The Æsir /ˈaɪsɪər/ (anglicised as: Aesir) are the gods of the principal pantheon in Norse religion. They include Óðinn, Frigg, Þórr, Baldr and Týr. The second Norse pantheon is the Vanir. In Norse mythology, the two pantheons wage war against each other, resulting in a unified pantheon.
Unlike the Old English word god (and Old Norse 'goð'), the term was never adopted into Christian use.
Æsir is the plural of áss, óss "god" (genitive case āsir), which is attested in other Germanic languages, e.g., Old English ōs (gen. pl. ēsa), Old Dutch ans and Gothic (as reported by Jordanes, who wrote in the 6th century CE) anses "half-gods". These all stem from Proto-Germanic *ansuz, which itself comes from Proto-Indo-European *h₂énsus (gen. h₂n̥sóus) "life force" (cf. Avestan aŋhū "lord; lifetime", ahura "godhood", Sanskrit ásu "life force", ásura "demons" ( *h₂n̥suró). It is widely accepted that this word is further related to *h₂ens- "to engender" (cf. Hittite hass- "to procreate, give birth", Tocharian B ās- "to produce").
Old Norse áss has the genitive áss or ásar, the accusative æsi and ásu. In genitival compounds, it takes the form ása-, e.g. in Ása-Þórr ("Þórr of the Æsir"), besides ás- found in ás-brú "gods' bridge" (the rainbow), ás-garðr, ás-kunnigr "gods' kin", ás-liðar "gods' leader", ás-mogin "gods' might" (especially of Þórr), ás-móðr "divine wrath" etc. Landâs "national god" (patrium numen) is a title of Þórr, as is allmáttki ás "almighty god", while it is Óðinn who is "the" ás.
The feminine suffix -ynja is known from a few other nouns denoting female animals, such as apynja "female monkey", vargynja "she-wolf". The word for "goddess" is not attested outside Old Norse.
The latinization of Danish Aslak as Ansleicus, the name of a Danish Viking converted to Christianity in 864 according to the Miracles de St. Riquier, indicates that the nasalization in the first syllable persisted into the 9th century.
The cognate Old English form to áss is ōs, preserved only as a prefix Ōs- in personal names (e.g. Osborne, Oswald) and some place-names, and as the genitive plural ēsa (ēsa gescot and ylfa gescot, "the shots of anses and of elves", i.e. "elfshot", jaculum divorum et geniorum).
In Old High German, Old Dutch and Old Saxon, the word is only attested in personal and place names, e.g. Ansebert, Anselm, Ansfrid, Vihans. Jordanes has anses for the gods of the Goths.
The interaction between the Æsir and the Vanir has provoked an amount of scholarly theory and speculation. While other cultures have had "elder" and "younger" families of gods, as with the Titan versus the Olympians of ancient Greece, the Æsir and Vanir were portrayed as contemporaries. The two clans of gods fought battles, concluded treaties, and exchanged hostages (Freyr and Freyja are mentioned as hostages).
An áss like Ullr is almost unknown in the myths, but his name is seen in a lot of geographical names, especially in Sweden, and may also appear on the 3rd century Thorsberg chape, suggesting that his cult was widespread in prehistoric times.
The names of the first three Æsir in Norse mythology, Vili, Vé and Óðinn all refer to spiritual or mental state, vili to conscious will or desire, vé to the sacred or numinous and óðr to the manic or ecstatic.
Æsir and Vanir
- Main article: Æsir-Vanir War
A second clan of gods, the Vanir, is also mentioned in Norse mythology: the god Njörðr and his children, Freyr and Freyja, are the most prominent Vanir gods who join the Æsir as hostages after a war between Æsir and Vanir. The Vanir appear to have mainly been connected with cultivation and fertility and the Æsir were connected with power and war.
In the Eddas, however, the word Æsir is used for gods in general, while Asynjur is used for the goddesses in general. For example, in the poem Skírnismál, Freyr was called "Prince of the Æsir". In the Prose Edda, Njörðr was introduced as "the third among the Æsir", and among the Asynjur, Freya is always listed second only to Frigg.
In surviving tales, the origins of many of the Æsir are unexplained. Originally, there are just three: Óðinn and his brothers Vili and Vé. Óðinn's sons by giantesses are naturally counted as Æsir. Heimdallr and Ullr's connection with the Æsir is not clearly mentioned. Loki is a Jǫtunn, and Njörðr is a Vanir hostage, but they are often ranked among the Æsir.
Scholarly theories and interpretations
Given the difference between their roles and emphases, some scholars have speculated that the interactions between the Æsir and the Vanir reflect the types of interaction that were occurring between social classes (or clans) within Norse society at the time. According to another theory, the Vanir (and the fertility cult associated with them) may be more archaic than that of the more warlike Æsir, such that the mythical war may mirror a half-remembered religious conflict. This argument was first suggested by Wilhelm Mannhardt in 1877 (as described in Dumézil, xxiii and Munch, 288). On a similar note, Marija Gimbutas argues that the Æsir and the Vanir represent the displacement of an indigenous Indo-European group by a tribe of warlike invaders as part of her Kurgan hypothesis. See her case in The Living Goddess for more details. Another historical theory is that the inter-pantheon interaction may be an apotheosisation of the conflict between the Roman Kingdom and the Sabines.
Finally, the noted comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade speculated that this conflict is actually a later version of an Indo-European myth concerning the conflict between and eventual integration of a pantheon of sky/warrior/ruler gods and a pantheon of earth/economics/fertility gods, with no strict historical antecedents.
List of Æsir
|“||Then said Gangleri: Which are the Æsir in whom it is man’s duty to believe? Har answers: Twelve are the Æsir of the race of gods. Then said Jafnhárr: The Asynjur are not less holy and they are not less capable. Then said Þriði: Óðinn is the greatest and oldest of the Æsir. ... Frigg is his wife, and she knows the fate of men, although she tells not thereof. ...
Corresponding to the fourteen Æsir listed above, section 36 lists fourteen asynjur:
|“||Ganglere asked: Which are the goddesses? Har answered:
The a-rune, ansuz, ᚫ, Younger Futhark ᚬ, was probably named after the Æsir. The name in this sense survives only in the Icelandic Rune Poem as Óss, referring to Óðinn, who is identified with Jupiter:
- ᚬ Óss er algingautr / ok ásgarðs jöfurr, / ok valhallar vísi. / Jupiter oddviti.
- "Óss is Aged Gautr / and prince of Ásgarðr / and lord of Valhalla / chieftain Jupiter."
The name of 𐌰 a in the Gothic alphabet is ahsa. The common Germanic name of the rune may thus have either been ansuz "God, one of the Æsir", or ahsam "ear (of corn)"
The personal names Old Norse Ásleikr (Latinised as Ansleicus), Old English Óslác (modern "Hasluck") and Old High German Ansleh may continue the term for a sacrificial performance for the gods in early Germanic paganism (*ansu-laikom). Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch (s.v. "Leich") compares *laikom to the meaning of Greek χορος, denoting first the ceremonial procession to the sacrifice, but also ritual dance and hymns pertaining to religious ritual. Paul Herrman (1906) identified as such *ansulaikom the victory songs of the Batavi after defeating Quintus Petillius Cerialis in the Revolt of the Batavi in the year AD 69 according to Tacitus' account, and also the "nefarious song" accompanied by "running in a circle" around the head of a decapitated goat sacrificed to (he presumes) Wodan (Óðinn), sung by the Lombards at their victory celebration in 579 according to the report of Pope Gregory I (Dialogues ch. 28).
Gothic has Ansila and Ansemund.
Theophoric names of the Anglo-Saxons containing the os element: Osmund, Osburh, Oslac, Oswald, Oswiu, Oswin(e), Osbert, Oswudu, Osred, Oslaf, Øsa (with i-mutation from a presumed *ós-i-), Osgar (Anglo-Saxon form of Ásgeir). These names were notably popular in the dynasty of Bernicia. Still current are the surnames Osgood and Osborn.
As occurs in many Scandinavian given names: Asbjørn, Asgeir (Asger, Asker), Asmund, Astrid, Asdîs, Asgautr, Aslaug, Åse, etc.
Old High German had Anso, Anselm, Ansgar, Anshilt, Anspald, and Ansnôt, and Lombardic has Answald and Ansprand.
As also occurs in some English names. In 874, King Asketil was one of four Viking nobles who sacked Repton, the capital of Mercia, England. As 'ketil' means 'cauldron' (whence the English word 'kettle' is derived), his name means 'God's cauldron'. The English surname Astle is derived from his name; however, it is not related to the name Astley. Less common alternative spellings of Astle include Astel, Astell, Astill, Astyll and Astull.
Ásatrú, a kind of Heathenry whose name means "faith in the Æsir", is a new religious movement of polytheistic reconstructionism based on Norse paganism. As of 2007, Ásatrú is a religion officially recognized by the governments of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.
Most adherents do not emphasize worship of the Æsir in particular and refer to their praktice as "Forn sed/sidr/siður" meaning old customs. The Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið describes Ásatrú as "Nordic pantheism" involving "belief in the Icelandic/Nordic folklore" including all the "spirits and entities" besides "gods and other beings" this entails.
In popular culture
- They appear in Marvel comics, under the name "Asgardian", and are portrayed as a highly advanced alien race, most likely based on the ancient astronaut theory.
- Adams, Douglas Q. (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. p. 330. ISBN 978-1-884964-98-5. https://books.google.com/books?id=tzU3RIV2BWIC.
- Incorporated, Facts On File (2009) (in en). Norse Mythology A to Z. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9781438128016. https://books.google.com/books?id=Ar5-hM_llvwC&pg=PT16&lpg=PT16&dq=%C3%86sir+norse+mythology&source=bl&ots=LWeS-eZT10&sig=ncaLHpOmBCMRrJJLbTsh91X18aM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiuvOWZ3PnVAhXHJiYKHYSOAkw4ChDoAQhRMAc#v=onepage&q=%C3%86sir%20norse%20mythology&f=false.
- Dumézil, 3-4, 18; Turville-Petre, 159-162.
- Turville-Petre, 161. See especially ff. 37.
- See this pattern discussed in Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion - Section II (30) - The Supplanting of Sky Gods by Fecundators. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958. Supporting this position, Turville-Petre notes, "In one civilization, and at one time, the specialized gods of fertility might predominate, and in another the warrior or the god-king. The highest god owes his position to those who worship him, and if they are farmers, he will be a god of fertility, or one of the Vanir" (162).
- Odinsson, Eoghan (2010). Northern Lore: A Field Guide to the Northern Mind-Body-Spirit. pp. 195–96. https://books.google.com/books?id=V3sCCLcsJFkC&pg=PA196&lpg=PA196&dq=#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
- Herrmann, Paul (1908). Nordische Mythologie in gemeinverständlicher Darstellung. Engelmann. p. 342. https://books.google.com/books?id=ABAYAAAAYAAJ.
- Herrmann, Paul (1928). Altdeutsche Kultgebräuche. E. Diederichs. https://books.google.com/books?id=KlxbAAAAMAAJ.
- "Kirkeministeriet". http://www.km.dk/trossamfundliste.html. Retrieved 2007-02-09.
- The Icelandic version has "Ásatrú is a pagan tradition based on tolerance, honesty, magnanimity and respect for nature and all life." (Ásatrú eða heiðinn siður byggir á umburðarlyndi, heiðarleika, drengskap og virðingu fyrir náttúrunni og öllu lífi.) (2006)