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Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Thorgerdr Holgabrudr and Irpa





Thorgerdr Holgabrudr is a fairly obscure Norse deity and yet evidence of Her worship is to be found in no less than seven Old Norse sources: Jomsvikinga Saga, Njals Saga, Thorleifs Thattr Jarlsskalds, Skaldskaparmal (Prose Edda), Faereyinga Saga, Hardar Saga ok Holmverja and Ketils Saga hoengs. Her primary follower was Jarl Haakon Sigurdarson who was de facto ruler of Norway from about 975-995. According to Adam of Bremen Haakon was "of the stock of Ivar" (Ivar the Boneless). Ivar the Boneless was a son of Ragnar Lodbrok and Aslaug which thus makes him of Volsung lineage. Coincidentally my daughter is also descended from Ragnar and Aslaug. Haakon himself claimed descent from Odin via Saemingr, a king of Norway. There are also claims that Saemingr was descended from Yngvi-Freyr. Saemingr's mother according to the Ynglinga Saga was Skadi and his father Odin.

Thorgerdr's second name Holgabrudr is Old Norse for 'Holgi's bride'. It should be noted that 'Holgi' is an eponym of Halogaland, the most northern province of Norway. Snorri indicates in Skaldskaparmal that Holgi is also Thorgerdr's father:

"They say that a king known as Holgi, after whom Halogaland is named, was Thorgerd Holgabrud's father. Sacrifices were offered to them both, and Holgi's mound was raised with alternately a layer of gold or silver-this was the money offered in sacrifice-and a layer of earth and stone." (Faulkes translation)

Snorri however also lists Thorgerd as one of the 'troll-wives' later on in Skaldskaparmal. Andy Orchard in his Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend points out that the name 'Thorgerdr' can be broken down into two elements-'Thor' and 'gerd', the latter word meaning 'fenced in'. This has the connotation of being a guardian Goddess. Interestingly the Goddess Gerd is also referred to as being a jotunn and as my readers will be aware she is the wife of Freyr. There is a very thin boundary line between the races of the Gods and the jotunn who are loosely defined as being 'giants'. In a similar way in Greek mythology we have the contrast between the Olympian Gods and the Titans. The Titans were simply an earlier pantheon of deities who were eclipsed by the Olympians. So one thing is certain and that is Thorgerdr is a divine being regardless of whether she belongs to the Aesir, Vanir or neither of these groups.

H. Munro Chadrick is of the opinion that Thorgerdr was regarded as little more than a 'troll' and that her worship did not gain widespread acceptance:

"How then is Hakon's worship to be explained? The reason is that he traced his descent from the ancient kings of Halogaland. When his ancestors migrated to the south, they must have brought their family cult with them. The persistent nature of family worship is shown by the fact that we find the family settled in the neighbourhood of the Throndheim Fjord at least a century before Hakon acquired the government of Norway." (The Ancient Teutonic Priesthood)

Chadwick adds a footnote that "it is curious that in Eyvindr's poem (Haleygiatal), of which only some fragments remain, Hakon's genealogy is traced, not to Holgi and Thorgerdr, but to Othin and Skadi. The introduction of Othin's name may be due in part to the influence of Ynglingatal, but it is probable also that Hakon may have wished to conciliate popular opinion by tracing his descent from the generally accepted deities. Skadi, a goddess of Lappish character but accepted in the Northern pantheon, has been cleverly substituted for the hated Thorgerdr."  Chadwick also points out that although "Thorgerdr is never mentioned as a member of the divine community either in the mythological poems or in Gylfaginning, nor does she stand in any kind of relationship to the rest of the gods."  and that "Her cult formed no part of the orthodox religion of the North." nevertheless she concedes that "In the North the clearest case of a tribal cult is that of Thorgerdr Holgabrudr." Chadwick is of the opinion that "Thorgerdr seems to bear a distinctly Lappish character, e.g. in her use of the bow and in the practice of magical arts." I am inclined to agree with her on this point and it is quite possible that Her cult was imported from the far north into Norway and thus is not entirely indigenous. She certainly appears to be a much wilder and archaic deity than those of the Eddas although She is referred to in Gylfaginning.

Apart from Earl Haakon other prominent followers of Thorgerdr were Ketill Haengr and Grimkell:

"She seems to have been one of the powers revered by the Halogalander Ketill Haengr, who, like other members of his family, did not worship the generally recognised gods. She is also said to have been worshipped by an Icelandic settler named Grimkell, who came from Orkadal, a district to the south of the Throndheim Fjord." (Chadwick) 

Regarding the name 'Holgabrudr' this is generally interpreted by scholars as indicating that the deity was to be considered as the 'wife' of the ruler of Halogaland. We can compare this to the Irish High Kings 'marrying' the Sovereignty Goddess. The Goddess gives legitimacy to the king's rule. By this 'marriage' both king and land are united. This may be behind the story of Thorgerdr and Haakon. Hilda Ellis Davidson also makes a connection between these concepts in her Roles of the Northern Goddess:

"If Helgi were the mythical founder of Halogaland, this would explain Thorgerd's name 'Bride of Helgi', since she could become the wife of each ruler of the kingdom in turn. The idea of the guardian goddess welcoming the king in death was essentially an aristocratic concept, just as was that of kings and leaders granted entry to Valhalla, and this is one important aspect of the goddess in the Viking Age."

Rudolf Simek is of the opinion that Thorgerdr "is probably a local deity from Halogaland, perhaps even a family goddess connected in some way with the family of Hakon who was ruling over Halogaland at the time  (Storm), since in the extant sources the cult of the goddess is almost always associated with Hakon." (Dictionary of Northern Mythology). I am inclined to agree with him.


A temple was dedicated to her in 10th century Gudbrandsdal in Norway. She was accompanied by Her sister Irpa. Her name translates as 'dark brown'. The references to Irpa are limited to the first three of the aforesaid sagas. Irpa may derive from the Proto-Germanic *erpa which again means 'brown' or 'light brown'. Irpa is very much overshadowed by Her sister Thorgerdr.


We have a very interesting description of the powers of this deity in the Jomsvikinga Saga. During a pause in the Battle of Hjorungavagr Haakon feels that the tide of this naval battle (excuse the pun!) is going against him and so he sets off to the island of Primsigned which is to the north of Hjorunga Bay and thus not far from the battle. On the island he faces north and prays to Thorgerdr for divine assistance.

"Thereupon the earl went up on the island of Primsigned, and away into a forest, and fell on his knees and prayed, looking northward. And in his prayer he called upon his patron goddess, Thorgerd Holgabrud. But she would not hear his prayer and was wroth. He offered to make her many a sacrifice, but she refused each one, and he thought his case desperate. In the end he offered her a human sacrifice, but she would not have it. At last he offered her his own seven-year old son; and that she accepted. Then the earl put the boy in the hands of his slave Skopti, and Skopti slew him." (Hollander translation)

The translator suggests in a footnote that Thorgerd was angry with Haakon because of his earlier acceptance of Christianity. Our Gods do not suffer disloyalty gladly. However it would appear that this 'conversion' had been forced upon Haakon by the Christian zealot Harold Bluetooth. The sacrifice convinced Haakon that the Goddess would intervene in the battle in his favour for his fortunes began to turn.

"And right soon the weather began to thicken in the north and clouds covered the sky and the daylight waned. Next came flashes of lightning and thunder, and with them a violent shower. The Jomsvikings had to fight facing into the storm, and the squall was so heavy that they could hardly stand up against it. 
"Havard the Hewing was the first to see Thorgerd Holgabrud in the fleet of Earl Hakon, and then many a second-sighted man saw her. And when the squall abated a little they saw that an arrow flew from every finger of the ogress, and each arrow felled a man. They told Sigvaldi, and he said: 'It seems we are not fighting men alone, but still it behoves us to do our best.'
"And when the storm lessened a bit Earl Hakon again invoked Thorgerd and said that he had done his utmost." (Hollander)

Haakon won the battle thanks to his Goddess and Her sister Irpa. They interceded very much like Valkyries, taking on the cruel warlike nature of those beings. 

In Njals Saga we have an account of the theft of gold bracelets from the images of Thorgerdr and Thor and the burning of the temple at  Gudbrandsdal:

"Meanwhile, Earl Hakon was attending a feast at Gudbrand's home. During the night, Hrapp the Killer went to their temple. Inside it, he saw the statue of Thorgerd Holgi's-Bride enthroned, massive as a fully-grown man; there was a huge gold bracelet on her arm, and a linen hood over her head. Hrapp stripped off the hood and the bracelet. Then he noticed Thor in his chariot, and took from him another gold bracelet. He took a third bracelet from Irpa. He dragged all three of the idols outside and stripped them of their vestments; then he set fire to the temple and burned it down." (Chapter 88, Magnusson and Palsson translation)  
(This was a clear act of desecration and not just theft). Haakon comments:
"A man must have fired the temple and dragged the gods out. But the gods are in no haste to take vengeance; the man who did this will be driven out of Valhalla for ever."(Magnusson and Palsson) 

We have a description of Her temple in Faereyinga Saga:

"They set forth along a certain path to the wood, and thence by a little bypath into the wood, till they came where a ride lay before them, and a house standing in it with a stake fence round it. Right fair was that house, and gold and silver was run into the carvings thereof. They went into the house, Hacon and Sigmund, and a few men with them. Therein were a great many gods. There were many glass roof-lights in the house, so that there was no shadow anywhere. There was a woman in the house over against the door, right fairly decked she was. The Earl cast him down at her feet, and there he lay long, and when he rose up he told Sigmund that they should bring her some offering and lay the silver thereof on the stool before her." (Chapter 23, translation by F. York Powell)    

The astute reader will note that Haakon, even though he was a jarl did not hesitate to prostrate himself with reverence before the Gods. There is a lesson here for modern heathens who think that it is beneath their Germanic dignity to do likewise.  

Hilda Ellis Davidson refers to a temple containing an image of Thorgerd in Trondheim which the Christian religious maniac Olaf had destroyed:

"In the Saga of Olaf Tryyvason in Flateyjarbok (I, 326:408), Olaf is said to take Thorgerd's image from the temple at Trondheim, strip it of its fine robe and gold and silver ornaments, drag it along at his horse's tail and finally break it up and burn it along with the image of Freyr……..When he destroyed her image, Olaf declared that now she had lost Hakon, her husband, 'who was very dear to her', and added that the chiefs of the land had been loyal to her in turn, and had given her high praise." (The Lost Beliefs of  Northern Europe

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