Gefion's Home Page
D. L. Ashliman
University of Pittsburgh
Gefion, the Norse Goddess of Unmarried Women
According to The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, Gefion (also
spelled Gefjon) was the fourth goddess of the Æsir, following Frigg
(the wife of Odin), Sága, and Eir (the best of physicians).
Gefion, we are told, was a virgin, and was thus served by women who died
unmarried. This statement, however, is contradicted in The Prose
Edda itself as well as in other sources. As you will read in the two
accounts below, early in her career Gefion had four oxen-sons by a giant.
Later she married Odin's son Skjold and settled in Leire,
Further complicating Gefion's story is the fact that "Gefn" is one of the
given to Freyja, the Norse goddess of love and procreation. "Gefn" may be
shortened form of "Gefion," and thus Gefion may be an alter ego of Freyja,
who in turn may be an alter ego of Frigg, the wife of Odin.
Gefion creates the Island of Zealand
From The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson
King Gylfi ruled the lands that are now called Sweden. It is told of him
that he gave a ploughland in his kingdom, the size four oxen could plough
in a day and a night, to a beggar-woman as a reward for the way she had
entertained him. This woman, however, was of the family of the
Æsir. Her name was Gefion. From the north of
Giantland she took four oxen and yoked them to a plough, but those were
her sons by a giant. The plough went in so hard and deep that it loosened
the land and the oxen dragged it westwards into the sea, stopping in a
certain sound. There Gefion set the land for good and gave it a name,
calling it Zealand.
But the place where the land had been torn up was
afterwards a lake. It is now known in Sweden as "The Lake." And there
are as many bays in "The Lake" as there are headlands in Zealand.
As the poet Bragi the Old says:
Gefion dragged with laughter
from Gylfi liberal prince
What made Denmark larger,
so that beasts of draught
the oxen reeked with sweat;
four heads they had, eight eyes to boot
who went before broad island-pasture
ripped away as loot.
- Source: Snorri Sturluson, "The Deluding of Gylfi" from The Prose
Edda (Cambridge, England: Bowes & Bowes Publishers, 1954), p. 29.
- Zealand, also spelled Sealand (Sjælland in Danish), is the
island where Copenhagen is located.
- Sweden's largest lake, Lake Vänern, does indeed resemble the
island of Sjælland, both in size and in shape, as you can see
from a map of the Baltic Sea Area.
- Copenhagen's largest monument is the Gefion fountain, located near the
statue of H. C. Andersen's "Little Mermaid." The fountain's statues
depict a woman guiding a plow being drawn by four great oxen, with water
spurting forth on all sides. Click here for two photographs of the
From the Ynglinga Saga of Snorri Sturluson
When Odin looked into the future and worked magic, he knew that his
offspring would dwell and till in the northern parts of the earth. He,
therefore, set his brothers Ve and Vili over Asagarth [in the land of the
Turks] and he himself went away and with him went all the priests and many
of his folk. First he went to Gardarik [Russia] and from there he went
south to Saxland [Germany]. He had many sons; he won kingdoms far over
Saxland and set his sons as rulers over them.
From there he fared north to the sea and found himself a dwelling on an
island which is now called Odensö in Fyn [Funen]. Then he sent
Gefion northeast over the sound to look for land; she then came to Gylfi,
who gave her a ploughland. Next she went to a giant's home and there
begot four sons with a giant. She shaped them in the likeness of oxen,
yoked them to a plough and broke up the land into the sea westwards
opposite Odensö; it was called Selund [an old spelling for Zealand],
and there she dwelt afterwards.
Skjold, Odin's son, took her to wife and they lived in Leidra. There
where she ploughed is now a lake or sea called Löginn; the fjords in
Löginn answer to the nesses in Selund.
Thus said Bragi the Old:
Gefion drew with gladness
From the gold-rich Gylfi
Denmark's new increase
(So that it reeked from the beasts).
The oxen bore eight eyes
And four heads.
There they went forth,
Far over Vinö's bay.
- Source: Snorre [Snorri] Sturlason, Heimskringla; or, the Lives of
the Norse Kings, edited with notes by Erling Monsen and translated
into English with the assistance of A. H. Smith (Cambridge, England: W.
Heffer & Sons, 1932), pp. 3-4.
- Odin's name is still carried by Fyn's most important city, Odense, the
birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen.
- Leidre, also spelled Leire or Lejre is near Roskilde on the island of
Zealand. Today it is the site of a reconstructed iron age village.
- Odin's son Skjold who married Gefion is said to be the founder of the
Danish Skjoldung royal dynasty and is identified with Scyld Sceafing
mentioned in Beowulf.
Revised September 15, 1999.