The Vanir are one of the two groups of gods in Norse mythology, the other being the comparatively better-known Aesir. However, while Aesir is occasionally used as a blanket term to describe all Norse deities, Vanir is not. It refers to an explicitly separate sub-section of the pantheon, with ties to fertility, sexuality, and worldly prosperity (which, in turn, is a dramatic divergence from the general Norse mythological obsession with raiding, battle, and physical prowess). The term "vanir" likely derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *wen, which is related etymologically "to words in other [Indo-European] languages meaning 'pleasure' or 'desire.'" The best known members of the Vanir are Njord, Freyr, and Freyja.
As Norse deities, the Vanir 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. While the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tend to exemplify a unified cultural focus on physical prowess and military might, the Vanir were seen to provide a valuably different perspective.
The Vanir in Norse Mythology
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 significant 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. The gods (both Aesir and Vanir), though immortal, were somewhat more "perishable" than their Indo-European brethren. Not only was their eternal youth maintained artificially (through the consumption of Iðunn's golden apples), they could also be slain (for instance, many were preordained to perish at the cataclysmic battle of Ragnarök).
The multifarious forms of interaction between the Aesir and the Vanir present an oft-addressed conundrum for scholars of myth and religion. Unlike other polytheistic cultures, where families of gods were typically understood as "elder" or "younger" (as with the Titans and the Olympians of ancient Greece), the Æsir and Vanir were portrayed as contemporary. The two clans fought battles, concluded treaties, and exchanged hostages. Given the difference between their roles/emphases, some scholars have speculated that the interactions between the Aesir and the Vanir reflect the types of interactions that were occurring between social classes (or clans) within Norse society at the time.
According to another theory, the Vanir (and the fertility cult associated with them) may be more archaic than that of the more warlike Aesir, such that the mythical war may mirror a half-remembered religious conflict. Another historical perspective is that the inter-pantheon interaction may be an apotheosization of the conflict between the Romans and the Sabines. Finally, the noted comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade speculated this conflict is actually a later version of an Indo-European myth concerning the conflict between and eventual integration of a pantheon of sky/warrior/ruler gods and a pantheon of earth/economics/fertility gods, with no strict historical antecedents.
The Vanir and the Elves
The Poetic Edda suggests a possible identification between the Vanir with the elves (Alfar), frequently interchanging "Aesir and Vanir" and "Aesir and Alfar" to mean "all the gods." As both the Vanir and the Alfar were fertility powers, the interchangeability suggest that the Vanir may have been somehow associated with the elves. It may also be that the two groups reflected a difference in status, where the elves and the Vanir were minor and major fertility (respectively). This identification is further attested to by un-elaborated connection between Freyr and Álfheim (the world of the elves), which is described in the Eddic Poem Grimnismol:
- And Alfheim the gods | to Freyr once gave
- As a tooth-gift in ancient times.
The Vanir in Norse Cosmology
The Vanir, as a group, are thought to hail from Vanaheimr (which is also called Vanaland). However, this realm is often subsumed into Asgard (the realm of the Aesir) in Norse cosmology.
One exception to this general tendency can be seen in the twelfth-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson's euhemeristic Ynglinga Saga, which assumes that the Vanir were once a human tribe corresponding to a particular territory:
- The country of the people on the Vanaquisl was called Vanaland, or Vanaheim; and the river separates the three parts of the world, of which the eastermost part is called Asia, and the westermost Europe.
In general, the Vanir were differentiated from the Aesir by their patronage of (and association with) certain realms of embodied experience, most notably fertility, maritime life (especially navigation), and material success. Further, they (especially Freyja) were associated with prophecy and the magical arts. Their differences with the Aesir also include sexual behaviour, as they were said to have practiced endogamy and even incest. As DuBois notes,
- The deities of the earth—the Vanir of Scandinavian texts—were on the whole a passionate, lascivious lot. Within the worldview of early agriculturalists, the magic of natural regeneration—the very basis of agriculture—leads naturally to magic of other types. The Eddaic poem Völuspá depicts Vanir magic as a redolent, intoxicating force, wielded with might and success against the weapons of the Aesir. In his discussion of Vanir gods Freyja, Freyr, and Njord in the Prose Edda. Snorri portrays the deities as exotics, possessed of their own strange customs, such as incest, and given to fits of rage and desire.
List of Vanir
- Freyja - the high goddess of the Vanir, who was associated with fertility and sexuality
- Freyr - the high god of the Vanir, who was associated with fertility
- Gerðr - the Jotun wife of Freyr 
- Gullveig - a mysterious figure whose death precipitated the Aesir/Vanir war (at least according to the account in the Völuspá)
- Heimdall (?) - Some sources suggest that the god's sentry was himself a member of the Vanir
- Kvasir - the "wisest of the Vanir," who is given to the Aesir as a "pledge of peace" at the cessation of their hostilities 
- Lýtir - A phallic fertility god who is only described in the Flateyjarbók (an Icelandic text from the late fourteenth century)
- Njǫrðr - the god of wind and the sea, and the father of Freyr and Freyja
- Óðr - the little-known husband of Freyja 
- Skaði - the Jotun wife of Njord
Further, the gods Njörd and Freyr appear in Snorri's Ynglinga saga as euhemerized Kings of Sweden. For this reason, their mythological descendants on the Swedish throne could also be called Vanir. They include:
- Fjölnir, who was the son of Frey and the giantess Gerðr.
- Sveigder, who married Vana of Vanaheimr and had the son Vanlade.
- Vanlade, whose name connects him to the Vanir, and who married a daughter of the Jotun Snær.
The initial conflict between the Aesir and the Vanir is described in two primary mythic sources: the Völuspá and the euhemeristic Ynglinga Saga. According to the former source, the initial cause for the hostilities is the Aesir's mistreatment of Gullveig ("Gold-Might"—a possible pseudonym of Freyja):
- The war I remember, | the first in the world,
- When the gods with spears | had smitten Gollveig,
- And in the hall | of Hor had burned her,
- Three times burned, | and three times born,
- Oft and again, | yet ever she lives.
Conversely, the Ynglinga Saga (which describes the Aesir and Vanir as two contending tribes) simply portrays the conflict as a battle for contested territory:
- Odin went out with a great army against the Vanaland people; but they were well prepared, and defended their land; so that victory was changeable, and they ravaged the lands of each other, and did great damage.
Tiring of this constant strife, the two groups sued for peace and agreed to exchange hostages to ensure their mutual compliance with the treaty. In good faith, the Vanir sent the best of their clan (Njord, Freyr, and Freyja). The Aesir, on the other hand, sent the wise Mimir but also the terminally inept Hœnir.
In an intriguing nod to the theorists who speculate that this conflict symbolizes an altercation between religious world-views, the Völuspá seems to suggest that the negotiation process involved a discussion of which group was a fitting subject for worship:
- Then sought the gods | their assembly-seats,
- The holy ones, | and council held,
- Whether the gods | should tribute give,
- Or to all alike | should worship belong.
- Turville-Petre, 156.
- Lindow, 311.
- Lindow, 6-8. Though some scholars have argued against the homogenizing effect of grouping these various traditions together under the rubric of “Norse mythology,” the profoundly exploratory/nomadic nature of Viking society tends to overrule such objections. As Thomas DuBois cogently argues, “[w]hatever else we may say about the various peoples of the North during the Viking Age, then, we cannot claim that they were isolated from or ignorant of their neighbors…. As religion expresses the concerns and experiences of its human adherents, so it changes continually in response to cultural, economic, and environmental factors. Ideas and ideals passed between communities with frequency and regularity, leading to and interdependent and intercultural region with broad commonalities of religion and worldview” (27-28).
- More specifically, Georges Dumézil, one of the foremost authorities on the Norse tradition and a noted comparitivist, argues quite persuasively that the Aesir/Vanir distinction is a component of a larger triadic division (between ruler gods, warrior gods, and gods of agriculture and commerce) that is echoed among the Indo-European cosmologies (from Vedic India, through Rome and into the Germanic North). Further, he notes that this distinction conforms to patterns of social organization found in all of these societies. See Georges Dumézil's Gods of the Ancient Northmen (especially pgs. xi-xiii, 3-25) for more details.
- Dumézil, 3-4, 18; Turville-Petre, 159-162.
- This argument was first suggested by Wilhelm Mannhardt in 1877 (as described in Dumézil, xxiii, and in Munch, 288). On a similar note, Marija Gimbutas argues that the Aesir and the Vanir represent the displacement of an indigenous Indo-European group by a tribe of warlike invaders (in following her Kurgan hypothesis). See her case in The Living Goddess for more details.
- Turville-Petre, 161. See especially 37 ff.
- See this pattern discussed in Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion - Section II (30) - The Supplanting of Sky Gods by Fecundators. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958. Supporting this position, Turville-Petre notes, "In one civilization, and at one time, the specialized gods of fertility might predominate, and in another the warrior or the god-king. The highest god owes his position to those who worship him, and if they are farmers, he will be a god of fertility, or one of the Vanir" (162).
- See, for example, Voluspa (48), in the Poetic Edda, p. 21, which states: "How fare the gods? | how fare the elves?" Likewise, see Havamol (160), Poetic Edda , p. 66, whose narrator betokens his own intelligence by stating: "All know I well | of the gods and elves." Lindow also mentions the occasional poetic equivalence between the groups (109).
- For example, see Turville-Petre's description of a yearly sacrifice to the elves: "The álfablót took place at the beginning of winter, about the same time as the dísablót. the sacrifice to Freyr and the Völsi. It appears thus to be a sacrifice for fertility" (231).
- "Grimnismol" (5), Poetic Edda, p. 88.
- Orchard, 377.
- Ynglinga Saga (1). Accessed online at www.sacred-texts.com (Retrieved July 10, 2007).
- For example, Freyr and Freyja were children of Njǫrðr and his sister (Nerthus).
- DuBois, 54-55.
- Orchard, 130.
- This corresponds to the account in the Ynglinga Saga. In other sources, however, Kvasir is described as a being created from the spittle of the Aesir and the Vanir (created to symbolize their newfound peace). Lindow, 206-207.
- Orchard, 270-271.
- See Ynglinga Saga (11, 14-16), Online Medieval and Classical Library. Retrieved July 10, 2007.
- "Völuspá" (21), Poetic Edda, p. 10.
- See Ynglinga Saga (4), Online Medieval and Classical Library. Retrieved July 10, 2007.
- "Völuspá" (24), Poetic Edda, p. 11.
- Davis, Kenneth C. Don't Know Much About Mythology. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. ISBN 006019460X
- DuBois, Thomas A. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. ISBN 0812217144
- Dumézil, Georges. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Edited by Einar Haugen; Introduction by C. Scott Littleton and Udo Strutynski. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973. ISBN 0520020448
- Grammaticus, Saxo. The Danish History (Volumes I-IX). Translated by Oliver Elton (Norroena Society, New York, 1905). Accessed online at The Online Medieval & Classical Library. Retrieved July 10, 2007.
- Lindow, John. Handbook of Norse mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001. ISBN 1576072177
- Munch, P. A. Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. In the revision of Magnus Olsen; translated from the Norwegian by Sigurd Bernhard Hustvedt. New York: The American-Scandinavian foundation; London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1926.
- Orchard, Andy. Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. London: Cassell; New York: Distributed in the United States by Sterling Pub. Co., 2002. ISBN 0304363855
- The Poetic Edda. Translated and with notes by Henry Adams Bellows. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936. Accessed online at sacred-texts.com. Retrieved July 10, 2007.
- Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Translated from the Icelandic and with an introduction by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. New York: American-Scandinavian foundation, 1916. Available online at Northvegr.org. Retrieved July 10, 2007.
- Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. ISBN 0837174201
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