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.
My last post looked at the Norse goddess of death, Hel, who shared her name with her abode, the home of the dead. Norse poetry from the Viking and high medieval eras frequently describes death as “going to Hel”.
But many of the dead weren’t about to go anywhere. In Norse myths and sagas, anyone who wished to communicate with the dead went out and sat on their barrow, or in some cases actually entered it. Clearly, people thought the dead were still powerful in the world, just waiting in their graves to help their families or those who left offerings.
Norse myth tends to echo; one story calling to another. There are at least three stories in Norse myth about a young man passing through a wall of flames and other hazards to reach a woman. This would seem to be a straightforward story of a woman sought and won, except that in two of these stories the young man is a stand-in for another, and only one story has a happy ending.
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.
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.
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.
While it’s part of Norse myth that the gods and giants are enemies, it seems that the giantesses were a different story. Odin clearly never met one he didn’t like, and he was far from being the only one to have a fling with one. Even Thor the giant-smasher had an affair with Jarnsaxa. These romances usually resulted in the second-generation gods, such as Thor’s son Magni.
Sometimes, however, the sons of these unions were mortals, or demi-mortals anyway. The Swedish ruling dynasty called the Ynglings and the Norwegian earls of Hladir traced themselves back to the giantesses/goddesses Gerdr and Skadi, respectively.
The Norse sea-god – if he reminded you of anyone in the Graeco-Roman pantheon, wouldn’t it be Neptune/Poseidon? And yet, when the medieval Icelanders were copying out Greek myths, they explained the god Saturn/Kronos to their readers as “Njord”. What did the two have in common, that Njord would stand for Saturn to an Icelander?
(This post was inspired by one written by Nancy Marie Brown at God of Wednesday: A Viking Fairy Tale. She in turn was inspired by a question from a reader, and a paper by Takahiro Narikawa. And on it goes.)
Long before I began this blog, just plain long ago in fact, I did a degree in Medieval Studies, with a specialty in English. This taught me how to dig into a text for its meaning, but we rarely considered the political or historical aspects of the texts. In some cases it would have been difficult to do so.
Who wrote Beowulf? We can guess at his (probably his) politics, and what was happening around him while he was writing, but we know very little about him. Even much later texts have similar problems, such as Gawain and the Green Knight. The poet Simon Armitage hypothesized that the author was from northern England, based on some of the words used, but we don’t know for sure.