“The Power of the Vanir”, by H. R. Ellis-Davidson:
The deities known as the Vanir are not easy to define in the northern myths, because of the many divine or semi-divine figures to emerge at different points, and whose relationships to one another are complex in the extreme. Yet in some ways they form a clear-cut and convincing group, because we can see the main characteristics of fertility gods and goddesses from other civilizations and other regions of the world repeated once again in the figures of Frey and Freya and their following. The fertility pattern is a definite one, easy to recognize, at the northern myths that have to do with the Vanir fall into the accustomed forms.
Snorri saw the Aesir and the Vanir has two powerful companies of gods, able to wage war against one another; yet the only names of male deities of the Vanir which are given in his account are Njord and Frey, who were given as hostages to the Aesir when the war was over. Who were the rest of the company of the fighting Vanir? The most likely answer seems to be the vast assembly of gods of fertility from many different localities, of which a few names like Ing, Scyld, and Frodi have come down to us, while many more are utterly forgotten. Frey, the fertility god of the Swedes in the 11th century, and chief deity after Thor in Uppsala when Adam of Bremen was writing, has become the prototype of the male god of fertility in the literature, but behind him there must’ve been a vast host representing the givers of peace and plenty to many tribes and families throughout the northern world. Frey’s name is really a title, meaning ‘Lord’, while Freya meant ‘Lady’. Perhaps in the Lord and Lady of the May Day festivities we are seeing their final manifestation, a last glimpse of the fertility powers, humbled from their once high estate. Similarly, Frodi’s name is an adjective, describing him as ‘a fruitful one’, and the list of Kings called Frodi in Saxo implies that it was a title which many men bore in turn. The male god must not only have appeared in many different localities, but also have been represented by many different men, priests or priest-kings, who impersonated him; although he was also depicted in temples and appeared in the myths in his own right as the great God of the Vanir, the God of the World, give her of peace and plenty.
In some ways the deities of the Vanir are the closest of all the heathen deities to mankind. We have a line of kings, taking it in turn to rule the land and acting as the givers of prosperity if the Vanir favored them in abode with them. We have the seeresses, a link between man and the Vanir, sometimes possibly appearing in the very guise of Frigg and Freya, coming right into men’s homes as the Mothers, or the Parcae or the Givers, to convey the blessings of the goddesses. The Vanir were amoral, in the sense that their province was not to distinguish between good and evil, to bring them the ideals of justice, or to teach them loyalty to one another. They were there to give man the power that created new life and brought increase into the fields, among the animals, and in the home. They brought also the power to link men with the unseen world. Beside the fruits of the earth and the baby in the cradle, their gifts to men included the wise counsels granted through divination, when the goddess spoke through a human mouth. They offered also the collective excitement of the ceremonies when the god revealed his power to men and women gather to worship him and the goddesses.
The gift of life brought by the Vanir was a mysterious and impalpable one, but it was essential to men. Without it, good fortune and victory and prudent rule were worthless and empty things, for if the crops failed and children died or there was no quickening in the womb, the community was doomed and without hope. Every pagan settlement has thus paid some service to the fertility powers, who possessed the ultimate say as to its future, and the people of the North were no exception. If the grudge and soil of the northern lands and the bitter winters and long nights prevented the glorification of the Vanir which might have come with a warmer, more fertile setting, the gift of life which they offered was the more precious because of the precarious conditions in the world that waited to receive it.
To get into touch with these life-giving deities might necessitate strange, even revolting ceremonies. Orgies have always formed part of the fertility cults, and the reason is given by Eliade:
The awakening of an orgy may be compared with the appearance of the green shoots in the field; a new life as beginning, and the orgy has filled men with substance and with energy for that life. And further, by bringing back the mythical chaos that existed before the creation, the orgy makes it possible for creation to be repeated.
Thus the religion of the Vanir was bound to include orgies, ecstasies, and sacrificial rites. In these, and in the turning to the earth and the dead, whose blessing would help to bring the harvest, it can be seen that the Vanir were the rivals of Odin, god of ecstasy and of the dead. It is hardly surprising that the idea of rivalry between the two cults is sometimes implied in the myths, and is symbolized by the tradition of a war between the Aesir and the Vanir. The Vanir also protected men in battle, and they were the gods of royal houses, worship for a long period by the Swedish kings who wore the boar image, and who were believed to be informed for a while by the spirit of the Vanir who possessed them. There seem to have been many who worship them with fervor and devotion, finding their cult nearer, more rewarding and comforting than that of the sky god or the willful god of war. The friendship of the Vanir had none of the treacherous, sliding quality of Odin’s favors, and it extended, like he is, beyond the grave.
The worshipers of the Vanir were very conscious of the earth, and remembered and venerated the dead ancestors who rested within it. The distant kingdom of the sky was not their concern, although beyond the legends of the peace kings the idea of a departure to a land beyond the sea is held out as a promise to men. Indeed there was always a link between the Vanir and the depths of the earth and sea. The chthonic element is present in their worship, and is emphasized in the myths. The Vanir male gods look for brides among the giantesses, and Frey himself looked down into the underworld to find the radiant maiden Gerd to whom he gave his love. The spirits of land and sea are ranged behind the Vanir, and it was they who assisted the seeress in her journeys to the ‘other world’ and helped her to win hidden knowledge. Behind the goddesses of the Vanir is the concept of the Earth Mother, the Great Goddess who gives shelter to us all.