Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Towering Goddess

The Viqueen, I can report, is beyond excited at her upcoming trip to extremely northern latitudes in Norway in a couple of days' time. Heading north in January means that there are two desiderata above all, snow and the northern lights. It is true that the Viqueen has seen quite a lot of snow in her lifetime, and she even finally achieved one of her all-time goals when she saw the aurora borealis on a trip to Iceland last November (as proven by the rather murky photo, right). But global warming means snow is not as reliable as it once was, while one glimpse of some rather faint northern lights can only whet a Viqueen's appetite for even more, and perhaps even more spectacular, displays.

So what does a Viqueen do? Well she knows to pray to Skaði for snow, for the skiing goddess/giantess just cannot do her thing without it. But what about the northern lights? The Viqueen duly consulted her friend the Snowqueen on this important matter, and the oracle suggested that an appropriate deity to propitiate would be the otherwise not very well known goddess Gná. This sent the Viqueen back to her books to remind herself about this rather obscure figure, and what she found there is rather interesting.

Like many other obscure goddesses, Gná occurs a few times in kennings, where she is mostly just a synonym for 'goddess', in those woman-kennings where a goddess, any goddess, depending on the requirements of rhyme or alliteration, forms the base-word. Still, it is interesting that Gná appears in kennings in both very early poetry (Ölvir hnúfa, one of the poets of Haraldr Finehair in the 9th century) and quite late poetry (in the Jómsvíkingadrápa by the Orcadian bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson, in the late 12th or early 13th century), suggesting a longevity in the minds of those who cared about these things.

Another bit of evidence that she was better-known in those days than she is now is the way in which she is mentioned in Snorri's Edda. There, she appears as no. 14 in the list of goddesses and her main characteristic seems to be as a kind of errand-girl for the top goddess Frigg (aka Mrs Óðinn). But then Snorri tells us a bit more, that she has a horse, called Hófvarfnir, that can run on both the sky and the sea. Snorri also goes on to quote a couple of stanzas from a poem occasioned by her riding through the air. On being seen by 'certain Vanir' doing this, one of them asked:
'Hvat þar flýgr? / Hvar þar ferr / eða at lopti líðr?'
What flies there? What goes there, or travels in the air?
to which the goddess herself answers:
'Né ek flýg / þó ek fer / ok at lopti líðk / á Hófvarfni / þeim er Hamskerpir / gat við Garðrofu.'
' I do not fly, though I go and travel in the air on Hófvarfnir, whom Hamskerpir conceived on Garðrofa.'
  (quoted from Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Prologue and Gylfaginning, ed. Anthony Faulkes, 1982, p. 30, my translation)
Just a little snippet of mythological knowledge there, not unlike the many names, of mythological horses as well as many other things, that we find in Grímnismál. But what is perhaps more interesting than that is the fact that these two stanzas are among the very few Eddic, mythological stanzas in Snorri that must derive from longer poems that do not otherwise survive, again suggesting that this goddess was once better known than she is now.

Snorri then goes on to add, in some guesswork etymology, that 'From the name of Gná, a thing which goes up high is said to tower (gnæfa)'. So, indeed, an appropriate deity for the northern lights up there in the sky. The Viqueen can only hope that she recognises this humble approach and arranges things accordingly next week.

P.S. If you want to read a much more learned disquisition on the possible significance of Gná and other flying females in Norse myth and superstition, then do have a look at Stephen Mitchell, 'Gudinnan Gná', Saga och Sed (2014), 23-41.


  1. In Australia I met the sculptor Harrie Fasher, whose wonderful sculpture 'Transition' (which you can see in the 2016 'Sculpture by the Sea' exhibition. If I could upload a picture of this mighty horse frame bursting out of the ground I would. She told me that the horse was based on that verse about Gná ...

  2. Thanks for this! I'll make it to Australia one day...

  3. Happy to report that the trip went well. Snow: tick. Northern Lights: Tick. Dog-sledding in Svalbard: Tick. Runology in Tromsø: Tick. Museums in both Tromsø and Longyearbyen: Tick. Fish soup, whale and seal eaten: tick. Maybe another blog will emerge soon. In the meantime, thanks to the goddesses...