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.
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.
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.
This is an extremely condensed look at the myth of Njord and Skadi. For a much more detailed study, see my book Njord and Skadi: a Myth Explored.
The myth of Njord and Skadi could also be called the Divine Divorce. Usually, even unhappily married deities stay together, but these two bucked the trend. Skadi married Njord as part of a settlement after the gods killed her father, but the marriage didn’t last.
Popular sources describe this story as a nature-myth, with the sea-god and the mountain-goddess being unable to find common ground. This myth, however, has multiple meanings, and goes to the heart of Norse myth and the god-giant conflict that will bring destruction.
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?
The goddess Skadi has one main myth, but it is a well-developed story, spanning three generations, and involving the feud between the gods and giants. The actual story is scattered around through a variety of sources, but its outline is clear.
(This post is adapted from material in my new book on Njord and Skadi.)
One of the great puzzles of Norse mythology is the problem of Nerthus and Njord. The Germanic goddess Nerthus, whose cult is described by the Roman historian Tacitus, in the first century AD, is not attested in any other source, but her name is linguistically the same as that of the Scandinavian sea-god Njord, who appears in sources roughly 1 000 years later.
Since Snorri tells us in the Ynglinga saga that Njord had a sister who was his wife, the mystery seemed solved: Nerthus was his sister, just as Freyja was Freyr’s.
Geography made the Scandinavians a marine people, and not surprisingly ships of various kinds played an important part in their lives. It’s not surprising that they turn up in myth and art as well.