Óðinn, Vili and Vé are the three brothers who created the world from the body of the primordial giant Ymir in the Poetic and Prose Edda stories from 13thC Iceland – largely believed to represent the mythology and religious beliefs of the Norse/Scandinavian pagan world.
Óðinn is instantly recognisable from his multiple myths and position as the supreme Norse pagan god, yet the brothers Vili and Vé seem on superficial inspection to have few attestable roles in the old religious continuum. This, however, may not be the full picture: Firstly the ‘V’ names have an interesting link to the name of the other group of Norse gods, known as the Vanir. The Vanir may be older gods, particularly if the reference of the 1stC CE Roman historian Tacitus to a god(dess) called ‘Nerthus’ (Njörðr or Jörð) and a ‘Tribe of Ingvi’ is anything to go by… In addition the ‘Celtic’ god known as Belenos/Belinus/Bel may have a similar relationship through the linguistic transformation that occurs between ‘b’ and ‘v’ – ‘Vili’ becomes ‘Bili’, which seems very close to ‘Beli’: The character of Baldr might also be closely related.
Óðinn’ typically occurs as ‘Woden’ in the more continental Germanic dialects. This makes the triad ‘Woden, Wili, and We’. The name-triad has particular significance as it suggests the name ‘Weland’ – Germanic folklore’s cunning blacksmith.
The apparently ‘triadic’ attestation of Óðinn and his brothers from the Icelandic Edda allows us an interesting opportunity to examine some lost elements of the puzzle of what the Norse gods were originally before the differentiations caused through Christianisation and migration of ‘Germanic’ language speakers during the collapse of the late western Roman Empire. In particular, we need to consider the triad as æsir-alfar-vanir, with Óðinn as æsir, Vili (Völundr) as alfar/elf, and Vé (Ingui) as Vanir.
The triadic division of gods and mythological divinities is commonplace in Europe’s ancient pagan traditions. With regard to Norse legend, the gods often travel in triads and in the poetic Edda lay of Völundarkviða, Völundr is travelling with his two brothers. The famous 11thC account of the pagan temple at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden by Adam of Bremen mentions a triad of giant statues – Óðinn, Thor and Freyr. Thor, although one of the Aesir, has a certain similitude with the hammer-weilding blacksmith Völundr, opening up another pathway for analysing how these gods might have evolved from common origins.
The possible link between Thor and Wayland (to use his English name) is beset at the outset with a number of contradictions or contradistinctions. For starters, we have a lot more mythological evidence about Thor, which necessarily skews the comparison somewhat. In Völundarkviða, Wayland is clever and a craftsman; he is wounded and enslaved by an apparently human adversary, against whom he eventually exacts vengeance. Thor, on the other hand is portrayed as less than bright; he is an impulsively bombastic smasher of skulls – in particular those of the ancient and monstrous mythological beings who represent primal chaos. The two therefore seem very different, albeit in a complimentary fashion…
In terms of similarity, we have the blacksmith’s hammer. Thor’s Mjölnir is forged by the ‘Sons of Ivaldi’ – dwarves or dark elves, of which I will say more. Although wielded by Thor as a weapon, its use as a subtle forging tool must not go unrecognised. The thought of Thor making things with Mjölnir seems laughable, yet the legendary theme of combat with primal forces is in essence one of mankind forging his survival out of the elements. The development of metalworking during the Bronze Age marked a shift in the archaeological evidence of how humans in Europe started to dispose of their dead – through cremation, underground. The cthonic realms (those of the dwarves and giants) offered up the metals and resources which were to drive radical changes in human technology and spirituality. Thor’s apparent ‘brutishness’ with monsters is in distinction to Wayland’s clever subtlety, but it can be seen that they both represent aspects of the same key idea. Goats are a similar example of exactly the same thing: goats are the most versatile domestic animals, being apparently able to feed on almost anything in order to produce meat and milk. Thor posseses two magical goats in the Edda accounts, said to pull his chariot. Both hammer-wielders are therefore responsible (spiritually) for representing the control of the elements and the creation of excellent things from base matter.
Other similarities between Wayland and Thor are that Wayland is also depicted in Völundarkviða (like Thor) as a fierce warrior and powerful hunter, capable of killing great beasts (he kills and eats a bear, for example). His human captor (a king) is ultimately powerless against him, suggesting a certain god-like power.
Another aspect of ‘Vili’ might possibly be found with the father of the characters referred to in the Snorra Edda book Skáldskaparmál as ‘Sons of Ivaldi’. These are three brothers (dwarves or dark elves) who create the mighty magical artifacts for the gods – a ring for Óðinn, a hammer for Thor and a golden boar for Freyr. The giant Thjazi (Þjazi) whose daughter Skadi marries the Vanir Njord is said to be a son of a giant called Alvaldi/Olvaldi, famous for his vast (cthonic) wealth. Thjazi’s two other brothers are Gangr and Iði, again forming a triad. Interestingly, one of Loki’s sons is called Váli (Gylfaginning) and is transformed into a wolf (symbolic of primal hunger and wildness) by the Aesir in order to kill Loki’s other son Narfi (Njord?) – the gods bind Loki with Narfi’s entrails! Also in Gylfaginning, the following is said of Odin’s sons:
“One is called Ali or Váli, son of Odin and Rindr: he is daring in fights, and a most fortunate marksman.”
Odin’s son Váli was said to have been created and grown up in a day in order to punish Baldr’s killer. The description of the gods in Gylfaginning associates him with the same qualities given to Wayland/Völundr in Völundarkviða – a daring vengeful warrior, and an excellent shot with a bow (one of Völundr’s epithets is ‘weather-eyed archer’). In fact the same is said of the Aesir Ullr – another of Odin’s sons who – like Völundr goes hunting on skis with a bow. ‘Ullr’ can be considered a linguistic transformation of Vllr, which links to both Váli and Völundr. Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum names Ullr by the latinized version ‘Ollerus’ and describes him as a wizard who ruled in Odin’s stead during his exile, which fits with the Snorri’s Icelandic Ynglinga Saga account of Vili and Vé who ruled in Odin’s stead while he was away, and took Frigg as their wife.
The other link to Odin is that there are references in Old and Middle English literature (as well as in the sagas) to Wayland’s father – Wade (Norse: Vaði) – a name similar to Wotan. He is mentioned by Chaucer (e.g. – Troilus and Criseyde) and allusions are made to his wondrous boat.In the Thidrekssaga (also called Vilkinasaga), he is the son of King Vilkinus, a name redolent of Vili. Wade’s half brother is called Nordian.
The third member of the primal triad with Odin and Vili is Vé, who I suggest represents the Vanir aspect. The word ‘Vé’ way. It is interesting that Snorri mentions in his euhemerised account of the gods in the Ynglingasaga (Heimskringla) that Odin appointed Njord and Freyr to be the chief sacrificial priests among the Aesir, following the Aesir-Vanir war. The Vanir Njord was said by Snorri in this same text to have been the first buried under a burial mound at the temple of Uppsala in Sweden, effectively ending the (bronze age) custom of cremation urn-burial – Snorri was something of an archaeologist as well as an accomplished historian and author! The Vanir goddess Freyja was supposed to have had a hall at a place called Folkvangr which received the souls ?of women (‘half of the dead’), vangr meaning ‘field’ but with connotations of Vé.
The Isle of Man (known in its native tongue as Ellan Vannin) has a village called Glen Vine, which borders a farm called Ballafreer (next to Trollaby) at which there is a field recorded as being called ‘the devil’s field’ in the now lost Ordnance Survey namebooks. The field is – by popular tradition – said to have been cursed by St Patrick so that it might never grow barley for beer and must in Viking times have been a sacred meadow for the growing of barley for the winter ales. The same property (named after Freyr, and historically a church glebe) contains a whitewashed phallic standing stone of a type seen in Norway and Ireland, and the remains of a number of ancient buildings probably dating to the viking era (and before). The Vanir appear to have had a connection to temples and worship and cthonic bounties – as illustrated by this unique Manx example.
The Ynglingasaga account of Vili and Vé ruling while Odin was away from home runs straight into Snorri’s story of the Aesir-Vanir war, without explaining much about why this happened. In fact it occurs immediately after Odin returns to find his wife in bed with Vili and Vé, so we must assume that this is the cause! You may recall that the poetic edda lay, Grímnismál, describes Alfheim as Freyr’s ‘tooth-gift’ (generally thought to mean a teething present), associating Alfar with Vanir.
Grímnismál shares certain similarities with Völundarkviða – principally the capture and torture of a God by a king, and the resulting consequences. The star of the latter poem or lay is none other than Wayland, whereas Odin is the protagonist of Grímnismál. Wayland’s ‘tooth gift’ is somewhat more sinister – he sends his captor and torturer the teeth of his murdered sons as jewelery! As to Freyr (whose ‘tooth gift’ was Alfheim), he is also known as Yngvi-Freyr or Ingui-Freyr and the name ‘Yngvi’ can be considered to mean ‘Son of Vi’ or ‘Son of Vé’, connecting him to the Odinic triad.
Noting the apparent Elf-Vanir relationship hinted at in the sources, it is of further interest that the Ynglinga Saga (and other sources based on the poem Ynglingatal such as in the Gesta Danorum) tells of two euhemerised progenitor-kings of Sweden called Yngvi and Alf. Alf prefers (like the Elf-Prince Wayland) to stay at home, whereas Yngvi is an active fighter and traveller. Consequently, Alf’s wife Bera falls for Yngvi, and the two fall out and kill one another. Again we see echoes of the legend of the Aesir-Vanir war and the theme of kin-strife, and the seemingly-linked Wayland legend blends with that of these euhemerised historical traditions.
The appearance of another character called Bera as the lover of the character Bjorn in the 14thC Icelandic Hrólfs saga kraka is another interesting parallel to Völundarkviða: Bjorn is the son of a king who is often away campaigning. He is in love with a freeman’s only daughter, Bera. The queen (possibly his mother) desires the strong, large handsome young man and demands he has sex with her but he slaps her in disgust and tells her to go. She curses him to assume the shape of a bear, and when the king returns he hunts the bear and the queen has it served up to Bera at a feast. Although superficially dissimilar to Völundarkviða it has a number of interesting parallels: After he and his brothers ‘marry’ the Valkyries who depart after 8 years, his brothers go to hunt for them, but Völundr stays home and takes to hunting in the forest. He kills and eats a bear shortly before he is captured and enslaved by the local King – the (unstated) implication of this tragic tale seems to be that the Bear was his Valkyrie lover. In the Ynglingasaga, Bera was the wife of Alf (=Elf = Völundr). In Hrólfs saga kraka the character Bera (which means ‘bear’) loves the bear, Bjorn.
Bera is a name not lost on scholars of Gaelic folklore, and in this context it also evokes another primal (albeit male) character of the Norse Snorra Edda creation myths: Borr/Bur son of father of Odinn, Vili and Vé, by Bestla. Snorri tells us that Buri was Odin’s grandfather – licked from the salty ice of Ginnungagap by Ymir’s cow Auðumbla. This appears to be an image of a bear emerging from hibernation – perhaps an allusion to an astronomical event to do with Ursa Major, Taurus and the Milky Way.
Bears (notorious hibernators) are an explicit exemplars of the annual cycle and the returning year. Their hibernation reflects the hibernation of nature during Europe’s winter months, and the reforging of the world in springtime is an allusion represented by Wayland/Völundr and the cthnonic (dark) elves or dwarves (represented by Vili). The Vanir (represented by Vé) are therefore possibly gods of the annual cycle. These are both aspects of Óðinn.