“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)

 

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R is for Ragnarøk

Ragnarok (Old Norse Ragnarök, “The Doom of the Gods”) is the name the pre-Christian Norse gave to the end of their mythical cycle, during which the cosmos is destroyed and is subsequently re-created. “Ragnarok” is something of a play on words; an alternate form, which sounds almost identical when spoken, is Ragnarøkkr, “The Twilight of the Gods.”

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Whether it is The Doom of the Gods or The Twilight of the Gods, the gods knew it was their destiny. As much as they worked to change it, when the first sign appeared, Baldur’s death, they knew Ragnarok was coming.

Odin gathered as many warriors as he could in Valhalla, to strengthen his army against the giants. But he knew even that would not prevent their destiny. The best outcome would be the destruction of the giants so that they could not return, even if it meant the destruction of the gods at the same time.

The occupants of Midgard, humans, also played a role in the coming of Ragnarok. They abandoned their traditional ways and kinship bonds and fell onto wayward paths.

The weather changed. Three years of winters passed without summers intervening.

At last, Fenrir and his father Loki, both of whom had been bound by the gods in attempts to prevent the destruction of Asgard, broke free of their bindings and joined with the giants as they moved to attack. Heimdall saw the giants coming and sounded the alarm with Gjallarhorn.

The fire giant, Surt, attacked with a sword of fire and set everything in flames. Surt killed Freyr, who did not have the protection of his sword because he had given it to his servant, Skirnir, for his assistance in obtaining the hand of Freyr’s wife, Gerd. In the battle, Freyr also kills Surt, just as Heimdall and Loki kill one another.

Jormungand, another of Loki’s offspring, attacked Thor, who was able to strike the serpent with his hammer, Mjollnir, and crush his skull before the serpent could unleash his venom on the earth. But Thor could only step back nine steps before the serpent blew his venom which killed Thor.

Fenrir ran with his jaws wide open so that he devoured everything in his path between the land and the sky. Fenrir killed both Odin and Tyr, though he was killed by Odin’s son, Vidar, about whom little is known except for his role in Ragnarok and that he survived along with his brother Vali, and Thor’s sons, Modi and Magni.

At the end of the battle, the cosmos collapsed, returning to Ginnungagap.

But all did not remain dark and void. The earth returned from the seas, Baldur returned from the dead, two new humans, Lif and Lifthrasir, awoke in the newly green world, and the gods returned to take up their old lives.

Ragnarok destroyed the cosmos. Ragnarok made the way for a new cosmos to arise. The cycle continues. As do all cycles. Day becomes night which becomes day again. The full moon wanes to the new moon which waxes to become full again. Spring becomes summer which becomes autumn which becomes winter which becomes spring again. Seeds sprout and grow plants, plants blossom and grow more seeds, plants die and the seeds fall to the earth to be planted and sprout again. Birth leads to life which leads to death which leads to rebirth.

Life is cyclical, always leading to a new starting point. It is not a straight line connecting two opposing points.

Image credit: By W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932) – The Elder or Poetic Edda; commonly known as Sæmund’s Edda. Edited and translated with introduction and notes by Olive Bray. Illustrated by W.G. Collingwood (1908) Page 276. Digitized by the Internet Archive and available from https://archive.org/details/elderorpoeticedd01brayuoft This image was made from the JPEG 2000 image of the relevant page via image processing (crop, rotate, color-levels, mode) with the GIMP by User:Haukurth. The image processing is probably not eligible for copyright but in case it is User:Haukurth releases his modified version into the public domain. Public Domain, Link

K is for Kvasir

At the conclusion of the Aesir-Vanir War, the Aesir and Vanir gods and goddesses sealed their truce by spitting into a great vat. From their spittle they formed a being whom they named Kvasir (“Fermented Berry Juice”[1]). Kvasir was the wisest human that had ever lived; none were able to present him with a question for which he didn’t have a satisfying answer. He became famous and traveled throughout the world giving counsel.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

The way I count them, there were two Aesir-Vanir wars. The first one began when the Aesir tried to kill Freya, a völva from the Vanir clan who traveled to Asgard, using the name Gullveig. Three times they tried to burn her to death. And three times she came back to life.

That first war ended after the two tribes realized they were equally strong, each using their own methods, with an exchange of hostages. The Vanir sent Njord and his twin children, Freyr and Freya, to live with the Aesir, and the Aesir sent Hoenir and Mimir to live with the Vanir.

We know from previous posts that Freyr and Freya assimilated with the Aesir so thoroughly that both are sometimes referred to as Aesir. But Hoenir and Mimir didn’t fare so well among the Vanir.

Impressed by Hoenir’s handsome appearance, the Vanir made him a chieftan and turned to him for advice. Initially they observed that Hoenir was able to dispense excellent advice, but they failed to noticed that he was only able to do so in the presence of Mimir, the creature who guarded the well at the bottom of one of the roots of Yggdrasil which held the source of wisdom in its waters. Hoenir was a good traveling companion, but didn’t stand up to challenges on his own.

When the Vanir noticed that Hoenir’s response to requests for advice were too often that they should let someone else decide, they felt they had been deceived. To respond, they cut off Mimir’s head and sent it to Asgard as a protest.

Fortunately, because Odin had obtained both knowledge of the runes and wisdom through drinking the water from Mimir’s well, he was able to chant magic poems over Mimir’s head and embalm it in herbs so he could continue to ask for Mimir’s counsel.

Thus began the second Aesir-Vanir War, or perhaps only the threat of another war.  Since the two tribes of gods already knew the outcome of any continuing battle would likely be the same as before, they decided to conclude or forestall hostilities this time by both Aesir and Vanir spitting into a vat, mixing their spittle. From the mixture a new being arose, Kvasir, an exceedingly wise being to serve as a reminder of their pledge never to take up hostilities again.

For more about Kvasir, see the tale of the Mead of Poetry in Daniel McCoy’s Norse Mythology for Smart People.

For source references to Kvasir, see The Prose Edda, license for use at www.gutenberg.org

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 184.

 

F is for Freyr

Freyr (pronounced “FREY-ur;” Old Norse Freyr, “Lord;” sometimes anglicized as “Frey”) is a god who belongs to the Vanir tribe of deities. He’s also an honorary member of the other tribe of Norse gods, the Aesir, having arrived in their fortress, Asgard, as a hostage at the closing of the Aesir-Vanir War.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

When Loki returned from Svartálfaheimr, the home of the Black Elves, with the six gifts made by the elves, he gave Skidbladnir (the ship made of thin blades of wood which always has a favorable wind and can be folded up and put into one’s pocket) and Gullinbursti (the living boar with golden hair) to Freyr, one of the Vanir, not one of the Aesir. Loki’s inclusion of Freyr among his choice of recipients for his six magnificent gifts indicates how fully Freyr was integrated into the residents of Asgard.

Associated with fertility, health, and abundance, Freyr, also known as Frey, was a most-loved god who received frequent sacrifices at special occasions. Because two sacrifices each year during pre-Christian times went to Freyr–the autumn sacrifice in October and the midwinter, or yule, sacrifice in January–it is understandable that some of those pre-Christian traditions have carried into modern times. The term yule now refers to Christmas, but before the introduction of Christianity, yule was the name for the thirteen-day period beginning with the winter solstice that ended with the midwinter sacrifice. Some consider the tradition of serving ham for the Christmas meal goes back to the tradition of sacrificing Freyr’s favorite animal, the boar, during the yule sacrifice.

In spite of Freyr’s importance in the Norse pantheon and his presence in a number of tales, only one story exists that features him: the story of how he discovered and fell in love at first sight with his wife, the giantess Gerðr or Gerd. And even that one has him in the background, urging his servant Skirnir forward to convince Gerd to marry him.

For us, the word giant conjures up someone who is larger than usual. But the Old Norse word, jotun, conjures up more than great size. The word is closer in meaning to devourer, an indication of how fearful the giants were. But apparently some of them were fair of face and full of grace. At least in Freyr’s eyes.

The story begins with Freyr seated on Odin’s throne, Hlithskjolf. From that vantage point, a seat he really didn’t have any right to take, he can see everything on all nine levels of the cosmology. Seated there, Freyr spies Gerd, the beautiful daughter of the mountain giant, Gymir, in Jotunheim, the land of the giants. Freyr knew the elves, Aesir, and Vanir would oppose a marriage between him and a giant. He’s starting off with two strikes against him.

He also knew it would be difficult for Skirnir or anyone else to approach Gymir’s home in Jotunheim, so he offered Skirnir his horse, which can go through walls of fire, and his sword, which can fight giants on its own.

When Skirnir reaches the gate on the fence that surrounds Gymir’s home, he finds it guarded by vicious dogs. He moves on until he finds a herdsman seated near the fence who asks Skirnir if he is already dead or just on his way to dying, a sign of how treacherous it is to approach Gymir’s home. Gerd hears the noise outside the gate and bids her servant to allow Skirnir to enter.

At first, Skirnir offers Gerd golden apples, probably Idun‘s apples, a gift to ensure Gerd’s youth, if she will come with him to Freyr. When Gerd doesn’t agree, Skirnir offers her Draupner, the ring that drips eight rings just like it every nine days. Gerd refuses both gifts.

Where did Skirnir get Draupner since Odin placed it on Baldur’s pyre? Another of Odin’s sons, Hermóðr (Hermod), retrieved it when he rode Odin’s horse, Sleipner, to beg the goddess of death, Hel, to return Baldur to the land of the living.

Skirnir then turns to threats. First he threatens Gerd that he will cut off her head. Gerd responds that her father Gymir will retaliate. Skirnir then threatens her with being struck by a magic wand which would turn all men away from her so that she will live a lonely and loveless life.

When Gerd still does not agree, Skirnir turns to magic chants to make Gerd a spectacle to all, to remove joy from her life, to doom her to a marriage with a three-headed giant with whom she would live at the roots of the world. He also carves runes on her body which he says he can remove, if he wants to.

Gerd finally relents and agrees to marry Freyr, though she exacts some level of revenge by insisting that Freyr wait for nine days before meeting her in Barri, a leafy grove.

I had hoped our Norway trip would take us to Jotunheimen National Park, but our route is to the north of Norway’s Land of Giants. Maybe next time.

For source material about Freyr, see The Poetic Edda, stanzas 21, 53, The Voluspo, The Wise-Woman’s Prophecy; stanzas 5, 43, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir; the entire poem, Skirnismol, The Ballad of Skirnir; prose introduction, stanzas 32-33, 35-37, 41-44, 55, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; stanzas 7, 32, Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym; stanzas 30, 57 Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjorvarth; stanza 24, Sigurtharkvitha en Skamma, The Short Lay of Sigurth;

Image credit: By Frederic Lawrence – Speight, Ernest Edwin (1903). Volume 4 of Romance readers: Children of Odin. H. Marshall & Son., Public Domain, Link