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.
We’re always taught that Odin was head of the Norse gods, and father of most of them. But when the Christians in Scandinavia began to press the pagans to give up their religion, the sign of resistance was Thor’s hammer, not Odin’s spear or valknut.
This may come as a surprise to us, who mostly think of Thor as big and strong and a bit dim, out of his depth when it comes to anything more complicated than smashing giants. But Thor was a very popular deity in the Viking Age, as place-names and personal names show, perhaps because of his closeness to the humans he defended.
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.
I have written many posts about Celtic goddesses who are known by their names alone, gleaned from an inscription or two made in Roman times. The Norse god Lýtir is almost as obscure. Apart from his name, the only evidence we have for him comes from a post-Christian tale which clearly does not think much of the god or his powers.
Where did the idea that Flidais rode in a chariot drawn by deer come from? It’s not in her main legend, the Táin Bó Flidais, nor in the follow-on story, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. It’s an attractive image, bringing to mind the Middle Eastern goddesses with their lion-drawn chariots, Freyja with her cats, and Nerthus in her wagon drawn by heifers.