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.
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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.
Meanwhile, Asgard and Midgard are separated by the realm of elves, Álfheimr, while Midgard and Hel are separated by the world of dwarves, Svartálfaheimr. One can see how the shifting of one world can affect the placements of others.
Yggdrasil with one interpretation of world placement. ( CC BY SA )
Vanaheimr as a More Modern Realm
There is no right or wrong when it comes to the placement of the nine worlds. However, it can cause a headache when one is attempting to read the Norse sagas and make geographic sense of them. Further, no discussion of the realm of the Vanir would be complete without destroying the three aforementioned theories entirely.
It has been proposed by modern scholars that Vanaheimr was the creation of the 13th century Christian scribe who wrote down the oral myths that preceded him by a couple thousand years. Snorri Sturluson, to whom many are grateful for preserving the tales of the Old Norse, altered some of the myths to fit them into a mindset which Christian readers could understand. It has therefore been proposed that Vanaheimr's difficulty to situate within the nine worlds, and the utter lack of description of the world, might indicate that Snorri added it to the Norse pot in the 13th century.
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1890s illustration of Snorre Sturluson by Christian Krogh. ( Public Domain )
While this author does not believe this to be the case, it would be a research flaw not to mention the prevalence of this latter theory.
The Importance of the Vanir
The precise nature of the realm of the nature gods might remain a mystery, however the importance of its people, the Vanir, is unquestionable. The war between the Vanir and Æsir is definitely recounted by the volva, a female seer, in the sagas, indicating that regardless of where the Vanir lived prior to and after the war, the Vanir themselves have always been as important in Old Norse mythology as the Æsir.
An engraving showing two völvas (seeresses) (1893) by Carl Larsson. ( Public Domain )
Further, temples with a strong Vanir presence have been recorded throughout history—most notably by Adam of Bremen. Found at the site of the Temple of Uppsala, the largest known worship site of the Norse gods, bits of gold foil depicting the Vanir gods Freyr, Freyja, and Njord indicate a prevalence of their worship at one of the most important ancient worship centers. Therefore, despite an uncertainty of the initial homeland of the Vanir, their prevalence in the mortal world is undeniable.
A woodcut depicting the Temple of Uppsala, as described by Adam of Bremen. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Artist’s representation of Vanaheimr. Source: Fair Use
Andren, Anders. 2014. Tracing Old Norse Cosmology: The World Tree, Middle Earth and the Sun in Archaeological Perspectives (Vagar Till Midgard). Nordic Academic Press.
Davidson, Hilda Ellis. 1993. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Routledge.
Kellogg, Robert and Jane Smiley (eds.) 2001. The Sagas of the Icelanders . Penguin Classics.
Murphy, G. Ronald. 2013. Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North . Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Simek, Rudolf. 2007. Dictionary of Norse Mythology . (trans. Angela Hall.) DS Brewer: Suffolk, England.
Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda . (trans. Jesse L. Byock, 2006.) Penguin Classics.
Unknown. The Poetic Edda. (trans. Lee M. Hollander, 1986.) University of Text Press.