“…As she raised her hands to unlatch the door in front of her, a beautiful light shone from them both so that earth and sky and sea were brighter for it…” (The Poetic Edda).
Gerða or Gerð, usually anglicized to Gertha or Gerda) is a mountain giantess who is a member of the Norse-Icelandic pantheon and her name appears in both the Poetic and Prose Eddas, which date from 13th century Iceland. Whilst she is a little celebrated goddess, she is probably best known for being the wife of Freyr, one of the most important gods of the Norse pantheon, who presides over harvest, abundance and fertility. She is also named as being a one of the Asyniur, the goddesses of the AEsir pantheon who reside in the world of Asgard, one of the Nine Worlds from Norse mythology. Gerða is also mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s Inglinga Saga where she appears as the wife of Freyr, named there as the King of Sweden. Between them they have a son named Fjollnir which means ‘manifold’. She is also listed as having been a sexual partner of the god Odin. Although Gerða is not mentioned in any of the Anglo Saxon texts, Freyr is, so it is possible that she was also known in the British Isles during the Saxon period as well as throughout Scandinavia.
The most famous story in which she appears is the Skirnismal or Lay of Skirnir. After spying on her from afar and falling in love with her great beauty, Freyr sends his messenger Skirnir to woo Gerða for him and to bring her back to Asgard. Freyr’s love for Gerða is such that he gives Skirnir his magical horse and his sword to complete the task. When Skirnir arrives at Gerða’s father’s, hall, he offers her precious gifts if she will consent to be Freyr’s wife. When she is not moved he threatens her, which she also finds unimpressive, saying;
“”For no man’s sake will I ever suffer,
To be thus moved by might…”
Finally Skirnir resorts to a terrible curse which calls madness, rage and longing upon her if she will not acquiesce. Gerða then gives in, saying that she herself loves Freyr, and agrees to meet him nine days hence in the forest of Barri where their union takes place. Skirnir carries the news to Freyr who is overjoyed by the news but devastated that he must wait nine nights for her.
It is difficult to know how Gerða was honoured historically as very little of her lore remains. As the wife of a fertility god, and a mountain giantess she is often associated with the earth and fertility and may have originally represented the cold of the winter earth being coaxed to life by the warmth of the sun, which is closely associated with Freyr. There are certainly elements of the ancient dynamic of the union of earth and sky about their marriage. Yet, such explanations may be overly simplistic and Gerða’s guarded response to Skirnir’s wooings, despite her own love for Freyr holds important clues to her nature. Those who work with her in a modern context generally agree that she is a goddess of reserved temperament who hides hidden depths and passions that she does not reveal easily. She is often described as wearing brown and earth-coloured gowns which cover her completely with her hair in a long dark plait that reaches to the floor.
Further indications of her nature can be found within her name. Gerða in Old Norse means ‘fenced in’ or ‘to guard’ and she is often associated by modern devotees with the concept of Innangarð meaning ‘inside the enclosure’ – that which is tamed or safe sanctuary, and Utengarð, meaning ‘outside the enclosure’ – that which is wild, dangerous or chaotic. These two concepts most usually refer to physical spaces, but may also be used to denote cultural, psychological or social states too. Gerða is often associated with the peace and safety of Innangarð, holding the sanctuary of sacred space and as such she may be called upon for healing.
Gerða’s close association with the earth, healing and the guarded enclosure has meant that she has come to be associated with walled gardens, particularly herb gardens. Planting and tending an herb garden is a way to honour her and she may enjoy offerings of herbs, teas, or essential oils. However, her name may more accurately denote her as a goddess of the physical boundary or barrier that divides the inner and the outer, rather than of the spaces themselves. As such she can be seen as the boundary between the wild and the tamed, keeping the balance between the two which makes human society and culture possible. Humanity has always sought to moderate the environment in order that existence may be more viable or comfortable. We seek out new modes of agriculture, medicine and technology, build libraries, and fly to far flung corners of the globe, but there must be a balance. In seeking to overly control our environment, separating ourselves from nature, we risk damaging or changing it beyond recognition and compromising our own survival at the same time. This may be seen not only in humanity’s relationship with the environment but in our personal relationships too. In working with boundaries, Gerða can teach us how far we can or should push this fragile balance in order to obtain what we need.
Gerða and Freyr represent the meeting of two very different peoples, the Giants and the Gods, between whom there is often fighting and disagreement. Consequently, as a couple, they are often called upon to bless marriages between people for whom being together is difficult, perhaps coming from different religious or cultural backgrounds, or opposed by family or friends. Their love shows us that there can be harmony between two seemingly opposing worlds but that this needs to be negotiated and considered with care.