Germanic religion, like most ancient religions, was polytheistic. In early times there were two groups of gods—the Aesir and the Vanir. However, after a war between the rival pantheons (which perhaps reflects a war between two rival tribes), the defeated Vanir were absorbed into the Aesir, and the gods of both were worshiped in a single pantheon. This pantheon, which according to some accounts consisted of 12 principal deities, had Woden (Odin) as its chief god. Other important deities were Tiw (Tyr), Thor (Donar), Balder, Frey, Freyja, and Frigg. The gods dwelled in Asgard, where each deity had his or her own particular abode. The most beautiful of the palaces was Valhalla; there Woden, attended by the Valkyries, gave banquets to the dead heroes. The ancient Nordic gods, however, unlike the gods of most religions, were not immortal. They continually renewed their youth by eating the apples of Idun, but they were doomed, like mortals, to eventual extinction.
The gods were opposed by the giants and demons, representing the destructive and irrational forces of the universe. It was prophesied that at Ragnarok, the doom of the gods, the forces of evil and darkness led by Loki and his brood of monsters, would attack the gods of Asgard. After a ferocious battle, in which most of the gods and giants would be destroyed, the universe would end in a blaze of fire. However, it was also prophesied that from the ashes of the old world a new cosmos would emerge and a new generation of gods and humans would dwell in harmony.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.