The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods
Also known as Gulveig and Heid.
“East of Midgard, in the Iron Forest, sat the old witch…” (The Voluspa: 40-41).
According to Norse mythology, Loki the Trickster fathered three dangerous children:
The Fenris Wolf, also known as Odin’s Bane, destined to slay Odin
Jormungard, the Midgard Serpent, fated to slay Thor
Hella, Ruler of the Dead, destined to lead an uprising of rebellious spirits and ghosts
Loki’s three children will allegedly be responsible for the apocalyptic twilight of the gods. Ever wondered who their mother was?
Angerboda, Witch of the Iron Wood, Mother of Wolves.
Angerboda manifests as a witch so beautiful she shines, as an iron-gray hag, as a fertility spirit, and as the Mother of Destruction. It is not clear which, if any, of her names is her true one. Angerboda is generally believed to be but one name for the spirit also known as Gulveig. Angerboda and Gulveig feature in myths that, if strung together, form a cohesive narrative.
Among the central themes of Norse mythology is the confrontation and eventual semimerger of two pantheons of spirits, the Aesir and Vanir. Norse mythology is generally told from the perspective of the Aesir or, perhaps more accurately, from the perspective of later Christian chroniclers who identified more closely with the Aesir. Surviving Norse myths, originally part of a vast oral tradition, were written down in the thirteenth century by Christian monks. The monks preserved these ancient sagas but also edited and transformed them in the process.
The Vanir are the indigenous pantheon of spirits. “Aesir” is believed cognate with “Asia”; many scholars believe that they may have originated in what is now Turkey. Important Aesir spirits include Odin and Thor. The Aesir were more aggressive than the Vanir, with a patriarchal orientation, and they were comparatively technologically advanced. Far less is known about the Vanir: theirs was a magical fertility orientation; they seemed to offer women more power. Important Vanir deities include Freya and Freyr.
Angerboda’s name is related to “foreboding” or “premonition of harm.” She may be a giantess, a troll-queen, a witch, a member of the Vanir pantheon, or some or all of the above. She is a shapeshifter, which may account for some of this confusion. Angerboda may be a spirit of fertility and/or Freya’s personal messenger: when a childless king and queen petition Freya for assistance, she sends Angerboda to them in the form of a crow, bearing an apple of fertility. The queen quickly conceives and bears a healthy child.
The Vanir are not confrontational; when the Aesir arrive in their territory, they initially observe them from a distance. The Aesir construct halls, including Valhalla, from such massive quantities of gold that they shimmer and shine. The Vanir lack halls but live in a misty realm woven from magic spells. The gold awakened a longing and so they sent Angerboda, in her guise as “the witch Gulveig,” to see if she could get some. Gulveig means “power of gold.” She is identified as a beautiful witch and also known as Heid, the “shining” or “gleaming” one. Like Freya, she glistens like gold.
Gulveig addresses the Aesir and speaks passionately of gold, gold, and more gold: red gold, white gold, yellow gold, burning gold, shining gold, gleaming gold, gold that reflects the heart’s desires. She requests a gift of gold for the Vanir.
The response? The Aesir identify Gulveig as a witch and condemn her to death. Thor seizes and binds her. A pyre is raised in Valhalla; Gulveig/Angerboda is pierced with spears like a pig on a spit and held over the flames to burn as a punishment for witchcraft.
With her witch’s power, Gulveig walks unscathed from the fire. (Norse deities, notably, are not immortal: she was expected to die.) She burns, her ashes are scattered, and yet miraculously she reappears, good as new. The Aesir recapture her and repeat their actions. Angerboda/Gulveig is burned and resurrected three times.
The obvious question is why, if her witchcraft is so powerful, doesn’t it protect her from the Aesir? No explanation is offered. The story itself is somewhat hazy; it’s unclear exactly what sparked the rage of the Aesir. The story may have been tweaked by later chroniclers to justify witch-burning. There are two ways of understanding Gulveig/Angerboda’s threefold resurrection, depending on perspective: evil is eternal or magic never dies.
The final time she’s burned, her heart remains unconsumed by the flames and Loki swallows it. This heart is blamed for his increasingly bitter, mean-spirited, and dangerous nature. (It’s unclear exactly when Loki’s liaison with Angerboda occurs or precisely when their children were born. Angerboda, like Loki, may be a Jotun or giant.)
Christian commentators blamed Angerboda for fostering Loki’s ambition to be chief of the gods, supplanting his blood-brother Odin. Eventually Loki became identified with Satan, and Angerboda as an ugly, wicked witch.
The third time Angerboda was resurrected, she found herself back in the Iron Wood (Iarnvid), the deep forest at the world’s end, home of witches and wolves. She never re-enters Asgard (the Aesir’s realm) because the Aesir still long to destroy her. Instead, Angerboda returns to the Vanir empty-handed. Appalled at her treatment, they declare war on the Aesir and attack via magic spells, precipitating a brutal war between the pantheons.
In some versions, this war results in stalemate; in others, the Vanir conquer the Aesir and occupy Asgard for nine years, but when both are threatened by Frost Giants they must forge an alliance. Each side gives hostages to the other to ensure preservation of peace and an end to hostilities. Honir and Mimir go to live among the Vanir while Njord and his children Freyr and Freya join the Aesir.
Although physically unscathed, Angerboda did not forgive the Aesir for her treatment. She raised her children in the Iron Wood and taught them to resent the Aesir.
An uneasy Odin consulted a völva (prophetess) who revealed that these children would be ultimately responsible for the destruction of Asgard. This foretold destiny is the rationale for the brutal entrapment of all three although perhaps some of the anxiety toward the mother was transferred to her children.
See also Freya, Hella, Herta, Odin; ANIMALS: Corvids, Wolves and Werewolves; BOTANICALS: Apples; DICTIONARY: Aesir, Heid, Trollkvinna, Vamir, Völva; FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Trolls.