There are some pretty amazing mothers in my life. My own somehow put up with me up till now (fingers crossed that that will last), my grandmother (mom’s side) and my late Nana (dad’s side) have been caring, central figures through the generations, my older sister is an amazingly competent mother of three who has pulled her girls through a significant chunk of adversity, and my girl cousins and cousin-in-laws are pretty much awesome when it comes to being moms. Heck, now I’ve got a bunch of friends also popping out babies and being generally (and specifically) awesome. Not that babies are a prerequisite for being awesome.
Unfortunately the Norse lit as it survives is pretty patriarchy-heavy (or maybe it’s just me…), and many of the mothers who come to mind from the corpus are not nearly as glorious as they ought to be in a tribute to the mothers I know. We’ve got some witchy mothers who enchant their sons skin to make them invulnerable, or hopping over to Old English lit we find the vengeful man-eating monster mother of Grendel (we might subversively elevate the status of these figures, but in the original context of these texts, I wouldn’t say these women were especially well thought of). There are the vengeful mothers who incite their sons to continue the cycle of bloodshed in the sagas, and, well, that just doesn’t seem like it fits so well. And I really don’t want to get into Guðrún’s revenge on her husband Atli…
Well, I suspect I could come up with some much better examples if I thought about it, but here are a couple that came to mind first. The first is Frigg, whose only prominent role in the surviving mythology (apart from a couple arguments with Óðinn, and if we go beyond the Eddas, we find her cheating on Óðinn with his brothers) is to be the protective mother, going all-out to make the universe completely safe for her son Baldr. Long story short, it doesn’t work out, and while I can imagine other versions of the myth which may have been more about her plight and less about the plight of the men, as-is the myth does not really seem to be a celebration of motherhood to me (but again, no reason not to go for a more subversive reading…). As with many of the goddesses, it looks like they may have been more prominent in the pagan period, but they don’t survive so well in the Christian.
A matriarchal figure who stands out especially admirably is Unnr or Auðr “the deep-minded,” who features at the beginning of Laxdæla saga. She also has a son die, as well as her husband, but singlehandedly manages the move of the entire household to Iceland, away from their enemies, having built a ship secretly in the forest. In Iceland she takes part in the land-taking (landnám), essentially taking her place as one of the patriarchs in the founding of Iceland. In Iceland she continues to function as head of household, possibly enabled by the fact that her two nearest male kin have died, and she arranges the marriages of her descendants and followers, finally dying in a very reserved and respectable fashion following the last such marriage. The saga as a whole is full of competent, sympathetically represented women, and is just a darn good saga besides, so I recommend it! I know, Unnr’s motherliness is not emphasized here, but she was the best example I could think of. For a more detailed look at Unnr, check out this post.
Anyway… HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!