Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Wars of the Gods: Three, The Disruptive Divinities of Magic

The War Between the Vanir and Aesir
Listen and hear of the first war in the nine worlds. When the realms of the tree were but newly formed from the flesh of the giant Ymir, then a goddess came from Vanaheim to the halls of Aesir in Asgard. She was Gullveig, the Golden Power, and she brought with her the strange new arts by which the future could be foreseen and, at times, rewritten. The Aesir gods, amazed at her power, sought to end the might of Gullveig. They pierced her with their mighty spears, then set her flesh to flame. Thrice they burnt her, and thrice they failed and she rose forth yet alive. The Aesir gods called this goddess of the Vanir Heidi. As Heidi she went about the land and, magic knowing, magic worked. Wolf-tamer, prophetess, a wonder onto the Aesir she was and they feared the aid and power she granted to the women who learned the magical arts from her. So they tried to destroy her and failed. 

The War Between the Vanir and Aesir
 Then her kindred, the Vanir, met in the halls of Vanaheim to debate how the wrongs the Aesir did onto their kinswoman should be repaid. War broke forth amongst the gods and Vanir marched on Asgard and, though Odin cast his mighty spear against the rulers of Vanaheim, the walls of the Aesir stronghold were breached and Asgard was conquered by the Vanir. Thus was the first war begun and ended, with Odin and his people defeated. From this first war a wise peace was forged. It was decided that the Aesir and Vanir would exchange captives and the two divine families would become as one. To the Vanir, the Aesir sent the great chieftain Hoenir and the wise Mimir. To the Aesir, the Vanir sent the rich and noble Njord and his son Freyr and daughter Freyja. Both families, in becoming one, were enriched by this. And to seal the agreement all the gods and goddesses, whether Vanir or Aesir, combined their spit and from it rose the new god of poetry and wisdom, Kvasir, the source of the Mead of Poetry. So, too, the art of magic came to the Aesir gods and the rarest art of all, of prophecy, came to Odin the All-Father. 

This is a rough retelling of the Norse story of the war between two families of gods, the Vanir and Aesir, as it is found mainly in the Elder and Prose Eddas. It is presented as one of the first events following the formation of the Nine Worlds and is clearly of preeminent cosmic importance. Out of this first war amongst the gods we have the birth of poetry and the bringing of magical power and prophecy to Odin and his family. It is rather striking how much of the Norse legends that follow these events would revolve around Odin's hunt for further prophetic wisdom in order to better understand and postpone or avoid the cataclysmic end of the gods in Ragnarok. Yet all of Odin's later achievements would not be possible without, first, this uniting of the Vanir and Aesir.   

But what, really, was this war about? Who was it really between? What do the two families of gods represent? Who are the Vanir and Aesir and why are they different? It can be interpreted along the lines of my previous post about the Greek divine wars, in terms of a battle between the heavily female Vanir and the generally masculine Aesir. A great essay pursuing these lines can be found at Maria Kvilhaug's website on Norse Mythology under the title Burn the Witch! - The Initiation of the Goddess and the War of the Aesir and the Vanir. The interpretations I would like to pursue, however, lead in a different direction.

Warring Gods, Warring Cultures

It is fairly hard to deny that, despite the frequently overlooked importance of the Vanir, the primary gods of the Norse were the Aesir. Their central stories were the stories of Odin, Thor, Loki and Baldur. This sets up, then, the basic direction I would like to go in with my current investigation. The war of the Aesir and Vanir was a war of the Norse primary pantheon with another pantheon. Considering the basic and ancient nature of the Vanir/Aesir unity, we can presume that the story of their war represents a conflict at the very beginning of Norse culture between their gods and the Vanir, the gods of an older culture with whom the Norse conflicted and to some extent blended.

While the Aesir tended to be warrior figures, the Vanir tended to be associated with nature, fertility, the sea, the harvest and, of course, magic. This tended to reflect in the Vanir receiving greater reverence from two main groups of people within Norse culture, the farmers and the volva. The volva were wise-women on the model of the goddess Gullveig/Heidi. They were the mistresses of magic and prophecy who were revered and frequently rewarded for the use of their gifts. It is the image of the volva, empowering women and the common people, who so threatens the Aesir rulership in the story of Gullveig's torture and attempted murder.

We might, then, envision the story of the war of the gods as presenting a war between an invading warrior culture and a sea-faring, agricultural society with a strong tradition of magic and female magic-workers. A glance at history reveals that much of the territory occupied by the Norse was either previously dominated by the Celts or was bounded by territory the Celts dominated. It is also fairly clear that the Celts were an older culture than the Norse. This leads to a very interesting line of speculation, that the Celts are the origin of Norse magic and female prophecy or, indeed, the practice of prophecy generally.

Magic, Friendship, Freedom, Love

This is, of course, speculation but it becomes, perhaps, a bit more than that when we look into the unexpected history of the relationship between the words Free and Friend with the war between the Vasir and Aesir. Free and Friend derive from the same root, a root meaning Love that shows up as Frja in Old Norse. It is very interesting for any number of reasons to consider that Free, Friend and Love all share a deep conceptual and linguistic origin and meaning. But for our purposes it is just as interesting to notice that the names of the two most important Vanir hostages sent to the Aesir, Freyr and Freyja, derive from the root frja for love/free. In the names of this god and goddess the root frja comes to mean "Lord" and "Lady". The real interesting point in this linguistic maze arises when we realize that the Old Norse root frja is thought to be of Celtic origin, and is one of the remaining artifacts of the Celtic/Norse interaction. In a very real sense the two prominent Vanir, the Lord and Lady of the Vanir, have Celtic names!

Our line of speculation runs, then, to the conclusion that with the entrance of the Vanir into the Norse pantheon we witness the entrance of a nature-focused magical Celtic culture into the warrior culture of the Norse (which is not, of course, to downplay the Celt's own warrior nature but, with the Celts, we are dealing with a much longer history and wider-spread culture than we face with the smaller population and shorter lived aspect of Norse history). I am, of course, risking idealizing Celtic culture but along with the birth of poetry from the Celtic union with the Norse might come as well the concepts of love, friendship and freedom in their unique relationship that remains with us, if buried and forgotten, in English.

As a magician I can't help but be thrilled that, in one culture at least, the birth of poetry and magic went hand in hand with an increase in the power of women and the centrality of the concepts of love, friendship and freedom. 

The Goddess Freyja

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