The Vikings believed in many different types of divine beings. There were gods, giants, light elves, and other beings that don’t seem to fit into any of these categories.
The Vikings believed that they were all more than human and assigned them similar attributes and powers. And thanks to plenty of unclear sources and interbreeding it is very difficult to draw clear lines between these various beings.
Some of the entities most difficult to distinguish between are the Aesir and the Vanir gods, not least because some of the most well-known Vanir gods, Freyr and Freya, lived in Asgard alongside the Aesir.
So, let’s take a closer look at these two clans of deities in Norse mythology, what differentiates them, and what aligns them.
Aesir vs Vanir – Order vs Nature
Rather than being different in terms of the types of beings that they were, the main difference between the Aesir and the Vanir gods seems to have been their lifestyle and culture.
The Aesir lived in an ordered society, with Odin acting as their king, and Forseti administering law and justice. Aesir society seems to have been a reflection of the Viking chieftain society, with life governed by social contracts.
This is reflected in the way that the gods were worshipped by the Vikings. Odin was the god of war, writing, and kingship. Thor was a protective god, but his hammer was not just a weapon, it was also used to hallow important social events such as marriages, births, and deaths. Frigg, the wife of Odin, is the goddess of household duties and mothers.
The Vanir, on the other hand, are associated with nature. Freya is the goddess of love, Freyr the god of spring, and Njord the god of wind and water.
The rules of nature are different, and the Vanir lived according to these rules. They practised magic and had a freer approach to love. It was very common for Vanir brothers and sisters to marry one another. The twins Freyr and Freya were married to one another, and they themselves were the offspring of Njord with his sister.
Before the creation of mankind, and before the building of the fortifications around Asgard, the realm of the Aesir, the Aesir and the Vanir gods went to war.
It seems that one of the main sources of the conflict was the refusal of the Vanir to live by the rules laid out by the Aesir.
The war ended with a truce, and hostages were exchanged. This is when Njord, Freyr, and Freya went to live in Asgard among the Aesir. The marriages of all of them were dissolved, and each was married to another (who was not a family member). This is what indicates that the practice of incest is one of the main things to which the Aesir objected.
The Vanir hostages quickly adjusted to life in Asgard and were soon accepted among the Aesir as fellows and integrated into Aesir society and hierarchies.
It was Freya who taught the art of Seidr magic to Odin when she arrived in Asgard. Odin was sometimes ridiculed for adopting the art that was outside the rules of Aesir life.
A Difficult Peace
The Aesir also sent hostages to Vanheim, the realm of the Vanir, Hoenir and Mimir. Hoenir was set to be an advisor to the Vanir and teach them the ways of the Aesir. Mimir, the most intelligent of the Aesir, was sent to be Hoenir’s advisor.
But the Vanir soon realized that Honeir was only able to offer the promised sage advice and guidance with the help of Mimir. They began to resent being lumbered with such an unworthy guide. They also grew suspicious of Mimir, who seemed too smart for his own good.
In the end, they killed Hoenir, and beheaded Mimir and sent the head to Asgard. The distraught Odin was able to reanimate the head and maintain Mimir as an important advisor.
While this violent betrayal should have seen the Vanir and Aesir return to war, the two groups were evenly matched and decided instead to meet and reiterate their truce. The ritual involved mixing the spittle of the two divine clans.
Rather than waste the spittle, which was innately powerful, the gods used it as raw material to make Kvasir, the wisest beings ever to walk the nine realms of the Norse cosmos. His story is also a tragedy, but one for another day.
Aesir or Vanir
What do you think of the differences between the Aesir and the Vanir gods? Do you think that it is important to distinguish between the two? Or are the warring clans just one more detail that adds depth to Norse religion?