Who Is the Germanic Isis Mentioned in Tacitus’ Germania?

Written by Dyami Millarson

The Suebī traditionally worship Isis according to Tacitus in his ethnographic work on Germanic-speaking Europe. Which Germanic Goddess does the Roman historian Tacitus mean by Isis in his work dē ōrīgine et sitū Germanōrum?

Isis may be identified with (a) Frigg and Freyja or (b) Frigg or Freyja. The first option supposes, according to arguments laid out below, that Frigg and Freyja are two manifestations of the same Goddess. For our identification of Isis with these both or either of these Goddesses, it does not matter whether or not Freyja and Frigg are ultimately the same (see this document for arguments against the notion that they are ultimately the same), because it cannot be dismissed that They are very similar to each other, and these traits, which make Freyja and Frigg very similar, match with those of Isis.

The most eminent Goddesses in the North Germanic tradition are Frigg and Freyja, whose names alliterate, and whose husbands’ names, namely Óðinn and Óðr, alliterate as well. All these correspond to *ᚠᚱᛁᛞᛃᚨ (*Friddja), *ᚠᚱᚨᚢᛃᛟ (*Fraujō), *ᚹᛟᛞᚨᚾᛊ (*Wōdans), and *ᚹᛟᛞᛊ (*Wōds) which we may reconstruct for Gothic, the Germanic language, of which the words tend to be the most similar to those of Common Germanic, and therefore are usually almost as insightful or even just as insightful as the Common Germanic lexical equivalents.

Why does Old Norse Frigg correspond to Gothic *ᚠᚱᛁᛞᛃᚨ (*Friddja)? The original stem of Frigg is Friggj- as seen in the genitive Friggjar. The Old Norse ggj corresponds to ddj in the Gothic language. If the reader is curious about this, I refer him to this page which offers an explanation of the correspondence between Gothic ddj and Old Norse gg.

We may identify Óðr/*Wōds as an epithet of Óðinn/*Wōdans in earlier times and Freyja/*Fraujō as an epithet of Frigg/*Friddja in earlier times based on the following arguments:

  • The popularity itself of both Frigg and Freyja in Norse tradition leads one to suspect a deeper connection.
    • The absence of Freyja in other Germanic traditions, despite her popularity in Norse tradition, only increases the suspicion that Freyja and Frigg are identical.
  • On the basis of alliteration alone, we may conclude there is a very strong poetical connection between the two pairs, which is why it is wholly unsurprising that the poetical pair Frigg ok Freyja is attested in the materials. This may be interpreted as a poetical memory of the superficially separate male-female pairs being underlyingly one male-female single pair.
  • Semantic evidence suggests that the two pairs of Deities are so similar that they may ultimately very well be a single pair of Deities. Namely, both the male names Óðr and Óðinn mean wrath; the female names Frigg and Freyja mean love and lady, which may easily be semantically connected as well, since ladies may generally be thought of as sexually attractive, and hence closely associated with love as well. The general Dutch and German words for woman are cognate with the theonym Freyja: vrouw and Frau respectively. Women in general are associated with love, and vrouw/Frau is apparently may originally have been an endearing title for females, i.e. a way of showing kindness, love and affection, hence considered appropriate in Dutch and German for describing all females. It must be said, though, that this title, even today, is only applied to sexually mature women, and in the same way as the Dutch and German terms, the name Freyja may be regarded as being inherently semantically associated with sexual maturity, which is something the theonym Frigg also seems to imply, namely love in a sexually mature sense. Supporting this mature interpretation, is Óðinn‘s epithet angan Friggjar Frigg’s love.
  • Functional evidence, by which I mean the evidence arising from the overlapping functions of the two pairs, suggests that the two pairs are actually one. Namely, the husbands are both Gods of Wrath and the wives are both Goddesses of Love; this functional symmetry — this rhyming of functions— must be no mere coincidence. 
    • The distinction itself between the wives is just as problematic as that between the husbands. The distinction between marital love and lustful love, as supposed to be represented by Frigg and Freyja respectively, may not be the original Germanic situation, because, after all, love is love and although it could manifest itself in different ways, it is still fundamentally the same thing; just as wrath may manifest itself in different eays, it is still the same thing. We may instead suppose a single underlying Goddess of Love, of which Frigg and Freyja are superficial manifestations.
    • The functional parallellism between the pairs does not end with the overlapping of functions between the two females in the two pairs and the overlapping functions between the two males in the two pairs. It is, in fact, also seen between the males and the females, which is to be expected from the worship of a husband-wife pair. Namely, functional parallellism is observed in the fact that Óðinn is the God of Death and the God of Magic while Freyja is the Goddess of Death and the Goddess of Magic; this makes them functional equals. The fact that the slain are divided by halves between Óðinn and Freyja only emphasises this functional male-female equality. Furthermore, while Óðinn is the God of Fate, Frigg is the Goddess of Fate. There is inherent overlap between knowledge of fate and magic so that one who knows fate may be regarded as one who knows magic, and vice versa. After all, sooth-saying is naturally connected with other magical abilities, such as shape-shifting; for if one knows the ways of fate, then one can also bend or change reality, and wield that power to manipulate appearances or forms, which renders essences visibly different from what they truly are or are originally meant to be. This connection between magic and fate is also seen with Óðinn because once he acquires knowledge of fate, he automatically also acquires knowledge of magic; based on the lore, we cannot escape the notion that fate and magic are intricately connected. Therefore, the parallellism between Óðinn and Frigg with regards to fate functionally rhymes with the parallellism between Óðinn and Freyja.
  • Frigg and Freyja being seemingly separate entities in Lokasenna, for example, is not at all a problem according to Nordic tradition for the “superficially two entities, underlyingly one entity.” Namely, Nordic lore informs us that magic allows a Deity to be separate beings at the same time. Therefore, it is not unheard of for Deities to have multiple apparitions or appearances at the same time; epithets may, in this sense, not just be interpreted as different aspects of a Deity, but as actual different manifestations, in other words, as seemingly distinct beings. This idea is not at all heretical among traditional pagan practitioners, and can be found in various old pagan traditions. For instance, the Mari pagans, who are found in the Mari El Republic of the Russian Federation, believe that Kugu Yumo, which is the Mari indigenous name for Óðinn, has many manifestations under different names; He is one and many beings at the same time. He is indeed allmátki almighty and the All-God or All-Father with countless names, the one who encompasses and created the world; Rudolph Keyser is apparently thinking the same when on page 128 of Religion of the Northmen, he writes that Óðinn‘s bearing of many names “expresses the World-Spirit as a Being who, by an infinite variety of modes, reveals himself in natureand on page 112, that Óðinn “is the Essence of the World, the Almighty As; [H]e alone is Al-father, from whom all the other superior, world-directing beings, the Æsir, are descended.”
    • Freyja and Frigg should be compared to the separate manifestations of Óðinn. As a Sorcerer-God, Óðinn can manifest himself as different beings; while we know that Freyja is closely associated with knowledge of seiðr magic (according to Ynglinga saga) and Frigg with knowledge of fate (according to Lokasenna), why should we not suppose that she can manifest herself as two instead of one? Just consider how Óðinn appears to the protagonist of the Younger Edda: He is Hárr, Jafnhárr and Þriði at the same time. Óðinn may, likewise, be thought of as manifesting Himself in three ways when He performs the sacred act of fashioning the world together with Vili and — which originally alliterate with Óðinn whilst the elder form is *Vóðinn — and as once again appearing in three forms when He finally performs the sacred act of creating mankind together with Lóðurr and Hœnir. Óðinn is, then, identical to Plato’s Δημιουργός (Dēmiourgós) demiurge whom Plato also describes simply as θεός (theós) God, yet Óðinn is at the same time magically one with His creation, thus appearing to humanity as the Cosmos, of which Plato suggests in sections 30b, 30c and 30d of his philosophical work Timaeus that it “has verily come into existence as a Living Creature endowed with soul and reason owing to the providence of God. […] [T]he Cosmos, more than aught else, resembles most closely that Living Creature of which all other living creatures, severally and generically, are portions. For that Living Creature embraces and contains within itself all the intelligible Living Creatures, just as this Universe contains us and all the other visible living creatures that have been fashioned. For since God desired to make it resemble most closely that intelligible Creature which is fairest of all and in all ways most perfect, He constructed it as a Living Creature, one and visible, containing within itself all the living creatures which are by nature akin to itself.” Plato distinguishes Θεός (Theós) God, i.e. Óðinn, from what he calls the Ζῷον (Zōion) Living Creature, yet the former can manifest Himself as the latter; for if He possess the magical ability to create that soul vessel which Plato calls Ζῷον (Zōion) Living Creature, He surely also possesses the magical ability to inhabit it, allowing Him therefore to manifest Himself as the Cosmos. In conclusion, it is consistent with Óðinn‘s magical ability to suppose that He can be multiple beings at the same time, even if that means being both the Creator, whom Plato calls the Δημιουργός (Dēmiourgós) Demiurge, and the Cosmos itself, which Plato identifies with the Ζῷον (Zōion) Living Creature.
    • Whilst Óðinn is associated with magic and is therefore associated with the magical ability of creating multiple manifestations of His being, we may by extention believe that Óðr is associated with these traits. Since Germanic peoples feared and hence respected the magical abilities of women, such as seen with Gambara (who is of Suebian origin), Ganna, Veleda and Albruna (all four of whom may be regarded as Dísir Holy or Wise Women), which is not incongruent with the later medieval belief that especially women may assume the role of witches, we may suppose that the wife of the superficially two husband-wife pairs, which are underlyingly one pair, taught magic and by extension the ability to manifest oneself as different beings to the husband. Hence, Óðinn‘s displayed ability of manifesting Himself as different beings must, at least in part, have been derived from His wife. Ynglinga saga narrates that Freyja taught seiðr magic to Óðinn; we may connect this to an underlying theme of a wife teaching her husband her secrets, namely his magical ability, and we may this interpret the underlying meaning of the whole affair as that the wife is teaching seiðr magic to the husband, i.e. Frigg teaching Óðinn = Freyja teaching Óðr. After all, we may see the teaching aspect in the fact that Freyja transforms Óðr, assuming He is identical with Óttar, into a boar; He got this transformative ability from Her, and we may interpret it as meaning that She was teaching Him magic or sharing magical secrets with Him. Óttar may be identified with Óðr and Óðinn, because (a) Óttar is the travel companion of Freyja whilst both Óðinn and Óðr are known to be a Travelling God, (b) Óttar alliterates with Óðinn and Óðr, possibly suggesting a reference or link, (c) Freyja takes very good care of Óttar like how a wife behaves towards her husband and we know from the lore that Freyja deeply and genuinely cares about Óðr, (d) Freyja helps Óttar with seiðr magic just as she helps Óðinn with seiðr magic, (e) Óttar‘s meeting with a Völva Seeress who is a Giantess, parallels Óðinn‘s meeting Völva Seeress who is a Giantess. There is an old Christian view that the Nordic Gods are tricksters, adulterers, and sorcerers, which is actually a more interesting perception than it seems at first sight: we may interpret this as being congruent with the Gods ability to manifest as multiple beings, thus confusing mankind, which is trickery in Christian eyes. The function of this confusion is, however, to impart humanity with secret knowledge. After all, confusion is potentially an effective way of learning as proven by modern psychological research (see here; also compare this and this). The Christian perception of the Gods as adulterous may be interpreted as follows: knowledge of fate leads the Gods to reproduce with various beings, perhaps in an effort to prevent Ragnarök or to improve the final outcome of that conflict. Reproduction is to be viewed as a magical act, as also seen in the description of the slave girl sacrifice by Ibn Fadlan. Therefore, the Gods are reproducing in order to perform magical rites for the protection of the Gods themselves, and by extension the world, since the Gods are the protectors of the world. This makes sense because people in the past got kids for their own physical safety in old age; it is thus also traditionally expected that the Gods will show the same behaviour, conforming to the ancestral view that kids are people’s life insurance. Being informed by fate, the Gods make seemingly incomprehensible decisions, at first glance devious, but all these magical acts are performed in order to save the world, and are therefore heroic. When the Gods are viewed as adulterers, one overlooks the fact that They are the ultimate benefactors, the ultimate altruists in the Germanic worldview; their every act of reproduction must, therefore, be for some higher purpose, which may be incomprehensible to humans — this is the mystery of the Gods. So, since fate informs Óðinn to commit seemingly devious acts, we can expect Óðr to have done the same by extension; and while knowledge of fate causes Óðinn-Óðr to act in such a way, it must also have caused Freyja-Frigg to act in such a way. After all, if the husband’s behaviour is the result of his profound knowledge of fate, his behaviour must be a mirror image of the behaviour of the wife. If we suppose on account of the profound connection with fate that both Freyja and Frigga are equally inclined to reproduce with other beings, which at first seems promiscuous, then the seeming distinction between the kinds of love that Frigg and Freyja is broken down, in other words, the final barrier between the two is shown to be void. Indeed, there is proof in the lore that the nature of Frigg and Freyja in this regard is the same. Dan McCoy reached the same conclusion in this article where he writes: “Alongside the several mentions of Freya’s loose sexual practices can be placed the words of the medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, who relates that Frigg slept with a slave on at least one occasion. […] Many scholars have tried to differentiate between Freya and Frigg by asserting that the former is more promiscuous and less steadfast than the latter, […] but these tales suggest otherwise.” The sexual nature of Óðinn-Óðr is identical to that of Freyja-Frigg, because, as I have explained, they have an all-important role of protecting the world from ending calamitously; certainly in this case, the Germanic peoples traditionally hold the conviction that the ends justify the means.
  • The Æsir and Vanir overlap in the sense that a Deity, which is counted among the Æsir, may ultimately be one of the Vanir. The identification of Frigg with Jörð, Mother Earth, as the mother of Þórr — knowing that the Earth-Goddess tends to be associated with birthing the Thunder God in polytheism — also leads one to connect Frigg with the female Nerthus, who is another manifestation of Terra Māter or Mother Earth, because the Vanir are Deities associated with nature like the Álfar and Dísir (compare, for instance, the close association between the generally female Älvor and nature in Swedish folk tradition).
  • The implications of identifying the two pairs as one pair may themselves be used to serve as a suggestion that the identification may be true. If indeed the Freyja-Óðr pair is a doublet of the Frigg-Óðinn pair, for which I find the arguments to be quite compelling, then the husband-wife motif as seen in the two pairs may be regarded as recursive. Such recursive patterns may be analysed as of magico-religious nature. Nature itself is also recursive; it shows the same patterns over and over again in different ways. We must also bear in mind that the Gods involved in this apparently recursive pairing are chief, ruling, royal or leading Deities, whose presence may be felt everywhere. The chief husband-wife pair is thus a recurring theme, observed everywhere by the primordial poets and artists and all those people who spontaneously appreciate poetry and art inspired by nature. Duality, union of two opposite forces, is observed everywhere in nature. Inspired by such duality, nature poets write their nature poetry, nature artists make their nature art and nature peoples develop their nature religion. One of the implications of a recursive powerful female-male pairing is, namely, that the pair is present everywhere in nature, as one would expect from an all-encompassing male-female nature motif, which is embodied in the male Deity being identified with the sky, i.e. Father Sky, and the female Deity with the Earth, i.e. Mother Earth. As immensely powerful beings which are naturally recursive, They are the male and female in everything; They are, to say it in Chinese, the (yang) and (yin) of the world; to say it in Latin, the animus and anima of the world; to say it in German, the Geist and Seele of the world. Due to their relation with the world, one may call them animus mundī world-spirit and anima mundī world-soul in Latin, Weltgeist world-spirit and Weltseele world-soul in German. These two seemingly opposed concepts, which may be used to describe the Divine Couple, are more united than one may think, leading to the novel conception of Them as a single pair of ultimately the same type of Beings, which we may call Weltgeister World-Spirits in German and Wareldsjeestere in Sagelterland Frisian, comprising of a female and male component: as Divine King and Queen, They represent all male and female souls in the world and They are both therefore “all-embracing World-Spirits” — a description which Rudolph Keyser, on pages 112 and 128 of Religion of the Northmen, applied originally only to the male half of the pair, Father Sky, but seems equally applicable to the female half, Mother Earth, as the female completes the male and vice versa, whilst They both constitute a union of opposite forces in the world, arising from a mutual attraction of opposites which energises or animates everything. In other words, They are the male and female par excellence, which explains their strong urges for reproductive behaviours as well; it is in Their very nature to reproduce with all life in order to protect life itself. With regard to the rite of reproduction, the Earth Deity is the mirror image of the Sky Deity; if the male half reproduces with the world, then so does the female half do her duty for the world, demonstrating that male and female are complementary in upholding the world, each doing their part for the natural order. They thus represent nature’s imperative of reproduction, which is seen in all living organisms that exhibit male-female pairs.

The arguments for matching the Germanic Isis with Freyja/Frigg:

  • Looking at Frigg and Freyja as one whole, we can observe the prominence of the Frigg-Freyja pair in the Nordic lore, which may be interpreted as reflective of the popularity of the worship of this Goddess, which manifests as two. The popularity of the Frigg-Freyja pair, even if one treats them as separate Deities, is instructive, and it is doubtlessly a vital point which we have to consider, because this prominence corresponds to functional importance, which translates to popularity among pagan sacrificers. Isis is a likewise all-important Goddess; her all-consuming importance in Egyptian paganism cannot be emphasised enough. As this page of a website dedicated to Roman history explains, Isis “was the real power behind the universe” leading her devotees “to proclaim her as Mistress of Heaven” and owing to the fact that the importance of Osiris and Isis grew in Egyptian lore, “Isis began displacing other deities in the loyalties of the Egyptian population.” The Isis worship tradition may be functionally compared to the modern-day mother worship movement that is found in Vietnam. The Lombards, which are a Germanic tribal group also known by the name of Longobards, should be classified as a Suebian people according to Tacitus and Strabo. Therefore, the Lombardic or Longobardic tradition must be reflective of Germanic paganism as traditionally practised by the Suebī. Since we know that the most prominent Goddess of the Lombardic tradition is Frea, whom Gambara consulted according to the origin story which explains the name of the Lombards or Longobards (see here), it is very attractive to connect the Germanic Isis with Frea, the Goddess to whom the sixth day of the week, Friday, owes the first element of its name: Fri- = Frea/Frigg. Freyja is conspicuously absent in Lombardic tradition, which can also be said of all the other traditions that are not North Germanic. In stark contrast to the absence of Freyja from the materials of non-North Germanic peoples, Frigg is well attested among all Germanic peoples, strengthening the hypothesis based on prominence in the lore that Isis must be Frea.
  • Calling a Germanic Goddess Isis is in accordance with an ancient polytheist tradition, which is called interpretātiō Rōmāna in this case as Tacitus is practising the Roman variant of this tradition. We must bear in mind that Tacitus bases his interpretatio Rōmāna on functional comparison; to serve as the guiding principle for finding an equivalent that is familiar to the Romans, Tacitus uses the functions that the Suebian people of his time attribute to the Goddess in question. The functional similarities between Frigg/Freyja and Isis are indeed striking.  
    • Isis matches Freyja and Frigg in terms of blood relationships when one considers that Freyja must have had a brother-husband in the form of Freyja and that Frigg may likewise have had a brother-husband because She may be identified with Jörð, hence with female Nerthus/Njörðr, who is the sister-wife of male Nerthus/Njörðr. As this page of a site dedicated to Roman explains that “Osiris, the first [G]od-[K]ing of Egypt, introduced laws and agriculture to humankind” and Osiris “was […] deceived and murdered by his scheming brother Seth” who “hacked Osiris’ body into pieces and scattered them across Egypt.” As a result of this heinous act, Isis had to collect “the pieces and magically [revive] [H]er brother-husband Osiris, who became King of the Underworld.” How very similar the relationship between Osiris and Isis sounds to the relationship of Freyja Lady with her twin-brother Freyr Lord! After all, Freyr Lord was also conceived of as a God-King in the lore, and He was also closely associated with agriculture, which is, in turn, the reason why the Freyr-descended pagan dynasty of Sweden, the Ynglings, is traditionally associated with agriculture. The magical ability of Isis to revive her brother corresponds to the connection between Freyja and magic. When considering that the Álfar Ancestors or Holy Men are thought of as living in howes, the entrances of which may indeed also be regarded as gates to the underworld, and when we consider that Freyr is King of the World of the Álfar, we can see how both Osiris and Freyr are suffuciently similar in their chtonic functions to identify of Freyr as Osiris and Freyja as Isis.
    • Isis is “also thought to be a protector of sailors” according to this page of the website dedicated to Roman history, while Freyja may also be thought of as being connected to sailors through through her blood connections with the Vanir — to put it perhaps more clearly, through her descent from the Vanir. The boat burial tradition which is mentioned by Tacitus in connection to the Germanic Isis may likewise be better understood in the context of the boat burial tradition associated with the Vanir. Boat burials have been attested in the archeological record, and the archeological finds can be made sense of through literary sources, such as not only represented by Tacitus but also others: Ibn Fadlan mentions boat burial in his work, and I have interpreted a passage of his as reflective of Old East Norse religion and I have connected it to the worship of the Vanir, namely Freyr Lord and/or His father Njörðr, and the Álfar Elves (see this article). The father of Freyja and Freyr is associated with the sea, hence connecting boat burial with the Vanir is only natural and not at all that far-fetched. I have already pointed out a connection of Frigg with Mother Earth: since Frigg is the “Heavenly Mother” in the sense that She is the wife of the Sky-Father, she must functionally be identical to Jörð, who is the mother of Þórr. By identifying Frigg with Mother Earth, we can also identify Her with the female Nerthus/Njörth, whom I talk about at length in this article
    • Frigg and Freyja may be identified with Isis based on all the following functions which are beautifully described on this page of a website dedicated to Roman history: “the protector of family (especially women), the protector of newborns, the [G]oddess of fertility and good fortune, and the [G]oddess whose magic could cheat fate and death.”
      • As a Goddess of Fertility, Isis matches both Frigg and Freyja due to their common nature with regards to reproduction; like I have already explained, their reproductive behaviours are strikingly similar.
      • As a Goddess of Good Luck, Isis matches Frigg due to her association with fate. After all, fate and good luck are interconnected in Germanic lore. As pointed out earlier, fate is also connection with magic. So it may equally be said of Freyja that She is a Goddess of Good Luck.
      • In being the protector of newborns and (mothers in) families, Isis resembles Frigg. However, the same may be said of Freyja: being not without her own offspring, Freyja represents a protective mother not unlike Frigg.
    • Folk etymology may have played a role in Tacitus’ identification of the Germanic Goddess with Isis: Isis sounds very similar to Idis, which is the attested West Germanic equivalent of Old Norse Dís. Since Isis is a Deity familiar to Tacitus or any other Ronans for that matter, the similiary between Isis and Idis in terms of sound may have prompted him to identify the Goddess with Isis. Idis must — if it may be the folk etymological basis for the identification with Isis — be an epithet of the Germanic Goddess. In fact, a trace of this may be found in the epithet Vanadís, which is linked to Freyja, and Öndurdís, an epithet of Skaði, who may be connected with female Njörðr/Nerthus, who is Mother Earth and the twin sister of male Njörðr/Nerthus, of whom is said in Ynglinga saga that He was at one point married to his sister — bear in mind that if Jörð can reasonably be understood as a manifestation of Frigg, female Njörðr/Nerthus may also be interpreted as a manifestation of Frigg. It does, therefore, seem logical that Frigg/Freyja may be addressed as Dís/Idis. We should also consider that if Her twin-brother is connected with the Álfar, She must be connected with the Dísir, the female counterparts of the Álfar; for such parallellism seems only natural, and therefore fitting for the Vanir. Regardless of whether Tacitus bases his identification with Isis on Idis, a conviction which is only strengthened by functional comparison, I deem it quite possible that Dís/Idis may indeed be an old epithet of Freyja/Frigg; it is so attractive, convenient and straightforward to use this as an epithet for Freyja/Frigg that it should be very surprising if it is not the case.

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