Gods Of The Ancient Northmen
Until his death, Georges Dumezil was the guiding light of the study of Indo-European civilizations. He taught at the College de France for many years, directed the Section des Sciences Religieuses of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes of the Sorbonne, and by the time he was elected to the Academie Francais in the fall of 1978, Dumezil had extended his influence worldwide. In essence, Dumezil's work effects a "paradigm shift" in the study of Indo-European mythology. Earlier scholars worked from a narrowly philological paradigm. Dumezil supplemented this approach with insights derived from functionalist sociology. His concern was not with isolated pieces but with systems. At its simplest, his basic idea is that Indo-European peoples share a "tripartite ideology"; they tend to think in specific groups of three. Dumezil postulated that initially Indo-European society was arranged hierarchically into three distinct groups: priests, warriors, and herder-cultivators. Corresponding to each group was a specific function: sovereignty, physical (primarily military) prowess, and sustenance. Furthermore, each group was represented collectively by gods and goddesses who shared its function. The hierarchical division of society has been preserved only in India (the upper three varnas, or classes), but its effects are widespread in the mythologies and religions of Indo-European peoples, and occasionally, as at Rome, in their accounts of their histories as well. Some scholars have always disputed Dumezil's theories. The most notable, recent critic has been British archaeological theorist Colin Renfrew. In the last few years, Dumezil, like many of his generation, has also been criticized for his politics.
Gods of the Ancient Northmen
The Norse gods belong to two major clans: Æsir and Vanir. Odin, Frigg, Thor, Loki, Balder, Hod, Heimdall and Tyr are the most elevated representatives of Æsir and are known as the main gods. The second clan, Vanir, contains the fertility gods and count Njord, Freyr, and Freyja as their most notable members. Despite the antagonism between them, it was necessary for the two families to combine their powers and ideals for all to prosper.
The supreme deity of Norse mythology and the greatest among the Norse gods was Odin, the Allfather of the Aesir. He was the awe-inspiring ruler of Asgard, and most revered immortal, who was on an unrelenting quest for knowledge with his two ravens, two wolves and the Valkyries. He is the god of war and, being delightfully paradoxical, the god of poetry and magic. He is famous for sacrificing one of his eyes in order to be able to see the cosmos more clearly and his thirst for wisdom saw him hang from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nine nights until he was blessed with the knowledge of the runic alphabet. His unyielding nature granted him the opportunity to unlock numerous mysteries of the universe.
Freyr was the god of fertility and one of the most respected gods for the Vanir clan. Freyr was a symbol of prosperity and pleasant weather conditions. He was frequently portrayed with a large phallus.
The Vanir are one of the two groups of gods in Norse mythology, the other being the comparatively better-known Aesir. However, while Aesir is occasionally used as a blanket term to describe all Norse deities, Vanir is not. It refers to an explicitly separate sub-section of the pantheon, with ties to fertility, sexuality, and worldly prosperity (which, in turn, is a dramatic divergence from the general Norse mythological obsession with raiding, battle, and physical prowess). The term "vanir" likely derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *wen, which is related etymologically "to words in other [Indo-European] languages meaning 'pleasure' or 'desire.'" The best known members of the Vanir are Njord, Freyr, and Freyja.
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates three separate "clans" of deities: the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. The distinction between Aesir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried and reigned together after a prolonged war. In fact, the most significant divergence between the two groups is in their respective areas of influence, with the Aesir representing war and conquest, and the Vanir representing exploration, fertility and wealth. The Jotun, on the other hand, are seen as a generally malefic (though wise) race of giants who represented the primary adversaries of the Aesir and Vanir. The gods (both Aesir and Vanir), though immortal, were somewhat more "perishable" than their Indo-European brethren. Not only was their eternal youth maintained artificially (through the consumption of Iðunn's golden apples), they could also be slain (for instance, many were preordained to perish at the cataclysmic battle of Ragnarök).
The multifarious forms of interaction between the Aesir and the Vanir present an oft-addressed conundrum for scholars of myth and religion. Unlike other polytheistic cultures, where families of gods were typically understood as "elder" or "younger" (as with the Titans and the Olympians of ancient Greece), the Æsir and Vanir were portrayed as contemporary. The two clans fought battles, concluded treaties, and exchanged hostages. Given the difference between their roles/emphases, some scholars have speculated that the interactions between the Aesir and the Vanir reflect the types of interactions that were occurring between social classes (or clans) within Norse society at the time.
According to another theory, the Vanir (and the fertility cult associated with them) may be more archaic than that of the more warlike Aesir, such that the mythical war may mirror a half-remembered religious conflict. Another historical perspective is that the inter-pantheon interaction may be an apotheosization of the conflict between the Romans and the Sabines. Finally, the noted comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade speculated this conflict is actually a later version of an Indo-European myth concerning the conflict between and eventual integration of a pantheon of sky/warrior/ruler gods and a pantheon of earth/economics/fertility gods, with no strict historical antecedents.
The Poetic Edda suggests a possible identification between the Vanir with the elves (Alfar), frequently interchanging "Aesir and Vanir" and "Aesir and Alfar" to mean "all the gods." As both the Vanir and the Alfar were fertility powers, the interchangeability suggest that the Vanir may have been somehow associated with the elves. It may also be that the two groups reflected a difference in status, where the elves and the Vanir were minor and major fertility (respectively). This identification is further attested to by un-elaborated connection between Freyr and Álfheim (the world of the elves), which is described in the Eddic Poem Grimnismol:
Further, the gods Njörd and Freyr appear in Snorri's Ynglinga saga as euhemerized Kings of Sweden. For this reason, their mythological descendants on the Swedish throne could also be called Vanir. They include:
The Viking Age was a period of considerable religious change in Scandinavia. Part of the popular image of the Vikings is that they were all pagans, with a hatred of the Christian Church, but this view is very misleading. It is true that almost the entire population of Scandinavia was pagan at the beginning of the Viking Age, but the Vikings had many gods, and it was no problem for them to accept the Christian god alongside their own. Most scholars today believe that Viking attacks on Christian churches had nothing to do with religion, but more to do with the fact that monasteries were typically both wealthy and poorly defended, making them an easy target for plunder.
We know rather more about the stories associated with the pagan gods. Besides occasional references in early poems, these stories survived after conversion because it was possible to regard them simply as myths, rather than as the expression of religious beliefs. The main sources of evidence are the Eddas, wonderful literary works which represent the old pagan beliefs as folk tales. Even here there is some Christian influence. For example, the chief god Odin was sacrificed to himself by being hanged on a tree and pierced in the side with a spear, and this was followed by a sort of resurrection a few days later - a clear parallel with Christ's crucifixion.
Even so, the Eddas provide a huge amount of information about the sir (gods), and their relationship with giants, men and dwarfs. The most powerful god was the one-eyed Odin, the Allfather, god of warfare, justice, death, wisdom and poetry. Probably the most popular god, however, was Thor, who was stupid but incredibly strong. With his hammer Miollnir, crafted by the dwarfs, he was the main defender of the gods against the giants. He was also the god of thunder, and he was particularly worshipped by seafarers. Amulets of Thor's hammer were popular throughout the Viking world. The brother and sister Frey and Freyja, the god and goddess of fertility, were also important, and there were many other minor gods and goddesses.
Detail from the stone cross (below) The great enemies of the gods were the giants, and there were often conflicts between the two races. Among the gods, only Thor was a match for the giants in strength, so the gods usually had to rely on cunning to outwit the giants. Odin himself was capable of clever tricks, but whenever the gods needed a really cunning plan, they turned to the fire-god Loki. Like fire, which can bring necessary warmth or cause great destruction, Loki did many things that benefited the gods, but he also caused them great harm, and often the problems he solved had been caused by his mischief in the first place.
A stone cross from the Isle of Man showing Odin (with raven) fighting the Fenris wolf at the time of Ragnarok Despite the tension between gods and giants, there was a fair amount of contact on an individual basis, and a number of the gods had relationships with giantesses. One of these was Loki, who had three monstrous children by his giantess wife. His daughter Hel became ruler of the underworld. One son, Jormunagund, was a serpent who grew so large that he stretched all the way around the earth. The other son was Fenris, a wolf so powerful that he terrified the gods until they tricked him into allowing himself to be tied up with a magical chain which bound him until the end of time. 041b061a72