The war between the Aesir and Vanir

In Snorri Sturluson’s preservation of pre-Christian Scandinavian mythos, he outlines two groups of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. Though ultimately presented as a united pantheon in comparison to beings such as the giants, there are references to a war between these two divine factions. But, there is still scholarly debate as to the significance of the division between the Aesir and Vanir.

At one extreme some contend that the division was concocted by Sturluson himself for stylistic or poetic reasons. In contrast, others suggest that the Aesir-Vanir division is substantive, and reflects deep historical origins. The Vanir, in this telling, are the fertility gods of pre-Indo-European peoples. The Aesir, are the gods of the Indo-Europeans. The war between the two factions then is a memory of the conflict between the indigenous farmers, and the incoming Indo-European pastoralists. Sturluson himself suggested that the gods of the Norse mythos were simply deifications of great historical personages of the past, lending credence to the idea that the folklore preserved the memory of history.

Ultimately we may never know the real story behind the Aesir-Vanir war (if it ever occurred). But a new paper in The American Journal of Archaeology sheds some light on the transition to Indo-European language in modern Denmark’s Jutland, Talking Neolithic: Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives on How Indo-European Was Implemented in Southern Scandinavia:

…Farming arrived in Scandinavia with the Funnel Beaker culture by the turn of the fourth millennium B.C.E. It was superseded by the Single Grave culture, which as part of the Corded Ware horizon is a likely vector for the introduction of Indo-European speech. As a result of this introduction, the language spoken by individuals from the Funnel Beaker culture went extinct long before the beginning of the historical record, apparently vanishing without a trace. However, the Indo-European dialect that ultimately developed into Proto-Germanic can be shown to have adopted terminology from a non-Indo-European language, including names for local flora and fauna and important plant domesticates. We argue that the coexistence of the Funnel Beaker culture and the Single Grave culture in the first quarter of the third millennium B.C.E. offers an attractive scenario for the required cultural and linguistic exchange, which we hypothesize took place between incoming speakers of Indo-European and local descendants of Scandinavia’s earliest farmers.

There is a lot of interesting detail in the paper itself. First, the Corded Ware arrived in Jutland in ~2850 BCE, but only occupied the western and central parts of the peninsula. The Funnel Beaker complex, along with influences and interactions with the hunter-gatherer Pitted Ware culture, persisted in robust form until ~2600 BCE in the east of Jutland. Additionally, the authors note that there was a notable cultural geographic division which separated the former Funnel Beaker territory as it was in ~2600 BCE down to ~1500 BCE, when the two zones fused together into a unified Nordic Bronze Age culture.

An explicit analogy is made to the character of prehistoric Aegean society, where a pre-Indo-European matrix was coexistent with Indo-European cultures which arrived from the north for centuries, and even millennia, down to the Classical Greek period (the Pelasgians).

But the similarity is closer than just one of form: the language of the Funnel Beaker people may have existed on a dialect continuum with the farming peoples of the Mediterranean. That is, Neolithic Europe was probably united by an ethno-cultural linguistic complex similar in scale and quality to that of the Bantus in modern Africa.

One of the hypotheses about the origins of the Vanir is that they were agricultural fertility gods. As it happens many of the hypothesized borrowings of non-Indo-European words into Germanic are of agricultural nature. Additionally, the table within the paper illustrates that many of these words span very different Indo-European language families. The implication is strong that Minoan, Basque, and the pre-Indo-European languages of Northern Europe are genetically related to each other.

Genetics does not illuminate everything, but I do think that it gives a certain solidity now to the nature of demographic turnover and variation in prehistoric Europe. With that in mind archaeologists and folklorists can interpret the mythologies and legends which have been passed down to us from the liminal periods on the edge of history and prehistory.

For example, the thesis that pre-Indo-European religion revolved around cthonic deities of the earth (e.g., the Tuatha de Danann) makes a lot more sense if you believe that these people were agriculturalists. In contrast, the Indo-Europeans from the east arrived as pastoralists, and it is not, therefore, a surprise that the one Indo-European god who has an undisputed cognate across all branches of the Indo-European peoples is the sky god, whether he is known as Zeus, Jupiter, or Dyauṣ Pitār.