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ÓÐINN (Odin, Wōden, Wuotan) is the chief god of Germanic mythology. His name, meaning "inspired or intoxicated one," developed from the Proto-Germanic. *Wōþanaz, which is related to IE *wātós, the source of the Old Norse noun óðr (inspired mental activity, intelligence). Non-Germanic cognates are Latin vātēs and Old Irish fàith, both meaning "seer." Described as the best and the oldest of all the gods by Snorri Sturluson (11791241), Óðinn is a complex figure whose many names point to the diversity of his functions (Lorenz, 1984, pp. 9195, 290304). He is the father of the Æsir (the dominant group of gods), a great magician and seeker of wisdom, the master of runes, the patron of poets, the lord of battles, the god of the dead, and a betrayer of his human devotees. The brothers Óðinn, Vili, and Vé are the first Æsir, the sons of Borr and the giantess Bestla. They initiate the Æsir hostility against giants, killing their oldest maternal ancestor Ymir to create the world from his body and later repudiating three giantesses who seem to be hoping for husbands. Óðinn often appears in triads of gods and is even called Þriði (Third), leading some to compare Óðinn, Vili, and Vé with the Christian Trinity (Lorenz, p. 146). Like genealogies of Anglo-Saxon kings tracing their ancestry to Wōden, euhemeristic tales describing the legendary history of Scandinavia claim Óðinn as the father of the medieval royal dynasties. In addition, some of his names suggest that various peoples who originally had some other chief god had come to identify that god with Óðinn. For example, Óðinn's name Gautr originally may have been the name of the eponymous father of the people of Gautland. His name Skilfingr may have been the name of the founding ancestor of the Ynglings of Sweden, whom the Old English poem Beowulf instead calls the Scylfingas.

From his high seat in the citadel Ásgarðr, Óðinn can look over the nine worlds of the Norse cosmos. His ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory), bring him news every morning. Óðinn lacks an eye, and he often wears a hat and a cloak. His weapon is the dwarf-made spear Gungnir, and his gold arm-ring Draupnir drips eight equally heavy arm-rings every nine days. His horse is the eight-legged Sleipnir. Despite his power, Óðinn cannot prevent the death of his son Baldr, which leads to the destruction of the Æsir at Ragnarǫk by giants and other monsters (who are also destroyed in this final battle between these forces). Each god has his own opponent in this final conflict, and Óðinn is killed by the wolf Fenrir.

Óðinn is called Alfaðir (All-father), perhaps under Christian influence, as he is not the father of all the gods. Þórr is the illegitimate child of Óðinn's giant mistress, Jörð, and Baldr is the legitimate son of Óðinn and his wife (the goddess Frigg), but the Vanir deities (the second group of gods) are unrelated. Óðinn embarks upon short-term sexual liaisons, usually as a means to some other end, and in a few cases children result. The eddic poem Hárbarðsljóð portrays Óðinn boasting about his affairs. In one Norse tradition, he is the creator of human beings: the eddic poem Vo̜luspá says that Óðinn and two companions shaped the first man and woman from two logs.

Wisdom and Knowledge

Most of Óðinn's activities involve his search for wisdom. He asks tidings of the dead and embarks upon journeys during which he gains knowledge through confrontation with supernatural beings. Óðinn's knowledge and the supernatural sharpness of his one eye are his reward for exchanging the other eye for a drink from wise Mímir's well. He also converses with Mímir's head, cut off by the Vanir but magically preserved by the Æsir. Several myths portray Óðinn proving his immense knowledge, as in the eddic poem Grímnismál. King Geirrǫðr mistakes Óðinn (traveling under the name Grímnir) for a malicious magician and chains him between two fires. After eight nights, Geirrǫðr's son brings the stranger a drink and is rewarded with a recitation of mythological lore, ending with fifty names for Óðinn that reveal Grímnir's true identity. Óðinn's torture and recitation have been interpreted as a shamanistic performance or the ritual education of a royal heir, but it is more likely an abstract reflection of Scandinavian concepts of sovereignty, for it is Óðinn's mastery of sacred knowledge that justifies his lordship. In the eddic poem Vafþrúðnismál, Óðinn challenges the giant Vafþrúðnir to a riddle contest to see who knows the most mythological lore. Defeat means death for the vanquished, and Óðinn is the victor. Paradoxically, Óðinn can demonstrate his superiority in lore over the giants, but some myths show that he needs knowledge about the fate of the world and the gods that they possess but he does not.

Snorri describes Óðinn as a great worker of magic, and Georges Dumézil considers Óðinn to be the Germanic representative of the Indo-European divine king-magician. He knows magic charms and songs, and in unmanly fashion he employs the women's sorcery he learned from Freyja. Although others are experts in the use of runes, Óðinn possesses the most extensive knowledge of their magic. The eddic poems Hávamál (sts. 138139) and Sigrdrífumál (st. 3) call Óðinn the inventor of the runes, and the inscription on the Noleby Stone in Sweden (c. 600 ce) says that the runes come from the gods. Hávamál describes how Óðinn gained the secrets of runes by hanging from the World Tree for nine nights, wounded with a spear, a sacrifice of himself to himself. All the elements of this myth have parallels in Norse tradition, and it was probably not influenced by the Christian crucifixion. Hávamál also enumerates many of the spells Óðinn can cast, such as curing illness, stopping missiles in midair, dispelling witches, and inspiring irresistible love.

Inspirer, Inciter, and Deceiver

Óðinn's patronage of poetry is implicit in his name. The meaning "inspired mental activity" for the Old Norse word óðr is confirmed by its use in court verse in the sense of the word poetry, the poet being "a smith of inspired thought" (óðar smiðr ). Óðinn spoke in verse, and he granted his protégé Starkaðr the ability to compose poetry as fast as he could talk. Óðinn's most concrete link with poetry is his acquisition of the mead of poetry. Brewed by the dwarfs, who had to relinquish it to the giants, Óðinn obtains it by seducing its giantess guardian, swallowing it all, changing into an eagle, flying to Ásgarðr, and spewing it out into three crocks the Æsir had ready.

As the god of battle, Óðinn opened the hostilities between the Æsir and Vanir by hurling his spear into the enemy camp. This gesture became a ritual beginning for other battles; it consecrates the dead and captured foes to Óðinn, who houses the ever-growing host of dead warriors in Valhalla for eventual use as his army at Ragnarǫk. Indeed, in order to obtain enough fighters, Óðinn time and again instigates the argument that leads to war. As a protector of warriors, Óðinn teaches his chosen heroes tactics that ensure their victory in combat; for example, he instructs Harald Wartooth to deploy his forces in the field in the shape of a wedge to break the opponents' line (Turville-Petre, pp. 212, 215). Óðinn is also the patron of the turbulent and powerful berserkir (bear shirts) and ulfheðnar (wolf skins), fighters who attack with frenzied fury. Writing around 1070, Adam of Bremen comments: "Óðinn, that is, 'frenzy,' wages war and provides man with courage against foes" (Gesta Hammaburgensis, 4: 26: "woðan, id est furor, bella gerit hominique ministrat virtutem contra inimicos").

Óðinn has qualities that would be valued negatively if they belonged to a member of a subordinate group, but as a member of the dominant class, he can ignore such attributes as the unmanliness associated with Freyja's magic. In the eddic poem Lokasenna (st. 22), he is accused of unfairness in granting victory, but if he acknowledges that he let the less deserving win, he justifies himself elsewhere by claiming he needed heroes to help him face Fenrir at Ragnarǫk. However, he clearly relishes inciting conflicts, preventing peace, and deceiving those who serve him. For example, when Starkaðr pronounces the ominous formula "Now I give thee to Óðinn!" after tying a noose of calf gut around his lord's neck as he hits him with a reed, Óðinn changes the weak entrail into a sturdy rope and the reed into a spear, transforming the sham sacrifice into a regicide (Gautreks saga, ch. 7; see Turville-Petre, 1964, p. 45). Óðinn betrays his worshiper Harald Wartooth, battering him to death personally (Gesta Danorum, 8.220), and he does not hesitate to perjure himself (Hávamál, st. 108109). No wonder that the human Dagr in the eddic poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana (II, st. 34), after observing that the god has stirred up strife between siblings, passionately declares that Óðinn is responsible for all evil.

The ÓÐinn Cult

Óðinn is also called the God of the Hanged, and his cult apparently did involve human sacrifice, as suggested by the story of Starkaðr's unintended killing of Víkarr. Human sacrifice to Óðinn seems to be depicted on the Gotland picture stone of Stora Hammars, and Tacitus (Germania, ch. 9) says that Mercury (i.e., Óðinn) was the only god to whom the tribes sacrificed men. A number of shamanistic elements (intoxicants, self-sacrifice, torture, raven messengers, shape changing, passive receptivity to the spirit world of sorcery) are associated with Óðinn, but most though not all scholars see among the Germanic peoples no evidence of shamanistic practices such as drumming and dancing to induce a trance state.

Place-names commemorating Óðinn make up less than ten percent of theophorous place-names (those bearing the name of a deity) in mainland Scandinavia. They are most frequent in southern Sweden and Denmark, are infrequent in southern Norway, and are not found in Iceland at all. However, the place-names based on -vin (pasture-land) and -akr (acre, field) are ancient, and their existence contradicts the theory that his cult was a new one that displaced the older worship of Týr. Týr is the Germanic development of an Indo-European god, so he probably predates Óðinn in absolute terms, but evidently his religious importance diminished over time, whereas that of Óðinn did not.

Other evidence for the age of the cult of Óðinn comes from the weekday names in Germanic. The standard translation of the Latin dies Mercurii was "Wōdan's day" (e.g., Dan. Onsdag, Eng. Wednesday ), and as the translation of the names of the days of the week took place in the fourth century ce, veneration of Óðinn must have been widespread in all of the western and, probably, northern Germanic regions at this time. Depictions of Óðinn may date back to the Bronze Age, if the large spear-bearing god figures on some southern Swedish rock carvings represent him. Fifth-century gold bracteates showing a god accompanied by birds may also represent Óðinn. (Bracteates are Germanic medallions, probably inspired by Roman coins, that depict figures and scenes that are still not fully understood.) The earliest definite representations of Óðinn are sixth- and seventh-century Swedish helmet decorations with Odinic cult scenes. Óðinn is repeatedly depicted on ninth-century picture stones, at times accompanied by birds, more commonly riding his eight-legged horse. In the next century, pagan Norwegian court poets honored their patrons by depicting them as warriors whom Óðinn welcomes to Valhalla, as in the eulogies for Eiríkr Blood-axe (d. 954) and Hákon the Good (d. c. 960). Adam of Bremen, who used eyewitness accounts, says that Óðinn was worshiped in the temple at Uppsala, which was still pagan then.

Theologically, Óðinn is related to the Indian god Varua. Both have the knowledge of sorcery, the gift of changing shape, and control of the fortunes of battle. Both are the gods of rulers and poets, and both receive human sacrifice. Óðinn also has parallels with the Indian god Indra, who has an encounter with the monster Mada (Drunkenness) and who is also the recipient of soma, the intoxicating sacrificial liquor that gives poetic ability, immortality, and knowledge of the divine. As with the mead of poetic inspiration, soma was brought to the gods by an eagle, or possibly Indra in the form of an eagle.

See Also

Berserkers; Eddas; Germanic Religion; Jötnar; Njo̹rðr; Snorri Sturluson.


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Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)

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