As noted earlier, Norse spirituality isnt a “religion”. It is shamanism.
The Vikings emerge into history from the remote extremes of the North. Until then, these Scandinavians have little contact with the more organized cultures elsewhere in Europe. The spiritual sensibilities of the Norse peoples seem to still be prehistoric animism.
For the most part, the Scandinavians lack the polytheism of the more hierarchical, bureaucratic, cultures. They lack temples and priests. Sacred celebrations take place in homes, inviting neighbors to share a sacred meal. The main spiritual leaders appear to be the female shamans, the Vǫlva (plural Vǫlur). To understand what is going on, it helps to look at other animistic cultures, such as the neighboring Sami (who the Vikings called Finnar) who are still somewhat animistic today, also the Aborigines of Australia, and the Animists of Africa.
The main difference between animism and polytheism is: animistic spirituality is more horizontal and egalitarian, while polytheism is more vertical and hierarchical. Note the differences between their respective “sacrifices”. The animists personify the various phenomena of reality as neighboring spirits, who the animists invite to share a sacred meal. Animists are like “good neighbors”. By contrast, the polytheists personify the phenomena as a township government - with a monarchy and a courtly bureaucracy of officials who specialize in different tasks. The polytheists are less-so sharing a meal with a friend, and more-so paying taxes to a tyrant. Polytheists are like “obedient servants”.
Animists dont “worship”. Polytheists do.
That said. The spiritual worldviews in Scandinavia appear complex. South from Scandinavia, the Non-Norse Germanic peoples have maintained contact with the Roman Empire for centuries. The Angles and Saxons (from Denmark and Germany) probably adopted polytheistic sensibilities from the imperial influence of Rome. So in these cultures, the Anglo-Saxon “Ese” (cognate of Norse Æsir) probably are more like “gods” in the polytheistic sense.
Even in Scandinavia, certain township monarchies seem to develop corresponding polytheistic worldviews - particularly at Uppsala in Sweden. Here, the introduction of human sacrifices by a certain king within recent memory, evidences a clear departure from the egalitarian sensibilities of animism.
Adam of Bremen mentions a “temple” in Uppsala (Latin: in hoc templo). However, archeology fails to confirm the presence of a temple here, and archeologists suspect Adam of distorting his account according to his ideological agenda to Christianize Scandinavia. Possibly, this “temple” is simply the royal hall, which is the kings own home. So even in Uppsala, any polytheistic institutions remain nascent. The kings themselves perform the sacred customs as part of a family tradition. Animistic customs remain prominant, despite coexisting with specific polytheistic innovations.
Interestingly, Adam explains Þórr (Latin Thor) is the chief “god” in the local culture of Uppsala (construed as the Roman polytheistic concept: Latin deus). Freyr (Latin Fricco) and Óðinn (Latin Wodan) are at each side of Þórr. This claim rings true. Probably, Þórr is the most prominant nature spirit in Norse culture, while Freyr and Óðinn gain prominance as part of the sacred customs of specific royal clans. Rural communities remain vigorously animistic, remote from polytheistic incursions. Moreover, Adam describes Óðinn has a “war” god, specifically as the spirit who inspires the violence of war: “carries on war and imparts to humans strength against their enemies”. Indeed, the name Óðinn literally means “the fury” (óðr -inn). Óðinn is specifically the spirit of inspiration. As such, he associates with altered states of consciousness, both the rage of the Berserkar and the muse-like poetic inspiration of the Skáld. As such, the Skáld poets specifically invoke him for poetic inspiration, thus the Norse texts deriving from them overrepresent the importance of Óðinn. According to Adam, Þórr is specifically an “air” god. Strictly a spirit of good weather - and in this way, he helps farmers and fishers alike. Þórr isnt a war god. He protects the clan of Humanity from bad weather, by sending lightning bolts to kill the Jotnar who cause the bad weather. But he doesnt kill humans for the sake of Human wars. Óðinn does. Even later during Christianization, the Scandinavians who converted to Imperial Christianity didnt fear Þórr as a “god”, rather they simply feared the absence of good weather, more in the mindset of animistic relationships with nature spirits. Finally, Freyr is responsible for “peace and pleasure”, the good life. Adam also says a libation is offered to Freyr at a wedding.
Scandinavian spirituality is a network of overlapping animistic traditions. Each locale keeps its own unique heritage, with its own unique configuration of prominent nature spirits and popular local customs.
In Uppsala, this Yngling Dynasty traces their royal ancestry back to the nature spirit, Yngvi (from Proto-Germanic *Ingwaz, also called *Ingwi, of uncertain meaning). This Yngvi is more commonly known by the name, Freyr, literally meaning “lord”. This new name possibly evidences a shift toward polytheism, with the “lord” connoting an aristocracy, but it may retain the sense of a lord or lady of a large household of a powerful clan. In other words, this spirit is the head of a household who is enjoying the good life. The etymology of Freyr is complex, but the title “lord” probably derives from phrase “the lord of the friends of Yngvi”. Namely, Yngvi himself is the “lord of the friends of Yngvi”. Compare the Norse term Yngvinr (Yng- vinr), meaning “friend of Yngvi”, the term Ing-unar-freyr, deriving from “lord of the friends of Yngvi”, as well as the Old English term from the Beowulf poem, Fréa Ing-uina, meaning exactly “lord of the friends of Ingui”. The element Ing- is a short form of Ingui when occuring as an element in compound words. In other words, Yngvi is the ancestral guardian spirit of a particular tribal group, and in this sense its “lord” who enjoys the good life. From this tribe, other tribes and dynastic clans descend. Apparently, this Swedish Yngling Dynasty ultimately comes from Denmark, from the Ingwine Dynasty that emerges there centuries earlier. “Ing- wine” means “friends of Ingui”. In the 000s, (“zero hundreds”, the first century CE), the Roman writers Tacitus and Plinius mention them in Latin as “Ingvaeones”. This royal family spreads from Denmark to conquer neighboring regions, forming tribes, and founding monarchies elsewhere.
Similarly, in Norway, there are township monarchies whose dynasties claim descent from the Ynglings of Uppsala, thus from Yngvi Freyr, who the Norse count among the Vanir spirits. But there are also monarchies in Scandinavia whose dynasties claim different descent: from Óðinn among the Æsir spirits, from Alfr among Alfar spirits (Elves), and from Logi from the Risar among the Jǫtnar (Giants).
These “clans” of “nature spirits” (véttir) emerge within the aboriginal Norse animistic traditions:
• Vanir (“peace” spirits: sex and wealth, influence of beauty and status, also of delusion via seiðr magic)
• Æsir (originally, lifeforce spirits, associating world order)
• Alfar (sky spirits)
• Jǫtnar (both Risar mountain spirits who are beautiful and Þursar frost spirits who are possibly grotesque)
• Dvergar (land spirits)
The exact relationship between Æsir and Alfar remains obscure, and likewise between Jǫtnar and Dvergar. The Æsir-Alfar are pro-human and domestic: spirits of world-order. The Jǫtnar-Dvergar are anti-human and wild: spirits of chaos. Members of the Vanir, such as Njorðr and Yngvi, are ancient and known among other Germanic cultures, but the concept of the Vanir as a separate group seems a relatively recent development, unique to Norse culture. The clans of spirits dont imply a polytheistic hierarchy. Within animism, they are simply groupings of salient cosmic phenomena. Humanity, who is likewise one clan among these clans, must simply cope with all of them.
The Æsir are also known by the name “Guðir”. This is a cognate of the English term, “gods”, but in the Norse context, Guðir seems to more literally mean, “invoked ones”, in the sense of certain nature spirits who are helpful to world order, whose cooperation Humanity customarily invokes. Less so “gods” in the sense of supreme beings. The term “guð” probably means “invocatives”, spirits who are invoked - or alternatively means “libatives”, spirits who receive a libation, such as sacred pouring of ale, mead, or wine, to share the drink. In either case, it derives from a Proto-Indo-European verb, *gʰuto-, of similar meaning, either to invoke or to libate. While the Norse culture perceives a contrast between order versus chaos, these all remain egalitarian nature spirits, each with their respective personalities.
The name Æsir derives from the Proto-Indo-European word, *hénsus, meaning “engendering”, from the verb *hens-, meaning “to engender”, produce, and reproduce. Hence the association with the world order that is antithetical to chaos. Compare the Sanskrit term “lifeforce” (Ásu) in Hinduism. Probably, this concept of lifeforce, associates with the tradition about the spirit called Bórr, meaning “birther”, from who the Æsir themselves descend. The Æsir are spirits who are traditionally helpful to Humanity and who promote the continuity of life.
Certain members of the Vanir, are also counted among the Æsir, in the sense, they too are customarily “invoked”. These Vanir come to be understood as a part of an exchange of hostages to guarantee a peace treaty between the Vanir and the Æsir, and thereby they become members of the Æsir.
The clans are: Vanir, Æsir, Alfar, Jǫtnar, Dvergar, and Humanity (Menn), plus any of these that die then become members of a separate clan in the underworld Hel. While each clan seems distinct enough, an individual can belong to more than one clan: by means of intermarriage, parentage from different clans, adoption by a clan as a hostage, adoption as a sibling by the custom of “blood brother” (exchanging blood by cutting palms and shaking hands), or so on. In other words, clan indentity is identical to the Norse kinship system. For example, Loki belongs to several clans. As he personifies fire, he is commonly understood to be one of the wild Jǫtnar, traditionally hostile to Humanity. But he is also called an Alfr, possibly because his wife has parentage from the Alfar, judging by the related tradition concerning a human king called Logi. This association with the Alfar connotes the domestication of fire into the world order. Loki is also called an Æsir, because he became a blood brother of Óðinn, who found Loki useful in the inspired scheme of things. As one of the Æsir, Norse cultures probably “invoke” Loki, at least as part of the spiritualization of the fire of the hearth in the center of a Norse home, despite his wild trickster qualities. If he is identical with Logi, then Loki is also a member of the clan of Humanity, with at least one Norwegian dynasty claiming descent from him. All of this is part of indiginous Norse animism. The clan of Humans is in an egalitarian relationship with fellow clans.
The emergence of polytheism can be detected within the function of each “sacrifice” (blót), which usually refers to a traditional sacred meal, but unfortunately remains historically obscure. The annual human sacrifices at Uppsala are clearly an offering to a hierarchical superior, whose “clan” sotospeak is esteemed as more important than the clan of Humanity. However, human sacrifices to Yngvi-Freyr seem unusual, remembered as an innovation by a specific king, and unknown outside of Uppsala. Elsewhere sacrifices to Freyr typically involve a horse or a boar, and seem part of an animistic meal held in honor of Freyr. The Vǫlur who honor Freyja, the sister of Freyr, are explicitly animistic shamans. Óðinn also associates with human sacrifices. But dedicating a wartime enemy who would be killed anyway isnt necessarily the same thing as “sacrificing” to a god. Caution is necessary when reconstructing the purpose of the killing, whether to a spirit of inspiration or to a supreme deity, and each locale needs to be considered separately. Óðinn does associate with royal institutions, so plausibly at least some killings are concepted polytheistically.
In sum, Norse spiritualty is complex. Essentially, Norse cultures are animistists with remote communities who transmit local customs. However, polytheistic sensibilities seem to emerge, at least partially, in specific locales where monarchies emerge, at least in Uppsala Sweden. Because Norse texts derive from the poetic tradition of the Skald, and the Skald often accompany the royal courts, the texts themselves can possibly convey polytheistic traditions that simply dont exist in rural communities. (Also the Skald texts exaggerate the prominence of the animistic spirit of inspiration, Óðinn.) Finally, it is Christians - mainly one man, Snorri Sturluson - who preserve the Skald traditions in writing. The ideology of Imperial Christianity crystalizes as the antithesis of the advanced polytheistic cultures of the Mideast, Greece, and Rome. These cultures very much have “gods”, and therefore, Christian traditions tend to interpret the animistic spirits of the Norse as “gods”, even when the Norse themselves dont.