Óðinn (Anglicized as Odin; modern Scandinavian tongues also include the form Oden) is a major god within the Norse pantheon. His name is cognate to the Old English Wōden and Continental Germanic Wôtan, and all of these names are descended from the Proto-Germanic *Wōđanaz. [i] His name carries multiple different meanings, the most popular being “the Furious.” However, alternative translations have been proposed for his name, including “the Mind,” and “the Poetry;” this is due to the fact that the Old Norse word óðr, being the first part of the combination “óðr”+”inn,” carries the three possible interpretations of mind/wits (noun), poetry (noun) and frenzied (adjective). [ii] He bears many other names throughout the lore, and often the names used help to describe his role in the particular story. Some names include: Ygg (The Terrible One), Valföðr (Lord of the Chosen), Sigtýr (Victory God), Fimbultýr (Mighty God), Bölverkr (Bale/Evil worker) and more.
In the literature, he is often said to be the chief among the Æsir, though his worship was not as widespread as that of Þórr or Freyr. Rather, this may be in reference to the fact that, as a war god, he was important to both warriors and kings, the latter of whose authorities often rested upon their abilities to remain victorious in conflicts. In addition, as he was a god of poets and poetry, the fact that most of our knowledge of Norse mythology comes from poetic translations could skew our perception of him. To the common folk who made up most of the population, his associations with war and nobility were not as important as the storm god Þórr or the fertility and harvest god Freyr, both of whom had immense impacts on their livelihoods. As with many of the gods, Óðinn’s character and roles are complex and cannot be easily understood at first glance. Here I will attempt to shed some light on the various aspects of him, from a god of poetry to a god of death and many places in between. I will also describe ways in which he was historically honored as well as some modern practices concerning him.
The lineage of Óðinn
The best way to begin the examination of Óðinn is probably by examining his parentage. In Gylfaginning[iii], he is said to be the son of a line of primeval giants, beginning with one of the first giants of the world, Búri. Búri begat Bórr, and with his wife Bestla he then begat three children: Óðinn, Vili and Vé. The three gods later slew the other original giant Ymir and created the world from the different parts of his body. The story is simple enough on its own and follows a common theme of one or more gods subduing some of the primeval forces which led to their existence. However, there is a parallel line of metaphor which follows this story. If we take Maria Kvilhaug’s approach to Óðinn’s lineage, we begin to see that these beings not only tell us about the origin of our present universe, but also that they may have even been poetic inventions for the use of conveying something about his nature. [iv]
We can begin with a short analysis of Ymir, whose name has been proposed by Kvilhaug and others to be derived from the Old Norse word ymr, meaning “sound,” with Ymir’s name meaning “The One Produced by Sound.” Along the same lines, deriving his name from the verb ymja, meaning “to resound,” would yield a name of “The Resounder.” Ymir’s emergence out of the cold nothingness of Ginnunga Gap at the beginning of our universe parallels the scientific theory of the Big Bang, at which point all of the matter and energy in the universe was projected forth from a single point in space. Not only does energy travel as a wave, but so does matter according to some scientific theories, meaning that essentially all things would have come forth as a mass of waves erupting into the universe. This obviously could be coincidence rather than reflective of a genuine knowledge of the Big Bang, but it is still valuable and of interest nonetheless. I should make a mention here that Ymir’s name has also been proposed as meaning “twin,” which is subject to additional philosophical interpretation on the fact that the other hypothetical twin is never explicitly described in the story. This is done with consideration of Sievers’ law which, in short, would propose that the original word had a long vowel (Ýmir), but it is hard to tell, as with some other names, because many writers did not mark their vowels and we cannot be absolutely certain how old words such as these are.
Emerging along with Ymir (or Ýmir) is Búri (Storage Chamber/Begetter of Sons), whose name suggests storage of potential life energy. Búri then begets a son named Bórr (Drill/Son), and with the aid of his wife Bestla (To Beat/Hammer or Bind), Bórr begets his sons Óðinn (Spirit/Poetry/Frenzy), Vili (Will/Intent/Passion) and Vé (Sacred Space/Awe). [v] These last three qualities are all necessary for consciousness, and mirror the three gifts given to humans respectively by Óðinn, Hœnir and Lóðurr which will be touched on further down. This gives a possible metaphorical interpretation of life energy drilling and beating itself out of a storage chamber in order to be released out into the universe.
From there, these three gods proceed to slay Ymir (Sound) and divide his body up to create the world. Here we can see another possible metaphor for the division of a single cacophonous mass of waves being split up into the different frequencies of waves and energy which are present throughout existence, from light to heat to possibly even matter itself.
Additionally, it has been theorized that these other two gods, Vili and Vé, neither of whom have any evidence of real worship, may have actually been hypostases of Óðinn, meaning that they were both different aspects of him. This could possibly mean that Óðinn himself, as a being of conscious will, awe and spirit, is the original giver of realistic perception and life energy. However, this is very much debated and may be modern invention rather than actually part of the original lore.
Óðinn as a god of triads
Reading through the lore, it becomes apparent after a while that gods often come in groups of three. The three primary Norns who reside at the base of Yggdrasil; the Óðinn/Vili/Vé and Óðinn/Hœnir/Lóðurr triads; the traveling group of Óðinn, Hœnir and Loki; of these triads and more throughout the lore help to communicate tripartite messages using the characters and their personalities. The number three is also very important in numerous mythologies and cultures across the world, so rather than bringing to light something truly unique about Norse numerology, this trend also helps to relate Norse mythology into a wider global trend in terms of numerical significance.
Óðinn appears in several triads, including the three mentioned above. In all of these, it appears that he functions as a giver or bearer of Spirit or Poetry, the other two usually having the characteristics of Thought and Frenzy. The first two have been explained already, but the third may seem confusing until we take a look at how Hœnir and Loki function in the tales of their travels. In their travels with Óðinn, Hœnir takes the part of representing the mind (awe, thought), and Loki takes the role of passion and frenzy, often being prone to impulsive action which requires later fixing through further thought and inspiration.
Additionally, Adam of Bremen describes a great temple at Uppsala in his workGesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. At this temple, there are said to be three great statues as the objects of worship; representing the gods Þórr, Óðinn and Freyr. Here, Óðinn likely represents his aspect as a god of war and victory, while Þórr is the bringer of rain for the good harvest and Freyr ensures fertility.
Óðinn as a god of death
Óðinn occupies the position of death-god in a few different ways. The first, and better known, way is through his title as Valföðr, meaning “Choice Lord” or “Lord of the Chosen.” Here he performs his famous role of choosing half of the slain in battle to be taken to his hall of Valhöll (Hall of the Chosen). Additionally, he is known to conjure forth entities from the realms of the dead in order to gain wisdom and information from them, those entities often being norns or völur.
One theory also states that Óðinn along with Hœnir and Lóðurr may have lost his own soul when he and the others gave their gifts to Askr and Embla. If we accept this theory, then it would seem that Óðinn is alive in the physical sense, but is also among the dead in a spiritual sense. Therefore, he is able to straddle the line between the worlds of the living and the dead, and is constantly cheating death. This theme carries through in stories such as his hanging upon Yggdrasil in order to gain the wisdom of the runes, his hanging between the fires in Grímnismál and his keeping Fenrisúlfr chained up (possibly) in order to postpone his own fated death. This can also be looked at metaphorically, as the conscious mind attempts to prolong its own existence; such a feat is accomplished through allowing the basic animalistic traits of greed and passion to live on rather than attempting to completely eradicate them, but at the same time it attempts to keep them at bay so that they do not consume it.
Óðinn as a god of war
Possibly because of his complicated situation in terms of death, Óðinn is rarely seen actually fighting during battles, save a few instances in mythological literature. Rather, through his role as chooser of the slain he helps to facilitate victory for one side or the other. In Styrbjarnar þáttr, a battle host lets fly a spear over the heads of the opposing side yelling, “Óðinn have you all!” Here they are attempting to secure their victory by petitioning Óðinn to choose the other side to fall and be taken to the realm of the dead. Interestingly enough, the passage in Völuspá concerning the war between the Æsir and Vanir seems to feature Óðinn doing this himself. [vi]
Óðinn was not necessarily the only god to which warriors prayed, but he was certainly very important to them. Ynglinga Saga describes a Sigrblót (Victory Sacrifice) at the onset of summer, also being the start of the raiding season.[vii] As described earlier, kings and other nobility also held him in high regard for, among other things, the fact that victory in warfare was a major factor in maintaining one’s rule over their kingdom. H. M. Chadwick has also written an essay on the Cult of Óðinn which describes various funerary rites and other elements of worship. [viii] Of particular interest among the characteristics of Óðinn worship is the feature of the Úlfheðnar (Wolf-Coats), warriors who would work themselves into states of frenzy before battle and were described as being nearly impossible to kill because they would feel neither fear nor pain. The valknut (Knot of the Chosen), though not completely understood, is thought by some to have been adorned on the chests of warriors dedicated to Óðinn, marking them out as willing to die in battle in his honor and also hoping to be chosen by him to be taken to Valhöll. This is highly contested, however, and there is no direct evidence for it. The symbol itself has been found on the Gotland picture stones, and also carved on a bedpost on the Oseberg ship find.
Bedpost from the Oseberg ship find featuring a carved valknut.
In addition, spears were usually carried by such warriors, symbolizing Óðinn’s famous spear named Gungnir (The Shaker). Though the spear was a common weapon in general due to its usefulness and inexpensive construction, this likely carried an additional element of symbolism with it.
Vendel era bronze plate depicting the transformation of an úlfheðinn.
Óðinn as a god of poetry
Skaldic poetry was the way in which heroes were immortalized in Old Norse society, and Óðinn played a fitting role as a god of warriors, kings and poets. InSkáldskaparmál, Snorri relates the tale of the creation of the Mead of Poetry from the blood of the man named Kvasir who was made from the spit of the gods and was incredibly wise. Óðinn eventually stole the mead from the giant Suttungr and shared it with the other Æsir as well as those skilled in composing poetry. [ix] According to Turville-Petre, the author of Hávamál may have had access to another version of this myth, in which Óðinn steals the mead directly from the dwarfs who originally killed Kvasir and made the mead.[x] Skalds held this god in great importance, and historical figures such as Egill Skallagrímsson paid much tribute to him through poetry and sacrifices. The poetic art of kennings, being alternative words used in poems which hint at the nature of the intended word, feature such tributes to him. The word “poetry” itself has numerous kennings including Óðinn’s mead, Óðinn’s gift, Viður’s[xi]theft and holy cup of the raven-god. [xii]
Óðinn as a god of runes and magic
While poetry immortalized the deeds of heroic figures through spoken word, runes were often used to accomplish this through carved monuments. In addition, runes were often used for various forms of magic and sorcery, and Óðinn was said to have given this wisdom to mankind, as told in Hávamál: [xiii]
“I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
all of nights nine,
wounded by spear, bespoken to Óðinn,
bespoken myself to myself.
Upon that tree of which none telleth,
from what roots it doth rise.
Neither horn they upheld nor offered me bread;
I looked below me, aloud I cried,
caught up the runes, caught them up wailing,
thence to the ground fell again.”
He then proceeds to relate eighteen runic spells to the listener, Loddfáfnir. Personally, I see this poem as showing how the spirit of inspiration brought forth primeval knowledge from the unconscious, unknown world to the known and conscious mind of man. To gain this knowledge, the Spirit had to expose himself to mortality and approach the realm of death before finally taking upon himself the hidden wisdom which he seeks, and then bringing it back to the conscious world of the known.
Odin’s Sacrifice by Pete White, 2000
Magic and poetry in Old Norse society often went hand-in-hand, and Snorri shows an example of this with the galdralag (Meter of Magic) verse at the end ofHáttatal. [xiv] Óðinn was very important in this realm, but he also became adept at another form of Norse sorcery: seiðr. Ynglinga Saga tells that while he taught the other Æsir galdr, he himself also practiced seiðr: [xv]
“Óðinn knew and practiced that craft which brought most power and which was called seiðr, and he therefore knew much of man’s fate and the future, like-wise how to bring people death, ill-luck or illness, or he took power and wit from them and gave it to others.”
The saga also contains a passage linking Freyja to the introduction of seiðr to the Æsir:
“Njörðr’s daughter was Freyja. She presided over the sacrifice. It was she who first acquainted the Æsir with seiðr, which was customary among the Vanir.”
This essentially means that seiðr was not a native craft among the Æsir, but it was introduced by the Vanir when Freyja came to live among them, especially by Óðinn. Seiðr was more common among women in Old Norse society, likely due in part to the unfavorable social implications of it. An example of this occurs in Lokasenna, when Loki accuses Óðinn of practicing seiðr and therefore being argr.[xvi]
But it is said of you
That you practiced sorcery in Sámsey
and struck a staff like a völva
Like a witch
You went among the people
And I think that is an argr disposition.”
This verse lends support to theories of cross-dressing being involved in seiðr; there have been theories put forth as well concerning a symbolic “penetration” of the practitioner by the spirits with whom they communicate, but nothing like this is actually attested as such. In any case, we can see here that Óðinn, though he fills typically masculine roles as a war-god and chieftain, is also quite willing to bend the social norms associated with gender in order to further his own knowledge and power.
Historical worship of Óðinn
As said earlier, Óðinn’s worship does not seem to have been as widespread as that of other major gods such as Þórr or Freyr. Whereas Þórr’s name, for example, shows up as a part of numerous people’s names in saga literature and even in modern times such as þórsteinn, þórfinnr, þórvaldr, etc.; Óðinn’s rarely does if at all. Similarly, the range of worship attributed to certain gods is often examined through the analysis of place-names. For example, we can see two main regions with abundant place names containing variants of “Freyr” in their name: the region around Lake Mälaren in Sweden and around Viken in Norway. These names include Frøshov (Freyr’s Hof), Frösvi (Freyr’s Vé), Fröseke (Freyr’s Oak Grove) and more. [xvii] In this case, Óðinn’s name does show up in similar abundance, as would be expected of a major god, with names such as Odensvi (Óðinn’s Vé), Onsicke (Óðinn’s Oak Grove) and Odenslund (Óðinn’s Grove). However, most of the certain place-names are in southern Sweden or in Denmark, with a smaller, and mostly uncertain amount in Norway. [xviii] For gods without as much prominence such as Týr, place-names tend to be fewer and less widespread. In this case, they only really show up in Denmark and include names such as Tislund (Týr’s Grove), Tisbjerg (Týr’s Mountain) and Tissø (Týr’s Lake).
For holy days attributed to Óðinn, there are several possible ones on record.Ynglinga Saga mentions three annual sacrifices made by the people on his command; one at the onset of winter, one at midwinter and one at the onset of summer. The version that I have does not explicitly say that they were sacrifices to him, but it is practiced by many as such. The trouble with Ynglinga Saga in this respect is that it both is written to privilege the Ynglings, who believed that they were decended from Óðinn (hence the heavy references to him), and it also follows the trend of euhemerization of the gods in post-Heathen saga literature. Because of this, Óðinn is depicted as a living king at the time of these sacrifices, making it hard for him to sacrifice to himself. [xix] However, it could be argued that he was honored with these sacrifices after his “death”. The victory sacrifice at the onset of summer seems especially fitting for him as Sigtýr (Victory God). Additionally, Ólafs Saga Tryggvasonar mentions a sacrifice in Sweden at the onset of winter called Álfablót (Elf Sacrifice). Though the description suggests a focus on the álfar, the people gathered in the homes state that they fear Óðinn’s wrath should they allow the ceremony to be interrupted by outsiders. [xx]
Sacrifices of livestock and other agricultural bounty were commonplace in Norse practice, and this was likely the case with Óðinn worship as well. However, there are described cases of human sacrifices being made in his honor as well. One of these is Adam of Bremen’s account of Uppsala, where human sacrifices were made along with those of the various types of livestock.[xxi]Ynglinga Saga also describes King Aun sacrificing nine of his sons to Óðinn in exchange for longer life, until the people stopped him from sacrificing his tenth and final son, Egill. There are also the symbolic human sacrifices both from his dedicated úlfheðnar, if the valknut theory is true, and those made of the opposing armies by the people casting spears over their heads.
Some research has also been presented suggesting that the Cult of Óðinn may have contained both theistic and atheistic factions. While many warriors did indeed worship the gods as was commonplace, it seems that there were others who either did not believe in them or did not care, and who saw Óðinn’s importance rather as a symbol of bravery, inspiration and victory. How much of this is genuinely historical versus literary invention for the sake of dramatic conversions in saga literature is up for debate, but most historians accept it as having been a genuine belief during the pagan era to at least some degree.[xxii]
Modern worship of Óðinn
Óðinn has become a central figure in the modern reconstructionist forms of Heathenism such as Ásatrú, Forn Sed and others. Though much literary and archaeological evidence suggests that Óðinn was not as popular as some others in Old Norse society, many practitioners basing their practices off of Eddic lore tend to place him at the top of the pantheon in terms of station and importance; this is especially common in American Heathenism, where the access to additional sources and local folklore of Scandinavian areas is more limited. He is heavily popular among Heathen soldiers, following his recorded role as an important god of battle and death, and some people will choose to take up new honorific “Heathen” names including Óðinn (or some variant form) as the first element, such as Odinson or Óðinson.
With regards to offerings, in lieu of human sacrifices and with livestock sacrifices being significantly less common, the most common offering to Óðinn is mead, largely because of his association with it in the lore. In addition, many practitioners also write poetry either about or in honor of him, and these poems and songs will sometimes be recited at blóts. Sigrblót has also been carried through into modern practice, especially among Scandinavian groups, and people will sacrifice for victory in their various ventures whether they be education, employment, military or otherwise. The honoring of Óðinn as the central figure of this blót is not universal, and Ásatrúarfélagið, for instance, holds their observance in honor of Freyja and Freyr, but many individuals and groups will have Óðinn as at least one of the receivers of the sacrifices. Álfablót is primarily observed in Sweden, with the modern Swedish name being Alvablot.
Modern shrine to Óðinn decorated for Alvablot
For those who practice modern forms of seiðr or galdr, Óðinn is also regarded as a very important figure, for reasons previously described. Additionally, because of his involvement with the runes he has become very prominent among those who practice modern runic divination, and many people will dedicate rune sets to him before using them. He is widely honored among Heathen scholars as well, being a god associated with wisdom, intelligence and inspiration.
Symbols of Óðinn
Óðinn has many symbols associated with him, possibly the most well-known being his two pair of ravens and wolves, Huginn (Thought/Intent) & Muninn (Mind/Memory), and Geri (The Greedy) & Freki (The Hungerer). These animal symbols also can be factored into the metaphorical triads described earlier; as Óðinn (Spirit/Inspiration), Muninn (Mind) & Huginn (Intent/Desire); and Óðinn (Spirit), Geri (Mind/Thought) & Freki (Passion); though the latter interpretation is not necessarily as widely accepted, both are argued by Kvilhaug along with Óðinn’s other tripartite associations. [xxiii] Wolves and ravens in general are used as symbols of the god, and the use of wolf pelts among the úlfheðnar give some precedence to this.
The valknut is another popular symbol of Óðinn, the possible meaning of which has previously been discussed. The sunwheel or solar cross is largely associated with him as well, and the four-spoked, straight-armed version is often called Óðinn’s Eye/Cross. The spear is sometimes used to represent him in regards to his weapon Gungnir, and some worshipers of him will wear spear pendants for this purpose. Runes are generally associated with him due to the lore concerning his obtaining of their knowledge, and the Icelandic rune poem for óss specifically attributes that rune to him. Mead and poetry (especially Old Norse forms) are also widely associated with him, and some such as myself practice a tradition of pouring out the first bit of a bottle of mead in his honor.
Óðinn has very complex familial relations, having fathered children with several wives and concubines throughout the different sources. His primary family as far as Eddic lore is concerned includes his wife Frigg, his son Baldr, his son Þórr by the giantess Fjörgyn, his son Váli by the giantess Rindr and his son Viðarr by the giantess Gríðr. He is also said in Ynglinga Saga to have fathered a line of kings through his marriage to Skaði, but when this occurs in comparison to his other relations is not totally certain, and it could also have been an invention for the purpose of assigning divine authority to kings rather than coming from an older myth. Additionally, he has a relationship as blood-brother to Loki, which is addressed in Lokasenna. [xxiv]
Óðinn has played a major role in the historical and modern Heathen traditions, and is one of the few gods about whom there is abundant lore. Historically, he performed multiple functions as a god of death, battle, poetry, magic and often as a part of various triads. For all of his various functions, though, he was often most important to the warriors and the elite, while the agricultural majority gave more honor to gods such as Þórr and Freyr. He was certainly important to kings both for his granting of battle victory to preserve kingdoms and for his mythical fathering of a line of Norwegian kings.
In modern times, he seems to have become more popular, at least among those whose primary sources for information in their practice is Eddic lore. In particular, he often is honored by students, soldiers and magical practitioners, and at least in some areas he is still given tribute at the modern reconstructions of the Sigrblót and Álfablót feasts, as well as commonly at Jólablót (Yule) and Vetrnætr (Winternights). In any case, he has been and continues to be an important figure in the Norse pantheon, and his complex character provides endless opportunity for continued learning to those who wish to worship and study him.
[v] Kvilhaug, M.
[viii] Chadwick, H. M. (1899). The Cult of Othin; An Essay in the Ancient Religion of the North. London: C.J. Clay and Sons.
[ix] Snorri Sturluson. (1995).
[xiii] Hollander, L.M.
[xvi] Preben Meulengracht Sørensen argues for a three part definition of argr/ergi: the passive recipient of sex, a practitioner of magic, and someone who possesses the negative qualities associated with this word (disloyal, underhanded, fey, womanly, passive). While he notes that the third meaning is the most common, he believes that the first meaning is primary and foundational, suggesting that people who do these other things or possess these other qualities are likely to also be the passive recipient of sex: that is, all meanings are inherently linked back to the sexual interpretation. From Norrønt Nid, 22-23.