While one of these groups, the Vanir, is attested in some of the most famous works of Norse literature, there is an ongoing modern debate over its possible fabrication and how it could reflect past historical conflicts between peoples.
Regardless, the Vikings have left an inedible mark on the cultural fabric of world literature; with their often-bloody expansion came the rich tapestry of Norse mythology, sagas, and stories.
Human after all
Look around popular culture, and it appears that Norse mythology is having something of a moment.
Netflix series featuring Valkyries and shieldmaidens, Thor, Loki, and Odin awash on the silver screen thanks to Marvel and Hollywood, and an Amazon forest's worth of books published, daily, on the Norse gods would seem to back this up.
Taking the longer view, however, we at The Viking Herald would argue that Norse mythology isn't "having a moment" as it never went out of fashion. From the early depths of the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE - 500 CE), when this mythology was formed out of Proto-Germanic folklore, the myths and legends of the Norse gods have touched countless different peoples, civilizations, and cultures down through the ages.
Part of their appeal, perhaps, is that the Norse gods, despite being, well, gods, are surprisingly like we mere mortals. Whilst Thor has superhuman strength, he is perhaps rather rash and headstrong.
Loki, his polar opposite (if we are to believe the Marvel movies), could be seen as a trickster and the bane of many a Norse god. Yet you too would be a little standoffish to these gods when you were not only accidentally responsible for the death of Odin's children but, as a punishment for this accident, you were chained to a rock with a poisonous serpent dripping venom on your head for eternity.
Odin is hardly a loyal husband as he is prone to regular flights of temptation (five sons with four different wives... we place no judgments on humans here at The Viking Herald but gods, on the other hand... #HaveAColdShowerInsteadOdin) whilst Frigg is a protective mother who demands that all living things, in the nine universes of Norse mythology, not lay a hand on her son, Baldr.
Perhaps the most human of qualities, though, can be gleaned from the division of the Norse gods into two conflicting groups.
A pantheon divided against itself cannot stand
Like most countries, tribes, or even comic book villains, the Norse gods had a backstory. Since time immemorial, the Gods were divided into two groups – the Æsir and the Vanir.
The Æsir were associated with chaos and war - not a surprise when their members included Thor and Odin as well as Loki, Frigg Baldur, Idun, and Heimdall.
The Vanir, on the other hand, were more associated with fertility, nature, prophecy, and wisdom and included Freyja, Freyr, Kvesa, Njöðr, and his unnamed sister - although the latter is sometimes seen as an unwilling hostage.
Whilst the Æsir live in Asgard, the Vanir reside in Vanaheimr. A late 12th-century CE attempt to place Vanaheimr on earth put it somewhere far out along the Don River.
This river, the fifth longest in Europe, must have seemed, to the peoples in Viking societies centuries before, at the very ends of the earth as it flows through what is now central Russia, which was at the edges of the medieval European world.
It was only a matter of time before the two groups would, like most humans, get into some sort of conflict. Just why these two grouping of gods would enter what became an eternal war has a series of conflicting origins.
In Norse lore, the Æsir are associated with chaos and war Illustration. Illustration: The Viking Herald
In the Poetic Edda, a seeress states that this was the first war in the world and was caused by feminicide. Gullveig, a prominent female of the Vanir, was said to be amongst the revelers in Odin's Hall and wound up being speared three times by some of Odin's friends.
The Heimskringla, however, relates how it was down to Odin's thirst for power and conquest that led to the two groups' bitter war. Odin was said to have led a great army, from the halls of Asgard, to wage war against the inhabitants of Vanaheimr.
Finally, after eons of war and battle, the gods managed to come to a truce. This truce is recounted in the Prose Edda, where the Norse god of poetry, Bragi, is explaining the origin of poetry.
The two warring godly groups came to a peace conference for a truce. The truce was signed with all members of the two groups spitting into a vat to seal the deal.
This vat of spittoon was to be kept as a symbol of the eternal peace, from then on, of the Æsir and the Vanir. The very first man, Kvasir, was made from the contents of this vat, and from his blood (when he came to an untimely end) flowed the "Mead of Suttungr."
Modern scholarly interpretations
Like all myths and legends, modern academics and historians have combed over Norse mythology to try and put it in a historical context.
A common interpretation of the Vanir – a different group to the more celebrated and powerful Æsir - is that they may be a reflection between Proto-Germanic tribes and different peoples.
Furthermore, does the Æsir-Vanir war mirror what happened during the Nordic Iron Age, where tribes of Germanic peoples drifted all over Europe, coming into conflict with a range of cultures, civilizations, and peoples?
On the other side of the academic spectrum, a recent Austrian professor has argued that the Vanir, as a distinct group of Norse gods, did not actually exist as part of the Old Norse religion.
Simek relates how Snorri may have added the Vanir as a separate group making this grouping a "figment of imagination." This has put him at odds with more recent scholars, like Neil Price, who have argued that they are an integral part of Norse mythology rooted in its early medieval inception.
Whatever the origins of the Vanir may be, they have remained a potent part of the lure and popularity of Norse mythology.
Their association with nature and fertility is the exact opposite of the more warlike Æsir, and the inclusion of the Vanir in Norse sagas and myths shows that the Norse gods, like humans, are not so two-dimensional after all.
Want to know more about the Norse gods? Look no further than a guide published by The Guardian, available to read here.
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