In a previous post, I made an offhand parenthetical remark mentioning a theory I had as to what happened to the Vanir in the mythology, which has garnered quite a few inquiries, so I thought I might take a minute or three to elaborate.
To set up the question; there are several races (perhaps clans or tribes is a better word) of gods in Germanic mythology. The Aesir are the gods known to be most friendly towards, and historically worshiped by, humanity, to include those beings that are brought into the Aesir through various means (marriage, blood-brotherhood, or the exchange of hostages). The other two groups most commonly thought of as being on a par with the Aesir are the Jotuns (giants) and the Vanir, whence came Njord, Freyr, and Freyja, who joined the Aesir at the conclusion of a great war fought between the Aesir and the Vanir, as part of an exchange of hostages to end the conflict*.
The trouble is, once the hostage exchange is complete, there is no more mention of the Vanir. They disappear from the narrative en masse, and no more mention of them of their home, Vanaheim, is to be found, even in the descriptions of the end of the world, Ragnarok.
So what happened to them?
I think there is a case to be made that the Vanir are indeed present in the mythology after the war. They are simply called the Alfar, or elves.
There is some circumstantial evidence to support the idea. First, we know that Norse poetics gave multiple names to individuals, groups, and even places as a matter of course; we see this not only in poetic kennings, but in straight-out naming, such as when Frigg is referred to as Hlin in Voluspa 53. Different names, it seems, were used either to meet the demands of poetic structure, or to emphasize a particular aspect of the thing being named. The many names of Odin, are of course famous and follow the same pattern.
As has been mentioned, the Vanir and Vanaheim are simply not mentioned in the sources after the Aesir-Vanir war, with one exception. Vafþrúðnir says that Njord will return to Vanaheim when the Ragnarok comes. Which, as we’ll see, doesn’t really harm the theory at all, although it does imply that the land of the Vanir survives the burning of Ragnarok. Possibly because it’s underground, like the elf-mounds? H.R. Ellis-Davidson would tend to agree (see below).
Some might say that the overall attributes of each group, connected with nature, is also suggestive. I don’t particularly concur (because I don’t like such reductive images of the gods), but I include it because I know some people do make those associations.
H.R. Ellis-Davidson makes the general point about a probable connection between the Vanir and the Alfar:
It is less clear where the Vanir dwelt, since the chief gods, Freyr and Njord with a number of others, are represented along with the Aesir in Asgard, but it seems probable that it was in the underworld. There is certainly a link between the Vanir and the land-spirits who dwelt in mounds and hills and in water, supernatural beings who befriended some of the early settlers in Iceland, and probably also between the Vanir and the Elves, who lived on in folk tradition as lesser beings. (The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, p. 70)
Rudolf Simek goes even farther, and claims that the classification of the Vanir as a separate clan of gods is an invention of Snorri at best.
But the most suggestive (to me, anyway) piece of evidence is given in the description of Freyr in Grimnismal 5: “The gods gave Freyr Alfheim as a tooth-gift.” The original Old Norse has it “Álfheim Frey gáfu tívar at tannfé.” Note the use of the word tívar for “gods” or “divinities” here, rather than Aesir or goðum. It is a more “generic” term, perhaps deliberately chosen to differentiate from the Aesir tribe of gods.
Who, then, would have the authority to give Alfheim to Freyr, and why would they do so? We know Freyr is the son of Njord, who was the leader of the Vanir. That would make Freyr his heir. And it would make perfect sense to give one’s heir the official title to one’s domain, to make the succession clear (or perhaps even symbolically abdicate him his favor).
One possible bit of evidence against this theory comes from Alvismal, where names for various objects (the sun, moon, etc.) are given for various homes and people, seven times a name is given for both the Alfar and the Vanir. But this does not, in and of itself, invalidate the idea, as Alvismal is a somewhat odd poem, there are overlaps in some other groups (mentioning the gods, the great gods, and the sons of the gods, for instance), and it’s not impossible that we’re seeing an example of different names based on the nature of the thing doing the naming. The warlike Vanir have certain names for things, and the more friendly (sort of) Alfar have different ones.
I don’t claim this is a certainty, by any means, but neither is it some vision-inspired UPG. It does solve a mythological puzzle, there is some suggestive evidence, and nothing directly contradicts it. So definitely keep it in the realm of speculation based on what little information we have, but hopefully more than just “Freyr told me this is true.”
* One interesting anomaly in the story is that the Aesir and Vanir each sent two of their own to the other tribe. The Aesir sent Mimir and Hoenir, and the Vanir sent Njord and Freyr. Freyja is never actually mentioned as one of the hostages in the exchange, so how does she end up as one of the Aesir?