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Barbarian Europe

What's in a Name - Frey & Freya

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 3 March 2019

The proto-Germanic arm of the Indo-European migration was part of the Yamnaya horizon. This was the first more or less unified ritual, economic, and material culture to spread across the entire Pontic-Caspian steppe region. Its economy was one which was based on mobility, using two and four-wheeled wagons. That mobility became a massive outwards migration at the end of the fourth millennium BC (see A History of Indo-Europeans, Migrations and Language via the sidebar links, right).

One major arm of the Yamnaya migrations, the proto-Germanic people took what would have been a wandering course which covered many hundreds of kilometres. Unfortunately, this was a good two thousand years before the Greeks were around to record anything of it (in fact their ancestors were part of it). They ended up populating the southern coast of the Baltic Sea to an extent when they integrated into and dominated the preceding local culture. For the most part, however, the migration seems to have continued so that it placed most of them in the southernmost parts of Scandinavia (also see What's in a Name - Scandinavia).

By examining their later culture and language, it can be asserted that the Germanic peoples, as these migratory groups became, appear to have lost many of their deities somewhere along the way from the steppe to the north of Europe. Only a few of the old ones remained, these including Aryaman (otherwise known as Irmin or Hermin), Thor (possibly borrowed from the Celts), and Tiu or Tyr (known in proto-Indo-European as Deiwaz).

Alongside them were a handful of others who became known as giants such as Ymir (Yama or Gemini - see Tribal Warfare of the Gods in Scandinavia).

Frey, Freya, and others

Most of the remainder had deified life-roles. Frey or Freyr and Freyja (masculine and feminine) were brother and sister, the free (non-slave) householders, the equivalent to 'Mr and Mrs Norse God'. In reality they should be regarded as the same deity in two genders.

When looking up a possible meaning for the god Heimdallr, blessed with foreknowledge, 'world brightener' is offered - something of an hilarious gaff when considering that, when translated into English from Norse, it means 'home valley' (cognates: 'home' and 'dale').

The same online source conflates the Norse Freyr and Ingvi, which is somewhat ridiculous. The first part of Ingvi, 'ing-', is cousin to the Avestan 'Anghu', and means 'life, spirit, being'.

The second element, '-vi', is a reduced form of 'weg/vegr', cognate to the English 'way'. The two together are a pointer to old Rte/Arte (Asha) practices, with a meaning of 'the way of spirit'. (The practical philosophy known as Rte in Sanskrit is also included in various other name breakdowns such as for Asia - see the What's in a Name feature link, right - or Timurid Khorasan's Herat in Afghanistan - see rulers list in the sidebar.)

Odin/Wotan translates to 'magician' (see Origin of Odin), understanding that in ancient times magicians were a people's priests. Going to the goddesses next, Eostre is an old Indo-European deity, called Ushas in Vedic and Io in Greek. The other gods appear to have been Germanic inventions, probably as they expanded their pantheon over time.

As for Frey and Freyja - who seem to have been rather incidental so far - the name is a member of the Vanir tribe of deities. The Vanir appear to have been an ancient tribe of Germanics who were at war with the Æsir (Aesir) - and lost. The war was later elevated to mythological status and Freya, probably a living individual in his or her own time, later became an honorary member of the Æsir gods.

In the female form her father is Njord (another dual gender god with the female form of Nerthus. Her mother is unknown, but Nerthus could be ascribed this role. Frey is her brother (or dual identity).

Additional meanderings

Freya's husband, named Odr in late Old Norse literature, has been equated with Odin. Accordingly, Freya could ultimately be identical with Odin's wife, Frigg.

However, this would require some linguistic trickery to produce such a connection - possibly in the form of a non-Germanic version of the same deity being adopted - so is best left alone for now.

In fact, even equating Odr with Odin is problematical as the '-r' in Odr is a nominative suffix, leaving us with the name 'Od'. This name is known in the form of Oda, Otha, and Otto... and even Ed. The '-a' and '-o' in Oda and Otto are reduced nominative suffixes, and were replaced with '-r' by the Norse. 'Od' means wealthy, so at least Freya married well!

Map of Scandinavia c.AD 100
Early Germanic peoples in Scandinavia were clustered for the most part along the coasts of southern Scandinavia, and only began to expand inland from the third century AD or so (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Alani & Roxolani
Frey & Freya
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians


Main Sources

Cranberry Letters, The - Pre-Proto-Germanic, International Affairs, Language Policy, and History

Poetic Edda - (13th century composition from older Skaldic poetry)

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch

Simek, Rudolf - Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Angela Hall (translator, D S Brewer, 2007)

Snorri Sturluson - Prose Edda (13th century Icelandic composition)

Online Sources

Geochronology - Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Norse Mythology for Smart People



Maps and text copyright © Edward Dawson & P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.