In Norse mythology, Odin (from Old Norse Óðinn) is a god associated with healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, battle, sorcery, poetry, frenzy, and the runic alphabet, and is the husband of the goddess Frigg. The cognate deity in wider Germanic mythology and paganism was known in Old English as Wóden, in Old Saxon as Wōden, and in Old High German as Woutan, stemming from Proto-Germanic *wōđanaz.
In Norse mythology, Odin is depicted as one-eyed and long-bearded and wearing a black or blue cloak and a broad hat. Odin is often accompanied by his animal companions—the ravens Huginn and Muninn, who bring him information from all over Midgard, and the wolves Geri and Freki—and rides the flying, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Odin is attested as having many sons and is known by hundreds of names.
- 1 Name
- 2 Attestations
- 3 Archeological record
- 4 Origin, theories, and interpretation
- 5 Modern influence
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
The Old Norse theonym Óðinn (popularly anglicized as Odin) and its cognates, including Old English Wóden, Old Saxon Wōden, and Old High German Wuotan, derive from Proto-Germanic *wōđanaz. The masculine noun *wōđanaz developed from the Proto-Germanic adjective *wōđaz. Adjectives stemming from *wōđaz include Gothic woþs 'possessed', Old Norse óðr, 'mad, frantic, furious', and Old English wód 'mad'. *wōđaz is related to Latin vātēs and Old Irish fáith, both meaning 'seer, prophet'.
The adjective *wōđaz (or *wōđō) was further substantivized, leading to Old Norse óðr 'mind, wit, soul, sense', Old English ellen-wód 'zeal', Middle Dutch woet 'madness', and Old High German wuot 'thrill, violent agitation'. Additionally the Old Norse noun æði 'rage, fury' and Old High German wuotī 'madness' derive from the feminine noun *wōđīn, from *wōđaz. The weak verb *wōđjanan, also derived from *wōđaz, gave rise to Old Norse æða 'to rage', Old English wédan 'to be mad, furious', Old Saxon wōdian 'to rage', and Old High German wuoten 'to be insane, to rage'.
Over 170 names are recorded for the god Odin (See list of names of Odin). These names are variously descriptive of attributes of the god, refer to myths involving him, or refer to religious practices associated with the god. This multitude of names makes Odin the god with the most names known among the Germanic peoples.
The weekday name Wednesday derives from the Old English name of the god: 'Woden's day'. Cognate terms are found in other Germanic languages, such as Old High German wōdnesdæg, Middle Low German wōdensdach (Dutch Woensdag), and Old Norse Óðinsdagr (Danish Onsdag). All of these terms derive from Proto-Germanic *Wodensdag, itself Germanic interpretation of Latin Dies Mercurii ("Day of Mercury"; for more regarding the equation of the Latin god Mercury with Odin, see below). While other day names containing Germanic theonyms remained into Old High German, the name derived from Odin's was replaced by a translation of Church Latin media hebdomas 'middle of the week' (modern German Mittwoch).
Roman Era and Migration Period
The earliest records of the Germanic peoples were recorded by the Romans, and in these works Odin is frequently referred to—via a process known as interpretatio romana (where characteristics perceived to be similar by Romans result in identification of a non-Roman god as a Roman deity)—as the Roman god Mercury. The first clear example of this occurs in the Roman historian Tacitus's late 1st-century work Germania, where, writing about the religion of the Suebi (a confederation of Germanic peoples), he comments that "among the gods Mercury is the one they principally worship. They regard it as a religious duty to offer to him, on fixed days, human as well as other sacrificial victims. Hercules and Mars they appease by animal offerings of the permitted kind" and adds that a portion of the Suebi also venerate "Isis". In this instance, Tacitus refers to the god Odin as "Mercury", Thor as "Hercules", and Týr as "Mars", and the identity of the "Isis" of the Suebi has been debated.
Scholars have noted, most recently Anthony Birley, that Odin's apparent identification with Mercury has little to do with Mercury's classical role of being messenger of the gods, but appears to be due to Mercury's role of psychopomp. Other contemporary evidence may also have led to the equation of Odin with Mercury; Odin, like Mercury, may have at this time already been pictured with a staff and hat, may have been considered a trader god, and the two may have been seen as parallel in their roles as wandering deities. But their rankings in their respective religious spheres may have been very different. Also, Tacitus' "among the gods Mercury is the one they principally worship" is an exact quote from Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (1 BCE) in which Caesar is referring to the Gauls and not the Germanic peoples. Regarding the Germanic peoples, Caesar states: "[T]hey consider the gods only the ones that they can see, the Sun, Fire and the Moon", which is clearly mistaken, regardless of what may have led to the statement.
Although the English kingdoms were Christianized by the 6th century, Odin is frequently listed as a founding figure among the Old English royalty (see Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies). He is also either directly or indirectly mentioned a few times in the surviving Old English poetic corpus, including the Nine Herbs Charm and likely also the Old English rune poem. Odin may also be referenced in the riddle Solomon and Saturn. In the Nine Herbs Charm, Odin is said to have slain a wyrm by way of nine "glory twigs". Preserved from an 11th-century manuscript, the poem is, according to Bill Griffiths, "one of the most enigmatic of Old English texts". The section including Odin is as follows:
The emendation of nan to 'man' has been proposed. The next stanza comments on the creation of the herbs chervil and fennel while hanging in heaven by the 'wise lord' (witig drihten) and before sending them down among mankind. Regarding this, Griffith comments that "In a Christian context 'hanging in heaven' would refer to the crucifixion; but (remembering that Woden was mentioned a few lines previously) there is also a parallel, perhaps a better one, with Odin, as his crucifixion was associated with learning." The Old English gnomic poem Maxims I also mentions Odin by name (in the alliterative phrase Woden worhte weos, 'Woden made idols'), in which he is contrasted with and denounced against the Christian God.
The first word of this stanza, ōs (Latin 'mouth') is a homophone for Old English os, a particularly heathen word for 'god'. Due to this and the content of the stanzas, several scholars have posited that this poem is censored, having originally referred to Odin. Kathleen Herbert comments that "Os was cognate with As in Norse, where it meant one of the Æsir, the chief family of gods. In Old English, it could be used as an element in first names: Osric, Oswald, Osmund, etc. but it was not used as a word to refer to the God of Christians. Woden was equated with Mercury, the god of eloquence (among other things). The tales about the Norse god Odin tell how he gave one of his eyes for the price of wisdom; he also won the mead of poetic inspiration. Luckily for Christian rune-masters, the Latin word 'os' could be substituted without ruining the sense, to keep the outward form of the rune name without obviously referring to Woden."
In the poem Solomon and Saturn, "Mercurius the Giant" (Mercurius se gygand) is referred to as an inventor of letters. This may also be a reference to Odin, who is in Norse mythology the founder of the runic alphabets, and the gloss a continuation of the practice of equating Odin with Mercury found as early as Tacitus. The poem is additionally in the style of later Old Norse material featuring Odin, such as the Old Norse poem Vafþrúðnismál, featuring Odin and a jötunn engaging in a deadly game of wits.
The 7th-century Origo Gentis Langobardorum, and Paul the Deacon's 8th-century Historia Langobardorum derived from it, recount a founding myth of the Langobards, a Germanic people who ruled a region of what is now Italy (see Lombardy). According to this legend, a "small people" known as the Winnili were ruled by a woman named Gambara who had two sons, Ybor and Agio. The Vandals, ruled by Ambri and Assi, came to the Winnili with their army and demanded that they pay them tribute or prepare for war. Ybor, Agio, and their mother Gambara rejected their demands for tribute. Ambra and Assi then asked the god Godan for victory over the Winnili, to which Godan responded (in the longer version in the Origo): "Whom I shall first see when at sunrise, to them will I give the victory."
Meanwhile, Ybor and Agio called upon Frea, Godan's wife. Frea counseled them that "at sunrise the Winnil[i] should come, and that their women, with their hair let down around the face in the likeness of a beard should also come with their husbands". At sunrise, Frea turned Godan's bed around to face east and woke him. Godan saw the Winnili, including their whiskered women, and asked "who are those Long-beards?" Frea responded to Godan, "As you have given them a name, give them also the victory". Godan did so, "so that they should defend themselves according to his counsel and obtain the victory". Thenceforth the Winnili were known as the Langobards ('long-beards').
A 9th-century document from Mainz, Germany, known as the Old Saxon Baptismal Vow records the names of three Old Saxon gods, UUôden, Saxnôte, and Thunaer (Thor), whom pagan converts were to renounce as demons.
A 10th-century manuscript found in what is now Merseburg, Germany, features a heathen invocation known as the Second Merseburg Incantation, which calls upon Odin and other gods and goddesses from the continental Germanic pantheon to assist in healing a horse:
Viking Age and post-Viking Age
In the 11th century, chronicler Adam of Bremen recorded in a scholion of his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum that a statue of Thor, who Adam describes as "mightiest", sat enthroned in the Temple at Uppsala (located in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden) flanked by Wodan (Odin) and "Fricco". Regarding Odin, Adam defines him as "frenzy" (Wodan, id est furor) and says that he "rules war and gives people strength against the enemy" and that the people of the temple depict him as wearing armor, "as our people depict Mars". According to Adam, the people of Uppsala had appointed priests to each of the gods, who were to offer up sacrifices, and in times of war sacrifices were made to images of Odin.
In the 12th century, centuries after Norway was "officially" Christianized, Odin was still being invoked by the population, as evidenced by a stick bearing a runic message found among the Bryggen inscriptions in Bergen, Norway. On the stick, both Thor and Odin are called upon for help; Thor is asked to "receive" the reader, and Odin to "own" them.
Odin is mentioned or appears in most poems of the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from traditional source material reaching back to the pagan period.
The poem Völuspá features Odin in a dialogue with an undead völva, who he imparts in him wisdom from ages past and foretells the onset of Ragnarök; the destruction and rebirth of the world. Among the information the völva recounts is the first human beings (Ask and Embla), found and given life by a trio of gods; Odin, Hœnir, and Lóðurr: In stanza 17 of the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá, the völva reciting the poem states that Hœnir, Lóðurr and Odin once found Ask and Embla on land. The völva says that the two were capable of very little, lacking in ørlög and says that they were given three gifts by the three gods:
- Old Norse:
- Ǫnd þau né átto, óð þau né hǫfðo,
- lá né læti né lito góða.
- Ǫnd gaf Óðinn, óð gaf Hœnir,
- lá gaf Lóðurr ok lito góða.
The meaning of these gifts has been a matter of scholarly disagreement and translations therefore vary.
Later in the poem, the völva recounts the events of the Æsir-Vanir War, the war between Vanir and the Æsir, two groups of gods. During this, the first war of the world, Odin flung his spear into the opposing forces of the Vanir. The völva tells Odin that she knows where he has hidden his eye; in the spring Mímisbrunnr, and from it "Mímir drinks mead every morning". After Odin gives her necklaces, she continues to recount more information, including a list of valkyries, referred to as nǫnnor Herians 'the ladies of War Lord'; in other words, the ladies of Odin. In foretelling the events of Ragnarök, the völva predicts the death of Odin; Odin will fight the monstrous wolf Fenrir during the great battle at Ragnarök. Odin will be consumed by the wolf, yet Odin's son Víðarr will avenge him by stabbing the wolf in the heart. After the world is burned and renewed, the surviving and returning gods will meet and recall Odin's deeds and "ancient runes".
The poem Hávamál (Old Norse 'Sayings of the High One') consists entirely of wisdom verse attributed to Odin. This advice ranges from the practical ("A man shouldn't hold onto the cup but drink in moderation, it's necessary to speak or be silent; no man will blame you for impoliteness if you go early to bed"), to the mythological (such as Odin's recounting of his retrieval of Óðrœrir, the vessel containing the mead of poetry), and to the mystical (the final section of the poem consists of Odin's recollection of eighteen charms). Among the various scenes that Odin recounts is his self-sacrifice:
While the name of the tree is not provided in the poem and other trees exist in Norse mythology, the tree is near universally accepted as the cosmic tree Yggdrasil, and if the tree is Yggdrasil, then the name Yggdrasil (Old Norse 'Ygg's steed') directly relates to this story. Odin is associated with hanging and gallows; John Lindow comments that "the hanged 'ride' the gallows".
Local folklore and folk practice recognized Odin as late as the 19th century in Scandinavia. In a work published in the mid-19th century, Benjamin Thorpe records that on the island of Gotland, Sweden, "many traditions and stories of Odin the Old still live in the mouths of the people". Thorpe notes that in Blekinge, Sweden, "it was formerly the custom to leave a sheaf on the field for Odin's horses", and cites other examples, such as in Kråktorpsgård, Småland, where a barrow was purported to have been opened in the 18th century, purportedly containing the body of Odin. After Christianization, the mound was known as Helvetesbackke (Swedish "Hell's Mound"). Local legend dictates that after it was opened, "there burst forth a wondrous fire, like a flash of lightning", and that a coffin full of flint and a lamp were excavated. Thorpe additionally relates that legend has it that a priest who dwelt around Troienborg had once sowed some rye, and that when the rye sprang up, so came Odin riding from the hills each evening. Odin was so massive that he towered over the farm-yard buildings, spear in hand. Halting before the entry way, he kept all from entering or leaving all night, which occurred every night until the rye was cut.
Thorpe relates that "a story is also current of a golden ship, which is said to be sunk in Runemad, near the Nyckelberg, in which, according to tradition, Odin fetched the slain from the battle of Bråvalla to Valhall", and that Kettilsås, according to legend, derives its name from "one Ketill Runske, who stole Odin's runic staves" (runekaflar) and then bound Odin's dogs, bull, and a mermaid who came to help Odin. Thorpe notes that numerous other traditions existed in Sweden at the time of his writing.
Thorpe records (1851) that in Sweden, "when a noise, like that of carriages and horses, is heard by night, the people say: 'Odin is passing by'".
Odin and the gods Loki and Hœnir help a farmer and a boy escape the wrath of a bet-winning jötunn in Loka Táttur or Lokka Táttur (Faroese "tale—or þáttr—of Loki"), a Faroese ballad dating to the late Middle Ages.
Origin, theories, and interpretation
Beginning with Henry Petersen's doctoral dissertation in 1876, which proposed that Thor was the indigenous god of Scandinavian farmers and Odin a later god proper to chieftains and poets, many scholars of Norse mythology in the past viewed Odin as having been imported from elsewhere. The idea was developed by Bernhard Salin on the basis of motifs in the petroglyphs and bracteates and with reference to the Prologue of the Prose Edda, which presents the Æsir as having migrated into Scandinavia; he proposed that both Odin and the runes were introduced from southeastern Europe in the Iron Age. Other scholars placed his introduction at different times; Axel Olrik, during the Migration Age as a result of Gaulish influence. More radically, both the archeologist and comparative mythologist Marija Gimbutas and the Germanicist Karl Helm argued that the Æsir as a group were late introductions into northern Europe and that the indigenous religion of the region had been Vanic. Although the view of Odin as in some way a latecomer dominated until the mid-20th century, it was then superseded by the tripartite theory of Georges Dumézil, under which Odin is assigned one of the core functions in the Indo-European pantheon, as a representative of the first function (sovereignty) corresponding to the Hindu Varuṇa (fury and magic) as opposed to Týr, who corresponds to the Hindu Mitrá (law and justice); while the Vanir represent the third function (fertility). As a result the early debate over his origins has rarely been revisited.
Another approach to Odin has been in terms of his function and attributes. Many early scholars interpreted him as a wind-god or especially as a death-god. He has also been interpreted in the light of his association with ecstatic practices, and Jan de Vries compared him to the Hindu god Rudra and the Greek Hermes.
The god Odin has been a source of inspiration for a variety of modern artists working in fine art, literature, and music. Fine art depictions of Odin in the modern period include the pen and ink drawing Odin byggande Sigtuna (1812) and the sketch King Gylfe receives Oden on his arrival to Sweden (1816) by P. Hörberg; the drinking horn relief Odens möte med Gylfe (1818), the marble statue Odin (1830) and the colossal bust Odin by B. E. Fogelberg, the statues Odin (1812/1822) and Odin (1824/1825) by H. E. Freund, the sgraffito over the entrance of Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth (1874) by R. Krausse, the painting Odin (around 1880) by E. Burne-Jones, the drawing Thor und Magni (1883) by K. Ehrenberg, the marble statue Wodan (around 1887) by H. Natter, the oil painting Odin und Brunhilde (1890) by Konrad Dielitz, the graphic drawing Odin als Kriegsgott (1896) by H. Thoma, the painting Odin and Fenris (around 1900) by Dorothy Hardy, the oil painting Wotan und Brünhilde (1914) by K. Moser, the painting The Road to Walhall by S. Nilsson, the wooden Oslo City Hall relief Odin og Mime (1938) and the colored wooden relief in the courtyard of the Oslo City Hall Odin på Sleipnir (1945-1950) by D. Werenskiold, and the bronze relief on the doors of the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities, Odin (1950) by Bror Marklund.
Works of modern literature featuring Odin include the poem Der Wein (1745) by F. v. Hagedom, Hymne de Wodan (1769) by F. G. Klopstock, Om Odin (1771) by P. F. Suhm, the tragedy Odin eller Asarnes invandring by K. G. Leopold, the epic poem Odin eller Danrigets Stiftelse (1803) by J. Baggeson, the poem Maskeradenball (1803) and Optrin af Norners og Asers Kamp: Odin komme til Norden (1809) by N. F. S. Grundtvig, poems in Nordens Guder (1819) by Adam Oehlenschläger, the four-part novel Sviavigamal (1833) by C. J. L. Almqvist, the poem Prelude (1850) by W. Wordsworth, the canzone Germanenzug (1864) by R. Hamerling,the poem Zum 25. August 1870 (1870) by Richard Wagner, the ballad Rolf Krake (1910) by F. Schanz, the novel Juvikingerne (1918-1923) by O. Duun, the comedy Der entfesselte Wotan (1923) by E. Toller, the novel Wotan by K. H. Strobl, Herrn Wodes Ausfahrt (1937) by H. F. Blunck, the poem An das Ich (1938) by H. Burte, and the novel Sage vom Reich (1941-1942) by H. F. Blunck.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Odin.|
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