Norse gods, worshiped by the Vikings, were divided into two factions: the Aesir and the Vanir. Stories often pit them against each other and against the Jötnar (giants). In some stories, “Aesir” refers to the entire pantheon of Norse gods and goddesses, Aesir and Vanir alike.
Many of the Aesir are the typical Norse Gods people often think about. Odin, Thor, Heimdall, Loki, and Baldur are ones you might be familiar with through their modern-day, cinematic depictions. The Aesir live in Asgard. One of their goals is to bring order into the universe. This puts them at odds with the Jötnar, who want to return the universe to its more chaotic state.
The Vanir are a more mysterious group. They live in Vanaheim and mastered Seidr, a black art that was used to change destinies and fates. The Vanir warred with the Aesir, and in order to ensure future peace, they sent Njord and his children, the goddess Freyja and her twin brother Freyr, to live in Asgard.
Freyja, a vanir, was one of the most powerful users of Seidr. She is said to be able to match Odin and Thor in power. When her family came to Asgard, the Aesir adopted them as members of the tribe. Odin and the rest of the Aesir asked Freyja to teach them the ways of Seidr. The Aesir respected Freyja enough that she gets first choice of which warriors, fallen in battle, will live in her afterlife realm of Folkvang.
The Jötnar live in Jotunheim. Many people translate the word “Jötnar” as “giants.” The translation is somewhat inaccurate as many of the Jötnar were the same size as human beings, but translations are often imperfect and it is common in English translations to see Thor and the Aesir gods fighting against giants. According to Norse legends, Odin and Thor are half Jötunn on their mother’s sides.
Different stories portray Loki as either Aesir or Jötunn though most cast him as having a Jötunn father and an Aesir mother. Loki takes his mother’s name and identifies himself as “Loki Laufeysson,” which may signify his loyalty to the Aesir.
Do you have a Norse topic or question about Viking history that you’d like to learn more about? Leave us a comment below and we’ll write about some of the more popular ideas in an upcoming post.