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I'm looking for a brief synopsis of the Maiar, Valar, Ainur, and whatever Eru Ilúvatar is, and what the distinguishing characteristics of each group are. The specific information I am looking for is as follows:

  1. The hierarchy of these races/classes.
  2. A brief summary of the defining characteristics of each race/class and its subdivisions, if any.
  3. The role each race/class plays in Eä.
  4. The role each race/class plays in Arda/Middle-earth, if any.
  5. A few examples of notable members of each race/class ("Gandalf is a Maia Wizard" is clearly too obvious to need pointing out - what about other Maiar who aren't Wizards? - for instance, I seem to remember reading that Balrogs are Maiar as well).
  • 1
    You should split this up into more specific questions, or else narrow your definition of "supernatural" – Jason Baker May 7 '15 at 1:43
  • @JasonBaker - done. The question now is limited to Valar, Maiar, Ainur, and whatever Eru Iluvatar is. – Wad Cheber May 7 '15 at 2:06
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    I took that narrowing a bit farther. Feel free to roll back or make further changes if you like – Jason Baker May 7 '15 at 2:10
  • @JasonBaker - perfect. Thanks. – Wad Cheber May 7 '15 at 2:10
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    This isn't too broad or too difficult to answer. The answer listed below is exactly what the OP asked for. Well-researched and accurate. I chose to re-open it for that reason. – Thaddeus Howze May 7 '15 at 3:56
21
+100

Eru

We know essentially nothing about what, exactly, Eru is. He is unique among all creatures described by Tolkien. Literally everything we're told about Eru's nature is given by the first sentence in the Ainulindalë:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar

The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

He Is. That's all there is to it.

In Tolkien's mythology, Eru is literally God, the ultimate authority on everything. However, He has limited direct involvement in the day-to-day operations. Although He can interfere, He chooses to abstain except in the most dire of circumstances.

Ainur

The Ainur were the first things created by Eru. The most important thing that the Ainur, as a group, accomplished was the Music of the Ainur, which sang the World into existence:

Then Ilúvatar said to them: 'Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.'

The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

After creating the World, Eru gave the Ainur a choice to either enter the World and govern it, or to stay in the Timeless Halls:

Ilúvatar called to them, and said: 'I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other. Therefore I say: ! Let these things Be! And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be; and those of you that will may go down into it.

The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

That choice created three subdivisions among the Ainur:

The Other Ainur. Those among the Ainur who chose not to go into the World are given no names, either individually or collectively. If they did anything else after the Music, it's not recorded.

The Valar. Most of what you need to know about the Valar is given by Valaquenta, the second section of The Silmarillion:

The Great among these spirits the Elves name the Valar, the Powers of Arda, and Men have often called them gods. The Lords of the Valar are seven; and the Valier, the Queens of the Valar, are seven also. These were their names in the Elvish tongue as it was spoken in Valinor, though they have other names in the speech of the Elves in Middle-earth, and their names among Men are manifold. The names of the Lords in due order are: Manwë, Ulmo, Aulë, Oromë, Mandos, Lórien, and Tulkas; and the names of the Queens are: Varda, Yavanna, Nienna, Estë, Vairë, Vána, and Nessa. Melkor is counted no longer among the Valar, and his name is not spoken upon Earth.

The Silmarillion II Valaquenta

In Eä, the Valar function essentially like gods. However, there are three critical ways they're limited in a way we wouldn't expect from "true" gods:

  1. They're unable to create independent life. They can create any beings they want, but they're inanimate except when a Valar explicitly directs their will towards animating them, as Eru says to Aulë when Aulë first creates the Dwarves:

    [T]hou hast from [Ilúvatar] as a gift thy own being 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.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 2: "Of Aulë and Yavanna"

  2. They're not omniscient. Although each of the Ainur participated in the Music, which was the template for creating Eä, and were shown a vision of the History of the World, they don't know everything that will happen in it; they cannot see beyond the end of the Third Age (when Return of the King ends, more or less):

    [T]he history was incomplete and the circles of time not full-wrought when the vision was taken away. And some have said that the vision ceased ere the fulfilment of the Dominion of Men and the fading of the Firstborn; wherefore, though the Music is over all, the Valar have not seen as with sight the Later Ages or the ending of the World.

    The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

    And Eru keeps some secrets for himself alone:

    [T]o 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.

    The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

  3. Related to both of the above, they're unable to create any truly "original" works; everything they do is part of the design of Eru Ilúvatar, as He says to Melkor:

    'Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, 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 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.'

    The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

Each of the Valar are summarized in Valaquenta, but I'll quickly cover the three most narratively significant.

  • Varda is the Queen of the Valar and "spouse" of Manwë. She doesn't do a whole lot in the story, although she does create all of the stars, which is a not-insignificant feat. She's held in high regard by the Elves, and they frequently invoke her name in the story; every time you hear someone say "O Elbereth", they're invoking Varda
  • Melkor, later Morgoth, is the Enemy, and literally the source of all evil. He was the primary antagonist during the events of The Silmarillion, but he's defeated at the end of the third part of that book (Quenta Silmarillion), and doesn't directly factor into later events
  • Mandos is the Doomsayer, who pronounces prophecies. His most important prophecy, which gets the nifty title of Doom of Mandos (alternately the Prophecy of the North), predicted the fate of the Elves in the First Age. His other significant moment is returning Beren and Lúthien to life1. He's also the Lord of the Halls of Mandos (where he takes his name), which is where Elves go when they die

The Maiar. They're also given a paragraph of explanation in Valaquenta:

With the Valar came other spirits whose being also began before the World, of the same order as the Valar but of less degree. These are the Maiar, the people of the Valar, and their servants and helpers.

The Silmarillion II Valaquenta

The Maiar function a bit like angels in Tolkien's mythology; the Elves tend to have more direct involvement with them, and they tend to be more likely to leave Aman than the Valar (with some exceptions; Ulmo, for instance). When the Valar declare their final war against Morgoth, it's a Maia who leads the battle.

There are a huge number of Maiar, only a handful of whom are identified by name. Among them are the five Istari:

  • Curumo (Saruman)
  • Olórin (Gandalf)
  • Aiwendil (Radagast)
  • The Blue Wizards, Alatar and Pallando

Besides the Istari, there are a couple of significant Maia:

  • Mairon (later named Sauron), who you may have heard of
  • Melian, who fell in love with the Elf-lord who came to be called Elu Thingol. Melian is significant for what she makes rather than what she does: she creates the Girdle of Melian, an enchantment that protects the land of Doriath from the forces of Morgoth, and she is the mother of Lúthien Tinúviel (as in "Beren and..."), making her Elrond's great-great-grandmother
  • Huan, Wolfhound of the Valar. He accompanied Beren and Lúthien on their Quest to retrieve a Silmaril, and was instrumental in completing it
  • It's a common assumption that the Balrogs were also Maiar. Although this is fairly well-supported by the text another common assumption, that most "other" creatures are actually Maiar, has less support.

Other Spirits

There is indication in The Silmarillion that other spirits exist, neither Valar nor Maiar; for example:

Manwë was the brother of Melkor in the mind of Ilúvatar, and he was the chief instrument of the second theme that Ilúvatar had raised up against the discord of Melkor; and he called unto himself many spirits both greater and less

The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

Unfortunately, very little is known about these spirits, and none of their number is confirmed. Any sentient creature who isn't an Elf, Man, Hobbit, Dwarf, Orc, or any of the above classes of spirit, might be one of these.

  • We can be fairly sure the Ents and Eagles are among these spirits:

    When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the [animals] and the [plants], and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared. For a time: while the Firstborn are in their power, and while the Secondborn are young." But dost them not now remember, Kementári, that thy thought sang not always alone? Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds? That also shall come to be by the heed of Ilúvatar, and before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 2: "Of Aulë and Yavanna"

    Although Thorondor, King of Eagles ("Sorontar" in Quenya) is probably a Maia


1 Or asking Manwë to ask Eru to do it, depending on which version of the text you read

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    @Wad Cheber: Eru is God... and all the Ainur are Angels. The Valar are Archangels, with Melko=Satan, Manwë=Michael. The Maïar are ordinary angels. It must be stressed that the main difference between the Valar and Maïar is a difference of talent and power, not of essence. It could be argued that archangels and angels are secondary gods, it wouldn't be wrong. But the Ainur are not gods in the sense that they can't create life. They can only shape things that Illuvatar created. – Joel May 9 '15 at 18:42
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    And also... when you read the Music of the Ainur, you will see that Eru created Melkor exactly has he wanted him. Melko has his part to play in the music. He is not really going against Eru's purpose. – Joel May 9 '15 at 18:44
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    @WadCheber Whatever analogy helps you, but bear in mind that Tolkien was not attempting to be consistent with the letter of Christian doctrine. Trying to draw parallels too closely is an interesting exercise, but one not suited to comments – Jason Baker May 9 '15 at 19:05
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    @WadCheber I can't comment on the specifics, but in broad strokes that seems fair. The important things to note about Middle-earth theology are: Only Eru can create truly original things (arguably Men can as well, but that's a different question); Evil is an inextricable part of the World; relatedly, Evil cannot ultimately be defeated or destroyed without Help. Tolkien himself frequently referred to both the Valar and Maiar as "angelic" or "angelical", but your analogy is useful for understanding their roles – Jason Baker May 9 '15 at 19:18
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    This sounds like a conversation that should be moved to chat. Extended discussion in comments should be avoided. You can create a dedicated room to carry on the conversation – Jason Baker May 9 '15 at 19:57
1

The Valar and Maiar were both Ainur.

"With the Valar came other spirits whose being also began before the World, of the same order as the Valar but of less degree... their servants and helpers." [Valaquenta]

Of the Valar it is said that they are "the Powers of the World" since

"their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it forever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs." [Ainulindalë]

[The Maiar were called forth by Manwë and the other Valar,] "he called unto himself many spirits both greater and less, and they came down into the fields of Arda and aided Manwë, lest Melkor should hinder the fulfillment of their labour for ever... the Valar drew unto them many companions , some less, some well nigh as great as themselves, and they labored together in the ordering of the Earth and the curbing of its tumults." [Ainulindalë]

The Silmarillion states "the Valar drew unto them many companions, some less, some well nigh as great as themselves" [Ainulindalë] These spirits were the Maiar. Of the 13 Valar "Nine were of chief power and reverence... surpassing beyond compare all others, whether of the Valar and the Maiar, or of any other order that Ilúvatar has sent into Eä." [Valaquenta] These were Melkor, Manwë, Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna, Aulë, Mandos, Nienna, and Oromë. The Maiar are known as the companions of the Valar, but of "a less degree". Some Maiar may come close to matching the Valar, but in this case only those six Valar who were not included among the chiefs which would include Tulkas, Lórien, Estë, Vairë, Vána and Nessa.

I'd say that since none come close to the chief who are "surpassing beyond compare all others" then the reference to some of the Maiar being "well nigh as great as themselves" has to be in reference to the lesser Valar. Therefore there would be Maiar who come close in comparison to the Valar, but only the lesser Valar [Tulkas, Lórien, Estë, Vairë, Vána and Nessa], but so far as I can tell none are mightier than any Vala.

The Silmarillion says, "ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he wills" [Ainulindalë] It is also said that they are called the Valar, "the Powers of the World", since "their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it forever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs." [Ainulindalë] We have seen Aulë create Dwarves but they could only be as automatons as far as he could go with them. The Valar generally communicate with each other through telepathy, but when they put on a physical raiment this mode of communication does become more difficult in practice.

The Ainur were the Powers great and small who worked "to fulfilled the vision which they had seen" [ValaQuenta] which was Ea. The Maiar were "spirits whose being also began before the World, of the same order as the Valar but of less degree" [Valaquenta]. With the Valar, to whom they are "servants and helpers" [Valaquenta] they saw the vision of Earth and entered in it to bring order.

Maiar clad themselves in raiment similar to the Children of Illuvatar or "they may clothe themselves in their own thought, made visible in forms of majesty and dread" [Ainulindalë] and its said that "the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present." [Ainulindalë]

Like the Elves they are bound to Arda.

But this condition Illuvatar 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. [Ainulindalë]

The Istari were sent to rally the free peoples of the world to fight together. They were:

bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good, and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron... would endeavor to dominate and corrupt. [UT, The Istari]

They arrived in the form of old men although they were full of vitality.

They came therefore in the shape of Men, though they were never young and aged only slowly, and they had many powers of mind and hand. [UT, The Istari]

and

for long they went about in simple guise, as it were of Men already old in years but hale in body [The Istari]

and, "Men perceived that they did not die, but remained the same" although they "aged only by the cares and labours of many long years" [The Istari].

They are Maiar who wear the shapes of old men so as not to come in a display of power. They were to rally the peoples against the enemy but not themselves go head to head with him. See Appendix B in LotR. Gandalf did confront the Balrog of Moria and unleash his powers there. This is an example of two Maiar fighting one another.

Gandalf was originally the Maia Olorin. It is said that,

Wisest of the Maiar was Olorin… his ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience… he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts. In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Illuvatar, and took pity on their sorrows [Sil, Valaquenta]

In the downfall of Sauron and evil, "these things were achieved for the most part by the counsel and vigilance of Mithrandir" [Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age]. He had some of the same qualities as Gandalf and Olorin, counseling the free people with his wisdom and having pity on them. As Gandalf he, "was closest in friendship with the Eldar" just like he used to be when he walked among them as Olorin.

Sauron himself was a Maia of Aule and the Istari were Sauron's peers but on a lesser level. Saruman himself was also a Maia of Aule so Sauron could figure him out. There is also Melian from whom Galdriel learned many things. She had the famous Girdle of Melian up to protect Doriath which was the Elf kingdom that she and Thingol ruled. Orome who was a vassal of Ulmo guided the Elves to Aman when he came upon them in his travels.

  • Great answer, +1, and thanks! – Wad Cheber Jul 22 '15 at 8:10

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