As a gythia (priestess), one of the questions I am asked the most is what deity would be good to pray to for ‘X’. In times of crisis, I field a great many more of these sorts of questions. Currently with the global pandemic of Covid-19, I thought it would be a good idea to spotlight all the deities (and there’s more than a dozen!) who are known to have ties to healing in the Northern Tradition (those cultures from ancient Germania, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England with a common worship to Odin/Woden).
The Healing Goddesses of Lyfjaberg
Mengloth · Hlif · Hlifthrasa · Thjodvarta · Bjort · Bleik · Blith · Frith · Eir · Aurboda
In the Fjölsvinnsmál (which sometimes is also presented combined with another tale as the Svipdagsmál), we learn that the jotun Mengloth and her maidens (numbering nine: Hlif, Hlifthrasa, Thjodvarta, Bjort, Bleik, Blith, Frith, Eir and Aurboda) are often approached on Lyfja Mount by those seeking healing who lay offerings out on their altars. The Goddesses not only can aid their supplicants for healing, but they can also guard them as well, harkening to the protective female spirits we see with disir and matron cultuses. Lyfja Mount is referred to in the Old Norse as Lyfjaberg, which translates to ‘hill of healing’, or ‘healing mountain’. (Recently, musical group Wardrunna has a song referencing the healing mount of Lyfjaberg).
While the story found in Fjölsvinnsmál revolves around Svipdag’s tale, and a bit of a love story for Mengloth, most of these other Goddesses we know very little about that has survived in lore, in some cases literally only their name and their connection here to Mengloth. From the etymology of their names some clues can be discerned. [What follows is a combination of Old Norse dictionary discernments (ON: many pulled direct from Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology, or other vocabulary dictionaries), and notes from the 1936 Henry Adams Bellows translation (HAB). Please note scholars don’t always concur with Bellows’ notes (influenced by, and sometimes referencing older scholarship) on the etymology of these Goddesses’ names.]
Mengloth’s name means ‘the one who takes pleasure in jewels’ (ON). Hlif’s name means ‘cover, shelter, protection (especially as a shield), help’ (ON) or ‘helper’ (HAB). Hlifthrasa has the same root meaning of Hlif’s name and adds to it with thrasa which means ‘to snort’ or ‘to fight’ (ON), and might be rendered as ‘help-breather’ (HAB), so this alludes to the fact Hlifthrasa is most likely a healing specialist with connections to respiratory illnesses.
Thjodvarta, has been suggested to mean ‘folk-guardian’ (HAB), but I find it more likely that her name is possibly derived from the combination of two terms Þjóð which means ‘people’ or ‘nation’ (ON) and varta meaning ‘wart’ (ON), but I suspect varta may also mean ‘nipple’. We know the Old Norse term geirvarta was a combination of the word for ‘spear’ and ‘wart’ that together meant ‘nipple’. If we look among the languages that fall under the Old Norse language umbrella and look at the derivatives of varta among them, we see that the Danish term vorte means ‘nipple’, as does the Faroese vørta. I doubt her name means nipple of the people, but there’s something to me about the possible combination of those two names that is evocative of a mother and head of a household who has had to pick up a range of skills in the care, nursing, and mending of her family. But more specifically I believe she is a health specialist for new mothers. An interesting scientific fact is that a nursing mother’s body recognizes through the saliva of a nursing infant, that the infant is sick and will stimulate a physical response in the mother’s body so that the nature of her breast milk changes to provide baby with a new ‘formula’ of milk to help fight what ails baby.
Some of the names seem to have more to do with physical attributes or characteristics of personality, than they do a hint as to that Goddess’ skillset. Bjort means the ‘beautiful one’ (ON) or perhaps ‘bright’ and ‘shining’ (HAB), Bleik means ‘pale’, ‘the blonde one’ (ON) or ‘white’ (HAB). Blith means the ‘friendly one’ (ON), but it has also been suggested it means perhaps ‘blithe’ or ‘joy’ (HAB). The Goddess Frith’s name as she appears in Fjölsvinnsmál is rendered as Fríð which comes from the Old Norse Fríðr that means ‘lovely, beautiful’. This term should NOT be confused with Friðr, which means ‘peace’ (with connotations of ‘sanctuary’ and ‘order’ as well). Bellows references the later in his notes, but these are two completely different words, despite their visual similarities (I with no accent mark, versus an I with an accent mark). That being said, a missed punctuation mark or spelling mistake could have easily occurred.
Ironically, despite the fact we have an entire story for Mengloth and a number of details including biographical information for her, it is Eir who is the most famous of this group among modern practitioners, for what I can only imagine is one main reason: she is included in the Prose Edda’s Gylfaginning among a list of the aesir (gods) and ásynjur (goddesses) where her association with healing is called out. This is in counterpoint to the fact in þulur (found as a subsection usually within the Skáldskaparmál) she is not listed with the ásynjur (goddesses), but is listed in the same chapter among a list of Valkyries.
Eir’s name literally means ‘protection, help, or mercy’. While scholars’ debate whether the Eir mentioned with Mengloth and numbering among the Aesir is the same deity, or if it’s the same Eir who is also listed as a Valkyrie, many modern-day practitioners have had personal gnosis that put her in the role of a battlefield medic who administers triage in a crisis. She might be able to save you, or she may just grant you mercy in your suffering at the end of your life, which on a battlefield could have been the coup de grâce thus connecting her to functions a Valkyrie might be connected with related to the battle-slain, or in a more modern setting this might point to some of her function also tied to things like the palliative administration of painkillers to ease suffering for the dying.
In addition to Mengloth and Eir, Aurboda is the only other Goddess among these women of Lyfjaberg that we know more than just her name. She is described elsewhere in the lore as the wife of Gymir, mother of the jotun Gerda, which makes her the mother-in-law for Freyr. Aurboða has enjoyed a great deal of scholarship with a lot of theories about the etymology of her name. Since many jotun and duergar names start with the Old Norse root of aurr meaning ‘moist earth, wet clay, mud’ scholar Jan de Vries suggests her name might mean ‘dampness’, Andy Orchard suggests ‘gravel-bidder’, and John Lindow suggests ‘gravel-offerer’. Some look outside the Old Norse language, and look instead to the latin word for gold aureum (which I find highly problematic), and suggest the ‘aur’ drives from Latin sources and thus as Bellows mentions we get scholars suggesting something along the lines of ‘gold-giver’. I find it most likely her name as suggested by other scholars does indeed tie to the earth. When we consider the fact we understand her daughter Gerda to be an earth goddess, and earth is a necessary ingredient to enable herbs, which are the basis for many medicines, to take root and grow it seems likely Aurboda’s skill probably comes with the knowledge and application of herbs: how to find and grow them, how to reap them, how to store and prepare them, and how to use them.
OUR OTHER HEALING GODS
Odin · Sinthgunt · Sunna · Frigga · Fulla · Borr · Tyr & Ulfr (Fenrir?) · Thor · Alateivia and the Matrons
Usually when we think of Thor, we think of him as a mighty physical warrior, one who protects with the use of his hammer mjollnir, but we do have one reference to him also being a protector for the health of a community. In the Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, Adam of Bremen records that at the Temple of Uppsala, “if plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor.”
The Healing Gods and Goddesses of the Second Merseburg Charm
The Second Merseburg Charm written in Old High German is one of only two known examples of Germanic pagan belief preserved in the Germanic language. In the tale, Baldr’s horse is injured, and several deities consisting of Odin, and the Goddesses Sinthgunt, Sunna, Frigga and Fulla collectively heal the physical injuries of the equine.
Odin the All-father might be far more widely known for his connection to war, scholarship, and magic but we do have more examples of him as a god of healing. In the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm (from the Lacnunga), Odin is described as treating a person who has suffered a snake (wyrm) bite with nine ‘glory-twigs’ ridding the victim of the snake’s poison.
The Healing Gods of the Ribe Skull Fragment
The archaeological record also offers up an additional reference to Odin in the context of healing, or more as an intercessor or preventative against pain. A human skull fragment dated to around 725 CE was found during an archaeological excavation in Ribe, Denmark in 1973. The fragment had a hole in it (theorized to indicate it may have been worn as an amulet, though that is debated). Two different articles (Bennike’s “The Human Remains”, & Larsen’s “The Ribe Skull Fragment – Toolmarks and Surface Textures”) published in Ribe Excavations 1970-76. Volume 5, provides us analysis that informs us that the hole was made from the inside of the skull out, (thus it precludes any possibility of this being a by product of some sort of medical trepanning procedure,). Another takeaway is that analysis tells us that both the hole and runic inscription were carved on the skull after some period of decomposition. The inscription on the Ribe skull fragment translates as:
“Ulfr, Óðinn and High-Týr.
Bur is help against this ache (pain).
And the dwarf overcome.
Clearly, this was a magical spell and a piece of runemal intended to invoke intercession and relief against pain. Scholars default into two camps when looking at the first part of this inscription, either this invokes 3 separate deities Ulfr (which means Wolf, and thus might possibly be Fenrir), Odin, and the one-handed god Tyr, OR this may be a threefold name grouping all referring to Odin. Etymologically speaking “Tyr” literally means God. So High-Tyr may refer specifically to the one-handed god Tyr, or it could be a more generic title meant to imply High God. High God, does harken to some similar seeming known names for Odin, like Hávi (High One). As to Ulfr (Wolf), Odin also has symbolic ties to wolves, from his wolves Geri and Freki, and a known name of Hildolfr or Battle Wolf. But when I look at this in comparison to other inscriptions, and even the Second Merseberg Charm, I believe this was an invocation of 3 unique deities. This would also follow a known formula of Odin being listed as one of a trio of Gods (such as (1) Odin, Villi, Ve, (2) Odin, Hoenir, Lodur, or (3) Odin, Frey, Thor). Considering we have Ulfr (wolf) and Tyr mentioned in a grouping, makes me think the theory of this being Odin, in a grouping with other gods is most likely. When it comes to Tyr and the word wolf, one wolf immediately comes to mind: Fenrir.
As we look at the next section of the inscription most scholars theorize that Burr is most likely a reference to another divine power: this one being Odin’s father Borr. So Borr could therefore be the fourth god invoked for help against pain. Borr in surviving love is only mentioned a couple of times, and always in conjunction of a tie to Odin and with Odin listed in a grouping of three other gods. So this pattern to me also reinforces the idea the first section is most likely referencing three gods, and not a trifold naming of Odin. The third section of the inscription is a motif that Scholar Anatoly Liberman explores in his In Prayer and Laughter. Essays on Medieval Scandinavian and Germanic Mythology, Literature, and Culture where dwarves are linked to causing the infliction of illnesses and mental diseases on humans. He links the Germanic word for dwarf to ‘dizzy’. I personally also can find this to be something of a poetic turn of phrase as well. When I think of the dwarves in our lore, I think first of the crafters, those who gave to the Gods and Goddesses: Freya’s necklace, Thor’s hammer, Sif’s hair, as well as Odin’s spear and oath-ring. This to my mind invokes the imagery, sound, and physical sensation of hammering pain in the head.
The very last bit of the inscription, Bourr, is most likely the name of the person requesting help from the pain they are experiencing. Think of the rest of the inscription as a postcard sent to the Gods, and the last word merely being the person who sent it signing off.
The Healing Matrons
So far we’ve mentioned references to healing as found in various bits of lore, but we also have some titillating evidence in the archaeological record too. We have over a thousand examples of votive stones erected in honor to the Matrons. The Matrons were Mother-Goddesses (somewhat similar to the disir, idis, etc.). The Matron cultus, was comprised of a combination of Germanic and Celtic deities, the votive stones erected to them were found in areas where the Roman army was situated, and thus is believed to have been erected most usually by Germanic and Celtic legionaries in the Roman army. Prayers of safe journey, the care and protection for their families including aspects of fertility and child-birth were among the usual scope of the Matrons. In some cases, we also see examples of the Matrons being War-Goddesses. So prayers for health are surmised to also have been part of their usual purview.
One of the votive stones (Xanten: CIL XIII 8606) comes to us from the archaeological finds at the old Roman settlement of Colonia Ulpia Traiana, near the modern-day town of Xanten in Germany. The stone bares the following inscription: “Alateiviae ex iussu [psisus] Divos medicus” which translates to ‘To Alateivia, on her own command, the physician Divos’. Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology tells us the etymology of her name is a Latinized Germanic name that means ‘The All Divine’. While it is not blatantly clear that she is a Goddess of Healing, the fact a healer erected it to her in what seems to be acknowledgement of an answered prayer, makes it likely (though not certain) she was associated with healing. Personal gnosis by a number of modern-day practitioners also stands as testament that many have found her to be so as well.
A FEW SPECIAL NOTES
Idunna · Freyr · Freya · Sigynn · Frigga · The Norns
Typically, the Goddess Idunna would not be viewed as a goddess of healing, her principal function is to provide vitality to the Gods, and for the rest of us her fruit (the symbolic apple) represents the nutrients that can help keep us in good health. Think of her blessings like an immuno-boosting shot of vitamin C and zinc. When vitality fails or weakens, health can falter. Her expertise is not with treating illness or injury per se, but she does have the means to influence the overall health of a person. Having good vitality before illness or injury can help boost your body’s means of combating an illness, and during an illness can help you recover faster. Similarly, the Vanic deities of Freyr and Freya are usually seen as being representationally tied to the fertility and vitality of the land, as a result some modern practitioners will also call upon them too.
While the Goddess Sigynn has no attributed connection to healing, many modern-day practitioners will call upon her as a Goddess of the vigil. When we look to her story of standing in her grief after the execution of her children beside the bound Loki, we can understand Her resolute strength. The story evokes the unwavering love and perseverance of a woman enduring sleepless nights and anxious days at the bedside of one who is bed-bound. In Gylfaginning, we have the story of Frigga traveling the world to try to protect and prevent Baldr’s death. This story evokes a mother desperately seeking every medical expert and looking for a treatment for their sick child. For this reason some modern practitioners will call upon her as a source of comfort if they are in a similar situation.
The Norns give to us our orlog (or the laws and absolutes of our fate), and are described in the lore (examples: Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, Gylfaginning) as appearing at (or near) birth, and then sometimes showing up again at the end of our life (examples: Ynglingasaga, Guðrúnarkviða II, Gylfaginning). When they give us our fates, they are giving us our orlog, the framework of our lives that we cannot change such as our very DNA and any inherited illnesses, and other situational and environmental factors (ex: were we born into poverty, wealth, power, famine). From that framework of orlog the choices both we and those around us make combine to form our wyrd. Death, sooner or later comes for us, and at that point our wyrd, the tapestry of choices and facts of our lives is cut. The Norns are NOT deities of healing (at least their principal function is not to heal illness or injury), but understanding what underlying medical conditions we may have enables us to either make the choice to ignore those conditions at our peril or to strive to mitigate those conditions, which medically can be achieved by any combination of: lifestyle changes to our diet, exercise, and seeking out any appropriate medical treatment. Praying to the Norns for their counsel, or praying to them to ask for clarification about what your orlog may be and the ways you might be able to weave a wyrd that can mitigate any perceived flaws or negatives is within their scope. If you have something medically going on and are struggling to find a diagnosis, I personally would approach them to help in discovering the appropriate diagnosis. It’s hard to treat something, when you don’t know what is the problem.
Additional Resources and Final Thoughts
When you have a living faith, the Gods and Goddesses exist beyond the strict confines of old tales. I have mostly presented the information of what is known from older sources, but I would like to take the opportunity to remind people that faith lives, and our deities live beyond the confines of the remnants of lore or archaeology. The best way to come to know them is to approach them respectfully and engage with them. Just because we have no mention of a deity being tied to healing, doesn’t mean they may not be able to help. If you have a strong pre-existing relationship with a deity not mentioned here and you go to them, they may be able to help either directly, or indirectly by referring you to another power. There is nothing wrong with that, think of it like visiting your primary care physician: sometimes they can take care of you, and sometimes they’ll refer you to a specialist. But I would like to say one word of caution: we are polytheists, so there are many Gods and Goddesses in our respective traditions. Just don’t be the person who works really only with one God/dess to the exclusion of all others.
Also consider that in your daily lives we have friends, family members, classmates, coworkers, neighbors, team members, and a wide range of other relationships that impact our lives. Relationships wither if you do not take the time to nurture them, to grow them, and to strengthen them. Sometimes we do that by sending care-packages to those who live far away. By showing up with their favorite slurpee when they’re working on their thesis and can’t spend time with you, from festooning their porch with balloons upon the birth of their first child. We schedule time for a craft day, to play a game, or meet up for a coffee. We write to them, speak with them on the phone, enjoy video calls over facetime, or we text them. You don’t want to show up only when you need something. Who likes someone that mooches all the time?
There is some basic guidance on an older article of mine on how to connect to the divine and build a relationship with them. It can be hard sometimes to develop a relationship with those we can’t physically see and touch. As part of the Prayer Card Project sold at Wyrd Curiosities, a series of prayer cards featuring commissioned art by Grace Palmer, with a unique prayer to each deity on the back, are available in honor of these Goddesses of Lyfjaberg. For many of these Goddesses, these may be the only visual representations available. You can also find prayer cards to any of the deities mentioned in this article at the shop as well as a hundreds of others polytheistic prayer cards, with a range of artists representing deities across a variety of polytheistic traditions. They can be a wonderful touchstone for those who like having something physical they can touch, and look at, and even carry around in their wallet or display on their personal altar.
[Updated June 8, 2021 to add the deities associated with the Ribe Skull Fragment]