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TL;DR:

Some of the Valar are described in the Silmarillion as husband and wife, and others are described as siblings. But it seems that the Ainur don't procreate, and it's unclear what marriage means between Valar because the only example of husband and wife about which we learn anything (Aulë and Yavanna) isn't really an affectionate one.

Has Tolkien ever explained how he conceives these family relations between the Valar?

Overly-long elaboration on my thoughts on the matter

While listening to a Silmarillion audio book the other day (the Valaquenta and the first chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion specifically), I stumbled across something that I never really thought about before. The Silmarillion describes some family relations between some of the Valar. For example, Mandos, Lórien, and Nienna were siblings as were Nessa and Oromë, Vairë was the wife of Mandos, Yavanna was the wife of Aulë, and Varda was the wife of Manwë.

Among the Elves and Men, brothers and sisters are individuals with the same parents. A wife and a husband are two individual Elves or Men that live in a close, voluntary, and exclusive partnership that typically involves affection (but that doesn't have to be so, as the Eöl-Aredthel relation shows – somewhat surprisingly, the validity of the marriage isn't challenged by Turgon if I remember correctly). I can't think of an instance in the Silmarillion in which a child is born to parents who are not wife and husbands, so procreation seems to be linked to wedlock as well.

But it occurred to me that I have no idea what these terms – brother, sister, wife, husband – mean in relation to the Valar. I don't think that there's any report of a Vala or Maia having parents (unless in a metaphorical sense in which Eru is the father of all Ainur). Conversely, I think Melian is the only Ainu that has ever given birth to a child, but since she's married to an Elf, it seems fairly safe to assume that the Ainur don't procreate. So in what sense can Mandos, Lórien, and Nienna be described as siblings, then?

As to the marriages between the Valar, what does this status actually mean? Unlike among the Elves and Men, it doesn't entail procreation¹, and the described married couples are never shown to feel a strong affection for each other. While some of them appear to live together (Manwë and Varda in Ilmarin, Mandos and Vairë in the Halls of Mandos), that's not always the case as Aulë and Yavanna don't appear to have such a shared residence.

The latter example is interesting because the most detailed description of an interaction between two married Valar is found in the chapter "Of Aulë and Yavanna". Aulë decides to keep the creation of the Dwarves secret at first, but later chooses to confide to Yavanna. But there isn't any trace of mutual understanding between the two. On the contrary, there is something close to an argument because Yavanna predicts that the Dwarves wouldn't care at all about the things in her domain, which doesn't seem to bother Aulë at all. Eventually, she agrees with Manwë (one might say, behind Aulë's back) to ensure that at least the forests are protected from Aulë's creation. She then returns to him and tells him in a way that might be described as sneeringly that she's managed to score at least a small victory against him. This interaction could have taken place just as well between two Valar who are not husband and wife, and it's a far cry from some of the more affectionate marriages among the Children of Ilúvatar.

As all this made less and less sense to me, I tried to frame the relations between the Valar in terms of the different types of love from Ancient Greek, and this kind of works. The feeling between two Valar who identify as wife and husband might be similar to Greek agapé (the emotion you feel toward your children and your spouse), whereas the feeling between Valar who identify as siblings might be related to Greek philia (the special type of loyality reserved for family members, your friends, and members of your community). The emotion between married Elves and married Men might then perhaps be described as éros (which includes sexual passion).

Basically, this assumes that there are different types of emotion between the Valar: some feel agapé for each other, and the narrative voice of the Silmarillion chose the terms "husband" and "wife" in that case. Others feel philia, and the words to describe this feeling were "brother" and "sister". This appears to work at least to some degree. I assume that with his education in classics, Tolkien was well aware of this philosophy of love. But is there any hint in his writing of how he really conceived the relations between the Valar? Did he ever explain why some Valar were considered siblings, and what a wedlock between Valar actually meant?

¹ It might still entail sexual attraction and intercourse, of course.

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    Essentially because Eru said so, it would seem. At least for the siblings. For example "Manwe and Melkor were brethren in the thought of Iluvatar." Apr 13 at 18:31
  • @suchiuomizu: Good point – that's perhaps the first step towards a proper answer?
    – Schmuddi
    Apr 13 at 18:53
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    See also scifi.stackexchange.com/q/48148/4918 on whether any of them were born on Arda, and scifi.stackexchange.com/q/111424/4918 on siblings
    – b_jonas
    Apr 14 at 17:47
  • Nobody talks about Uncle Mairon...
    – Machavity
    Apr 15 at 17:00
  • It's my understanding that eros best describes the love between spouses. Agape is the compassion that one feels for his fellow man without any reciprocation (or even thought) for oneself Apr 15 at 17:35

2 Answers 2

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Siblinghood and marriage among the Valar come about because Eru Ilúvatar intends it. From The Silmarillion, toward the beginning of The Valaquenta:

Manwë and Melkor were brethren in the thought of Ilúvatar.

Others from the same source:

Ulmo is the Lord of Waters. He is alone.

The spouse of Aulë is Yavanna, the Giver of Fruits.

Irmo the younger is the master of visions and dreams. In Lórien are his gardens in the land of the Valar, and they are the fairest of all places in the world, filled with many spirits. Estë the gentle, healer of hurts and of weariness, is his spouse.

Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone.

Greatest in strength and deeds of prowess is Tulkas, who is surnamed Astaldo, the Valiant. ... His spouse is Nessa, the sister of Oromë, and she also is lithe and fleetfooted.

The spouse of Oromë is Vána, the Ever-young; she is the younger sister of Yavanna.

The crucial point is in the first quote. All of this was true in the thought of Ilúvatar. That's enough.

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    In earlier versions of the Silmarillion, the Maiar were supposed to be the children of the Valar.
    – Spencer
    Apr 14 at 2:25
  • @Spencer Source?
    – Harthag
    Apr 15 at 23:13
  • @Harthag HoME, as far back as The Book of Lost Tales tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Valarindi.
    – Spencer
    Apr 15 at 23:40
  • This is a very useful answer, and it sufficiently answers the sibling part of the question. I still accepted the other answer because it contains several additional aspects that clarified the confusing issues that I had with the relations between the Valar.
    – Schmuddi
    Apr 16 at 7:05
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    @Schmuddi - Thank you for the kind words.
    – Lesser son
    Apr 17 at 0:35
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You ask, has Tolkien ever explained these family relations? Well…

In early versions of Tolkien’s mythology (namely The Book of Lost Tales), the family relations were entirely literal. Valar married each other and had children, and siblings were children of the same parents. (I don’t see any mention of Manwë and Melkor—err, Melko—being brothers at this stage, but I may have missed it in skimming through the stories for relevant quotes.)

The notion of children, specifically, seems to have been dropped fairly early. Some relationships were removed entirely (e.g. Oromë stopped being the son of Aulë and Palúrien/Yavanna), while others changed into Maiar serving Valar or being of their “people” (e.g. Fionwë, son of Manwë and Varda, became Eönwë, herald of Manwë). But both marriage and siblinghood remained.

I don’t know of any specific mention in later writings of the significance of either relationship, apart from the mention of Melkor and Manwë being brothers “in the thought of Ilúvatar” as Lesser Son’s answer already mentioned. I think that’s as good an answer as we have as to what siblinghood signifies: they were, in some sense, “born” of the same thought in Eru’s mind.

I think marriage can and should be treated separately, though. For one thing the relationships are not “from of old”, before Eä—or at least, not all of them are. Specifically, Tulkas wedded Nessa at the feast held after Arda was full-wrought and Melkor expelled.

For another, we have the parallel of feasting and harvesting, about which Tolkien does have something to say:

Though all tides and seasons were at the will of the Valar, and in Valinor there was no winter of death, nonetheless they dwelt then in the Kingdom of Arda…. And even as [they clothed] themselves as in a vesture in the forms of the Children of Ilúvatar, so also did they eat and drink, and gather the fruits of Yavanna from the Earth….

The Silmarillion, chapter 8, “Of the darkening of Valinor”

It seems plausible that the Valar marrying is likewise a “taking on” of the forms and customs of Earth, albeit a reflection of something in the Valar’s own natures, much like how they had gender, even before taking on bodies that had a physical sex:

…the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice…

The Silmarillion, “Ainulindalë”

Compare also what’s said of Melian and her marriage to Thingol:

…she took upon herself the form of the Elder Children of Ilúvatar, and in that union she became bound by the chain and trammels of the flesh of Arda. …and in that form she gained a power over the substance of Arda…

The Silmarillion, chapter 22, “Of the ruin of Doriath”

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