Where is Vanaheimr, Land of the Norse Nature Gods?
In a realm of nine worlds, one might assume that the gods would be satisfied with one. One world where they could live away from humans and watch over their antics as one might watch a TV show. In the mythology of the Norse, however, one world for the gods is not enough because the gods themselves are divided. The world of Asgard belongs to the Æsir, the leading tribe of deities, while the home called Vanaheimr belongs to the second tribe of gods, the Vanir. Does this mean that the Vanir are lower than the Æsir? While Odin, Thor, and Loki—big names in modern culture—stem from the Æsir tribe, is there any notable deity from the realm of Vanir?
The short answer to this question is: yes. However, the story is a bit more convoluted than that.
‘The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State’ (1834) by Thomas Cole. ( Public Domain ) Vanaheimr, as the home of the Norse nature gods, may have had an appearance similar to this.
Where is Vanaheimr?
What is Vanaheimr? This is the first of the ambiguous inquiries. A realm of the gods of nature, fertility, and wisdom, it is unmistakable that the medieval sagas and ancient Poetic Edda very strongly indicate that it is a world lesser than that of Asgard. While Asgard is rather definitely placed at the top of the chain of the nine worlds, Vanaheimr's location has long been contested.
- The Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology
- Njord: The Tumultuous Marriage of a Norse God of the Sea and a Goddess Giantess
- Return of the Ancient Gods: The Resurgence of Paganism
An attempt to illustrate Norse cosmology by Henry Wheaton (1831). ( Public Domain )
Leading scholar Hilda Ellis Davidson, who has written extensively on ancient religion and the Norse culture in particular, believed Vanaheimr to be located somewhere in or near the underworld. The underworld itself was one of the nine worlds called Hel. While this theory might seem dark and dreary, as the gods of nature, Davidson's theory is not without merit. The world of men was called Midgard, located between Asgard and Hel; thus, Hel would, in fact, be logically closer to the earth of Midgard—the root of its nature. Vanaheimr located below Midgard—as the gods were worshipped by mankind—is a sensible assumption.
Davidson's theory is furthered by the state of the gods who lived in Vanaheimr. Long ago, the Vanir and the Æsir went to war. In fact, the war stretches so far back in history that every oral legend written down from the pre-Christian Scandinavian world begins with the war already ended. The specifics of the war are therefore vague, but the outcome is clear: the Vanir must submit to the Æsir, and three gods of the Vanir will be "hostages" of the Æsir to avoid a second war. These three gods, Freyr, Freyja, and Njord, become so intricately incorporated into Asgard, however, that the "hostage" scenario is as debated as the location of Vanaheimr. Yet the nature of the Vanir is clear—the Æsir came out of the war as the leading group of gods.
1882 illustration by Carl Ehrenberg of the Æsir fighting against the Vanir during the Æsir-Vanir War. ( Public Domain )
Thus, Vanaheimr being situated lower on the totem pole than Asgard, once again, makes a bit of sense. But where else might Vanaheimr be located?
Another theory places Vanaheimr as located in-between. Asgard still reigns above the world, but Vanaheimr is placed above Midgard this time. In a way, one could argue that Vanaheimr serves as an intermediary between the realm of the Æsir and that of men.
A third consideration is rooted in the World Tree, Yggdrasil in ancient Norse cosmology. The world tree is precisely what it sounds like—from its roots, branches, trunk, and leaves stem the nine worlds, all intertwined but none overlapping. Yggdrasil was firmly rooted in Norse mythology, and much of the religion centered on an understanding of its purpose.
Yggdrasil, the world tree. ( CC BY 2.0 )
When utilized to depict the nine worlds, Vanaheimr usually ends up on a branch between Asgard and Midgard, as previously mentioned, but a little off center. While the tree metaphor is pertinent to the pre-Christian north, it somewhat affects geography as there are only so many parts of the tree that can be used for nine different realms. When Vanaheimr is depicted on this sort of map, Vanaheimr often ends up on the same plane as three other realms, usually situated as the four corners of the earth. These realms are that of the giants (Jötunheimr), of fire (Muspelheim), and of ice (Niflheim). (The latter two are sometimes believed to house giants as well.) At the center of this plane is Midgard.