Freyja's fressa:
A car drawn by cats?

by William P. Reaves
© 2013
1905 Carl Emil Doepler Jr.

In the historical scholarship, there seems to be some question as to what kind of animals drew Freyja’s car. While most scholars today accept that Freyja's car was drawn by cats, that cannot be definitively determined from the sources. Although it is rarely mentioned today, the topic was much discussed by Eddaic scholars in the middle of the 19th century.

In 1829, Finnur Magnussen first broached the subject, stating:
Eddaerne tillægge Freya undertiden et Forspand der snart siges at have bestaaet af Katte, snart Fress', denne sidste Benævnelse tillægges nit i Island Hankatte, men vi see af Skalda at det og fordum har betydet Bjöme , samt rimeligvis da ogsaa andre her i Norden ubekjendte glubende Dyr, som Löwe og Tigre (af mange regnede til Kattearten) o. s. v. Det Islandske Navn for en Löve Ljón (Leon) maa udledes fra Latin eller Græsk. Sometimes  the Eddas give Freya  a team that is now said to have consisted of cats, now 'fress'. This last designation in Iceland is conferred on tom-cats, but we see that to the skalds it formerly meant bear and probably then here too in the North other unknown ravenous beasts, like lions and tigers (of many reckoned among the cat species) etc. The Icelandic name for lion Ljón (Leo) must be derived from Latin or Greek.
In 1832, Svend Grundtvig raised the topic again:
Herpaa hentyder da ogsaa det stygge Katte-Spand, som Gylfe-Legen tilskriver hende *), skiöndt jeg er nær ved at troe, det er en Islandsk Foræring, istedenfor to Bjarne.*

*Freya kaldes nemlig i Skalda (p. 119) blandt Andet eigandi fressa, og betyder nu "fress" som Bjårn Haldorsen siger, baade en Kat og en Björn, da lader jeg Kattene löbe, og spænder Björnene (Kæmperne) for.
Then here too refers the tom-cat team, that Gylfaginning attributes to her, I am close to believing is an Icelandic bestowal, instead of two bears...

in Skáldskaparmál (p. 119) among other things is called eigandi fressa, and now "fress" means, as Björn Haldórsson says, both a cat and a bear, I let the cats run and yoke the bears.

Jakob Grimm discusses the matter in his Deutsche Mythologie (1844),  later translated into English by James Stalleybrass (1883). Grimm remarks:

Der Freyja wagen war mit zwei katzen (tveimr köttum) bespannt (s. 282); da altn. fres nicht blofs kater sondern auch bär bedeutet, hat man neulich gar nicht uneben behauptet, köttum könne aus fressum entprungen, und ein bärengespann der göttin gemeint sein.

“Freyja's car was drawn by two cats (tveim köttum), p. 282. Now, as fres in ON means both he-cat and bear, it has lately been contended, not without reason, that köttum may have been substituted for fressum, and a brace of bears have been really meant for the goddess, as Cybele's car was drawn by lions.


In 1857, this was argued against by Johann W. Wolf in his Beiträge zur Deutschen Mythologie, Vol. II, who states:


Grimm scheint M. 634 nicht ganz abgeneigt, die meinung zu theilen, da altn. fres kater und bär bedeutet, so könne köttum aus fressum entsprungen sein, und Freyjas wagen wäre statt mit tveimr köttum, ähnlich dem löwenbespannten der Kybele mit zwei bären bespannt gewesen. nach dem was 1, 186 über die katzen und vorhin über den bären beigebracht wurde, scheint diese ansicht jedoch kaum haltbar. Ebenso spricht dagegen, dass wir die katze als pförtnerin, als dienerin der thierkönigin genannt finden, dass kobolde und zwerge, über die Holda-Freyja zu herrschen scheint, in katzen gestalt auftreten, dass teufel und hexen auf katzen reiten. Das bauernweib, das nach dem Blocksberg will, bestreicht zuerst ihres grauen katers, dann ihre füsse mit salbe, worauf jener zum grauschimmel wird (das. 68.).  Grimm (DM p. 634) seems not entirely averse to share the opinion, because Old Norse fres means cat and bear, that köttum might have sprung from fressum, and Freyja's wagon drawn by tveimr köttum, was pulled by two bears similar to Cybele's span of lions. After what was said in 1, 186 about cats and earlier about bears, this seems hardly tenable. Equally, however, is the fact that we find the cat as a gatekeeper; as the handmaid to the queen of animals; that kobalds and dwarves, over which Holda-Freyja rules, appear in the shape of cats; that devils and witches ride on cats. The peasant woman who would go to Blocksberg, first smears her gray tomcat, then her own feet with salve, whereupon appears a gray horse (ibid. 68).

Wolf suggests that because the cat was associated with witches, as Freyja herself was, that Freyja's association with cats originated within the heathen era. Although he is probably correct in this, even this reasoning didn't quell the opposition. In 1864, P. D. A. Atterbom expresses the opinion that:

Freya, åkaude genom himlarymden efter sitt björnspann*), gjuter gullregnet af sin längtans tårar.

*Det isländska ordet "fress", som allmänligen tolkats med katt, betyder äfven björn: se isländaren Björn Haldorsens lexicon.
Freya, riding  through heaven after her bear-span,* emits the golden rain of her tears of longing.

*The Icelandic word "fress" that is generally interpreted with cat, also means bear: see Icelander Björn Haldorsen's lexicon.


 This discussion also seems to be the inspiration for some of the early sketches for Freyja made by Lorenz Frølich around 1844, who portrays the goddess with both bears and cats.  

By 1885, the same artist clearly portrays Freyja in a car drawn by cats, probably reflecting the then-current scholarly arguments (top panel).

The theory seems to have died out around the same time. Thus it appears that the debate concerning the species of Freyja's draught-animals ran from some time around 1829 and lasted until around 1870.

The argument, which clearly originates in the Old Norse sources (see below), may have been fueled by the discovery of Gallo-Roman statue of a bear goddess in Switzerland in the early 1830s, which has been described as follows:

"In 1832 a statuette of a goddess, Artio, was discovered in the neighbourhood, which dated from Roman times. Now Artio is certainly connected with Irish art, Lat. ursus, Gr. aprros, and means the goddess of the bear or something of that sort. A bear was also discovered among the other statuettes, but was not until later brought into connexion with the goddess, before whom it was standing in the original form of the group." —Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1908) ed. by James Hastings

“The names Arthur and Artio mean "bear." In similar fashion, the city of Bern, Switzerland, arose from the center of a cult of the bear as Mother. The people there still take her as their symbol. In 1832 in Muri, near Bern, an ancient statue of Dea Artio, the Bear goddess, was unearthed from the vegetable patch of a local parson. The arresting bronze statue shows the seated deity offering fruit in a paterna dish to her bear.” —Lady of the Beasts (1994) by Buffie Johnson.

Despite the debate, it should be noted that artists throughout the length of the scholarly discussion continued to depict Freyja (or Frigg, due to the persistent confusion between the two goddesses) in a car drawn by cats. This suggests that the theory about the bears was never widely accepted.

1829 Anton Thormond Legis

1852 Nils Blommér

1865 Ludwig Pietsch

c. 1869 George Eastman collection
So what instigated such an unusual discussion in the first place? Before we dismiss these observations as spurious, it’s important to look at the sources. Freyja’s car is not mentioned in the Poetic Edda. The question arises from the words used for her draught-animals by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda, where they are mentioned three times: once in Gylfaginning 24 and again in Gylfaginning 52, then again in Skáldskaparmál 28.
Gylfaginning 24: En er hon ferr, þá ekr hon köttum tveim ok sitr í reið. (Anthony Faulkes tr.) "And when she travels she drives two cats and sits in a chariot."

Freyja drives the same team to Baldur's funeral pyre:

Gylfaginning 52: En þessa brennu sótti margs konar þjóð, fyrst at segja frá Óðni, at með honum fór Frigg ok valkyrjur ok hrafnar hans, en Freyr ók í kerru með gelti þeim, er Gullinbursti heitir eða Slíðrugtanni, en Heimdallr reið hesti þeim, er Gulltoppr heitir, en Freyja ók köttum sínum. (Rasmus Anderson tr.) "First of all came Odin, accompanied by Frigg and the valkyries and his ravens. Frey came riding in his chariot drawn by the boar called Gullinbursti or Slidrugtanni. Heimdall rode his steed Gulltop, and Freyja drove her cats."

While Gylfaginnning says that her car was drawn by köttum, Skáldskaparmál, in a list of kennings for the goddess,  says that she is the owner of fressa. The meaning of the latter word is the source of the meaning "bear." The word appears in a list of bear-names attached to Skáldskaparmál:

Þula: Björn,  bersi, blómr, bera elgviðnir, blájaxl, ísólfr ok breiðvegi, bestingr, bassi, balti, hlébarðr, úfr, frekr, vilnir,  jórekr, mösni, fetvíðnir, húnn, fress, vetrliði,   íugtanni, jálfúðr,  ifjungr, vilskarpr Bear, grizzly, mighty one, she-bear, elgviðnir, dark-tooth, ice-wolf and broadway, haltered, bassi, growler, leopard, rough, greedy one, robber, Iorek, mosni, forest-walker, cub, snarler, winter-survivor, greedy-tooth, yellow-bum, hooded one, shrivelled-gut

In the translation above by Anthony Faulkes (1988), he defines fress as "snarler." In the glossary that accompanies his edition of Skáldskaparmál, Faulkes clarifies the term as meaning "tom-cat", indicating that it designates a bear, and may literally mean "hisser or snarler(?)"
Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson define the word fress this way:
FRESS, m. a tom-cat, Edda 63, Grág. i. 501; also called fress-köttr, m., and steggr, q.v. : — a bear, Edda (Gl.), Kormakr (in a verse).
Sveinbjörn Egilsson in his Lexicon Poeticum indicates that fress is found among the bear-names in the thular, as well as in Grettis Saga 2, 5 as part of the kenning "fangvinar Hafla fress" (Halfi's challenger's bear) which means "Thor’s bear" and serves as a paraphrase of the name þórbjórn; and in a kenning found in a loose verse by the skald Kormakr, sónar fress, which literally means "blood’s bear" and designates a sword.

"[Rudolf] Meissner listed only one name-kenning from Kormakr: the poet's oblique reference to Steingerðr's first husband, Hólmgöngu-Bersi (bersi 'bear'), as híðbyggvir 'den-dweller, bear' (26). Kormakr seems to have enjoyed developing the literal idea or image conjured up by this animal personal name. In one remarkable display of technical virtuosity, he portrays the enraged Bersi running into single-combat while his own sword, also personified as a bear, races snarling out of its sheath: greipar iugtanni 'tusk-tooth (bear) of the grip'; sónar fress 'bear (tom-cat) of blood'"Mediaeval Scandinavia, Vol. 3 (1971).

In the Lexicon Islandico-Latino-Danicum by Björn Halldórsson (1814), referenced by Atterbom above, fress is defined as both a felis, 'tom-cat' and an ursus, 'bear'. The same source is referred to by Svend Grundtvig in 1832. Thus the word fressa, as defined by Halldórsson, most likely sparked the debate concerning the species of Freyja's draught-animals.

Coupled with the word köttum, the use of the word fressa indicates that Freyja's car was pulled by a pair of tom-cats (rather than the kittens or female cats sometimes shown). Apart from fressa, however, the word köttum also opens up other possibilities. Could it be that Freyja’s car was once conceived of as drawn by a pair of martens? The Cleasby-Vigfusson Dictionary defines the word as:

KÖTTR, m., kattar, ketti, pl. kettir, acc. köttu, mod. ketti; [Anglo-Saxon and English cat; Old High German chatza; German katze; Danish kat; Swedish katt] :-- a cat, originally the martin cat or weasel; ...  a tom-cat is called fress, högni, steggr; a she-cat, bleyða; a black tom-cat, kolr; a white tom-cat, mjaldr; the pet name is kisa, kis kis, q.v.; hreysi-k. (q.v.), the ermine cat. It seems that in the Saga time (10th century) the cat was not yet domesticated, for passages such as Vd. ch. 28, Eg. S. Einh. ch. 10, and the story in Edda (Thor lifting the giant's cat) apply better to the wild cat or the martin cat; and the saying in Ísl. ii. l.c. (sees the cat the mouse?) probably refers to the weasel and the field mouse; but that early in the 12th century the cat was domesticated even in Iceland is shewn by the story of the chess-players and the kittens leaping after a straw on the floor, told in Morkinskinna 204, 205.
As Cleasby-Vigfusson suggest, the exact meaning cannot be determined from other usages in the Prose Edda. The word appears two more times in context in Gylfaginning.
In Gylfaginning 24, the chain Gleipnir, used to bind the Fenris Wolf, is said to be made of:
Hann var gerr af sex hlutum: af dyn kattarins ok af skeggi konunnar ok af rótum bjargsins ok af sinum bjarnarins ok af anda fisksins ok af fugls hráka. “It was made of six things: the noise a cat makes in foot-fall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a rock, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.”

Of course, the footfall of marten is as soft as that of a cat. The same word is used of Utgard-Loki's housepet in Gylfaginning 46:

Þá mælti Útgarða-Loki: "Þat gera hér ungir sveinar, er lítit mark mun at þykkja, at hefja upp af jörðu kött minn, en eigi myndak kunna at mæla þvílíkt við Ása-Þór, ef ek hefða eigi sét fyrr, at þú er miklu minni fyrir þér en ek hugða."
Því næst hljóp fram köttr einn grár á hallargólfit ok heldr mikill, en Þórr gekk til ok tók hendi sinni niðr undir miðjan kviðinn ok lyfti upp, en kötttrinn beygði kenginn, svá sem Þórr rétti upp höndina. En er Þórr seildist svá langt upp sem hann mátti lengst, þá létti kötturinn einum fæti, ok fekk Þórr eigi framit þenna leik meir.
Þá mælti Útgarða-Loki: "Svá fór þessi leikr sem mik varði. Köttrinn er heldr mikill, en Þórr er lágr ok lítill hjá stórmenni því, sem hér er með oss.
"Then said Útgarda-Loki: 'Young lads here are wont to do this (which is thought of small consequence): lift my cat up from the earth; but I should not have been able to speak of such a thing to Ása-Thor if I had not seen that thou hast far less in thee than I had thought.' Thereupon there leaped forth on the hall-floor a gray cat, and a very big one; and Thor went to it and took it with his hand down under the middle of the belly and lifted up. But the cat bent into an arch just as Thor stretched up his hands; and when Thor reached up as high as he could at the very utmost, then the cat lifted up one foot, and Thor got this game no further advanced. Then said Útgarda-Loki: 'This game went even as I had foreseen; the cat is very great, whereas Thor is low and little beside the huge men who are here with us.'

Although the common housecat is probably intended here, as Cleasby-Vigfusson point out, the supple, serpentine form of a marten would work just as well, combined with the fact that martens are sometimes kept as pets. Since Snorri’s source of this information is unknown to us, it is impossible to determine the original word for Freyja's team. If köttum is the original word, it is also entirely possible that the species of animal changed as the language changed, using the designation of a wild animal for the newly domesticated housecat.

For the car to be drawn by bears, the word köttum would have to be an innovation by Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Prose Edda, based on the word fressa, which he found in his sources (as Grimm suggests).  But since we don't know Snorri's source for this information, there is simply no way to tell what the original word for Freyja’s draught-animals was. Based on the available evidence, Freyja most likely rode in a car drawn by a pair of tom-cats (köttom, fressa), either domestic or wild. A likely breed is the Norsk skogkatt or Norwegian forest cat.
Norsk skogkatt
If bears (or any other creature) ever drew Freyja's car, they  must remain an interesting footnote in the history of Eddaic scholarship.  
A pictorial history of Freyja's car drawn by cats can be found HERE.
1995 Kris Waldherr