But what makes Vanatru special? What’s so specific about it that it requires a name of its own. I’ve seen several lists of principles and tenants, even extensive articles on the topic, but really people, it all comes down to one thing: a focus on the Vanir. And that’s it! We can go on and on about reverence for nature, peace-loving, open sexuality, friendship and a rejection of war-centeredness, but while these are certainly characteristics of at least some of the Vanir, it’s not that specific to Them. It’s about as accurate as saying that what makes a Catholic is a belief in Christ and saints – and I’ve heard this one many times! – which certainly fits the Catholic profile, but it also fits that of several other Christian churches (e.g. Orthodox, Coptic and Anglican).
So you think one of the specifics of Vanatru is a reverence for nature? That’s true for many forms of polytheism, in that the natural world is not considered a lifeless thing whose sole purpose is to be exploited, but is seen as something profoundly numinous, full of life and power, part of the community and worthy of respect and reverence. “All is full of gods”, Thales is believed to have said, and that pretty much sums up a common idea in the ancient world. There’s divinity in everything and that includes rocks, rivers, trees, the sea and so forth. It’s not specific to Vanatru. It’s not even specific to it when compared to Asatru: Thor is a god of thunder, which makes Him a Power linked to Nature; you can’t even argue that that’s not his primary identity, because His core is thunder. And while the hammer can easily be a symbol of civilization and human craftsmanship, something that could be seen in opposition to the natural and thus Vanic world, dwarfs are enough to question that simplistic assumption. Because the dvergar are landwights, specifically spirits of rocks and mountains, yet they are also miners, smiths and crafters, i.e. makers of the tools and weapons of civilization. Including both Freyr’s golden boar and Thor’s hammer.
The Vanir value peace more than war? It is true that conflict is not in the primary nature of at least some of Them, though that may not be the case with Freya (She is a Lady of the Battlefield and not just a goddess of love). But even if all of Them see war only as a last resort, They’re not the only peace-loving gods: Aphrodite isn’t big on battles and legend has it that when She gave it a go in Troy it did not go well for Her; Demeter cares more about fertility and order than the disruption that is war; Epona too is a Lady of Abundance and though She may have a fighting side (a horse was, after all, a tool of both labour and conflict), it may not be Her primary role. In a way, She’s a bit like Freyr.
Vanatru honours or focuses on the seasons? How’s that specific enough to be a defining trait? The Romans and the Greeks had festivals tuned to agricultural practices, the Egyptians marked the cycles of the Nile and Wicca – we all know it! – celebrates the seasons. Furthermore, if one is to admit that Heimdall is one of the Vanir, how does He fit into the agricultural cycle? Or how is Njord connected to the seasons any more than other non-Vanir sea deities (e.g. Aegir, Neptune or Manannán)?
It is also said that Vanatru is non-discriminatory and welcomes everyone alike, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ethnic background. Which is very much in tune with the open nature of the Vanir, who tolerate what some do not, from alternative sexual orientations and life styles to brides from different races. But this is also true of other gods: ask any devotee of Dionysos or Hermes, to name just two well-know gods for their inclusiveness or preference for the outcast and so-called deviants. While tolerance is certainly a Vanic virtue, it is not exclusively so. The polytheistic world has many deities who are just as embracing as the Powers of Vanaheim.
When it comes down to it, the only thing that’s really specific to Vanatru is a focus on the Vanir. Everything else is just gravy, a non-exclusive bonus or consequence of the deities being worshipped. Tolerance, reverence for the land, abundance and generosity, these are all things associated with Vanatru because they are associated with the Vanir and not the other way around. That’s why you can find them elsewhere, because there are more gods that preside over those things, making a focus on the Vanir the only really original trait of Vanatru. So why all the lists, posts and so forth on principles, tenants and etc.? Why the urge to carve an identity with stressed lines?
Perhaps the problem is one of definition by opposition. The very name Vanatru reflects and emboldens that, being a mirror-term of Asatru. It’s almost like a religious alter ego, in as much as people often ask about the differences between the two, and that calls for a constant stressing of separateness. In other words, it feels like Vanatru needs to justify its existence by presenting itself in opposition to Asatru. So if Thor is aggressive, the Vanir are peaceful; the latter are deities of the fertile land, so the Aesir must be gods of civilization; if followers of Asatru value the lore and academia, followers of Vanatru must focus more on UPG (yes, I’ve seen this argument). And never mind about comparisons with other European pantheons and traditions: the point is to differentiate from Asatru. It’s simplistic, downplaying and honestly impoverishing. If we, worshippers of the Vanir, are to grow as a rich and diverse community, we need to move away from a teen mentality of us versus them, which means that we need to stop defining ourselves in opposition to something.
This is actually the reason why I’m dropping the Vanatru label (and will have to edit the About section of this blog accordingly). There’s no point in identifying part of my religious practices with reference to others from which I need to differentiate myself. It’s detrimental, it places things in terms of black and white and ignores the immense grey areas, leaving us poorer as a result. Instead, I prefer the much broader label of Vanic polytheism, which is open enough to include many of the modern forms of Vanir religion, be it Norse, wiccan-inspired, shamanistic or, as is my case, Romanized.