The Rest of the Vanir: overlooked goddesses, waves, and women

After my last post, on Freyja and Odin, I had a response on Reddit that intrigued me. The poster was responding to my deliberately provocative description of Freyja as the only Vanir goddess, pointing out that there were other females associated with the Vanir or Vanaheim.

Unfortunately, the comment was lost or deleted, but they did have a point, so I decided to discuss their candidates for Vanir goddesses here.

I linked my comment about Freyja to another recent post, which suggested that the alfar (elves) and possibly the disir were the missing Vanir. As groups of supernatural, but somewhat undifferentiated, beings, they could easily “fill out” the Vanir tribe, with Freyr and Freyja as individualized deities who shared their characteristics.

However, the Reddit comment suggested a number of distinct, named, female Vanir. Two of them come from the Ynglinga saga in the collection called Heimskringla, which is a semi-mythical history of the kings of Sweden and Norway. Another comes from the Christian poem Solarljod, and the fourth from the Eddic poem Voluspa.

Njord’s wife

Njord’s first wife is only ever mentioned once, in the Ynglinga saga, and is not named. She is mentioned in the “background” to the saga of the Swedish Yngling dynasty, who traced their descent to Freyr, and so back to Njord and his wife:

While Njord was with the Vanaland people he had taken his own sister in marriage, for that was allowed by their law; and their children were Frey and Freya. But among the Asaland people it was forbidden to intermarry with such near relations.
(Ynglinga saga 4)

Naturally, there has been much speculation as to who Njord’s wife might be. The goddesses Nerthus and Njorun are the most obvious candidates for this position, since their names are so similar to Njord’s. (On the model of Freyr and Freyja, who are more than just brother and sister if Lokasenna can be believed.)

Nerthus is only known from the first-century Roman writer Tacitus, who describes how Langobards in northern Germany worshipped a goddess they called Nerthus, whom he compares to Tellus Mater.

The other goddess, Njorun, is even more obscure. She turns up in a list of goddesses, in the Skaldskaparmal part of the Prose Edda. In the Eddic poem Alvissmal her name appears in a kenning for night (Draum-Njörun) and several skaldic poets use it in kennings for “woman”. So we don’t even know if she is a Vanir goddess, although one theory is that she is Nerthus, with her name slightly changed by the passage of time.

Gullveig/Heið (Or is it Freyja?)

Another possible Vanir goddess is the mysterious Gullveig, who only appears in the prophetic poem Völuspá. Gullveig means something like “Golden-Drink”, and her ability to come back from death, and her rebirth as a seeress, has meant that most commentators assume she’s a form of Freyja.

It makes sense that the Vanir would send their most eminent goddess to take on the Aesir, whether her job was to sow greed among them, or simply spying. (Or perhaps negotiating; we are also told that the Aesir did not wish to share their “tribute” with the Vanir, which led to war.)

21. The war I remember, | the first in the world,
When the gods with spears | had smitten Gollveig,
And in the hall | of Hor had burned her,
Three times burned, | and three times born,
Oft and again, | yet ever she lives.

22. Heith they named her | who sought their home,
The wide-seeing witch, | in magic wise;
Minds she bewitched | that were moved by her magic,
To evil women | a joy she was.
(Völuspá 21-2)

Certainly Freyja is the magical member of the Vanir we know of, and she is similar enough to Odin in some ways that “black ops” would probably come naturally to her.

The interpretation of Gullveig’s character has depended on how you interpret the stanzas of Völuspá: was she trying to corrupt the Aesir, or did they attack her without cause? It doesn’t help that her name is also ambiguous. The Gull– part simply means “gold”, but veigcould mean alcoholic drink”, “power, strength”, and sometimes also “gold”.

Whether Gullveig is Freyja, a semi-independent goddess, or a totally separate being, she is certainly a complex and intriguing Van.

Njord’s nine daughters

Njord was the god of the sea, and his daughter Freyja was sometimes called Mardöll, Sea-Bright. However, she may not be his only daughter; one poem credits him with nine more:

79. Here are runes
which have engraven
Niörd´s daughters nine,
Radvör the eldest,
and the youngest Kreppvör,
and their seven sisters.
(Solarljod 79)

Since the poem that mentions them, Solarljod or the Song of the Sun, is clearly the work of a Christian, perhaps a convert, it may be that the composer confused Aegir, who was a personification of the sea, like the Roman Oceanus, with Njord, who is more like Neptune.

The giant Aegir had nine daughters,whose name seem to suggest they were personified waves of the sea. (Nine was a special number in Norse myth, and the seventh or ninth wave had mystical powers in folklore.)

The names the composer gives Njord’s daughters, Radvör and Kreppvör, however, do not match either Aegir’s daughters, who have wave-names, or Heimdall’s nine mothers, who have typical giantess names. They could mean something like1 “Counsel-Aware” and “Catching/Pinching Aware”, which don’t sound watery, although it goes with them engraving runes. I can’t help but think that the author confused different lores here.

If they were goddesses, they left no traces of themselves other than this late poem. Of course, seeing that the Norse traditions about goddesses are patchy at best, Solarljod may have saved some sort of lore that did not appear elsewhere, in however Christianized a form.

Vana from Vanaheim

While Radvör and Kreppvör come to us from a Christian poem, Vana comes from the Ynglinga saga (again).

In the saga, the gods are merely humans with great power and charisma, who become rulers of men. First Odin, then Njord, and then Freyr were king, then Freyr’s son Fjolnir took over as ruler after Freyr “died”. When Fjolnir died, his son Sveidgi became king, and he married Vana.

She may well have just been a woman from the area around the Don river, as Snorri helpfully locates Vanaheim there, in line with his historical take on myth. Unfortunately, Snorri doesn’t tell us a lot about her:

Swegde took the kingdom after his father, and he made a solemn vow to seek Godheim and Odin. He went with twelve men through the world, and came to Turkland, and the Great Svithiod, where he found many of his connections. He was five years on this journey; and when he returned home to Sweden he remained there for some time. He had got a wife in Vanheim, who was called Vana, and their son was Vanlande.
(Ynglinga saga: 15)

Swedge, as this translation calls him, eventually vanished after a dwarf tricked him into following him through an opening in a rock. The dwarf promised him that Odin was on the other side, but it closed fast behind them and Swedge was never seen again. We learn no more about Vana.

The Ynglings had a habit of dying in strange ways, which has led scholars like Gro Steinsland and John McKinnell to see a pattern of hieros gamos between ruler and land (personified as a giantess or “foreign woman”) who is later sacrificed. For a goddess, however, Vana has a very small part in the story, and plays no part in his death.

She was probably some sort of supernatural woman, possibly a parallel to the Finnish Drifa, who married the next king, Vanlandi. (Vanlandi deserted Drifa, who got a volva to enchant him so that he would return to her or die. He died.)

PS – I could also have mentioned Freyja’s two daughters, Hnoss and Gersemi, whose names both mean “Treasure”. They do not appear in any myths, but Snorri mentions them in Ynglinga saga and the Prose Edda, and their names were used in kennings for “whatever is beautiful and valuable”.

1. I’m certainly no expert in Old Icelandic, but that was the best I do from the Cleasby/Vigfusson Icelandic Dictionary. For another interpretation see Freyia Völundarhúsins: Counsel Power Drink and Approaching Spring.


Links:

Background on Solarljod
Review of Gro Steinsland’s thesis on god – giantess marriage (pdf here)
UPG (personal experience) of Hnoss and Gersemi

For the image at the top click here.

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