When you think of Norse myths, you tend to think of Thor, smiting the giants, or Odin, outwitting his opponents. Or perhaps you think of Loki, causing mischief wherever he goes.
But life is not all battles and uproar. Alongside the gods of war were the gods of peace and plenty, the chief of whom was the god Njord. Poets used his name as a kenning for “warrior”, so he must have been able to fight, but his real interest was good harvests, peace for his people, and wealth.
Njord’s nature reflects Norse society: we often think of him as a sea-god, but he really looked after sailors, merchants and all who travelled on the sea. Equally important, the god known as Njord the Wealthy would make your voyage worthwhile.
Compared to Loki, Odin and Thor, Njord doesn’t feature in many Norse myths. We know he was an important god, however, because of the number of places named for him in the middle of Sweden and western Norway. The Eddic poem Vafthrudnismal says he is “rich in shrines and temples”, and Grimnismal calls him “ruler of men”.
The Saga of Harald Graycloak, part of a history of the kings of Norway, describes in some detail how Njord was honoured alongside Odin at the Yule celebrations:
The fire was in the middle of the floor of the temple, and over it hung the kettles, and the full goblets were handed across the fire; and he who made the feast, and was a chief, blessed the full goblets, and all the meat of the sacrifice. And first Odin’s goblet was emptied for victory and power to his king; thereafter, Niord’s and Frey’s goblets for peace and a good season. (Ch. 14, from the book Heimskringla)
Freyr was Njord’s son, who seems to have eclipsed him by the time the myths were being written down. He and his magical, warlike sister Freyja are much better-known deities than their father.
God of Seafarers
Ships made settling the northern parts of Scandinavia possible, and allowed trade with the south for both necessary goods and status items. (Some of which they were buried with.) So long before the vikings, ships, mobility and riches went together.
We know that ships were more than just a way to get places; the many Bronze Age rock carvings of ships (which inspired the sculpture at the top of this post) must have had religious significance. Whether they indicate pilgrimages to sites of worship, a voyage to the afterworld, or an early version of Njord’s cult, images of ships are very common, sometimes with little rowers indicated like the teeth in a comb.
Another Bronze Age ritual also mingles wealth and religion: the ship burial. These are mounds, or later flat graves, encircled by stones in the form of a ship. They come mainly from south-west Scandinavia, an area also rich in finds of metal goods.
As the Iron Age progressed and shipbuilding improved, the burials changed, with flat graves replacing mounds, and larger burials. What doesn’t change is that each ship/grave has only one occupant. Other people may be buried nearby, but the ship grave is a one-person vessel.
Njord the Wealthy
It’s not surprising, then, that the Norse god of seafarers was also a wealthy god, who could bestow wealth on his followers. Many references to Njord and his son emphasize how they enriched their followers. For instance, in chapter 82 of Egil’s saga, a poem praises Arnbjorn’s generosity with the wealth the gods gave him:
18. Folk bear witness
With wond’ring praise,
How to all guests
Good gifts he gives:
For Bjorn of the hearth-stone
Is blest with store
Freely and fully
By Frey and Njord.
Njord and Freyr were the divine ancestors of the Yngling dynasty in Sweden, their name coming from Freyr’s by-name Yng or Yngvi. A post-Christian saga about the Ynglings treats Njord as if he were a human king, but beneath that he still is the same god of peace and plenty:
Niord of Noatun then took the rule over the Swedes and upheld the sacrifices; then the Swedes called him Drott (or Sovereign) and he then took scot from them. In his days there was peace, and the seasons were so good that the Swedes believed that Niord had power over the crops and the well-being of mankind. In his days most of the diar (or priests) died and all were burned, and afterwards they sacrificed to them. Niord died in his bed; he also had himself marked for Odin before his death. The Swedes burned him and wept much by his grave. (Ynglinga saga ch. 7, from Heimskringla).
The story of Njord’s period of peace was so entrenched that when Icelandic scholars needed to explain the Roman god Saturn, they glossed him as “Njord”, who also presided over a Golden Age.
Husband and Hostage
His reputation as a god who preferred peace may explain two of the myths about him. The first tells how when the Aesir, a group of gods including Thor and Odin, met the Vanir, another group of gods including Njord, Freyr and Freyja, they fought. Neither side could defeat the other, so eventually they declared a truce, and exchanged hostages as a guarantee.
As the story goes, the Aesir gave Mimir and Hoenir, while the Vanir gave Njord and Freyr. Odin then appointed them sacrificial priests and díar among the Aesir. (This story describes the gods as if they were people, but still calls Njord and Freyr díar, gods.)
He seems to have settled down among the Aesir, even allowing them to divorce him from his first wife, because she was his sister and the Aesir frowned on such unions. (You wonder what they would have made of the Olympians of Greece.) The identity of Njord’s sister is a mystery, as is that of the rest of the Vanir.
However, he didn’t enjoy being single for long. When the giantess Skadi came to Asgard demanding compensation for her father’s murder, the Aesir offered her a husband, with the condition that she could choose him by his feet alone. She picked the best-looking ones, assuming they would belong to Odin’s son, Baldr. But she had chosen Njord.
Unsurprisingly, the marriage didn’t last. Skadi hated life by the sea, and Njord hated the mountains and woods where Skadi lived and hunted. She left him and went back to her father’s old home. The two were famous for their incompatibility, mentioned several times in skaldic poetry.
Theories abound as to why exactly Njord and Skadi couldn’t get along, assuming that they represent two different ways of life, summer and winter, life and death, or that the two, as unchanging gods, were unable to adapt to each other.
I wonder if one problem between the two of them was that Njord was a diplomat, who could live among people he had fought in a war, and adapt to their ways, while Skadi was blunt-spoken and combative. (In Lokasenna she comes right out and threatens Loki, while all the rest strive to avoid a fight with him.)
But while Njord may have lived amicably among the Aesir, he was still loyal to his own people. In the Eddic poem Vafthrudnismal, Odin asks the giant Vafthrudnir about Njord:
39. In Vanaheim the wise Powers made him
and gave him as hostage to the gods;
at the doom of men he will come back
home among the wise Vanir.
We don’t know what the Vanir did in the war between gods and giants, but at any rate Njord was going to face it among his own.
PS – The picture at top is of the Solfar Suncraft in Reykvjavik.
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Jesse Byock, Penguin Classics, 2005.
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson, ed. and trans. Erling Monsen and A. H. Smith, Courier Publications, 1990.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge. (place-name information)
Good to get this more balanced view of Norse mythology, and some intimations of the nature of the Vanir.
Thanks! Balanced because Njord is Vanir?
Perhaps …. I look forward to your forthcoming post on the Vanir!
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This is a very interesting post. Perhaps it is balanced because Njord is Vanir. More complex and expressed perhaps because of this uniqueness?
I wondered if Greg meant that Odin, Thor and Loki tend to hog the limelight. Njord is a quieter, peaceful god, so he would be less dramatic.
It’s certainly true that those deities seem to be regarded as the ‘star players’ and that it is also important to notice the quieter voices for a rounded view.
But the quieter voices might be quiet for a reason, preferring to acknowledge the responses of those who take the trouble to hear them and not feeling the need to be in the limelight.
I certainly have this impression about some deities I acknowledge while others certainly seem to want to be ‘out there’!
Yes, Njord is a “quiet god”. I think you have to go to him, whereas Odin seeks people.
I reckon Njord’s return to Vanaheim during Ragnarök is simply the result of the dissolution of bonds and laws that accompanies the end of things, thereby making the hostage agreement null and void. Which leads me to wonder if Vafthrudnismál reflects a tradition according to which only Njord was sent by the Vanir, whereas Freyr or Freyja were born in Asgard after the war and thus had a bond with the Aesir that Njord did not. Hence He goes back home when things dissolve, while They stay and fight.
Also, there’s a hint to what the Vanir did during the first war in Völuspá 24, which mentions a “vígspá”, perhaps profetic or battle magic, even an illusion, which seems to have allowed the hosts of Vanaheim to break a “borðveggr” or board wall. All highly criptic, but thought-provoking.
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That’s a good point, I never really thought about what it might mean that some lore says Freyr and Freyja were born “after” Njord went to Asgard. It also makes sense that in the midst of all the chaos of Ragnarok Njord would consider his “hostage” status no longer valid, and the peace it guaranteed no longer relevant.
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