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When I first read Grettir's Saga. I was impressed by his indomitability and that his foes had to use magic to weaken him in order to overcome him. To this end they employed a crone. (She enchants a log which floats to Drang Isle and Grettir's axe slips and wounds him when he attempts to chop it up for firewood.)

The parallel with the death of Cúchulainn is striking. Also indomitable, it is is his interaction with a crone that weakens him before his ultimate defeat. (In this case, the hero is presented with conflicting taboos--a lose/lose situation.)

Angrboða is another such figure in the sense that Odin and Thor only ultimately fall because of her offspring Fenrir and Jörmungandr.

What are some other examples of female agency in Norse mythology and folklore>


Note: I know that the term "female agency" has a spectrum of definitions, but here I am using it in the sense of "the active role of the female in a particular genre or endeavor".

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    Is "female agency" really that uncommon in "the mythology and sagas of Northern and Western Europe"? In fact, based on what I've read stories with "female agency" are more common than stories without "female agency" – user62 Jan 5 '17 at 23:20
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    I'm torn about this question. On one hand, it's a common miscomception that "the mythology and sagas of Northern and Western Europe" feature helpless women, if they feature women at all, and this question might go some way towards correcting that. On the other, I almost feel like this question should be closed as too broad. – user62 Jan 5 '17 at 23:21
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    @Hamlet My original inclination was to ask this question about world mythology in general, but I narrowed it to this region b/c it's an area where I more limited knowledge. (Compare to the Classical canon where one could overload the thread with Euripides' heroines alone.) The Ulster cycle references figures like Scáthach and Aoife, and Medb is pretty central. We know about shield maidens and Boudica, so clearly there is a tradition of heroic women in these regions and I'm hoping for more info on that. – DukeZhou Jan 6 '17 at 17:18
  • I also think it's worth noting that, by all accounts, ancient Greek civilization was notoriously repressive towards women, and that although you have more stories of goddesses, it is not until the rise of drama that you get Antigone as a towering figure, and the Euripidean heroines. Similarly, it is with Ibsen, a figure as important in theater as the Greek dramatists, where you start to get characters like Hedda Gabler. – DukeZhou Jan 7 '17 at 19:59
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The Norse myths focusing on the gods are very spare with female agency, at least if we define it as them acting and being an integral part of the story: it is usually men that does stuff (the extreme example of this is when Loki gets pregnant and gives birth!). For a discussion on why, I can recommend Margaret Clunies Ross Prolonged echoes (it does stretch the material somewhat and has a few omissions, but the central ideas are interesting and she makes use of rather obscure material sometimes).

That is not to say that females taking centre stage is totally unheard of. Here are some examples of longer stories:

  • The most prominent example is possible how Gefjon made an agreement with Swedish king Gylfi that she could have all land she could plow in a day. She went and got kids with a giant, turned them into giant bulls, and plowed up lake Mälaren, which was moved and turned into Zeeland in Denmark. This is in Gylfaginning and Heimskringla
  • The giantess Skadi, following the death of her father Thjazi at the hands of the Gods, goes to them to demand settlement of the bloodfeud (which she could do even as a female as she was the sole surviving family member). She ends up in an unhappy marriage with Njord because of this. This is mainly retold in Skáldskaparmál.
  • Freya appears in two stories: in the poem Hyndluljóð, she helps her servant Óttar get answers he seeks from the jötunn Hyndla, by turning him into a boar and asking questions for him. She also, in Sörla þáttr, had to get back Brisingamen form Odin after Loki had stolen it by making two kings fight each other for eternity.

These are examples of fleshed out stories where the goddesses acts on their own; there are also allusions in poetry to stories which have been otherwise lost or informed abilities where the goddesses must have some agency.

If we turn to more legendary material, there are plenty of examples, including shield maidens. The Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks is one of the more prominent examples.

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Thorgerd Egilsdottir who threatens to starve herself to death unless her father eats after the death of his beloved son, Bodvar. Her threat must be seen as doubly heroic in the context of the quote:

I have had no evening meal, nor will I do so until I go to join Freyja. I know no better course of action than my father’s. I do not want to live after my father and brother are dead.

SOURCE: Egils Saga Skallagrímssonar (Egil’s Saga), in The Sagas of the Icelanders, ed. Örnólfur Thorsson, trans. Bernard Scudder (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 151.

Here she is referring to Fólkvangr, the domain of Freyja, where half of dead heroes go.

She also appears in the Laxdæla saga where she is characterized thus:

Everyone soon realized what a woman of strong character Thorgerd was: though she was not one to waste words, once she set her mind on something there was no swaying her – things had to go the way she wanted.

SOURCE: he Saga of the People of Laxardal (Laxdæla saga), in The Sagas of the Icelanders, ed. Örnólfur Thorsson, trans. Bernard Scudder (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 315

and later she is active in shaming her sons into seeking vengeance for their slain brother Kjartan:

Here lives Bolli, your brother’s slayer, and not a shred of resemblance do you bear to your great ancestors since you won’t avenge a brother the likes of Kjartan. Never would your grandfather Egil have acted like this, and it grieves me to have such spineless sons. You would have made your father better daughters, to be married off, than sons. It shows the truth of the saying, Halldor, that “every kin has its coward”. I see only too well now that fathering such sons was Olaf’s great failing. I will address my words to you Halldor...because you’ve taken the lead among your brothers. We will turn back now; I made the journey mainly to remind you of what you seem to have forgotten.

SOURCE: Id. p. 377

So set on vengeance is she that she accompanies the party and, when they balk at the coup de grâce, urges them on:

When Bolli was cornered, Thorgerd “urged them not to hesitate to finish Bolli off and put some space between trunk and head.”

SOURCE: Id. p. 381

which is quite reminiscent of Euripides' take on Electra.

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And of course Frigg setting out to save her son Baldr by getting everything on earth to swear not to hurt him. That she failed is beside the point; so did his father, Odin.

A more complex and interesting example is the giantess/goddess Gerdr, whose reaction to being wooed by the god Freyr was to refuse him. So first, she asserts her independence, and second, from her comments it seems that she is familiar with Skadi's failed marriage to Freyr's father, a metatexual touch. (Carolyne Larrington's famous paper (pdf here) on Gerdr discusses how she states her own desires, and tries to maintain her own independence.)

Gefjun, too, steps outside the boundaries by having sex with a giant, which even the highly promiscuous Freyja felt was going too far. The gods have children with giantesses, the goddesses don't, except for Gefjun. The way she begets them for a purpose, tricking a king, is very Odin-like, and like him she mates with the giant and then goes on her way.

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It's not surprising that Germanic and Celtic myths are so similar, both cultures/mythologies are in fact the same culture with minor differences due to regional separation. All Indo-European cultures are different branches of the same culture, the proto-Indo-European culture, that was the original culture of the Aryans when they invaded/migrated across Eurasia and settled in Europe, the Middle East and north India, from their historical homeland in the Asian Russian steppes between the regions of Kazakhstan and Ukraine, near the Aral sea (according to the Kurgan hypothesis). With a quick comparative research one will realize this, one example is the dual pantheon trait in the Indo-European mythologies, where a pantheon of human-like deities defeats and dominates, or go to war and then allies through a truce, with an older pantheon of monsters or more primitive/primordial beings that represent the natural forces; Aesir-Vanir, Tuatha de Danann-Fomorians, Olympians-Titans, Devas-Asuras. Another example is the presence of a world tree, the tree of life. Or humans being made from wood, rather than sand, mud or blood like in Semitic mythology.

Now concerning the female role in society, it was very important, essential. Women were considered equal to men in importance. Women were very highly regarded in magic and priesthood, women could become druids (the priests and doctors of the law of Celtic society, one of the highest positions in society where a person had to study for 20 years in a Druidic academy before being able to start their priesthood) like any man. It's been described by historians that when Gaulish tribes went to war they always had females priests to bless them. There's a myth of two Gaulish tribes that were going to battle, but the women intervened and solved the problems with diplomacy and friendliness.

In Germanic society it was very similar, the Seiðr were a class of magical and religious priests in Nordic society that were predominantly women, one of the most important Vanir deities, Freya herself was heavily associated with magic.

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