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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.