Time has obliterated many of the pagan elements of Scandinavian culture, and much of the pre-Christian belief system has vanished from hman memory. But while the cults of Thor and Odin no doubt included lore and practices now lost to us, the cults of the Vanir deities are even more obscure, perhaps because certain features offended Christian sensibilities.
However, all is not lost, and the Eddas and sagas, along with other writings, do preserve some parts of the worship of the Vanir. The Ynglinga saga portion of Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum or History of the Danes, both preserve details about the Vanir as part of their pseudo-historical tales of how the various Scandinavian dynasties came to be.
In addition, sagas and stories such as Gunnars þáttr helmings, Hrafnkels saga, and Vatnsdæla saga preserve details of the cults, even if they don’t always show a very reverent spirit towards them. (I should add that anyone who has read Terry Gunnell’s paper will find much of this familiar – it’s hard not to recycle the same information, although his purpose was in part to show that the Vanir did indeed exist and have a distincitive cult, while I’m just examining what sort of cult they had.)
Among these details, we can find:
- women serving as priestesses
- horses and boars as sacred animals, used in rituals
- the Vanir as witnesses to oaths, and mentioned in sacred toasts
- the Vanir cult very strong in Sweden
- association with holy sites
- images of deities taken on procession
Priestesses: In a sense, the first priestess was Freyja, since Ynglinga saga tells us:
Njord’s daughter Freya was priestess of the sacrifices, and first taught the Asaland people the magic art, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanaland people. (4)
and that after her father and brother died:
Freya alone remained of the gods, and she became on this account so celebrated that all women of distinction were called by her name, whence they now have the title Frue; so that every woman is called frue, or mistress over her property, and the wife is called the house-frue. Freya continued the blood-sacrifices.
Gunnar’s þattr tells the story of Gunnar and a priestess of Freyr’s, a story I’ll examine in more detail further on. For now, the most interesting part is that it describes the priestess as Freyr’s wife.
Another possible priestess was Þordir’s sister, Þuridr. He was known as Freysgoði, priest of Freyr, and she was called hofgyðia, temple-priestess. She may well have been a priestess of Freyr as well. (Gunnell: 116-7) Their mother was Alfhieiðr, which may mean nothing but Freyr was also considered close to the alfar, or elves.
Horses and Boars: Freyr’s anmals were the horse and the boar. He shared the latter with his sister, Freyja – Syr, sow, was one of her by-names. Freyr rode either a a boar called Gold-Bristles, Gullinborsti, or a horse called Blóðughófi, Bloody-Hoof.
Apart from this, we know from Hrafnkell’s saga that Hrafnkell’s stallion, Freyfaxi, was consdered Freyr’s horse. (Freyfaxi mean’s Freyr’s Mane.) Freyr’s hof at Þrandheimr had a herd of sacred horses, according to Olafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta.
Horses were also eaten as part of a ritual meal. according to archaeological finds, and one saga relates how a newly-Christianized king was obliged to sit down to horse-meat with his pagan followers.
(Just as a side note – the two gods associated with horses are Freyr and Odin, the divine heads of royal dynasties. The horse was an aristocratic animal, expensive to buy and maintain. Odin’s main animails, however, are the raven and wolf, untamed and found on battlefields.)
Oaths and Toasts: Freyr and his father Njord were included in the ritual of the hof-oath and in sacrificial toasts offered at Þrandheimr. The first is intriguing because it calls as witnesses the two Vanir gods and “the almighty god”, calling forth much speculation about who that might be.
The sacrificial toasts were part of a larger ritual including animal sacrifice, and were carefully organized:
The full (toast) should be carried around the fire by the chieftain who had orga- nized the feast, after which he should signa (mark/sign/bless) the toast and all the sacrificial meal. First should be Óðinn’s full, which should be drunk to the victory and state of his king; and then a full to Njórðr and a full to Freyr for “ár ok friðr”. Then it was common for many men to drink a bragafull (to Bragi?). They also drank a full to their relations who had been buried. This was called a minni (memory toast).
The phrase ár ok friðr, peace and good harvests, is special to the Vanir; even in Snorri’s Ynglinga saga, which treats the gods as if they were human, he tells us how the Swedes buried their king, Freyr, in a mound and made offerings there to preserve peace and good harvests.
Swedish cult: it does seem that Sweden, and Gamla Uppsala in particular, was considered a centre of the Vanic cult, Freyr’s cult in particular. It was certainly spectacular: Gamla Uppsala had large burial mounds which were ritual centres, as well as a kilometre-long processional avenue marked by large pillars, leading to a large hall. The pagan equivalent of a cathedral, perhaps?
Freyr, and by extension his father Njord, was the divine ancestor of the Swedish Yngling dynasty, giving him another connection with Sweden. The poem Haustlöng calls the Swedes “all of Ingvi-Frey’s family”, while many poems call Freyr “god of the Sviar”, the people of eastern Sweden. Saxo Grammaticus mentions a Freysblot held each year in Sweden, and that all the “most valiant” sacrificed to him, and that Freyr was a Swedish ruler. (Brink: 111)
Adam of Bremen, a Christian missionary, describes a well-established “temple” of Freyr at Uppsala. Brink also notes that place-names with the word “Frey” or variants frequently occur in eastern Sweden, backing up the literary evidence.
None of this is to suggest that the Vanir cult was limiited to Sweden, just that Sweden was closely associated with the cult of Freyr. (Norway, for example, has most of the Njord-related place-names, although a feminine form appears in Sweden. (Brink: 118))
Sacred Places: the Eddic poems and Ynglinga saga both emphasize the Vanir’s role in ritual and sacred places. Grimnismál (10) states that Njord’s home is Nóatún, where “he rules over the high-timbred temple”. (Larrington’s trans.) and Vafþrúðnismál (38) again says “he rules over very many temples and sanctuaries”. (ibid)
In Hyndluljóð Freyja tells how her devotee Ottar raised a hogr to her which he reddened with sacrifices, and Ynglinga saga tells how she kept up the sacrifices after the other Vanir died. Ynglinga saga also calls the two male Vanir blótgoðar, and Freyja a blótgyðja, names given to no Aesir god or goddess. Snorri also mentions how Freyr raised a great hof at Uppsala, referring to the large temple that existed there in pagan times.
Gunnell argues that the Vanic deities are the only ones referred to in those terms, and that hofs are not connected with Aesir deities in the same way.1 (122) He also argues that they are more strongly connected to sacred places in the landscape, especially Freyr, whose burial place became a cult centre in its own right.
Travelling Deities: the Vanic gods also moved around their landscape. I’ve already mentioned the story of Gunnar, who impersonated the god Freyr. The story tells how he and the priestess travelled around the countryside so that Freyr’s worshippers could be with their god. This would normally be a statue of the god carried in a wagon, but this time the god had supposedly “come to life”. While the story is obviously mocking pagan beliefs, the ceremony itself seems authentic.
Another Freyr-like god, Lytir, was famed for his oracles, and Hauks þáttr hábrókar tells how a king brought the god to him to answer his questions:
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…
Saxo Grammaticus also tells how the king Frothi went on a sort of farewell tour after his death, just like the one that Snorri Sturluson described for the god Freyr. In Snorri’s version Freyr was merely a king who was worshipped as a god after his death, but the stories are very similar, including the detail that both deaths were kept secret because the kings’ reigns had been so prosperous that no one wanted to break the spell. (Ingvi of the Anglo-Saxon rune poem may be another Freyr-like travelling god, since he and his wagon were transported across the sea.)
Going further back in time, the Roman writer Tacitus tells how the idol of the goddess Nerthus, who he compares to Tellus Mater, used to go on procession in a wagon from time to time, a time when war was prohibited2 and every one stopped work and celebrated. Nerthus may be connected to the god Njord, Freyr’s father, who was called the wagon-god.
1. Gunnell points out in a footnote that Njord’s former wife, Skadi, also mentions her temples and groves in Lokasenna.↩
2. Vatnsdæla saga tells how no weapons were allowed in Freyr’s temple; a sword someone brings has to be surrendered to the temple.↩
References and Links:
Snorri Sturluson/ Jesse Byock (trans.) 2005:The Prose Edda Jesse Byock (trans.), Penguin Classics.
Carolyne Larrington (trans.) 1996: The Poetic Edda, Oxford UP.
Tacitus (trans. H. Mattingly and revised by H. S. Handford) 1970: The Agricola and the Germania, Penguin Classics.
Brink, Stefan, 2007: “How Uniform Was the Old Norse Religion?”, in Learning and understanding in the Old Norse world : essays in honour of Margaret Clunies Ross, eds. Judy Quinn, Kate Heslop, and Tarrin Wills, Brepols, Turhout, Belgium. (academia.edu)
Gunnell Terry 2017: “Blótgyðjur, Goðar, Mimi, Incest and Wagons: Oral Memories of the Religion of the Vanir,” in Old Norse Mythology – Comparative Perspectives, eds. Pernille Hermann, Stephen A. Mitchell and Jens-Peter Schjodt, with Amber Rose, The Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 3, Harvard UP. (academia.edu)
Sundqvist, Olof 2002: Freyr’s Offspring: Rulers and religion in ancient Svea society, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Historia religionum, 21.
For the image at the top, click here.