The picture above represents Freya in her cat-drwn chariot. The face seems to me overly soft and classical, and the cupids deinitely belong to a different traditon, but it does get the point across. Freya is a goddess of love, lust, and sex. She is also a goddess of magic, and she shares with Odin the slain in battle. She is a more hot tempered and assertive goddess than one might gather from this picture.
The Vanir are the "other" gods, though the exact nature of that otherness has been the subject of much debate. A widely accepted traditional view is that the Vanir represent the gods of a society the Germanic people conquered and assimilated. Thus we often hear statements to the effect that the Vanir are the older family of gods. Logically, this scenario does not necessarily make the Vanir older, but we have a tendency to think of the conquerers as somehow newer, and the conquered as older. Thus the brief account in the "Volsupa" of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir is seen as a mythic account of an historical event. The appeal of this explanation is its simplicity, and the fact that it turns myth, which is a difficult concept, into historical narrative, which is comparatively easy to grasp. Like most explanations which are simple and convenient, however, this one is probably wrong. In the first place, there is no evidence of any non-Germanic group worshipping the Vanir. For another, the Vanir do not form a logical pantheon of gods. Instead of serving various functions, the Vanir all serve largely the same function. Collectively, they are associated with the sea, the winds, fertility, prosperity, wealth, agriculture, and death and rebirth. Their rites tend to the sexual, and all of them are associated with incest. It is far more likely that the Germanic people in their various wars and wanderings after leaving the Indo-European homeland tended to lose much of the agricultural element in their religion. Then when they became more settled to have begun to re-emphasise it so that an alternate religious tradition grew up among them not clearly connected to the worship of the Aesir. Over time these elements became incorporated. Thus the war between the Aesir and the Vanir takes place in mythic time, not at some point in human history. And, if we must say that either group is older, it is probably the Aesir rather than the Vanir. Since the basic elements of religion reach into the remote and unknowable past, however, it is better not to say such things at all.
Our accountof the war between the Aesir and the Vanir implies that it was indecisive, since it ends with an exchange of hostages, three important Vanes, Njord, Frey, and Freya, going to the Aesir, and becoming full-fledged members of the Aesir community. In the end it is only the hostage Vanir that we hear much about, however. Who else lives in Vanaheim? Below is a list of Vanir divinities. I will include any others if any more are pointed out to me. Since so many Asatruar hail both the Aesir and the Vanir it would be good to collect as much information about the latter group as we can.
Njord was apparently a commanding figure among the Vanir. There are numerous place names associated with him on the coasts of Norway, and in agricultural areas of Sweden. He is said to have had his sister as wife when he lived among the Vanir, but to have given the relationship up when he went to the Aesir as hostage with his two children by her, Frey and Freya. Once there he marries the mountain and winter goddess, Skadi, and though she had wanted Baldur, and had picked Njord on the basis of his attractive feet, the relationship seems to have been happy enough, except for their incompatible tastes in environments. This ultimately led to a friendly separation. Njord seems to be an easy-going adaptable god, willing to adapt his behavior to his environment. That his sexual attitudes did not truly change is shown by Loki's accusation that Freya had slept with all the Aesir, including her brother, Frey. Njord defends her, not by denying her promiscuity, but by claiming that it is no big deal. He is a sea god, but not especially the god of the deep and deadly ocean--those belong to Aegir and Ran. He is more connected with islands and harbors, trade and fishing, and the friendly winds that make these activities possible. He is also a god of the fertility of the land. He does not have a lot of followers today, and does not seem to often seek people out, though those who have had dealings with him universally claim that he is helpful and friendly. His two unsolicited visits to my wife seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
Frey, or Freyr (Ing in Germany) is the son of Njord, and has many of the same attributes. He is said to be the ruler of the light elves, who are probably the spirits of nature equivalent to nyads and dryads of Greek tradition. The boar the artist, has placed beside the god is one of his sacred animals, and appropriate to a god of fertility. Another is the horse. In Hrafenkel's Saga, the whole action is set off by a horse sacred to Frey that no one was permitted to ride. Frey was very popular throught the Germanic world, and several royal families claimed him as an ancestor. At Uppsula, the great Heathen religious center in Sweden, he was one of the three principle gods, along with Odin and Thor. The best known representation of Frey from Viking times is a small metal seated figure with a conical hat, and a very large, erect phallus, a figure that the Romans would have called "Priapus." He is particularly associated with peace, and Njord says of him (Auden's translation). "Frey is the best of all bold riders/ In the golden courts of the gods,/ Never dallies with maidens, nor men's wives,/ but frees all from their fetters. In spite of this good report, however, Frey's servant, Skirnir uses rather heavy-handed tactics to get the giantess, Gerd to accept Frey as a husband. The marriage appears to have been a success however, and he and Gerd produce on son, Fiolnir. Skirnir, for his services, was given Freyr's sword, which could kill giants on its own, a very serious sacrifice with Ragnarok approaching. Frey is also the owner of a ship that can sail over both land and water and be folded up and put in the pocket, and of Gullinbursti, a golden-bristled boar which is a sun image.
He is killed at Ragnarok by Surt, the fire giant.
I am very fond of this cute little goddess, but she is not really Freya; this is one of Arthur Rackham's illustrations for Wagner's Ring Cycle, in which Wagner combines her with Iduna, and makes her a demure 19th century woman. The picture below is less memorable, but is a little closer, though Freya is usually pictured as blonde and blue eyed. Here Freya beside a flower-girt stream is admiring the Brisingamen, the fabulous necklace she got from the four dwarves who made it by agreeing to sleep a night with each of them. Freya is the sister of Frey and one of the three Vanir hostages among the Aesir. She is a goddess of beauty, love, sex, and fertility. She is also a goddess of magic, and is said to have taught Odin the art of seithr. She is also a battle goddess, and claims half the slain, though whether the first half is hers or Odin's is not clear. To find her equivalent among the Greeks one would have to combine Aphrodite with Athena, though she is neither as vindictive, nor as abstractly intellectual as Athena. One might compare her to the Sumerian Inanna, but ultimately she is Freya, not like anyone else, and certainly not some generalized archetype of female nature to be thrown into a grab bag of goddess, most known only by their names, as so many non-Asatru pagans are wont to do. Her husband's name is Od, and we know little about him, though one of the eddaic poems gives him a grand list of ancient ancestors. Their affectionate relationship ended when Od left her over her various love affairs, but not before she produced two daughters, Gersemi and Hnoss.
Though not vindictive, she has a temper to be reckoned with, as is shown by the explosion produced when Thor told her she had to marry a giant so he could get his hammer back. Boars are sacred to her, as they are to her brother. It was said that she was the last of the Norse divinities to retain a following in Iceland after Christianity, and she remains very popular today, having many followers, though not always considered the most gentle divinity to deal with. In this respect she is rather different than her laid-back father.
Nerthus was, apparently, at one time a very important goddess, though our only source for her is Tacitus. Quite possibly the number of fertility divinites in Germanic tradition that we know almost nothing about is the result of the incorporation of Njord, Frey and Freya into the Aesir after a great expansion in the fertility element in Germanic religion reflected in the story of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir. These three divinities took on all the Vanir elements and integrated them in the Aesir cosmology, while the rest of Vanic worship withered. According to Tacitus, Nerthus was a principle divinity of six Germanic tribes, including the Angles, and so she represented no small, local cult. According to Tacitus, she is Terra Mater (Mother Earth), though the tribes that were her principle worshippers were near the sea, and the seat of her cult was on an island, suggesting a connection with the sea as well. Here is Tacitus' account:
On an island in the sea stands an inviolate grove, in which, veiled with a cloth,
is a chariot that none but the priest may touch. The priest can feel the presence
the goddess in this holy of holies, and attends her with deepest reverence as her
chariot is drawn along by cows. Then follow days of rejoicing and merrymaking
in every place that she condescends to visit and sojourn in. No one goes to war,
no one takes up arms; every iron object is locked away. . . . After that, the
chariot, the vestments, and (believe it if you will) the goddess herself, are cleansed
in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately
afterward drowned in the lake. (Germania, 40, from The Agricola and the
Germania, trans. by H. Mattingly. Penguin, 1970.)
Though Tacitus has proven generally reliable, the fate of the slaves is further verified by many bodies from this early and earlier recovered from peat bogs in Denmark. The chariot or cart preambulation is characteristic of spring fertility ritual, and the forbidding of weapons and strife is reminiscent of another Vanir divinity, Frey. It is widely supposed in the Asatru community that Nerthus is the sister-wife that Njord left when he went to the Vanir, and is therefore the mother of Frey and Freya. The assumption is logical, harmonious, and satisfying, and raises no troublesome issue, and so, why not? Nerthus does not play a major role in modern Asatru, but recieves more consideration now than in the era of Snorri, Saxo, and the saga writers.
Here again Tacitus is our chief source, though here there is further confirmation, though it is somewhat fragmantary. To quote Tacitus:
The Naharvali proudly point out a grove associated with an ancient worship.
The presiding priest dresses like a woman; but the dieties are said to be the
counterpart of our Castor and Pollux. This indicates their character, but their
name is the Alci. There are no images, and nothing to suggest that the cult is
of foreign origin; but they are certainly worshipped as young men and as
brothers. (Tacitus, 43)
The whole matter of the Alci is a complex one, and I have saved it for a separate page, but I do not recommend it to anyone without a certain amount of time and patience. Here is the link.
Gullveig, whose name means something like "thirst for gold" can be fairly quickly summed up. All we know about her is contained in this verse of the "Voluspa":
I have seen the first war the world has known,
When Gullveig with spearpoints was gored by the gods.
Thrice burned in the hall, and thrice reborn--
Lost all their labors; she lives to this day. (my trans.)
Gullveig was sent by the Vanes to Asgard, though for what reason is unclear, perhaps to stir up strife. In any case, the Aesir think she is an evil influence and try unsuccessfully to kill her. Whether sending Gullveig was the provocation, or whether trying to kill her was is not clear, but war breaks out between the gods and Vanes. No shrines, no placenames, and no other story is associated with Gullveig, so it remains unclear whether she is an actual goddess, or some sort of collective spirit of the Vanes. The suggestion that she is actually Freya in disguise seems to me rather gratuitous.
Vana and Vanlandi
This mother and son appear in Snorri's Ynglinga Saga. A Swedish prince named Swedge visits Vanaheim and marries a woman named Vana, later having a son that he names Vanlandi. These two names inspire suspicion; they appear overly generic. The significance of the story may be that Sweden took up Vanic worship in a big way. Note that earlier in the same saga, Snorri tells us that Odin ruled over Sweden until his death, and then was followed by Njord, who was followed by Frey. This idea of Aesir gods being followed by Vanic ones is supported by a stanza in the Volsupa that tells us the Aesir had a choice of going to war or giving up to the Vanes half the sacrificial feasts that they had previously enjoyed alone. The preponderance of evidence, it seems to me, is that it is the Vanes who invade the Aesir, not the other way around, though it is not a matter of ethnic warfare, as most would prefer to make it, but of religious movements. In any case, though Snorri gives us these names, it is doubtful that they contribute anything to our knowledge of the Vanir.
We have a great many names of gods and goddesses from the Germanic world. About half of them can be identified as Aesir. Others are various other things, and some are probably Vanir. Two names that occur to me are Eostre and Nehalennia. Easter is named for the first, and most scholars associate the egg-laying rabbit or hare with her, certainly suggesting a fertility goddess. She has also been associate with the Greek, Eos, goddess of the dawn. (Of course any goddess of the east would be a dawn goddess.) Nehalennia is associated with ships and abundance, but attributes of the Vanir. (For an interesting and attractive account of the latter goddess, see: http://www.anglo-saxon.demon.co.uk/goddesses/pilgrimage/index.html) Both of course would be Vanir, if ultimately Vanir means a god or goddess associated with fertility and prosperity who is not recognized as one of the Aesir. We do not know that Vanir ever meant the sort of interrelated group we have with the Aesir.
Traditionally we have made the natural, but not justified assumption that the Vanir are essentially the same thing as the Aesir, just a different group. That appears to me not to be the case. Rather than the one big extended Jotnar/Aesir family (Which Snorri did not make up, in spite of a number of of mid-twentieth century anthropologists), with the Vanir, we have a great many more or less localized gods. Nerthus is worshipped by a group of adjoining tribes, Njord has numerous place names in certain areas of Norway and Sweden. The Alcis are worshipped in Vandal territory. Only Frey seems to be generally recognized throughout the Germanic cultural area. Rather than recognizing Vanir by who their relatives are, they should be identified by what they represent, and the kind of rites that are performed in their worship. They are associated with the fertility of the land, and also with shipping and trade. Earlier I suggested that the Germanic people became more concerned with agriculture once they had established themselves in productive areas. The same is true of seafaring. The Aesir/Jotnar god of the sea is Aegir, and what the Northern person wanted most from him was not to be drowned. Once they became proficient with ships and saw the potential for wealth from trade and piracy as well as fishing they began to want more from a sea god--favorable winds and a profitable journey. The Vanir developed in response to concern with agriculture and sailing, neither sufficiently represented among the Aesir. (I won't say totally unrepresented.) One of the great values of the Aesir religion was that it helped give some unity to Germanic culture. The person of that time, though, was as much a member of a tribe as of the Germanic people, and the widely shared quality of the Aesir gods detract from their value as tribal gods. Thus a number of gods that we tend to call "minor", are not really that, but rather major gods for a restricted area, as many of the Vanir seem to have been. Of course the disappearance of tribal society in the middle ages no doubt worked against these very important local gods. I would, thus, suggest that Nehalennia is Vanir, because she is an important local divinity associated with the typical Vanir attributes of sailing and abundance. The question of whether she is Germanic or Celtic in origin is a red herring unless one also asserts that only Celts worshipped her, and I don't think anyone is saying that. In short, when W.H. Auden, in the notes to his translation of the Edda says that the Vanir were worshipped on the south coast of the Baltic and were conquered and assimilated by the Germanic people, like the writers he is parroting, he is talking through his hat. The voluspa had it right. The Vanir invaded Asgard, nearly triumphing, but were driven back, peace being made the acceptance of members of the Vanir into the Aesir family.