Vanir Gods and Goddesses in Norse Mythology: Origin story, members, symbols and power

It’s usually the case that whenever Norse deities are mentioned the ones that come to mind are Odin, Loki, Thor, Frigg, and Heimdallr – i.e. basically Odin and his family and his friends. What if you were told that those gods constitute just one race of deities in the vast pantheon of Norse gods? Equally as important as Odin’s group of gods are the Vanir gods and goddesses, who were very much worshiped and held in high esteem, according to the myths.

In this article World History Edu presents everything that you need to know about the Vanir deities in Norse mythology.

Vanir gods and goddesses  were commonly associated with fertility, beauty and prophecy| Image: Njörðr, Skaði, and Freyr as depicted in The Lovesickness of Frey (1908) by W. G. Collingwood

Aesir and Vanir – the two main categories of gods in Norse mythology

There is quite enough extant literature on Odin’s and his fellow gods whose home was Asgard. In the myths, Odin’s race of gods is called the Aesir. An all-knowing and all-seeing god, Odin was the chief of the Aesir. He ruled alongside his wife, the goddess Frigg. Other famous Aesir gods include Thor, god of thunder; Tyr, god of war; Baldur, god of light; Loki, god of mischief; among others. The home of the Aesir was Asgard, one of the Nine Realms in Norse mythology. It was often the case that the Aesir were primarily associated with violence, war and knowledge.

On the other hand, the Vanir gods were mostly known for being reserved and more thoughtful. The Vanir race of gods and goddesses were believed to patrons of fertility, wisdom and prophecy. They reside in Vanaheimr, which means “Home of the Vanir” in Old Norse.

Meaning of Vanir

Famous British scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Viking history Raymond Ian Page opines that the meaning of the word ‘Vanir’ most likely comes from the Old Norse word “vinr’, which means ‘friend’.

Members of the Vanir

Aside from Njord and members of his family, the Norse texts that we have today do not mention in clear details the list of Vanir gods and goddesses. This explains why some scholars regard the Norse gods Heimdallr and Ullr as members of the Vanir. In the poem Þrymskviða (in the Poetic Edda), Heimdallr is described as having similar wisdom as the Vanir gods.

The commonly accepted list of Vanir gods includes deities like Njord, Njord’s sister, Freyja, Freyr, Gersemi, Hnoss, and Gullveig. The goddesses Gersemi and Hnoss are said to be the daughters of Freyja.

There was aslo Gná – goddess of fullness – who served as a messenger for the goddess Frigg. Gna rides the horse Hófvarpnir, which according to the figure High is a powerful stead capable of flying in the air and gliding on water.

Image: Gná standing beside the goddess Frigg, wife of Odin

Other honorary members of the Vanir are Hoenir and Mimir. Both gods were originally members of the Aesir who were sent to live with the Vanir as part of a hostage exchange deal. In some accounts, Kvasir – the being born out of the spits of the Vanir and Aesir – is considered a member of the Vanir.

The three most famous Vanir gods

Vanir god Freyr

The sun shining behind them, the god Freyr stands with his boar Gullinbursti (1901) by German illustrator Johannes Gehrts.

The three most popular members of the Vanir are:

Njord – A sea deity, Njord was the leader of the Vanir. By his sister, who is unnamed in Norse texts, he gave birth to two children – Freyr and Freyja. It is stated in one of the accounts that Njordr and Freyr became priests, and with Odin’s approval, they were recognized among the Aesir gods.

Freyja (or Freya) – This Vanir goddess is often associated with fertility and beauty. She was also very knowledgable in magic, and she was the one who showed the Aesir gods how to use magic. In some accounts, Freyja is known as “Dis of the Vanir”. Dis refers to deities associated with prophecies and fates.

Freyr – He is the twin brother of Vanir goddess Freyja. Like his sister, Freyr was associated with beauty and fertility. Due to his integrity and noble character, he was very much loved by the Aesir gods.

Aesir-Vanir War

Odin throws his spear at the Vanir host, illustration (1895) by Danish painter and illustrator Lorenz Frølich

The myth has us believe that a severe war broke out between the Vanir and the Aesir. Prior to the breakout of the war, the Vanir gods enjoyed greater popularity and wide-spread reverence. It’s said that Odin and his fellow Aesir gods had grown very jealous of the attention that the people gave to Vanir gods. In other words, the Aesir-Vanir War was said to have been caused by this jealousy and a few other disagreements between the two races of gods.

With both sides having very powerful gods, the war was bound to prolong as no side could deliver that crushing blow to the other. Fed up by the senseless bloodshed, both sides sued for peace. It was agreed that they would swap members as a sign of good fate. The Aesir allowed Hoenir and Mimir to go and live among the Vanir gods, while the Vanir allowed Njord and his children – Freya and Freyr – to live among the Aesir.

The two races of gods agreed to split the sacrifices from humans equally so as to not cause one side to become jealous.

Aftermath of the Aesir-Vanir War and the Mead of Poetry

Once the hostages were exchanged, the truce was sealed by both races of gods spitting into a vat, a barrel used to store alcoholic beverage. The spittle then became the symbol of the truce between the Aesir and the Vanir. They would later use the contents of the vat to make a man called Kvasir, who is described in the poem Heimskringla as the cleverest among the Aesir. The myth goes on to say that there was no question posed to Kvasir that he could not answer.

While visiting the dwarves Galar and Fjalar in their home in Nidavellir (the realm of the dwarves), Kvasir was killed. The dwarfs then used Kvasir’s blood, mixed with honey, to make a beverage called the Mead of Poetry (or Poetic Mead). According to Skáldskaparmál (the second part of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda), one sip of this beverage made the drinker a very wise scholar or poet (“skáld eða frœðamaðr“), who could provide answer to any question that was asked.

Following the end of the Aesir-Vanir War, the dwarfs used the blood of the slain wise man Kvasir to brew the Mead of Poetry, which also known as the Mead of Suttungr.

The incompetence of Hoenir and the beheading of Mimir

Upon arriving in the camp of the Vanir, Hoenir was chosen to serve as chieftain, replacing Njord. The story goes on to say that Hoenir performed very poorly as the leader of the Vanir as he was not able to make any decisions. Hoenir’s incompetence made the Vanir suspect that the Aesir had cheated them. Enraged, the Vanir seized Mimir and cut off his head and then sent the head to the Aesir.

Not wanting to lose the vast knowledge and wisdom possessed by Mimir, the Aesir gods asked Freya to use her magic to preserve Mimir’s head. And so, Mimir, although beheaded, was still able to serve as wise counsel to Odin.

The secret mead of the Vanir

In Norse myths, it’s commonly held that drinking some special kinds of mead (an alcoholic drink) increases the drinker’s wisdom. One of such mead was the one possessed by the Vanir. In the Poetic Edda, that mead is called the “sacred mead”.

Powers and abilities of the Vanir

Compared to their counterparts the Aesir gods, the Vanir were more peace-loving deities who engaged a lot in magic and concerned themselves with prophecies. It is said that the Vanir were the first race of gods to gain knowledge of magic (i.e. seidr). Following the peace treaty, the Vanir god Freya imbued in Odin and his race of gods the knowledge of magic.

The Vanir gods are usually described very wise deities. Whereas the Aesir concern themselves in acquiring worldly knowledge, the Vanir focuses on wisdom. This wisdom was one of the reasons why they were able to stand-to-toe against the Aesir during the Vanir-Aesir War.

With this wisdom, the Vanir were able to secure many famous battle wins in the war. In Völuspá, one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, – the Vanir were so powerful that they even broke the walls of the Asgard. This myth explains why the Aesir gods had to employ the services of a jotunn (giant) and his powerful horse, which Loki later mated with to give birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

Although the Vanir are gifted in the art of magic and prophecy, it is said that the chief of the Aesir Odin is the most skilled practitioner of magic (seidr) in all the Nine Realms. Having being taught magic by Freya, Odin continued to push himself until he became the most skilled in the universe. Odin’s knowledge in magic was enhanced by the number of sacrifices he made to acquire more knowledge. This includes sacrificing one of his eyes in order to drink from Mimir’s well of wisdom. One time, he also hanged himself upside down on the World Tree for nine days and nights.

The Vanir god Njordr

In the Poetic Edda poem Vafþrúðnismál, it’s stated the god Njordr was born in Vanaheimr, the home of the Vanir race of gods. This origin story of Njordr is also mentioned in Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda, where the character High states that Njordr was born and raised in the realm of the Vanir, i.e. Vanaheimr.

During the war between the Vanir and the Aesir, Njordr was taken hostage. He is fated to remain with the Aesir until the end of Ragnarok (i.e. the demise of the gods), at which point he is expected to make his way back to his people.

Odin, who had disguised himself as Gagnradr, inquires about the origin of the god Njordr. The person responds by saying that Njordr is a Vanir god.

More myths

  • The Vanir gods were not as well-known as the Aesir gods. As a matter of fact the word used for gods in Old Norse was “asa”, a reference to the popularity of Aesir gods.
  • The Vanir deities came to play second fiddle to the Aesir gods after the Aesir-Vanir War. This explains why some Vanir gods were admitted to the Aesir group of gods.
  • Vanir goddess Freyja, a goddess of fertility and beauty, was sometimes known as “Van-deity” and “Van-lady” and “Van-bride”. Those epithets highlight her association with fates and prophecies.
  • Vanir god Njordr was associated with the sea. By his wife/sister, he is known to have fathered two children – the twin deities Freyr and Freyja.
  • In one account of the myth, a Swedish king by the name of Valandi (or Vanlandj) married a woman called Vana in “Vanaland”. Vanlandi was also known as the “Man from the Land of the Vanir”
  • The goddess Freyja is popularly known as the first Vanir deity to teach magic to the Aesir race of gods.
  • The trading of hostages between the Aesir and Vanir is attested to in Heimskringlawritten by Snorri Sturluson.

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