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From Odin's Wanderings to Ragnarok's Reckoning: The Rise (and Eventual Fall?) of the Aesir

Do you think the relationships between the Aesir gods in Norse mythology mirror the societal structures and conflict resolution methods of ancient Nordic societies? I'm eager to hear your thoughts and interpretations! Let's explore the intriguing parallels between mythology and societal dynamics. Ever pondered the societal roles and conflict resolutions in Nordic mythology? Let's dive into the world of the Aesir gods and their association with human society.

In this episode, you will be able to:

  • Understand the societal structures and conflict resolution in ancient Nordic societies for a deeper grasp of Norse mythology's intricacies.

  • Explore the roles of well-known gods such as Odin, Thor, and Freyja in Norse religion to gain insights into the dynamics of Aesir worship.

  • Uncover the implications of Ragnarok through literature and its significance in our world and future.

  • Discover the symbolism of war in Aesir worship, its cultural significance in ancient Norse societies, and how it informs our view of the Aesir today.

  • Gain insights into modern interpretations of Norse goddesses to see how these mythological figures continue to influence contemporary culture and beliefs.

"If the Aesir could be seen as representing society, and the Jotnar as representing nature and the wilderness and their conflict as being a metaphor for the relationship between humanity and the world around it, then maybe it might just be ogod to rethink how we view ragnarok, as well as how we view the world, and what we can expect form the world we all live in and share.

The key moments in this episode are

:00:00:00 - Introduction to the Aesir 

00:03:00 - The Aesir's Association with War 

00:05:42 - Odin, the Allfather 

00:08:42 - Thor, the Thunderer 

00:12:23 - Frigg and Sif, and the role of Goddesses in Society 

00:19:34 - The Warlike Aspects of Gods and Human Society 

00:20:15 - The Althing Assemblies and Political Power 

00:22:57 - Ragnarok as a Consequence of Escalating Feuds 

00:24:52 - The Cautionary Tale of Epic Blood Feuds 

00:27:57 - Reevaluating Ragnarok and its Resonance with the Present Day

The Aesir gods, such as Odin, Thor, Tyr, and Frigga, are deeply intertwined with various aspects of human existence, from knowledge and protection to law and healing. What's fascinating is the blurred lines between their domains and the complex relationships they share with each other.

In Norse mythology, these gods are not just rulers of specific elements, but rather have profound connections to them. For instance, Thor's association with thunder and lightning symbolizes his presence and protection, while Tyr's sacrifice of his hand embodies his commitment to upholding the law. What's particularly intriguing is the Aesir's connection to war and conflict resolution.

In Norse society, war was considered a civic duty, and the Aesir's martial aspects reflect the societal expectations of defense and collective action. Moreover, the concept of Ragnarok, the epic struggle between the Aesir and Jotnar, offers insight into the consequences of escalating feuds and the breakdown of mutual respect and law.

It's a cautionary tale that resonates with the historical context of blood feuds and their devastating outcomes. By exploring the Aesir gods' roles in society and conflict, we gain a deeper understanding of how ancient Nordic societies perceived societal structures and the intricate dynamics of resolving conflicts.

Their stories provide valuable lessons that are relevant even in the present day, prompting us to rethink our relationship with the world we inhabit. If you found these insights enlightening, I encourage you to share them with others who are fascinated by Norse mythology and its relevance in understanding societal structures and conflict resolution.

Join me in unraveling the wisdom of the Aesir gods and their timeless lessons. Curious for more intriguing discussions on Norse mythology and radical Heathen practice? Visit for an array of articles, classes, and resources.

This post was brought to you by Ryan Smith, your guide to the captivating world of Norse mythology and its modern interpretations. If you want to learn more about radical Heathen practice, explore our other articles, classes, resources, and more!

The Aesir's willingness to cooperate and work together is something that is based on mutual respect, mutual trust, and a willingness to agree to the same shared body of laws and conduct.

Full Transcript The Nordic Gods: Aesir


Time to talk about the most famous group of Nordic gods, the Aesir.


Of all the Nordic gods, the Aesir are easily the most well-known, most celebrated, and most present in places like popular culture, as well as surviving source material. Some of the most well-known of this divine clan include Odin, Thor, Tyr and Frigga, as well as Loki by adoption. As I mentioned in the explainer about the Nordic gods, each divine clan has a particular broad area of existence that they're associated with. The Aesir's is human society, and everything related to what makes society tick. This, by the way, is a broad tendency that certainly has some exceptions and places where the boundaries between what you could call the domain of the Aesir and the domain of the other divine clans get really blurry and kind of a bit messy.


Part of that is because the Nordic gods, generally speaking, aren't so much gods of things in the sense of how Zeus is God of the sky and manifests through lightning, or, say, how Ra is the God of the sun, as they are gods associated with or have close relationship to specific things. So Thor, the thunder God, is the thunder God because of his close associations and relationships to thunder, and how thunder and lightning tend to be symbols and representations of his manifestation and presence. Thor's connections to thunder and lightning are a good example of how these things can get a bit blurry, and it's a bit less gods having rulership and power over these specific things, as it is that they have deep intrinsic connections to them. I'm going to break this subject down into three broad chunks. Who the Aesir are and what they're associated with, the Aesir's relationship with war, and the big question of the Aesir and Ragnarok.


So to start things off with the Aesir and what they're associated with, I'm going to give some specific examples, but not go into all of them, because there are a lot of Aesir gods. You could easily write a whole book just on the Aesir by itself. And a big part of this, I think, is because the Aesir are the most well attested to and recorded within surviving source materials. There are a lot of theories as to why this is the case, and personally, I think the most likely explanation, based on what the Aesir are tied to and the evidence of where they were most worshipped and how they were most worshipped, suggests that there's an element of class and material bias at work. In other words, the people who are the biggest promoters of the cults and worship of the Aesir also tended to be some of the most powerful and influential within society, or as is the case with the worship of Thor, were gods that were very popular and widely worshipped in their own right.


Given their close connections to questions like war, justice, political matters, and where power lies within a society, it makes a certain amount of sense that they would be promoted heavily by the more landed elites and those who were parts of Nordic society that were closer to, like, say, the developing urban centers, sites like the great temple at Uppsala, and other major regional focus points for political, social and spiritual power. We also have to remember, by the way, when we're talking about these questions of political, social and spiritual power, that the lines between spiritual and political, or spiritual and social power were a lot blurrier where they existed at all. First among the Aesir is Odin, often referred to as the Allfather, though I think a better summation of who he really is would be referring to him as the many-named God. And this is because Odin has more names attested to and surviving to the present day than any of the other Nordic gods. He's said to also have additional names that he has picked up in all of the places he has gone to, with Odin being implied to have a different name in every realm and every region of the world that he's ever visited, and probably many in the other worlds as well.


Often described as an elderly man, Odin, along with his brothers Veli and Ve, helped create Midgard, Asgard and the nine worlds as we know it during their uprising against Ymir in the age before the creation of material reality as we know it. He is also most well known for the finding of the runes, a feat which he achieved by hanging from the world tree for nine days and nights while wounded in the side with his own spear. He has also sacrificed one of his eyes in pursuit of wisdom, which he gave to the well of Mimir. Odin is known for his voracious hunger for knowledge, his tendency towards duplicity and deception, as well as his many different schemes intended to delay and in other ways thwart Ragnarok, or at least gain as much information about it as he possibly can. Odin is often described as being a God-king, a sort of ersatz Zeus who rules over the Aesir as their undisputed master.


But when you read between the lines of how Odin actually operates, particularly his tendency to commit and carry out his own dirty work, rather than depending on intermediaries or others to do what he seeks to do, as well as the differences between kingship within nordic Scandinavia versus Hellenistic Greece, it may be more accurate to say that Odin is sort of like the instigator and facilitator and boundary pusher of the Aesir, rather than being some ruling God king issuing decrees from his throne after Odin, is his son Thor, the red-bearded thunderer who bears the great hammer Mjolnir and is said to be the Aesir's champion and greatest warrior in struggling against dangerous and hostile Jotnar, as well as other things out in the other worlds. Thor, like Odin, spends a lot of his time wandering in these kinds of places and in these liminal spaces around the edges of Asgard, rather than necessarily spending all of his time within the realm itself. Though he is associated with thunder and lightning, two symbols that are often tied to rulership and power in different forms of mythology, Thor seems to be much more a protector and a guardian than a powerful lord over others. There are some interesting bits of historical evidence that tilt the scales more in the direction of guardian and protector than as ruler and war chief. These can be found in the Viking Age, where Thor, interestingly enough, is the God who's most commonly held up as the Nordic answer to Jesus Christ.


Thor is frequently contrasted as the red Thor versus the white Christ in different surviving source materials. Theres also evidence to suggest that the wearing of Thors hammer first began in reaction to the coming of the cross. Thor's cult seems to have been quite popular based on the widespread nature of these finds as well as the widespread use of variations on his name like Tor in personal names as well as place names throughout Nordic Scandinavia. Similar but different to Thor is Tyr, the one-handed God who sacrificed his sword hand to keep his word with the wolf Fenrir and ensure that the wolf would be bound so it could no longer threaten the world and the aesir. If Odin could be described as an instigator of change and seeker of knowledge, and Thor as the guardian and protector of the Aesir as well as those under the Aesir's protection, then Tyr is often held up as the God of law.


He seems to have been regularly invoked before the opening of different thing and althing assemblies, and is generally held up in his story involving Fenrir as an example of his adherence to his word and keeping his bond. 

Loki is also a God who is often counted as being among the Aesir, though he is originally of Jotun origin. Loki is sworn as a blood brother to Odin and is a great bringer of change, upheaval and chaos, with associations with fire, deception, shape-changing and all kinds of other similar arts. Though Loki tends to cause problems, they also tend to be the solution to those same problems, with solutions like Thor's hammer often being greater than the problems that Loki caused. Some forms of nordic practice tend to cast Loki as something of a devil figure, and they particularly point to how Loki is recorded as rising against the rest of the Aesir during Ragnarok, though I think a good argument could be made that by the time of Ragnarok, Loki has a pretty solid case for vengeance against the Aesir, what with things like several of their children, like Fenrir and Jormungandr being bound down or cast into the depths, and their own children, with the goddess Sigyn being split apart to be used as ropes and bindings to keep Loki trapped in a cave with a cup full of venom periodically pouring into their face.Though Loki is a trickster and known for engaging in deception, they're not recorded as being an oathbreaker, unlike Odin, who absolutely is. 


To shift over to the goddesses of the Aesir. Three of the most well-known, and this third one is one that has come much more into prominence in modern practice since the COVID-19 pandemic, are Sif, Frigg, and Eir. 

Sif is the wife of Thor, and in some tellings, this is sort of all there is to it, to Sif that she's this beautiful helpmate and all that. But she also has close associations with the harvest and the reaping of grain, some of which come symbolically from the story of the shearing of Sif's hair by Loki and also through other symbolic representation that survives in modern practice.


Colors like gold and symbols like sheaves of grain and sickles are commonly associated with the goddess of the harvest. And when we're talking harvest, by the way, we're not talking the usual romantic image of buxom branded fertility beings parading through the fields and leaving, like, trails of flowers and new life in their wake. Harvest, for folks who are familiar with the history of this period, means a lot of hard backbreaking labor in both preparing the fields for being sown with seed to be cultivated and in the backbreaking, often dangerous and potentially life-threatening work of harvesting these fields at the end of the growing season. One thing Thor and Seif also share in common is their close associations with those who are the lowest on the social totem pole. Thor is specifically described as taking on thralls and common laborers in the Harbar's hall after their deaths.

And Sif is clearly associated with farmers and agricultural workers, both of these being groups that historically and in the present day tend to get the short shrift from political and social systems.


Frigg as Odin's wife is also similarly a potent being in ways that go well beyond just being married to Odin. Frigg is explicitly described in the lochasenna as being the one goddess who knows all but speaks little, being very careful to release the information that she knows for when she thinks it will do the most good. Frigg is said to be the preeminent seeress among the Aesir, with even greater knowledge of possible futures and skill in sorcery and save than Odin as the goddess associated with domestic spaces. Frigg often gets boiled down to just being a hearth and home. But we have to remember when we're talking hearth and home back in these days, we're talking about managing farms into states, running businesses, engaging in long-distance trade and commerce, balancing the books, and pretty much doing a lot of what would be described as almost like business administration, where Odin is a bit of a reckless gambler at times, Frigg is more like a careful tafl player, making each move and releasing information when it will best suit her particular ends.

And there's been more than one instance in the lore of Frigg successfully getting one over on Odin, such as in the Grimna's mall.


Eir is the last example of the Aesir goddesses that I'm going to give on this podcast, because again, there's a lot of Aesir and you could easily write a whole book just about the Aesir. What I want to do instead is give y'all a bit more of a taste than the whole meal all at once and in a fast food package. Eir is the goddess of medicine. She is often described as being one of Frigg's handmaidens based on Snorri, but I suspect that in the pre-conversion times she would have been treated as a goddess in her own right.


As the goddess of medicine and healing, she has become especially popular among modern heathen practitioners. I know anecdotally, and what I've experienced within the Fire and Ice community is Eir’s worship and reverence has grown dramatically in the time following the COVID-19 pandemic, though she certainly had quite a bit of adherence before the pandemic as well. 

What these gods have in common is they all tend to deal with different aspects of society and different core institutions, things like the processes of learning and discovery, the acquisition and maintenance of information, the work that is necessary to maintain everything from keeping people fed to keeping people safe and running all of these different complex affairs in a way that is sustainable and functional for everyone. They also critically, as shown in the case with Tyr, have a close association with functions like law, which again, when you're talking in the Nordic context, is a thing that is collectively made by all those who are bound by that law, rather than being something that is externally handed down on high by some sort of superior power or detached, divinely anointed ruler. This is also why most, if not all, of the Aesir have some kind of association with war.


There are certainly some who are seen as being more directly associated with war and conflict, particularly Odin, Thor and Tyr, than others. But all of the Aesir have something of what could be described as a martial side to them. Now, there are a lot of folks, starting with Victorian romantics and all that, who take this as evidence of them being gods of a warrior people, that the Nordics were a warrior race, where violence and conflict were the most prized things in existence. Well, I dispute that on the grounds of most human societies really don't work like that. And it takes a lot of work to get a society to do that work that we really just don't have evidence of.


I mean, you need, like, totalitarian social systems to be able to really maintain that kind of stuff, things that weren't possible in this time and place. And I think it's also a misreading of what's really going on here. War was something that for the Nordic peoples, could be described as a civic duty in the sense that if you were a freeborn person and a member of society, then you were expected to do your part in defending your community against outside threats, and also maybe engaging in a little bit of aggressive punitive retaliation, or even just punitive action minus the retaliation as justification. 

There's some broad similarities here with what you see in Greece and Rome, where during the Roman Republic, anyone who was a land-owning citizen was expected to do their service in the Roman legions, whereas in the different Greek city-states, cities like Athens, for example, expected all citizens to serve in the army of the Polis. The Nordic peoples also lived in a far more marginal environment with lower population density and also just lower overall population as well as resource bases compared to these mediterranean societies.


So it stands to reason that just as much as the people themselves were all expected to be able to fight in some way or another out of sheer necessity. Because, after all, professional armies, warrior classes, all these things are very resource intensive to maintain, then it kind of also makes sense why the gods most associated with human society are also going to tend to have warlike aspects be described as engaging in warlike activities, and for there not to be one, but many different gods associated with war and martial pursuits.


What's further intriguing about this connection, since we see these associations between the Aesir and society generally, is the way that the thing assemblies, the big democratic mass assemblies that governed most of the Nordic peoples to some extent or another, organized themselves and were described within the Heimskringla. One feature that is consistent of the thing assemblies is all participants came together in big open fields that were owned by no one and also controlled by no one, and brought their weapons with them. Those weapons would sometimes be brandished or otherwise used for making particular political points, and you can kind of get a sense of an undercurrent that what's going on with the ting and everyone bringing their weapons with them when they come to the thing, is an establishment, and reinforcement of that political power, and as well as legal power within these communities, rests on everyone's consent and cooperation. This is not just abstract political theory, by the way. When you look at the history of the Viking Age, one of the most significant factors in the viability of different contenders to become kings of Norway or Sweden or Denmark or what have you, was their ability to rally the freeholding farmers and other similar folks within their different societies and regions to fight on their behalf.


The bringing of weapons, within this context, makes sense as an expression of support for that thing and its legitimacy to exist. So it kind of makes sense that the Aesir also from this standpoint, all have different kinds of martial and warlike aspects. Their willingness to cooperante and work together is something that is based on mutual respect, mutual trust, and a willingness to agree to the same shared body of laws and conduct. And it's also something that is protected by their willingness to defend that body of laws and conduct. 

This then, brings me to Ragnarok, the grand epic struggle between Aesir and Jotnar, which heralds the end of this world as we know it, where everything will burn in fire and many of the Aesir will fall before the blades and claws of their enemies.


I've gotten into this topic in a lot more detail in a particular episode on the subject, but to touch on some key points from there, there is a lot going on within the source material that suggests Ragnarok is not so much some kind of Book of Revelation's preordained final clash between good and evil, as it is the consequence of a continually escalating feud between the Aesir and the various groups they have come into conflict with. The clearest evidence for this is how, in at least some earlier stories, in earlier instances, it is possible for the Aesir and the Jotnar, as well as the Aesir and other beings, to reach largely amicable resolutions to their disputes. Now, certainly sometimes, like, say, in the case of the giant thrym, it comes to bloodshed and conflict. But even in this case, Thrym's daughter Skadi is willing to accept Wergild in the form of marriage to Jord under some pretty complicated circumstances that involve feet and a goat and Loki's testicles, as well as other instances of the Aesir making deals and arrangements with the different groups of Jotnar that this normal sort of starts to break down over time as conflict begins to escalate. And I think also with the turning point of Fenrir, who is technically the foster son of Tyr, and as such, part of the Aesir before he is then betrayed and bound by those who are supposed to be his family, and also other cases of things just sort of tilting away from being able to be peaceably resolved and moving more towards violence and conflict.


Now, this read on it is one that is a bit contentious, but is based on a general theme that we see throughout the rest of the sagas, where blood feud and strife between different groups is both gripping material for writing great stories. After all, we can see that in the more closer to present-day example of the Hatfield and McCoy feud in Appalachia, but there's also an air of cautionary tale to these different stories of these epic blood feuds. They do, after all, tend to end in most or all of the people involved being dead. There are lots of moments of regret and recrimination along the way, and it's sort of hard to find any of these instances where a blood feud or other struggle over resources ends well for anyone involved. One of the best examples of this is in the Volsunga saga, where by the end, pretty much everybody's dead.

The Rhine gold treasure has been lost forever, and the only one left standing out of the whole mess is Gudrun, who has taken vengeance on Atli and all his warriors. You could say she wins, but that's after she's lost pretty much everything and everyone that she's ever cared about.


Within the context of this broader literary tradition, as well as this tendency towards treating these feuds as something that is not necessarily always a good thing, even though the people involved may feel right and justified in doing so, Ragnarok is the ultimate cosmic blood feud that is a product of spiraling conflict, breakdown of law and mutual respect, and a disintegration of an ability to resolve these brewing conflicts by any means other than war. 

There's also further historical examples, such as in the year 1000, when Thorgny Lagman rallies the Thing of all Swedes to end a war between Norway and Sweden, in what's also a great example of the power that the Thing assemblies held in this time and place, that these people were not just bloodthirsty, glory obsessed warriors like you might expect in, like, say, the History Channel's the Vikings, or something like that. They did make rational decisions. They certainly understood that there were circumstances when war and conflict were not desirable, and that the best way to end things was to put down weapons and make peace. There's even a God, Forseti of the Aesir, who is said to be the great mediator, and his main role is as the one who brings this kind of equitable or at least acceptable peace arrangements into existence.


So maybe Ragnarok, when viewed this way, is not so much how things must be, but how things could be if everything continues on its present course and the various hurts and escalations between the Aesir and those who they have conflicted with remain unresolved. 

Which, when you take into account that those who are there most often clashing with are the Jotnar has some pretty strong resonance in the present day, where you could say the conflict between the demands of our particular form of human society and the natural world's ability to withstand those demands is coming to a head with some potentially nasty consequences for everything on earth. 

If the Aesir could be seen as representing society, and the Jotnar is representing nature in the wilderness and their conflict as being a metaphor for the relationship between humanity and the world around it, then maybe it might just be good to rethink how we view Ragnarok, as well as how we view the world and what we can expect from the world we all live in and share.

 And that wraps up this little explainer on the Aesir. Thank you for listening.


This has been Ryan Smith at the Wayward Wanderer signing off. If you want to find out more about radical heathen practice, head on over to where you can find articles, classes, resources, and more. This podcast was created and produced by Ryan Smith. Thanks for listening

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