The Norse pantheon consisted of numerous minor dieties that were often overshadowed by the more famous gods such as Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freyja. Such Minor Aesir, however, still played important roles in the legends of Norse mythology. Whether secondary by virtue of their limited realm of influence (as was the case with Forseti and Nanna) or by their lack of extant sources (see Ull), these minor Aesir still reveal intriguing elements of the cultural and religious views of the early Nordic peoples.
Norse Mythology is renowned for its rich tapestry of colorful stories, memorable characters, heroic sacrifice, and epic battles. In the history of northern Europe, this collection of tales brought meaning and purpose to both the Scandinavian peoples and the northern Germanic tribes for many centuries. Although the spiritual lore of Norse mythology, like much of human history itself, is violent, glorifying war and human sacrifice, this region has now become a leader of peace and disarmament on the international stage. The Scandinavian countries, unlike other world cultures, seem to have done a better job at evolving away from their ancient associations with belligerence and warfare to become leaders in promoting peace and diplomacy in our current age.
As Norse deities, the Minor Aesir belonged to a complex religious, mythological, and cosmological belief system shared by the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. This mythological tradition, of which the Scandinavian (and particularly Icelandic) sub-groups are best preserved, developed in the period from the first manifestations of religious and material culture in approximately 1000 B.C.E. until the Christianization of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900–1200 C.E. The tales recorded within this mythological corpus tend to exemplify a unified cultural focus on physical prowess and military might.
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates three separate "clans" of deities: The Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. The distinction between Aesir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried, and reigned together after a prolonged war. In fact, the most major divergence between the two groups is in their respective areas of influence, with the Aesir representing war and conquest, and the Vanir representing exploration, fertility, and wealth. The Jotun, on the other hand, are seen as a generally malefic (though wise) race of giants who represented the primary adversaries of the Aesir and Vanir.
Though these gods play a smaller role than the major Norse deities, they still represent relevant aspects of the overall mythic tradition. More specifically, many of these figures exist primarily as personifications of abstract values (for example, Forseti) and are perhaps even more indicative of the overarching values of a people than the dominant figures of Odin and Thor.
Forseti (Old Norse: "chairman"; Modern Icelandic and Faroese: "president") is the god of justice, peace, and truth among the Æsir. He was the son of Balder and Nanna. His home was Glitnir ("shining"), which referred to the hall's silver ceiling and golden pillars, radiating light that could be seen from a great distance.
Forseti was considered the wisest and most eloquent of the gods of Asgard. In contrast to his fellow god Tyr, who presided over the bloody affairs of carnal law, Forseti presided over disputes resolved by mediation. He sat in his hall, dispensing justice to those who sought it, and was said to be able to always provide a solution that all parties considered fair. Like his father Balder, he was a gentle god and favored peace so all judged by him could live in safety as long as they upheld his sentence. Forseti was so respected that only the most solemn oaths were uttered in his name. As described in the Prose Edda of the twelfth century Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson:
Since Forseti is not mentioned as a combatant at Ragnarok, it is assumed that, as a god of peace, he abstained from battle.
In Frisia, the god is known as Fosite or Foseti and is thought to have been the chief god or ancestor of the Frisian people. The Norse view of the deity is related to the Frisian one, and is thought to have spread to them around 700 C.E., when the cultural relations between Frisia and southern Norway were amenable enough to enable the Fosite-cult to move north across the Oslofjord.
As seen above, he is described (at least in the Prose Edda) as the All-Father's son (or at least his servant). However, some evidence (not least the fact that "Snorri never mentions Hermod in his lists of the Aesir") suggests that he is a euhemerized human hero rather than a deity.
Höðr (often anglicized as Hod) is the blind brother of Balder, representing darkness and winter (as opposed to his brother's associations with lightness and spring). Guided by Loki, he shot the mistletoe arrow that came to slay the otherwise invulnerable Baldr. While most accounts of this tale follow the plan outlined in Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, an entirely different vision of the tale is presented in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus. Both will be explored below.
In the Gylfaginning section of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, Höðr is introduced in an ominous manner:
The blind god is not mentioned again until the prelude to Baldr's death is described. As a precursor to his demise, the Lord of Spring was allowing himself to be the target of various missiles, as all things (with the grievous exception of mistletoe [which was believed to be harmless]) have sworn an oath not to harm him.
However, the Gylfaginning does not say what happens to Höðr after this. In fact, it specifically states that Baldr cannot be avenged, at least not immediately.
Though Snorri does not relate the tale of Höðr's death at the hands of Váli, it is evident that he was familiar with it, as he includes "Foe of Váli" as a kenning for the Blind God and "Baldr's Avenger, [and] Foe and Slayer of Hödr" as kennings for Váli.
The accounts of this event in the Poetic Edda (specifically the Völuspá and Baldr's Draumr) are essentially compatible with the version presented in the Prose Edda.
In Gesta Danorum, Høtherus (Höðr) is a human hero of the Danish and Swedish royal lines, who is gifted in swimming, archery, fighting, and music. He first encounters Balder when they begin to compete for the hand of Nanna, daughter of Gewar, King of Norway.
In this version, Balder was a demigod who could not be wounded by common steel. The two rivals encountered each other in a terrible battle, which eventually led to Balder being beaten and forced into exile.
In this account, the divine character of the tale (and much of its mythic resonance) is stripped away in favor of an attempt at historical accuracy (or an attempt to discredit "pagan" practices).
Hœnir's role in the Norse pantheon is both conflicted and uncertain. His list of kennings in the Prose Edda, which includes "Bench-Mate or Companion or Friend of Odin, the Swift of God, the Long-Footed, and King of Clay," does not help clarify his characterization to any great extent. On the one hand, he is present at many of the most important moments in the mythic timeline; on the other, he is depicted as an indecisive sycophant whose lack of practical utility leads to the death of his friend, Mímir.
Making a case for the god's relative importance, it is important to note that he is described as being present for the creation of human beings and after the resolution of Ragnarök. In the first case, the Völuspá states that three gods (Odin, Hœnir, and Lódur) were responsible for molding the first humans and sparking life within them:
At the conclusion of the timeline, he is similarly present:
In this Edenic setting, the god is seemingly gifted with the power of prophecy.
Unlike these tales of his mythic importance, the depiction of Hœnir in the Ynglinga Saga is far less flattering. Chosen to be a hostage to the Vanir following the Aesir/Vanir war, he is given a chieftainship, due in large part to his manly and imposing appearance. Unfortunately, Hœnir proves to be an utterly incompetent leader who relies upon Mímir to make his decisions for him. The outraged Vanir responded to this by decapitating their intelligent hostage and sending his head to the Aesir.
As in many other cases, these two views of Hœnir seem to be utterly incompatible, likely resulting from the gradual evolution of the mythic corpus.
Another largely forgotten member of the pantheon, Lodúr ("fruitful"), makes only a single appearance within the surviving mythic corpus—in the account of the creation of the first human in the Völuspá:
However, even this tale is not consistently assigned to this god. As Lindow notes in his description of the version of this tale in the Prose Edda, "[T]he creator gods in his version are the sons of Bor (i.e., Odin, Vili, and Vé). The third, who is structurally equivalent to Lódur, gives appearance, speech, hearing, and vision."
Meili is one of the most enigmatic members of the Norse pantheon. All that is known of him is that he is listed in various sections of the Poetic and Prose Eddas as either a "son of Odin" or a "brother of Thor." For example, see the Harbarthsljoth:
Likewise, Snorri often uses the kenning "Meili's brother" to refer to the God of Thunder. Aside from these oblique references, all other information concerning this god has been lost.
Móði ("angry one") and Magni ("the strong") are the two sons of Thor, the former borne by Sif and the latter by Jarnsaxa (a giantess). They are best known as the inheritors of their father's potent mystical hammer, Mjolnir, after the cataclysm of Ragnarök. As Lindow notes, "Magni and his brother Móði are, then, second generation gods—like Vídar and Vali and Höd and Baldr—who will survive Ragnarök and participate in the new world order."
Nanna is a goddess in Norse mythology, the daughter of Nep, the wife of Baldr, and the mother of Forseti. She and her divine husband dwell together in the hall of Breidablik. According to Gylfaginning, when Baldr was unintentionally slain by the blind god Höðr through the treachery of Loki, "her heart burst with grief, and she died." She was placed on the funeral pyre alongside her spouse on his ship Hringhorni, which was then launched out to sea.
Later, when Hermód set out on his quest to bring Baldr back from the underworld and entered the hall of Hel, he saw Baldr there in the seat of honor alongside Nanna. The deceased goddess, who evidently still felt bonds of kinship with the surviving Aesir, sent gifts for the other gods, including a robe for Frigg and a ring for Fulla, back with Hermód.
According to Skáldskaparmál, Nanna is listed among the eight Ásynjur (female Aesir) presiding over the banquet held for Aegir (a human visitor) when he was a guest in Asgard, though Baldr is conspicuously absent among the hosting male Æsir.
In Gesta Danorum, a Danish history written by Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150–1220), Nanna is a beautiful human woman caught up in a love triangle between the human king Hotherus and the demigod Balderus, who, unlike their counterparts in Gylfaginning, are not brothers but rivals for the hand of the princess.
Sif ("relation") is a goddess of the Æsir, wife of Thor (Þórr), and mother of Thrud (Þrúðr), Ullr, and Modi (Móði). She is renowned for her beauty, which, in turn, is largely due to her long, flowing locks of blond hair. This particular asset leads to her most memorable mythic appearance, which occurred when Loki decided that it would be an amusing prank to abscond with her hair while she slept:
By virtue of this tale, "Sif's hair" becomes a popular kenning for "gold" in the vocabulary of the skaldic poets.
In Norse mythology, Ull is a son of Sif and a stepson of Thor. While extant sources are scant, he appears to have been a major god in prehistoric times (perhaps even a head of the Proto-Germanic pantheon). This historical importance is implied by many extant toponyms throughout Scandinavia and also by archaeological evidence (such as the the third-century C.E. Thorsberg chape [a fragmentary inscription recovered from a sword's scabbard]).
Snorri Sturluson provides one of the most comprehensive (if brief) descriptions of Ull in the Gylfagninning section of his magisterial Prose Edda:
In Skáldskaparmál, the second part of the Prose Edda, Snorri mentions Ullr again in a discussion of kennings. Snorri informs his readers that Ullr can be called ski-god, bow-god, hunting-god, and shield-god. In turn, a shield can be called Ullr's ship. However, and in spite of these tantalizing poetic allusions, Snorri relates no myths about Ullr, suggesting that the god has already faded from memory by the thirteenth century C.E.
Snorri's note that a shield can be called "Ullr's ship" is borne out by surviving skaldic poetry, with kennings such as askr Ullar, far Ullar, and kjóll Ullar—all meaning Ullr's ship and referring to shields. While the origin of this kenning is unknown, it could be connected with the identity of Ullr as a ski-god. Early skis, or perhaps sleds, might have been reminiscent of shields. The name of Ullr is also common in warrior kennings, where it is used as other god names are.
The name Ýdalir, meaning "yew dales," is not otherwise attested. However, the yew was an important material in the making of bows, and the word ýr, "yew," is often used metonymically to refer to bows. Thus, it seems likely that the name Ýdalir is connected with the idea of Ullr as a bow-god.
Ull is also mentioned in the Atlakviða, where the hero swears an oath by "the ring of Ull." Given that both Atlakviða and Grímnismál are often considered to be among the oldest extant Eddic poems, it may not be a coincidence that they are the only ones to refer to Ullr.
The name Ullr is probably cognate with the Old English word wuldor and the Gothic word wulþus, meaning "glory."
The appearance of Ullr's name in numerous Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish place names (for example, Ulleråker or "Ullr's field" and Ullevi or "Ullr's shrine") is further evidence that Ullr had at some point a religious importance greater than is immediately apparent from the scant surviving textual references.
In Norse mythology, Váli is a son of the god Odin and the giantess Rindr. He was birthed for the sole purpose of avenging Balder's death by slaying the blind (and arguably blameless) Höðr. As a testament to the singular purpose of his existence, some sources describe him growing to full adulthood and exacting his bloody revenge within a single day of his birth. Váli is also fated to survive Ragnarök.
The Váli myth described above is referred to in Baldr's Draumar:
and in Völuspá:
In Norse mythology, Víðarr (often Anglicised Vidar or Widar) is a god associated with vengeance. He is the son of Odin and the giantess Grid, whose major deed in the mythology is to avenge his father's death at Ragnarök. To that end, he is also one of the few gods destined to survive that final conflict.
According to Gylfaginning, Vidar is described as follows: "He is the silent god. He has a thick shoe. He is nearly as strong as Thor; in him the gods have great trust in all struggles." During Ragnarök, when the wolf Fenrir devours Odin, Vidar will avenge him by treading down with one foot upon the lower jaw of the monster, grabbing his upper jaw in one hand and tearing his gullet asunder, killing him. Since Vidar's "thick shoe" consists of all the leather waste pieces that people have cut from their own shoes, anyone who is concerned enough to give assistance to the gods must throw these pieces away. Following Ragnarök and the rebirth of the world, Vidar (along with his brother Váli) will be two of the few surviving Aesir.
According to Skáldskaparmál, when Aegir was a guest in Asgard, Vidar was one of the twelve presiding male gods seated among those hosting the banquet. Later in the book, various kennings are given for Vidar, including "the Silent God, Possessor of the Iron Shoe, Foe and Slayer of Fenris-Wolf, Avenger of the Gods, Divine Dweller in the Homesteads of the Fathers, Son of Odin, and Brother of the Æsir."
The selections in the Poetic Edda that describe Vidar are more or less compatible with Snorri's account (as summarized above).
John Lindow, in his Handbook of Norse Mythology (2001), speculates that Vidar's silence may be due to a ritualized abstention or vow—practices that often accompany acts of vengeance. A similar case can be seen in Völuspá and Baldrs draumar, where Váli, conceived for the sole purpose of avenging Balder's death, abstains from washing his hands and combing his hair "until he brought Baldr's adversary to the funeral pyre."
According to H. A. Guerber's Myths of the Norsemen, Vidar is considered to be a reflection of the primeval forest. His home was Landvidi ("wide land"), which was said to be surrounded by thick vegetation deep in the woods where he could meditate in silence.
Vili and Vé were two lesser-known siblings of Odin in the Norse pantheon. According to Snorri's Prose Edda, the three brothers were responsible for slaying Ymir (the primal giant) and constructing the cosmos from his remains. The trio of gods also were credited with the creation of the first humans:
Given that this same tale is told in the Völuspá with Vili replaced by Hœnir and Vé by Lóðurr, it seems likely that the two pairs are, in some way, analogous.
The only other important reference to the duo is in the Lokasenna ("Loki's Wrangling"), where Odin's wife is accused of taking them as lovers:
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