Heathen religion, contracts and friendship


The religious context of the idea of vinr (‘friend’) in the Old Norse civilization




What will be explained here is based on Dumézil’s theory of the Indo-European gods’ role, the ones belonging to the sovereignty function, in the handling of contracts. I certainly do not aim at criticizing Dumézil: my main goal is attempting to deepen the notion of ‘hallowed contract’ in ancient Scandinavian society. It is obvious that the roles Dumézil attributes to Ódhinn and Týr do not show very much in the basic mythological texts of Scandinavian mythology. By analyzing these texts, I’ll try to find which of the Scandinavian gods inherited of the roles originally attributed to Ódhinn and Týr, and which kind of mythical details can explain that these roles came to belong to Thórr, Vár and Forseti in our mythology.

My case rests on the importance of the concepts of contract and oath in the ancient Germanic world. In the following, you will see several arguments favoring this idea. The proof itself stems from many historical facts that show the importance of a contract and an oath. For example, the existence of a lög-sogu-maðr (law-teller-human = somebody saying the law) who, before each Thing meeting (Note*) was in charge to recall the law, that is the social contract concluded among community members.

In a somewhat more general way, Jónas Kristjánsson (Note**), in his Icelandic sagas and manuscripts, states that the sagas (be them historical or not) describe characters prompted by “certain moral values and ideas, many of which are very ancient in origin, being pre-Christian and even contrary to Christian teachings. The most important concept is that of the untranslatable drengskapr, a word in which many virtues are implicit: truthfulness, good faith, sincerity…” The literal meaning of dreng-skapr isgood_lad-shape’ (in the shape of a good lad). The main virtue of such a ‘good lad’ is that he will never break the contract between him and his fellow soldiers, his vinir. This is exemplified by the meaning of the expression falla með drengskap (to fall as a drengskapr), which means ‘to fall with his sword in hands’ and shows well that this ‘good lad’ will die before breaking the mutual support oath.


(Note*) The Icelandic Thing was a meeting of all free men. It took place each year around mid-June. All important decisions would be adopted there. The best example of such a decision is the adoption of Catholic faith in year 1000. Apparently unrelated but so symbolic is the fact that the Thing would be held in a narrow vale  made by the separation of the American and European tectonic plates: Icelanders would then stand on both continents.

(Note**) Jónas Kristjánsson is a famous specialist of Icelandic sagas and has been from1970 to 1994, the director of the institute charged to collect the whole body of the Icelandic manuscripts.]


Contracts and friends in Hávamál


(Stanzas 1 (contract), 6 (contract), 24 (contract), 25 (contract), 34 (love) , 41 (contract and love), 42 (contract), 43 (contract), 44 (merged style love), 51(vin-skapr = ‘frienship’ – love ), 52 (félag = companion), 65 (contract), 67 (contract with Ódhinn), 78 (weath is not a friend), 119 (contract and love), 121 (love), 124 (merged style love), 156 (lang-vinr = long-time friend, contract)


The idea that friends are bound by a contract is implicit but clear in the advice Ódhinn provides in several Hávamál stanzas. This is not always easy to notice because friendship (‘vinátta’ or vinskapr), as we apprehend it now, is vastly different from ancient Scandinavian vinátta. It even seems almost inappropriate to me to try translating the words vinátta or vinskapr into the English language. As we shall see, the relations between vinir (‘friends’) are simultaneously more formal and deeper than the ones between two modern friends. They are more formal because the vinir are bound by a kind of contract that is so binding that we could call it a ‘contractual friendship agreement’. But they are also much deeper than in our friendship and look like a love relationship, and sometimes even a ‘merged style love’.

In the above list of stanzas about friendship, I put between brackets the main aspect of friendship they evoke: contract, love or both. I obviously send you back to my translation of these stanzas as given at http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/IntroNewHavamalEng.htm . Here are however some additional explanations.


               Contractual friendship agreement

Stanza 43 is the one which provides the most obvious clue that two vinir are bound by a contract. It specifies that a couple of friends cannot tolerate that one of them could be also friendly to the other’s non-friend. Such a prohibition implies that the friends act in the same way in a hostile situation, which is not possible without some contractual constraint. Note also that the usual translation of Old Norse óvinr (ó-vinr = non-friend) by ‘foe’ lowers the strength of the present argument.

Stanza 42 indirectly suggests the existence of this ‘contractual friendship agreement’. It describes three different behaviors. The first is acknowledged friendship associated to the return of gifts by gifts. The second one is the case of a friendly joust (of which another stanza says that it often degenerates into hostility) where laugh for laugh is returned. The third is acknowledged hostility where returning lie for lie is recommended. This implies that we should not do offensive jokes on our friends and nor lie to them: this looks like a clause in a friendship contract.

Stanza 25 describes someone who believes that any jester is also a friend. When this person goes to the Thing, none will support him (last three lines of 25). This amounts to claim that he lacks real friends, the ones that support him at the Thing, again a kind of contract.

Stanza 1 says that we should distrust the non-friends when entering a house where they arrived ahead of us. This implies, conversely, that we should trust our friends. This illustrates the strong alliance existing among them.

Stanza 6 describes a non-breaching friend who always gives (or to whom we give) good advice. Thus, a faithful friendship is a source of mutual advising, again some kind of alliance.

Stanza 41 describes a kind of friendship which includes also some love: A continuous exchange of gifts is a pledge to continuous friendship. The requirement for giving and receiving evokes a contract renewal and the associated pleasure evokes lovers, a pleasure that lasts as long as their love.

Stanza 65 is less obviously linked to a contract. It deals with the need of cautious wording even with the friends. Unfortunate words can trigger hostility with anyone, including friends.

Stanza 156 deals with magic and exemplifies friendship between a human and a god: Ódhinn speaks of long-time friends that he will protect during a battle. Supposing that we accept now that friendship is a contract, the use of the word ‘friend’ proves that Ódhinn and his ‘friends’ are liked by a contract. This hints at the peculiar links that this civilization supposes between its gods and humans.


               Love and Friendship

The etymology of word vinr states that it comes Indo-European roots meaning ‘love, desire, sexual desire ’. I pushed this information back to an appendix since the meaning of a word can vary a lot during its linguistic evolution. Hávamál proves us that vinr did not lose all of its etymology.


This is illustrated by Hávamál 44 that describes a deep intimacy among friends: “geði skaltu við þann blanda (in spirit must you merge with him)”. Such a spiritual fusion shows that vinátta includes a feature we tend to attribute to couples bound in the tightest way.

Stanza 121 develops the same theme in a slightly different way. It states that “sadness eats your heart if your words to not reach your friend’s whole soul.” These friends speak together with an open heart which adds a strong touch of love in their friendship.

In a civilization such as ours, where love between adults is inseparably linked to sexuality, except in a few precise contexts, this ‘confusion’ between love and friendship might look shocking. Just remove our obsessive link to sex, and you find back ancient Scandinavian vinátta.



Friendship in the ancient Scandinavian world is much more formal than our present days friendship and it is consecrated by both a contract of mutual help and a relation where spirit and soul blend together.

The discussions below will report of the sacred feature of vinátta, a feature added to its contractual nature since contracts are hallowed by the gods and to breach one is offending the gods. This argument shows that, in the ancient Scandinavian civilization, a contract is both a social and religious act supervised by Thórr (and Vár for the matrimonial contracts). This fits well with Dumézil's idea that the concept of ‘hallowed contract’ finds its origins in our Indo-European roots. This is why it seems to me that the concept of vinr is not debased by associating it to a contract between the vinir. On the contrary, the modern concept of sentimental friendship defines a quite unreliable relationship since your so-called friends will forsake you as soon as you start being in deep trouble.

Your Germanic vinir are bound to you by a divine contract and they cannot let you down without exacting Thórr raising his hammer.


Mitra and Varuna


Dumézil presents his first mature version of his theory of the three “divine functions” in his Mitra-Varuna (1940, corrected in 1948). He develops there the idea that the “sovereign gods” (‘first’ function) appear in the form of a couple exemplified in the title of his book. In Indian mythology, the god named Varuna in Rig-Veda is a god of action, a compelling and even violent sovereign. He is the god who punishes when a contract is breached; he incarnates the magic and warlike aspects of royalty. He is associated to a form of disorder, in the sense that he is more in charge of creating new laws than enforcing the respect of existing laws. Symmetrically, the god named Mitra is the god of decision instead of action, a friendly sovereign, the one who sets up the contracts. He embodies the religious and accommodating aspects of royalty. He brings with him calm and order; he is par excellence the lawyer god.

Dumézil backs up his conclusions by examples primarily drawn from the Vedic religion and the religion of the ancient Latin, dated before the creation of the Roman republic. He also shows how the particular social conditions of the Germanic society alter this scheme.

We are now able to define what is understood by the “setting up of a contract”, that is, what exactly is Mitra’s role. In Northern mythology, the one who ‘hallows’ a contract (the contract then receives a divine quality) is also the one who punishes who breaches it. This is the Varuna-like role of the god. In parallel, the ‘establishment’ of the contract, that is the discussions and agreements reached, are controlled by a Mitra-like god. This god brings to the contracts their human warm harmony, while a Varuna-like god gives the contracts their divine seal and stamp.


Scandinavian ‘Mitra’: Týr, then Forseti


Dumézil justifies Týr’s role as a lawyer of the Kingly (or first) function by using the myth of Fenrir’s chaining. His point is that none but a god supposedly unable to break a contract could attract the wolf’s trust, that is, the primary god of legal order. As we know, and for the sake of his clan safety, Týr breaks his oath but he will have to pay his betrayal by becoming the “one-handed god.” Looking a bit ahead of my argument, I can say that he loses then the hand which holds the judicial hallowing hammer (Note*). You also know that Týr “has power on the victory in the battles” (Snorra Edda) because he is the god of courage and wisdom. Just like Ódhinn, his powers overflow on the second function (also called ‘Strength’ or ‘War’) though in a very different way. Ódhinn is the representative of warlike fury, while the lawyer Týr, in Dumézil’s view, and is the one of the laws of war.

Dumézil thus claims that Týr, due to his oath breaching is demoted of his lawyer role in the first function: he can no more set up contracts nor laws.  He however keeps his lawyer role in the second function (Note**) since he keeps his power on the outcome of battles, as Snorri reports.

It seems that his lawyer function has been transferred to a very a young god, child of Nanna and Baldr, Forseti. The only ‘proof’ we have of this is reported in two descriptions of Forseti’s role. One is due to Snorri in Gylfagyning chapter 32: “En allir, er til hans koma með sakarvandræði, þá fara allir sáttir á braut.” (All these who come to present their litigations to him come back from there reconciled). This is confirmed by Grímnismál, stanza 15: “ok svæfir allar sakir.” (… and he carefully softens all the conflicts).

This does not explicitly refer to contracts. It is however obvious that contracts being precisely set up to avoid conflicts, we can understand that Forseti softly “sets up the contracts,” and that is the exact role of Dumézilian Mitra.


(Note*) It is interesting to note that this disability is not really parallel to Ódhinn’s loss of one eye for acquiring magic. The loss of Týr’s hand is a demotion; the loss of Ódhinn’s eye is a promotion to the status of magician.

(Note**) It is obvious that this reasoning holds because it relies on compared mythology. Dumézil provides convincing evidence for each of his claim, but he cannot alleviate the fact that no text of our mythology shows Týr as responsible for the establishment of contracts - except the myth of Fenrir’s chaining which, as it is obvious from our mythological texts, has been seen by the ancient Norse as an act of bravery, not as one of legality.


Is Thórr the god who hallows contracts?


Another key point of my argumentation is that Thórr is the god who hallows contracts with his hammer Mjölnir. If this is true, Thórr obviously holds a ‘Varunian’ role. I acknowledge, though, that no text explicitly says: “Then Thórr sealed the contract by hallowing it with Mjöllnir.” Whereas his role for ‘hallowing’ a situation is well-known, it is necessary to read again carefully some texts to observe where a commitment to a contract takes place and I will now provide three examples of this situation. The first example below is relative to the hallowing of a marriage by using Mjöllnir. The second one shows how Thórr punishes the breach of a contract. The third one describes a contract that has been left implicit.


Example 1: Thrym and Thorr’s ‘marriage’ ceremony


The Eddic poem called Thrymskvidha tells how a giant, Thrym, stole Mjöllnir and he requires to marry Freyja for returning it. She refuses by throwing a fit of anger (the Brisingamen necklace bursts out of her chest) such that the Æsir seek another solution. It finally comes down to Thórr getting dressed as a woman and playing Freyja’s role. All proceeds according to plan though Thrym is surprised by some behaviors of his pseudo bride. When the time of the marriage hallowing comes, Thrym, who believes he is marrying Freyja, requests that the hammer to be brought “to hallow the bride (brúði at vígja) / lie Mjöllnir (lekkið Mjöllni) / on the knee of the girl, (í meyjar kné) / link us together (vígið okkr saman) / by Vár’s hand (Várar hendi).” [hendi is the singular dative of hönd, the hand; Várar is here the singular genitive of Vár.]

Thus, in the case of a marriage, the goddess Vár seals the marriage with a hammer, here with Mjöllnir. It is interesting to note that Snorri also sees Vár as punishing those who do not hold their word.

Gylfagyning ch. 35 [here, as in the following, the translations in between “ ” are Faulkes’]: “Ninth Var : she listens to people’s oaths and private agreements that women and men make between each other. Thus these contracts are called varar. She also punishes those who break them.”

In Old Norse, the last sentence is written: “Hon to hefnir ok þeim, er brigða.” The verb hefna means ‘to revenge, to take vengeance’ and the word ok, usually meaning ‘and’, can here be nothing but an adverb meaning ‘also’. More precisely than Faulkes, the meaning of this sentence is: “She takes also revenge on those who ‘make empty’ (the oath).” Thus, in Snorri’s time, Vár hallows the matrimonial contracts and punishes those who empty it of its purpose. In parallel, in this last example, we see that Mjöllnir is used to hallow a contract but we also know, as from the following example, that it is the tool of punishment for a broken oath. The fact that the contract thus hallowed takes a divine nature is underlined by Snorri’s way of speech: He does not say that Vár ‘punishes’ but she ‘revenges upon’. Breaking a matrimonial contract is an insult to Vár, of what she can indeed ‘take vengeance’.

It is also understood that Thórr accepted this ridiculous role of been engaged to a giant (a role that Freyja refuses with so much anger!) because both know that Mjöllnir will hallow this marriage. Thórr knows that he will recover Mjöllnir right before the hallowing and that, equipped with his invincible weapon, he will at once stop this comedy. Freyja, on her side, knows that, if this marriage takes place with her, it would be hallowed by Mjöllnir and she could not rely on Thórr to free her from it since this would amount to breaking a hallowed union.


Example 2: Building Midhgardh fort


Gylfaginning, chapter 42.

The best known example of punishment for breaking a contract is found in the myth of building a fort inside Midhgardh in order to provide protection against the giants’ attacks. The Æsir agree to the proposal of a ‘worker’ to build a fortification in Midhgardh so that they can be always protected from the attacks of the giants. The contract between the worker and the Æsir is agreed with “mörg særi (many oaths) fyrir því at jötnum þótti ekki tryggt at vera með ásum griðalaust, ef Þórr kæmi heim (as for the giants, they thought not being in safety with the Æsir without a [special] truce, if Thórr would come back home).” This contract thus makes it possible for the workman to feel safe in the event of Thórr’s unexpected return. This contract implies also that the workman is a giant, otherwise why would he so much fear Thórr? It specifies, moreover, that the workman will not be paid if he spends more than one winter (that is, six months) to carry out the order and that he should receive the assistance “af engum manni (of no human being).” Manni is the dative of the word madhr, human, but this expression often takes to the meaning of ‘anybody ‘, therefore here, of any human, nor of any other giant. Further, the workman asks for the right of receiving help from his horse. At Loki’s urging, the Æsir accept this clause. They quickly realize that they have been cheated because this horse is so strong that the workman will be able to fulfill the contract and will have to receive his reward (nothing more than Freyja, the sun and the moon!). The Æsir cannot break the contract since the workman fully respects it. However, they force Loki, under penalty of death, to manage at all costs to ruin the workman’s task, obviously without breaking the contract. Then takes place the famous episode of Loki’s trick where he changes himself into a mare, and seduces the horse by grunting. The verb used by Snorri to describe the behavior of Loki, hrína, means ‘to grunt, shout, bemoan’. The horse gives up its task to follow Loki-mare. The workman sees that he will fail in completing his task early enough and gets into a ‘giant’s fury’. It follows that, from a trick to a counter-trick, the contractors have respected the clauses of the contract up to that point. Using violence can be seen as a breach of contract. The Æsir thus feel justified to also break it. 

En er æsirnir þat til víss, at þar var bergrisi kominn, þá varð eigi þyrmt eiðunum [literally: then became not respected oaths (or oath-takers)] ok kölluðu þeir á Þór, ok jafnskjótt kom hann, ok því næst fór á loft hamarinn Mjöllnir.

[Recall: Faulkes’ translation] “But when the Æsir, saw for certain that it was a mountain-giant that they had here, then the oaths were disregarded and they called upon Thor and he came in a trice and the next thing was that Miollnir was raised aloft.


But, as shown by the comment on the importance of the contract for a giant, it is clear that the Æsir knew about the nature of the workman. If they are now certain that “a giant came,” this is a novel information to them only if the horse is, actually, a giant. There we meet a real breach of contract. The understanding of this story I give here does not eliminate the fact that the workman might have broken the contract in his ‘giant’s fury’. The contract, however, did not contain an explicit clause prohibiting the use of the force whereas it did contain one prohibiting any external help, except that of a horse. If the horse is a fake one, then the contract is really breached. My conviction is based on the fact that the assertion “saw for certain that it was a mountain-giant that they had here” contradicts the fact that the contract had been set up with so much care because of the giants fearing Thórr.

What seems now odd is the Æsir’s tacit knowledge that an ordinary steed would not have been put in rut by a pig-like growl emitted by the magic born mare-Loki. Consider that we are in an age of horsemen, each one of Æsir has to it his own horse, for example. It is well-known that a mare in heat neighs more often and is more nervous than usual, but it is at the very least rare that it grunts as a sow in heat. This verb suggests that Loki planned very carefully all the event of this story and that he ‘grunted’ because he knew that this growl would never have excited an ordinary steed but would be alluring to a giant. 


Gylfaginning version, ch. 44 of Völuspá, stanza 26

Þórr einn þar , / þrunginn móði / hann sialdan sitr / er hann slíct um fregn; / á genguz eiðar, / orð oc sœri, / mál öl meginlig, / er á meðal fóro.

 “Oaths were gone back on, / pledged words, promises, all the solemn vows that passed between them. Thor achieved this alone, / bursting with wrath. / He seldom sits idle / when he learns of such news.”


Snorri and Völuspá both say that “the oaths were broken” though Snorri includes it in a sentence devoted to the Æsir, which is confusing. Faulkes’ translation exactly renders the literal Norse: it does not say that only the Æsir broke their oath. It means that the Æsir felt misled and became conscious that the initial contract had been breached by the workman. The Völuspá comments on Thórr in order to underline that “He seldom sits idle / when he learns of such news.” The word for ‘news’, fregn, is in the singular and the news contains only one piece of information which, from the context, is: “an oath has been broken (by the giant he will chastise).”


Example of Thórr’s goats


Here now is the myth of the consumption of Thórr’s goats. In Gylfaginning, chap. 44, Thórr invites a peasant and his family to eat the flesh of his goats. This is a friendly invitation to share a meal, and Thórr is the inviting host. It ‘thus’ implies a mutual confidence contract.

We can guess the nature of this contract through the few first stanzas of Hávamál that describe the proper behavior between a host and his guests. The host must carefully avoid offending his gests and the guests have to prove that they deserve being invited. In particular, it is unthinkable that the guests could steal something to their host or reject a (non-offending) request. This would amount to breaching the host/guest contract.

Coming back to the myth we are relating, when they are finished eating, Thórr tells them to throw the bones on the goats’ skins. This means that they are not allowed to go on eating them. The son, Thialfi however ‘breaks down the contract’ by breaking one of the bones in order to eat its marrow. Thórr discovers Thialfi’s misbehavior when he hallows the goatskins. They come back to life as expected but one of them is lame. Thórr becomes angry but calms down when he obtains compensation: Thialfi and its sister will become his servants. In this myth, you note that the contract is left implicit and hallowing is useful for detecting its breach and indirectly only for punishing. Moreover, inaccurate translations make forget the hallowing part. All translators, I suppose carried away by the Christian ceremony of “blessing the bread and the wine,” translate the verb used here, vígja, by ‘to bless’ instead of ‘to hallow’ as it usually means when speaking of Mjöllnir.

Gylfaginning, chapter 44:

Þórr dvaldist þar of nóttina. In í óttu to fyrir dag stóð hann upp ok klæddi sik, tók hamarinn Mjöllni ok brá upp ok vígði hafrstökurnar.

“Thor stayed the night there and in the small hours before dawn, he got up and dressed, took the hammer Miollnir and raised it and blessed [no, vígði = hallowed] the goatskins.”

It seems to me that most people understand this story as Thórr punishing a disobedient boy. I see in it Thórr reacting to the breach of a contract. As it is often the case, both interpretations are possible and we cannot decide which one has been better speaking to the ancient Norse people. My preference for the second interpretation relies on the importance of the notion of contract in the ancient Norse society, which has been attested in many ways, especially by the structure of the Icelandic society.


The Scandinavian ‘Varuna’: Ódhinn, and later Thórr and Vár


In our mythology, you will immediately spot Ódhinn as being the god of action, of magic and who, in particular through his bonds with Loki, is also bringing some amount of disorder. On the other hand, it is far from obvious that he would be in charge of punishing the contract breakers. Dumézil does not underline this point and the present comment will try to fill up this hole.

As we already know, the responsibility for establishment of the contracts has undoubtedly been removed from Týr’s hands because his breaching of the contract with Fenrir. In the same way, it was not acceptable that the god setting up the contracts (or the contents of the oaths) could break one without endangering the divine authority. And Ódhinn does breach his oath in order to get back the mead of poetry and thus loses his role of Germanic ‘Varuna’. This is told in Hávamál, stanza 110. After a baugeidh ceremony (an oath ‘on the ring’), Ódhinn leaves behind him “«  Suttung svikinn … ok grætta Gunnlöðu  (Suttungr betrayed … and sorrow to Gunnlödh).”.


Dumézil underlines Thórr’s strength and see in him the typical god of the second function (strength, “especially in the war events,” as he puts it). He however does not recall that Thórr punishes contract breaches and can also seal them with Mjölnir. Thórr plays an important role in controlling the good execution of the contracts, as example 2 above clearly shows.

Example 1 shows that, in the case of matrimony contracts, Vár is the one who plays this role.

In this way, our mythology clearly confirms that Thórr and Vár are the Scandinavian ‘Varuna’.



Gunnlödh in sorrow (Ernst Hansen - 1941): Ódhinn broke his contract and flees in the shape of an eagle




As a conclusion, I think that we can follow Dumézil in assuming a probable primitive Indo-European structure where the role of administration and supervision of the social contracts has been entrusted to Ódhinn (‘Varuna’) and Týr (‘Mitra’), even if our mythology does not provide all the necessary details.

Thórr inherited of Ódhinn’s judicial function, as the avenger for breached contracts. Forseti, though not very famous, inherited of Týr’s judicial function, as the maker of balanced and rightful contracts.

Dumézil does not evoke any god responsible for the hallowing of marriage contracts, allotted to Vár in our mythology. It is clear that Ódhinn is not really ‘the man for the job’ for such a role! Moreover, the relatively significant role of femininity in the Germanic civilization (that so much irked Tacitus) is enough to explain the need for a goddess in control of marriage contracts.

Lastly, Dumézil allots a role of ‘Germanic Varuna’ to Ódhinn by analogy with Varuna’s other functions rather than for any precise mythological trait. Dumézil is of course conscious of the lack of examples of this role in Germanic mythology. He explains this by a “Germanic democratic form of spirit,” supposed to have led to mistrust the representatives of the first function, and by the multiplicity of the functions allotted to Ódhinn. It seems to me that the real reason is to seek elsewhere, namely in the increasing importance of Thórr in his multifunctional role. First of all, Thórr is a very atypical god of the ‘war function’ since he never takes part in any human wars. He is thus the god of a ‘pure strength function’, a non-military one. He can better be seen as a kind of police officer fighting for of the Æsir divine order against the giants’ chaos. This role thus admirably qualifies him as ‘hallower’ and ‘controller’ of the oaths that constitutes the basis of the Æsir’s divine order.



An appendix on vinr and friðr etymology

(on proto Indo-European love and friendship among the ancient Germanic peoples)


Etymology makes of vinr a cognate to proto-Germanic wunjo, the name of the rune of pleasure. It seems thus acknowledged that vinr, wunjo, the runic word viniZ and Latin Venus all stem from the same Indo-European root, wénos (= ‘love, sexual desire, beauty’). The last comes from proto-Indo-European wen (= ‘to wish, to want’), as underlined by J Pokorny in his Indogermanisches-Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Accordingly, Old High German uses wini* to mean ‘friendly, in love, comrade’ (as in Köbler’s Althochdeutsches Wörterbuch).

Obviously, all this is not enough to translate vinr by something else than ‘friend’ but makes it possible to understand that, in certain contexts, friendship can become a form of love, say a ‘friendly love’.


Somewhat funnily, we can add that the famous ‘new age’ way of speech: « Make love, do not make war » exists as well in the ancient Germanic world in the positive form « Make love and make peace. » This follows from the etymology of word friðr, peace, since its Indo-european roots links it also to love relations.

The word friðr comes from Indo-European príjâ: ‘woman, wife’ which led to words like Old Norse freyja (name of the goddess, but also a laudatory way to speak about a woman), Old English frēo (as a substantive = woman, and as an adjective = free), fridil* (= in love, friendly) in Old High German, modern German Frau. The root of this word also leads to words designating a friend: frændi in Old Norse, Old English frēond, modern English friend, again Old High German fridil that designates also a friend. The meaning of ‘peace’ is found in other connected words, such as fridu into Old High German, frið in Old English, and frēod (= peace, friendship) which has both meanings Old English.

We should however avoid concluding Old Norse friðr means something else than ‘peace’: Its meaning is further from its etymology than vinr.  From its Indo-European root príjâ to Old Norse friðr a slip of meaning took place.  This is explained by de Vries who indeed gives the meanings frjá ‘to love’, friðill ‘lover’ and friðla ‘concubine’, but he never suggests that these words represent the original meaning of the word friðr. Actually, he connects the verb frjá to a group of word whose meanings are “to spare, to decorate, to reconcile, (adjective:) free, (nouns:) friendship, love, and peace.” This root thus spans several cognate meanings. Lastly, the verb, obviously associated in Old Norse to friðr, is friða which means ‘to pacify, to settle’. Moreover, all the words built on prefix up frið-* relate to peace, from frið-bot (a settled peace) to frið-vænligr (promise of peace). The same is true for the words built on friðr, from friðar-andi (spirit of peace) to friðar-tími (time of peace).




Georges Dumézil Mitra-Varuna, PUF 1940 and Gallimard 1948 (in French). English translation Zone Books, 1988.

Jónas Kristjánsson, Icelandic sagas and manuscripts, Iceland Review, 1980 (citation p. 50).

Snorra Edda (English translation A. Faulkes, Everyman 1987. French translation F.-X. Dillmann, Gallimard 1991).

Völuspá, poetic Edda.