Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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Powers That Changed Gender

One of the things people coming from either Wicca or Christianity to Asatru notice is that the idea that the sun god gets resurrected at Yule doesn't fit in our culture, because to heathens the sun is she. Yet, people still try to wedge the sun god into heathenism, and go looking for a sun god, and identify Baldr as a sun god-- correctly! -- and end up trying to celebrate Baldr's resurrection at Yule, although the lore says he won't come back until the after the end of the universe. 

I have novel gnosis on this topic, that is, gnosis that I received while writing my overgrown unpublished novel Some Say Fire. In the Fireverse, powers that are transferred to another host upon the previous host's death always swap to a host of  the opposite gender. Thus, when Baldur died, the sun power was transferred to Sunna, who became the sun goddess. When Baldur's wife Nanna died, the moon power was transferred to Mani, who became the moon god. Like many things in the Fireverse, that's an oversimplification of the process, but has a kernel of truth in it.

I think a lot of our god-powers must have swapped to gods of opposite gender as the northern culture developed. During the Roman era, Ingvi, who is clearly the god who developed into Viking era Freyr, was most definitely a Dying God. His name is on the Ingwaz rune, the rune of male generative potential. But by the Viking Age the god who is reaped and grows again is a goddess, Sif. In the myth of her hair, Loki cuts her hair and then replaces it with new hair made of gold, a metaphor of the harvest and regrowth of wheat. 

Baldr was associated with the sun, and Nanna with the moon, and they died. Baldr died during a mock sacrifice that turned into a real one, and the story of their funeral shows the wife burned on her husband's pyre.  By the Viking Age, we were calling the sun she (Sunna) and the moon he (Mani.)

Asatru differs from Wicca and generic Wiccanate paganism in the matter of a triple god or triple goddess. Modern Wicca has the triple goddess. We have a male triple god or trinity, Odin / Honir / Lodhur as creator gods. We also have the Norns, who are like the Roman or Hellenistic Fates, and are often said to be three in number, although some heathen lore includes many lesser norns in addition to the three. So, we have a triple goddess figure too, but heathens don't generally treat the Norns as goddesses to be invited into one's life. The Norns are neither Aesir nor Vanir and don't live in Asgard, and most importantly they are not known to be inclined to like or help humans just for being humans, so Asatru does not consider them to be part of the pantheon. Heathens are not alone in having a male trinity. Slavic pagans also have one, Triglav. 

Modern Wiccanate paganism assigns the sphere of war to male gods. We have a female war goddess, Freya. Celtic pagans also have a war goddess, the Morrigan. We also have male war gods, Odin and Tyr, and male gods with a warrior aspect, such as Thor and Heimdall. In fact, we have at least two gods with powers of every major of sphere of life, often one Aesir and one Vanir, because of the history of how our pantheon came about. Also, things such as war, agriculture, and other life or death issues are things that multiple gods and goddesses have traditional stories about or powers over, because those things are culturally important. A thing that only one of our gods or goddesses is interested in may not be as culturally important to the people who told our lore as an oral tradition as spheres of life that many gods have a hand in. 

Linguistically, it looks likely that Roman era Nerthus (a goddess) and Viking era Njord (a god) are the same god. It's also possible Nerthus and Njord could be a brother and sister pair, like Freya and Freyr and Fjorgyn and Fjorgynn. However, Nerthus and Njord never appeared together in the lore, and were written about in completely different historical periods. We know of Nerthus from The Germania by Tacitus, who was writing about Germanic continental tribes. We know of Njord from various Viking era sources, including the Eddas, written in Old Icelandic. It's more likely that one transformed into the other than that they were a pair who never appeared together. Nerthus's powers are centered on agriculture, cows, and a freshwater lake, while Njord's powers are centered on the sea. Nerthus was considered the counterpart of Ingvi-Freyr, while Njord is said to be the father of Freyr and Freya. 

There are gods who actually change gender in the lore, however, the myths in which gods temporarily change gender and shape or wear transvestments (temporarily assuming the social role of the opposite gender via clothing) don't include the deaths of gods or goddesses. Odin is said to have received magical powers by learning from women while dressed in a skirt, and Odin is also said to have learned women's magic from Freya, but these seem to be stories of learning and initiation, in which the story starts with one being having a power and it ends with two beings having that same power, rather than stories in which one being loses a power and another being receives it. When Thor loses his phallic symbol (hammer) and wears transvestments to retrieve it, he gets his own powers back at the end of the story, rather than getting new powers. So, those myths don't appear to be about passing a power from one host to another. Gods that temporarily change gender seem to be a different kind of thing than powers that changed gods and changed genders on the way.

In the Fireverse, the deaths of Baldur, Hodur, and Nanna loosed four god powers that needed new hosts. Baldur's sun power went to Sunna, Baldur's Dying God / grain god power went to Sif, and Nanna's moon power went to Mani. Hodur's dark powers went to Loki, because Loki is gender fluid. The complicated storyline in the Fireverse by which these powers all reached their proper new hosts may not be the way it "really" happened, but it does appear that these powers were passed to their current wielders in recent enough time to leave vestiges in written lore such that Baldur can still be identified as a sun god and so forth. 

The heathen cultures are not the only ones with a female sun and male moon. For example, there are goddesses associated with the sun in Egyptian culture. The heathen cultures include Norse and Germanic cultures, and the cultures geographically closest to them, with which ancient heathens had a lot of contact, were Celtic, Slavic, and Saami, and more distantly, Roman and Siberian. The Celtic peoples have several gods and goddesses with sun powers. In the Slavic culture, the sun god Dazhbog is male. The Saami people have both a feminine and masculine version of the name of the sun, Beaivi and Beaivvas. The various Indo-European religions all have ancient roots in Hinduism, in which there are several male gods considered sun gods, but there are also goddesses with powers of light. Somewhere along the road, sometime in history, we changed, and our gods changed. 


Image: the Trundholm sun chariot, via Wikimedia Commons


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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, and the updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path. Erin has been a gythia since 1989. She was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. She also writes science fiction and poetry, ran for public office, is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Friday, 09 June 2017

    In the manga series Oh, my Goddess the three Norns become goddesses and the middle one Verdandi (called Beldandi in the series) settles in with a Japanese engineering student. In the current storyline in Mighty Thor Mjolnir is wielded by Jane Foster. I know Norse mythology has an influence on popular culture. I've no idea what influence popular culture has on mythology. I do know that the separation between mythology and popular culture is a recent innovation and will probably not survive.

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Sunday, 11 June 2017

    Hi Anthony, that's cool, I didn't know about that manga. Yes, heathens did "Thor loses his hammer and then gets it back" AND "Thor as a woman" hundreds of years before Marvel did.

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