We know very little about the gods known as the Vanir, or their cult. One common thread, especially in the cult of Freyr, was taking the god’s statue for a tour in a wagon, so worshippers could see their deity, and be blessed by them.
The procession of Nerthus
Long before any record of the cult of Freyr, however, we have the Roman author Tacitus describing a very similar cult involving a northern German goddess called Nerthus.
They believe that she interests herself in human affairs and rides among their peoples. In an island of the Ocean stands a sacred grove, and in the grove a consecrated cart, draped with cloth, which none but the priest may touch. The priest perceives the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies and attends her, in deepest reverence, as her cart is drawn by heifers. Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she designs to visit and be entertained. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away; then, and only then, are peace and quiet known and loved, until the priest again restores the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of human company. After that the cart, the cloth and, if you care to believe it, the goddess herself are washed in clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and pious reluctance to ask what the sight can be that only those doomed to die may see. (ch. 40, trans. Rives)
Most writers have presumed that Nerthus was one of the Vanir, based on the similarity of her cult and Freyr’s. Her name also is a feminine version of Freyr’s father’s name, Njord. This has led many scholars and popular writers to see her as Njord’s mysterious sister/wife, who is never named in the sources.
Njord as Wagon-God
The names Njord and Nerthus are similar enough that some (Gabriel Turville-Petre, for example) have theorized that they are the same deity, who must have undergone a sex change. Whether or not this is so, Snorri does refer to him as the wagon god (vagna guð) in his discussion of by-names for gods:
How shall Niord be referred to? By calling him god of chariots or descendant of Vanir or a Van and father of Freyr and Freyia, the giving god. (trans. Faulkes: 75)
This seems to fit in with the pattern of Freyr as wagon-god, but there is a small hitch. Only some manuscripts have vagna guð, wagon-god. Two others, including the Codex Regius, have vana guð, Vanir god. The second option would make the text very repetitious, however, so wagon-god makes more sense. (I imagine him being paraded about like Mary as Star of the Sea, and perhaps he was.)
Freyr and Nerthus
Richard North gave that a twist when he suggested that Nerthus was always a male deity, who mates with Terra Mater every year. He links this to the Ingve cult in England and Scandinavia, arguing that Ing was a form of the god Nerthus. (see below for more on Ingve.)
Among other things, he felt this would explain the similarities in their cult. I don’t think he has convinced a lot of people, but it’s an ingenious idea, and he is right to point out that the name “Nerthus” is one of several different forms in the various manuscript versions of the Germania that have survived.
The story of Freyr’s procession dates from post-Christian times, and it sets out to mock pagan practices. Ögmundar þáttr dytts tells how a young man named Gunnar had to go on the run, and ended up travelling with Freyr’s priestess. They get caught in a snowstorm, and when Gunnar tired of pulling the chariot through the snow the statue attacked him, but Gunnar defeated it. After this, he impersonated the statue, to the delight of the gullible pagans:
Now it came to the time that they set out from home,and Frey and his wife were to sit in a cart while their retainers walked in front […] They went round to feasts throughout the winter […] But when some time had passed, it became clear that Frey’s wife was pregnant. That was taken to be excellent, and the Swedes were now delighted with this god of theirs; the weather too was mild and the crops so promising that no one could remember the like. (trans. Sheffield: 14)
This is one of those stories, like Volsa thattr, that has been endlessly picked over for possible pagan remnants underneath the mockery. The way it fits with Nerthus’ procession, however, makes it seem like an imitation of a real cult.
Other gods, often seen as version of Freyr, also travelled about the countryside in wagons in various sources. One of these stories might be a bit hard to understand without the context, however, as it seems to involve a king instead of a deity.
Frothi’s farewell tour
The Peace of Frothi was one of those Golden Ages which so frequently appear in stories. King Frothi or Frotho was a Danish king1 whose rule was so peaceful and prosperous that it became legendary. (Simek: 95)
Snorri Sturluson makes Frothi and Freyr the same person in his Ynglinga saga, but other sources, including the Gesta Danorum and the poem Velleka seem to think Frothi was a mortal king. Whoever he was, legends about the prosperity of his rule ensured his fame: he appears in Beowulf, Widsith, and the Eddic poem Grottasongr.
Saxo Grammaticus’ account of (one of) the king Frothi’s death is very close to Snorri’s account of Freyr’s death (in Ynglinga saga he talks about Freyr as if he were a king rather than a god). Both deaths are kept secret so as not to disturb the good times, and when they cannot be hidden, both kings are buried in a barrow:
So, the lifeless corpse was carried away by them in such a way that it seemed to be taken, not in a funeral bier, but in a royal carriage, as if it were a due and proper tribute from the soldiers to an infirm old man not in full possession of his forces. Such splendour did his friends bestow on him even in death. But when his limbs rotted, and were seized with extreme decay, and when the corruption could not be arrested, they buried his body with a royal funeral in a barrow near Waere, a bridge of Zealand; declaring that Frode had desired to die and be buried in what was thought the chief province of his kingdom.(GD, Book 5, Elton’s trans.)
Naturally, to complete the pattern, Frode or Frothi has a farewell tour of his lands, presumably to bless them one last time.
Ingvi across the seas
In Norse mythology, Yngiv was the founder of the royal Yngling dynasty. The Gesta Danorum and the Ynglinga saga (part of Heimskringla) say that Yngvi-Frey was the ancestor of the Ynglings, who reigned after first Odin and then his father, Njord. (Great Olaf’s Saga also refers to Yngvi-Frey as ancestors of the Ynglings, and in Lokasenna one character refers to Freyr by that title.)
Another version, the Íslendingabók replaces Odin with Yngvi Tyrkja konungr, Yngvi the king of the Turks. (In the historicized versions of Norse myth, Odin was supposed to have come from Asia to rule over the Northmen. Presumably Yngvi did the same.)
The Old English fréa inguina or Lord of the Inguins also points to Freyr, as does the story in Pliny’s Historiae about how the Danish tribes called the Ingavones traced their ancestry to Ingwaz. Further to this, the Anglo-Saxon rune poem says that Ing came from the Danes:
ᛝ Ing was first amidst the East Danes
so seen, until he went eastward
over the sea. His wagon ran after.
Thus the Heardings named that hero.
While this doesn’t show the god travelling, it implies that his wagon was so important that he had it carried with him across the waters.
Lytir: another form of Freyr?
A travelling Swedish god, Lýtir, is often seen as another form of Freyr. He travels in a carriage, is associated with horses, and has his cult centre in Sweden. What sets Lýtir apart is that he seems to have been a prophetic god, as the following passage from Hauks þáttr hábrókar shows:
Therefore he brought two carriages to that place where he sacrificed (blotade) to that god called Lytir. It was a custom that the carriage had to stay there during the night and that he [Lytir] went to it in the morning. But now Lytir did not appear as he was accustomed to do. And the king was told that Lytir was reluctant to go there. The carriage stood there two nights., but he did not show up. Then the king made greater sacrifices (myklu meire blot) than before and the third morning they noticed that Lytir had come. And the carriage was so heavy (hofgur) that the draught horses broke down before they arrived at the hall (til hallarinnar). The carriage was placed in the middle of the floor of the hall (hallergolf). And the king approached and welcomed Lytir and said he wished to offer him a toast. And he made a full goblet for him (drekka full til hans) and wanted to decided on a matter (radizst) about the journey…
(trans. Sunqvist: 233)
It’s interesting that when Lýtir makes his presence known, his chariot becomes too heavy to pull. In the Iliad Diomedes’ chariot became almost too heavy to pull when Athena stepped up beside him, so this may be more common than we know. Tacitus tells us that Nerthus also made her presence known before beginning her travels, but doesn’t say how.
You can see why scholars link the cults of Freyr and Nerthus. Both feature a journey by wagon, accompanied by a priest/ess of the opposite sex to th1e deity, general peace and rejoicing, and an expectation of fruitfulness and prosperity.
The wagon and the god’s journey are so central to the cult that when Ing leaves Denmark for England, he brings his wagon across the waters with him. Clearly the god/dess’s journey was a central part of any Vanir cult.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
The History of the Danes, Saxo Grammaticus/ Peter Fischer, ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1996.
Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson/A. H, Smith (trans.) , ed. Erling Monsen, Dover, New York, 1990.
Anderson, Carl 1999: Formation and Resolution of Ideological Contrast in the Early History of Scandinavia, University of Cambridge Faculty of EnglishDepartment of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic, diss.
Gardenstone 2012: The Nerthus Claim, Books on Demand GmbH, Nordstedt, Germany.
Heinrichs, Anne 1994: The Search for Identity: A Problem after the Conversion, in Alvíssmal 3: 43-62. (pdf here)
McKinnell, John 2005: Meeting the other in Norse myth and legend, D.S. Brewer, Woodbridge.
North, Richard 1997: Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, CUP. (summary/review)
Sheffield, Anna Gróa 2007: Frey: God of the World, Lulu Press.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Sundqvist, Olof 2002: Freyr’s Offspring: Rulers and Religion in Ancient Svea Society, Uppsala Universitet.
Turville-Petre, E. O. G. 1975: Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, Praeger.
West, M.L. 2007: Indo-European Poetry and Myth, OUP.