Norse Mythology: The War Between the Aesir and the Vanir
In Norse myth and legend, there were two separate tribes of gods, each representing different facets of life and of the natural world. The Aesir, who made their home in Asgard, were gods of war who were also said to rule the sky. The Vanir, on the other hand, represented wealth and prosperity, as well as fertility, and were believed to be gods of the land and sea.
While the line between these two very different tribes would eventually blur, as the Aesir and the Vanir began to merge into a single pantheon, there are stories which hint at a period of tension which preceded this peaceful co-existence. In one particular instance, this tension even escalated into an all-out war between the two tribes. The story of this conflict can be found in fragments, in a variety of sources. It is a story which can be found referenced in both The Poetic Edda and The Prose Edda, as well as Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla. By putting the pieces together, though, it is possible to present these fragments as a complete story.
Said to the the world's first war, the catalyst for this conflict was a mysterious woman named Gullveig—a practitioner of a form of magic known as seidr who had a strong association with the Vanir goddess, Freyja (or, who may even have been an identity assumed by the goddess, herself. This is something left open to interpretation). Gullveig had taken to traveling the land, offering her services to whoever may have needed them—and, her efforts eventually drew the attention of the Aesir. Rather than being impressed, though, the Aesir found Gullveig's magical abilities to be offensive to their sensibilities.
The exact reasons for this may have varied, somewhat. Some among the Aesir may have feared Gullveig's magic, believing it to be a corruptive influence. In Odin's case, though, it seems just as likely that he was offended by the idea of someone possessing power and knowledge that he did not.
Whatever their reasoning may have been, the Aesir quickly resolved to have Gullveig killed. Stabbing at her with their spears, they cast her body onto a fire to let it be consumed by the flame. Moments later, though, Gullveig was reborn—returned to life and entirely unharmed by the Aesir's efforts. The Aesir, themselves, were understandably shocked by this development. They cast her body into the flames once more, only for Gullveig to be restored to life a second time.
Not quite ready to give up, the Aesir made one final attempt on Gullveig's life. Though, at this point, they were likely more resigned than shocked when Gullveig emerged from the flames once more, entirely unharmed.
At this point, the Aesir were forced to accept that killing Gullveig was entirely beyond their power. Admitting defeat, they resolved to let her go. But, the Vanir were not so willing to forgive and forget when they heard of this attempt on the life of a woman who may actually have been one of their own. Believing that the Aesir should be forced to answer for their crime, the Vanir demanded that the Aesir should offer some form of tribute. Odin's response came in the form of a spear flung at the Vanir, and war was officially declared.
The war between the two tribes of gods was a long and brutal one. It was also a war in which neither side was ever truly able to gain the upper hand over the other. The Vanir were able to breach the massive wall that protected Asgard, but the Aesir were able to drive them back. As gods of war, the Aesir were naturally well-suited to direct conflict. But, the Vanir were able to counter with more subtle tactics, and the use of magic (Freyja was, after all, also believed to have been the one to teach the magic of seidr to mortals). As this stalemate continued, both the Aesir and the Vanir began to grow weary with a conflict that seemed to have no end in sight. Eventually, the two tribes felt compelled to call a truce.
In order to preserve this tentative peace, the Aesir and the Vanir also agreed to an exchange of hostages. The Vanir sent Njord, the Vanir god of the sea, along with his two children, Frey and Freyja. In return, the Aesir sent Hoenir, a god about whom little is known (though, in a poem found in The Poetic Edda, he is stated to be one of the gods who helped Odin create the first humans), and Mimir, who was believed to possess great knowledge and wisdom.
For the Aesir, this proved to be a positive exchange. Odin, in particular, benefited a great deal when he was finally given the opportunity to learn the secrets of seidr for himself, with Freyja as his tutor. The Vanir, meanwhile, were left feeling as though they had been slighted. For all the talk of Hoenir's value, it quickly became apparent that he was actually rather slow-witted, and that he was completely incapable of offering any valuable advice without Mimir to guide him.
In retaliation for this perceived insult, the Vanir cut Mimir's head from his body, which they then sent back to Odin. Odin responded by embalming the severed head of Mimir and speaking charms that restored the head to life, so that Mimir could continue to provide wisdom and insight. While this rather overt act of aggression could have very easily been enough to spark a second war between the Aesir and the Vanir, both tribes were still too weary from the first conflict. So, the truce between the two tribes held.
© 2019 Dallas Matier