Near the beginning of mythological time in the Germanic Pagan cosmology, a war erupted between the Æsir and the Vanir, two tribes of competing gods with noticeably different functions. While I’ve covered this war tangentially previously, the war has immense repercussions and is fundamental to the understanding* not only of mythological figures such as Odin and Freyja, but also aids in understanding the pre-Christian Germanic worldview.
The war is attested most thoroughly in the Eddic poem Voluspa and in two prose accounts from scholar Snorri Sturluson, one in Ynglinga Saga and the other from Skaldsaparmal. The prose accounts conflict but we know that Snorri was not attempting to preserve or transmit the ancient culture so much as use it as a teaching tool in writing poetry, song, and story; it’s also possible that the accounts came to him in multiple forms and we simply don’t have access to all of them.
Here’s Voluspa; I’ll paraphrase Snorri in a moment:
- The war I remember, | the first in the world,
When the gods with spears | had smitten Gollveig,
And in the hall | of Hor had burned her,
Three times burned, | and three times born,
Oft and again, | yet ever she lives.
- Heith they named her | who sought their home,
The wide-seeing witch, | in magic wise;
Minds she bewitched | that were moved by her magic,
To evil women | a joy she was.
- On the host his spear | did Othin hurl,
Then in the world | did war first come;
The wall that girdled | the gods was broken,
And the field by the warlike | Wanes was trodden.
- Then sought the gods | their assembly-seats,
The holy ones, | and council held,
Whether the gods | should tribute give,
Or to all alike | should worship belong.
The above gives a far more detailed account of the war itself than Snorri does; he focuses more on the peace treaty and the fruit it bears, namely poetry and wisdom.
In Skaldskaparmal, no reason for the war or account of it is given; Snorri simply says that “The gods had a dispute with the folk which are called Vanir, and they appointed a peace-meeting.” The account in Ynglinga Saga is a bit more detailed: Snorri explains that Odin and a great army went to war with the Vanir, the war was long and destructive, and eventually the two sides sought peace to end the destruction. In neither account does Gollveig/Heith or her slaughter factor into the account. We’ll come back to her.
In the account in Skaldskaparmal, Snorri is attempting to explain where the “mead of poetry” comes from, a drink that inspires poets, singers, writers, and those seeking creative inspiration from Bragi, the god of poets. In this part of the Prose Edda, Snorri is treating the existence of the gods as a given, to allow his students, potential poets and storytellers, to understand the forms of poetry. Here, he tells of how the peace between the Aesir and Vanir was established by the gods all spitting into a vat as a sign of their now-mixed fortunes. The gods decided that having a token was not enough and took their combined spittle and shaped it into the form of a man, who they named Kvasir. Being constructed from such a divine ingredient made Kvasir exceptionally wise, perhaps even the most wise being in all the nine realms, and when he made a judgment on a question, all knew that his answer was unassailably true. Kvasir’s story did not end happily: one day a pair of deceitful dwarfs invited them into their home, killed him, mixed his blood with honey, and from this created the mead of poetry.
Snorri tells the story differently in Ynglinga Saga, where his goals are a bit different: he’s attempting to give a detailed explanation of the kings of Norway and how they descended from Odin. Snorri was a Christian, living in Iceland which had converted to Christianity over two hundred years before; he could not allow for the possibility that Odin was a god, but Odin and his kin were still a major feature of Icelandic stories.
In Snorri’s version of the story from Ynglinga Saga, the Aesir and Vanir exchanged hostages as part of the peace settlement to end the war. Among those sent by the Vanir were Kvasir the wise, Njord the rich, and his children by his sister Frey and Freyja. Among those sent by the Aesir were a man associated with Odin named Hoenir, perhaps well-suited to being a chief, and a man among the wisest of all named Mimir. Any more hostages exchanged were not named. The Vanir did in fact appoint Hoenir as their new chieftain, and he relied heavily on the counsel of Mimir. However, the Vanir came to notice that any time a council was held without Mimir’s presence, Hoenir would only reply “Now let others give their advice” when asked to make a judgment on a question of any difficulty. In furious vengeance, the Vanir responded by decapitating Mimir and sending his head back to the Aesir. Not one to waste an opportunity for knowledge, Odin took Mimir’s head, carefully preserved it through magic, and consulted with Mimir for the rest of his days.
I’ll draw your attention to a couple of key features of these stories.
First, in Voluspa, it is very likely that Gollveig/Heith is in fact Freyja – multiple references have pointed this out and this seems to be a tentative consensus among scholars. The evidence is that Freyja is noted for her association with magic, gold (“Heith” seems to be a reference to brightness or gold), and her association with the Vanir is also notable. Even if a different woman of the Vanir, Gollveig is the introduction of magic into the lives of the Aesir – notice how they react.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that Voluspa draws explicit attention to the ways in which gods are worshipped – these sorts of references are often more subtle. Here, in stanza 23, Odin’s spear is thrown over the host of gods at war, and we know this is a way in which tribute to Odin was made in his role as war god, sanctifying the blood spilled in his name. In stanza 24, as the gods discuss the peace, they talk about how tribute will be divided, most likely among the Aesir and Vanir as a united pantheon, so that the gods of both tribes can continue to be worshipped without either group being forced to die out. And this is alluded to in Ynglinga Saga (see Ch. 4), where it mentions that Njord, Frey, and Freyja, are made priests and priestess of the sacrifice: even in this euhemerized account, Snorri is keeping the inclusion of the Vanir as holy among the Aesir.
And finally, perhaps most importantly, this story is trying to say something about wisdom and divinity. In the purely mythological and divine account in Skaldskaparmal, Snorri tells us that the mead of poetry is made from the blood of a being created from the spittle of the gods: divine inspiration is a permanent byproduct of this first war. But of course it’s not so much the war as it is the truce, where all the gods came together in good faith to build a lasting union. A permanent source of wisdom comes from the version of the story presented in Ynglinga Saga as well, but its origins are a bit more bloody, given the decapitation of Mimir. His presence among the Vanir in the first place is a result of peace, but the Vanir’s frustrated murder of him cannot be said to be an act that represents reconciliation .
However, while Kvasir wasn’t murdered by the Aesir or Vanir in the Skaldskaparmal tale, he was eventually murdered by dwarfs, and so it may seem that the moral of the story is that murder is the path to wisdom. I think we can leaven this instinct by remembering that Odin gained great wisdom by sacrificing himself to himself on the tree Yggdrasil, and again by sacrificing his eye to Mimir’s Well in exchange for some of the knowledge contained therein (yes, Mimir being the same Mimir referenced here). To some extent, the intention is to express that a blood sacrifice is required for knowledge, or anything of value. Germanic Pagan ritual required this sort of sacrifice because of this belief, and so it is deeply encoded into mythology, even into accounts like Snorri’s where he is attempting to distance the stories from the religion itself.
But more broadly, the lesson applies even today. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Knowledge comes only with study; power comes from building relationships; health comes from proper diet and exercise; skill in any subject comes with practice and determination. We have learned these lessons, but need the reminders sometimes. That reminder is to some extent the purpose for these stories: to convey the lessons of culture through the archetypal stories of larger-than-life figures. Even when the stories conflict with one another, there’s still a great deal of value to be had in the stories themselves.
* This is another case where I’d like to point out that I’m not an expert in Norse mythology, I’m depending heavily on the work of scholars, and you’d be well-served to read some of the original myths and the scholarship I’m filtering them through yourself. As always, Karl Seigfried and Dan McCoy’s sites are highly recommended. Further understanding of the War of the Gods derived from Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Lindow’s Norse Mythology, and Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology.