By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
Both Snorri, in his Prose Edda, and the poets of the Poetic Edda, usually call all the gods collectively ‘the Aesir’. But another term for a more specific family of gods, ‘the Vanir’, occurs now and then, too. Snorri’s entire original purpose for discussing the difference between the Aesir and the Vanir is in the context of his exploring the divine origin of the early Norwegian kings.
The Vanir Family
There are only three Vanir whose names we know—the fairly obscure Njorth and his twin children, his son Frey and his daughter Freyja. Frey and Freyja are said to be Njorth’s children with his sister, though this sister remains unnamed and absent from any other known myths. Other Vanir gods are said to dwell elsewhere, but it is these three who dwell among the Aesir in Asgard and enter the stories of the Eddas.
By extension, the Vanir family also includes Njorth’s wife, Skathi, and Frey’s wife, Gerth, wives who both began their lives on the anti-god side of the cosmic battle lines but have since married onto the side of gods.
Now, popular presentations of Norse myth often present the division into these two families as very important and somewhat self-evident. The division does appear to be old, but nowhere in the archaic poems of the Poetic Edda does it ever seem important.
War Between the Gods
In retelling the mythic origin of the kings, what Snorri says is that Odin led the Aesir in an attack on the Vanir (the reason is not stated). The Vanir defended themselves well, and also launched their own violent raids against the Aesir in retaliation.
Eventually the war, which is described in no detail whatsoever, ended in a draw. The two sides exchanged hostages, with the Aesir taking the Vanir god Njorth with his children, son Frey and daughter Freyja. Again, these three Vanir hostages are the only Vanir gods consistently discussed by name in our sources.
In exchange, the Aesir sent to the Vanir an obscure god named Honir. And with Honir went Mimir. The Vanir felt that the exchange had been made in bad faith when Honir, who they expected to take a leading role among the Vanir, refused to decide anything for himself and leaned entirely on Mimir to make all decisions.
While Honir’s silence might be justified based on the legendary wisdom of Mimir, the Vanir killed Mimir in their frustration and sent Odin his head. Odin made use of the head, smearing it with herbs and speaking spells over it so that it came back to life and was able to answer all his questions.
As for the Vanir hostages—Njorth and his children, Frey and Freyja—they became incorporated among the Aesir. Freyja, for her part, was the first to teach any of the Aesir the magic that will become forbidden to men, called seith, which is the magic of the volva.
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The Reason for the Division
The ultimate reason for the division into two families is not well understood, and still seems somewhat exaggerated by Snorri in his quasi-historical account. Some scholars, most notably Rudolf Simek, have even proposed that the Vanir never really were distinct from the Aesir in pre-Christian times. In fact, Simek argues that the distinction was created by Snorri when he misunderstood one of the many poetic synonyms for ‘god’ in Old Norse poetic language as a distinct kind of god.
There is something plausible to this. In the poems of the Poetic Edda, the word Vanir only occurs when it alliterates with other words in the poetic line. Since Old Norse poetry is based on alliteration, numerous poetic synonyms exist for all important names and words, which enables the poet to say what he wants to say in the line with alliteration.
So, for example, a poet who needs to talk about the gods, and needs to alliterate with words that begin with vowels, can call them simply the Aesir. If he needs to alliterate with words that start with r, he can call them Regin. If needs to alliterate with g, he can call them Goth. If there’s a b, then Bond. If h, then Hopt.
The fact, that the word Vanir, then, only occurs in poetry when it is in alliteration with other words beginning with v could then suggest that the word was only another of these poetic synonyms. At the same time, even if the term is largely used in poetry for convenience’s sake, and the distinction never seems that important to make, there is also clearly a social difference between the gods from the different families, and maybe between their worshippers.
Common Questions about the Difference Between the Aesir and Vanir
Njorth and his twin children, Frey and Freyja, are three known Vanir members. The other Vanir family members are Gerth, Frey’s wife, and Skathi, Njorth’s wife.
According to Snorri, a war started between the Vanir and the Aesir which eventually ended in a draw. The two families exchanged hostages, with the Vanir taking Honir and Mimir, and the Aesir taking the god Njorth and his children.
The ultimate and exact reason for the division of the gods into two families is not fully understood, however, Rudolf Simek had a somewhat reasonable explanation. He proposed that there is no real distinction between the Vanir and the Aesir in pre-Christian times. The distinction, in fact, occurred because of Snorri’s misunderstanding of the many poetic synonyms for ‘gods’.