Woden or Wodan (Old English: Ƿōden, Old High German: Wôdan, Old Saxon: Uuôden) is a major deity of Anglo-Saxon and Continental Germanic polytheism. With his Norse counterpart, Odin, Woden represents a development of the Proto-Germanic god *Wōdanaz. Notably, he is the namesake for the English-language day of the week Wednesday.
Though less is known about the pre-Christian religion of Anglo-Saxon and continental Germanic peoples than is known about Norse paganism, Woden is attested in English, German, and Dutch toponyms as well as in various texts and in archeological evidence from the Early Middle Ages.
Etymology and origins
*Wōđanaz, or *Wōđinaz, is the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name of a god of Germanic paganism. The name is connected to the Proto-Indo-European stem, *wāt "inspiration", which is ultimately derived from the Indo-European theme, *awē "to blow". *Wāt continues in Old Irish fáith, "poet" or "seer"; Old High German wut, "fury"; and Gothic wods, "possessed". Old English had the noun wōþ "song, sound", corresponding to Old Norse óðr, which means both "fury" and "poetry, inspiration". It is possible, therefore, that *Wōđanaz was seen as a manifestation of ecstasy, associated with mantic states, with fury, and with poetic inspiration. An explicit association of Wodan with the state of fury was made by 11th century German chronicler Adam of Bremen, who, when detailing the religious practices of Scandinavian pagans, described Wodan, id est furor, "Wodan, that is, the furious".
Woden probably rose to prominence during the Migration Period, gradually displacing Tyr as the head of the pantheon in West and North Germanic cultures—though these theories constitute only academic speculation based on trends of worship for other Indo-European deities related to Tyr.
He is likely identical to the Germanic god who was known as "Mercury" by Roman writers and possibly with the regnator omnium deus (god, ruler of all) mentioned by Tacitus in his 1st century work, Germania.
The earliest attestation of the name is Wodan (ᚹᛟᛞᚨᚾ) in an Elder Futhark inscription: possibly on the Arguel pebble (of dubious authenticity, if genuine dating to the early 6th century), and on the Nordendorf fibula (early 7th century). Only slightly younger than the runic testimony of the Nordendorf fibula is the vita of Saint Columbanus by Jonas of Bobbio, which gives the Latinized Vodanus (attested in the dative, as Vodano). A further runic inscription, on a brooch from Mülheim-Kärlich, purportedly reading wodini hailag "consecrated to Woden", has long been recognized as a falsification.
According to Jonas of Bobbio, the 6th century Irish missionary Saint Columbanus is reputed to have interrupted an offering by the Suebi to "their God Wodan". "Wuodan" was the chief god of the Alamanni; his name appears in the runic inscription on the Nordendorf fibulae.
The Langobard historian, Paul the Deacon, who died in southern Italy in the 790s, was proud of his tribal origin and related how his people once had migrated from southern Scandinavia. In his work Historia Langobardorum, Paul states that "Wotan . . .is adored as a god by all the peoples of Germania" and relates how Godan's (Wotan's) wife Frea (Frijjō) had given victory to the Langobards in a war against the Vandals. The story is an etiology of the name of the Lombards, interpreted as "longbeards". According to the story, the Langobards were formerly known as the "Winnili". In the war with the Vandals, Godan favored the Vandals, while Frea favored the Winnili. After a heated discussion, Godan swore that he would grant victory to the first tribe that he sawupon awakening the next morning—knowing full well that the bed was arranged so that the Vandals were on his side. While he slept, Frea told the Winnili women to comb their hair over their faces to look like long beards so they would look like men and turned the bed so the Winnili women would be on Godan's side. When he woke up, Godan was surprised to see the disguised women first and asked who these long-bearded men were; thus, the tribal name, "longbeards".
- ec forsacho allum dioboles uuercum and uuordum, Thunaer ende Uuöden ende Saxnote ende allum them unholdum the hira genötas sint
- I forsake all devil's work and words, Thunear and Wōden and Saxnōt and all the monsters that are their retainers.
Recorded during the 9th or 10th century, one of the two Merseburg Incantations, from Merseburg, Germany mentions Wodan who rode into a wood with Phol. There, Balder's horse was injured, and Wodan, with goddesses, cured the horse with enchantments (Phol is usually identified as Baldr).
Woden in Anglo-Saxon England
Anglo-Saxon polytheism reached Great Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries with the Anglo-Saxon migration, and persisted until the completion of the Christianization of England by the 8th or 9th century.
For the Anglo-Saxons, Woden was the psychopomp or carrier of the dead, but not necessarily with the same attributes as the Norse Odin. There has been some doubt as to whether the early English shared the Norse concepts of Valkyries and Valhalla. The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos refers to the wælcyrian "valkyries", but the term appears to have been a loan from Old Norse; in the text, it is used to mean "(human) sorceress".
The Christian writer of the Maxims found in the Exeter Book (341, 28) records the verse Wôden worhte weos, wuldor alwealda rûme roderas ("Woden wrought the (heathen) altars / the almighty Lord the wide heavens"). The name of such Wôdenes weohas (Saxon Wôdanes with, Norse Oðins ve) or sanctuaries to Woden survives in toponymy as Odinsvi, Wodeneswegs.
The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa ... They were the sons of Victgilsus, whose father was Vecta, son of Woden; from whose stock the royal race of many provinces deduce their original.
The Historia Brittonum, composed around 830, presents a similar genealogy and additionally lists Woden as a descendent of Godwulf, who likewise in Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda is said to be an ancestor of "Vóden, whom we call Odin".
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, composed during the reign of Alfred the Great, Woden was the father of Wecta, Beldeg, Wihtgils and Wihtlaeg and was therefore an ancestor of the Kings of Wessex, Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. As in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, a history of early Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain incorporating Woden as an ancestor of Hengist and Horsa is given:
These men came from three tribes of Germany: from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, and from the Jutes ... their commanders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa, that were the sons of Wihtgils. Wihtgils was Witta's offspring, Witta Wecta's offspring, Wecta Woden's offspring. From that Woden originated all our royal family ...
Descent from Woden appears to have been an important concept in Early Medieval England. According to N. J. Higham, claiming Woden as an ancestor had by the 8th century become an essential way to establish royal authority. Richard North (1997) similarly believes that "no king by the late seventh century could do without the status that descent from Woden entailed."
Nine Herbs Charm
- A snake came crawling, it bit a man.
- Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,
- Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.
- There apple brought this pass against poison,
- That she nevermore would enter her house.
According to R. K. Gordon, the Nine Herbs Charm originally was a pagan spell that was altered by later Christian interpolation. Baugh and Malone (1959) write that "This narrative . . .is a precious relic of English heathendom; unluckily we do not know the Woden myth which it summarizes." A charm from the same period, Wið færstice, refers to the esa ("gods", cognate of Norse æsir) but does not mention any deities by name.
Medieval and Early Modern folklore
Throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period, Woden persisted as a figure in folklore and folk religion, notably as the leader of the Wild Hunt found in English, German, Swiss, and Scandinavian traditions.
A celebrated late attestation of invocation of Wodan in Germany dates to 1593, in Mecklenburg, where the formula Wode, Hale dynem Rosse nun Voder "Wodan, fetch now food for your horse" was spoken over the last sheaf of the harvest. David Franck adds, that at the squires' mansions, when the rye is all cut, there is Wodel-beer served out to the mowers; no one weeds flax on a Wodenstag, lest Woden's horse should trample the seeds; from Christmas to Twelfth-day they will not spin, nor leave any flax on the distaff, and to the question why? they answer, Wode is galloping across. We are expressly told, this wild hunter Wode rides a white horse. (34)
A custom in Schaumburg is reported by Jacob Grimm: the people go out to mow in parties of twelve, sixteen, or twenty scythes, but it is managed in such a manner that, on the last day of harvest, they are all finished at the same time, or some leave a strip that they can cut down at a stroke, or they merely pass their scythes over the stubble, pretending that there is still some left to mow. At the last strokes of their scythes, they raise their implements aloft, plant them upright, and beat the blades three times with their strops. Each spills on the field a little of his drink—whether beer, brandy, or milk—then drinks it himself, while they wave their hats, beat their scythes three times, and cry aloud Wôld, Wôld, Wôld!. The women knock all of the crumbs out of their baskets onto the stubble. They march home shouting and singing. If the ceremony was omitted, the hay and corn crops would be bad in the following year. The first verse of the song is quoted by Grimm,
„Wôld, Wôld, Wôld!
“Wôld, Wôld, Wôld”!
Grimm notes that the custom had died in the fifty years preceding his time of writing (1835).
In England, there are also folkloric references to Woden that include the "giants' dance" of Woden and Frigg in Dent[disambiguation needed] as recorded by Grimm, and the Lincolnshire charm that contained the line "One for God, one for Wod and one for Lok". Other references include the Northumbrian Auld Carl Hood from the ballad Earl Brand, Herla, Woden's role as the leader of the Wild Hunt in Northern England and quite possibly Herne, the Wild Huntsman of Berkshire.
Grimm (Teutonic Mythology, ch. 7) discusses traces of Woden's name in toponymy. Certain mountains were sacred to the service of the god. Othensberg, now Onsberg, on the Danish island of Samsø; Odensberg in Schonen. Godesberg near Bonn, from earlier Wôdenesberg (annis 947, 974). Near the holy oak in Hesse, which Boniface brought down, there stood a Wuodenesberg, still so named in a document of 1154, later Vdenesberg, Gudensberg; this hill is not to be confounded with Gudensberg by Erkshausen, nor with a Gudenberg by Oberelsungen and Zierenberg so that three mountains of this name occur in Lower Hesse alone; conf. montem Vodinberg, cum silva eidem monti attinente, (doc. of 1265). In a different neighbourhood, a Henricus comes de Wôdenesberg is named in a doc. of 1130. A Wôdnes beorg in the Saxon Chronicle, later Wodnesborough, Wanborough in Wiltshire. A Wôdnesbeorg in Lappenberg's map near the Bearucwudu, conf. Wodnesbury, Wodnesdyke, Wôdanesfeld. To this we must add, that about the Hessian Gudensberg the story goes that King Charles lies prisoned in it, that he there won a victory over the Saxons, and opened a well in the wood for his thirsting army, but he will yet come forth of the mountain, he and his host, at the appointed time. The mythus of a victorious army pining for water is already applied to King Carl by the Frankish annalists, at the very moment when they bring out the destruction of the Irminsul; but beyond a doubt it is older : Saxo Grammaticus has it of the victorious Balder.
The breviarium Lulli, in names a place in Thuringia: in Wudaneshusum, and again Woteneshusun; in Oldenburg there is a Wodensholt, now Godensholt, cited in a land-book of 1428; Wothenower, seat of a Brandenburg family anno 1334; not far from Bergen op Zoom, towards Antwerp, stands to this day a Woensdrecht, as if Wodani trajectum. Woensel = Wodenssele, Wodani aula, a so-called stadsdeel of the city of Eindhoven on the Dommel in Northern Brabant. This Woensel is like the Oðinssalr, Othänsäle, Onsala; Wunstorp, Wunsdorf, a convent and small town in Lower Saxony, stands unmutilated as Wodenstorp in a document of 1179. Near Windbergen in the Ditmar country, an open space in a wood bears the name of Wodenslag, Wonslag. Near Hadersleben in Schleswig are the villages of Wonsbeke, Wonslei, Woyens formerly Wodensyen. An Anglo-Saxon document of 862 contains in a boundary-settlement the name Wônstoc = Wôdenesstoc, Wodani stipes, and at the same time betrays the influence of the god on ancient delimitation (Wuotan, Hermes, Mercury, all seem to be divinities of measurement and demarcation)
Wednesday (Wēdnes dæg, "Woden's day", interestingly continuing the variant *Wōdinaz (with umlaut of ō to ē), unlike Wōden, continuing *Wōdanaz) is named after him, his link with the dead making him the appropriate match to the Roman Mercury.
- Anglo-Saxon polytheism
- Continental Germanic mythology
- Germanic Christianity
- Germanic polytheism
- List of places named after Woden
- Migration Period art
- Mythology of the Low Countries
- South Germanic deities
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