The Vanir gods of Norse mythology belong to the second (yes, second) pantheon of ancient Northern Germanic religion. They are residents of Vanaheim, a lush world where Vanir can live in the heart of nature. In correlation to the world tree Yggdrasil, Vanaheim lies to the west of Asgard, where the primary pantheon, the Aesir, lives.
Norse mythology – also called Germanic or Scandinavian mythology – originates from the encompassing Proto-Indo-European mythology of the Neolithic period. Both the Vanir and Aesir gods, including their relationships with each other and their realms of influence, reflect this earlier system of belief. Similarly, the concept of a world tree, or a cosmic tree, is further borrowed from early Proto-Indo-European religions.
Below is an introduction to the Vanir gods and their extensive influence over the religious backdrop of ancient Scandinavia.
Who are the Vanir Gods?
The Vanir gods belong to one of two pantheons of Norse mythology. They are associated with fertility, the great outdoors, and magic. Not just any magic, either. Originally, it was the Vanir who understood and practiced seidr, a magic that could prophesize and shape the future.
The Vana – that is, those living within Vanaheim – are a mythological tribe of people. They, through conflict with the Aesir, eventually became key players in Norse mythology. The most well-known Vanir gods today are Njord, Freyja, and Freyr.
Are the Vanir Norse Deities?
The Vanir are considered Norse gods. Two tribes make up the Norse pantheon: the Aesir and the Vanir. Both are gods, they just prioritize different things. Whereas the Aesir are all about an outward show of strength and war, the Vanir ultimately valued magic and introspection.
Granted, there aren’t as many of the Vanir as the Aesir gods. Even 3 of the 10 Vanir gods on our list are also considered Aesir. It is easy to overlook them, especially when they stand in the shadow of someone like Thor.
What is the Difference between the Aesir and the Vanir?
The Aesir and Vanir are two groups that constitute the pantheons of the Old Norse religion. That being said, they do have some stark differences. These differences even caused a war between the tribes at some point. Called the Aesir-Vanir War, this mythological conflict likely reflected clashes between social classes in archaic Scandinavia.
To make a long war story short, each tribe exchanged hostages to make peace. The three Vanir hostages were Njord and his two children, Freyja and Freyr. Meanwhile, the Aesir exchanged Mimir and Honir. One misunderstanding later and Mimir is killed, but don’t fret, folks: accidents happen, and the two groups still worked out their peace talks.
Did the Norse Worship the Vanir?
The Norse absolutely venerated Vanir deities. They were among the most popular Norse gods, even though the Aesir had numerous beloved gods as well. The Vanir, unlike their As counterparts, were largely associated with fertility and prophecy through the magical practice of seiðr (seidr).
During the Viking Age (793-1066 CE), the Vanir twin deities Freyja and Freyr were widely worshiped. Freyr had an extensive temple at Uppsala, where he was worshiped alongside Thor and Odin. Meanwhile, Freyja is referred to as a priestess in Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga: she originally taught the Aesir the power of sacrifices. The twins and their father, Njord, were incorporated into the Aesir tribe and are still worshiped amongst practitioners of Asatru.
10 Vanir Gods and Goddesses
The Vanir gods and goddesses weren’t the central deities like the Aesir. However, this does not discount them as gods. The Vanir were a separate pantheon altogether, with their powers intrinsically linked to the natural world. These gods and goddesses of fertility, fair weather, and precious metals may be few in number, but their influence over ancient Scandinavian societies is undeniable.
Njord is the god of the sea, seafaring, fair weather, fishing, wealth, and coastal crop fertility. He was the Vanir chieftain before he and his children were exchanged as hostages during the Aesir-Vanir War. At some point, Njord married his sister – a massive taboo according to the Aesir – and had two children with her. The children, Freyja and Freyr, became admired deities in their own right.
After Njord became integrated into the Aesir, he married the goddess of winter sport, Skadi (much to her chagrin). She thought he had nice legs so they got hitched, but the entire relationship only lasted around eighteen days. To be fair, it did last longer than most celebrity marriages.
It just so happens that Skadi couldn’t stand the screeching of seabirds at sunny Noatun, Njord’s beloved home. By the same token, Njord found his time in the barren peaks of Thrymheim completely loathsome. When the two separated, Skadi found comfort in Odin’s arms and some sources count her as one of his mistresses. Meanwhile, Njord was free to live up the bachelor life in Noatun, fishing his days away.
Freyja is the goddess of love, sex, fertility, beauty, seidr, and battle. She’s got looks that could kill, magic (that could maybe kill), and a sick cape of falcon feathers. Granted, the feather cape could possibly also kill if the goddess got creative.
In Norse mythology, Freyja was the daughter of Njord and his sister-wife and the twin sister of Freyr. She married the Vanir god Odr, with whom she had two daughters: Hnoss and Gersemi.
Called also “The Lady,” Freyja was perhaps one of the most honored goddesses in the Old Norse religion. She may even have been an aspect of Odin’s wife, Frigg, although more promiscuous. It was said that Freyja had slept with every god and Elf, including her brother. Apparently, she even coerced Dwarves into crafting her signature Brísingamen with the promise of sexual favors.
When Freyja isn’t winning the hearts of the pantheon, she is weeping tears of gold over the absence of her wandering husband. For being such a softy, it is easy to forget that Freyja is one of the many Norse war gods. She doesn’t shy away from battle and even oversees a pleasant afterlife for fallen warriors. Known as Fólkvangr, Freyja’s bountiful realm accepts the warriors that do not make it into Valhalla.
Freyr is the god of sunshine, rain, peace, good weather, prosperity, and virility. As Njord’s son, Freyr was gifted the realm of Alfheim during his infancy. Alfheim is one of the Nine Realms that surround the world tree, Yggdrasil, and is the home of the Elves.
There is evidence in some surviving Norse poetry that the Vanir were referred to as Elves. The British philologist Alaric Hall has made the connection between the Vanir and Elves in his work, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity. Honestly, Freyr taking up his father’s mantle as being lord of the Vanir would make some sense. However, other sources, including the Poetic Edda, have the Vanir, Aesir, and Elves as entirely separate entities.
Besides being one half of a dynamic duo, Freyr is also famous for falling head over heels in love with a jötunn. Freyr had it bad. He was so besotted by his future wife, Gerd, that he relinquished his enchanted sword to impress her father. Snorri Sturluson attests in the Ynglinga Saga that Freyr and Gerd became the parents of Fjölnir, an ancient King of Sweden belonging to the Yngling dynasty.
Kvasir is the god of poetry, wisdom, diplomacy, and inspiration. And, the way he was born is a little out there. Kvasir came to be after the Aesir-Vanir War when the two tribes made peace with one another. They spat into a cauldron to represent their unity and from the mixed saliva, Kvasir was born.
According to myth, Kvasir would wander the worlds to share his knowledge with others. He was counted as being amongst the wisest of the gods, which included Mimir and Odin, respectively. Kvasir loved life as a wanderer until he met two Dwarven brothers, Fjalar and Galar. After an evening of drunken deception, the brothers murdered Kvasir.
From Kvasir’s blood, the legendary Mead of Poetry was made. Drinking it would make scholars and skalds out of common folk. Moreover, the Mead was said to be an expression of inspiration in ancient times. It must’ve been some pretty strong stuff.
At some point in time, Odin stole the Mead of Poetry from whoever was hogging it. The theft brought inspiration back to Asgard and Odin was able to glean a bit more wisdom from the brew. However, after Kvasir’s death, the god is not mentioned again.
Nerthus is Mother Earth and, being such, represents abundance and stability. As with most Vanir goddesses she also has a natural affiliation with fertility. After all, when times are tough, one can never have too many fertility gods in their pocket.
As far as familial ties go, Nerthus is the suspected sister-wife of Njord and the mother of Freyja and Freyr. We say suspected because, well, no one really knows for sure. She certainly didn’t go to Asgard when the two groups swapped hostages (and spit) and she isn’t mentioned in any handy-dandy 12th-century manuscripts. Nerthus may even be an earlier, feminine variation of the god Njord.
Considering her general mystery, we surprisingly have an idea of how early Germanic tribes would worship Nerthus. There would be a wagon procession, as described by Tacitus in his Germania. Nerthus’ wagon was draped in a white cloth and only a priest was permitted to touch it. Wherever the procession traveled would be a time of peace: there was no bearing arms or waging war.
Whatever connections Nerthus has to war – or lack thereof – is unknown. Similarly, her association with the color white, which was a common color to ancient Northmen, is a puzzle in itself.
Despite her relatively minor role in Norse mythology, Nerthus is frequently equated with mother goddesses from other ancient religions. The Roman historian Tacitus relates Nerthus to Terra Mater (Mother Earth), who is incidentally related back to the Greek Gaia and the Phrygian goddess Cybele. Anyways, you get the picture. Nerthus is an earth goddess that seems to have fallen through the gaps after spoken myths were adopted into writing.
Odr is the Vanir god of frenzy and madness. He is described as the husband of Freyja and the father of Hnoss and Gersemi. His preference for a vagrant lifestyle has long since strained his marriage. Freyja either weeps until his return or goes out in search of him, donning different appearances each time.
Most popular theories point to Odr being an aspect of the chief god Odin. While Odin is markedly wise and tactful, Odr is reckless and scattered. Freyja’s suspected dual role as Frigg conveniently aligns with this interpretation of Odr. In the writings of Snorri Sturluson, Odr is defined as an individual completely separate from Odin.
Hnoss and Gersemi
Hnoss and Gersemi are both goddesses of worldly possessions, personal treasure, desire, wealth, and beauty. They are sisters and daughters of Freyja. In mythology, they are practically indistinguishable from one another. Their roles and appearances are shared.
Gersemi is only mentioned in the Ynglinga Saga and may be an alternative name for Hnoss, rather than being a separate entity. Whether or not Gersemi is confirmed as a daughter of Freyja depends on the source material. She could be the forgotten second daughter or be another name given to Hnoss.
One cannot say with certainty that these goddesses were widely worshiped. However, their names became synonymous with treasure, with Northern Germanic peoples referring to their valuables as hnossir or simply hnoss.
Nanna is a goddess of fertility and motherhood. She is the wife of Baldr and the mother of Forseti. Another goddess shrouded in mystery, Nanna is presumed to be a member of the Vanir based on her apparent realms. Otherwise, her realms themselves are implied through her name, which likely originates from the Old Norse word for mother, nanna.
Appearing in a single Norse myth, Nanna had died of a broken heart after her husband’s death. The account is repeated in the Prose Edda by the character, High, in Gylfaginning. Since Nanna dies early on in Norse mythology, there is little information available regarding other legends involving her.
Comparatively, Nanna and the blind god Hod take on human identities in Book III of the 12th-century Gesta Danorum. In this legend, they are lovers and Baldr – still a god – lusts after the mortal Nanna. Whether or not this is an alteration of myth or considered to be a part of Denmark’s semi-legendary history worth questioning. There are mentions of significant characters from Norse culture, including the hero Hothbrodd and the Danish king Hailaga.
Gullveig is the goddess of gold and precious metal. She is likely the personification of gold itself, which has been purified through repeated smelting. Also known by the name Heidi, Gullveig means something like “gold drunk.” Her relationship with gold has caused several scholars to suggest that Gullveig is another name for the goddess Freyja.
When compared to others on the list, Gullveig is arguably obscure. Not a whole ton is known about her: she’s a mystery. Part of the reason for this is that Gullveig is solely attested in the Poetic Edda. In fact, Snorri Sturluson does not mention Gullveig in the Prose Edda whatsoever.
Now, whoever Gullveig is – or, whatever they are – they triggered the events of the Aesir-Vanir War. And not in the romanticized Helen of Troy fashion, either. Based on the Henry Adams Bellows translation of the Poetic Edda from 1923, Gullveig was “three times burned, and three times born” after being killed by the Aesir. Her poor treatment prompted the legendary conflict.
Gold held some significance in early Viking societies, but not as much as silver did. The fabled “red-gold,” a copper-gold alloy, was far more prized possession than any silver and gold, however. At least, that’s what the myths tell us.