Odin, also known as Woden or Wotan, is, perhaps, the most complicated figure in Germanic/Norse mythology.  This is fitting for the one with such a long list of “kennings“, alternate names used in Norse/Germanic poeetry to refer to him.

Traditionally styled as the ruler of the Gods, at least in the later myths which have come down to us thanks to Snorri Sturluson and the unknown compiler of the Elder Edda (which, despite its name, was written about 50 years after the Younger Edda of Snorri Sturluson.  Fragments of earlier tales suggest, however, that this may be a later addition and that the hierarchy suggested of a single ruler was not always the belief of the peoples who worshiped those gods.

Quick note:  This is my understanding, where I am now.  As always, it’s subject to revision as I learn more.  For those who are actually believers (and I know a few) let me just say that any gods that might exist have not chosen to make themselves known to me.  I am left with merely my own wit and what I can glean from others to try to understand the world around me.

Most of the pagan deities of antiquity (as opposed to modern “neopagan” religions) do not depict their deities as being particularly virtuous as we would understand the term today.  “Justice” often has little to do with them, let alone terms like “loving” and “merciful.” If, indeed, one is referred to in such terms, it is usually in the hopes not of evoking their kindliness, but of averting their wrath through propitiation–examples in Classical mythology are referring to Zeus as “Zeus the Soother” or the Erinyes as “the kindly ones.” So, too, was it with Odin.

Unlike Classical Mythology, the Norse gods did not serve so much as patrons of different spheres of activity–Hephaestus of craftsmen, Hermes of thieves, Aphrodite of “love” (really “lust”), Hestia of the hearth, and so on.  There were some hints of that, Thor as a storm god being primary there, but the association with different human activities and realms was not so strong.  This can be confusing for people coming to Norse/Germanic after learning Classical mythology and often leads to trying to force Norse (I’m not going to keep repeating “Norse/Germanic”) Gods into being patrons of this or that or representing that or this.  The Norse deities were, first and foremost, personalities as opposed to patrons  Like human personalities, they’ll have different strengths and weaknesses, but that’s not the same as the classical patronage/representation.

Odin was known for wandering the world.  And, like Zeus of Classical Mythology, is purported to be the father of many lines of rulers.  He is known for making deals and then finding, or manufacturing, reasons for breaking them.  He sets young men on the course of becoming great warriors and heroes (in the classical sense of those who do great deeds) and then turning on them, leading to their downfall.

Odin is a grim character throughout.  His most common emotional state is brooding.  But then, in his own words (as reported in the Havamal):

Wise in measure let each man be;
but let him not wax too wise;
for never the happiest of men is he
who knows much of many things.

Wise in measure should each man be;
but let him not wax too wise;
seldom a heart will sing with joy
if the owner be all too wise.

Wise in measure should each man be,
but ne’er let him wax too wise:
who looks not forward to learn his fate
unburdened heart will bear.

Clearly, the one known as “Most Wise” will not exactly be a happy individual.

Much of Odin’s character becomes a lot more comprehensible once you recognize two things:

  1. Odin is attempting to prepare for Ragnarok.  He is amassing the army to fight against the giants in the final battle at the end of days.  This means puissant warriors, and a lot of them, all at the height of their prowess.
  2. Unlike everyone else in the Nine Realms, Odin has hope that there might yet be some way to avoid the predicted outcome of that Ragnarok.  Thus he is always seeking “Wisdom” (a term applied much more broadly in the Eddas than the modern word implies, including such things as knowledge and prophecy).
    1. Traditionally, Odin is considered to be wrong here.  Odin’s fate remains despite all his attempts to avoid it.  However, from the position of one inside that belief structure, this certainty may not be justified.  Ragnarok, after all, has not yet occurred.  The sequence of events that Odin is attempting to forestall have not played out.  And if any being in the nine worlds can suss out a way to redirect those events and avoid the prophesied end it would be Odin.

So, from the first of those principles, we see Odin setting individuals on paths to becoming great warriors of renown, even giving them counsel along the way.  And then, when they are at the height of their prowess and strength, he will turn on them, leading to their death. An example of this is the Volsung Saga where Odin through a “sword in the tree” event (much like the Arthurian “sword in the stone”, only it’s ownership of the sword rather than kingship that is the prize) gives a fine sword to Sigmund.  Later, Odin breaks the sword while Sigmund is using it in battle, leading to his death.  In so doing, Odin gains a new warrior for Valhol, who will continue to train in neverending youth and strength for the final battle of Ragnarok.

Both the initial aid and the ultimate betrayal clearly fall out of that first principle.  Odin is amassing an army and creating heroes, then killing them at their pinnacle, is his recruiting, conscripting, a draft from which there is no evasion.

From the second principle we see the many things Odin will do to gain Wisdom.  He will engage in “question duels” with giants, as in Vafþrúðnismál with his head (as in removal thereof) as the stakes.  Yes, he cheated on that one, to ensure that the giant lost.  On the other hand, Vafþrúðnir didn’t consider it “cheating” so much as extreme wisdom:

You alone know that, what long ago
You said in the ears of your son.
I doomed myself when I dared to tell
What fate will befall the gods,And staked my wit against the wit of Odin,
Ever the wisest of all.
Vafþrúðnismál 55, translated by Auden and Taylor

That he’s truly willing to put himself on the line seeking that wisdom, is demonstrated by his hanging nine days in the World Ash, Yggrassil, thrust through with a spear in order to learn the secret of the runes.  Note that the runes were not just a writing system (although they were that) but were used for magic and divination.  In another case, he plucked out his own eye in order to get a drink from Mimir’s Well and gain the wisdom possessed therein.  Against these, seducing a giantess to obtain the Mead of Poetry (another source of magic) is a minor thing indeed.

Odin is a force for creation.  It is Odin with his brothers who, after the slaying of the primordial giant Ymir, created Midgard from his remains.  It is Odin with his brothers (although some sources say with Hoenir and Lodur, and some folk associate Lodur with Loki) who created the first man and woman.  As such, he is opposed to the final destruction of the Nine Worlds (even though that destruction leads to a rebirth).  His efforts are bent toward the twin goals of building his strength to fight the last day and in seeking ways to avoid that final fate, both his personal fate (being devoured by Fenrir) and that of the world (burned by Surt).

And the question, of who will win in that final day, is still very much open.


12 thoughts on “Odin/Woden/Wotan”

  1. If you want to know what’s really going on in the world of the Norse gods you must read Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams.

    Unrelated thought: I wonder if “younger” refers to closer to the events as they happened.


  2. There seems to have been a discontinuity in northern religion in the late 700’s Involving Charlemagne and the Blood Courts of Verden.

    Before this time the North did not have a battle religion. The Valkyries qua shield-maiden choosers of the dead was unknown. And the cognate of Ju Piter and Zeus Pitar [Dyḗus ph₂tḗr] was described by the Romans as the ruling god. It even shows up in Tue’sday, Weden’sday, Thur’sday, and Freya’sday.

    I wonder how many of Odin’s kennings were applied to him only after the missing god had failed them.


    1. I’m not sure where you’re going with the cognates of Jupiter/Zeus Pater. The Romans associated Thor with Jupiter, both being associated with thunder/lightning. They associate Wotan (Germanic name) with Mercury.


      1. Check your Tacitus. Tiu was identified with Mars. Mars was the ethnic father god of the Romans. Much more balanced and respected than Ares. Woden was viewed as Mercury. See Sleipnir’s eight legs for speed. Thor was identified with Hercules.

        These identities did not just appear in 790 AD. Their identities go back in time too far to follow. The Day Father and the Earth Mother go back in Indo-european at least 8000 years. Back when ancestors of the Celts, Germans, Italics, Greeks, Hittites, Persians, and such were one people. As the languages diverged in time and space, so did their names and interpretations. Two tribes of quarreling gods are not just the Vanir and Aesir, but the Titanomachy, and the Asuras and Devas.

        One who would understand them should understand whence they came.


        1. Sigh.

          While I don’t really want to get into this argument, I really doubt that the gods of the various Indo-European people are “just” the gods of the original Indo-European tribe.

          I don’t want to get into an argument about the “origins” of gods, there is evidence within Hinduism that the “gods” change. IE One god had certain attributes but later on a god with the same “name” had different attributes.

          So this idea that all of the Indo-European gods were the “same” beings don’t pass the smell test for me.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. JBS Haldane is supposed to have said “The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it’s queerer than we can imagine.” I would go farther and say larger, more complicated, and certainly more expansive, than the human mind is capable of comprehending.

            Thus, any deities that might exist (I entertain the possibility while not particularly believing in any particular ones) that are significant powers in that Universe (let alone ultimate creator beings) must, therefore, likewise be more…more than we can comprehend. When Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me”, well, I think “through me” might just include far more than anyone imagines.

            In the present context, it would mean that any culture’s conceptions of those beings would be fragmentary at best. Their concepts and descriptions would be only a tiny fraction of whatever those beings’ true selves would be. The blind men and the elephant barely scratches the surface. The blind men and the whole world would barely scratch the surface. (One touches a puddle and decides that the world is water, another touches a fire and concludes it burns, while another steps off a cliff and decides it’s wind…briefly.)

            So I don’t worry so much if some conception of deity/deities is “right” or not. It won’t be. Ever. It can’t be. Instead, I simply look to see what useful lessons I might take from it.


            1. And I have no problem with you “looking to see what useful lessons you might take from it”.

              I just have a “thing” about people trying to tie all “stories about gods” into one universal theory. 😉


          2. And the other gods never quite trusted Odin. Respect, yes. Fear, naturally. Trust? Not so much. Odin is the god of kings and politicians.

            Odin for the Jarls, Thor for the Karls.


        2. Yes, I am familiar with Tacitus’ Germania. That’s one of the reasons why I think that Wotan as rule of the gods may be a late addition. OTOH, the Romans did have a tendency to make associations that were…spurious at best (Looking at some of the associations they made with Egyption deities and going “what?”). Thor was associated with Hercules. He was also associated with Zeus/Jupiter in some other places.

          This Roman tendency to make associations, however spurious, indicates a problem with trying to trace things–just because things have some apparent similarity in some aspect does not mean that they are actually related. Consider the frequency of “flood myths”. Many take that to mean that as evidence of the reality of a worldwide calamitous flood. Yet, if you look at it, cultures that, at least in their past, were subject to devastating floods (the Fertile Crescent was notorious for them in ancient times), then it’s no surprise that they would develop tales of floods destroying the world. But consider Egypt where the floods were not only relatively benign but because of their timing and the fact that they laid down nutrient rich soil and were, in fact the life-blood of ancient Egypt, their flood myth had the flood saving the world from an angry god rather than an angry god using it for destruction.

          And even when the case is one of evolving and modifying beliefs over time, that does not necessarily mean that the “original” beliefs are the correct ones any more than alchemy is more correct in describing the material world than is chemistry or Aristotle’s understanding of physics better matches reality than Newtons.

          Some may be, and some not. I, for instance, am quite skeptical of Snorri’s version and have my doubts about the unknown author of the Codex Regius. Snorri, in particular, trying to force things into his concept that the whole of Norse/Germanic myth was a corrupted telling of the Trojan War…let’s just say it raised serious questions about his “interpretation” of things.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Chuckle Chuckle

            In S. M. Stirling’s “Island In The Sea Of Time” series, one (down-time) character was slightly annoyed by Greeks thinking that his gods were somehow the same as the gods that the Greeks worshiped. 😆


  3. Island in the Sea of Time. Might be time to reread. Great books. Best back cover blurb I ever read for an author re Stirling along the lines of “he can wreck a world better than anyone else”

    Alternate theory: all the stuff we read from way back and interpret as analysis and history was actually fiction that we have completely misinterpreted. Imagine reading Lord of the Rings if we discovered a manuscript from 200BC instead of 1954AD


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