The Æsir as depicted in Norse Gods and Giants, a popular children’s introduction to the Norse legends written and illustrated by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire, published in 1967 and reissued as D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths in 2005.
The Æsir (AY-sear, ice-ear, or ey-sir) are the tribe of Germanic deities who personified the divine, counting Thor, Odin, Frigg, Tyr, and many others among their number.
The name has both a general and specific meaning. Generally, the name refers to all those deities worshipped by the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples. But Æsir is also used in more specific instances to distinguish between the tribe of Odin and Thor and another tribe, the Vanir, who included among their number Freyr, Freya, and Njord. Following a great war between these tribes, the two divine tribes were integrated and worshipped as equals, so that Freyr and Freya of the Vanir became venerated as equals in stature among the Æsir.
As I’ve explained with respect to Thor and his mother Jörð previously, the Æsir are part of a polytheistic worldview quite different from today’s monotheisms. Pre-Christian Germanic pagans didn’t see the Æsir as incorporeal beings or as characters from stories who were living in a separate domain and occasionally dropped in to see what humans were up to. Instead, they saw divinity as a part of the world rather than as a being separate from the world. Thor was manifest in the clouds and lightning, Freyr and Freya in crops and the harvest, Odin in the runes and the rituals of battle. And so on, through a long list of deities. But these weren’t gods who sat in a space ship and pushed levers to make rain, or guided wars through computer simulations; they were thunder, and war, and poetry, and the divine feminine, and so on. Everything in the universe was divine, from dirt and tree to sun and star, and Germanic polytheism recognized that the ancient cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, flowed through forces much more powerful than humans.
What we call “Norse mythology,” often taken to mean “fun stories from those crazy Vikings,” was focused on tales of the gods engaged in various tasks. While these are tales of beings who walk, talk, and swing hammers, acting in ways familiar to modern readers, they’re also providing rich religious messages, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly. The aspect of the gods as forces of nature is preserved in these tales while also entertaining and often relaying important information. When Thor battles Hrungnir, uses Mjölnir to bless his goats, or faces Jormungand the World Serpent at Ragnarök despite knowing he will fall to the beast, these stories are imparting important lessons about the warrior’s life, religious ceremony, and accepting the inevitable. Because the Æsir are the living embodiment of the forces of nature, their actions in these stories bring the lessons of the poems and stories even closer to the listener, who felt the immediate presence of the gods at all times.
And so when we say that the Æsir lived in a place called Asgard, one of the nine realms of creation connected to one another along the great world tree Yggdrasil, we don’t mean that Asgard is comparable to heaven where God and his angels live, immaterial and watching over from afar. Rather, all these realms are interconnected and intertwined, with the forces of nature, creative and destructive, frost and fire, darkness and light, life and death, all working together to make the cosmos as we see it.
That Thor came to be venerated as one of the most loved among the Æsir is hardly surprising. While Odin was the noble, wise leader of the Æsir and Freyr fundamental to life and reproduction, Thor was the patron of the warrior class and beloved of the common man. Moreover, in his aspect as a personified force of nature, Thor is a powerful, terrible, and awe-inspiring warrior throwing down lightning and rumbling through the sky. While he may not have been visible every day, he certainly could put on a spectacular display.
Perhaps this is why Thor is the only god with a surviving reference as “Asa-Thor”, meaning “Thor of the Æsir”, perhaps even “Thor, representing the Æsir”. While other gods were similarly powerful and notable, Thor alone captured the imagination through the storm, and so when the Vikings needed a hero to fight against the Christian god, they chose Thor and his mighty hammer to represent them.
Or maybe adding “Asa” to “Thor” just fit well in the meter of certain poems.
In any case, the Æsir are far more than a series of names and functions who fill out a dramatis personae in a book, and are yet another way to be reminded that the pre-Christian Germanic peoples thought of the world quite differently than most moderns.