Odin is a god with hundreds of names, ruler of the Æsir, husband of Frigg, a warrior and a wanderer. He is one of the most complex figures in all of the mythologies. Odin is described as a one-eyed man with a long beard, wearing a shaggy cloak and a broad hat. He is armed with a spear Gungnir and accompanied by several animal companions.
He often appears in pop culture as a valorous and just ruler, but his Old Norse followers had a quite different image of Odin. In the old days, Tyr and Thor were considered the honorable gods and commanders of battlefields. Odin himself didn't hold justice and fairness in high regard. He was respected by both the outlaws and warriors as Odin favored those who possessed intelligence, creativity, and competence. In Odin's opinion, the difference between a successful king and skilled criminal was mostly a matter of luck.
Odin is a wise wanderer and trickster who is constantly in search for more wisdom. Besides seeking wisdom he also bestows wisdom on others. He is a ruler of all other gods, yet he often makes deals and decisions for his own interests. Although he is often cursed for his trickery and "selfishness" he is revered both among gods and men, as he is the leader of gods, creator of the world and the one who gave life to humans.
Odin is associated with many different areas of which some seem contradictory. His complexity is most easily seen through the variety of attributes and followers associated with him.
Wisdom is both his most important virtue and desire. As such he is worshiped by rulers and those who aspire to rule. Odin is always driven to search for wisdom in all things. Although he will stop at nothing to gain any knowledge, he is especially on the hunt for the knowledge which will give him more power and in most cases that power comes in the form of magic. The poem Völuspá from The Poetic Edda gives us a good example of how far Odin was prepared to go in order to gain knowledge. Based on the poem, Odin sacrificed one of his eyes to be granted a sip of waters of Mímisbrunnr, a well which holds secrets of cosmos.
Odin is also one of the two greatest practitioners of shamanism among all gods, as such he is revered by shamans and berserkers. Modern pop culture often associates Odin with all of the warriors, but in reality, most of the non-berserker warriors favored Thor and Tyr. Berserkers were warriors whose technique was closely tied to spiritual practices. Their practices were centered around spiritual unification with ferocious totem animals. As Odin was the master of such beasts that unification also brought unity with Odin. As warrior-shamans, berserkers were the warriors who were under Odin's patronage.
Although Odin wasn't the patron of all the warriors he sent Valkyries to descend on the battlefield and bring half of those who died in battle to Valhalla. Half of the slain belonged to Freya and went to Fólkvangr. Valkyries took Odin's half of the warriors only after Freya has made her pick of the slain warriors. The half that was taken to Valhalla were called einherjar (Old Norse for "once fighters"). Once there einherjar would drink mead and eat their fill of Sæhrímnir, a creature that is killed and eaten every night by the Æsir and Einherjar. Once the Sæhrímnir is eaten it is brought back to life in order to be served for dinner on the next day. In Valhalla einherjar prepare for the events of Ragnarök on a daily basis, and once the Ragnarök comes, they will be led to battle by Odin himself.
Odin was also widely worshiped by poets. On one occasion, Odin spent a good part of the year working for Baugi, a giant whose brother came into possession of the Mead of Poetry. The Mead was created by the dwarfs. The mead had the power to make anyone who drank it a poet or a scholar. Odin worked for Baugi because he was promised to be given the mead. Once Odin's work was finished, Baugi's brother, Suttungr refused to give Odin the mead. Odin stole the mead and gave it to the gods and gifted men thus enabling them to become great poets.
There are many more areas that Odin rules over, here is the list of areas of life that Odin is associated with:
- The Gallows
- The runic alphabet
Etymology and other names
Óðinn (Old Norse), Wōden (Old English and Old Saxon) and Wuotan (Old High German) all derive from the Proto-Germanic Wōđanaz. The noun wōđanaz is developed from the adjective wōđaz. His Old Norse Name is formed from two parts. The noun óðr, and the suffix -inn. Óðr stands for fury, inspiration, and ecstasy, while the suffix -inn can mean "the master of" or "a perfect example of". Which means that literal translation of Odin's name would mean that he is the master and a perfect example of inspiration, fury, and ecstasy.
Besides his main name, Odin is known as the god with hundreds of names. It would be pointless to list them all here as there are close to 200 names recorded for Odin. Some of those names are Odin's descriptive attributes while others refer to religious practices associated with him.
Some of the examples are:
|Asagrim||Lord of the Æsir|
|Draugadróttinn||Lord of the undead|
|Fjölnir||The One who is many, concealer|
|Galdraföðr||Father of Magical Songs|
|Gapþrosnir||The one in gaping frenzy|
|Glapsviðr||Swift in deceit|
|Herteitr||Glad of War|
|Löndungr||Shaggy Cloak Wearer|
|Rúnatýr||God of Runes|
|Sigtryggr||Sure of victory|
|Skollvaldr||Ruler of treachery|
It is clear that Odin has many names, but there are also many things named after Odin. The most common term named after Odin is used by every English speaker on a daily basis; Wednesday. *Wednesday derives from Old English Wōdnesdæg which literally means Odin's Day. So in a way each time an English speaker mentions Wednesday they offer a small tribute to the Allfather! ;)
I have already mentioned that Odin was prepared to do many things, including sacrificing his eye, in order to gain wisdom. The story of how Odin obtained the knowledge of the runes best describes to what extent Odin was willing to go in order to learn. Both The Prose and The Poetic Edda mention a place called The Well of Urd. The well was an unfathomable pond from which some of the most powerful forces and creatures in The Old Norse mythology came. The Trio of Norns were a group of such creatures. The Norns were maidens that, out of all creatures in the cosmos, held the greatest power over destiny. They ruled over destiny with the power of the runes. They would carve the runes in the trunk of the cosmic tree Yggdrasill. Their intentions would then travel along the tree, affecting everything in The Nine Worlds.
Odin watched the Norns and hungered for their wisdom and knowledge of the runes. In order to gain knowledge of the runes, Odin decided to make a sacrifice. He hanged himself from the cosmic tree Yggdrasil. He then dedicated a spear to himself and stabbed himself with that spear. Thus he sacrificed himself to himself, making the greatest and the noblest sacrifice possible. He hung from the Yggdrasil for nine nights and nine days without nourishment. While he was hanging, Odin stared into the Well of Urd and called to the runes. Once his ordeal was finished; the runes, an alphabet that contained many of the greatest secrets of existence, revealed themselves to him.
With the knowledge of how to wield runes, Odin's already formidable powers grew manifold. He became one of the most accomplished beings in all of the existence.
Odin is accompanied by his animal companions and familiars. Most important of them are his ravens Huginn and Muninn, The wolves Geri and Freki, and eight-legged steed Sleipnir.
Sleipnir (Old Norse the slipper) is one of the children of Loki. He is an eight-legged flying horse who serves as Odin's mount. Sleipnir is attested as the best horse among the gods and men and as such the only steed worthy to serve Odin. Sleipnir carries Odin across the sky and into the underworld.
Huginn (Old Norse - thought) and Muninn (Old Norse - memory) are two ravens that symbolize Odin's thought and memory. Odin, sitting on his high throne Hliðskjálf, sends out the ravens each dawn to fly all over the world. At dinner-time, Huginn and Muninn return to sit on Odin's shoulders and tell him everything they see and hear. Thus Odin is kept informed about many events from all around the world.
Geri and Freki (both words mean the ravenous or greedy one in Old Norse) are Odin's wolves. Not many sources about the pair remain, and as a consequence, we know very little about them. The only important piece of information concerning Geri and Freki reveals more about Odin than about the wolves. The poem Grímnismál from The Poetic Edda reveals that Odin gives all food from his plate to Geri and Freki, as Odin himself needs only wine. The Prose Edda confirms this information adding that wine is to Odin both meat and drink.
If you are interested in more information about Odin; I have written about Odin's role in the creation of the world and humans in my post about creation of the world in The Old Norse mythology; and if you want to know about Odin's end, you can find more about it in my post about Fenrir
Previous articles in Norse Mythology series:
- Norse Mythology˙- Fenrir
- Norse Mythology - The Creation of the World
- Norse Mythology - Yggdrasil, The Cosmic Tree
- The Poetic Edda
- The Prose Edda - Snorri Sturluson