Aesir & Vanir: Gods & Goddesses of the Vikings

Michael O. Varhola

The beautiful image displayed above is a 1907 painting by artist Nils Asplund titled “Heimdal Brings Forth the Gifts of the Gods to the Humans,” which depicts one of the iconic stories from the Norse mythos. 

Norse mythology represents the northernmost extension of Germanic mythology and stems from the pagan traditions of Scandinavia, comprising stories of various deities, creatures, and heroes derived from numerous sources from both before and after the pagan era. Most of this mythology focuses on the adventures of the gods and their interaction with various other beings, such as Humans, Giants, Dwarves, or Elves, which might variously be friends, foes, lovers, or even family members of the deities. 

Most of what we know about Norse mythology comes from texts written in dialects of Old Norse, a North Germanic language that is the ancestor of modern Scandinavian languages and was spoken by the peoples of Scandinavia during the European Middle Ages. Only a tiny proportion of the poems and mythical tales presumed to have been written since about 8th century, however, have survived into the current era — and depending on how representative these sources are of the full body of what once existed, the picture we can derive from them may be more-or-less accurate. We can also gain additional information about and insights into Norse mythology from such things as monuments or other objects etched with runic inscriptions, extrapolations from archaeological finds, a study of place names, and comparison with Germanic and other Indo-European mythology.

It bears mentioning that we have a concept of Norse mythology derived from a number of existing sources. We know very little, however, about the religion and practices related to it that were based on Norse mythology, and these were eclipsed by the aggressive spread of Christianity through Scandinavia from the 10th century onward.

Many of the extant Old Norse texts were transcribed in Iceland, where the oral traditions originating with the pre-Christian inhabitants of the island were collected and recorded in two key works.

One of these works is the Poetic Edda, a collection of folkloric poems that was compiled during the 13th century — possibly by an Icelandic priest and scholar named Saemund Sigfusson — and is an important source of information about Norse Mythology. It is divided into 32 sections and is made up primarily of poems, along with some narrative prose.

Another key work is the Prose Edda, which also dates to the 13th century and was compiled by Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson, who created it as a manual for composing the traditional Old Norse poetry of skalds (essentially the people who are referred to as bards or troubadours in other traditions). The Prose Edda is organized into four sections and presents numerous examples of works by multiple skalds from before and after the Christian era and also frequently refers back to the poems that can be found in the Poetic Edda

We can see below at left of center a woodcut image of Sturluson created by Norwegian artist Christian Krohg in the 1890s, and at left we can see the title page illustration for a 1666 Icelandic edition of the Prose Edda. 

Stories featuring many gods, goddesses, and other supernatural or mythological beings appear in the Eddas and other works; including a number of creation myths, the events that led to the formation of the Norse pantheon as it was conceived of by people; and the cataclysmic end of the world known as Ragnarok. 

  

A Composite Pantheon
One of the interesting characteristics of Norse Mythology is that its pantheon is made up of gods from two different tribes of deities, the Aesir and the Vanir. A detailed examination of many pantheons worldwide will reveal that this is not completely uncommon, and we can see a similar dynamic even in living religions like Hinduism, the broad pantheon for which has deities with a multiplicity of origins. 

What is commonly the case when two specific factions of gods appear in a particular body of mythology is for one of them to be an “elder” faction that is ultimately displaced by a “younger” one. This is, for example, exactly what we see in classical Greek religion, where an ancient, elemental, and somewhat primitive family of Titans is vanquished and exiled by its own descendants, the somewhat more refined and humancentric Olympian gods. In the case of Norse Mythology, however, the Aesir and Vanir appear to be not just contemporary but to come from completely different worlds and to have never been related to each other in any way. 

In the tales of Norse Mythology, these two groups of deities battle each other for supremacy in what is known as the Aesir-Vanir War — an episode from which we can see above right of center in an 1882 image by German Artist Carl Ehrehberg — and when the Aesir won they more-or-less absorbed the Vanir into their ranks and became a composite pantheon. There has been significant speculation as to whether the qualitative differences between the two pantheons speaks to some historic conflict between peoples with different ways of life — in the way, for example, that the clash between Cain and Abel in the Bible can be read as a struggle between stationary farmers and nomadic herders. 

In any event, the Aesir tend to be associated with concepts like power and war, and include the creator god Odin, who serves as chief of the pantheon, and who we can see charging with a spear in the afore-mentioned image; Frigg, Odin’s wife and goddess of foreknowledge and wisdom; Thor, the god of lightning and thunder, who we can see above in an 18th century Icelandic illustration at top of the column of three deities; Tyr, the god of war and justice, who we can see in the image above that is tucked into the battle scene and which is based on a depiction on a piece of gold jewelry; and Heimdall, guardian of the approaches to the Aesir’s realm of Asgard. 

The Vanir, on the other hand, appear to be primarily chthonic beings associated with concepts like fertility, wisdom, cultivation, magic, and prophecy. They include Frey and his sister Freya, the most prominent of the Vanir deities, who along with their father Njörðr initially joined the Æsir as hostages after the war between the two peoples. We can see Frey and his boar Gullinbursti above in the middle of the column of three deities in this 1901 image by German illustrator Johannes Gehrts; his sister Freya below him in an 1905 oil sketch by Swedish painter John Bauer; and their father Njörðr, a god of the sea, fishing, and prosperity, at right in an illustration for an 1832 German book by an uncredited artist. 

 

The Aesir–Vanir War
An account of the Aesir-Vanir War appears in another key work, the Heimskringla, which was also compiled by Snorri Sturluson.

This description says that Odin, king of the gods, led a great army of Aesir against the Vanir (as we can see in the image below left), but that the latter were well-prepared for the invasion and defended their land so ably that victory lay within reach of either side. In the course of this conflict, both sides inflicted great damage against the other and ravaged the enemy homelands. 

Both factions eventually tired of the war and met to negotiate a truce and, as part of their agreement, exchanged hostages. The Vanir sent some of their best people to dwell with the Aesir, including wise Kvasir, wealthy Njörðr, and his son Frey and daughter Freya. The Aesir reciprocated by sending a number of gods to dwell as with the Vanir as pledges of good faith, including Mimir, who was noted for his perceptiveness, and Hoener, who was large and handsome and viewed as a natural leader. 

Upon arriving in Vanaheim, Hœnir was in fact immediately made chief, and when Mímir was present he provided him with good counsel. When Mimir was not at the assemblies of the Vanir, however, Hoener was indecisive and would weigh in on any issue by saying, "Let others decide."

This led the Vanir to increasingly come to believe that they had been cheated in the exchange of hostages and, in anger, they eventually seized wise Mimir, decapitated him, and sent his head back to the Aesir. Odin responded to this by embalming the head of Mimir and enchanting it so that it would have the power to speak and be able to reveal knowledge to him (we can see this episode illustrated below in the image at left of center). 

Odin then appointed the Vanir gods Njörðr and Frey, and the goddess Freya, as priests in charge of sacrificial customs and declared them to be gods of the Aesir. It is at this point that Freya, depicted below at bottom left, is described as introducing to the Aesir a shamanistic magical tradition known as seidr

  

Cosmology & the Afterlife
Norse cosmology is strikingly detailed and complex and conceives of a universe made up of Nine Worlds interconnected with one another by the great, world-spanning tree Yggdrasil, which we can see represented above on the right in an 1866 image by artist Friedrich Heine. 

These nine worlds can probably best be conceived of as parallel planes of existence more so than as separate planets or the like, in the way that people often imagine the relationships between the material world, Heaven, and Hell. Apropos of that, they are arranged into upper, middle, and lower levels, which can be read as a statement about their nature and those of their inhabitants, and essentially be seen as a differentiation between celestial, material, and infernal realms. 

Accounts of travel between various worlds occur frequently in the myths and lead to the gods and other beings interacting directly with each other and with humanity. They are all not equally represented in the surviving myths, with some of the worlds appearing frequently and being described in great detail and others simply being referred to periodically or in passing. 

Yggdrasil itself has three major roots, and at their base live a trio of goddesses known as the Norns, whose duties include caring for the tree and determining how long individual gods and people alike will live. 

And what happens to people once they die is more complex in Norse mythology than in many other traditions that include a belief in an afterlife, and is not quite as simple as good people going to heaven and bad people going to hell. 

Souls of valorous warriors who have been slain in battle, for example, might be gathered up by celestial women known as Valkyries and taken to Valhalla, Odin’s hall on Asgard (depicted above in the image left of center). As per an agreement with the goddess Freya, however, Odin must allow her to take half the souls of such warriors, which she transports to her realm of Folkvangr, which is possibly located on her home world of Vanaheim. 

Those who succumb to old age or disease, however, are instead consigned to Hel, which is ruled by a goddess of the same name and part of a gloomy netherworld called Niflheim. Those who die at sea, however, might be claimed by the goddess Rán, while virgins might be sent to dwell with the goddess Gefjon (shown above in the image at bottom right in a statue in Copenhagen, Denmark). Complicating all this are references throughout various extant texts to reincarnation. 

 

The Nine Worlds
We have alluded to the existence of a number of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology and will take a brief look at all of them now. 

Three of the nine worlds, Asgard, Vanaheim, and Alfheim, exist in an upper layer around the crown of the world tree Ygdrassil, and these can be considered celestial realms and the home of divine beings. 

Asgard is the realm of the Aesir and many stories from the surviving myths are set here, especially in the halls occupied by the gods, such as Valhalla (shown below in the image at top center). 

Vanaheim is the home of the Vanir, the family of deities that was absorbed by the Aesir. Very little is said about it in the surviving body of myths and legends. 

Alfheim is the land of Alfar, or Elves. The Vanir god Frey seems to have some connection with it, possibly maintaining a home there, but this is not explicitly clear from the extant sources (a depiction of Alfheim appears below at bottom center). 

In the middle layer is our own Midgard, along with Jotunheim, Svartalfheim, and Nidavellir, all more-or-less the home worlds of often strange but nonetheless flesh-and-blood mortal creatures like Humans. 

Midgard — literally “Middle Earth” — is our own world and the realm of humanity, and is connected to Asgard by the Bifrost Bridge, glimpses of which are sometimes visible as rainbows. Numerous stories of the gods and their adventures take place here. 

Jotunheim is the home of the giants and, while it is characterized as a world unto itself, for whatever reasons Thor nonetheless refers to traveling “east” when making his many expeditions to this land to slay its inhabitants. An encounter on Jotunheim is depicted below in the image at left

Svartalfheim is the home of the obscure race of beings known as the Dark Elves. 

Nidavellir is the home of the Dwarves. It is referred to periodically in the extant myths but is not described or a setting for any stories.

In the lower level are Muspellsheim and Niflheim, infernal realms inhabited by the dead and creatures so evil that in our cultural parlance they would be classified as demons and devils.

Niflheim is a realm of the dead inhabited by those who succumbed to disease or old age and, like its classical counterpart Hades, is described as a melancholy place of gloom. It is also the realm of the monstrous Frost Giants.  

Muspellsheim is the scorching realm of the Fire Giants and is so hot that creatures not native to it are unable to survive within it and its characteristics are very likely derived from what people knew about and were able to see of volcanic activity. It is the home of the Fire Giants (depicted below at right). 

  

Gods & Goddesses
Numerous gods and goddesses are listed throughout the source texts, some considerably more than others, which could be an indicator of how popular or important they were to Viking Age Scandinavians. While goddesses appear less frequently than gods, some sources nonetheless specify that they are “not less holy [or] capable” than their male counterparts. There are, in any event, too many for us to look at in any detail here, so we are instead going to be guided by the six whose names have been adapted for our days of the week. 

Tyr, also known as Tiwaz, is the namesake in our English language for this day, and we can see him depicted below in the second image from the left. Tyr is described as “daring and stout-hearted” and was a god of justice, single combat, and pledges and, as we can see in the image below, was distinguished by the absence of a right hand. He lost this appendage in an encounter with a fierce, terrible wolf named Fenris, which was a child of the god Loki and thus lived with the Aesir. They feared this great beast and wanted to bind it with a magical chain, but it was suspicious of their attempts to do so and would only allow them to if Tyr would place his hand in its mouth as a guarantee. Knowing what would happen, Tyr did so, and when the monster was bound it promptly bit off his hand. 

Odin, also known as Wodan, is our namesake for Wednesday, and we can see him depicted below in the image on the left. Odin is portrayed in Norse mythology as constantly striving for knowledge and paying almost any price for its acquisition, and is closely associated with wisdom, death, and poetry. In one account of his deeds, Odin hanged himself on the world tree Yggdrasil in order to gain knowledge of the runic alphabet, which he then passed on to humanity, and in another story he went so far as to trade one of his eyes for occult power. He is frequently accompanied by a number of beasts, including his eight-legged horse Sleipner, his ravens Hugin and Munin, and one or more wolves. He is the ruler of Valhalla, a hall occupied by the spirits of dead warriors, and is married to the goddess Frigg and the father of children who include beautiful Baldur and powerful Thor. 

Thor, a fierce-eyed, redheaded, hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, and the protection of mankind, is our namesake for Thursday, and is depicted below in the third image from the left. He is certainly the most well-known of the Norse gods today, and might very well have been the most popular during the Viking era, as evidenced by the many stories about him and the many places bearing some form of his name. His deeds led to him acquiring at least 14 kennings, or nicknames, one of the most frequently used being “giant-slayer” as a result of the many giants he slew, most in their home realm of Jotunheim in an attempt to preempt any attacks they might make upon Asgard or Midgard. He is married to the golden-haired goddess Sif, the lover of the giantess Járnsaxa, father of the gods Magni and Modi, and stepfather of the god Ullr. He wields the mountain-crushing hammer Mjölnir, wears a magical belt and iron gloves, and rides in a chariot pulled by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. 

Freya, the goddess who had her origins as a Vanir hostage, is our namesake for Friday. She is associated with love, sex, beauty, fertility, gold, magic, war, and death and rules over the celestial realm of Fólkvangr, where she receives half of those who fall in battle. Freyja owns a number of magical items, including a necklace called Brísingamen and a feathered cloak that grants the ability to fly that she frequently loans to other gods, and rides a chariot pulled by two giant cats and is attended by the boar Hildisvíni. Powerful giants regularly seek to make her their wife, which typically causes them to fall afoul of Thor and be slain by him.

We can see Freya depicted below, fourth image from the left, in a painting from around 1913 by Irish painter James Doyle Penrose, which shows her putting on the necklace Brisingamen, an item described in a way that suggest it might have been fashioned from pieces of amber. 

Sol, our namesake for Sunday, is a goddess who personifies the sun. 

Mani, the namesake for Monday, is the brother of Sol and the divine personification of the Moon. 

These two gods do not have extensive bodies of stories associated with them in the way that Thor and the more familiar deities they do. They are said, however, to be continuously chased across the heavens by a pair of monstrous wolves, which we can see depicted below in the image at right. 

Sol and Mani represent an interesting twist on many other mythological traditions — including all those of the Mediterranean and Near East that I am familiar with — in that male deities are generally associated with the sun and female ones with the moon, and in Norse mythology it is the other way around. 

  

Other Beings
Numerous peoples and creatures beyond gods like the Aesir and Vanir appear in the existing source materials, and these might variously aid or impede the gods in their activities. 

Some of the most prominent are the Jötnar, the giant inhabitants of Jotunheim, many of whom are slain by the god Thor. There are also two other sorts of even more fearsome giants that appear in Norse mythology, Frost Giants, native to the gloomy world of Niflheim, and Fire Giants, denizens of the fiery plane of Muspellsheim. Other large giantish creatures are identified as Trolls and Thursar. 

We can see a depiction of one such creature, the giant Skrymir, interacting with the god Thor below in the second image from the left by artist Louis Huard from around 1891. 

People identified as Elves also appear in Norse mythology, and they are described as being radiant and beautiful, although they also have an ominous counterpart on the Svartalfar, or Dark Elves.

Dwarves appear in many stories, especially those concerning the creation of magical items for the gods, and they are characterized as craftsmen and smiths. In the 1901 image below on the left by English illustrator Arthur Rackham we can see two Dwarves, Brokkr and Eitri, forging Thor’s hammer Mjolnir while being harassed by the god Loki who has taken the form of a fly.

Norns, Dísir, Valkyries, and Einheriar are supernatural creatures native to the various celestial realms that also appear frequently in the tales of the Norse myths. 

 

Loki
We are also going to take a brief look at Loki, who appears in many stories variously as a companion, a troublemaker, and even an enemy, and who actually turns against the gods in Ragnarok, the battle at the end of the world. He is often described as a “trickster god,” but this is really just an archetypal classification and does not really accurately characterize what he is or the role he plays in Norse mythology. 

Loki is, in short, an aberration. It is revealed that he is neither an Aesir or a Vanir and therefore something else altogether. He seems to have connections with the giants and other denizens of Jotunheim, frosty Niflheim, and fiery Muspellsheim, and therefore might be at least in part Jotun. We can see below at upper right a very evocative depiction of Loki, from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript. 

Loki is also the parent of a number of terrible, non-Human children, including the wolf Fenris, which sheared off the hand of the god Tyr; the goddess Hel, who rules over a land of the dead on the world of Niflheim; and Jormangand itself, the Midgard serpent that encircles the world; and we can see all three of them depicted in the image below at lower right in a 1920 image by Hungarian artist Willy Pogany. 

And note that he is is indeed a “parent” of many monsters rather than simply the father, because in some cases Loki changes his form into that of a female creature, becomes pregnant, and bears children as a mother. 

Loki is also credited with having invented deceit itself, and when one considers this and the primordial age of some of his children it would suggest that he is an extremely ancient being. 

Loki is, in any event, also ultimately malicious. In one story he contrives the death of the beautiful god Baldur, son of Odin, by tricking another deity into unwittingly killing him with a dart made from mistletoe. We can see this episode depicted below in the image right of center, a painting from 1817 by Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. 

Finally, in the battle at the end of time, Loki is said to be manning the helm of the loathsome vessel Naglfar, a ship made from the fingernails and toenails of dead people and loaded with monsters from the netherworld that he pilots to the battlefield of the Ragnarok.

  

Ragnarok
Just as various forms of a creation myth appear throughout Norse mythology, so too do prophecies and descriptions of the end of some or all of the Nine Worlds, an apocalyptic event known as Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods. 

In the Ragnarok, the world is submerged in water and then fought over in a great battle between the gods and their allies on one side and Loki, Frost Giants, Fire Giants, the Midgard Serpent, Fenris wolf, and other monsters on the opposing side. In this catastrophic event, most of the gods — including Odin, Thor, Týr, Frey, Heimdal, and Loki — are slain. Then, at the end of the battle, the world is consumed in flame. 

Below on the right is an image from 1908 by American artist George Wright that shows the opening of the battle between the two great armies. At lower left, in a 1905 image by German artist Emil Doepler, we can see Thor battling Jormungand, the Midard Serpent, and even as he slays this foul monster it spews out a retributive gout of venom that in turn kills the thunder god. And at upper right, in an 1895 image by Danish artist Lorenz Frolich, we can see Odin battling and being killed by Fenris wolf. 

Fascinatingly, however, Ragnarok does not foretell the end of time or all future worlds, just the current ones, and the prophecies describing it also talk about the worlds, material, celestial, and infernal, that will follow it! This apocalypse is just an element, albeit a major one, in a cyclical rather than a linear concept of time and space. So in the wake of the destruction the world is reborn, green and fertile, a new generation of humanity is restored, and a handful of surviving gods reign over a new realm of their own.