Though associated in cult with the Æsir or even included among them in the Eddas, the Vanir are a small but distinct group of gods. They dwell in Vanaheim, not Asgard, and include Njord, Frey, and Freyja, possibly also Heimdall, who is guardian of Frey and is said to be “like the Vanir” in knowing the future well. This forethought is not elsewhere attributed to the Vanir, but they are called “wise.”1 They are also “warlike,” just as Frey is “battle-bold.”2 Their general functions seem to be those of nature deities, rulers of the fruitful earth and of prosperity. They are connected with sea-faring, commerce, and hunting, with peace (Frey), and with love (Freyja). Vafthrudnismal seems to regard them as a larger group than those specifically named, for it says that “the wise powers” (vis regen) in Vanaheim created Njord, and that having been given as a pledge to the Æsir, at the Doom of the world he will return home to the Vanir. Other references to the Vanir suggest a numerous body, though this may be a result of the process of euhemerization, which is apt to make a group of deities into a whole people. Njord is called “god of the Vanir,” “kinsman of the Vanir,” with other epithets, applied also to his son Frey. His daughter Freyja is “goddess of the Vanir,” “lady of the Vanir,” “bride of the Vanir.”3 Yet all three are included among the Æsir. The poem Alvissmal, like other Eddic references, however, shows clearly their separate identity, by telling what names they, as distinct from Æsir, Alfar, etc., use for different things. Sigrdrifumal also distinguishes them from the Æsir, when it says that runes were given to Æsir, Vanir, Alfar, and men.
This distinction is upheld also in the different and mostly euhemerized accounts of the war between the Æsir and the Vanir. Of this Snorri gives two accounts. In his Edda, Bragi, recounting to Ægir the origins of poetry, says that the gods had a dispute with the people called Vanir. The cause or nature of the dispute is not mentioned. A peace-meeting was appointed, and peace was established by each and all spitting into a vat. When they parted, the gods would not let this token perish, but from it created a man, Kvasir. His story will be told later.4 A different account of the settlement is given in a previous chapter of the Edda. Njord, reared in Vanaheim, was delivered as hostage to the Æsir, Hœnir being taken in exchange by the Vanir. He became an atonement between the two groups. This statement is copied from Vafthrudnismal.5
The euhemeristic account of the war and final agreement is fuller in Snorri’s Ynglinga-saga. Odin and his host attacked the Vanir, who defended their land. Now one, now the other, prevailed: each harried the land of the other, until, tiring of this, they held a meeting of truce, made peace, and delivered hostages to each other. The Vanir gave their noblest — Njord the wealthy and his son Frey. The Æsir gave Hœnir, and said that he was meet to be lord, big and goodly as he was. With him they gave Mimir, wisest of men, the Vanir giving for him one of their best wits, Kvasir. Hœnir was made lord at Vanaheim (here said to be situated at the mouth of the Tanais, at the Black Sea), and Mimir taught him good counsel. Hœnir’s stupidity was soon discovered by the Vanir when, at meetings of the Thing, Mimir not being present, Hœnir would say: “Let others give rule,” whenever any hard matter was brought up. They saw that the sir had over-reached them, and, having cut Mimir’s throat, sent his head to the Æsir. Odin made Njord and Frey temple-priests or Diar (from Irish dia, “god”). Njord’s daughter Freyja first taught spell-craft (seidr) according to the custom of the Vanir among the Æsir (i.e., some special form of magic). Frey and Freyja, though brother and
sister, were married, also in accordance with Vanir custom.6 Vanaheim, thus made a district on earth’s surface, is one of the nine worlds mentioned in Alvissmal.
A less euhemeristic account of this war and its origin is found in Voluspa. The seeress remembers the first war in the world. The Æsir had smitten Gollveig with spears and burned her in Odin’s hall. Three times they burned her, yet ever she lives. They called her Heid, a Volva, a magic-wielder, who practised mind-disturbing magic and sorcery, and was the desire of evil women. All the gods held council whether the Æsir should give tribute, i.e., to the Vanir, or all gods (Æsir and Vanir) should share the sacrifices. Odin threw his spear over the host — this happened in the first world-war; now the Vanir trod the field, and the wall of Asgard was broken down.
The order of the stanzas telling this myth varies in different manuscripts, and the account of Odin’s throwing his spear and the subsequent fight should probably precede the account of the council of Æsir and Vanir. The meaning seems to be that Gollveig, who may be Freyja, came among the Æsir and was shamefully treated, perhaps for her skill in magic. This led to the war, in which the citadel of the Æsir was broken down and the Vanir were triumphant. A council was then held. From the prose sources we gather that a compromise was arrived at — the sharing of the cult by both groups and an exchange of hostages. The latter is known to the author of Vafthrudnismal, and must have been part of the original myth.
Gollveig, “Gold-might,” who is burned and comes alive again, is thought to embody the power of gold and its refining by fire. Whether she is the same as Heid, or whether the stanza about Heid is in its wrong place and refers to the Volva who utters the whole poem, is a moot point. If Gollveig and Heid are identical, both have some connexion with Freyja. Freyja’s tears are said to be red gold, and gold is called Freyja’s tears.7 Freyja is described as a sorceress who introduced magic or a special kind of magic among the Æsir. Gollveig-Heid would
thus be Freyja, and the ill-treatment of this Vanir goddess would be the cause of the war. Unfortunately the myth in Voluspa is too enigmatic and the stories given by Snorri are too much euhemerized, to tell exactly what the primitive form of the myth was. Whether, as asserted by Müllenhoff, it meant that by gold the gods were corrupted or endangered, like heroes of Sagas, is problematical. Gollveig may, however, have some connexion with the introduction of gold among the Northern people.
This myth of a war between groups of gods or of these regarded more or less as mortals, seems to reflect the opposition of rival cults and their upholders — one recently introduced and gaining popularity, but 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. Which group of gods was first in the field, and where was the scene of this cult war? Opinions vary. Njord is closely linked to the goddess Nerthus whose cult on an island, probably Seeland, is described by Tacitus. Frey, sometimes called Yngvi-Frey, would then have been, like Nerthus, a divinity of the Teutonic amphictyony known as the Ingvæones, whose habitat was North-west Germany. The Vanir group would thus be indigenous in that region: did it there come in contact with an incoming cult of Odin, with the result of a cult war, the legends of which were carried to Scandinavia with the passing of the cult to that region?
On the other hand, the Vanir cult, passing to Sweden, where the worship of Frey obtained great prominence and was carried thence to Norway and Iceland, would come in conflict with the cult of Odin recently introduced into Sweden, and Sweden would thus be the scene of a cult war. It will be observed that Odin is the chief protagonist on the side of the Æsir in the myth.8
Others think that the cult of Frey, the Svia-god, or Sweden
god, or the blot or “sacrifice” god of Sweden, though introduced to Sweden from without, was now firmly rooted there. The cult of Odin, the Saxa-god or Saxon-god, was introduced later, c. 800 A.D., and aroused a strong national counter-current of opposition. This is the view of Golther, and Chadwick says: “That the two cults of Odin and Frey were originally quite distinct, and that the latter was the earlier of the two, there can hardly be any serious doubt.”9
Whatever be the truth regarding this cult war, it is clear that some fusion occurred, and that now the temples, altars, and images of Æsir and Vanir stood side by side. This is seen from historical notices of cult, and from the grouping of Odin, Thor, and Frey.
Golther also finds a trace of this cult war in another chapter of the Ynglinga-saga. After Odin heard that good land was to be found in Gylfi’s country or Sweden, he journeyed there. Gylfi had no power to withstand the Æsir folk. Peace was made, and Odin and Gylfi had many dealings in cunning tricks and illusion. Odin erected a temple with blood-offerings according to the custom of the Æsir at Sigtun. Frey’s seat was at Upsala.10 Here, instead of the Vanir, the Swedish king opposes Odin, and the latter succeeds in establishing a cult. The Swedish kings, who regarded themselves as descendants of Frey, would naturally oppose the cult of Odin.
Though the cult of Odin does not strike one as other than that of a barbaric people, that of the Vanir was not necessarily more enlightened, and it has some primitive traits — the brother-sister marriages of Njord and of Frey, and the phallic aspect of the latter.
There are traces also of the opposition between gods of light, fertility, merchandise, and prosperity, such as the Vanir were, and gods of war, like Odin — the gods of people with contrasted cultures, but later coalescing and sharing cult and sacrifice. This appears in the statement of Voluspa about Æsir and Vanir sharing sacrifices, and of the Ynglinga-saga, that the
Æsir had blood-offerings, while Odin gave sites to the “temple-priests,” i.e., the gods Njord, Frey, etc.11
A similar view of a war between divinities is found in the euhemerized accounts of Celtic mythology in Ireland. The Tuatha Dé Danann fought with Firbolgs and Fomorians. Yet both intermarried or were in friendly relations with each other. There is an echo here of the strife of friendly and hostile nature powers, or, more likely, of the conquest of aboriginal people and their deities by an incoming race and their gods, with subsequent union between the two.12