Resembling a sort of divine family, this grouping of gods, which included Frigg, Loki, Odin, and Thor, has not only been the source of artistic inspiration for more than a millennium but shows that, like most families, tension, conflict, and chaos lies just underneath the surface.
One half of the puzzle
While the Romans, Greeks, or even Babylonians were content with just one collection of gods (or, to use the correct Greek term - pantheon), people in Viking societies thought they could outdo their predecessors by having not one but two groupings of gods.
There are vast gaps in the knowledge of modern historians and academics of what has been called the Old Norse religion, specifically its actual practice and rituals.
Yet, luckily for us moderns, one half of the pantheon, the gods that make up the Æsir, have survived with their colorful stories and sometimes godly, sometimes oh-so-human qualities shining down on us through the ages.
The Æsir (Old Norse for the plural form of "god") surely are one of the most dysfunctional divine clans, sometimes portrayed as a heavenly family (it's complicated) found in any religion throughout the world and down through the ages.
Their home is Asgard, the realm of the gods, just one of the nine realms in Norse cosmology.
The Æsir have sometimes been portrayed as an "elder" clan of gods, contrasting with the supposedly "younger" clan of the Vanir.
The most recent scholarship on this is that there are no age dynamics between the two godly clans of Norse mythology and that they are considered contemporaries.
The relationship between the two clans is one of conflict, chaos, and bloodshed. Hostages are taken, gods are slain, and a state of eternal conflict is said to exist between these two divine clans.
Loki, the trickster god, perpetually ignites discord amidst this divine chaos. Illustration: The Viking Herald
A big crazy clan
The reason why some scholars speculate that the Æsir are of a senior rank to the Vanir is due to the membership of this divine family.
Often the gods that are in the Aesir are associated with wisdom, power, war, and divine sovereignty.
Some of the members include:
Odin – also known as the All-Father, is the Big Daddy of Norse mythology. The worship of Odin dates back to the very early medieval period and, perhaps, as far back as the Classical Antiquity period. He is the ruler of Asgard and is associated with magic, strategy, poetry, and war.
He has acquired his vast knowledge through trial, tribulations, and personal sacrifice. He wouldn't be seen anywhere without his two ravens and is often depicted with a cloak and a hat (supposedly the inspiration for Gandalf's costume in the Lord of The Rings movies)
Thor – If you have never heard of the Æsir or even the Vikings, chances are you'll know Thor thanks to the recent movie adaptations of the Marvel comic book character.
Loki – perhaps another Norse god that has entered the popular imagination through Marvel movies. Yet this god is far more complex and nuanced than any two-dimensional Hollywood portrayal of a malign trickster.
Loki is both a member of the Æsir and a blood brother to the Jötnar as well as a brother to Thor and a son of Odin. Complex ancestry? He is renowned for his cunning mind and shapeshifting abilities.
His complex nature, sometimes a hindrance, sometimes a help to the gods and humanity, reflects the sense of chaos that people in Viking societies thought was reflective of the universe itself.
Frigg – Odin was not alone in ruling Asgard as he had Frigg by his side and vice versa. Frigg was seen as an equal of Odin, a co-ruler of the realm of Norse gods.
She was also associated with motherhood, marriage, and domestic bliss... making it evident that Norse society was deeply misogynistic and patriarchal, like most pre-modern (and many modern) societies.
Her knowledge was said to be even greater than Odin's, as she had the ability to see the future but kept her secrets to herself. Later depictions saw her become associated with love and fertility.
Tyr – We can thank this Norse god for the second day of the week, Tuesday. Aside from being the inspiration for no one's favorite day of the week, Tyr is also associated with law and justice and is another son of Odin. His epic fight with the giant wolf, Fenrir, left more than a bloody scar and is often depicted with one hand.
He is most associated with upholding oaths (a serious business in an honor-based society prevalent throughout the "Viking homeland") and is seen as a sort of neutral arbiter, above the fray of heated arguments, dispensing fair and balanced guidance for all.
The goddess Frigg and her husband, Odin, are often depicted as mutually respectful and deeply bonded, both sharing wisdom and authority in their divine realm. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Gods of war
Like most gods, the Æsir mirrored the expectations, norms, and values of people in Viking societies. It would be impossible to separate the Aesir from a good battle, fight, or war.
They are, of course, most associated with the forced unification of all Norse gods into their pantheon, the so-called "Aesir-Vanir War."
Such a war has been a rich source of inspiration for Norse sagas, stories, and myths and was said to have occurred when a goddess, Gullveig, was stabbed three times and burnt alive in one of the halls of Odin.
The Allfather then signaled that a war would indeed take place when he threw a spear over the heads of the members of the Vanir.
This method of starting an armed conflict, whether signaling the start of a battle, or a fight, by throwing a spear over the head of one's opponents was, according to historical sources, something that Viking warriors adopted and would continue to do throughout the early medieval period.
Aside from fighting the other half of the Norse pantheon, the Æsir are heavily involved in fighting a wide variety of other mythical ghastly ghouls, including trolls, monsters, and their cosmic nemesis, the jötnar.
Their battle with the jötnar is said to represent the eternal fight between order and chaos, with the Æsir representing civilized order.
It should be noted that the very idea that such a pantheon of gods that butcher everything and anything in sight (including members of their own clan/family) could be the representation of order shows just how embedded a violent warrior ethos was in Viking societies.
Destiny and destruction
When they aren't trying to bash everything in the realms, the rich tapestry of Norse literature connects Æsir to both fate and destiny.
The Æsir are said to know the exact events of Ragnarök, the apocalyptic Norse end of times. Every single detail of the myriad of bloody events, which will bring about the end of the human-inhabited realm, is known to the Aesir.
Like all good omnipotent gods, however, the Aesir will simply fulfill their obligations and responsibilities.
In these apocalyptic events, the Æsir, along with some brave allies, know that they will face a great war against a vast army of enemies, including every dark and dangerous creature that the Norse imagination could think of, even a floating ship made of out the nails of the deceased!
This will result in a final doomed battle that the Æsir, though they know the outcome, will dutifully fight on behalf of the forces of good and for we mere mortals too.
They are the embodiment of bravery in the face of death, something that many a Viking warrior drew inspiration from when about to face an enemy on the battlefield.
Scan any of the famous Norse sagas, and there will be a mention of the Æsir.
Though they may very well all be powerful and divine, the Æsir possess some very human qualities that are part of the reason why they have remained such a popular part of Norse mythology for over a millennium.
For more information on Norse mythology, visit the BBC History Extra website here.
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