Vanir-Aesir: Scandinavia’s Neolithic Farmers Meet Arriving Indo-European Herders

This text is a short paper I submitted to a course at Linköping University:

A formative moment in Norse religion seems to have been the war between the Aesir and Vanir gods. The story is described in both Voluspa and Snorri’s Prose Edda. Voluspa stanzas 22-25 relate “the first war in the world” when the Aesir encounter the Vanir in the form of the magical Gullveig, who is struck with spears, thrice burned and reborn. Odin casts his spear into the Vanir host, who beat down the walls of the Aesir stronghold. Peace is concluded and hostages are exchanged, Njörd, Frey, and Freya to the Aesir, where they become part of the Norse pantheon (while Haenir and Mimir are sent to the Vanir, who cut off Mimir’s head and send it back with Haenir to the Aesir).

Snorri describes the war briefly in The Deluding of Gylfi, when High One speaks of Njörd, and his children Frey and Freya.

The Vanir are fertility deities. Njörd is a sea god, Frey is associated with the sun, rain, and farming, and Freya with magic and sexuality. Originally Njörd may have been connected with the Earth mother goddess Nerthus, described by Tacitus.

The Aesir deities reflect an Indo-European pantheon. Thor, the god of thunder, farmers, and warriors, has parallels with the Indian Aryan Indra, the Greek Zeus, and the Hittite storm god Tarhunna. Odin has been associated with the Roman Mercury, a god of wisdom and secret knowledge. Tyr seems to have been worshipped as a war god, and the Romans associated him with Mars (hence Tuesday=Martis).

There are conflicting theories about the meeting of these two sets of gods. The Functionalist argument is that all the various deities filled particular structural niches. This theory apparently displaced the earlier belief that the story actually represented an encounter between two different groups. I would argue that this latter theory could very well be correct.

The basic flaw with the Functionalist approache is that the two sets of gods have overlapping functions, which is exactly what one would find if two complete sets of divinities met and merged. Frey is a farmers’ god, but so is Thor. Njörd  is a god of the sea, as is the Giant Aegir. Moreover, Odin has to share the warriors fallen in battle with Freya, so they too have overlapping functions over the dead, and both have knowledge of magic. Freya is not just a goddess of sexuality, she seems to embody women in general, including childbirth, which seemingly overlaps with Frigg.

According to Price the Vanir appear to have been on the scene before the Aesir, yet are not part of the latter’s creation myth. Steinsland points out the Vanir are recorded in Scandinavian sources, but they are found only sparsely among more southerly Germanic tribes. In their migrations, the Indo-Europeans would have met many peoples, and would have adapted accordingly. The Vedic Aryans encountered older Indian divinities, the Greeks met the Minoans, while Apollo apparently originated in Asia, and indeed supported the Trojans in the war against the Greeks. As Indo-European gods the Aesir would have been brought by the Yamna horse herders when they arrived in Scandinavia, around 4800 BP.

Modern DNA research supports an encounter between farmers and herders (the following is based on Karin Bojs’ book Svenskarna och deras fäder de senaste 11 000 åren):

The ice melted from Scandinavia around 11,700 BP, and hunter-gathers from farther south in Europe moved in. A second wave came from farther east. They had blue eyes and relatively dark skin and hair.

They were followed around 6000 BP by farmers with barley, wheat, cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep. Their DNA reveals them to have been a completely new group of people, with brown eyes and lighter skin, originally from modern Turkey and Syria, where along with the Zagros mountains, farming and herding began around 11,500 BP. As farmers their religion seemed to mark the sun and the seasons, and they left solar sites like Stonehenge around Europe. Their stone passage graves across Europe were often designed so the sun shown into the passage on the Winter solstice. They did not interbreed much with the hunter-gatherers, although it is possible that hunter-gatherer women moved to the farmers.

Later, Yamna herders from the steppes of modern Russia and Ukraine began to arrive in Western Europe, reaching Scandinavia around 4,800 BP. They brought Indo-European languages, along with horses and wagons, and unlike the earlier settlers were lactose tolerant. They may also have brought plague bacteria, which might have led to the deaths of Scandinavian farmers, who seem to have otherwise merged with the newcomers. They apparently lived alongside and separate from the remaining hunter-gatherer population, as they occupied different ecological niches.

This model supports the meeting of farmers worshipping the Vanir with herders worshipping the Aesir, and the subsequent merger of the two. It is even possible that the Giants were a memory of the hunter-gatherers. While some Giants were large of stature, many seem not to have been and intermarried with both Aesir and Vanir. While the Vanir gradually disappeared from the Norse consciousness (perhaps fading into the elves, diser, huldra, tomtar, and other spirits who surrounded the farmers), the Giants continued to live alongside the Aesir, just as the hunter-gatherers continued to live separate from the farmer/herder population.

So, as in many other places (from Cain and Abel to the Hutus and Tutsis) the conflict of the Vanir and Aesir may well have been one of farmers vs herders, and its resolution may reflect a central theme of Norse religion, the attempt to replace chaos with order. It is also possible that the relatively strong position of some women in pre-Christian Norse society reflects how the patriarchal Indo-Europeans were influenced by the farmers and their Vanir goddesses like Nerthus and Freya.

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