Óðinn, Woden, Wotan, *Woðanaz
Odin is a complex and paradoxical deity, and there are dark and frightening aspects of his being. But whether one loves or fears him, he has become one of the most prominent gods in Heathenry today.
Where does Odin's name come from?
The Old English word wōd means both “madness” and “furious; enraged,” while the related word wōð means “voice; sound; noise.” Old Norse shows the same duality; óðr means both “mind; sense” and “song, poetry,” while the homonymous adjective óðr means “mad; furious.” All these words go back to a Common Germanic root reconstructed as *wōdameaning “delirious; frenzied” (Kroonen, Etymological Dictionary, p. 582). Add a very old suffix *-an- meaning “master of; ruler of ” (Green, Language and History, pp. 124-125) and we have the etymology of Proto-Germanic *Wodanaz, Old English Wodan, or Óðinn in Old Norse.
The word wōd / óðr is seen by his followers as the key to Odin’s being: he gives fury to warriors, vision to seers, and inspiration to skalds and singers.
Odin has many dimensions and appears in many guises in the literature. In fact, Norse prose and skaldic poetry record over 200 different names or epithets for Odin, more than for any other deity. Each name emphasizes an aspect of his being:
- Sigtýr, “god of victory,”
- Gangleri, “wanderer;”
- Sanngetall, “truth finder,”
- Ginnarr, “deceiver;”
- Gagnráðr, “one whose counsel is profitable,”
- Bǫlverkr, “worker of evil;”
- Oski, “wished for,”
- Yggr, “terrible one” (Price, The Viking Way, pp. 62-68).
His characterization is a study in contrasts and seeming contradictions: he can see all the worlds from his high seat of Hliðskjálf, yet he wanders the world disguised as a vagabond or a beggar.
Symbols of Odin
Odin's missing eye
Gylfaginning explains how Odin had to give up an eye in exchange for a drink from Mimir’s Well, which contains wisdom:
En undir þeiri rót er til hrímþursa horfir, þar er Mímis brunnr, er spekð ok mannvit er í fólgit, ok heitir sá Mímir er á brunninn. Hann er fullr af vísindum fyrir því at hann drekkr ór brunninum af horninu Gjallarhorni. Þar kom Alfǫðr ok beiddisk eins drykkjar af brunninum, en hann fekk eigi fyrr en hann lagði auga sitt at veði.
But under the root [of Yggdrasil] that faces the frost-thurses, there is Mimir’s Well, which has wisdom and intelligence contained in it, and he who is at the well is called Mimir. He is full of wisdom because he drinks from the well, from the horn Gjallarhorn. Allfather came there and asked for one drink from the well, but he didn’t get it until he laid down his eye as a pledge.
Neil Price and Paul Mortimer have noticed that many Migration Age and Viking Age artifacts, from Scandinavia, England, and Germany, depict heads or faces that were originally made with two eyes, and then had one eye deliberately knocked or gouged out.13 The “weapon-dancer” figure on one of the Torslunda helmet dies, for example, was made with two 13.
Huginn and Munnin
Odin is said to have two ravens, Huginn (“Thoughtful”) and Muninn (“Mindful”), who fly out every day and bring Odin news. Several designs that are thought to represent Odin show two birds presumed to be ravens. A number of Vendel and Viking Age figures have what look like horns coming from their heads—from the figures from Kungsängen, Sweden and Staraja Ladoga, Russia, to the Finglesham golden buckle and the Sutton Hoo helmet silver foils from England. A careful look, however, reveals that the “horns” end in bird heads.
They may represent Odin’s ravens—his thought and memory—coming forth from his mind (Price, The Viking Way, pp. 320-323). Alternately, they may depict humans who are identified with Odin, perhaps as initiates into his cult (Helmbrecht, “Figures with Horned Headgear,” pp. 42-48).
The Wolves Geri and Freki
Odin has two wolves, Geri and Freki, both of whose names mean “greedy.”
The wolf is another animal that shows Odin’s intelligence and ferocity, and it too is one of the Beasts of Battle; “to feed wolves'' is another poetic expression for killing men in battle. Grímnismál 20 tells us that “glorious Herjafǫðr, ready for battle, satisfies Geri and Freki; but weapon-famous Óðinn lives ever on wine alone.”
On the one hand, Odin is depicted as a ruler feeding his hounds in his hall; on the other, he is the lord of the battlefield, and his wolves gorge themselves on corpses.
The Horse Sleipnir
Odin also travels between the worlds on the grey eight-legged horse named Sleipnir (“Slipper”). According to Snorri, Sleipnir was foaled by Loki, who shape-shifted into a mare and was mounted by the stallion belonging to the jotun who was contracted to build the walls of Asgard. The figure of Sleipnir is much older than Snorri’s myth: an eight-legged horse appears prominently on the Gotlandic picture stones Alskog Tjängvide I and Ardre VIII, where it bears a warrior towards a scene of combat before a great hall, almost certainly Valhall.
The Spear Gungir
Odin’s spear may be reflected in inscriptions on actual spears and spearheads (Macleod and Mees, Runic Amulets, pp. 77-81). A spearhead from Dahmsdorf, Germany, probably made by the Goths, bears the inscription ranja, “router” (i.e. “one who routs the enemy, makes the enemy flee”)—which sounds like Odin’s ability to induce panic in his enemies. Another spearhead from Kowel, Poland, now lost, bore runes reading tilarids, “thither-rider” (i.e. “the one that rides there”).
Odin in Medieval Germanic Heroic Literature
Odin the Death-God
The role of death-god seems to haunt all Odin's other roles.
His wisdom and wod arise from the dead: Odin, narrating the poem Havamal, claims to know spells to bring hanged men to life, speak with them, and learn what they know. In the same poem, Odin suffers a sacrificial death, hanged and wounded with his own spear; Hávamál 138 says Odin was “given to Odin, myself to myself.”
Odin is also shown as the ruler of Valhall, “Hall of the Slain,” where his chosen warriors, the Einherjar (“Single Harriers” or “Best of Harriers”) fight all day and feast all night until Ragnarok comes. Gylfaginning 20 calls Odin Valfǫðr, “father of the slain,” because all those who fall in battle are Odin’s óskasynir, “wish-sons”or adopted sons.
And the poetry that he inspires keeps alive the memory of dead heroes, granting them the immortality of a good reputation. Fame may be fickle, but Odin’s heroes may still aspire to have it said of them:
hans nafn mun uppi, meðan verǫldin stendr,
“his name will be remembered while the world lasts” (Vǫlsunga saga 12).
Odin the seeker of wisdom
Despite his dark reputation, Odin has a bright and beneficent aspect.
His name Óski, “wish,” may show him as a granter of desires. (The name Wusc-frea, “wish-lord,” appears in Old English as the name of two kings in the dynasty of Deira, and it may be related to the name Óski).
Odin may be seen as a god of evolving consciousness, as the furious mental activity implied by his name constantly tries to find new ways to describe and understand reality. His greatest gift is the knowledge that he has won; the skald Þjóðólfr ór Hvini calls him hapta snytrir, “the one who makes the gods wise” (Haustlǫng 3, ed. North, p. 2).
As Freyja says of Odin in Hyndluljóð 3:
Gefr hann sigr sumum en sumum aura, mælsku mǫrgum ok mannvit firum; byri gefr hann brǫgnum, en brag skáldum, gefr hann mannsemi mǫrgum rekki.
He gives victory to some and money to some, eloquence to many, and wisdom to men; he gives fair winds to sailors and poetry to skalds, he gives manliness to many a warrior.
Like all good teachers, Odin never stops learning, seeking knowledge throughout the world and sharing it with those who can receive it, even when it has cost him dearly.
Odin the poet and artist
He shares Óðroerir, the Mead of Poetry, with skalds and scholars.
Allar váru af skafnar, þær er váru á ristnar, ok hverfðar við inn helga mjǫð ok sendar á víða vega; þær ro með ásum, þær ro með alfum, sumar með vísum vǫnum, sumar hafa mennskir menn.
All that were carved on were scraped off, and stirred into the holy mead, and sent on wide ways; they are with the Æsir, they are with the alfs, some with the wise Vanir; human beings have some.
Odin’s gift of inspiration can change someone’s life—but he sometimes puts a higher price on his gifts than the recipient intended to pay.
It's in the work of the legendary poet Egil Skallagrimsson where we find the most heart-wrenching example of this attitude Odin's devotees had towards the God that betrayed them. After the death of his sons, Egil seethes with rage at the gods, especially Odin. (Égils saga Skallagrímssonar, ÍF 2, pp. 255-256).
Yet as the poem reaches its conclusion, Egil realizes bitterly Odin has given him the very poetic skill that he used to express his rage, and the gifted mind that he has used to defeat his enemies. This skill has not only brought him renown, it is the very thing that is enabling him to transform his grief and pain into beauty:
Bloetka því bróður Vílis, goðjaðar, at gjarn séak, þó hefr Míms vinr mér of fengnar bǫlva boetr, ef et betra telk. Gǫfumk íþrótt ulfs of bági vígi vanr vammi firrða ok þat geð, es ek gerða mér vísa fjandr af vélǫndum.
I do not sacrifice to Vili’s brother, the gods’ defender, because I am eager to. Yet Mimir’s friend has given me Compensation for this evil, if I think better of it. The wolf ’s [Fenrir’s] foe, accustomed to battle, has given me unblemished skill, and the mind which enabled me to discern enemies among the deceivers.
Odin the sorcerer
Odin’s other great magical skill is called galdr in Old Norse: verbal magic, worked by poetry and the carving of the runes.
Hávamál verses 138-141 show how Odin’s magic is identified with his poetic skill:
Veit ek, at ek hekk vindga meiði á nætr allar níu geiri undaðr ok gefinn Óðni sjálfr sjálfum mér á þeim meiði er manngi veit hvers hann af rótum renn. Við hleifi mik sældu né við hornigi; nysta ek niðr, nam ek upp rúnar, oepandi nam, fell ek aptr þaðan. Fimbulljóð níu nam ek af inom frægja syni Bǫlþórs, Bestlu fǫður, ok ek drykk of gat ins dýra mjaðar ausinn Óðreri.
I know that I hung on the windblown tree all of nine nights, spear-wounded and given to Odin, myself to myself, on that tree, of which none knows from where the roots run. They did not refresh me with a loaf, or a horn of drink— I looked down, I took up the runes, screaming I took them, I fell back from there. Nine great songs I learned from the famed son of Bolthorn, Bestla’s father, and I got a drink of the most precious mead; I was sprinkled with Odroerir.
In these verses, Odin describes the sources of his might: his magical songs, his poetic skill, and the runes that he has mastered. However, “the runes” in the poem may not be individual runic letters, and instead a poetic device where “runes” actually meant “spells that were written in runes” through synecdoche (using a part of a thing to refer to the whole thing).
Odin is called galdrs faðir in Baldrs draumar; the word galdr for a magical song or chant is based on the verb gala, which can mean “to sing, to enchant,” but which can also be used for the howling of wolves and the croaking of ravens.
We also know that he learned wisdom from Mimir by drinking from his well at the price of his eye, and by preserving Mimir’s head and consulting it. Hávamál 157 describes how he learns information by carving runes to animate and speak with the dead.
Odin the Warlord
Migration Age sources present Wodan as a battle-god who gave victory to tribes who honored him, such as the Langobards in Paul the Deacon’s story (History of the Langobards I.viii; transl. Foulke, pp. 16-17).
Viking Age skaldic poems depict Odin welcoming slain kings, such as Haraldr inn hárfagri (Fairhair) and Eiríkr bloðøx (Blood-Axe), and he may have been seen as their patron (Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion, p. 13).
Norse sources don’t show Odin as a warrior on the front lines, charging into battle. Characters call on Odin to help them win a battle, but not to fight. . Instead, the assumption of the character seems to be that Odin will use magical means to confound the enemy(Ynglinga saga 6; ÍF 26, p. 17):
Óðinn kunni svá gera, at í orrostu urðu óvinir hans blindir eða daufir eða óttafullir, en vápn þeirra bitu eigi heldr en vendir. . .
Odin could arrange it so that in battle his enemies became blind or deaf or terrified, and their weapons bit no more than twigs.
In Vǫluspá 24, at the outbreak of the Æsir-Vanir war, Odin throws a spear over the Vanir, dedicating the enemy as a sacrifice to himself (although in this case the Vanir have powerful enough magic— literally vígspá, “battle prophecy”—to counter Odin’s own).
Odin the Betrayer
Unlike our other Gods, Odin is the only one we have instances in the literature where people felt abandoned or even betrayed by him, specifically.
In addition to the poem from Egil Skallagrimson we saw earlier, this passage from Hrólfs saga kraka 33 (ed. Slay, p. 122) dates only to the 15th century in the form that we have it (although the story it tells is far older). All the same, it sums up the fact that Odin is sometimes blamed for betrayals and outright evil deeds.
Hér er nú margt manna saman komit á móti oss ríkra ok tíginna, er ór ǫllum áttum at drífr, svá at eigi má rǫnd við reisa, en Óðin kann ek ekki at kenna hér enn. Mér er þó mesti grunr á, at hann muni hér sveima í móti oss, herjans sonrinn inn fúli ok inn ótrúi, ok ef nokkurr kynni mér til hans at segja, skylda ek kreista hann sem annan versta ok minnsta mýsling, ok þat illa eitrkvikindi skyldi verða svívirðiliga leikit, ef ek mætti hann hǫndum taka.
Many powerful and high-ranking men have come against us here, crowding from all directions so that I can’t hold up a shield against them, but I still can’t recognize Odin here. I have the worst suspicion that he must be wandering around here and opposing us, the foul and faithless son of a bitch. If someone could tell me where he is, I would squeeze him like the worst and puniest little mouse. That evil venomous beast would be treated shamefully, if only I could capture him.
You'd be hard pressed to find warlords anywhere among Odin's devotees now. While some of Odin’s devotees are in some kind of military profession, you’re more likely to find them among musicians, poets, free-spirits, iconoclasts, scientists, writers and teachers.
Odin the Teacher
One role for Odin is among teachers, scientists and scholars–people who have made a lifelong pursuit of wisdom their primary purpose. This can be anything from teaching kindergarten to pushing into the boundaries of particle physics. It is all wisdom, and thus people inclined to those pursuits pray to Odin for their success in either teaching or learning, or in designing experiments to discover the hidden truths of our universe.
In Odin, people see a model of someone committed to the pursuit of knowledge no matter where it might lead. But far from being ruthless, Odin’s devotees today temper their passion for learning with discipline and compassion for others.
Odin the Artist, Author, Poet and Musician
You’ll often find Odin worshiped among creatives: people who create various forms of art either as a vocation or as their full time job. This is partly because of Odin’s association with the “madness” that comes with creativity and a fuzzy concept called “duende” where the artist feels that their body has been taken over by some kind of spirit that then creates the work through them–rather than them being totally conscious of the work being created.
You’ll sometimes hear this called a “muse” that artists have a relationship with, but Odin’s devotees will think of it as Odin’s gift. These kinds of ecstatic, out-of-body experiences are frequent with creatives, and thus they offer to Odin to have more of those moments.
Odin the Wandering Wizard
Of course, Odin seems to find his most devoted following, as ever, among those who want to pursue esoteric wisdom or magical power. But far from the warlords of old, Odin’s magical devotees aren’t trying to use Odin’s power to gain advantage in battle over their enemies. Rather, people who seek Odin’s wisdom are more likely to be seeking it for purposes of healing or wisdom to help others.
You’ll see this more commonly among people who come to Norse Paganism through a Pagan tradition that is more magically or esoterically inclined, like Wicca or Thelema. And it’s not uncommon for them to also say that they came to Norse Paganism specifically because they felt contacted by Odin through some kind of ritual they performed in another tradition. They did something, and suddenly there was Odin.
Some describe the experience as ecstatic, others described their experience as more transactional–where Odin offered a gift and they took it, which then created a cycle of gift giving.
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