Frigga and the Birch

White Birch tree. Photo Willow.


The birch was discussed a few months ago in the series on the witch’s broom, but a whole book could be written about this magical tree. This week we turn to the relationship between the birch tree and the Germanic goddess Frigga.

Trees going by the common name of “birch” belong to the family betula, which abounds in northern climates, though the various species differ in appearance, habitat, and other characteristics. The two species prevalent in North America are the Paper Birch, which produces the material for the lightweight birch bark canoes that were once the predominant mode of travel in the north, and the Yellow Birch, which is known for its highly aromatic leaf buds. Neither of these characteristics are shared by the White Birch or Silver Birch, the two species Germanic sacred lore is based upon. The White Birch is the most northern growing Eurasian hardwood and the only tree found in Iceland. The Silver Birch has the whitest bark of any betula. In some cases it is impossible to distinguish which tree is being referenced, but fortunately the two are very similar, their chief difference being growing habitat. The following discussion will apply to the White and Silver Birch, but one or more of the magical characteristics of these trees can be found in other birches native to North America.

The birch is an attractive tree, often quite tall, that buds early in spring. Deer are dependent on birch twigs during periods of heavy snow, and the inner bark of the tree is edible for humans as well. Birch produces abundant sap that was once used for sweetening beverages. Twigs are traditional material for thatching houses or weaving baskets, and the bark is used for smoking meat or tanning hides. The fragrant wood burns even when wet. Birch is the preferred wood for constructing drums due to its resonance.

The rune Boerc.



The birch tree is believed to dispel evil, which is why participants leaving the traditional Nordic sauna are gently flogged with birch twigs. The household broom was once constructed with birch twigs and witches still prefer birch for their brooms. In Germanic provinces in medieval times, young men would decorate birch trees for the May rites in homage to their lady love. Birch was the favored wood for the Maypole.

Birch bark was often a medium for runic script, and the rune Boerc corresponds to the birch tree. D. Jason Cooper calls this rune one of “healing, regeneration, and the atonement of past deeds” and it is used magically for increasing fertility and aiding childbirth. In divination, Boerc means abundance, possible marriage, stability, and purification.

Boerc is Frigga’s rune. The prose Edda says of Frigga that “she knows the fates of all men, though she speaks no prophecy.” Frigga is known for her propensity for silence, which is another way of saying that she holds the mystery, mistress of truths that are hard to penetrate. She rules the hidden realms, including the realm of the dead.

Silver Birch. Photo Speifensender.



In Germanic lore the most popular death scenario is that half the heroes slain in battle go to Valhalla, the hall of the god Odin, while the other half go to the hall of the goddess Frejya, all feasting in merriment while awaiting the final battle. Those who die of sickness, old age, or other inglorious means, on the other hand, go to the cold inhospitable realms of the goddess Hel. In a competing and less celebrated scenario, the dead go to Fensalir, the hall of Frigga located on a distant sea-island, where they feast in abundance and harmony forever. Frigga is a pre-patriarchal, pre-Indo-European goddess whose inevitable marriage to the chief Teutonic god Odin reflects not only her power and high status, but her rulership of the death realms that Odin penetrated to achieve his status as a shamanic deity.

Cooper asserts that “Little is positively known of Frigga’s worship in pagan times, since the Christians were harder on the goddesses than the gods of the north.” What little has been positively discerned has been pieced together from fleeting references in the many texts penned in Christian times. Other things can be inferred about Frigga, however, from her association with gold, spinning and weaving, and the birch tree. Being goddess of death and goddess of sustenance seems contradictory, but it mirrors the generosity of the birch in winter and summer. The spinning wheel is a common metaphor for the cyclic nature of the seasons, and spinning goddesses are almost invariably spider, snake, or sun goddesses. The gold thread that Frigga spins and the golden tears she cries suggests she is linked to the sun. The qualities of the birch, taken together, are also reflective of the sun. Birch leaves turn striking gold (Silver Birch) or a dark red (White Birch) in fall, and the white branches of the tree are awakened early by the rays of the sun. Remember, too, that birch wood burns unseasoned and when wet, suggesting that the tree stores or contains the sun’s fire.

Silver Birch. Photo Alexey Novitsky.



Frigga ia an important goddess, one that deserves more attention, and every reference to her, tangential as it may be, is filled with messages. I have limited discussion of her here to the places her story intersects with the birch, but feel free to add more in the comments.


Sources

Blount, Martin. “Lady of the Woods – The Birch.” White Dragon.

Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press, 1986.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berekeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

The Gylfaginning at Sacred Texts.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1940.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Books of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Sacred Earth. “Birch (betula sp.) – History and Uses”.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.