The First Battle
After the gods had created humankind, the people began to spread across Middle-Earth. Some lived in pleasant lands that were green and forested; some lived in deserts or on tropical islands; some in the lands where the sun hides her face all day in winter, and in the summer the nights are full of light. As time went on, the people remembered different things about the gods, and called them by different names.
But no matter where they lived, humankind was doomed to die in the end. People in different countries and ages have come up with all sorts of explanations for this. In some of these stories, people had to die because of some trick that was played on them, or an accident that no one foresaw. Sometimes an animal is blamed (people in the Middle East thought that the serpent was a likely culprit).
But the gods don't make mistakes - or if they do, they are mistakes that we aren't able to understand very well, being so much younger than they. Odin, Hoenir, and Lothur created us just the way they intended. People were always meant to die because Odin foresaw that, at the end of this Age of the world, he will need the spirits of the greatest warriors to fight with him against the great wolves who would devour the sun, the moon, and the stars. Battles that people fight on this earth are only practice for that great battle, and the warriors go on practicing even after they come to Valhall.
It may also be that the Norns, who guard the well of being and becoming, and weave the pattern of all lives and even of the World-Ages themselves, had something to do with it. In any case, people were created and while they filled the earth and prospered, they continued to die.
One day, though, Odin looked down from his high seat Hlithskjalf, or Gate-Tower, from which he can see all that comes to pass in the nine worlds, and saw a strange thing happening in Middle-Earth. The people were not dying any more. There was a woman who had come among them, no one knew from where, a great sorceress named Gullveig (Gold-drink). She taught lore of herbs and foods that kept people alive, even when it seemed the spirits of plague were going to carry them off. And as for warriors on the battlefield, she had a magic cauldron and when a dead warrior was put into it, it wasn't long before he stepped out again, as alive and hale as ever.
The Norns even came before Odin and complained that the fates they wove for humankind were being thwarted. No longer could Urd fathom how the fountain of Becoming sprang from the deep well of past deeds. No longer could Verdandi and Skuld trace the pattern of Wyrd and foretell the future. The whole web of existence was warping and changing.
The gods in Asgard were consternated. The world-balance that they had created was broken. They held counsel together and decided that Tyr would go across Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, and bring Gullveig back to Asgard for judgement. Tyr rode forth and soon he returned, the sorceress with them.
Heimdall watched them as they rode up to the bridge. He is the great watchman of the gods, who needs no more sleep than a bird, and can see all things in all the worlds, and whose ears are so keen that he can hear the grass growing on the mounds of kings. Heimdall looked hard at Gullveig, as if he might have seen her before. But after a moment he shook his head, and let them pass.
Gullveig was brought into the great hall of Asgard. The gods sat there in judgement. 'You are going about in the world,' said Odin to her, 'and upsetting the pattern that the holy gods have decreed. People are born, and they die. A single life is not meant to go on forever. What do you have to say for yourself?'
But Gullveig said nothing, only looking at Odin proudly. Since she had nothing to say, Odin passed judgment that she should be burned. The sentence was carried out there and then. The flames leaped high in the hall, but when they had died down, Gullveig rose again from the ashes. She was gazing steadily at Odin still, and this time she spoke.
'She has died once, and is born again.'
Many of the gods felt doubt in their hearts, but Odin ordered that she again be burned. Once again the flames flickered and danced, and Gullveig was consumed in the fire. But when only a few embers were glowing, and smoke was rising black and thick, Gullveig rose again, as whole as ever.
' She had died twice,' she said this time, 'and is reborn.'
This time the gods long debated what they should do. Some said that it was clear that she was not of the race of humans. She might be a giant, or even one of the race of Light-Elves. 'We need another judgement,' they said. 'Not everything was known when we passed sentence before.' Others even said, 'When she rose again, she called the one who had died "she". That means this one before us now is a different person. This new person has not had time to do anything against the gods yet, so we must let her go.'
But Odin would not be moved. 'She is the same person,' he said. 'I may not know who she is, but I know that. And she has done what she has done. The judgement was right, and the sentence not to be changed. Let her be given to the fire once more. Sometimes, to be done fully, a thing must be done three times.'
Though some were reluctant, in the end they did as Odin said and the flames were kindled anew. But when they died down, Gullveig had not remained in Hel this time either. She stood there just as before, but somehow stronger now, more beautiful, refined as precious metal is by the great heat of a furnace.
'She has died three times,' she said now, 'and will die no more.'
Many of the gods recognized her this time. She was Freya, chief goddess of the Vanir. The Vanir lived outside Asgard in those days, in their own world on the great World-Tree. Although all of the gods have power over and are interested in many things, the Vanir are above all responsible for growth, fertility, and life, both of humans and of the animals and plants in all the worlds.
Freya disappeared from the hall of Asgard then. But it was not long before a delegation of the Vanir came to Asgard, to ask compensation for the burning of Freya. Njord, who was Freya's father, the lord of harbors and the harvest of the sea, led the Vanir. He spoke in the great hall before the assembled Aesir, saying that since Freya had only been following her nature, and she had been three times put to death, a great price must be paid by the gods of Asgard-the Aesir-to the Vanir. As Freya's kin, Njord concluded, they were within their rights to ask this.
The Aesir turned again to Odin. He stroked his beard as he thought. At last he shook his head. 'The first injury was done to us,' he said. 'And as for Freya, she lives still. Her three deaths were undone. So no compensation is due.'
There was further argument, but neither side would change their position. At last, although Njord wanted to continue the negotiations, the Vanir left Asgard, promising to return in force and lay siege to the stronghold of the Aesir.
They kept their word, and within a few days the army of the Vanir and their allies, the Light-Elves, encircled Asgard. Freyr, Freya's brother, was among the first on the field. He had a magic sword which would fight of itself, if the one that wielded it was wise in magic. Many times he had carried it into battle against the trolls who lived on the marches of Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir.
Then Odin stood on the walls of Asgard and cast his great spear, Gungnir, over the host of the Vanir. When he did this, it was as much as to dedicate them all to destruction. Human warriors would sometimes do this in Odin's name. And indeed, the Vanir fell as the mighty spear passed over them like a falling star. Victory seemed to belong to the Aesir. But Freya still stood, and she brought the host of the Vanir to life again. More fiercely than before they attacked, and soon the great walls of Asgard itself were breached.
Odin cast his spear over them a second time, and again they sank to earth, only to rise again when Freya worked her magic. The fighting was even heavier now, and soon the walls of Asgard were broken altogether. Odin stood and cast Gungnir yet again. Freya brought back her kin, as before, and now they were inside the stronghold of the Aesir, in the great hall where judgement had been passed on Freya and the battle had begun. Now she and Odin stood face to face once more, and they looked at each other a long time. Then the one-eyed god laughed.
'We could do this for all eternity, you and I,' he said. 'But it would grow tiresome. We had better have a truce, and drink deep together while we work out the fate of the worlds.'
Freya's laughter was like silver and gold, and they agreed together that it should be so. Great fires were kindled in the hall-this time only for warmth and gladness-and the gods and goddesses, Vanir and Aesir, feasted together for many days and nights.
And at that feast, many things were settled. Peace was made forever between the two great clans of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. To seal this peace, the gods agreed that some from each clan would go to live with the other. Freyr and Njord came to live with the Aesir, though in time each had their own great halls within Asgard. Hoenir, one of those who had, with Odin, created humankind, went to Vanaheim, and with him Mimir, the wise giant who had become an adopted member of the Aesir clan.
Also at this time, the Vanir and the Aesir all passed by a vat and, in token of their peacemaking, spat into it. This may seem strange, but like blood and breath, spittle is one of the things that can bind people together. In this case, it meant even more than that, because the two clans fashioned a man from their spittle-Kvasir, who was said to be the wisest man living. He comes into another story later on.
Most important of all, Freya and Odin were married, so that the Aesir and Vanir would be kin forever. That was a great wedding, with goddesses for bridesmaids and gods for the groomsmen. New stars were kindled for the night of feasting and love. Freya, like Odin, was called by many different names, and after their wedding she had the name of Frigg as well as all the others. For a name-gift Odin gave her also her own hall, where she stayed when she and Odin were not together. It was called Folkvang, or Field of the Folk.
Now this settlement was made between Odin and Freya: humankind would indeed still be given to death when their time came, though Freya's healing arts, passed down through generations of wise women and men, would ease their lot. But when they die, and go to stay in the house of Hel, or with one of the other gods or goddesses they honored in life, they are given a choice, and many of those spirits will return to the world of men. Over and above this, whenever men join in battle, Odin is given his choice of half the slain warriors, and Freya the other half. Those whom Odin takes dwell with him in Valhall, and those that go to Freya will be born again on Middle-Earth, as is told in several of the old sagas.
And so it was that peace was made between the clans of the gods, and that peace will hold in the Nine Worlds until the end of this age.
© 2007 Oak Hedge