The Aesir (pronounced “ICE-ear”; Old Norse Æsir for multiple gods, Ásynjur for multiple goddesses, Áss for one god, and Ásynja for one goddess) were one of the two main tribes of deities venerated by the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples. (The second tribe was the Vanir). Most of the best-known Norse gods and goddesses belong to the Aesir, including Odin, Thor, Frigg, Tyr, Loki, Baldur, Heim-dall, Idun, and Bragi. Their home is Asgard, one of the Nine Worlds, which is located in the highest, sunniest branches of the world-tree Yggdrasil. In the Norse sources, Odin, the “Allfather,” is their chief. However, this is likely a relatively late development, and several convergent lines of evidence suggest that this role was originally occupied by Tyr.
–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy
The Norwegian letter Æ falls after Z in modern Norwegian, but since the Aesir are such an important part of Norse mythology and yesterday’s post was about their home, Asgard, I’ve moved the letter to second place in the A to Z Challenge.
It is nearly impossible to describe the Aesir without referring to the second clan of Norse gods, the Vanir. What’s the difference between the two groups? Some scholars consider the Vanir to be gods in the realm of agriculture and fertility while the Aesir are gods of war and conflict. Perhaps this reflects a struggle of classes in ancient Europe.
What is clear in Norse mythology is that the Aesir and Vanir battled with the result that some of the Vanir became hostages to the Aesir. That makes it difficult to be sure which gods belong to which clan.
A great visual resource for referencing which gods are Aesir, which are Vanir, and which other mythical creatures are giants or humans can be found here. The image is copyrighted or I’d include it here. The creator has produced a poster which I have ordered for the House of Norway in Balboa Park here in San Diego.
Some ancient religions or mythologies refer to a greater and a lessor set of gods or a an elder and a younger set. Ancient Greece, for example, had both the original Titans and the later generation of Olympians. The Aesir and Vanir, however, were co-equal, each reigning over separate aspects of the world. After the Aesir-Vanir war, the two clans of gods united into a single pantheon. From now on, I won’t worry about which gods are Aesir and which are Vanir unless it is absolutely clear or necessary. They are all gods and ruled together after the war.
Because Norwegian orthography spells vowels with letters or diacritical marks not in the English alphabet, many names represented in English with the prefix “Os-” are related to the word Aesir. The family name of one branch in my family tree tree is Oss. I now wonder if it represents the masculine singular form of Aesir. (There might be a simpler explanation; the word oss also means we or us.) Other family names related to this prefix, such as Osgood, Oswald, and Osborn, are related, according to this Wikipedia article, though it lacks authoritative sources. Even some first names, both men’s and women’s, such as Oscar, Astrid, and Aslaug, carry the prefix.
Because place names provide clues to an area’s history and culture, I’ll be looking at place names during our travels in Norway to see how many of them I think are related to Aesir. More grist for conversations as my sister and I travel around Norway.