Who are the Vanir
Though associated in cult with the Æsir or even included among them in the Norse mythological stories, the Vanir are a small but distinct group of Norse gods.
They dwell in Vanaheim, not Asgard, and include Njord, Frey, and Freyja, possibly also Heimdall and Frigg (Odin’s wife).
Their general functions seem to be those of nature deities, rulers of the fruitful earth and of prosperity.
Thus, Njord is the god of sea-faring and commerce, Frey the god of good harvests and peace, while Freya is the goddess of love and fertility.
Some Norse mythological poems consider the Vanir as a much larger group than those named above, and even say that “wise powers”in Vanaheim created Njord, and that Njord, having been given as a hostage to the Æsir, will return home to Vanaheim at Ragnarok, the Doom of the world.
Notable Vanir gods
According to the Prose Edda, Njord is third in rank among the Norse gods, after Odin and Thor, though he is not an Aesir, for he was created by “wise powers” in the land of the Vanir and given by them as a hostage to the Aesir.
Such is his renown as leader of the Vanir, that he is often reffered to simply as “the Vanir”, “god of the Vanir” or “kinsman of the Vanir”.
His palace is at Noatun, translated as “Ship-place” or “Haven”.
His wife is the giantess Skadi, but he already had two children before marrying her: Frey and Freyja.
Njord rules the course of the wind and stills the sea, storm, and fire. Men call on him during sea-faring and hunting.
So rich and abundant in goods is he, that he can give plenty of lands or wealth; thus men invoke him to obtain such things.
As such, Njord is god of wealth-bestowal, and, according to the wise giant Vafthrudnir, he is rich in altars and shrines.
Njord has thus two distinct divine attributes: he is a Sea-god and a god of wealth and prosperity.
Frey, or Freyr, is the son of Njord, and like him one of the Vanir, but often counted as an Æsir.
He is reffered to as “the bold son of Njord”, “his mighty son”, “his noble son”.
Among the Æsir he is “the most renowned”, “foremost of the gods”, “whom no man hates”, “the first of all the heroes in the gods’ house”.
His name, which corresponds to Gothic frauja, and Old High German frô, and Anglo-Saxon fréa, means lord, and was thus at first a title.
The Prose Edda says of him that, like his sister Freyja, he is fair of face and mighty.
He is god of the fruitful season and of the gifts of wealth.
He rules over rain and sunshine and also over the natural production of the earth.
Good is it to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace, for he can give peace and prosperity to men. Thus Frey is closely akin to Njord in his functions.
It is also said of him that he “harms not maids”, nor “men’s wives”, and frees the slaves from their chains. He is also the battle-bold Frey.
Frey’s seat is in Alfheim, the land of the Alfar or elves, given him by the gods as a tooth-gift’ in ancient times, meaning a present given to a child on cutting its first tooth.
Since the elves are especially connected with the growing of vegetable life (the places on the turf where they have danced betray themselves by the rich-ness of the grass), so the god of fruitfulness is naturally their overlord.
Among his possessions are Skidbladnir, “swiftest and best of ships”, and made with great skill of craftsmanship by dwarfs.
He also owns a magical sword that can fight by itself, as well as a magical horse called Blodughofi that can run through flames.
Finally, he would also ride a boar, crafted by dwarves, that could walk on air or water better than any horse, and whose bristles would shine through the night.
Freyja or “the Lady” as daughter of Njord and sister of Frey, was one of the Vanir, and was called Vanabrudr, “Bride of the Vanir”, Vanadis, “Lady of the Vanir” or simple the Vanir godess.
Like the other members of the group, she is counted among the Æsir, and is ” the most renowned of the goddesses” and “most gently born”.
In Heaven she has the dwelling Folkvang, “Folk-plain”, and her hall, great and fair is Sessrumnir, “Rich in seats”.
Here she assigns seats to the heroes who fall in battle, and half of these she shares with Odin to go to Valhalla. Thus she is the Possessor of the Slain.
She drives forth a chariot drawn by cats, and in this manner she came to Balder’s funeral.
Her most famous possession is the necklace Brisinga-men, which Loki stole and Heimdall recovered.
She also has a hawk’s plumage or feather-dress which enables her to fly, and is sometimes borrowed by Loki.
She rides the boar Hildisvini, “Battle-swine”, with golden bristles, which she desires to pass off as Frey’s boar. In reality it is her lover Ottarr in that form.
Freyja’s husband is Od; thus she is Ods-mær, “Bride of Od”.
Their daughter is Hnoss, “Jewel”, so fair that precious things are called after her, hnóssir.
According to one Norse tale, she had two daughters, Hross and Gersimi, after whom “all things dearest to have are named”.
Freyja is willing to help when men call upon her, especially in love affairs, and she is thus called goddess of love.
In some stories, it is said that Freyja was to one to have introduced evil magic, seidr, among the Aesir.
From her name, noble women carried the title of “freyjur”.
Frigg is Odin’s consort, and her name likely derives from the old Sanskrit term “préya”, meaning wife. In Old Norse, Frigg could also mean “beloved”.
Odin is sometimes described as “the dweller in Frigg’s bosom” and “Frigg’s beloved”.
The Norse mythological texts are either unclear or contradictory regarding whether she is an Aesir or Vanir.
In the Prose Edda, she is descrbied as daughther of Fjorgyn, a Vanir clan chief. However in the Poetic Edda, Fjorgyn is described as a giantess, and a mistress of Odin. Thus she would be both the wife and the daughther of Odin so a true Aesir.
The likelihood that she was a Vanir however is higher, since during the Vanir-Aesir war, she chose to side with the Vanir in spite of her marriage to Odin.
Given that she is described as tender and nurturing, there are very few explanations that can justify this other than having blood ties to the Vanir.
From them are descended the races of the Aesir. She is called mother of Balder, “co-wife of Jord, Rind, Gunnlod, and Grid”, and she is lady of the Æsir and Asynjur.
As foremost of the goddesses and always heading the lists of these, she has the hall Fensalir, “Sea-hall”, which is most glorious, but she shares Hlidskjalf with Odin. She speaks no prophecy, yet sheknows the fates of men.
From what is said of her and of these other goddesses, Frigg may be regarded as a genial, kindly divinity, promoter of marriage and truitfulness, helper of mankind and dispenser of gifts. She stands beside Freyja as one to whom prayers were made.
She was invoked by the childless, such as the king Rerir and his queen prayed for offspring to the gods, and Frigg heard them as well as Odin.
Are the Vanir any different than the Aesir?
The Norse mythological texts do not speak of any notable difference between the Aesir and Vanir. Both are seen as equals and belonging to the same “class” of beings: gods.
Where are the Vanir located
Where little is known about Vanaheim, the “Land of the Vanir”, other than the fact that is the fourth realm, situated above Midgard and to the east of Asgard.
Through it’s name, and the nature of the Vanir gods who inhabit it, we can deduce that it is a wild world, where nature prevails over a constructed civilization.
Asgard and Midgard are constructed using the word “gardr” which means “court” or “enclosure”. By comparison, Vanaheim uses the word “heimr”, which means “land”, “home” or “world”.
These differences point to a world that was less orderly than Asgard or Midgard, and instead one closer to the base elemental forces, similar to how Jotunheim was home to ice giants and Muspelheim home to fire giants.
Vanir Aesir war
The causes of the war
One of the Vanir, Frey, was married to a giantess named Gerd. Gerd had a sister called Gullveig, and is infamous for being a practitioner of black magic.
Odin and the rest of the Aesir were outraged of Gullveig’s practice of black magic, so they summoned her to the halls of Asgard, put her on trial and then proceeded to execute her by burning.
The Aesir tried to burn Gullveig three times, however she regerenated herself after every burning.
Even though Gullveig was a giantess and not a god, and a practitioner of black magic, she was still the sister of Frey’s wife. Through bonds of family and blood, the Vanir could not let this insult go unanswered so they entered into treaties and talks with the Aesir so they could receive proper compensation for the offense caused to them.
During the talks, Odin was outraged by the demands of the Vanir, so he threw his spear towards them, which ended the negotiations and was the kindling that started a world war among the Aesir and the Vanir.
The course of the war
Defeating Asgard and the Aesir was no easy task for the Vanir.
The bridge Bifrost, which the gods daily use, was the connection between the lower worlds (including Vanaheim, home of the Vanir) and Asgard, and which must be captured by the enemy before the great cordon which encloses the shining halls of the gods can be attacked.
The wall surrounding Asgard was constructed by its architect in such a manner that it is a safe protection againstmountain-giants and frost-giants, with the entrance being only one magical gate.
There are few who understand the magical lock of that gate, and if any tries to open the gate improperly then the gate itself will chain the tresspaser.
Outside the walls of Asgard lies a magical moat, but the vapours from the moat are magical and explosively ignite when kindled.
How the Vanir overcame these obstacles and defeated the Aesir is not properly explained in the Norse mythological Eddas.
The only thing that is mentioned is that Njord was the leader of the Vanir during the expedition, and that he used his axe to smash the gate of Asgard, after which the invaders took over the realm of the Aesir.
Peace between Vanir and Aesir
After the Vanir won the war, they banished Odin from Asgard for a period of ten years, and the god Ullr was appointed to take his place.
During this time, the hold of the Aesir and Vanir upon the world began to weaken, and their foes began to attack the gods with greater resolve.
As a result, the Vanir and Aesir decided upon reconciliation.
Both sides knew that Gullveig had been responsible for the conflict between them, but killing her outright wasn’t possible for the Aesir, and not acceptable for the Vanir. As a compromise, the two groups of gods decided to banish all black magic practitioners from Asgard and Midgard, and exiled Gullveig to Ironwood.
There, Gullveig would nurture the Loki’s child Fenrir and prepare an army that the trickster fire god would lead to defeat the gods at Ragnarock.
With black magic removed from the realm of gods and men, Odin was reinstated as supreme god.
To permanently seal the peace treaty, the Vanir gave two hostages to the Aesir, their leader Njord and his brother Frey. In turn, the Aesir also gave two hostages to the Vanir, Hœnir and his brother Mimir.
Now residing in Asgard, Frey and Njord became priests of Odin, and each received a godly domain to rule on Midgard: Njord had become the lord of Noatun, and the god of sea-faring and commerce, while Frey was now the god of harvests and peace.
Historical importance of the war
This myth of a war between groups of gods seems to reflect the opposition of rival cults, where one is recently introduced and gaining popularity, but is opposed by the supporters of the other.
At last, after violent conflict, a compromise was effected and both cults now existed side by side. The groups of deities are linked together, but their separate origin is never quite forgotten.
A hint of this conflict is the practice of warring tribes giving each other hostages, as a way of maintaining the peace, but also the fact that Vanaheim is described as a different location than Asgard.
Which group of gods was first in the field, is never quite clear, even though extensive historical research has been made on the subject.
- The Mythology of All Races – Eddic by John Arnott MacCulloch, Louis Herbert Gray
- The Norsemen Myths and Legends by Guerber Helene Adeline
- Asgard and the Norse heroes by Katharine Boult
- Old Norse stories by Sarah Powers Bradish
- Teutonic Mythology by Viktor Rydberg & Anders Rasmus Bjorn
- Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm