“Njord’s Desire of the Sea” by W.G. Collingwood (1908)

V is for Vanir

The Vanir (Old Norse Vanir, pronounced “VAN-ear”) are one of the two principal tribes of deities featured in Norse mythology. (The other tribe is the Aesir.) Among their ranks are FreyaFreyrNjord, and arguably the early Germanic goddess Nerthus as well. Their home is Vanaheim, one of the Nine Worlds held within the branches of the world-tree Yggdrasil.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

“Freyja and the Necklace” by James Doyle Penrose (1890)
“Freyr” by Johannes Gehrts (1901)

While the Aesir were known for their warlike nature and fighting ability, the Vanir were known for their powers over the sea and the fertility of the land. Why the two groups were so much at odds with one another isn’t clear since cooperating seems a sensible solution for both groups to be protected (through the powers of the Aesir) and able to propagate and fill the land (through the powers of the Vanir). But never mind. Eventually both sides recognized the strength of the other and decided continuing battles were counterproductive.

Thus ended the first Aesir-Vanir War.

About the only Vanir recorded in the Poetic Edda are those mentioned by Daniel McCoy in the above introductory paragraph. The Vanir gave Njord and his twin children, Freyr and Freyja, as hostages to the Aesir as guarantee of their good will at the end of the war in exchange for the pair Hoenir and Mimir given by the Aesir to the Vanir. From that point on, the three Vanir gods become integrated into the world of the Aesir. So much so that it is not clear whether Freyja and her husband Odr are not in fact Frigg and Odin.

And then there is Nerthus, not mentioned in the Poetic Edda at all. Roman historian Tacitus in his Germania (authored about 100 CE) referred to her as Mother Earth and described rituals where she would arrive in an area riding in a chariot drawn by cattle, accompanied by priests. Before her arrival, all iron implements must be hidden away so that there will be no war or violence while she is present. While she is there, the populace make merry and celebrate until she decides it is time for her to move on. Once she leaves an area, the chariot and all vestments as well as Nerthus herself are taken to a lake to be spiritually cleansed. All those humans involved in the cleansing are then drowned in the lake, apparently willing sacrifices for the goodness Nerthus brings to the earth. [1]

But it isn’t that simple. Those with more linguistic knowledge than I have pointed out that the name Njord is exactly what the Proto-Germanic name Nerthus would look like if translated into Old Norse. Perhaps Nerthus and Njord are really a linked pair, like Freyr and Freya, or even that they are names for the two aspects of a hermaphroditic god. [2]

“Nerthus” by Emil Doepler (1905)

[1] McCoy, Daniel. Norse Mythology for Smart People, article on Nerthus.

[2] Ibid.

Featured image credit: “Njord’s Desire of the Sea” by W.G. Collingwood (1908)

 

F is for Freyja

Freya (Old Norse Freyja, “Lady”) is one of the preeminent goddesses in Norse mythology. She’s a member of the Vanir tribe of deities, but became an honorary member of the Aesir gods after the Aesir-Vanir War. Her father is Njord. Her mother is unknown, but could be NerthusFreyr is her brother. Her husband, named Odr in late Old Norse literature, is certainly none other than Odin, and, accordingly, Freya is ultimately identical with Odin’s wife Frigg. . . .

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Freyja, Frigg, Freya. So many ways to spell the name. Or do the names represent more than one goddess? I’ve decided to come down on the side of the three names all referring to the same goddess, and that she was Odin’s (or Odr’s) wife.

Freya was one of the Vanir, not the Aesir. She and her brother, Freyr, and their father Njord, were traded to the Aesir in exchange for Hœnir and Mimir going to the Vanir as hostages at the end of the Aesir-Vanir war.

Odin was one of the Aesir. A marriage between the two clans of gods makes sense, just as arranged marriages among the aristocracy of Europe from the Middle Ages onward helped strengthen the bonds between otherwise rival families.

Freya is associated with love, beauty, and fertility. She also is accused of sleeping with all the other gods, perhaps because her husband Odin leaves her alone so often as he spends most of his time traveling around the nine levels of the cosmos.

Of most interest to me is Freya’s association with the ability to see into the future, a quality of the Norse völva or seeress, a practitioner of seidr, Norse magic. Those who practiced seidr would enter a trance during which they could travel among the levels of the cosmos, divining the future in order to determine how to change the outcome through reweaving the strands of events.

It is her role as a völva or practitioner of seidr that led to the first Aesir-Vanir war. A völva lived an itinerant life, traveling from village to village to practice her trade. This was the life of Freya when she first came to Asgard, using the name Heiðr (“Bright”), where she foretold the future and how to amend it to those willing to pay her.

At some point, the Aesir realized that too many were taking advantage of Heiðr’s skills to advance their own desires instead of the communal values of honor, kin loyalty, and obedience to the law. They blamed her for their own shortcomings and called her Gullveig (“Gold-greed”). They tried to kill her by burning her three times, yet three times she came back to life.

The hostility between the Aesir and Vanir grew until war broke out. The Aesir fought following rules of combat, brute force, and weapons, while the Vanir used magic. The war continued until the two tribes became tired of the fighting and ended the war with an exchange of hostages.

There would be another war between the Aesir and Vanir. Watch for K is for Kvasir for more details.

More information about Freya (and Frigg) can be found in The Poetic Edda, stanzas 21-22, 25, and 53, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecystanza 14, Grimnisol, the Ballad of Grimnir;  the prose introduction, Skirnismol, The Ballad of Skirnir; stanzas 19, Harbarthsljoth, The Poem of Harbarth;prose introduction and stanzas 16, 20, 24-33, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wranglingstanzas 3-28, Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym; the entire poem, Hyndluljoth, The Poem of Hyndla; and stanzas 7-8, Svipdagsmol, The Ballad of Svipdag.

Image credit: By Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905) – Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden. Otto Spamer, Leipzig & Berlin. Page 214., Public Domain, Link