Odin (Icelandic/Old Norse Óðinn, Swedish Oden) is usually considered the supreme god of Germanic and Norse mythology. His role, like many of the Norse pantheon, is complex: he is god of both wisdom and war. West Germanic forms of the name are Anglo-Saxon and Old Saxon Woden, Old Franconian Wodan, Alemannic Wuodan, German Wotan or Wothan Lombardic Godan.
His name, for the Norsemen, was synonymous with battle and warfare, for he appears throughout the myths as the bringer of victory. Odin was a shape-changer, able to change his skin and form in any way he liked. He was said to travel the world disguised as an old man with a staff, one-eyed, grey-bearded and wearing a wide-brimmed hat (called Gangleri ("the wanderer")). Odin sometimes traveled among mortals under aliases Vak and Valtam.
Snorri Sturluson's Edda depicts Óðinn as welcoming into his hall, Valhalla, the courageous battle-slain. These fallen, the einherjar, will support Óðinn at the final battle of the end of the world, Ragnarǫk.
The Roman historian Tacitus refers to Odin as Mercury for the reason that, like Mercury, Odin was regarded as Psychopompos, "the leader of souls". Viktor Rydberg, in his work on Teutonic Mythology, draws a number of other parallels between Odin and Mercury, such as the fact that they were both responsible for bringing poetry to mortal man.
The god is believed to be manifest in a noisy, bellowing movement across the sky, leading a host of the slain, directly comparable to Vedic Rudra. It is unsurprising therefore to find Odin deeply associated with the concept of the Wild Hunt, called in Norse beliefs Asgardareid. Odin and Frigg participated in this together.
Odin appears in person in the Grimnismál, Hávamál, Lokasenna, Völuspá and other Eddic texts.
Old Norse Óðinn goes back to an earlier Vōðin, consistent with the initial consonant of the West Germanic form of the name. Adam von Bremen etymologizes the god worshipped by the 11th century Scandinavian pagans as "Wodan id est furor" ("Wodan, which means 'ire'."), a possibility still commonly assumed today, connecting the name with Old English wōd, Gohic wōds, Old Norse *óđr (see Odr), Old High German wuot, all meaning "possessed, insane, raging".
The name Odin may go back to a pre-Proto-Germanic *Vatinos. It has been noted, however, that the Anglo-Saxon Woden is not in exact correspondence with German Wotan, suggesting that the latter has been transformed by popular etymology to conform with the meaning "the raging one", particularly after Christianisation, when Wotan was seen as a demon, while the Nordic and the Anglo-Saxon forms preserved the original form of the name. One possibility is that the name was borrowed from the Celts, roughly at the time of Tacitus when Germanic and Celtic tribes were in close contact on either side of the Rhine, and is associated with the Celtic priestly caste of the Vates . The Celtic word is ultimately derived from the same root (possibly Proto-Indo-European, but only attested in Celtic and Germanic) as the Germanic words for "possessed" cited above, *vāt-, with a more general meaning of "spiritually excited", also preserved in the Irish word for "poet", fáith . If the word is indeed a loan from the Celtic, it may be an important hint to the dating of the Proto-Germanic Sound changes.
Caesar calls Mercury the "deum maxime" of the Germans in De Bello Gallico 6.17.1. Paulus Diaconus (or Paul the Deacon) equates the Langobard chief deity Guodan/Wodan with the god "himself who is called Mercury by the Romans" (History of the Langobards,, I:9). Paulus, writing in the late 700s, adds the interesting detail that the god Guodan "although held to exist [by Germanic peoples], it was not around this time, but long ago, and not in Germania, but in Greece" where the god originated.
According to the Edda, Odin was a son of Bestla and Bor and brother of Vé and Vili and together with these brothers he cast down the frost giant Ymir and created the world from Ymir's body. The three brothers are often mentioned together. "Wille" is the German word for "will" (English), "Weh" is the German word (Gothic wai) for "woe" (English: great sorrow, grief, misery) but is more likely related to the archaic German "Wei" meaning 'sacred'.
Odin fathered his most famous son Thor on Jord 'Earth'. But his wife and consort was the goddess Frigg who in the best-known tradition was the loving mother of their son Baldr). By the giantess Gríđr, Odin was the father of Víđarr and by Rind he was father of Vali. Also many royal families claimed descent from Odin through other sons. For traditions about Odin's offspring see Sons of Odin.
Attributes of Odin are Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse, and the severed head of Mímir, which foretold the future. He employed Valkyrjur to gather the souls of warriors fallen in battle (the Einherjar), as these would be needed to fight for him in the battle of Ragnarok. They took the souls of the warriors to Valhalla (the hall of the fallen), Odin's residence in Asgard. One of the Valkyries, Brynhildr, was imprisoned in a ring of fire by Odin for daring to disobey him. She was rescued by Sigurd. He was similarly harsh on Hodur, a blind god who had accidentally killed his brother, Baldur. Odin and Rind, a giantess, raised a child named Váli for the specific purpose of killing Hod.
Odin has a number of magical artifacts associated with him: the dwarven spear Gungnir, which never misses its target, a magical gold ring (Draupnir), from which every ninth night eight new rings appear, an eight-legged horse (Sleipnir) and two ravens Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory) who travel the world to acquire information at his behest. He also commands a pair of wolves named Geri and Freki, to whom he gives his food for he himself consumes nothing but wine. From his throne, Hlidskjalf (located in Valaskjalf ), Óðinn could see everything that occurred in the universe.
The Valknut is a symbol associated with Odin.
Sacrifices to Odin
Odin was the only god in Scandinavian mythology to demand human sacrifice at the Blóts. Adam of Bremen relates that every ninth year, people assembled from all over Sweden to sacrifice at the Temple at Uppsala. Male slaves, and males of each species were sacrificed and hung from the branches of the trees.
As the Swedes had the right not only to elect king but also to depose a king, the sagas relate that both king Domalde and king Olof Trätälja were sacrificed to Odin after years of famine. See also sacred king.
It was common, particularly among the Cimbri, to sacrifice a prisoner to Odin prior to or after a battle. One such prisoner, the "Tollund Man", was discovered hanged, naked along with many others, some of whom were wounded, in Central Jutland. The victim singled out for such a sacrifice was usually the first prisoner captured in battle. The rites particular to Odin were sacrifice by hanging, as in the case of Tollund Man; impalement upon a spear, and burning. The Orkneyinga saga relates another (and uncommon) form of Odinic sacrifice, wherein the captured Ella is slaughtered by the carving out of a "blood eagle" upon his back.
More significantly, however, it has been argued that the killing of a combatant in battle was to give a sacrificial offering to Odin. The fickleness of Odin in battle was well-documented, and in Lokasenna, Loki taunts Odin for his inconsistency.
Sometimes sacrifices were made to Odin to bring about changes in circumstance, a notable example being the sacrifice of King Víkar (detailed in Gautrek's Saga and Saxo). Sailors in a fleet being blown off course drew lots to sacrifice to Odin that he might abate the winds; the king himself drew the lot and was hanged.
Sacrifices were probably also made to Odin at the beginning of summer, since Ynglinga saga states one of the great festivities of the calendar is at sumri, þat var sigrblót "in summer, for victory"; Odin is consistently referred to throughout the Norse mythos as the bringer of victory.
The Ynglinga saga also details the sacrifices made by the Swedish king Aun, who, it was revealed to him, would lengthen his life by sacrificing one of his sons every ten years; nine of his ten sons died this way. When he was about to sacrifice his last son Egil, the Swedes stopped him.
The goddess Freya is seen as an adept of the mysteries of seid (shamanism), a völva, and it is said that it was she who initiated Odin into its mysteries. In Lokasenna Loki abuses Odin for practising seid, condemning it as a unmanly art. A justification for this may be found in the Ynglinga saga where Snorri opines that following the practice of seid, the practitioner was rendered weak and helpless. Another explanation is that its manipulative aspects ran counter to the male ideal of forthright, open behaviour.
Odin was a compulsive seeker of wisdom, consumed by his passion for knowledge, to the extent that he sacrificed one of his eyes (which one this was is unclear) to Mimir, in exchange for a drink from the waters of wisdom in Mimir's well.
Some German sacred formulae, known as "Merseburger Zaubersprueche" were written down in c 800 AD and survived. One (this is the second) describes Wodan in the role of a healer:
- Phol ende UUodan vuorun zi holza.
- du uuart demo Balderes volon sin vuoz birenkit
- thu biguel en Sinthgunt, Sunna era suister;
- thu biguol en Friia, Volla era suister
- thu biguol en Uuodan, so he uuola conda
- sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki
- sose lidirenki: ben zi bena
- bluot zi bluoda, lid zi geliden
- sôse gelîmida sin!
Phol (Balder) and Wodan were riding in the forest
Balder's foal dislocated its foot
Sinthgunt and Sol, her sister, tried to cure it by magic
Frige and Fulla, her sister, tried to cure it by magic
- it was charmed by Wodan, like he well could:
- be it bonesprain, be it bloodsprain
- be it limbsprain, bone to bones
- blood to blood, limb to limbs
- like they are glued!
Further, the creation of the runes, the Norse alphabet that was also used for divination, is attributed to Odin and is described in the Rúnatal , a section of the Havamal. He hanged himself from the tree Yggdrasil, whilst pierced by his own spear, to acquire knowledge. He remained thus for nine days and nights, a number deeply significant in Norse magical practice (there were, for example, nine realms of existence), thereby learning nine (later eighteen) magical songs and eighteen magical runes. The purpose of this strange ritual, a god sacrificing himself to himself because there was nothing higher to sacrifice to, was to obtain mystical insight through mortification of the flesh; however, some scholars assert that the Norse believed that insight into the runes could only be truly attained in death.
Some scholars see this scene as influenced by the story of Christ's crucifixion; it is in any case also influenced by shamanism, where the symbolic climbing of a "world tree" by the shaman in search of mystic knowledge is a common religious pattern. We know that sacrifices, human or otherwise, to the gods were commonly hung in or from trees, often transfixed by spears. (See also: Peijainen) Additionally, one of Odin's names is Ygg, and the norse name for the World Ash —Yggdrasil—therefore means "Ygg's (Odin's)horse". Another of Odin's names is Hangatyr, the god of the hanged.
Odin's love for wisdom can also be seen in his work as a farmhand for a summer, for Baugi, in order to obtain the mead of poetry. See Fjalar and Galar for more details.
Names of Odin
The Norsemen gave Odin many nicknames; this was in the Norse skaldic tradition of kennings, a poetic method of indirect reference, as in a riddle.
A list of these follows:
Fimbul, Ginnregin, Grímnir (or Grímr) (Hooded), Gangleri (Wayweary), Herjan (Ruler), Hjálmberi (Helmet bearer), Þekkr (Much Loved), Þriði (Third), Þuðr (?), Uðr (?), Helblindi (Hel blinder), Hárr (High); Saðr (Truthful), Svipall (Changing), Sanngetall (Truthful), Herteitr (Host glad), Hnikarr (Overthrower), Bileygr (Shifty-eyed), Báleygr (Flaming-eyed), Bölverkr (Ill-doer), Fjölnir (Many-shaped), Glapsviðr (Swift in deceit), Fjölsviðr (Wide in wisdom); Síðhöttr (Broad hat), Síðskeggr (Long beard), Sigföðr (Father of Victory), Hnikuðr (Overthrower), Atríðr (Rider), Farmatýr (God of Cargoes); Óski (God of wishes), Ómi (Shouter), Jafnhárr (Even as high), Biflindi (?), Göndlir (Wand bearer), Hárbarðr (Greybeard); Sviðurr (Changing(?)), Sviðrir (Changing(?)), Jálkr (Gelding), Kjalarr (Keel), Viðurr (?), Þrór (?), Yggr (Terrible), Þundr (Thunderer), Vakr (Wakeful), Skilfingr (Shaker), Váfuðr (Wanderer), Hroptatýr (Crier of the gods), Gautr (Father), Veratýr (Lord of men); Lord of the gallows; Hangatyr (the hanged god); Sigtyr (God of victory).
The name Alfóðr ("Allfather", "father of all") appears in Snorri Sturluson's Younger Edda. It probably refers to the Christian God in that book, but it may have referred to Odin at an earlier date. (It probably originally denoted Tiwaz, as it fits the pattern of referring to Sky Fathers as "father".)
As the chief god of the Germanic pantheon, Odin received particular attention from the early missionaries. For example, his day is the only day to have been renamed in the German language from "Woden's day", still extant in English Wednesday to the neutral Mittwoch ("mid-week"), while other gods were not deemed important enough for propaganda (Tuesday "Tyr's day" and Friday "Freyja's day" remained intact in all Germanic languages). For many Germans, St. Michael replaced Wotan, and many mountain chapels dedicated to St. Michael can be found, but Wotan also remained present as a sort of demon leading the Wild hunt of the dead. The 6th century Irish missionary Saint Columbanus is reputed to have disrupted a Beer sacrifice to Wodan (Deo suo Vodano nomine) in Bregenz.
In England, Woden was not so much demonized as rationalized, and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he appears as a perfectly earthly king, only four generations removed from Hengest and Horsa.
Snorri Sturluson's record of the Edda is striking evidence of the climate of religious tolerance in medieval Iceland, but even he feels compelled to give a rational account of the Aesir in his preface. In this scenario, Snorri speculates that Odin and his peers were originally refugees from Troy, etymologizing Aesir as derived from Asia. Some scholars believe that Snorri's version of Norse mythology is an attempt to mould a more shamanistic tradition into a Greek mythological cast. In any case, Snorri's writing (particularly in Heimskringla) tries to maintain an essentially scholastic neutrality. That Snorri was correct was one of the last of Thor Heyerdahl's archeo-anthropological theories (see The search for Odin).
Last battle decided by Odin
Beliefs in Odin would linger for centuries in Scandinavia, and legends would be told until modern times. The last battle where Scandinavians attributed a victory to Odin was the Battle of Lena in 1208 . The Swedes said that they had seen Odin riding on Sleipnir in front of their battle formation and it was Odin who had given them the victory against the Danes. The Norwegians long told a legend about a one-eyed rider with a broad-brimmed hat and a blue coat who had asked a smith to shoe his horse. The suspicious smith asked where the stranger had stayed during the previous night. The stranger mentioned so distant places that the smith would not believe him. The stranger said that he had stayed for a long time in the north and taken part in many battles, and this time he was going to Sweden. When the horse was shod, the rider mounted his horse and said "I am Odin" to the stunned smith, rode up in the air and disappeared. The next day, the battle of Lena took place.
Named after Odin
- Almost all German Gaue (Latin, pagi) had mountains and other places named after him under such generic names as Wodenesberg, Wuodenesberg, Godesberg and Gudensberg, Wodensholt, etc.
- In many Germanic languages, the name for the forth day of the week (if one counts from Sunday) is frequently, "Wotan's Day" or "Woden's Day", (Wednesday in English, compare Norwegian, Danish and Swedish onsdag, Dutch woensdag; curiously the equivalent day in German is simply "mid-week" (Mittwoch)). This is thought to translate the Latin Dies Mercurii, "Mercury-day" (cf. French mercredi), owing primarily to Tacitus' linking of the two gods.
- Odin appears in Epic Megagames' God of Thunder trilogy of computer games, in which he plays the role of mentor to Thor ("My son, I know it is fun to kill people, but...")
- Odin is a summoned creature in several of Squaresoft's Final Fantasy games. His first appearance was in Final Fantasy III. He appears, when summoned, wearing an antlered helmet and riding on a horse. The horse later appeared as his six-legged (as opposed to eight-legged) steed, Sleipnir. He is also typically depicted with a large sword named Zantetsuken, instead of his spear Gungnir. With this sword, he wields the power to slice any enemy in battle, assuming they can be targeted. In Final Fantasy VII, there was a chance he would use a Gungnir in a move named "Gunge Lance." In Final Fantasy VIII, Odin dies while trying to kill Seifer, only to be replaced by the four-sworded warrior Gilgamesh. (note: this has no connection with the legend of Ragnarok)
- Odin appears in Final Fantasy Legends 2 as one of the "New Gods" inhabiting the worlds. Coincidentally, he happens to be the only "heroic" figure of them, offering to let the heroes pass through Valhalla if they could defeat him in battle. His crows and Sleipnir also appear in the ensuing battle and you could earn Gungnir.
- Odin appears in the Valkyrie Profile saga of the playstation.
- Odin appears alongside both Thor and Loki in Microsoft's "Age of Mythology."
- Odin appears as the mysterious exposition character Alfred Woden in Max Payne.
- Odin appears in K.A. Applegate's Everworld series.
- Odin appears as Mr. Wednesday in Neil Gaiman's novel, American Gods.
- Gaiman also uses Odin infrequently in The Sandman, where his actions indirectly influence the course of the story.
- Along with many other gods from the Norse pantheon, Odin makes an appearance in Marvel Comics' Thor comic book series, and makes occasional appearances in other comics set in the Marvel Universe.
- Odin is often in the forefront, or sometimes the hero along with Thor and Loki, in the Valhalla comic book or graphic novel series published in Denmark by Interpresse. Originally published in Danish, translations were made into Dutch, German, French, Swedish, and Finnish. Several animated movies were also produced from the series.
- Odin appeared once in the Gargoyles animated series. In the episode in which he appeared, he tried to get his missing eye back from the Gargoyles in several ways. The eye of Odin transformed whoever used it into a powerful tyrant, and Odin did battle with Goliath for the eye. The Gargoyle Goliath won the battle with the help of the eye, but the other Gargoyles convinced him to remove the eye, whence Odin took it back.
- Aspects of the Lord of the Rings characters Gandalf and Sauron are drawn from Odin.
Douglas Adams' The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul features cameos by Odin and Thor.
- Odin (spelled as Woden) appears as a villain in the Wyrd Museum trilogy, which also features his ravens Thought and Memory and the Norns (Skuld, Verandi and Urd) and many other Norse Myth references (e.g., younger Edda is referred to as Edie).
- Odin appears in the book series. In book 12, he appeared briefly, scaring two children on the Excalibur (Ship on which the series takes place).
- The Cult of Othinn - (Hector Chadwick )
The Battle God of the Vikings - (H.E. Davidson York 1972)
Last updated: 10-20-2005 21:56:10