Odin

In Germanic mythology, Odin from Old Norse: Óðinn, is a widely revered god. In Norse mythology, from which stems most surviving information about the god, Odin is associated with wisdom, healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, battle, sorcery, poetry, frenzy, and the runic alphabet, and is the husband of the goddess Frigg. In wider Germanic mythology and paganism, Odin was known in Old English as Wōden, in Old Saxon as Wōdan, and in Old High German as Wuotan or Wōtan, all stemming from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic theonym *wōđanaz.

Odin is a prominently mentioned god throughout the recorded history of the Germanic peoples, from the Roman occupation of regions of Germania through the tribal expansions of the Migration Period and the Viking Age. In the modern period, Odin continued to be acknowledged in the rural folklore of Germanic Europe. References to Odin appear in place names throughout regions historically inhabited by the ancient Germanic peoples, and the day of the week Wednesday bears his name in many Germanic languages, including English.

In Old English texts, Odin holds a particular place as a euhemerized ancestral figure among royalty, and he is frequently referred to as a founding figure among various other Germanic peoples, including the Langobards. Forms of his name appear frequently throughout the Germanic record, though narratives regarding Odin are mainly found in Old Norse works recorded in Iceland, primarily around the 13th century. These texts make up the bulk of modern understanding of Norse mythology.

In Old Norse texts, Odin is depicted as one-eyed and long-bearded, frequently wielding a spear named Gungnir, and wearing a cloak and a broad hat. He is often accompanied by his animal companions and familiars—the wolves Geri and Freki and the ravens Huginn and Muninn, who bring him information from all over Midgard—and rides the flying, eight-legged steed Sleipnir across the sky and into the underworld. Odin is the son of Bestla and Borr and has two brothers, Vili and Vé. Odin is attested as having many sons, most famously the gods Thor (with Jörð) and Baldr (with Frigg), and is known by hundreds of names. In these texts, he frequently seeks greater knowledge, at times in disguise (most famously by obtaining the Mead of Poetry), makes wagers with his wife Frigg over the outcome of exploits, and takes part in both the creation of the world by way of slaying the primordial being Ymir and giving the gift of life to the first two humans Ask and Embla. Odin has a particular association with Yule, and mankind’s knowledge of both the runes and poetry is also attributed to him, giving Odin aspects of the culture hero.

In Old Norse texts, female beings associated with the battlefield—the valkyries—are associated with the god and Odin oversees Valhalla, where he receives half of those who die in battle, the einherjar. The other half are chosen by the goddess Freyja for her afterlife location, Fólkvangr. Odin consults the disembodied, herb-embalmed head of the wise being Mímir for advice, and during the foretold events of Ragnarök, Odin is told to lead the einherjar into battle before being consumed by the monstrous wolf Fenrir. In later folklore, Odin appears as a leader of the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession of the dead through the winter sky. He is associated with charms and other forms of magic, particularly in Old English and Old Norse texts.

Odin is a frequent subject of study in Germanic studies, and numerous theories have been put forward regarding his development. Some of these focus on Odin’s particular relation to other figures; for example, the fact that Freyja‘s husband Óðr appears to be something of an etymological doublet of the god, whereas Odin’s wife Frigg is in many ways similar to Freyja, and that Odin has a particular relation to the figure of Loki. Other approaches focus on Odin’s place in the historical record, a frequent question being whether the figure of Odin derives from Proto-Indo-European religion, or whether he developed later in Germanic society. In the modern period, Odin has inspired numerous works of poetry, music, and other forms of media. He is venerated in most forms of the new religious movement Heathenry, together with other gods venerated by the ancient Germanic peoples; some branches focus particularly on him.

The Old Norse theonym Óðinn (popularly anglicised as Odin) and its cognates, including Old English Wōden, Old Saxon Wōden, and Old High German Wuotan, derive from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic theonym *wōđanaz. The masculine noun *wōđanaz developed from the Proto-Germanic adjective *wōđaz, related to Latin vātēs and Old Irish fáith, both meaning ‘seer, prophet’. Adjectives stemming from *wōđaz include Gothic woþs ‘possessed’, Old Norse óðr, ‘mad, frantic, furious’, and Old English wōd ‘mad’.

The adjective *wōđaz (or *wōđō) was further substantivised, leading to Old Norse óðr ‘mind, wit, soul, sense’, Old English ellen-wōd ‘zeal’, Middle Dutch woet ‘madness’ (modern Dutch:woede ‘anger’), and Old High German wuot ‘thrill, violent agitation’. Additionally the Old Norse noun æði ‘rage, fury’ and Old High German wuotī ‘madness’ derive from the feminine noun *wōđīn, from *wōđaz. The weak verb *wōđjanan, also derived from *wōđaz, gave rise to Old Norse æða ‘to rage’, Old English wēdan ‘to be mad, furious’, Old Saxon wōdian ‘to rage’, and Old High German wuoten ‘to be insane, to rage’.

Over 170 names are recorded for Odin. These names are variously descriptive of attributes of the god, refer to myths involving him, or refer to religious practices associated with the god. This multitude of names makes Odin the god with the most names known among the Germanic peoples.

The modern English weekday name Wednesday derives from Old English wōdnesdæg. Cognate terms are found in other Germanic languages, such as Middle Low German wōdensdach (Dutch woensdag), and Old Norse Óðinsdagr (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Onsdag). All of these terms derive from Proto-Germanic *Wodensdag, itself a Germanic interpretation of Latin Dies Mercurii (“Day of Mercury”). In Old High German, the name derived from Odin’s was replaced by a translation of Church Latin media hebdomas (‘middle of the week’), hence modern German Mittwoch.

Roman era to Migration Period

The earliest records of the Germanic peoples were recorded by the Romans, and in these works Odin is frequently referred to—via a process known as interpretatio romana (where characteristics perceived to be similar by Romans result in identification of a non-Roman god as a Roman deity)—as the Roman god Mercury. The first clear example of this occurs in the Roman historian Tacitus’s late 1st-century work Germania, where, writing about the religion of the Suebi (a confederation of Germanic peoples), he comments that “among the gods Mercury is the one they principally worship. They regard it as a religious duty to offer to him, on fixed days, human as well as other sacrificial victims. Hercules and Mars they appease by animal offerings of the permitted kind” and adds that a portion of the Suebi also venerate “Isis”. In this instance, Tacitus refers to the god Odin as “Mercury”, Thor as “Hercules”, and Týr as “Mars”, and the identity of the “Isis” of the Suebi has been debated.

Anthony Birley has noted that Odin’s apparent identification with Mercury has little to do with Mercury’s classical role of being messenger of the gods, but appears to be due to Mercury’s role of psychopomp. Other contemporary evidence may also have led to the equation of Odin with Mercury; Odin, like Mercury, may have at this time already been pictured with a staff and hat, may have been considered a trader god, and the two may have been seen as parallel in their roles as wandering deities. But their rankings in their respective religious spheres may have been very different. Also, Tacitus’s “among the gods Mercury is the one they principally worship” is an exact quote from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (1st century BCE) in which Caesar is referring to the Gauls and not the Germanic peoples. Regarding the Germanic peoples, Caesar states: “[T]hey consider the gods only the ones that they can see, the Sun, Fire and the Moon”, which scholars reject as clearly mistaken, regardless of what may have led to the statement.

Although the English kingdoms were converted as a result of Christianization of the Germanic peoples by the 7th century, Odin is frequently listed as a founding figure among the Old English royalty. He is also either directly or indirectly mentioned a few times in the surviving Old English poetic corpus, including the Nine Herbs Charm and likely also the Old English rune poem. Odin may also be referenced in the riddle Solomon and Saturn. In the Nine Herbs Charm, Odin is said to have slain a wyrm (serpent, European dragon) by way of nine “glory twigs”. Preserved from an 11th-century manuscript, the poem is, according to Bill Griffiths, “one of the most enigmatic of Old English texts”. The section including Odin is as follows:

+ wyrm com snican, toslat he nan,
ða genam woden VIIII wuldortanas,
sloh ða þa næddran þæt heo on VIIII tofleah
Þær gaændade æppel and attor
þæt heo næfre ne wolde on hus bugan.

A serpent came crawling (but) it destroyed no one
when Woden took nine twigs of glory,
(and) then struck the adder so that it flew into nine (pieces).
There archived apple and poison
that it never would re-enter the house.

—Bill Griffiths translation

The emendation of nan to ‘man’ has been proposed. The next stanza comments on the creation of the herbs chervil and fennel while hanging in heaven by the ‘wise lord’ (witig drihten) and before sending them down among mankind. Regarding this, Griffith comments that “In a Christian context ‘hanging in heaven’ would refer to the crucifixion; but (remembering that Woden was mentioned a few lines previously) there is also a parallel, perhaps a better one, with Odin, as his crucifixion was associated with learning.” The Old English gnomic poem Maxims I also mentions Odin by name in the (alliterative) phrase Woden worhte weos, (‘Woden made idols’), in which he is contrasted with and denounced against the Christian God.

The Old English rune ós, which is described in the Old English rune poem

The Old English rune poem is a rune poem that recounts the Old English runic alphabet, the futhorc. The stanza for the rune ós reads as follows:

ōs byþ ordfruma ǣlcre sprǣce
wīsdōmes wraþu and wītena frōfur
and eorla gehwām ēadnys and tō hiht

god is the origin of all language
wisdom’s foundation and wise man’s comfort
and to every hero blessing and hope

—Stephen Pollington

The first word of this stanza, ōs (Latin ‘mouth’) is a homophone for Old English os, a particularly heathen word for ‘god’. Due to this and the content of the stanzas, several scholars have posited that this poem is censored, having originally referred to Odin. Kathleen Herbert comments that “Os was cognate with As in Norse, where it meant one of the Æsir, the chief family of gods. In Old English, it could be used as an element in first names: Osric, Oswald, Osmund, etc. but it was not used as a word to refer to the God of Christians. Woden was equated with Mercury, the god of eloquence (among other things). The tales about the Norse god Odin tell how he gave one of his eyes in return for wisdom; he also won the mead of poetic inspiration. Luckily for Christian rune-masters, the Latin word os could be substituted without ruining the sense, to keep the outward form of the rune name without obviously referring to Woden.”

In the poem Solomon and Saturn, “Mercurius the Giant” (Mercurius se gygand) is referred to as an inventor of letters. This may also be a reference to Odin, who is in Norse mythology the founder of the runic alphabets, and the gloss a continuation of the practice of equating Odin with Mercury found as early as Tacitus. The poem is additionally in the style of later Old Norse material featuring Odin, such as the Old Norse poem Vafþrúðnismál, featuring Odin and the jötunn Vafþrúðnir engaging in a deadly game of wits.

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