what instigated the Vanir to war against Aesir.
They are also many theories linked to Gullveig/Heiðr, that suggest that she could have been the goddess Freya in disguise, especially because, Gullveig is never mentioned again after the war. This could be due to a few similarities the two share, starting with the fact that they were both masters of the seiðr magic. Another reason is that Freya is described as the goddess who would roam around the different realms disguised and using different names while searching for her missing husband. It could be that she could have been disguised as Gullveig. Britt-Marie Naastrom, also theorizes that Freya might have been a Vanir spy, sent to Asgard, disguised as Gullveig, to turn female Aesir to her side using her magic.
Because there isn’t much written about Gullveig, a lot of what is said about her are simply speculations. The much that is written about her is also not clear, since the Poetic Edda was written targeting people who already knew the myths. The poems in it are compressed information, meant to trigger the memory of those who already knew the story. As such, given the lack of clarity, there is a lot of room for speculations and assumptions about who, Gullveig truly was.
Her name, pronounced GULL-vayg, is a compound of two Old Norse words, meaning her name can be broken into two. The first part Gull- means gold, while the second part -veig could mean an alcoholic drink, power, strength, or in some places, it could mean gold thread. Gullveig is seen as a personification of gold and her burning as the ability of gold to be refined as it passes through fire.
Her other name Heiðr, also known as the “Shining One”, is said to mean brightness. As a noun the name means fame, as an adjective, it means bright, clear, or light, which could all be used about gold. Both names, therefore, are a representation of gold, wealth, and prestige. As coincidence would have it, Freya is also associated with gold and wealth. Freya’s tears are said to turn to gold when they fall on the ground, and she is described as one who loves finer things like jewelry.
Gullveig and her entire story are filled with many symbols. The following are the main ones:
- Her description in the Poetic Edda as a witch symbolizes the European culture’s and folklore’s witch archetype. Gullveig is perhaps the oldest known witch.
- Her name and association with gold symbolize people’s greed for gold that leads to madness and corruption. It also represents the Norse people’s mixed attitude towards wealth as something both good and disruptive.
- Gullveig’s mistreatment by the Aesir is a representation of the horrific witch-burnings practiced centuries later in North America and Europe.
- Her resurrection and rebirth after being burned to serve as both proof and a representation of the myth of resurrection explored in many different religions and cultures.
According to the myth of Gullveig, she went to Asgard, described as the hall of the great ones in the poem. Her reasons for going there are not clear nor where she’s coming from. While there, Gullveig her magic for the Aesir, which in turn they deemed to be dangerous. As a result, the Aesir decided to burn her alive. But, utilizing the same magic they were killing her for she managed to save herself by being reborn.
Aside from magic, Gullveig introduced another alluring concept to the Aesir. That is the concept of the corruption and madness caused by gold. The Aesir’s mixed attitude about wealth is mirrored in their attitude towards magic. To them, both are desirable based on the pleasure and comfort of the promise. They are, however, socially disruptive as well, with the potential of disrupting the social harmony that was preserved.
Facts About Gullveig
Despite there not being much written about her, the following are some facts to keep in mind about Gullveig:
- She is a powerful being in Norse mythology, even though she is only mentioned once in the Poetic Edda.
- She is described as a witch in the Poetic Edda, who The Aesir tried to burn alive three times but she was reborn each time and later named Heiðr
- She is seen as the symbol of gold given how she was burned three times, refined, and became Heiðr.
- Her name Gullveig means something similar to Gold Might, while her other name Heiðr means The Shining One.
- She is closely associated with the first war, the Aesir-Vanir war, as the one who caused it, although it is not clear how she did it.
- She is linked to the goddess Freya who also has a strong connection to gold. It was believed, that Freya was the one disguised as Gullveig in search of her husband, and her mistreatment may have been what instigated the Vanir lead by her brother Freyr, to go to war.
It’s a shame that not much was written or known about Gullveig, especially given that the little that is known already portrays her as a powerful Norse being. Although simply theories and speculation, Gullveig could be the metamorphosis of Freya, where she starts unrefined and faces the challenges of men and being burned thrice, only to emerge as the Heiðr, the shining one.