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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

An Overview of The Twelve (ish) Aesir of Asgard

According to Snorri's Prose Edda, there are Twelve Aesir (though apparently by twelve he really means 14--is that a godly dozen? Lest you think this is some coincidence that there are "Twelve" Aesir, just as there are Twelve Olympians, you should know that Snorri also wrote in the Prologue of his Edda that Asgard is also known as Troy. I think that should answer your question. But the Twelve Aesir are not alone--ruling beside them are the Twelve Ásynjur, who are goddesses, and credit where credit is due, at least the women didn't get the shaft:
Hárr answered: "The divine Æsir are twelve." Then said Jafnhárr: "Not less holy are the Ásynjur, the goddesses, and they are of no less authority." 
The Twelve Aesir he lists are:

1) Odin the All-Father, of course. Married to Frigg, who sees all fate. But make no mistake, Odin is the man in charge.
Odin is called Allfather because he is father of all the gods. He is also called Father of the Slain, because all those that fall in battle are the sons of his adopt on; for them he appoints Valhall and Vingólf, and they are then called Champions. He is also called God of the Hanged, God of Gods, God of Cargoes; and he has also been named in many more ways [...]
2) Thor, who oddly is not immediately acclaimed as god of thunder-- though this might have something to do with Snorri's bias and his intention to turn the Norse gods into men*. Instead, Thor is attested to primarily as the strongest god, and of course there is a mention of his goat-drawn chariot, Mjolnir, the belt which doubles his strength, and the gloves that help him grip his hammer.

3) Njördr! Technically not an Aesir, but a Vanir (father to Freyr and Freyja), and given as a hostage to the Aesir. He's married to Skadi who loves the snow and the mountains, as opposed to the sea, which seems to cause them some slight marital problems and keeps them apart. Snorri tells us:
He rules the course of the wind, and stills sea and fire; on him shall men call for voyages and for hunting.
4) Freyr, son of Njördr and twin brother of Freyja. He's god of rain, sun, and growing season type things. Basically he takes care of the crops and prosperity of that nature. Snorri says he's the most renowned of the gods, but I don't buy it.

5) Freyja, daughter of Njördr and twin sister of Freyr, and when Snorri calls HER the most renowned goddess, I have no trouble believing it. Freyja was a war goddess, riding out in her cat-drawn chariot, and of those that died, she split the warriors down the middle with no lesser god than Odin himself. In addition, she can also be invoked as a love goddess. Freyja is also counted among the Ásynjur.

6) Týr, another warrior god. He's one-armed after a run-in with Fenrir, Loki's wolf-son. Snorri says:
he is most daring, and best in stoutness of heart, and he has much authority over victory in battle; it is good for men of valor to invoke him. It is a proverb, that he is Týr-valiant, who surpasses other men and does not waver. He is wise, so that it is also said, that he that is wisest is Týr-prudent.
 7) Bragi, of course! The Poet! God of wordsmithing and skaldship. Snorri calls hims a god of wisdom as well, and he's married to Idunn, who is the only goddess capable of picking the golden apples (Snorri says she only guards them), which the gods require to keep their immortal youth and strength.

8) Heimdall, the White God, born of no less than nine women, sisters, who may or may not also have been virgins. He guards Bifrost, the rainbow bridge to Asgard, and:
He needs less sleep than a bird; he sees equally well night and day a hundred leagues from him, and hears how grass grows on the earth or wool on sheep, and everything that has a louder sound. He has that trumpet which is called Gjallar-Horn, and its blast is heard throughout all worlds.
I'm not entirely sure how great an attribute it is to need less sleep than a bird, but the rest of it is pretty excellent. Snorri also claims he has golden teeth, which seems kind of impractical, all things considered. I bet he has some SERIOUS hot/cold sensitivity when he eats, if that's true.

9) Hödr somehow makes the cut into the essential twelve, though he's blind, and sadly he's the god responsible for the death of Baldr (who apparently doesn't get included anymore, and seems to be dead already, when this was written which does not really bode well for anyone). Kinda-sorta. If being tricked by Loki counts as responsibility. He doesn't really have any other attestation besides "sufficient strength" in this opening summary of the Asgardian gods, so I'm not sure why he's included at all, really. I mean, SUFFICIENT strength? really? That's like saying the guy is adequate with a sword. I dunno about you, but it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in ME.

10) Vidarr feels like another place-holder for the twelve-of-which-there-are-actually-fourteen. He's nearly as strong as Thor, reliable, and evidently "the silent god." But. Well. That seems to be all he has going for him. Seems like a pretty dubious honor to me.

11) Váli is explicitly named as a son of Odin by Snorri (the only god aside from Thor, so far, though there are plenty of other attestations to a plethora of Odinsons around and about). He's another god who can be counted on in a fight, and has a talent for marksmanship.

12) Ullr is a son of Sif (who oddly enough was not named when Snorri first brings up Thor, but he does mention here that Ullr is the step-son of Thor, which implies that Sif is Thor's wife, if a bit after the fact), and even better with a bow than Váli. In addition, he's some kind of pretty, and... really good on snowshoes? I feel like we're reaching here, Snorri. But his saving grace seems to be as a god of single combat, and since that seems to be all he really does, invoke him then or never!

Bonus God 13) Forseti, a son of Baldr and Nanna (Baldr's wife died for grief after his untimely demise, so she's no longer among the living either). He takes Baldr's place as a god of justice with some sweet digs in Glitnir, silver-roofed and gold-pillared.

Bonus God 14) Loki. Of course, we can't forget him. The Mischief Maker and "the first father of falsehoods." His wife is named Sigyn, and he has a number of unfortunate children which are attested to immediately following, one of which is the aforementioned Fenrir. Snorri says:
Loki is beautiful and comely to look upon, evil in spirit, very fickle in habit. He surpassed other men in that wisdom which is called 'sleight,' and had artifices for all occasions; he would ever bring the Æsir into great hardships, and then get them out with crafty counsel.
And there you have it! The Twelve (ish) Aesir. Three of which aren't Aesir at all, but Vanir, and several more of which are pretty, well... underwhelming to hear about. Unlike the Olympian gods, there's a lot of overlapping and kind of random seat-warming among the Norse gods. The prevalence of warriors makes sense for the Norsemen, who as we all know, enjoyed a good bit of warring in the name of reputation. This is the culture in which it was not illegal to commit murder, but rather illegal to HIDE the fact that you did it afterwards.

At a later date, we'll go over Snorri's Twelve Ásynjur and see if that's a godly dozen, too!

*Thor being the most popular of the Norse gods among the common people would be the uppermost god to unseat, and leaving out all his supernatural abilities in this attestation goes a long way in making him a lot more human, and a lot less impressive as a god. If I had to make a guess, I'd say that's a big reason as to why Snorri conveniently doesn't bother to mention anything beyond Thor's strength in the GYLFAGINNING.

8 comments:

  1. Okay, so here's a question that popped into my mind as I read this. Why does Western society (as a general rule) know so much about the Greek and Roman gods, but so little about Norse gods?

    I'm a pretty big fan of mythology, but I didn't know about half of these gods. Ack! Thanks for adding one more thing to my list of stuff to research! ;)

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  2. I'm not going to lie, Stephanie, I'm a big fan of Norse mythology, and even took a class on it in college, but I had totally spaced Njordr (who really should be big and well known as god of the SEA) Forseti, and Ullr, myself. As in, I do not remember ever hearing anything about Ullr before at all until now.

    I think the biggest issue is that we don't have the plethora of source material for the Norse gods that we do for the Greeks/Romans, and don't forget also that the Olympian gods and mythology were preserved and spread around by the Christians, as opposed to being seen as something that had to be stamped out, since it was part of the heritage of Rome. We see the Greco-Roman tradition as part of what Birthed the West, myths and all, whereas I think the Norse mythology and culture of the Vikings, though hugely influential, is overlooked in that capacity and kind of swept under the rug. To this day, I think there is this idea that the Vikings are the crazy uncle that you try to forget is related to you, while the Greeks and Romans are the well-off, high society grandparents who know EVERYONE who is ANYONE and are SO refined and civilized. The Norse are good for a laugh, and fascinating because they're the black sheep, and we don't realize until long, long after they're gone how huge of an impact they've had on how we see the world.

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  3. I would also like to chime in on this count:

    Graeco-Roman society was the majority of the foundation from which modern Western society has sprung. Christianity (dominant religion in the West) even spread from the Mid-East to other nations via Rome. Norse, Germanic, Woad, etc. mythos has been assimilated as well, but not as sharply thanks to the Roman conquests. Pretty much all of our Christmas traditions come from a combination of ancient Roman and ancient Norse holidays. So I think basically it's just that the Norse went around raping and pillaging and spreading their influence, but then the Romans came along and, being more recent, they stick stronger in the memory. The Norse by and large spread stories and the odd custom. The Romans spread things like sewers and the concept of a republic. More permanence to their actions.

    But yeah. On to the post at hand, lawl Snorri. I think I might have to buy this. Much as you were hating on it over on twitter the other day, this sounds like a hoot.

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  4. Nick: if you want the full HOOT-effect make sure you get the Anthony Faulkes translation.

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  5. Ha! Loved your comment about the gold teeth. And yeah, some of their special skills are a tad mediocre. Like snowshoeing? When would that come in handy?

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  6. There are definitely a lot of excess deities. It's almost like Snorri was struggling to dig up enough to fill out the ranks and turn it into a pantheon that will rival the Olympians-- or else balance out the 1334576576 women he is about to list as goddesses. There are a LOT more than 12 of them!

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  7. I'm very late to the party here but came across this blog while reading Jesse Byock's translation (Penguin Classics). I too have struggled to pin down "the twelve". The first thing I noted is that in the description of the hall Gladsheim, there are said to be 12 thrones *in addition* to Odin's, so I didn't count him amongst the 12.

    The list of Gods in this translation does not omit Baldr, putting him between Thor and Njord; and I assumed the two female figures mentioned (Freyja and Skadi) were also not of the twelve. Skadi is not a god, and the goddesses as a whole are described later, and had a separate hall (Vingolf). Initially this might suggest that the 12 are Thor, Baldr, Njord, Frey, Tyr, Bragi, Heimdall, Hod, Vidar, Vali, Ull and Forseti; and Loki, listed last and the son of giants, misses the cut.

    But there are other stories that put a spanner in the works of that list. Vali is said to be conceived and grown in a day purely to kill Hod (harsh!) as revenge for the death of Baldr. So Vali would never have opportunity to take a seat amongst a twelve including Baldr and Hod - or Loki for that matter, who spends his time either in hiding or bound and awaiting Ragnarok, after Baldrs death.

    Then there's another list given in the next section of the Edda, which even describes the 12 taking their thrones - this is as above, but with Baldr and Hod switched for Loki and (new entry) Hoenir. It still has the Vali/Loki issue.

    Also you were a bit harsh on the 'filler' gods. Vidar does kill Fenrir at Ragnarok (with his amazing shoe!) and survive the whole thing, as does Vali. Vali has his part in Hod's death - but there's speculation that Snorri didn't include this because he thought it was unjust, so it comes via other manuscripts. So only Ull appears to be completely lacking in stories - perhaps mysteriousness was his thing :)

    Contradictions seem born from the fragmentary nature of the supporting material, stories built upon stories. Wouldn't it be great if new material came to light, to tie up some loose ends :)

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    1. Firstly: Welcome!! and thanks for commenting!

      I desperately need Byock's translation. I read his translation of the Saga of the Volsungs and thought he did a fantastic job, so I can only imagine his Edda is great, too.

      re: the list. My harshness is really for Snorri, more than it is the logic or contradictions of the myths, or the "filler" gods, either. I get what he was trying to do and I understand that of course it could never have been an exhaustive account, and bless him for making his bias so apparent at the outset, but I have a hard time letting go of my frustration with the man and his bias, when he seemed to clearly see that the loss of all these stories was on the horizon, or in the works. I wish we could know how many of the myths he recorded were tweaked toward a more favorably Christian perspective -- either by making the gods more ridiculous, and therefore, perhaps, less a temptation for worship, or by abandoning some stories altogether, and allowing them to be forgotten, or by Christianizing their stories to create deliberate parallels. Maybe he didn't even know himself, in some respects -- but I'm sure he played his own part in the shaping of the myths he recorded, too. Does Ull have more stories, but they were considered too controversial to be remembered, for instance? What about Sif? Was she glossed over because she didn't fit any of the three acceptable archetypes for women during Snorri's period of history?

      It's hard for me to imagine that these NAMED gods might have existed without rich tapestries of stories to support them, and I just wish we had more. Fervently!

      So yes, if new material came to light to tie up some loose ends -- I'd be Over the Moon!

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