The Nine Realms
9 months, 22 poets and writers, 22 Artists, 3 composers, 1 Viking boat and a magical reworking of Norse Mythology for contemporary audiences
(the realm of the Vanir gods)
Here we are at the beginning of November and with the deadline for the poetry and writing for the first realm Asgard coming up: Thursday 6th November 2014. I shall start to post out pieces created for Asgard next week onwards. This month we are outlining the realm of Vanaheim and the deadline for all writing, poetry and mp3s for this realm is Monday 8th December.
These monthly posts will draw from a range of primary and secondary source materials and focus on selected gods, themes and stories that circle around the highlighted realm. They will not attempt to cover everything, and writers can embrace any other stories and characters within their writing which is not covered. Month by month we will be building our own magical, contemporary norse world whilst exploring the themes of POWER, NATURE and RELIGION. The project’s overall intention is to embrace orality, translation, storytelling and rhythm all of which are inspired by the origins of the oral tradition of the Norse Sagas.
I may well put out little mini-posts intermittently focusing on orality and poetic form as necessary.
What is presented below is designed to inspire, present basic information and offer a starting point for individual creativity within the project inspired by the themes, characters and spirit of the myths and stories.
1. A brief Overview of Vanaheim
Vanaheim is home to the Vanir gods who are associated with magic, fertility and wisdom. It is the realm where Njord (the father of Freyr) was raised. It is a realm which is covered in forests and water, and is populated (amidst others) by nature spirits. There is only one mention of Vanaheim in the Poetic Edda (see below). It is also briefly covered in chapter 1 of Heimskringla (the best known of the Old Norse Kings’ saga): “Van Home or the Home of the Vanir”- described as located around the Don River.
2. The Vanir
The Vanir gods are not as easy to define as the Aesir. They are surrounded by mystery and are more elusive. The Vanir gods are also primarily linked with fertility. They presided over sunshine, crops, rain, and growth. Their season is spring. They are often portrayed in constant conflict with the Aesir. This conflict famously manifests in a hostile war centred around the treatment of a giantess called Gullveig. The Aesir try to kill her, but the Vanir protect her. The conflict comes to an impasse and the gods exchange hostages. Njord, Freyr and Freyja (see below) went to live with the Aesir and Mimir (‘the rememberer’, the wise one) joins the them. This is how Njord moves to Asgard.
‘She that remembers, the first on earth,
when Gullveig they with lances pierced,
and in the high one’s hall her burnt,
thrice burnt, thrice brought forth,
oft not seldom; yet she still lives.
Heidi they called her, whitherso’er she came,
the well-foreseeing Vala:
wolves she tamed, magic arts she knew, magic arts practiced;
ever she was the joy of evil people.’
[translation by Benjamin Thorpe from The Poetic Edda, Völuspá]
nb. You can find the Völuspá here (1936, tr. by Henry Adams Bellows)
Interestingly, the Vanir gods embody many of the traits of fertility gods from other civilisations and regions of the world. As Ellis Davidson says:
‘the fertility pattern is a definite one, easy to recognise, and the northern myths which have to do with the Vanir fall into the accustomed forms’ (124). The Vanir did not distinguish between good and evil in order to bring about justice. Their power lay in the fact they could increase fecundity in nature: in crops, animals and at home. They could also bring about links between man and the unknown. There was an air of mystery connected to the Vanir gods and goddesses that bridges between the known and unknown. Good luck could also be brought through fecundity.
Freyr is Njord’s son and ended up moving from Vanaheim to Asgard as a hostage of war in the first conflict between the Aesir and the Vanir (see above). Freyr gives sunshine, wealth and rain and gives the gifts of peace and plenty. The literal meaning of Freyr is lord. He possesses a ship called the Skíðblaðnir which magically can not only hold all the gods, but can also fold into a pouch. He also has a boar with marvellous golden bristles, and Freyr is said to have come over the sea to rule over men. It is worth noting that there is a close connection between the symbols of boats and the energy governing fertility from the Bronze Age in Scandinavia onwards (Ellis Davidson: 132). Model ships were often given as offerings. There is also a connection between death, ships and the Vanir.
In The Prose Edda Freyr is described as ‘the most splendid of the gods. He controls the rain and the shining of the sun, and through them the bounty of the earth. It is good to invoke him for peace and abundance.’ (tr. Jesse Byock, Section 24, p35).
Freyja is Freyr’s twin sister. She is associated with love and had certain powers over the dead. She drives a chariot drawn by cats and is called the goddess or bride of the Vanir (Ellis Davidson: 125). Freyja has also been closely associated with the world of death. The story in Egil’s Saga confirms her association with death as the hero’s daughter Thorgerda threatens to commit suicide after her brother is killed. ‘I shall take no food until I sup with Freyja’. She is often pictured as a weeping goddess. Her tears are said to be of gold. A necklace is also associated with Freyja: the Brisingamen. A necklace is something that has been associated with the mother goddess from early times. Freyja is also said to take on the shape of a falcon. In such a form she traveled great distances. She is also linked to a particular sort of witchcraft called Seiðr which enabled practitioners to see into the future. She is said to be the first priestess to teach this form of magic to the Aesir. Her magic is generally connected to the coming season and the destinies of those who wished to see into the future. She is fundamentally responsible for the destiny of her community. This form of witchcraft was taken on by various cults and you can see her influence on various sybils through the ages. (119)
“In Vanaheim the wise Powers made him
and gave him as hostage to the gods;
at the doom of men he will come back
home among the wise Vanir.”
You can find the full Lay here.
Njord was married to Skadi (daughter of giant Thjazi) who came from the mountains to marry him, and then, when the marriage unsuccessful, went back to the hills (See story focus below). He is the father of twins Frey and Freyja.
1. The Mead of Poetry, from Chapter 5 the Skáldskaparmál (‘the language of poetry’) of The Prose Edda
This story is seen to be a metaphor for poetic inspiration.
(See p83-87 of The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics, tr. by Jessie Byock)
‘Aegar continued, ‘What is the origin of the accomplishment you call poetry? ‘
The Prose Edda indicates the mead was created when the Vanir and Aesir were at war. They agree to hold a peace meeting and both sides spit into a vat, and in so doing create a man called Kvasir (84). Kavisir travels the world imparting knowledge. He comes upon two dwarves called Fjaalar and Galar who kill Kvasir pouring his blood into vats called Sin and Bodn and into a kettle called Odrerir. The dwarves blend honey with the blood and from this was create the mead that makes ‘whoever drinks it a poet or a scholar’. They trick a giant Gilling into drowning, but before he dies Gilling’s strands the dwarves on a rock. The dwarves offer the poetic mead to his son Suttung by way of compensation. Suttung takes the poetic mead home with him and sets his daughter Gunnlöð to watch over it.
This is why poetry is called ‘Kvasir’s blood’… ‘the drink or intoxication of the dwarves’……’the ship of the dwarves’….’Suttung’s mead’ (84-85).
‘The Aegir said, ‘It seems to me that calling poetry by these names obscures the truth. But how did the Aesir get Suttung’s Mead?’ ‘
Odin eventually ends up with the poetic drink by asking for a drink of the mead in return for doing the work of nine slaves for a giant called Baugi. The story goes that Baugi and Odin (using the name Bolverk) go to Suttung to ask for the Mead and he refuses. They trick Gunnlöð and Odin drains all the mead. Before anyone can get to him he shape-shifts into an eagle. Suttung, changing into an eagle too, takes after him. The Aesir see Odin coming in the shape of an eagle and they put vats out to catch the liquid as Odin spits out the mead. Suttung still chases after him. Evading capture Odin blows some mead out of his rear (which is known as ‘the bad poets’ portion’ (86)) .
‘Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Aesir and to those men who know how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the drink of the Aesir.’
You can find more about Skáldskaparmál here.
2. Njord and Skadi splitting where they live (from Section 23 of Gylfaginning), in The Prose Edda
(See p33-34 Njord and Skadi, The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics, tr. by Jessie Byock)
Njord was brought up in Vanaheim and wanted to live near the sea, but his wife Skadi preferred the mountains. She wanted to live in Thrymheim [Thunder Home] the place which her father had owned. Compromising, they agreed to stay 9 nights in Thrymheim and 3 nights at Noatun
After the 9 nights in the mountains. Njord said:
‘Hateful for me are the mountains
I was not long there,
only nine nights.
The howling of wolves
sounded ugly to me
after the song of swans’
and Skadi said:
‘Sleep I could not
on the sea beds
for the screeching of the bird.
The gull wakes me
when from the wide sea
he comes each morning’
Skadi then decides to return home.
[See the Lay of Grimnir, 11]
3. Skadi Choosing Njord as Her Husband
(See p 82-83 of Skáldskaparmál, The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics, tr. by Jessie Byock)
Skadi, setting out to avenge her father’s death (p82), takes all her weapons of war in order to confront the Aesir. However in order to facilitate a reconciliation they offer the choice of a husband to her, but she must only choose him by his feet. She chooses Njord (who is from Vanaheim) and this does not go down at all well with Baldr (a god of light and purity, son of the god Odin and the goddess Frigg). So they settle upon another condition that the Aesir should also make her laugh. So Loki ties one end of a piece of rope to his testicles and the other he ties to a goat and they pull back and forth eventually making Skadi laugh. And finally Odin, takes Thjazi’s eyes and casts them into the heavens forming two stars.
Themes, Relevance and Questions:
Mystery and Magic: The gods and stories connected to Vanaheim and the Vanir seem to indicate that they operate between spaces and things and within nature. They are steeped in mystery and often embody a state of transition, probably because of their links to fecundity (birth/death). In contrast to the Aesir, who seem to be powerful in a very obvious way (through force). See Freyr and Freyja.
Poetic Origins: As related in Skáldskaparmál the origins of poetry were derived out of the war between the Vanir and the Aesir. Through the creation of a mead norse myth engages with the beginnings of poetic form and it’s importance. ‘Good’ poetry is connected with the gods, and poetry is ‘made’ (see Story Focus 1) which would seem to indicate an awareness of construction and the power behind storytelling.
Humour, Spirit and Power: There is a great cheeky spirit embedded into the stories outlined in this overview: a kind of life force which uses humour to make big decisions, to heal wounds. This seems to be an interesting way to confront notions of power and to destabalise them. Loki’s actions with the goat, for instance, deemphasise the fact that Skadi is in fact marrying a Vanir. How do the norse sagas use humour to engage with difficult subject matter, and relieve tension?
Things of Interest:
A kenning (Modern Icelandic pronunciation: [cʰɛnːiŋk]; derived from Old Norse) is a type of circumlocution, in the form of a compound that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Kennings are strongly associated with Old Norse and later Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Kennings and Alliteration for Beowulf (the same principle applies in the Norse Sagas. Top tip: turn the music on the video down)
Contemporary writer Gerdur Kristny: Bloodhoof (modern re-inventing of an Edda poem which tells of the abduction of Gerour Gymisdottir from the land of the giants to the court of Freyr)
Scrobble to 2.43:
National Gallery of Iceland
an artist and illustrator who provided drawings for the 1893 edition of The Prose Edda. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Frederick_von_Saltza
Optional Poetry and Writing Prompts:
If you wish you can use the following poetic form for your poem:
This poetic form is one of the most used in ancient German, Anglo-Saxon and Norse-Icelandic poetry. Verses have 4 syllables. It is known in England from 700 A.D. onwards (Beowulf is an example). It is also found in German poetry from the 8th century, and in Swedish runes from the 9th century. As the centuries rolled by the form became more rigid with each stanza having eight lines (in German and English poetry it has four lines).
An e.g. from the Völuspá:
|Hljóðs bið ek allar||Silence I ask from all,|
|helgar kindir||the holy offspring,|
|meiri ok minni||greater and lesser|
|mögu Heimdallar||sons of Heimdallr.|
|Vildu at ek Valföðr||Do you wish, Valföðr (Odin)|
|vel fyr telja||that I clearly rehearse|
|forn spjöll fira||of living beings those ancient tales|
|þau fremst um man?||which I remember from farthest back?|
Two lines are connected by alliteration to form pairs. In the a-line two syllables may alliterate with one syllable in the b-line. It can also be just one syllable in the a-line:
Hljóðs bið ek allar
But in the b-line readers always find a second non-alliterating syllable to put stress on, matching the second stressed syllable (often alliterating) of the a-line.
See more here
Writing Word Prompts: Gales, Stars, Trust, Transformation, Apples, Giant, Disturbance, Curses, Growth
To confirm, the deadline for all writing, poetry and mp3s for the Vanaheim realm is Thursday 8th December.
Thanks so much for your interest.
Allan, T (2010) Vikings, The Battle at the End of Time, London: Watkins Publishing
Ellis Davidson, H.R. (1990) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books
Hollander, L.M. (1996) tr. The Poetic Edda, Austin: University of Texas Press
Larrington, C. (1996) tr. The Poetic Edda, Oxford University Press
Sturluson, S. (2005) The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics, tr. Jesse L. Byock