Anyone who is even passably familiar with Norse mythology knows the phrase: “the Vanir are agricultural/nature deities, the Aesir represent civilization,” even if you disregard the dualistic notion that “nature” is somehow inimical to “civilized” life, this would still be an oversimplification. The truth is that overlap between the two groups does take place: Thor is “god of the common folk” and Freyr is associated with kingship (a “civilized” institution if I ever saw one), after all. I’m also less than thrilled with writers who seem to imply that “nature/agricultural deities” are somehow less important than deities of towns and cities.
Oversimplification aside, I definitely do see the Vanir as deities of land and sea, particularly cultivated land. They aren’t generally deities of “wild nature”: deep, dark forests, glaciers, volcanoes, places humans fear or can’t comfortably inhabit. Those places are more Jotnar territory. The Vanir are deities of field and farm, fishing, sailing, and beekeeping. From a human-centric perspective, the Vanir are deities of nature that has been shaped in some way so that it is a help to humans, not a hindrance. Perhaps “tamed” would be a better word, but any good farmer knows that you can’t completely tame nature: weeds grow in even the most carefully maintained gardens, crops fail (either from weather or pests), nature has its own way of doing things.
Another important function of the Vanir is to serve as a bridge between groups. The Vanir are allies and friends of the Aesir and frequently take Jotuns as spouses. In contrast to the more hierarchical nature of the Aesir, the Vanir seem to be more egalitarian (although not, as some would say, matriarchal) although Njord is generally accepted as a “chieftain” among them. It is interesting to note that Njord and Skadi probably had one of the most amicable divorces/separations in world mythology. There was no epic custody battle, no “other (wo)man” involved, just two people not being able to reconcile their differences and splitting up.
No discussion of the Vanir would be complete without mentioning their sexual mores. I talked a bit about it in my post on “divine incest” and will discuss it in future posts, but suffice it to say that the Vanir are very sexual deities. Freyja is best known for her sexual exploits, but it is telling that effigies of Freyr always depicted him sporting an erect phallus, as for Njord, he did marry his sister, but in the grand scheme of things, sibling marriage among deities is pretty common across pantheons. Is it any wonder
some butthurt Heathens say that claiming you are Vanatru is just an excuse to get dates (and definitely not because of your own personal experiences with the Vanir, oh no) some even go so far as to claim that Freyja would never demean herself by sleeping with dwarves, because sexually active women are scary, amirite? Seriously, next they’re going to insist that effigies of Freyr come equipped with pants so they won’t be offended by his obvious virility, because nothing says “fertility” like covering up the organs responsible for (the majority of) babymaking (Hel, even IVF needs sperm to work).
This is by no means an exhaustive look at how I personally see the Vanir, YMMV, etc. etc. I’ll probably devote a second post to talking about things I missed, like magic and “the warrior path” and all that good stuff.