The Maiden with the Mead : A Goddess of Initiation in Norse Mythology?
Maria Christine Kvilhaug
Master Dissertation, University of Oslo, 2004
”The Maiden With the Mead –a Goddess of Initiation in Norse Mythology?” The starting point of this thesis was the question: “Is there anything in common between the various myths in which a supernatural woman offers a “memory drink”, a “precious” or “ancient” mead to a god or a hero? The theme occurs in many poems of the Poetic Edda: In the Hávamál, the Skírnismál, the Hyndluljod, and in the Heroic Poems Sigrdrifumál and Helgakvida Hundingsbani II. Through an analysis of the structural patterns in the different poems, I have shown that there must be a common myth forming the basis of these poems, a “hidden” mythology which I have called “Maiden-mythology”. Since the mead-serving woman appears in very different shapes – as giantess, goddess and valkyrie – I have chosen to call her “the Maiden”, since she is usually referred to as a mær in the sources. One of the main aims has been to proove that a common structural pattern is present in these poems, and that “the Maiden” is the same figure even if she appears with different names, status and family-relations. The structural pattern follows the basics of an initiation ritual, particularly resembling the initiation of a priest, shaman or mystical vocation. I have identified five main themes in this structure of initiation: a “vision quest theme”, a “vision theme”, a “descending theme”, a “trial theme” and a “Maiden theme”. In each of the stories, the hero or god seeks visions in manners that we know people to have sekt visions in Norse society and in other societies, he achieves a vision, usually of the dazzling, bright image of the Maiden, he descends to the world of the dead, he overcomes obstacles in that realm, and he meets the Maiden, who offers him the precious mead and her loving embrace. I have been able to detect exactly the same structure in the poems Gróagaldr and Fjölsvinnsmál, where the mysterious Menglöd receives her long lost husband. The mead-offering theme is also present in the Grímnismál and the Hymiskvida, albeit in a different manner. The heroic poems concerning Sigurdr and the Helgi-characters are all centered around “Maiden mythology”. The main conclusion has been that a myth of a mead-offering “Maiden” exists as a rather prominent theme in the Poetic Edda, and that this “Maiden-mythology” is particularly concerned with trials of initiation. The figure hiding behind the Maiden figures may be identified as the Great Goddess Freyia. That she appears in the shape of a giantess is very interesting and has impact on our understanding of the relationship between the giant and the divine worlds. The myths all convey an “ogress versus maiden” theme, where the ogress may be said to represent the dead half of Hel´s face, and the Maiden represents the living half. At some point in mythic history, Ódinn, whom we identify as a divine archetype, entered the world of the giants and death and, in the heart of that realm, encountered the giantess Maiden whose love made it possible to escape death itself. Later, the Maiden emerges as a divine bride who receives the human initiate and whose embrace is his concecration. Archaeological finds show that the mead-offering lady was an important person in all Germanic societies for more than a millennium. This lady could be associated with the Norse völur, staff-carrying sibyls who held a very respected position within Norse religion. It does seem like the Maiden had her human counterparts, a fact which strengthens the idea that these myths reflect actual cult.