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Definition: Aesir from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

The principal gods of Norse mythology – Odin, Thor, Balder, Tyr, Heimdall, and Loki. Their dwelling place was Asgard. They fought against a rival group of gods, the Vanir; as a result Njord, Freyr, and Freya joined them, initially as hostages.


Summary Article: ÆSIR from World Mythology: Handbook of Norse Mythology
72009
Image from: Odin, with his two crows, Hugin in The Bridgeman Art Library Archive

The gods; also the main group of gods, as opposed to the vanir.

The medieval Icelandic word æsir is a plural; the singular is áss, and a derived feminine form, ásynja (pl., ásynjur), means “goddess.” Etymologically, áss appears to be derived from an Indo-European root meaning “breath,” and this would suggest an association with life and life-giving forces. A dissenting etymology would understand the term as associated with sovereignty and “binding gods,” parallel to the terms bönd and höpt. The term is found a few times in early runic inscriptions, and the cognate is found in Old English os, “god, deity,” and in anses, “demigods,” a Latinized version of a word in Gothic, the language of the well-known Germanic tribe. The word áss, or its homonym, also means “beam” or “post,” and some scholars seek an association with wooden idols or the equivalent. The rune poems, which are relatively late, give áss or its equivalent as the name of the a-rune.

In medieval Icelandic the term æsir is the one most often found when the gods are being described as a group, in prose and in poetry. In Thrymskvida, for example, when it is revealed that Thor’s hammer has been stolen by the giant Thrym and that he will exchange it only for Freyja, the poet writes:

Then all the æsir were at an assembly,
And all the ásynjur in discussion. (stanza 14)

Often the term álfar, “elves,” is used as a parallel, probably because of the alliteration that the poetic form required, but also perhaps because of a fundamental association between the two groups. As she describes the world crumbling about them at Ragnarök, for example, the seeress of Völuspá asks: “What’s with the æsir, / what’s with the elves?” (stanza 48), a formula that is repeated in Thrymskvida, stanza 7. In the Ljódatal section of Hávamál, Odin boasts that he can discern the difference between æsir and álfar (stanza 159) and adds that the fifteenth song he has learned was chanted by the dwarf Thjódörir, before the doors of Delling: “He chanted strength for the æsir, / advancement for the álfar, / and mind for HroptaTýr [Odin]” (stanza 160). The formulaic association of æsir and álfar is also found in Grímnismál, Skírnismál, and Lokasenna.

Although the plural refers to all the gods, the singular seems to have a special association with Thor. Thus, when Thor tells Loki about the theft of the hammer early in Thrymskvida, he says: “The áss has had his hammer stolen” (stanza 2). Thor is called Ása-Thor (Thor of the æsir). No other god is described in this way, and it has been suggested that this extension of the name means that he was regarded as best of the æsir.

The most interesting use of the word æsir is that of Snorri Sturluson in the euhemerization project he set forth in the preface to his Edda and in the opening chapters of Ynglinga saga. Ásía, the Old Norse word for Asia, appeared to contain the word áss, although of course it does not, and Snorri used the sound similarity to suggest that the original meaning of æsir was “men of Asia.” Chapter 2 of Ynglina saga begins as follows:

To the east of Tanakvísl [the river Don] in Asia was known as Ásaland [land of the æsir] or Ása-heimr [world of the æsir], and the principle stronghold in the land they called Ásgard.

Because of this usage, one must take care when reading Snorri’s Edda. When King Gylfi resolves to set off for his encounter with High, Equally-high, and Third, it is because he is curious about the knowledge and power of the Ása-folk, which must refer to “Asians”; the intended euhemerism may even explain Snorri’s choice of “Ása-folk,” which clearly retains the root of Ásía, here instead of “æsir.” In the frame to Skáldskaparmál, however, he just refers to the inhabitants of Ásgard as æsir, and there the ambiguity may be deliberate.

See also Æsir-Vanir War; Almáttki áss; Ása-Thor; Gods, Words for

References and further reading:
  • Heusler, Andreas. Die gelehrte Urgeschichte im altisländischen Schrifttum, Abhandlungen der Königlichen Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse; [Jahrg.] 1908, Abh. 3 (Berlin, Verlag der Königlichenen Akademie der Wissenschaften, in Commission bei Georg Reimer, 1908). Waltraud Hunke, “Odins Geburt,” in Edda, Skalden, saga: Festschrift zum 70. Geburtstag von Felix Genzmer, ed. Hermann Schneider (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1952), 68-71. Edgar Polomé, “L’étymologie du terme germanique *ansuz ‘dieu souverain,’” Études germaniques 8 (1953): 36-44. Albert Morey Sturtevant, “Regarding the Name Ása-∏órr,” Scandinavian Studies 15 (1953): 15-16.
  • Copyright © 2001 by John Lindow

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