In Norse mythology, gods and goddesses usually belong to one of two tribes: the Aesir and the Vanir. Throughout most of the Norse tales, deities from the two tribes get along fairly easily, and it’s hard to pin down firm distinctions between the two groups. But there was a time when that wasn’t the case.
The War of the Gods
The Vanir goddess Freya was always the foremost practitioner of the art of seidr, a form of magic principally concerned with discerning and altering the course of destiny. Like historical seidr practitioners, she wandered from town to town plying her craft for hire.
Under the name Heiðr (“Bright”), she eventually came to Asgard, the home of the Aesir. The Aesir were quite taken by her powers and zealously sought her services. But soon they realized that their values of honor, kin loyalty, and obedience to the law were being pushed aside by the selfish desires they sought to fulfill with the witch’s magic. Blaming Freya for their own shortcomings, the Aesir called her “Gullveig” (“Gold-greed”) and attempted to murder her. Three times they tried to burn her, and three times she was reborn from the ashes.
Because of this, the Aesir and Vanir came to hate and fear one another, and these hostilities erupted into war. The Aesir fought by the rules of plain combat, with weapons and brute force, while the Vanir used the subtler means of magic. The war went on for some time, with both sides gaining the upper hand by turns.
Eventually the two tribes of divinities became weary of fighting and decided to call a truce. As was customary among the ancient Norse and other Germanic peoples, the two sides agreed to pay tribute to each other by sending hostages to live among the other tribe. Freya, Freyr, and Njord of the Vanir went to the Aesir, and Hoenir (pronounced roughly “HIGH-neer”) and Mimir went to the Vanir.
Njord and his children seem to have lived more or less in peace in Asgard. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Hoenir and Mimir in Vanaheim. The Vanir immediately saw that Hoenir was seemingly able to deliver incomparably wise advice on any problem, but they failed to notice that this was only when he had Mimir in his company. Hoenir was actually a rather slow-witted simpleton who was at a loss for words when Mimir wasn’t available to counsel him. After Hoenir responded to the Vanir’s entreaties with the unhelpful “Let others decide” one too many times, the Vanir thought they had been cheated in the hostage exchange. They beheaded Mimir and sent the severed head back to Asgard, where the distraught Odin chanted magic poems over the head and embalmed it in herbs. Thus preserved, Mimir’s head continued to give indispensable advice to Odin in times of need.
The two tribes were still weary of fighting a war that was so evenly-matched, however. Rather than renewing their hostilities over this tragic misunderstanding, each of the Aesir and Vanir came together and spat into a cauldron. From their saliva they created Kvasir, the wisest of all beings, as a way of pledging sustained harmony.
This storyline continues in the tale of the Mead of Poetry.
Polytheism and Pluralism
This tale bears out many of the points that I make in Polytheistic Theology and Ethics. Unlike the One God of monotheistic religions, polytheistic gods are often at variance with one another and are tied to contradictory systems of values and ways of being in the world. Polytheism accepts this pluralism as inevitable and healthy. Monotheistic religions, however, try to crush this pluralism and subject everyone to the same set of values and standard of conduct.
We can catch a whiff of the monotheistic attitude in the Aesir’s initial attempt to destroy Freya for encouraging them to follow pursuits that were antithetical to their own values. Thankfully, however, the Aesir eventually realized that their attempt to kill her was futile, and that the two tribes of deities should instead learn to live side by side in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect. This is a message that the defenders of a universal standard of morality have yet to learn.
Esteemed Old Norse scholar E.O.G. Turville-Petre offers the following summary of the meaning of the tale, which he places side by side with similar tales from other branches of the Indo-European family: “[T]he Norse, Irish, Roman, and Indian tales seem to serve the same purpose. They explain how gods and men, who have such different interests and ambitions, as the agriculturalist, the merchant, the warrior, and the king, can live together in harmony.”
If you’ve enjoyed this article and want to learn more about Norse mythology, I recommend picking up one of the books listed in this guide: The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books. And if you’re particularly interested in the worldview of the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples, you might want to take a look at my own book, The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism.
And if you’d like to keep up with my ongoing work here and elsewhere, the best way to do so is to follow me on Google+: Dan McCoy.
 The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 21-24.
 Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 4. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
 Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skáldskaparmál 1.
 Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 158-159.
 Ibid. p. 161-162.