Vili and Ve

Odin, Vili, and Ve create the cosmos in a 19th-century illustration by Lorenz Frølich
Odin, Vili, and Ve create the cosmos in a 19th-century illustration by Lorenz Frølich

Vili and Ve are the two brothers of the god Odin, with whom they shared a decisive role in the original shaping of the cosmos.

The medieval Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson tells us that Odin, Vili, and Ve were the first true Aesir gods to exist. Their parents were the proto-god Borr and the giantess Bestla. The three brothers slew the giant Ymir, the first being who had come into existence, and fashioned the cosmos from his corpse.[1] While Snorri is not generally a particularly reliable source, there are good reasons to accept this particular information as an authentic account of pre-Christian Norse views, given how well it accords with other evidence that we’ll consider below.

Vili and Ve also feature in one other tale that has come down to us: when Odin was temporarily exiled from Asgard, the Aesir deities’ celestial stronghold, for practicing “unmanly” magic, Vili and Ve slept with his wife, Frigg.[2][3] Unfortunately, no more is known about their role in this series of events.

Other explicit references to Vili and Ve in Old Norse literature are limited to passing mentions of Vili as the brother of Odin.[4] The characters Hárr (“High”), Jafnhárr (“Just as High”), and Þriði (“Third”) in Snorri’s Prose Edda, whose roles in the nominal narrative are purely didactic, could be Odin, Vili, and Ve,[5] but it’s just as likely that they’re Odin under three different forms, since all three names are applied to Odin elsewhere in Old Norse poetry.[6]

The most compelling information about Vili and Ve may be found in their names. In Old Norse, Vili means “Will,”[7] and means “Temple”[8] and is etymologically closely related to other words that have to do with the sacred, and hallowing in particular.

Intriguingly, the Proto-Germanic names of Odin, Vili, and Ve would have been, respectively, *Woðanaz, *Weljon,[9] and *Wixan.[10] This alliteration can hardly be coincidental, and suggests that the triad dates back to the time when the Proto-Germanic language was spoken – well before the Viking Age began in approximately 800 AD, and quite possibly no less than a millennium or two prior to that date.[11]

Although they are only mentioned sporadically in literature from the Viking Age and shortly thereafter, Vili and Ve must have been deities of prime importance to the Norse and other Germanic peoples, at least during the time of the Germanic tribes, and possibly later as well. No mythological figure of only minor importance would have been retained throughout such a large proportion of the thousands of years the Germanic myths were in active use, during which they underwent numerous significant changes. The fact that Vili and Ve are cast as the brothers of Odin, perhaps the highest Germanic god throughout much of this time, is a further suggestion of their lofty stature.

Indeed, Odin, Vili, and Ve – respectively, Inspiration, Conscious Intention, and the Sacred – are the three most basic forces or characteristics that distinguish any cosmos from chaos. Hence it was these three gods who originally fashioned the cosmos, and surely remained three of the most necessary pillars of its continued upkeep and prosperity.

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References:

[1] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning.

[2] The Poetic Edda. Lokasenna, stanza 26.

[3] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga, chapter 3.

[4] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 362.

[5] Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 201.

[6] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 177.

[7] Ibid. 362.

[8] Ibid. 355.

[9] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 453.

[10] Ibid. p. 465.

[11] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 362.

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