What Is the Etymology of Vanir?

Written by Dyami Millarson

Considering the consonants and vowel of the North Germanic root Van-, the two etymological options are thus:

  • A connection with the etymological cluster of Shire Frisian wenne accustom, get accustomed and waan delusion. The meaning of waan used to be more neutral. This can be illustrated with Middle Dutch waan which means ‘imagination, feeling.’  
  • A connection with the Shire Frisian prefix wan- as in wandied misdeed, wanhoop desparation, and wantastân unenviable, reproachable situation.

The second option is related to Old Nordic vanr deficient. The first option is related to the etymological cluster of Old Nordic vanr accustomed, vani custom, vęnja custom, and vęnja accustom. We can already observe that there are two instances of vanr in Old Nordic, which we can only distinguish semantically. Furthermore, as it so turns out, Vanr is the singular of the plural Vanir.

The connection of Vanr with the homonymous vanr seems really strong, but the question is: which sense of the adjective vanr is the theonym Vanir related to? If Vanr is related to vanr in the sense of deficient, then it means the one who lacks something, but if Vanr is related to vanr in the sense of accustomed, then it means the one who is accustomed or the like. The Vanir are obviously not Gods of Want or Deficiency, but of Plenty; for Njörth, father of Freyja and Freyr, is the God of Wealth. So, they must be the Gods of Customs, linked with the adjective vanr accustomed. They are the manifestations of old cherished traditions; they are the personhood in tradition.

The Vanir may be functionally compared with the Vedic Aryama(n) who is a Deity of Customs and one of the Adityas, which means He is connected with the sun (see page 349 of this book). One Hindu blogger writes in an article on Aryaman: “Aryaman maintains the code of conduct in the society. He protects the honor of men and women in the society. He has the last word in marriages and in the maintenance of tradition, custom and religion in the Vedic society. All rituals, relationships created and maintained in society are governed by Aryaman.”

Since we have interpreted Vanir as connected with Old Nordic vanr accustomed, vani custom, vęnja custom, and vęnja accustom, we can further connect Vanir with the Old Nordic yndi (< *vund-) ‘delight,’ vinr ‘friend,’ ósk (< *vonsk-) ‘wish,’ œskja (< *vonskj-), ‘wish,’ vinna ‘accomplish,’ undr (< *vund-) ‘miracle, wonder,’ and una (< *vun-) ‘dwell,’ which may be presumed to come from the same Indogermanic root as the etymological cluster to which Old Nordic vanr accustomed belongs. Furthermore, we may link Vanir with Latin venerārī ‘worship, adore’ and Venerēs, which the Roman Poet Catull invokes when he sings: “Ō Venerēs Cupidinēsque!” (O Venuses and Cupids!) Venerēs is the plural of Venus, the Goddess of Love. This page of a website dedicated to ancient literature explains: “It is interesting that Catullus refers to them in plural form as proper nouns. There was only one Roman Venus and Cupid, but Catullus is referring to several of them. He may be addressing several gods and goddesses of love.”

Although the adjective vanr accustomed is by no means directly associated with love in Germanic, we may still perceive the Vanir as Venerēs because Freyja plays a prominent role as a Goddess of Love, and we may compare Freyja with Venus. I assume that Venus comes from Indogermanic *wénh₁os, which should correspond to *wenaz in Ancient Germanic, which should correspond to *venr in Old Nordic. Old Nordic vanr accustomed apparently comes from Indogermanic *wónh₁os, which corresponds to *wanaz in Ancient Germanic. This mean that Venus and Vanir are similar formations, but the two seem to go back to different Indogermanic forms, which are ultimately etymologically related. The Indogermanic sense of ‘love’ must, therefore, be a distant memory just like the Indogermanic sense of ‘white’ is for Álfar and the Indogermanic sense of ‘sky’ is for Tívar.

In the Germanic context, the Vanir are associated with a semantic web relating to customs; this understanding of Vanir is of primary importance, since the speakers of Germanic languages could easily have used folk etymology to connect the Vanir with customs. A connection with customs also makes sense; a custom is also also a form of expressing love and a custom may be viewed as doing what you love. How should we imagine the connection of the Vanir with customs? For instance, just like the Indian God of Customs is associated with oaths, the Norsemen used to swear oaths to Freyr on the bristles of a sacrificial boar. Craigie quotes a passage from Hęrvarar Saga on pages 27-28 of The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia as follows: “King Heidrek sacrificed to Frey; he should give to him the largest boar that could be got. They considered it so holy, that over its bristles they took an oath about all important matters. That boar was sacrificed by way of an atonement; on Christmas eve it was led into the hall before the king, and men then laid their hands on its bristles and made their vows.”

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