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While looking at Norse Mythology to write this question, I read a passage of the book more closely than I had before, and noticed something interesting. When humans are created, the brothers Odin, Vili, and Ve each take a different role in the creation of the first two fully functioning humans beings. First, Odin gives them life: "Odin [...] breathed life into them [...] now they were alive." Then "Vili gave them will; he gave them intelligence and drive. Now they could move, and they could want." Finally, "Ve carved the logs," giving them a shape, making one male and one female. And then all three brothers give them clothes, and names. (p. 33-34)

Is there a significance to the creation of each different part of the complete human being coming from different brothers? After reading Gaiman's book, I don't feel that I know Vili and Ve very well, but Odin is certainly very different from his brothers. Neither Vili nor Ve, for example, sacrificed an eye or hanged themselves to seek knowledge. The gallows-god is also a strong-willed leader; Odin, not his brothers, leads the Aesir and the Einherjar. He is in charge of battle, and is the most important god in the Norse pantheon; these are qualities that his brothers lack.

What, if anything, does it mean that essential qualities of humanity are endowed by different gods?

Do these gods have different skill sets? Is it possible that Odin wouldn't be able to, let's say, carve the logs into a shape? Or could it be that, assuming all three brothers are equally capable, there is a reason that Odin, as the god of war (or any of the other things he is god of) is associated with the breath of life, and ditto for Vili and Ve? How should we explain the multistep and multi-player creation of humanity in the Norse mythos?

  • I'd recommend reposting on Mythology. (There are some experts over there with greatly superior knowledge to my own regarding the Norse canon.) Gaiman is well regarded on Mythology, and this question seems more mythological than strictly literary. That said, it's quite common across different pantheons that deities represent different human qualities, Aphrodite for desire as opposed to Athena for wisdom. – DukeZhou Jun 19 '17 at 18:26
  • But again, I'd direct you to mythology because there is certainly a linguistic element: Vili is said to mean "will" in Old Norse, and Ve is a word for shrine (a type of enclosure that could can be an analogy for the body housing the spirit.) But I'm getting this translations from Wikipedia, whereas on Mythology, there are contributors with a strong command of Old Norse. – DukeZhou Jun 19 '17 at 18:28
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The primary sources

Let us start with what the sources actually say they were given, and by whom. First, from Völuspá:

  1. Mind they not own,
    reflection they had not,
    no vision nor cover
    or colour fine;
    mind gave Odinn,
    reflection gave Hænir,
    vision gave Lódurr
    and colour fine.

Then, Snorri, in Gylfaginning, chapter IX:

When the sons of Borr were walking along the sea-strand, they found two trees, and took up the trees and shaped men of them: the first gave them spirit and life; the second, wit and feeling; the third, form, speech, hearing, and sight. They gave them clothing and names: the male was called Askr, and the female Embla, and of them was mankind begotten, which received a dwelling-place under Midgard.

(comparing with Swedish translations I have, there are large variation; Lars Lönnroth translation of Völuspa lets the gods give breath, force, and blood and colour, respectively. There is less difference in Snorri's acccount, which is unsurprising as it is in prose; instead of "feeling", they are given the "ability to move")

As can be seen, the two sources that retell this even differs in almost every detail; Völuspa claims that it was Odin, as well as the relatively unknown Gods Hænir and Lódurr, while Snorri says that it was the sons of Borr, which he earlier had identified as Odin, Vili, and Vé. Vili and Vé are also almost unknown quantities.

Who are these gods?

Hænir also appears as the hostage sent by the Aesir to the Vanir at the end of the war between them, and he makes himself into a great chieftain, but he seems to be utterly reliant on the advice of the other hostage, Mimir. He also appears as one of the survivors after Ragnarök, where he selects something wooden that has to do with destiny (Lönnroth claims it is tools for divination, Steinsland that it is a new world tree). Finally, and perhaps most interesting, he also appears with Odin and Loki in the 10th century verse Haustlöng, which has made some commenters suggest that the otherwise unknown Lódurr might be Loki.

Vili and Vé are the little-known brothers of Odin, and they crop up here and there: they helped in slaying Ymir and the creation of the world from his corpse. Odin wou1d also, apparently, let his brothers rule in his stead when he was on his travels. Once he was gone so long that they married his wife...

Why three?

There could have been more than one god to show that this was not something even the powerful Odin could achieve on his own (remember, the Norse gods are in fact rather feeble when compared to other pantheons); and three is a more "magic" number than two. However, there is also a suggestion made by Steinsland that this could have something to do with an earlier verse in Völuspá, where three giantesses enter the world of the Aesir and cause it to fall; apparently, there is structural parallelism to the point that the genders are wrong in this passage. As to why three giantesses, that is a good question, but it could be that they are actually the norns Urd, Verdandi and Skuld.

Conclusion

One thing seems clear, and that is that Odin as the most important god was also the one that actually gave them life. However, the other two gods, who also gave important things, are all decidedly vague and unknown (unless we take the hypothetical identification of Lodurr with Loki as fact), so that we can not really know why each gave what. This is reflected in the scholarly literature I consulted: even Clunies Ross, who is most interested in the matter, does not really devote energy on who gave what.

My take on this is that we should probably give more weight to the version in Völuspá. Even if the two versions might reflect two independent traditions, it seems more likely that someone introduced Odin's two brothers in a story where there originally were two other, little-known gods, than the other way around. That we have an early piece of scaldic poetry which puts Odin in a similar situation with at least one of these gods is also important. I would think that Hænir was an older, once important god that was almost, but not quite, forgotten.

My sources

Apart from translation linked in the text, I've consulted Lars Lönnroth's Den poetiska Eddan and Karl G. Johansson's Snorres Edda.

Gro Steinsland's Fornnordisk religion was used for most of the details on the different gods.

Britt-Mari Näsströms Nordiska gudinnor had a good introduction to Vili and Vé.

Margaret Clunies-Ross Prolonged Echoes has a lot to say about the creation of the world in general, and the ideology that is presented through it in particular.

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I'm going to attempt an answer, based on my knowledge of mythology in general, and Classical mythology in particular, with the caveat that I'd redirect you towards Stack Mythology where the real Norse experts reside.

The separation of qualities among different deities is a staple of most pantheons. Even in fairly binary pantheons such as Zoroastrianism you'd have one deity representing qualities accepted to be good as distinct from a a deity representing opposite qualities.

This is surely related to the need to separate and define concepts. (i.e. without evil to contrast it with, how does one define good?)

In the larger pantheons, it would seem that deities, in general, need to have a function. Thus domains and human qualities are divided among the gods.

By the time of Plato, we start to see the gods as representations of ideas, or ideals, which carries the implication that they may not be strictly literal.

In regards to Vili and Ve, there is a linguistic component:

  • Vili means "will" in Old Norse

  • is a word for shrine, an enclosure that can be an analogy for the body housing the spirit.

Will, spirit and breath and life are intimately connected in the Greek and Latin, through words such as pneuma, anima, psyche, although this concept is pretty universal. It makes sense that Odin, in his role of the all-father, would reserve this power for himself. (Odin is a notorious collector of powers, and not to be trifled with.)

But I believe these words are distinct from words meaning intent or will, as with Vili.

  • The association of these three qualities with three brothers may be indicative of the relatedness of the concepts

It may also be taken as an indicator of their fundamental nature: a human being has a spirit, a body, and volition.

Finally, the separation of powers may be a function of deities needing to have a function. A a single god imbued with all functions and powers would seem to be in conflict with polytheism in general.

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