|"Wotan" (1969) by K Vasilyev|
Most of what we know about Odin (and other Germanic Gods) comes from Icelandic manuscripts written roughly 200 years or more after Iceland formally adopted Christianity. Perhaps one of best descriptions of Odin comes from the Hyndluljod:
“Let's ask the Host-father [Odin] to sit in good cheer; he grants and gives out gold to the worthy ... He gives victory to some, to some wealth, eloquence to many, and sense to men; a fair wind he gives to sailors, and fine words to skalds; he gives manliness to many a fighter.”Another of the Icelandic poems, the Hávamál, is said to record the words of Odin. From this, perhaps the most haunting passage is the following:
“Wounded I hung on a wind-swept tree. For nine long nights, pierced by a spear, pledged to Odin. Offered, myself to myself. The wisest know not from whence spring the roots of that ancient tree. They gave me no bread, they gave me no mead, I looked down; with a loud cry, I took up runes; from that tree I fell.”
This is a tale of shamanism that hints at a means of acquiring sacred knowledge that has been lost but can be found. On a purely functional level it also establishes Odin as the father of the written word, and thereby the protector of knowledge. Thus he is known as the Fjölnir (wise one, all-knowing or concealer), Fjölsviðr (very wise one) and Saðr (truthful). Another story that emphasises this aspect of Odin is told in the Prose Edda:
“Under the root [of Yggdrasil – the world tree] that goes to the frost giants is the Well of Mimir. Wisdom and intelligence are hidden there, and Mimir is the name of the well’s owner. He is full of wisdom because he drinks of the well … Allfather went there and asked for one drink from the well, but he did not get this until he gave one of his eyes as a pledge. As it says …‘Odin, I know all, where you hid the eye in that famous Well of Mimir. Each morning Mimir drinks mead from Valfather’s [Odin, father of the slain] pledge. Do you understand/still seek to know now or what?’”
Thus we cannot get something for nothing – for that which we seek there is a quid pro quo, an expenditure of effort, a sacrifice, a price to be paid. This is so even for Odin. We cannot sit on our couches all day and expect to get what we want. We have to go out and find it, work for it, negotiate for it, seize it, make it ours – carpe diem.
Other names for Odin include:
|"Odin" (1908) by H Guerber|
- Baleyg (flame eyed)
- Báleygr (one eyed)
- Biflidi/Biflindi (spear shaker or shield shaker)
- Blindi (blind one)
- Farmaguð/ Farmatýr (God of cargo)
- Gangleri/Ganglari (wanderer)
- Glapsviðr (seducer)
- Grimnir (masked one)
- Hangaguð (God of the hanged)
- Haptaguð (God of prisoners or God of fetters/God who loosens fetters)
- Hárbarðr (grey beard)
- Herran/Herjan (Lord of raiders)
- Hjálmberi (helmet bearer)
- Nikarr/Hnikarr (spear thruster)
- Ómi (resounding or loud one)
- Óski (fulfiller of desire)
- Síðhöttr (drooping hood)
- Síðskeggr (long beard)
- Sigföðr (father of victory)
- Sváfnir (puts to sleep or kill)
- Sviðrir (spear God)
- Svipall (truthful and changing/shifting one)
- Þekkr (clever, pleasant)
- Þundr (roaring one/rumbler)
- Vakr (alert or vigilant one)
- Valföðr (father of the slain)
- Veratýr (God of men)
- Yggr (terrible one)
This wandering God is a trickster, and yet he knows the truth; he is not only clever, but wise. He also protects cargo (of traders?), is Lord of raiders (by which great wealth can be won) and, more than that, is associated with death. In many respects he is similar to Mercurius, the hugely popular Roman God of travel, commerce, financial gain, trickery, writing, eloquence and psychopomp. Clearly the ancients thought so too – when Germanic peoples adopted the Roman calendar they chose to name the Roman dies Mercurii (day of Mercury) “Wodnesdag”, which we now know in English as Wednesday – meaning literally, “Woden’s day” or “Odin’s day”.
It is no surprise that Odin is significantly more warlike than the Roman Mercurius – until Christianisation the Germanic peoples were necessarily a warlike people. But Tyr (Tiwaz), equated with Mars, was the primary God of war, while Thor (Thunor), God of lightning and thunder, equated with Jupiter, also had a military aspect. There were (and still are) many stories told of Thor’s exploits as a warrior and replicas of his war hammer were popular amulets; just as Romans swore on Jupiter’s stone, so too Germanic peoples swore oaths on Mjölnir. Meanwhile, Odin’s main gift to warriors was inspiration – the most elite Germanic warriors were berserk, meaning that they:
“fought in an inspired frenzy, trusting in the power of the God [Odin] to deliver them from wounds … They wore the skins of bears or wolves, and they howled like beasts when the battle madness came upon them … [thus they fought] in a state of ecstasy which allowed escape for a while from self-consciousness and made them impervious to pain and fear [Davidson at 39-40].”
|By W Pogany (c. 1920)|
The philosophers of Greece and Rome often spoke of freedom from fear as a supremely happy and high spiritual state and this is exactly what the followers of Odin could achieve – freedom from fear and, in particular, freedom from fear of death. This gift was not confined to Odin’s sons. Women too were part of this – it is recorded in several places that certain women would voluntarily sacrifice themselves upon the death of Odin’s heroes; typically these women were ritually hanged, strangled or stabbed and then cremated on a great funeral pyre and thereby won great honour in the afterlife – the higher the smoke rose above the funeral pyre, the greater the honour.
This sounds grisly but it is surely superior to what replaced it – the morbid Christian fear of hellfire and thus of death. Fear poisons life – the ancients knew that. We live in an age where death is silently feared and abhorred; even voluntary euthanasia is illegal in most nations. Many of us have become cowards – spending our lives in pseudo-servitude to monolithic corporations so we can live long, drawn out years. Living so, we may be more like slaves than we know. To look death (and its shadows, such as workplace redundancy) in the eyes without fear is to live as a free man or woman.* That was, and is, Odin’s great gift – he can teach us to live, and to think, as free born men and women.
“A coward believes he will ever live, if the fight he faces not: but age shall not grant him the gift of peace, though spears may spare his life …
Most blest is he who lives free and bold and nurses never a grief, but the coward fear of all things feels, and the mean one mourns over giving [Hávamál].”
It is one thing to work for another, most of us do that, but while we do we must remember to stand tall and not to compromise our dignity – to not think like slaves, for our spirits are as free, or as ensnared, as we allow them to be. We should stand tall even if defeat seems to be our inevitable end – for even Gods will fall at Ragnarök – but that is no occasion for despair, for from the ashes of the old will come the new and so the cycle of life goes ever onwards.
* This doesn’t mean we should all run off and kill ourselves – not if it is fear or cowardice that motivates us, for we must also make sure we fulfill our responsibilities to those who depend upon us in this life.
|"Hugin and Munin" (Odin's Ravens) by jarnsaxe.deviantart.com|
- H A Bellows (Translator), The Poetic Edda, Princeton University Press
- O Bray (Translator) & D L Ashliman (Ed), Havamal, University of Pittsburgh
- H R Ellis Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlin
- Orchard (Translator), The Elder Edda, Penguin Books
- S Sturluson & J Byock (Translator), The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics
In Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, respected Cambridge scholar H R Ellis Davidson has this to say about Odin and Mercurius/Mercury:
"We know that in the early days the Germanic peoples made costly sacrifices both to Tiwaz and to Wodan, dedicating to them those who fell in battle or who came into their hands as captives ... Wodan, whom the Romans called Mercury ... was regarded as the ancestor of kings, and he welcomed them to his halls after death; he was the deity to whom human sacrifices were offered by burning, strangling and stabbing with a spear. In the myths known to Snorri he had ... become Odin, father of the Gods and ruler of Asgard. Even the powerful Thunder God was now viewed as his son, although Snorri had doubts about this, and in his preface made Thor the first of the Gods of the north. Odin, as we have seen, was the God of battle, whose symbols were the spear and the raven, but in the poems and sagas known to Snorri he is shown in other aspects. He was also the ancient one-eyed God, crafty and skilled in magic lore, a great shape-changer, and an expert in the consultation of the dead. He was the rider on the eight-legged steed, the wanderer up and down the Earth, the God knowing the secrets of travel between the worlds.
Since the Romans equated Wodan with Mercury, we may assume similarities between the two deities existed as early as the days of Tacitus. Even if Wodan, like Odin, resembled Mercury in wearing a hat, this is not enough to account for the identification; the Romans were not likely to be misled by superficial features of this kind. Mercury was the God of trade, the patron of wisdom and learning, the God who was carried by his winged sandals over land and sea, and the guide who directed souls to the Other World ...
Like Mercury, Wodan was evidently concerned with trade, for Germanic inscriptions to Mercury in the Roman period bear titles such as Mercator and Negotiator. Among Scandinavian names given to Odin, we similarly find Farmantyr, 'God of cargoes'. As for learning, Odin was renowned for his discovery or invention of the runic letters, which for the Germanic peoples ... represented both learning and magic lore. Wodan seems to have had the same reputation. In the Old English poem Soloman and Saturn, the reply to the question: 'Who first set down letters?' is 'Mercurius the Giant'. Many myths known to Snorri testify to Odin's habit of wandering about the Earth and of flying through the air, either in bird form or on his horse Sleipnir, while in the sagas he frequently appears as the one-eyed stranger, arriving when least expected ... Most interesting of the characteristics of Mercury is his function as psychopompos, the guide of souls down to the underworld. This in particular is the aspect of Odin which must hold our attention ... [the author then goes on to discuss Odin's Shamanic qualities, his role in relation to the afterlife and the possibility of women joining their lovers after death where they consented to the Odinic ritual of being burnt with their men on the funeral pyre]."