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In Norse mythology, the Vanir (singular Vanr) are a group of gods associated with fertility, wisdom, and the ability to see the future. The Vanir are one of two groups of gods (the other being the Æsir) and are the namesake of the location Vanaheimr ("Home of the Vanir"). After the Æsir–Vanir War, the Vanir became a subgroup of the Æsir. Subsequently, members of the Vanir are sometimes also referred to as members of the Æsir.

The Vanir are attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources; the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, both written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson; and in the poetry of skalds. The Vanir are only attested in these Old Norse sources, unlike the Æsir, who are attested widely among the Germanic peoples. Vanir is sometimes anglicized to Wanes (singular Wane).

All sources describe the deities Njörðr, Freyr, and Freyja as members of the Vanir. A euhemerized prose account in Heimskringla adds that Njörðr's sister—whose name is not provided—and Kvasir were Vanir. In addition, Heimskringla reports a tale involving king Sveigðir's visit to Vanaheimr, where he meets a woman by the name of Vana and the two produce a child named Vanlandi (whose name means "Man from the Land of the Vanir").

While not attested as Vanir, the gods Heimdallr and Ullr have been theorized as potential members of the group. In the Prose Edda, a name listed for boars is "Van-child". Scholars have theorized that the Vanir may be connected to small pieces of gold foil, gullgubber, found in Scandinavia at some building sites from the Migration Period to the Viking Age and occasionally in graves, have asked whether the Vanir originally represented pre-Indo-European deities or Indo-European fertility gods, and have theorized a form of the gods as venerated by the pagan Anglo-Saxons.

Etymology

Numerous theories have been proposed for the etymology of Vanir. Scholar Raymond Ian Page says that, while there are no shortages of etymologies for the word, it is tempting to link the word with "Old Norse vinr, 'friend', and Latin Venus, 'goddess of physical love.'"[1]

Attestations

Poetic Edda

In the Poetic Edda, the Vanir, as a group, are specifically referenced in the poems Völuspá, Vafþrúðnismál, Skírnismál, Þrymskviða, Alvíssmál, and Sigrdrífumál. In Völuspá, a stanza describes the events of the Æsir–Vanir War, noting that during the war the Vanir broke the walls of the stronghold of the Æsir, and that the Vanir were "indomitable, trampling the plain."[2]

In Vafþrúðnismál, Gagnráðr (the god Odin in disguise) engages in a game of wits with the jötunn Vafþrúðnir. Gagnráðr asks Vafþrúðnir where the Van god Njörðr came from, for though he rules over many hofs and hörgrs, Njörðr was not raised among the Æsir. Vafþrúðnir responds that Njörðr was created in Vanaheimr ("home of the Vanir") by "wise powers" and details that during the Æsir–Vanir War, Njörðr was exchanged as a hostage. In addition, when the world ends (Ragnarök), Njörðr "will return to the wise Vanir."[3]

Alvíssmál consists of question and answer exchanges between the dwarf Alvíss and the god Thor. In the poem, Alvíss supplies terms that various groups, including the Vanir, use to refer to various subjects. Alvíss attributes nine terms to the Vanir; one for Earth ("The Ways"), Heaven ("The Weaver of Winds"), clouds ("Kites of the Wind"), calm ("The Hush of the Winds"), the sea ("The Wave"), fire ("Wildfire"), wood ("The Wand"), seed ("growth"), and ale ("The Foaming").[4]

The poem Þrymskviða describes that the god Heimdallr possesses foreknowledge, "as the Vanir also can."[5] Sigrdrífumál records that the Vanir are in possession of a "sacred mead". In the poem, the valkyrie Sigrdrífa provides mystical lore about runes to the hero Sigurd. Sigrdrífa notes that runes were once carved on to various creatures, deities, and other figures, and then shaved off and mixed with a "sacred mead." This mead is possessed by the Æsir, the elves, mankind, and the Vanir.[6]

In Skírnismál, the beautiful jötunn Gerðr first encounters the god Freyr's messenger Skírnir, and asks him if he is of the elves, of the Æsir, or of the "wise Vanir." Skírnir responds that he is not of any of the three groups.[7] Later in the poem, Skírnir is successful in his threats against Gerðr (to have Gerðr accept Freyr's affections), and Gerðr offers Skírnir a crystal cup full of mead, noting that she never thought that she would love one of the Vanir.[8]

Prose Edda

The Vanir are mentioned in the Prose Edda books Gylfaginning and Skáldskaparmál. In chapter 23 of Gylfaginning, the enthroned figure of High relates that Njörðr was raised in Vanaheimr. High says that during the Æsir–Vanir War, the Vanir sent Njörðr as a hostage to the Æsir, and the Æsir sent to the Vanir the god Hœnir. The sending of Njörðr as a hostage resulted in a peace agreement between the Æsir and the Vanir.[9]

Chapter 35 provides information regarding the goddess Freyja, including that one of her names is "Dis of the Vanir." In the same chapter, High tells that the goddess Gná rides the horse Hófvarpnir, and that this horse has the ability to ride through the air and atop the sea.[10] High continues that "once some Vanir saw her path as she rode through the air" and that an unnamed one of these Vanir says, in verse (for which no source is provided):

"What flies there?:What fares there?
or moves through the air?"[11]
Gná responds:
"I fly not:though I fare
and move through the air
on Hofvarpnir
the one whom Hamskerpir got
with Gardrofa."[11]

In chapter 57 of Skáldskaparmál, the god Bragi explains the origin of poetry. Bragi says the origin of poetry lies in the Æsir–Vanir War. During the peace conference held to end the war both the Æsir and the Vanir formed a truce by spitting into a vat. When they left, the gods decided that it shouldn't be poured out, but rather kept as a symbol of their peace, and so from the contents they made a man; Kvasir. Kvasir is later murdered by dwarves, and from his blood the Mead of Poetry is made.[12]

In chapter 6, poetic names for Njörðr are provided, including "descendant of Vanir or a Van". As reference, a poem by the 11th century skald Þórðr Sjáreksson is provided where Njörðr is described as a Vanr. In chapter 7, poetic names for Freyr are listed, including names that reference his association with the Vanir; "Vanir god," "descendant of Vanir," and "a Van."[13] Freyja is also repeatedly cited as a Vanr. In chapter 20, some of Freyja's names are listed and include "Van-deity" and"Van-lady," and chapter 37 provides skaldic verse referring to Freyja as "Van-bride."[14] In chapter seventy-five, names for pigs are provided, including "Van-child."[15]

Heimskringla

The Heimskringla book Ynglinga saga (chapter 4) provides an euhemerized account of the Æsir–Vanir War. As a peace agreement, the two sides agreed to trade hostages. The Vanir sent Njörðr and Freyr to the Æsir, and in turn the Æsir sent to the Vanir Hœnir and Kvasir. Upon receiving Mímir, the Vanir sent the "cleverest amongst them," Kvasir. In Vanaheimr, the Vanir made Hœnir a chieftain. However, whenever Hœnir appeared at assemblies or meetings where the Vanir asked him his opinion on difficult issues, his response was "let others decide." The Vanir suspected that they had been cheated by the Æsir in the hostage exchange, and so grabbed hold of Mímir, cut off Mímir's head, and sent it to the Æsir.[16]

The same chapter describes that while Njörðr lived among the Vanir, his wife (unnamed) was his sister, and the couple had two children; Freyr and Freyja. However, "among the Æsir it was forbidden to marry so near a kin." By Odin's appointment, Njörðr and Freyr became priests over offerings of sacrifice, and they were recognized as gods among the Æsir. Freyja was priestess at the sacrifices, and "it was she who first taught the Æsir magic as was practiced among the Vanir."[16]

In chapter 15, the king Sveigðir is recorded as having married a woman named Vana in "Vanaland", located in Sweden. The two produced a child, who they named Vanlandi (Old Norse "Man from the Land of the Vanir"[17]).[18]

Archaeological record

Small pieces of gold foil decorated with pictures of figures dating from the Migration Period into the early Viking Age (known as gullgubber) have been discovered in various locations in Scandinavia, in one case almost 2,500. The foil pieces have been found largely at sites of buildings, only rarely in graves. The figures are sometimes single, occasionally an animal, sometimes a man and a woman with a leafy bough between them, facing or embracing one another. The human figures are almost always clothed and are sometimes depicted with their knees bent. Scholar Hilda Ellis Davidson says that it has been suggested that the figures are partaking in a dance, and that they may have been connected with weddings and linked to the Vanir, representing the notion of a divine marriage, such as in the Poetic Edda poem Skírnismál; the coming together of the Vanir god Freyr and his love, Gerðr.[19]

Theories

Scholar Stephan Grundy notes that like the Vanr goddess Freyja, the Vanir as a group are not attested outside of Scandinavia, and that "the origin of the distinction between the Æsir and Vanir is uncertain; but whether they are pre-Indo-European deities or Indo-European fertility gods, the tribal division is likely to be ancient, as is the name, which is difficult to analyse etymologically. Grundy notes that there is however evidence (though not undisputed) that the god Freyr is the same god as the Germanic deity Ing (reconstructed as Proto-Germanic *Ingwaz), and that, if so, he is attested as having been known among the Goths. Grundy says that while it is possible that the Vanir may have once been known commonly among the Germanic peoples, it is also possible that the Vanir may have been only known to Scandinavians, Germanic peoples around the North Sea, and perhaps also to the Goths.[20]

Scholar Hilda Ellis Davidson theorizes that all of the wives of the gods may have originally been members of the Vanir, noting that many of them appear to have originally been children of jötnar.[19] Davidson additionally notes that "it is the Vanir and Odin who seem to receive the most hostile treatment in Christian stories about mythological personages."[21]

Scholar Richard North theorizes that glossing Latin vanitates ("vanities", "idols") for "gods" in Old English sources implies the existence of *uuani (a reconstructed cognate to Old Norse "Vanir") in Deiran dialect. North details that the gods that Edwin of Northumbria and the northern Angles worshiped in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England were likely to have been the *uuani, who he comments likely "shared not only the name but also the orgiastic character of the [Old Icelandic] Vanir."[22]

Modern influence

The Vanir are featured in the poem Om vanerne in Nordens Guder (1819) by Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger.[23] Some Germanic Neopagans refer to their beliefs as Vanatrú (meaning "those who honor the Vanir").[24]

Notes

  1. Page (1990:27).
  2. Larrington (1999:7).
  3. Larrington (1999:46).
  4. Bellows (1923:186–187, 189–193).
  5. Larrington (1999:99).
  6. Larrington (1999:169).
  7. Larrington (1999:64).
  8. Larrington (1999:67).
  9. Faulkes (1995:23).
  10. Byock (2005:43).
  11. 11.0 11.1 Byock (2005:44).
  12. Faulkes (1995:61–62).
  13. Faulkes (1999:57).
  14. Faulkes (1995:86–99).
  15. Faulkes (1999:164).
  16. 16.0 16.1 Hollander (2007:8).
  17. McKinnell (2005:70).
  18. Hollander (2007:15).
  19. 19.0 19.1 Davidson (1988:121).
  20. Grundy (1998:65).
  21. Davidson (1969:132).
  22. North (1998:177–178).
  23. Simek (2007:352).
  24. Harvey (2000:67).

References

  • Bellows, Henry Adams (Trans.) (1923). The Poetic Edda. New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation.
  • Byock, Jesse (Trans.) (2005). The Prose Edda. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0140447555.
  • Davidson, H. R. Ellis (1969). Scandinavian Mythology. Paul Hamlyn.
  • Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis (1988). Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719025796.
  • Faulkes, Anthony (Trans.) (1995). Edda. Everyman. ISBN 0-460-87616-3.
  • Grundy, Stephan (1998). "Freyja and Frigg" in Billington, Sandra, and Green, Miranda (1998). The Concept of the Goddess. Routledge. ISBN 0415197899.
  • Harvey, Graham (2000). Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York University Press. ISBN 0814736203
  • Hollander, Lee Milton (Trans.) (2007). Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-73061-8.
  • Larrington, Carolyne (Trans.) (1999). The Poetic Edda. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 0-19-283946-2.
  • McKinnell, John (2005). Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend. DS Brewer. ISBN 1843840421.
  • North, Richard (1998). Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521551838.
  • Page, Raymond Ian (1990). Norse Myths. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292755465.
  • Simek, Rudolf (2007). Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-513-1.
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