The Pseudo-Weddings:
 An Investigation of Saxo's Telling of
the Bride-Winning of Gerd

by Carla O'Harris & Siegfried Goodfellow
© 2014

If Skírnismál has burlesque elements, Saxo's account of the retrieval of Gerd in Book Five of his Gesta Danorum is pure situation comedy and slapstick. It is not only funny, but zany. Moreover, it shows signs that it was originally a stage play. Scholars believe Skirnismal was acted, because of speaking parts in the manuscript indicated next to various strophes, but Saxo's account also shows every sign of being acted out on a stage. Saxo tells us in Book Six that there was a stage at Uppsala where the Sons of Frey would enact "effeminate gestures" or dances, and the "mimes" would clap with bells and so forth at the time of the sacrifices. Besides conjuring up imagery of Morris Men, there is every reason to think that the Myth of Frey would be enacted in various forms, and that which led to his wedding, his being a God of Nuptials and Fertility, would be foremost.

Saxo says,
Ubi cum filiis Frø septennio feriatus ..., quod apud Upsalam sacrificiorum tempore constitutus effeminatos corporum motus scaenicosque mimorum plausus ac mollia nolarum crepitacula fastidiret. Unde patet, quam remotum a lascivia animum habuerit, qui ne eius quidem spectator esse sustinuit. "At that time he took holiday amongst the sons of Frey for seven years ... when he was stationed at Uppsala around the time of the sacrifices, he disdained the effeminate movements of the body on stage [or, "of the actors": scaenicos can mean "of the theatre", "of the stage", or just "actors"] and the mimes clapping and the soft, effeminate rattles and bells. Hence it is clear, how far removed from lasciviousness his spirit was, who could not even stand to be a spectator of it."
The whole passage is important, because it sets the tone of what was being shown on stage. It may be, as in Shakespeare's day, that women's parts might have been played by men, and it is traditional in such cases for women's parts to be overexaggerated by the male actors in "swishy" kinds of ways. Traditional festival mumming closely associated with Frey included a stock drag-queen character as well, so this would not be beyond the stage-activities that might have been found here. Starkad definitely found the shows to be lascivious, which means they must have been quite ribald -- appropriate not only for comedy, but for a fertility god.
"Mimes" doesn't just mean pantomimers -- it also has a connotation in Latin of an actor specifically performing in a comedy. There must have been dancing and quite a lot of pageantry indicated by the bells and rattles -- which could even suggest a shamanic component.
"Rattle" found in the Oseberg Ship grave circa 834 AD in Vestfold, Norway.

What it establishes is that theater, on a stage, with actors geared towards comedy pieces dealing with "nuptial" matters, and possibly with cross-dressing actors, were a part of Frey's rites during the time of sacrifices at the temple in Uppsala.
The main comic action in Saxo's telling of Gerd's retrieval centers around a partition in the wedding hall through which Freya slips back and forth to fool Gymir. This partition-comedy is what clues us into this as a stage play. It would be very simple for a simple curtain to be drawn on stage, through which the actor or actress playing Freya would move back and forth, as the actor playing Gymir, perhaps in a large hairy costume or even with some paper machie, would run back and forth between, as he was confused that Freya and her "sister" looked identical.
Saxo's telling is all situation comedy, almost "Three Stooges".
The essence is this: Gymir (Gotar) hears that Odr has become betrothed to Freya, but Gymir wants Freya. (There's a constant theme of the Giants wanting Freya.) Gymir is willing to give his daughter, Alfhild (Gerd), to Odr in exchange for Freya.
Right off the top, we begin with wife-swapping.
So the original composer of the lay, which Saxo may have seen enacted on a stage, and drew on for this part of his History, decided to play the shtick of the wife-swapping to the maximum by literally having the bride swap back and forth across a partition.
Odr decides to "agree" to this arrangement as a way of getting Gerd/Alfhild away from Gymir. He plays a gambit -- Saxo has him call it a "trick", and he's clearly having fun with it, because at first, Freya (Gunwar) cries, because she thinks he's trying to get rid of her -- and Odr plays her for a moment just to test her loyalty then gives in and tells her the joke, reassuring her that only death can separate them. Once she gets the comedy of it, she plays it to the hilt. Odr includes the services of the newlyweds Sif  (Kraka) and Thor (Brac). (Of the latter identification, we can be sure, because if Kraka is Sif, and she is, Saxo lets us know she remarried after her first husband's death to Brac -- who must therefore be Thor.) Thor is to wait nearby with a band of champions for a signal from Ullr (Roller), and then burst in and take down the giants in Gymir's hall.


Sif, on the other hand, is completely veiled, and claims to be the sister of Freya. One can immediately see the similarities with Þrymskviða. This is yet another "fooling of brides" at a Giant's home that will be broken apart in the end by violence -- again, on Thor's part. Just as Thor was once veiled up, so will his wife Sif be. And just as the Gods clearly had fun in Þrymskviða, which just springs with jolliness from its telling, so they do here. One of the joys of outwitting the giants is that despite the fact that they can at times be clever, ultimately, they're not too terribly bright, and the Gods get great humor out of tricking them. The fact that there is so much comedy in the Gods' approach to the giants is also an indication to the audience the degree of their power -- they have that level of confidence.
On another level, however, the gambit is quite risky. Odr, Freya, and Sif are going deep into the underworld -- to an area near the Bottom of the Ocean where Aegir's Hall is, and where Ran collects drowned soldiers she or her evil sea-spirits have been able to collect. They are headed, in other words, into the Enemy's Lair. It has not been so long since Freya has been in the hands of giants, and here she is going right back in -- albeit to a different giant's lair. Sure, this time, Thor's men are standing by nearby at a safe location, but it's still a risk. Yet Saxo's telling treats it like a jolly Þrymskviða-style lay, another indication this was a festival skit or stage comedy at the Uppsala holiday sacrifices.
We have reason to believe that Odr took no chances, however, and that Njord was also standing by very closely, even though this is not explicitly indicated. We will look at this shortly.
Odr agrees to Gymir's wife-swapping offer, but insists that the wedding festivities take place simultaneously. All they need do is have a partition in the hall, and each party can celebrate on either side. While Gymir celebrates his nuptial-feast with Freya, Odr will celebrate with Alfhild-Gerd.



The shtick, of course, is, that Gymir leaves Freya's side to go over and see how his daughter is enjoying the feast with Odr. Freya has slipped through the partition and sits next to Odr. Gymir asks why Freya is sitting there, and how she got there, when she was just on the other side. The farcical nature of this comes out immediately. Audiences were already laughing. Freya claims she is Sif -- her sister. Gymir exclaims that she looks exactly like Freya, and she responds, why yes, people have always thought so. Gymir is suspicious, however, so he runs around the partition again, and as he does so, Freya slips through again to her original seating, there smiling innocently.
The argument for this as a stage play is that this sort of action, while it could be narrated in a poem, would not receive its full comedic effect unless actually acted out.
Of course, Gymir is not satisfied. He's still scratching his head, puzzling this out, and has to go see Freya's sister again. He goes back and forth several times, and each time Freya slips through, claiming to be Sif, with Odr and Alfhild-Gerd (who obviously has been included in on the plan) looking nonplussed.
As these antics go on, Gymir is drinking more and more. Of course, we know from Hymiskvida that Aegir's Hall has been renowned as a drinking hall since the beginning of time. And as Gymir (Aegir) drinks, the more drunk he gets, and the more confused.
Finally, he suggests they all go to bed, each groom with his wife. But he is so sloshed he doesn't at first notice Freya is missing. Freya has gone, of course, to sleep with Odr. Sif is hiding to provide cover if need be, and Gerd has been shuffled off, probably with Ullr, who waits near the ships. When Gymir notices Freya is missing from his bed, he orders his guards to check Odr's room, and if she's with him, to slay them both instantly. Here is where the action-adventure part of the story enters in and the comedy, while still present, takes a back seat. The guards burst in to find Freya and Odr together, sneak up, and are about to bring down the blades of their swords when Odr opens his eyes and calls out to Sif, who throws him his shield. He parries their blows with his shield, grabs his sword (the gambanteinn?), and hacks off the legs of one of them. Meanwhile, Freya leaps up and hurls a spear, taking down the other guard.
Freya, Odr, and Sif, make their way towards where Ullr guards the ship, and get on board with Gerd, Ullr first blowing the horn. When Gymir hears that horn, fearing attack, he takes some choice guards and heads towards his own ships, presumably in a different location. At the sound of the signal, Thor and his men burst into the hall, take down a great deal of Gymir's host, and pillage the place, bringing many treasures to Odr's ship, and they set sail.
By this time, Gymir has figured out that treachery has taken place, and that Odr has fled, not only with Freya, but with his own daughter, and so he sets out with his ship in pursuit.
This is where we must suspect the influence of Njord, for Saxo tells us that "the weather began to be bad" and "provision failed". Njord rules the sea, including its weather, as well as abundance. It makes sense that he would be standing by in case his vassal (the Ocean) proved rebellious. And Odin might have been involved as well, because it says that Gymir and his men began to starve on the ship in a harbor called Omi, which is a name of Odin. That name, of course, also means a kind of howling or noise, so it could simply refer to the sounds of the bad weather Njord conjured up to take them off course, or it could refer to the crying and roaring of the starving giants, or both. The starvation set the giants against each other, and they slaughtered themselves, Gymir getting away with a few servants and escaping to nearby cliffs.
Meanwhile, Odr's ship sailed safely with Freya, Sif, Thor, Ullr, and Gerd, along with whatever reinforcements they had brought, and a great deal of booty and treasure, back home, where Frey's wedding with Gerd was celebrated.
So, in Saxo's telling, we have:

1. A situation comedy.
2. A brawl and a plundering.
3. A naval chase scene, ending in a storm.

Shakespeare would have had a field day with this plot. It is surprising that to this day, this extraordinarily humorous and adventuresome plot not only remains unstaged or treated in any way in the drama, but remains virtually without comment by scholars.


It should be noted that, in accordance with Skírnismál  highlighting Gerd's aelfscine, she is called here "Alfhild". "Elf" is right in her name. Moreover, she receives the "-hild" suffix that I have consistently traced to those in Sol or Sunna's lineage, indicating she was a dis of light. Whatever her giant heritage, she definitely has other heritage running in her veins as well.
What remains to be determined is whether this story is a variant of Skírnismál, or its sequel.
We know, from Saxo's own tellings, that betrothals could precede weddings, as Freya and Odr have a betrothal prior to their own joining. This would suggest that the meeting in the Grove of Barri that Odr arranged subsequent to his first visit to Gymir's place was a betrothal ceremony. It would still remain, then, to pick up the bride.
But apparently the father did not give permission. Instead, he wanted an alliance with Odr by taking his wife and giving him his daughter.
Saxo gives a very abbreviated account, just prior to this story, of what we see at the beginning of Skírnismál. Saxo simply says, "The king...added that... the daughter of Gotar had taken to his liking. He must, therefore, have a fresh embassy, and the business could best be done by Erik, for whose efforts nothing seemed too hard. ... Erik approved his plans, and promised his help to carry out his bidding." Subsequent to this, Erik celebrates his wedding with Freya. It is after this that Erik learns of Gotar-Gymir's wife-swapping proposal.
It's possible Saxo did not know Skírnismál, or, that it was so traditional that the brief summary above was sufficient. Skírnismál is necessary to account for those details, because Frodi is still in "Denmark", and Alfhild-Gerd in "Norway", and Frodi has taken no trip there. Thus, we are left lacking how Alfhild "had taken to his liking". Only the narrative of Skírnismál explains this, through the device of Hlidskialf. Given this, we must argue the strong probability of Saxo's story constituting a sequel to Skírnismál, although the seams between these two accounts, how they interact, and how to bring the details into concord, remains to be investigated.
It may be worthwhile summarizing here some points that have been made about comedy by world-class literature critics. The renowned Northrop Frye, in his “Comic Myth in Shakespeare”, defines the basic formula of comedy as boy meets girl, saying, “The obstacles to this constitute the action of the comedy, and the overcoming of them the comic resolution. The obstacles are usually parental, and comedy often turns on a clash between a son’s and a father’s will.” When we consider the beginning of Skírnismál, particularly as framed in Snorri’s telling, where Frey’s “mighty arrogance” to usurp Odin’s all-seeing high-seat is emphasized, we can see how this clash between the needs of youth and the rules of the older generation play out in this two-part comedy. This doesn’t have to be a literal father relationship, but must approximate it in some way. “The opponent to the hero’s wishes, when not the father, is generally someone who partakes of the father’s closer relation to established society.” Frye points out that in this struggle, the result is “the triumph of youth”.  “The action of comedy, therefore, consists normally in a clash of wills having for its aim the control of the comic society represented in the cast of characters. At first the characters who are thwarting the hero’s triumph are in possession of social authority… When the obstacles are surmounted and the blocking characters reconciled or forced to submit, a new society is born on the stage. Its appearance is usually symbolized by some kind of party: a wedding, a banquet, … or a dance.” (In Herbert Weil, Jr., ed., Discussions of Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedy, D.C. Heath and Company, Boston, 1966.) What Frye does not make explicit here, yet which other critics have made clear, and which Frye takes as background, is that all of this is congruent with comedy as the genre of Spring, a time of mating and fresh youth, in which the quintessential traditional Battle Between Winter And Spring (or Summer, though Spring is simply Summer as a youth) triumphs for Spring. The “boy meets girl” enacts the mating theme, and the struggle with an older, forbidding figure enacts the battle with winter.


In Skírnismál, there are two implied social forces thwarting Frey’s desires. The first, is as we said, Odin, who while not Frey’s immediate father, functions as “All Father”. The second is the feuding social structure of the Gods and the Giants, which here functions as the original Montagues and Capulets, across whose feuding boundaries, love is forbidden. In Saxo’s play, the forbidding figure is a father, too, but this time, it is Gerd-Alfhild’s father, Gymir-Gotar (Aegir) who will not permit the bride and betrothed to marry, but tries to control who she shall marry, according to his will and his desire for social alliances. He literally is a double-thwarter, as he tries to separate two couples, Frey and Gerd, and Freya and Odr. But of course, if he intends to double-thwart, he will, in turn, be comically double-thwarted, as his intended marriages are turned into mock-weddings, mock-weddings that in all their hilarity will only facilitate and accelerate the intended wedding of Frey and Gerd.

Some comments by Helen Gardner in her assessment of “As You Like It” (Herbert Weil, Jr., op cit) are relevant here. She underlines aspects of comedy I have themed as Spring motifs. “The great symbol of pure comedy is marriage by which the world is renewed, and its endings are always instinct with a sense of fresh beginnings. Its rhythm is the rhythm of the life of mankind, which goes on and renews itself as the life of nature does.” In this light, it is obvious why youth must triumph in comedy, for the life of the species must go on, and thwarters cannot be allowed to ultimately block this. But it is her comments that follow that particularly shed light on some of the antics in Saxo’s piece. “Comic plots are made up of changes, chances and surprises. Coincidences…heighten comic feeling. It is absurd to complain in poetic comedy of improbable encounters and characters arriving pat on their cue…” When we think of all the improbable complications in Saxo’s plot – Freya shifting back and forth from one side of the room (or stage, as I’ve argued) to another, and Freya and Odr getting to sleep together after the banquet despite its riskiness, or the just-in-the-nick-of-time arrival of the cavalry when Thor bursts in, and so forth, her comments make a tremendous amount of sense. And she contrasts the comedic affirmation of the life of the species to the tragic mourning of “the rhythm of the individual life which comes to a close, and its great symbol is death.” This helps us place our comedy.

The weddings of Freya and Odr, Skadi and Njord, Sif and Thor, Hanunda and Ullr, and Idunn and Bragi, are grand finales of Spring in a literal mythic battle against Winter which is the epic arc of the “Frost War”. Idunn and Freya return, and Spring takes its course. It is a triumph of triumphs – but shortly thereafter, there is a tragic interlude that arrays dark clouds around this comedy and makes it more somber. When Skadi arrives in Asgard and ends up betrothing Njord, Baldur is still amongst the Gods, as her initial desire is for him. But by the time Skirnir makes his descent to woo Gerd for Frey in Skírnismál, Draupnir has already been burnt on Baldur’s pyre and been brought back to the Gods by Hermodr (Svipdag-Odr-Skirnir). Thus, the tragic “close” “of the individual life”, with “its great symbol [of] death”, has played out in the Death of Baldr, in the most sobering and terrible of ways. It is time for a comedy again. Wise dramatists intersperse tragedies and comedies, and our ancestors were no different. Frey is the perfect protagonist, because he was left out of the previous wedding-cycle, and has been further saddened by the death of his kinsman Baldr, and needs something – as we all, the audience, do – to lighten the mood and give a sense that life as a whole can recover after its tragic dénouement on the individual level. We can argue here that Skírnismál and Saxo’s telling constitute a double-punch of comic infusion, doubly necessary to offset the elegiac mood of Baldr’s tragedy.

If we consider Frey’s Bride-Winning as a two-act play, perhaps each act enacted on different days if not the same day, Skírnismál would constitute Act I, while Saxo's telling would constitute Act II. Together, they both have adventure, comedy, and burlesque, and perhaps there would have been an interlude between the two acts celebrating the betrothal at Barri, perhaps even with handfasting rituals of assembled couples, or some sort of Morris Men dance that had suggestive movements -- the kind that offended Starkad. With the details we have, a very lovely and quite funny romantic comedy could be constructed, one that could bear close resemblances to a performance that Saxo may very well have either witnessed, in skit form, or heard of from some elder who had seen it with his own eyes. And the alternation of tragedy and comedy we have explored above – which we traditionally associate with the masks of Melpomene and Thalia, the stock faces of the comic grin and the tragic grimace which have become the traditional symbol of the theatre – fits well with the structure of sacrifice which Saxo frames around the comic mimings on the stage of Uppsala. Adam of Bremen has emphasized the “tragic” aspects of these sacrifices, where every nine years, there were great slaughters of animals, followed, of course, by feasts. In this first tragic act, an animal is killed, and here we may see how the animal could stand in for the death, say, of Baldur. This may even have been accompanied by skits or rituals mourning the death. But once this mourning aspect of the slaughter is accomplished, the feast follows, and comedy is appropriate to the feast. Here is where Saxo’s emphasis on the cavorting mimes and dancers comes in. Here is where the marvelous Two-Act play of Frey’s Bride-Winning seasons the feast and sparkles the mead with that joyous, and even rollicking, element of festive mirth.