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St. Stephen and Freyr

By Joseph Bloch

It’s well-known that certain Celtic deities were imported nearly wholesale into the Christian pantheon of Saints, with the most obvious example being the Celtic goddess Brigid, who is now known as St. Brigid. However, there are also similar correspondences with Germanic deities. One such is St. Stephen, known from the New Testament as the first martyr (or proto-martyr, since his death came before Christianity was founded, as such; see Acts 6-7). Some sources report an 11th century missionary named Staffan, with whom the Biblical figure may have been conflated. I first became aware of this saint, and his possible connections with the Norse god Freyr, in Pamela Berger’s The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint, pp 110-112, although she goes further and conflates him with the goddess Freyja, which doesn’t seem all that justified (or necessary).

What’s intriguing is that when the North began to be converted, and the saints of Christianity began to enter the public consciousness, they were mapped onto pre-existing Heathen religious and folk-customs. In the case of St. Stephen, this mapping occurred due to the proximity of his feast-day (December 26th, known as Boxing Day in England) with the Heathen Yule (ON Jól) celebration, which was held around the winter solstice.

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