Norse mythology has many puzzles, and one of them is the imbalance in numbers between Aesir and Vanir. The Aesir, who incude Odin and Thor among their number, seem to have many associated gods and goddesses, while the Vanir seem to have only three: Njord, Freyr and Freyja.
How many Vanir makes an army?
We know that there must be more of them, because the two groups of gods had a war and fought each other to a standstill, which seems unlikely if it was three against twenty or thirty. (See this list of Aesir, for example.)
After the war, the gods exchanged hostages as a guarantee of peace; the Vanir sent Freyr and Njord, and at some point Njord’s daughter Freyja joined them, teaching Odin magic and becoming his concubine.
From this story we get the names of three Vanir, presumably the most important ones.
However, there were enough Vanir left that they could sit in council with the two Aesir hostages, Hoenir and Mimir. And not just one or two, because eventually they got angry with their hostages and cut Mimir’s head off, so I assume there was enough of them to attack Mimir and stop Hoenir from defending him.1
It’s always been assumed that there were more Vanir, and suggestions as to whom they might be are both varied and inventive:
- The wise god Kvasir is a Vanir in some versions of the war-of-the-gods story, thrown in by the Vanir to show their generosity. (In other versions of the story, however, he is born when both groups spit in a jar. Presumably he is so wise because he has the wisdom of both.)
- Heimdall is another possibility, since Thrymskvida says he could see the future “as the Vanir also can” although whether that means he has the same power as a Van or actually is one is an open question.
- A couple more, such as Lytir, who seems similar to Freyr, the mysterious Gullveig who starts the Aesir-Vanir war, and spouses like Gerdr, Skadi, and Odr (Freya’s husband) can be included as well.
- H.R.E. Davidson thought that maybe the wives of the gods were all Vanir (121), an idea certain sections of the pagan community seem to be enthusiastic about. This may be because the Vanir’s concerns, fertility, prosperity and magic, seem more like feminine concerns. (It doesn’t explain Njord and Freyr, however.)
- Another answer is that the alfar, or elves, are the missing Vanir. Alaric Hall, who wrote his Ph.D on elves, sees a lot of overlap between the two groups.
The similarity between the alfs and Vanir has intrigued many writers on Norse myth, although most writers approached it from the viewpoint of studying the gods, not the elves.
Vanir and alfar
Hall’s case rests on four main points:
- Freyr was given Alfheim (the elves’ home) as a tooth-gift when he was a baby, and as an adult is their ruler.
- Freyr is said to control sun and rain, and the sun itself is called alfrodull, elf wheel.
- the many mentions in verse of the “aesir and alfar”, including Voluspa, as a pair of similar entities.
- Lokasenna also refers to aesir and alfar, at first to mean everyone in the hall, and then as part of an accusation that Freyja has slept with all of them. This has more bite if the alfar and vanir are the same, because he is accusing her not just of having sex with all the gods, but her own family as well. He then goes on to accuse her specifically of incest with her brother, which would follow logically.
Further, the alfar, like rest of the Vanir, have no names or identities. They exist, and have distinct powers and cult, but no myths about individuals.
Simon Nygaard also connects the alfs and vanir. He argues that before the chieftan-led religions (CR) that favoured indivdual gods like Odin, earlier forms of worship and belief were collective (Tribal Religion, TR):
It seems that both types of supernatural beings fill out the same area of function within the two particular religions – that of givers of fertility and well-being. Being a collective with fluid indentities the alfar seems good representatives of TR. The Vanir are named, individual gods connected to the ruler and incest, thus seemingly good represenatives of CR. Still being a collective of gods hints at continuity between the alfar and Vanir. (225)
In his view the Vanir, with both named and unnamed members, could be a transition phase between the older, tribal religion and the newer, more centralized practices. (If the incest reference seems odd, he’s thinking about god/kings like the Egyptians had, who kept the sacred bloodline pure by marrying family.)
Whether this is true or not, we do know that the alfs did receive sacrifices (the alfblot) and offerings to named individuals such as King Olafr Geirstaðaálfr (the alf of Geridstaðír) after his death. Similarly, Heimskringla, which treats the god Freyr as a mortal king, says the Swedes left offerings at his grave-mound, and the real-life Swedes of Birka left offerings to their dead king in the 9th century, much to the vexation of a Christian missionary. (Gunnell: 120-1)
The “alf-like” offerings to Freyr would tend to support this theory.
Freyja doesn’t fit in
While the Vanir and alfar may have a lack of definiton in common, there are problems with saying that they are the same. Alaric Hall established in his book on the elves that the alfar are almost always imagined as men, whose closest female equivalent is the disir, a collective of female powers.2
In that connection, Freyja is the vana dís, the dís of the Vanir. As Tolley says:
…the title vana dís illustrates that a vanr was not the same as a dís, otherwise the title would be pointless: among the class of vanir, Freyja is the one with the particular qualities of a dís (whatever those qualities may be). (Tolley: 23)
Perhaps Freyr is to the alfs as Freyja is to the disir. You could argue that they are individualized deities who emerged from the collectivity of unnamed powers.3
What is an alf?
One problem with pinning all this down to a simple answer is that “Norse religion” is not a monolithic entity like say, Catholicism, with the dogma police making sure that everyone believes the same things.
Even within the collected poems of the Poetic Edda, there are differing views of the alfar. While you could infer from Lokasenna and Grimnismal that the vanir and alfar were the same, others like Volupsa, Thrymskvida, Skirnismal, and Alvissmal see the alfar, vanir and aesir as three different, godly races. (Gunnell: 123)
To make things even more complicated, the poem Völundarkvida calls its hero, the smith Volund, an alf. In this case, an alf seems to mean a foreigner, with strange magical powers.
Perhaps he came from Álfheim, which according to some accounts was located in Norway. It was said to lie between the Gautelfr (Gotälven) and Raumelfr (Glommen) rivers, south-east of Oslo. This was a wooded, wet area notable for the large number of prehistoric rock carvings, including the holes and cup-marks known as “elf-mills”. (Gunnell: 125)
Alf could be a divine ancestor, judging by the number of kings and other prominent figures whose names began with -alf. (Alf- was also popular in ordinary personal names; see footnote 2.)
The alfs, like the Vanir, were connected to the ancestor and death cult as well as granting fertility and light. We can see both themes in the stories of Freyr and Olafr Geirstaðaálfr, who were worshipped after their deaths, in exchange for fertility and peace. I will be taking up the subject of the sun and the alfs in another post, but even if Freyr wasn’t a sun-god, he controlled good weather, including sunshine.
The dust-up Rudolf Simek caused by suggesting that the Vanir were not a separate group of gods but merely Aesir inspired a number of articles on the differences between the two. It may be harder to separate out the alfar and the Vanir.
1. Although Hoenir, as the “most timid” of the gods, may not have been much of a problem for the battle-hardened Vanir.↩
2. His main evidence for this is kennings: among supernatural beings, alfr is almost always a kenning for a man or warrior, with dis or norn for women. That Thor- and Alf- were common prefixes for boys’ names also seems to imply that alfr were seen as male. (Hall: 29-30)↩
3. As some argue that the goddess Gefjun arose from the cult of the matres or mothers, protective goddesses of fertilty. (And possibly Idunn.)↩
Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis (1988): Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Manchester University Press.
Gunnell: “How Elvish were the Álfar?” in Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in Honour of T. A. Shippey, Brepols Publishers: 111-30. (pdf here)
Hall, Alaric (2007). Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity. Anglo-Saxon Studies 8. Woodbridge, Suffolk / Rochester, New York: Boydell Press, 2007. (pdf here)
Nygaard, Simon. “Between Bog Bodies and High Halls. Changes in Spatial Focus and Religious Conceptions in the Pre-Christian North,” in The Sixteenth International Saga Conference: Sagas and Space. 2015. (pdf here)
Tolley, Clive (2011). “In Defence of the Vanir”. RMN Newsletter, No. 2, May 2011. (pdf here)