4

It seems like they could do whatever they wanted as long as Eru didn't have any personal bias towards it. Was there a cap on how much power they could possibly use?

  • 1
    Their power was different relative each other, with Melkor being the most all-round powerful and the wrestler god being the best fighter, if I recall correctly. Also they had dominion over different ideas and things and specialized thusly, it seemed. I think they were generally about as powerful than many greek gods. – Mark Rogers Jan 22 '16 at 23:20
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    @MarkRogers David, the wrestler Vala. – Misha R Jan 22 '16 at 23:50
13

They do have limitations.

  • The biggest limitation is that they cannot create independent sentient life; as Ilúvatar says to Aulë when he creates the Dwarves:

    'Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own bring only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?'

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 1: "Of Aulë and Yavanna"

  • They can't read each others' minds, or the minds of the Maiar:

    No one, not even one of the Valar, can read the mind of other 'equal beings': that is one cannot 'see' them or comprehend them fully and directly by simple inspection.

    History of Middle-earth X Morgoth's Ring Part 5: "Myths Transformed" Chapter VII "Notes on motives" (ii)

    In a margin note, Tolkien writes:

    All rational minds or spirits deriving direct from Eru are 'equal' - in order and status - though not necessarily 'coeval' or of like original power.

    History of Middle-earth X Morgoth's Ring Part 5: "Myths Transformed" Chapter VII "Notes on motives" (ii)

  • Their power is constrained by the physical limitations of Creation (emphasis mine):

    Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Ilúvatar beyond the confines of the World; but others, and among them many of the greatest and most fair, took the leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.

    The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

  • Some of their works are time-limited, and cannot be repeated; after the destruction of the Two Trees, Yavanna says:

    The Light of the Trees has passed away, and lives now only in the Silmarils of Fëanor. Foresighted was he! Even for those who are mightiest under Ilúvatar there is some work that they may accomplish once, and once only. The Light of the Trees I brought into being, and within Eä I can do so never again.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 9: "Of the Flight of the Noldor"

  • On a related note, their ability to make large, demiurgic changes diminishes over time:

    The Valar 'fade' and become more impotent, precisely in proportion as the shape and constitution of things becomes more defined and settled. The longer the Past, the more nearly defined the Future, and the less room for important change (untrammelled action, on a physical plane, that is not destructive in purpose). The Past, once 'achieved', has become part of the 'Music in being'. Only Eru may or can alter the 'Music'.

    History of Middle-earth X Morgoth's Ring Part 5: "Myths Transformed" Chapter VII "Notes on motives" (iii)

  • While perhaps not what you meant, the dispersal of Power into physical objects also has a weakening effect; this is what Morgoth did, disseminating his power throughout Creation and ultimately tethering himself to a physical form

5

Once again I find myself adding to one of Jason's excellent answers.

  • they cannot withdraw the gift of men.

Thither Beren could not come. For it was not permitted to the Valar to withhold Death from him, which is the gift of Ilúvatar to Men.

The Silmarillion | Of Beren and Luthièn

And later

But the King said: ‘And does not Eärendil, my forefather, live? Or is he not in the land of Aman?’ To which they answered: ‘You know that he has a fate apart, and was adjudged to the Firstborn who die not; yet this also is his doom that he can never return again to mortal lands. Whereas you and your people are not of the Firstborn, but are mortal Men as Ilúvatar made you. Yet it seems that you desire now to have the good of both kindreds, to sail to Valinor when you will, and to return when you please to your homes. That cannot be. Nor can the Valar take away the gifts of Ilúvatar.

The Silmarillion | Akallabêth

  • They are not omnipotent

Yet some things there are that they cannot see, neither alone nor taking counsel together; for to none but himself has Ilúvatar revealed all that he has in store, and in every age there come forth things that are new and have no foretelling, for they do not proceed from the past. And so it was that as this vision of the World was played before them, the Ainur saw that it contained things which they had not thought.

The Silmarillion | Ainulindalë

3

The Valar are incredibly powerful, although they do have limits. However, they also have the ability to cheat and work around those limits as well.

In general, the Ainur specialised in a particular area, for example Manwë and Ulmo were very strongly associated with air and water respectively, but they did not solely have dominion over these areas. The Ainu whom we have the most information about is Gandalf by far, and we see him lighting fires, casting down bridges, controlling beasts, and shutting doors through "magic" — not to mention a well-known skill with fireworks which is a pretty diverse skillset. So it is not unreasonable to assume that there is a basic level of abilities shared by all Ainur, and that they developed their skills based upon their own interests. Kinda like we do.

Now to water had that Aniu whom the Elves call Ulmo turned his thought, and of all most deeply was he instructed by Ilúvatar in music. But of the airs and winds Manwë most had pondered, who is the noblest of the Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aulë thought, to whom Ilúvatar had given skill and knowledge scare less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aulë is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery; wherefore he gives and hoards not, and is free from care, passing ever on to some new work.

-- Ainulindalë (The Silmarillion)

At the end of the First Age, the Valar decided that they would reward the Edain for their part in the fight against Melkor with increased lifespans, and also their own private island in sight of Eressëa. The Maia Ossë created land from the seabed, and the Valar worked to make it into the best of all the mortal lands. So we can see that here the Valar have significant power over the Children of Ilúvatar and that even the "lesser" Ainur are still incredibly powerful, and able to exert significant power over the structure of the world.

This the Lords of the West knew well. When therefore Morgoth had been thrust forth, they held council concerning the ages that should come after. ... To the Fathers of Men of the three faithful houses rich reward was also given ... they were given wisdom and power and life more enduring than any others of mortal race have possessed. A land was made for the Edain to dwell in ... It was raised by Ossë out of the depths of the Great Water, and it was established by Aulë and enriched by Yavanna

-- Akallabêth (The Silmarillion)

But they aren't all-powerful. Some things are beyond them, such as the re-shaping of the world after Ar-Pharazôn and the army of Númenor invaded Valinor. Luckily, since they are the Middle-earth equivalent of archangels and entrusted with the day-to-day management of the world on behalf of God, when they do run into trouble and are not able to do something they need to, the Valar can just ask Ilúvatar to do it for them.

Then Manwë upon the Mountain called upon Ilúvatar, and for that time the Valar laid down their government of Arda. But Ilúvatar showed forth his power, and he changed the fashion of the world; and a great chasm opened in the sea between Númenor and the Deathless Lands, and the waters flowered down into it, and the noise and smoke of the cataracts went up to heaven, and the world was shaken. ...

But the land of Aman and Eressëa of the Eldar were taken away and removed beyond the reach of Men for ever. And Andor, the Land of Gift, Númenor of the Kinds, Elenna of the Star of Eärendil, was utterly destroyed For it was nigh to ehe east of the great rift, and its foundations were overturned, and it fell and went down into darkness, and is no more. ... For Ilúvatar cast back the Great Seas west of Middle-earth, and the Empty Lands east of it, and new lands and new seas were made; and the world was diminished, for Valinor and Eressëa were taken from it into the realm of hidden things.

-- Akallabêth (The Silmarillion)

Also, in your question, you said that "it seems like they could do whatever they wanted as long as Eru didn't have any personal bias towards it."... but Eru didn't really think that way.

Since as he is the Tolkien legendarium's version of God he, unlike the Ainur (as mentioned in one of the previous answers,) is omnipotent... but he also created the Ainur out of his own thought, so they are working within his design, even when they think that they are not.

At the end of the Great Music, the mythological creation of Arda, Ilúvatar calls out Melkor for trying to do his own thing instead of keeping to the themes that Ilúvatar had laid out for the Ainur to follow and drops his own version of "God works in mysterious ways".

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: 'Mighty are the Anur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Aniur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music of in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.

-- Ainulindalë (The Silmarillion)

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