Vidar: The God Who Would Be Odin’s Heir
Vidar, also spelled Vithar or Viðar, is an enigmatic figure in Norse mythology.
He is a completely silent god who appears only briefly in a few scenes in known legends. He has few defining attributes, no grand adventures, and few connections to the other gods.
When his home is shown, he does not even have a hall. It is an empty field.
Despite being poorly attested and seemingly unimportant, however, Vidar becomes a major figure at literally the last moment. As the battle of Ragnarok ends, Vidar slays a vicious beast, avenges a death, and becomes a major god of a new pantheon.
Vidar was said to be the son of Odin and a jötunn, or giantess, named Grid (Gríðr).
His mother appears to be a powerful character in her own right. Although, like many goddesses and giantesses, she does not appear in any stand-alone myths, she does appear in one involving her son’s half-brother, Thor.
According to the Prose Edda, Grid gave Thor some of his most powerful equipment. She gifted him with the belt that doubled his already prodigious strength and the iron gloves that allowed him to handle his iconic hammer, Mjölnir.
She also gave him a staff that is referred to only as Grid’s pole. Its function is never clarified but it is mentioned in another, unrelated poem among Thor’s weapons.
Folklorists see Grid as fulfilling a common role as the provider of necessary things. Her main purpose is to give more major characters the tools they need.
Grid seems to fulfil this purpose for Odin as well by giving him a son that seems to have a singular purpose.
Both of Odin’s younger sons, Vidar and his half-brother Vali, are born to be avenging gods. While Vali’s purpose is to avenge the death of Baldr, Vidar was destined to avenge his own father.
Before the battle of Ragnarok, Vidar appeared rarely in Norse myths. When he did, he was noted for his seeming lack of presence.
Vidar was often referred to as silent, usually in stark contrast to the other gods around him.
When Loki arrives uninvited at Aegir’s hall during the gods’ feasts, several of the gods speak out against him. Vidar remains silent.
Eventually, being reminded of a vow he once made, Odin is forced to allow Loki to stay. He tells Vidar to stand and pour a drink for the trickster. Vidar obeys without a word.
Loki then engages the other gods in a flyting, or a contest of insults. Although nearly every other god and goddess present exchanges harsh words with Loki, Vidar is again silent.
Vidar’s silence in mentioned in several sources, making it obvious that it was not a single author’s stylistic choice. It is arguably his most defining feature.
Only once does a writer indicate that Vidar may be speaking, but that is when he is alone.
When Odin has a vision of the gods’ dwelling places, he sees Vidar riding his horse through an open field of brush and high grass. With only his horse for company, Vidar “proclaims … that he’s keen to avenge his father.”
Vidar was vowing to avenge his father’s death while Odin was still alive because of a prophecy that the Norse gods were all aware of.
During Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods, Odin would lead the Aesir against the invading monsters and giants that would destroy the earth.
Many gods would be killed in this battle. Thor, Heimdall, Freyr, and others would be destroyed.
Odin would lead the Einherjar, the warriors of Valhalla, against Fenrir. The great wolf, who was also Loki’s son, was one of the most powerful enemies any of the gods would ever face.
Years before, the gods had been able to bind the wolf only through trickery. Even then, Tyr had lost a hand to keep the wolf from becoming an immediate danger.
Since then, however, Fenrir had continuously grown larger and stronger. By the time Ragnarok began and he broke free, Fenrir would be more powerful than any individual god.
Even with hundreds of strong warriors at his side, Odin would be no match for the great wolf. He and all the Einherjar would be killed by the beast.
When this happened, Vidar would be able to get his revenge.
Odin’s silent son would take on the wolf by himself because Thor and Tyr had both fallen as well. Knowing all his life that he would have to avenge his father by defeating Fenrir, Vidar would have an unexpected weapon.
Vidar would wear an exceptionally thick and heavy boot into the battle. Some sources claimed that it was made of pure iron, while others said that it had been sewn from every scrap of leather that humans had ever discarded when making their own shoes.
With this heavy book, Vidar would step down on the monster’s lower jaw. Using his great strength, which was said to be second only to that of Thor, Vidar would pull up on Fenrir’s upper jaw.
According to one passage from the Poetic Edda, Vidar would continue pulling in this way until he pulled the wolf’s body in half. In another passage, however, the same poem claims that Vidar would dispatch of the wolf with a single sword thrust to the heart.
Vidar would be one of the few gods to escape the battle alive. The world would be overtaken by fires from Muspelheim as the battle ended and Midgard would be destroyed.
Then, the surviving gods would gather on the empty field that had once been Asgard. The survivors of Ragnarok, Vidar among them, would rebuild and create a new pantheon.
In the gods’ home Vithar and Vali shall dwell,
When the fires of Surt have sunk;
Mothi and Magni shall Mjollnir have
When Vingnir [Thor] falls in fight.
-Poetic Edda, Vafthrúdnismál (trans Bellows)
Kennings, the Norse poetic descriptions, are often useful for learning more about the personalities, attributes, and relationships of the gods.
Vidar is given a list of kennings in the Prose Edda, but they do little to shed more light on his character. They include:
- Silent As [god]
- Possessor of the Iron Shoe
- Enemy and Slayer of Fenrisulf [Fenrir]
- The Gods’ Avenging As
- Father’s Homestead Inhabiting As
- Son of Odin
- Brother of the Aesir
The kennings given for Vidar provide no information that is not stated elsewhere in the Prose Edda. Instead, they simply reinforce what the story of Ragnarok already says about him.
This seems to support the idea that Vidar, like Vali, was born for a specific purpose. Odin fathered him specifically to avenge his own death by killing Fenrir.
Outside of this purpose, Vidar says nothing and has no other attributes or equipment of note.
The only kenning that does not pertain to his silence or eventual fight against Fenrir is Father’s Homestead Inhabiting As. This presumably refers to the fact that Vidar and his brother will occupy Odin’s former lands after Ragnarok.
Otherwise, very little seems to be known about the silent god of Norse mythology.
Historians, however, have offered interpretations for Vidar when the primary texts are largely silent.
One French scholar looked deep into Indo-European mythology and folklore to interpret Vidar as a representative of a proposed archetype in ancient religion.
This theory claims that Vidar is a cosmic god who represents space and the continuity of the universe.
By killing Fenrir and reestablishing the pantheon of Asgard, Vidar prevents the destruction of the entire cosmos.
The battle of Ragnarok takes place almost entirely on Midgard, the world of men, which is entirely destroyed. While Asgard is, in most accounts, reduced to an empty field there is still land on which to rebuild.
No damage is described to any of the other Nine Worlds, although Niflheim and Muspelheim are depopulated when their giants and monsters invade Midgard.
The events leading up to Ragnarok, however, often hint at some amount of damage being done to the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The story seems to imply that, had the gods not defeated their enemies, the rest of the Nine Worlds and possibly the World Tree itself may have been irreparably damaged, as well.
Because Vidar stops Fenrir, further destruction is avoided. The cosmos are preserved enough for rebuilding to be possible and for a few living things, including two humans, to hide in the World Tree’s branches until Midgard becomes livable again.
This theory further aligns Vidar with both vertical and horizontal space when he pushes the wolf’s jaws apart.
Another proposed example of this archetype is purportedly seen in the Vedic god Vishnu.
The destructive spirit Bali agrees to cede as much space to Vishnu as the god can cover in three strides. To save the world, Vishnu magically expands the space he can cover and uses just three steps to traverse the entire world.
The scholar who devised this interpretation believes that ancient cultures would have been familiar with the archetype of a god who transcends space to save all of creation. The theory, however, has not been widely accepted among the academic community.
Another interpretation of Vidar’s character is more simple, but explains only one part of his story. It concerns the god’s notable silence.
According to this theory, Vidar’s silence is part of a ritual or vow associated with his quest for vengeance.
A parallel to this can be found in Vidar’s own brother. According to the Poetic Edda, Vali swore to never wash his hands or comb his hair until he avenged Baldr’s death.
Such deprivation was meant to show one’s commitment to a duty. Personal deprivation was a constant symbol and reminder of a vow, in this case a vow of vengeance.
Examples of this can be found in history, as well.
The Roman writer Tacitus claimed that members of the Chatti tribe, a Germanic group like the Norse, refused to groom themselves until they had killed an enemy as well.
While the Chatti and Vali apparently took the same vow, Vidar’s silence can be seen as another form of self-deprivation until the completion of a task or in service of a higher ideal.
This tradition was known outside the Norse world as well. For example, many monastic Christians took vows of self-deprivation, including vows of silence, to signify their commitment to a higher power, in their case the Christian god.
Vidar’s silence may have been referenced so frequently to reiterate his commitment to avenging his father, even when Odin was still alive.
If this is the case, then Vidar’s silence even long before the beginning of Ragnarok is further evidence that his sole purpose in life was to kill Fenrir in that battle. He was so committed to his duty that he refused to speak even before Odin had died.
Vidar’s description as a silent god is appropriate considering how little the Norse writers had to say about him.
He was notable only for the fact that he never spoke. Several authors referred to him as the silent god, making his lack of action his defining feature.
One of Odin’s sons, Vidar only appeared in stories that took place as part of the lead-up to Ragnarok. In that battle, however, he would suddenly emerge as an important figure.
Vidar’s purpose was to avenge his father’s death, although Odin was still alive when he expressed that desire. Odin would be killed during Ragnarok by the monstrous wolf Fenrir.
Just minutes later, Vidar would fulfill his goal of avenging that death. Using a specially-designed boot and his own strength, Vidar would kill the wolf and escape the ruins of Midgard.
While primary sources are scarce on information, historians have attempted to interpret Vidar as both a possible member of a little-known divine archetype or as being silent out of a commitment to his oath of revenge.
In the end, Vidar’s importance would be far beyond any of these explanations, however. In the new world that was created after Ragnarok, he would emerge as one of the few gods to survive and thus because a leader within the new, unknown pantheon.