A defense of Vanatru

The existence of an autonomous religious cult of the Vanir is one of the hot-button issues in modern Germanic pagandom. There are several reasons for that, most of which will be addressed bellow, but suffice to say that Vanatruars can be viewed by fellow heathens as misguided pagans, childish, or even a kind of troth breakers with the general divine community.

The name itself, first used somewhere in the 1990s, can add to the negative views, as vanatru is a mirror term of asatru, the latter being a 19th century neologism produced by the joining of two old Icelandic words: Áss (god) and trú, which means faith. Asatru is therefore the “Faith in the Æsir”, though phonetic resemblance between the second element of the compound and modern English “true” has led many to translate it as “true to the Æsir”. So Vanatru is the Faith in the Vanir and this adds to the frustration of those modern heathens who would like their religion to be a more unified, generalist, probably manly and, in their view, a more historically accurate thing. A frustration which I find to be based on prejudice and monotheistic-derived assumptions more than anything else, and which can be listed (and debunked) as follows.

1. After the war between the two tribes, the Vanir and the Æsir joined in a single divine community, so therefore it makes no sense to have a separate religion for one of the two sides.

Of all the arguments I’ve heard against Vanatru, this is perhaps one of the most common. It’s based on several references from the surviving lore, namely Völuspá 24 and chapter 4 of Snorri’s Ynglinga saga, which mention a mythical war between the Æsir and the Vanir and the final truce whereby bonds of friendship were woven and hostages exchanged. But the argument fails to consider two things.

Firstly, the lore hints on a vanic identity in Their “relaxed” sexual morality, the practice of Seidr or the abundance of wealth, namely gold. Remember Gullveig or Gullinbursti (“golden drink” and “golden bristles”), Freya’s golden tears and Her daughters, Gersemi and Hnoss (“treasure” and “jewel”). And if you’re thinking about Odin’s learning of Seidr and the prohibition on incest imposed by the Æsir, one has to wonder if the latter applies to Vanaheim, that place where, according to Vafþrúdnismál 39, Njord returns to at Ragnarök, heim með vísom vönom (“home among the wise Vanir”).

But even if there were no hints on a Vanic identity, the second thing the aforementioned argument fails to notice is the naturally diverse nature of polytheism. Different Gods/ddesses with different functions means They’ll also have different agendas and corresponding specific ritual forms, just like They have different symbols (the hammer for Thor, the raven for Odin, or the boar for Freyr). Saxo Grammaticus may leave a lot to be desired when it comes to reliability as a source, but he may have been right when he mentioned unmanliness and effeminacy in the worshipping (presumeably of Freyr) in Uppsala, something which is not surprising for the cult of a Van, but which could hardly be expected in that of an über macho like Thor. The religion of a phallic God Who grants pleasure, fertility, and general prosperity will naturally have specific features that differentiate it from the worshipping of a war deity like Odin, whose pets feed on the fallen. As such, the appearence of autonomous cults is only to be expected.

2. The Gods should be worshipped equally and it’s wrong to focus on one particular deity of a specific godly group.

Though the idea of collective worship was not unknown in the Ancient world, it was not the only “legitimate” form. If theonyms are any good as a source of information, they tell us that godly popularity was not uniform and that certain Gods were virtually absent from communal religion in some parts of Scandinavia. Tyr, for instance, seems to have been very popular in Denmark, but there are only two place names related to Him in modern day Norway and none in Sweden. This means that, when it came to the religious practices of human communities, different Gods assumed the leading position in different parts of Scandinavia; by geographical reasons, climatic conditions, or the personal devotions of leading families, which basically brings down the idea of an equal worship of all the Gods. Some may even have been merely local or regional deities, little known in some parts of Scandinavia, or with different standings in the pantheon. There’s a modern example of just that in Hinduism, where different sects focus on different deities as the High God: Shiva for Shaivism, Vishnu and His avatars for Vaishnavism, and the Goddess Shakti for Shaktism.

To be honest, the whole idea that the only “correct” thing to do is to worship all the Gods equally owes more to a monotheistic mentality than to the natural diversity of polytheism: just like the Abraamic God demands exclusive sacrifices and loyalty, it appears that some heathens simply transferred that demand to a community of several deities taken as a whole, so that They as a collective entity demand sacrifices and loyalty. Which also explains why some believe that a pantheon must be worshipped exclusively.

3. The Vanir are part of Heathenry and should be worshipped together with the other heathen Gods.

History proves otherwise in the case of cultures that were in prolonged and deep contact with each other. The Mediterranean in particular offers several cases.

Egypt had its own polytheistic religion, with its own mythology and ritual formulas, and Isis is an important element of the Egyptian pantheon. This much no one denies. And yet, despite being a High Goddess among other deities of a particular culture, She also had a cult of Her own that spread throughout the Mediterranean world as an autonomous religion that also included a few other Gods from Egypt: Serapis, Anubis, Horus, Bes. The Mysteries of Isis reached Rome somewhere in the 1st century BC and became very popular among devout Romans who also worshipped their traditional Gods. It had specific rituals and symbols, close to those of its native culture, but the religion of Isis moved around and reached people who were not Egyptian pagans.

Greece also had its own polytheistic religion, with its own ritual formulas and a mythology which included the tales of Dionysos, who also had His own autonomous cult that spread throughout the Mediterranean world. It was already in Rome in the 2nd century BC and it was assumingly based on Greek formulas, until it was forbidden by the Senate in 186 BC (for fear of social unrest) and later revived under strict control.

So, in short…

There is no reason why Vanatru should not stand on its own and be practiced as part of Heathenry, as a separate religion, or side by side with other religious paths, much like devout Romans in the past had little if any problem in worshipping Isis or Dionysos while still practicing the native religions of Rome. It’s not wrong, it’s not “heretic”, and it’s not even untrue to the historical records, especially not in a world where the exchange of information is fairly easy. What’s wrong is using the dogmatic, orthodox, and exclusivist lens of monotheism to see a polytheistic religion which, in the end, is all about diversity and openness.

A slightly more elaborated version of this post has been published on the Vanaheim Fellowship website

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4 thoughts on “A defense of Vanatru

  1. Pingback: Cyber Cauldron

  2. Pingback: Odinism, Asatru, Heathenry? | The Lefthander's Path

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