The Religion of the Northmen
OF THE GODS
The Vanir, in the Asa Mythology, form a peculiar class of beings, originally the enemies of the Æsir, but afterward connected with them on terms of the closest intimacy. If we turn our attention to the gods Njörð and Frey, who are reckoned with that race, it will be evident that they properly belong to the Air, and denote its beneficial influence over the life of Nature. The name Vanir, the Vacant, Incorporeal (from vanr, empty, void), denotes their aerial nature. In what manner the contest between the Æsir and the Vanir, which was laid aside in the World's first existence, and concluded by a treaty in which the Æsir gave Hænir as a hostage against Njörð, should be most correctly interpreted, it is not so easy to decide. Some believe the myth to express the idea that the light of Heaven had to break through thick clouds which originally enveloped the Earth in order to call forth Fruitfulness, which thus was thought to be an effect of the united powers of Heaven and the Atmosphere. (14) Others have referred this contest between the Æsir and the Vanir to a strife between two religious parties, the Fire-worshipers and Water-worshipers, which was ended by a blending of both religions; the Water-deities or Vanir, being received among the Fire-deities or Æsir, and worshiped side by side with them. (15) It might be easier perhaps to imagine a contest between a wandering, warlike nation and a peaceful, agricultural, and sea-faring one, which ended in the union of the two. The reason why the Vanir were frequently represented as wise---vísir Vanir, vís regin---is unknown.
Njörð (16) is the God of the Air and the mild Wind, and as such, the Patron of Sea-faring and Fishing. His dwelling is by the sea in Nóatún---the Shipmeadow. (17) His wife is the Jötun-daughter Skaði (18)---the Harm-bringing---the Goddess of Winter-storms and rough mountain winds. Her favorite abode is Thrymheim (19)---the Home of Storms---the lofty, storm-raging, snow-covered mountain regions where only the hunter on his snow-shoes finds nourishment. The compromise between them, to dwell nine nights in Thrymheim and 3 nights in Nóatún, refers to the high northern latitudes where rough weather and wintry storms prevail during the greater part of the year.
Njörð's children, Frey and Freyja, are the Deities of Fruitfulness; the former with regard to the Earth, the latter, to Mankind. Their names in the Old-Norse, as well as in many of the ancient Germanic languages, signify Lord or Master, and Lady or Mistress; but it is uncertain whether this be the original meaning, or whether it was not rather derived from the great veneration in which these divinities were held at an early age among the Germanic races. There is every reason to suppose a direct affinity between these two names and frór, peaceable, gentle; fró, peace, repose; as well as friófr, fruitful; frióf, frió, seed; in the former case they would denote the gentleness which was attributed to these beings, in the latter they would designate them as the Bestowers of Fruitfulness. (20)
Frey drives with his with his golden-bristled Boar---the symbol of the productiveness of the fields;---or he sails in his ærial ship Skiðblaðnir, (21) over the light clouds. He dwells in Álfheim, and rules over the Light-Elves (Ljósálfar)---the bland spirits which hover about the fruitful earth. His love for the Jötun maiden Gerða (22)---the Embracing, Surrounding---expresses the longing of Fruitfulness to impart its blessings to the wintry Earth. (23) To gain the object of his longing he gives away his good sword, and therefore he alone is weaponless among the warlike Æsir,---the culture of the earth is an employment of peace; it thrives only where weapons are at rest.
Freyja's abode is the People's Fields or Habitations (Fólkvángar); (24) in her hall there is room for many seats. (25) The Goddess of Love journeys among mankind and embraces their numerous hosts with her divine power. She drives with cats---a symbol of sly fondling and sensual enjoyment. Her husband's name, Óður, signifies Sense, Understanding, but also wild desire. The various names bestowed upon her when she travels among the people, denote the various modes by which Love reveals itself in human life. The other Goddesses named in the Asa Mythology as Patronesses of Love and Marriage---Sjöfn, Lofn, and Vár---were all regarded as messengers and attendants of Freyja.
The Æsir Baldur, Höður, and Vali are the most intimately connected with each other, but their significance can be best understood in connection with the myth of Baldur's Death, under which they shall be mentioned.
Týr (26) is the God of warlike boldness, of Bravery; Bragi is, as the name itself implies, the God of Poetry. (27) They are both Sons of Odin, and are in reality only peculiar expressions of Odin's being. As the God of War he awakens wild courage, as the Sovereign of the Soul he is himself represented as the Inventor of Poetry.
Iduna, the Efficacious, perhaps originally signified Nature's vigorous Summer-life; to the Æsir she is the Goddess of Eternal Youth. Her connection with Bragi refers to the poet's mission of immortalizing great deeds.
Saga is, as the name directly implies, the Goddess of History. Her dwelling is Sökkvabekk---(the sinking, the deep brook)---the stream of Time and of Events, where Odin (Spirit) visits her and is gladdened by her instructive discourse.
Heimdall is one of the Gods whose signification is very obscure. The name may perhaps be traced from heimr and dallr (in the sense of dæll, agreeable, pleasing), and may denote the pleasures of the world. The name of his abode Híminbjörg signifies Heaven's Mount or Heaven's Salvation. He was probably regarded as the Deity of the Rainbow, although the many special attributes and names bestowed upon him can hardly be explained by this character alone.
Not less obscure in Viðar's character. The name seems most easily explained with "The Winner of Victory" (being used in the sense of Vinnar, from vinna to overcome), and in this case refers to his victory in the last battle of the Gods. He may thus denote the regenerative power which was thought to lie in the Earth. Therefore was he a son of Odin and a Jötun woman---of Spirit and Matter; therefore was his dwelling-place Landviðí---the wide earth; therefore was he the silent, inefficient god during the existing state of the world. In its downfall he first steps forth in his strength, conquering the powers of Darkness and Desolation, and he afterward dwells in the rejuvenated world.
In the high northern latitudes Winter, although Nature lies in a state of torpor, is a very important season for the activity of men, hence it is not wonderful that the heathen Northmen imagined one of the Æsir to preside over that season, and to favor human operations by furnishing good roads and facilities for traveling, and inventing means for passing easily over the ice and snow. This Divinity is Ullur, whose name signifies the Wool-like or White. His abode is Ýdalir---the Dale of cool Dampness.
Forseti signifies, according to the name, the Foreseated, the Presider. He presides over Justice, and is the God of Righteousness. His dwelling is Glitnir, the Shining. (28) He is the son of Baldur---of spotless Innocence. When Innocence disappeared from the earth, Righteousness was left behind to fill its place.
The name Valkyrja signifies the Chooser of the Slain. (29) The Valkyrjur served Odin, and were the Goddesses of Battle and of Death. They are beings who realize to the senses Odin's attributes as the God of War.
The being who is regarded as the God of the Sea is designated by three names: Ægir---the Terrible (ægia, to frighten); Hlér--the Shelterer (hlé, AS. hleó, Dan. Læ, Engl. lee); and Gýmir---the Concealing (geyma, AS. gyman, Dan. gjemme, to conceal, to keep). They express the sea in its uproar, in its mildness, and as the covering of the Deep. The name of his wife, Rán---Robbery, or the Robbing (ræna, to plunder), denotes the sea as craving its sacrifice of human life and of treasures. Ægir and his family, it is certain, did not belong among the Æsir, yet they were regarded, like them, as mighty beings, whose friendship was sought by the Æsir themselves. The ancient legend that Ægir, when visited by the Æsir, illuminated his hall with shining gold (lýsigull), refers no doubt to the phosphorescent light of the sea (marelldr, sea fires, Dan. Morild).
The Northmen imagined twelve of the Æsir to be superior, and, as it were, to form a Council of Gods; but which they were is nowhere said with certainty. In the ancient poem of Grimnismál (30) there are twelve celestial abodes enumerated by way of preeminence, and in the Later Edda, (31) twelve names by which Odin was especially designated. This preference shown in the Mythology for the number twelve, has appeared to several interpreters to refer to the divisions of the year among the heathen Northmen, and their reckoning of the sun's course. According to their theory, each of the twelve Æsir was the director of his respective month; the twelve names of Odin were names of the months; and the twelve celestial abodes denoted the twelve signs of the zodiac, which the sun passes through annually. (32) Magnusen has gone still farther, and referred the fifty-two names of Odin which are enumerated in the Grimnismál, to the fifty-two weeks of the year, the seventy-three names of Dwarves which occur in the Völuspá, to another division of the year into seventy-three Fifths, or sections of five days each, and finally, the thirteen names of the Valkyrjur in the Grimnismál, to the thirteen lunar changes of the solar year. On this he has built a complete heathen Calendar, based upon the solar year. (33) It is tolerably certain that the heathen Northmen divided the year into twelve months, and it is most likely that the number twelve in the Æsir Mythology is in connection with this division; that they also made use of a division of time consisting of five days (fimt) is very probable; but that they should have understood how to compute the solar year correctly, and especially that they should have had distant ideas of the signs of the zodiac, as the heathen Calendar set up by Magnusen supposes, is very doubtful.
14. Magnusen; Transl. O. Edda. I., p. 114, &c. [Back]
15. Geijer; Svea-Rikes Häfder, I., pp. 354-366. [Back]
16. Many derivations of the Word Njörðr are given. Magnusen's is from næra (Germ. nähren) to nourish; our author thinks it cognate with njörva, to bind together, as Njörð was in a manner the bond of union between the Æsir and the Vanir. According to Grimm it may be from norðr, north; the corresponding Goth. form, Naírþus; and in other Germanic dialects, Nírdu, Nird, or Nerd; and the name and divinity identic with the Nerthus of Tacitus, which he deems the right reading of Hertha. (Deut. Mythol. pp. 197, 229). [Back]
17. From Nór, a ship, and tún, a meadow, a cultivated or inclosed field---formerly, a town, as Sigtún, the Victor's (Odin's) Town, in Sweden. [Back]
18. From skaða (Dan. skade; Germ. schaden), to injure: cogn. with AS. scaðian, Engl. scath. [Back]
19. þrymr, uproar; þrymia, to storm. [Back]
20. The Gothic name corresponding to Freyr in the sense of Lord and Master, is Fráuja; Old High Germ. Fró; AS. Fréa. Corresponding to Freyja in the sense of Lady or Mistress is the Old High Germ. Frouwa, Frowa; AS. Freo; Goth. Fráujo; and modern Dan. Frue; Swed. Fru; Germ. Frau. Comp. Deut. Mythol. pp. 190-200, 276-277. [Back]
21. Skið, a thin shingle, or a sheath; cognate with the Dan. Skede; Germ. Scheide; AS. sceað. Blað; Dan. Blad; Germ. Blatt; cogn. with Engl. blade. The word denotes the property of the ship, that although it was so large as to hold all the Æsir yet it was so skillfully made, that when it was not wanted its leaf-like planks could be folded up like a cloth and the whole affair carried in the pocket (see L. Edda, Gylf. 43). [Back]
22. Gerðr signifies a girth, inclosure, from girða, to gird, which is cognate with garðr (see Chap. 8, Miðgarðr). Both gerd and gard are common terminations of female names, as Hildigard, Thorgerd &c. [Back]
23. Pet. Danm. Hist. III., p. 178. [Back]
24. Fólk; AS. folc; Sw., Dan. and Engl. folk; Germ. Volk. Vángr, pl. vángar, an inclosure, field; cogn. with Germ. Wohnung, a habitation. [Back]
25. Sessrýmnir, from sess (Dan. Sæde; Germ. Sitze), a seat, and rýma, to make room---literally, the Seat-roomy. [Back]
26. Týr corresponds with AS. Tír, glory, dominion; the Sanskr. Djaus, gen. Divas; Gr. Zeuj, gen. Dioj; Mæso-Goth. Tius, gen. Tivis; Norse Týr, gen. Týs; are cognate words signifying God. (Deut. Mythol., pp. 175, 187) [Back]
27. Bragi corresponds with AS. Brego, a ruler, prince; and perhaps with AS.brægen, brain. In the Norse, bragr signifies poetry. [Back]
28. Glita, to shine; or glitra, cogn. with AS. glitenan, glitnian; Engl. glitter, glisten. Forseti was worshiped by the Frisians, and called Fosite, (Deut. Myth. pp. 210-212). [Back]
29. Valr, Old. Germ. wal; AS. wæl; the Slain in battle; whence the Dan. Valplads; Germ. Wahlplatz; a field of battle: kyrja from kjöra, kjósa; AS. curon, ceósan; Old. Germ. küren, to choose. In the AS. such Latin words as Alecto, Bellona, were rendered by Wælcyrige and Wælcyrie. [Back]
30. The O. Edda: Grimn. 5-17. [Back]
31. The L. Edda: Gylf. 3. [Back]
32. The following is the order of the twelve celestial abodes in the Grimnismál, arranged as "Solar Houses" corresponding to the signs of the zodiac, by F. Magnusen, in his Eddalære, Vol. III, p. 244:
1. Ýdalir, the abode of Ullr Sagittarius Nov.
2. Álfheimr, the abode of Freyr Capricornus Dec.
3. Valaskjálf, the abode of Vali Aquarius Jan.
4. Sökkvabekkr, the abode of Saga Pisces Feb.
5. Glaðsheimr, the abode of Oðinn Aries Mar. or Valhöll,
6. Þrymheimr, the abode of Skaði Taurus April.
7. Breiðablik, the abode of Baldr Gemini May.
8. Himinbjörg, the abode of Heimdallr Cancer June.
9. Fólkvángar, the abode of Freyja Leo July.
10. Glitnir, the abode of Forseti Virgo Aug.
11. Nóatún, the abode of Njörðr Libra Sept.
12. Landviði, the abode of Viðarr Scorpio Oct. Tr. [Back]
33. See in Magnusen's Transl. of the O. Edda, Vol. I, the Interpretation of Grimnismál; and his "Specimen Calendarii Gentilis" at the conclusion of the Arna-Magnæan edition of the O. Edda, Vol. III. [Back]