What is Vanatru?
Vanatru is a denomination of modern Heathenism (or Scandinavian/Germanic Paganism) focused on the pantheon of gods called the Vanir in Icelandic lore (Anglicized: “Wanes”). The term translates to “True to the Vanir”, and is derived from the Icelandic term “Ásatrú”, which means literally means “True to the Aesir”, i.e. “Faithful to the Gods”.
[Edited to add] Not all Vanatruar consider themselves “Heathen”. For more insight, see the “Northern Tradition Paganism” section of this page. Or, y’know, just ask them why. 😉
Why call yourself “Vanatru” instead of just “Heathen” or “Asatru”?
Focusing on the Vanir means our perspective and practices aren’t quite the same as those in Asatru. The majority of recorded lore is Icelandic. Icelandic lore is primarily from the perspective of the Aesir, and specifically contrasts the Vanir in several places. A majority of Icelandic or pan-Germanic Heathens are focused on an Aesir-centric religious perspective whether they do so intentionally or not. They generally include the Vanir and allied Jotnar as part of the “Greater Aesir” and make no particular effort to explore the Vanir as a distinct group beyond that They are fertility gods. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, and for most Heathens that’s plenty to work with. But for those of us specifically dedicated to the Vanir, it’s just not enough.
Vanatru is Heathen spiritual practice from a Vanir-centric perspective. This requires specific efforts and boundaries on the part of Vanatruar that we need to be able to maintain within our own spaces. Most Vanatruar I know do call themselves Heathen in casual conversation, especially for larger gatherings where they are joining other Heathens for some community practice.
Who are the Vanir?
The Vanir are a separate tribe of gods who were once at war with the Aesir, eventually becoming Their allies. The Aesir (Odin, Heimdal, Frigga, Thor, Tyr, etc.) exchanged hostages with the Vanir in order to end the First War. Freyr and Njordh were the hostages offered to Asgard. Freyja also went, although it’s not clear if She was a hostage or went for reasons of Her own.
Njordh is a god of seafaring, protecting sailors, fishers, merchants, and probably sea-going raiders as well. He is associated with the wealth that can be gathered by faring forth by sea. Freyr (“Lord”) and Freya (“Lady”), both together and separately have domain over love, fertility, magic, and wealth, as well as various associations with death. Freyja is associated with beauty, and is the first chooser of the slain, sometimes depicted as a female warrior. Freyr and Njordh are associated with peace and good seasons, and mortal Sacred Kingship.
Freyr and Freya are twins, and were likely married before They came to Asgard. Njordh is Their father. Their mother is Njordh’s sister who is not otherwise named in any surviving lore. Snorri has the Aesir separating those pairings, ruling that siblings could not be married in Asgard. In my experience, the Vanir still honor those marriages, and Freyr and Freyja frequently act like lovers.
The three went on to marry others while in Asgard. Njordh married the Frost Jotunja Skadhi, who is associated with winter sports and hunting. She is mentioned repeatedly throughout the lore. Freyr married the beautiful etin Gerd, who is mentioned repeatedly, but only in reference to Her marriage to Freyr. Freyja married Odr, who is not otherwise mentioned. The linguistic similarity between “Odr” and “Odin”, and the frequent equating of Freyja with Frigga in other parts of the Germanic world prompt many scholars to assume Odr is Odin. In practice, we have found Odr’s identity to be a proper Mystery, the answers to which must be sought individually and directly.
Are there more Vanir than just those main three?
Yes there are, but we have far fewer references for Them, so those are the three who get the most attention.
According to Snorri, Freya has two daughters by Odr named Hnoss and Gersemi, both poetic references for “treasure”. Freyr is named in multiple sources as a king of Sweden, which makes any deified Sacred Kings in those lines Vanir. Snorri equates Freyr with the original Fróði and names His mortal son by Gerd “Fjölnir”.
The Voluspa in the Poetic Edda describes Gullveig as an oponent of the Aesir during the first war. The next stanza (in most arrangements) calls Her “Heide”, which translates roughly to “Witch”, and was pejorative at the time of recording. The Aesir’s response to Gullveig prompted either the beginning or the ending of the war – it’s open to interpretation.
Also associated with the War, Kvasir was created by combining parts of both Aesir and Vanir, so He was by rights a member of the Vanir. However, He was later killed by dwarves, and His blood was used to brew the Mead of Poetry.
Likely thanks to H.R. Ellis Davidson (whose work I highly reccomend, particularly Gods and Myths of Northern Europe) Nerthus is generally accepted as Njordh’s sister. She is mentioned by Tacitus in Germanicus, and the manner of Her worship as described was similar to that of Freyr’s, involving a statue carried about in a cart, and the laying down of arms upon Her arrival. Linguistically “Nerthus” may be an older form of “Njordh”.
There are several others associated with the Vanir who are not themselves Vanic. Skadhi, Gerd, and Odr are all accepted as Vanir by Marriage. Skirnir, Byggvir, and Beyla are Freyr’s servants of unknown lineage. Hoenir and Mimir were the hostages traded to Vanaheim, and thus should be Vanir by adoption, but Mimir was also killed, this time by the Vanir. His head was sent back to Asgard, and is now associated with Mimir’s Well. Hoenir is not mentioned again in connection with the Vanir, but is mentioned repeatedly as a companion of Odin and Thor, so He is not often recognised as Vanic.
Beyond that, Vanatruar disagree as to which other of the known gods may be Vanic, if any, although there is stronger agreement in some cases than others. Even when we agree as to the Vanic nature of a deity, we don’t always agree on the evidence that leads to that conclusion. For example, most Vanatruar I know agree that Ullr is of the Vanir. Some say that Ullr’s mother Sif is also Vanic with Her golden hair, association with growing wheat, and husband who drives a wagon. Others say that it’s Ullr’s missing father who must have been Vanic. Similar disagreements abound as to Idunna’s nature, but She is also a common candidate, as is Ostara.
There are many arguments for how the question of Vanic origin can be answered. Some are based on available lore, some on direct experience, or intuition. One common argument is that because Freyr and Freya are fertility gods, all Germanic fertility gods may be Vanic. Another common approach is to track familial relationships by blood, marriage, or occasionally fosterage and adoption. If any given deity can be argued to be Vanic, any relationships they have can then be analyzed accordingly. Other methods involve tracking patterns in linguistics, forms of worship, or associated symbols. The strongest arguments combine more than one method, which is why Nerthus is generally accepted as Vanir today.
Personally, I believe the Vanir are a tribe of their own, and were likely at one point in history a fully functioning independent pantheon. As such I would not necessarily expect that every Vanic god falls under the same general archetype. On the contrary, I would expect that any independent pantheon must cover a wide variety of archetypes in order to meet the needs of a population experiencing the diverse phenomena of the world, though I would expect to find certain cultural similarities linking the various gods within the tribe.