(Óðinn, Woden, Wotan, *Wodans, *Woðanaz)
(Bragi): 'Why did you take victory from him, if he seemed the bravest to you?'
(Óðinn): 'For that which cannot be known: the gray wolf gapes ever at the dwellings of the gods.'
(Unknown skald, Eiríksmál)
The root of Wodan's name is the Proto-Germanic *Woðanaz - which may mean "The Furious One", "The Mad One", or "The Inspired One". Wodan is all of these, and more: his being is that wild wod which rushes through mind and body, to be seen in the inspiration of skaldcraft, the howling of the stormwind, and the frothing madness of the berserk warrior.
Of all the god/esses, Wodan is the one who is best known to us, as it was his gifts for which the skalds and saga-tellers of the eldest days were most grateful. He is the winner, keeper, and giver of the mead Wod-Stirrer (ON Óðroerir), which he shares with those humans whom he wishes to bless so that they may speak and write with some of his song-skill. Like all the god/esses, he is many-sided, and more of his names and strengths have survived than those of any other deities. He is the god of battle and kingship; as leader of the Wild Hunt, he is greatly feared through the Germanic lands, but farmers also leave their last sheaf out so that Wodan and his horde of ghosts will make their fields fruitful. He is the father of many human kindreds, and the betrayer of his chosen heroes; he sits in dignity above the worlds on his seat Hliðskjálf, and wanders through the worlds in the guise of an old tramp. Though all the god/esses have their share of magic, he is best-known as a wizard, winner of the runes and father of galdor-songs.
Wodan most often appears as a tall, one-eyed man with a long hoary beard, wrapped in a blue-black cloak with a wide-brimmed hat or a hood drawn down over half his face. Völsunga saga describes him as being barefooted and wearing patterned breeches. Sometimes Wodan is also seen in full armour, with byrnie, helm, shield, and spear (though not sword). All things about the shapes of the holy ones tell us about their being. The blue-black cloak Wodan wears is the colour of death and the undead, the shade our forebears called "Hel-blue". In Icelandic sagas, men put on a blue cloak when they were in a mood to slay, and Þiðreks saga tells us that wearing this colour is the sign of "a cold heart and a grim nature". Yet it also shows us the endless depths of the night sky - the realm of the god's wisdom - and his might to hide and show forth what he chooses. Likewise the hat or hood: Wodan's face, and what he sees through the eye that lies in Mímir's Well, are ever half-hidden from humankind, his mirk-side ever matched evenly with his brightness. Still, he appears differently at different times: there are some true folk who have seen both of his eyes at once in their meditations, and some images that are thought to be his, such as the mask-faces on the backs of several Vendel Age raven-brooches, also have two eyes.
Although Snorri Sturluson, with the dual models of christianity and Classical mythology before him, carefully presented Óðinn as the head of the pantheon (and dignified ruler of Ásgarðr), the surviving evidence tends to show that this god was not dearly loved by most folk. Unlike "Þórr" or "Freyr", "Óðinn" was seldom used as an element in human names: there is one late reference to a human woman named "Óðindís" on a 10th century Swedish runestone from Vestmanland, and a relatively rare Danish man's name "Óðinkaur" ( either "Óðinn-tresses" - in which case, perhaps a cultic title referring to the long hair of a king or other holy man - or "the one given to Óðinn"). The latter name survived into the christian period, and was the name of at least two bishops of royal blood. "Óðinnphobia" is not uncommon even today, and for good reason. Many call on him for help in one thing or another, and hail him as kindly teacher and shaman, which he is in some of his aspects, but those who do this without being wholly given to him should be very careful. Of all god/desses, Wodan seems to be swiftest to claim the geld for his gifts, and he often takes what one would rather not give. One of the ways in which he sometimes works is shown in the tale of how King Víkarr's mother asked Óðinn for help in her brewing. The god gave her that help, asking in return "that which lies between your girdle and yourself". While uncertain why he should want her dress, she agreed - only to find that, unknown to her as yet, she was pregnant and that it was her unborn son whom Óðinn wanted to be dedicated and, in time, sacrificed to him.
Wodan can be tricky to those who deal with him, but he is often cruel to those who are truly given to him and love him best. He is a grim god, a stirrer of strife; and as many of our sagas (Saga of the Völsungs perhaps being the clearest of these) show, he is well known for testing his chosen ones to destruction. In Icelandic literature, his heroes are usually the type known as "dark heroes" - ugly, troublesome, tormented men of great might and tangled character, such as Starkaðr and Egill Skalla-Grímsson. Wodan himself is seldom a god of social order; if anything, he is the opposite. His most beloved dynasty, the Völsungs, included outlaws, werewolves, and brother-sister incest, and he says of himself in Hávamál 110, "I know that Óðinn swore a ring-oath: who can trust in his troth? He swindled Suttungr, took symbel-mead from him, and left Gunnlöð to weep". Yet of all gods, Wodan seems to be the one who is seen most often within the Middle-Garth and who has the most to do with the affairs of humans, especially on the large scale. He forges his chosen ones harshly and brings about their death in time - not because he loves their suffering, but because he is always gathering his might against the Last Battle, Ragnarök, so that a new world may be born after the death of the old. He himself has already undergone many great trials to gain the wisdom which makes this possible: the nine nights' hanging and stabbing through which he found the runes, the casting of his eye into Mímir's Well as payment for a draught of its waters.
Despite these things, Wodan is not always dark of deeds or of heart. One of his names is Óski, "wish" (perhaps related to the Anglo-Saxon proper name Wusc-frea, Wish-Fro?), showing him as the kindly granter of desires. He often appears to give rede and help to his chosen ones, as he does to Sigurðr the Völsung and Hrólfr kraki, for instance. In a lighter mood, he came to King Heiðrekr in the shape of a man Heiðrekr knew and challenged him to a riddle-game; he also showed himself to Óláfr inn digri (Óláfr the Fat, also known as "St. Óláfr") as an old storyteller, offering blessings which the Christian king rejected by trying to hit the god with a prayer-book. Hárbarðsljóð shows him playing a practical joke on Þórr, appearing unrecognised to the other god as an old ferryman, introducing himself by saying, "I am called Hoarbeard - I seldom hide my name" (this out of a god with more than an hundred recorded by-names!), and teasing his son until Þórr is ready to start swinging his hammer.
Wodan is more than a little fond of his drink; Grímnismál 20 tells us that he lives on wine alone, and in Hávamál he recounts, perhaps a little ruefully, his drinking of the three cauldrons of the mead of poetry: "I was drunk, I was over-drunk, at the house of the wise Fjalarr". In her article "Óminnis hegri", Ursula Dronke even offers an argument for ritual excessive drinking to the point of vomiting as an Óðinnic act, which may or may not be comforting on the morning after to those young thanes who have won the somewhat uncoveted "Egill Skalla-Grímsson Drekk-til-at-Spýja Memorial Award"...Wodan's adventures with women are also well-known: not only does he father many dynasties on human women, but he also seduces etin-maids such as Gunnlöð and has at least three lovers in the Ases' Garth - Frija, the Frowe, and Skaði. In Hávamál, he boasts of his spells to win the favours of women; and in Hárbarðsljóð, he matches his many exploits in the bedchamber against Þórr's tales of fighting thurses.
As much as anything, Wodan is a teacher of all the wights of the worlds. Sigrdrífumál tells how he scraped the runes into "the holy mead" and sent them on wide ways, so that "they are with the Ases, they are with the alfs; some with the wise Wans, some with mortal humans". The skald Þjóðólfr ór Hvini called him hapta snytrir, "the one who makes the gods wise" (Haustlöng), and Wodan does the same for human beings. Though this is by no means a set rule, and has become less general in the past few years as the elder troth has spread, many true folk whose lives are given to study and teaching find themselves drawn to Wodan.
Wodan is also called Farmatýr, "Cargo-God". This title can be read in several ways; it may be that, like Mercury (to whom he is compared in the interpretatio Romana), he also had a role as a god of trade. It could be taken as referring to the booty-loaded ship of the Viking whose raids Óðinn blessed; it could speak of his return from Etin-Home fully laden with the "cargo" of the mead Wod-Stirrer; or it could be related to his role as ferryman of the dead, as seen in Frá dauða Sinfjötla. In modern practise, however, it has also been found that Wodan as Farmatýr is a good god to call upon when searching for things that are hard to find - not only out-of-print books, but ritual items of all sorts.
Wodan's first shape was that of death-god: not as the keeper of Hella's kingdom, but as the Chooser of the Dead, leading souls from world to world and bringing the might and wisdom of the dead out from the dark realms to the bright lands above. The rune *ansuz (Ase) is most closely tied to Wodan; the Old Icelandic Rune-Poem says specifically that this rune names this god. The word *ansuz itself may have first spoken of the dead forebears whose might still worked on the living; according to Jordanes, the Goths called their ancestor-ghosts "anses", which the christian chronicler interpreted as "demi-gods". As drighten of the restless dead and leader of the Wild Hunt, Wodan was known through the Germanic lands from an early time - perhaps the earliest times. Though no Norse myths tell of the Hunt, the Hunter's name is known as Wodan or Oden (or as the earlier form, Wod) from Scandinavia to Switzerland. The rushing might of the dead through the empty fields of winter brings forth all the strength that sank into the earth at harvest's end: the Last Sheaf is left out for them so that their blessings will make the lands fruitful again.
As the god who goes forth into the realm of death and brings might back, Wodan became the god of magic and skaldcraft (which in itself is the skill of galdor-magic): it is from the land of the dead that those lores rise and that wod roars. As the Eddic poem Hávamál tells us, he got the runes by means of a shamanic death-initiation. Hanged and stabbed at once, dangling on the Gallows-Tree between the worlds, Wodan sank slain to find the twenty-four-fold pattern which lies at the very roots of the worlds - the shapes and sounds of the mights with which all things are wrought. As a magician, he also calls the dead forth to learn lore from them and hear the wisdom of their fore-tellings.
As the one who passes between the worlds of death and life, Wodan became king- and forebear-god, for the might of the king in Scandinavia and Saxon England was grounded on the mounds of his forefathers, from which he spoke his deemings and laws with the wisdom of the holy ones who lay within. Wodan was the first father of many of these lines, particularly in Anglo-Saxon England where nearly all the kingly genealogies go back to him; and it was he (together with Fro Ing, as spoken of later), who opened the speech between the king lying beneath the mound and the ruler who sat on its heights.
During the Iron Age, while the Germanic people were migrating, Wodan rose more to be seen as a battle-god, in which role he was the chosen patron of many of the Germanic tribes such as the Lombards, the Alamanns, and the Cherusci. From the later Norse sources and the Classical references, Wodan's place as battle-god and hence tribal patron was not due to his might as a warrior, but his role as Chooser of the Slain: the god who made the casualty-list was clearly the one whose choices ruled the outcome of the struggle, and thus Wal-Father (Father of the Slain) became Sig-Father (Father of Victory). In later Norse sources such as Styrbjarnar þáttr, battle-hosts were given to Óðinn by letting a spear fly over them with the words, 'Óðinn have you all!' The many deposits of weapons and accounts of captives and booty being given as sacrifices in the Iron Age are likely to show just such dedications: whatever survived the battle on the losing side had already been marked out for the god's keeping.
Wodan was by no means the only god of the Vikings, not even of those who went raiding or battling to win new lands for themselves in the south. But his presence was surely mighty among them. The Raven Banner was borne by the Danes in 878, as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "that battle-flag...which they call Raven"; and the Ecomium Emmae Reginae tells how the Danes had a banner of white silk in the middle of which a raven appeared at times of war. According to Orkneyinga saga, the jarl Sigurðr of Orkney had a raven banner (woven by his mother) which ever brought victory to the one before whom it was borne, but death to the one who bore it - probably as a sacrifice marked out for Óðinn. Turville-Petre suggests that this god was also the particular patron of many of the kings of Norway, such as Haraldr inn hárfagri (Hairfair) and Eiríkr bloðøx. Although there are few signs of the cult of Óðinn in Iceland, where Þórr and Freyr were the favoured gods, Óðinn was not unknown there. His worship in that land, however, seems to have been limited to a few individuals - skalds such as Egill Skalla-Grímsson and cross-grained adventurers like Víga-Glúmr - who were not only suited to him by nature, but stemmed from families with a tradition of Óðinn-worship. Even in such families, dedication to Óðinn was by no means the rule: Egill's brother and uncle, both named Þórólfr, had no share in either the wisdom or the surly tempers of the family Óðinnists, Kveldúlfr, Skalla-Grímr, and Egill.
Though Wodan is a battle-god, he is hardly ever seen fighting for himself. He chooses the slain, but seldom actually slays them; his decision is enough to set their doom. In token of this, it may be noted that he bears no sword: though he gives swords and armour to his heroes, and is seen dressed in byrnie and helmet, his only weapon is the spear Gungnir ("the shaking one"). The spear is the sign of his might, used for hallowing - but not in the same way as the Hammer of Thonar. The Hammer-hallowing is a blessing; the hallowing of the Spear dooms whoever or whatever its flight passes over to be destroyed in the Middle-Garth so that Wodan may have it in his own hall. Although most pictures of Wodan show Gungnir as a thrusting spear, all references to his use of it, or indeed to the Wodanic use of any spear, tell us that it is a throwing spear. The many spear-blades with runic inscriptions from the Migration Age are also very narrow of haft, showing that they must have been used for casting rather than thrusting. The same is true for the Kragehul spear-shaft (Denmark, 5th century), the inscription of which is debated, but seems to be a ritual dedication of its victims.
Wodan is known as the ruler of Walhall - the Hall of the Slain, where his chosen einherjar ("Single-Harriers") fight every day and feast every night in training for Ragnarök. Although Snorri presents Valhöll as the Norse heaven reserved only for the battle-slain elite, in contrast to Hel where everyone else ends up, this view seems to be late; the growth of the Walhall-belief is spoken of further in the chapter "Soul, Death, and Rebirth".
Together with the Walhall belief is the belief in the walkurjas (walcyriges, valkyrjur) - the women who choose the slain for Wodan and bear drink to the god and the heroes in Walhall. In earlier Ásatrú, the word valkyrja was used to mean the woman who carried the drinking horn at rituals; more recently, it has been either a very general word of honour for a strong woman or else as a technical spiritual term for the fair womanly being who wards, teaches, and inspires - the highest part of the soul. The walkurjas will be spoken of further in the chapter on "Wights"; here it is enough to say that the reading of their being which is best-supported from elder sources is that they seem to be parts of Wodan's own self sent forth in womanly forms. The god himself is called Valkjósandi, a manly reflection of the womanly valkyrja, and the walkurja-name Göndul (probably related to gandr, "magical staff or wand") mirrors Óðinn's own heiti Göndlir. The walkurja-names Herfjötur (war-fetter) and Hlökk (fetter) are likeliest to stem from Wodan's own skill at laying battle-fetters; "Skögul" ("shrieker") may be related to the Óðinsheiti Viðhrimnir ("he who screams in opposition"). The walkurjas often act as Wodan's messengers and, as Wagner had it, the embodiments of his will. Eyvindr skáldaspillr's Hákonarmál shows Óðinn sending Göndul and Skögul out to choose Hákon the Good in battle and bring him back to Walhall; in Völsunga saga, the god sends a walkurja with an apple of fruitfulness for one of his heroes.
Wodan's best-known beasts are the raven and the wolf, best known in Northern literature as those who feed on "Yggr's barley" - the bodies of the battle-slain. His two ravens, Huginn ('Thoughtful' or 'Bold') and Muninn ('Mindful' or 'Desirous'), fly forth every day to bring him news of all the worlds. The ravens' names are often incorrectly translated as 'Thought' and 'Memory', but they are in fact adjectival formations. Our forebears thought that to see ravens flying before one was a sign of Wodan's great favour, especially before a battle or after a holy rite. When Hákon jarl of Hlaðir, who had been forcibly baptized, had escaped and won his way back home, 'he made a great blessing. Then there came flying two ravens and croaked loudly. Then the jarl thought he knew that Óðinn had accepted the blessing and the jarl should have victory in battle' (Heimskringla I, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar ch. 27). The raven is also tied to Wodan through its relationship to the gallows, so that: "There is...no certain way of determining whether the raven first became associated with Óðinn as gallows-bird or battle-bird; the Germanic sacrificial practice of hanging prisoners after a battle might indeed make a distinction between the two sources of the raven's diet meaningless" (Grundy, "The Raven in the Cult of Óðinn" - unpublished dissertation chapter).
Óðinn's wolves are called Geri and Freki, both names meaning "the greedy one". In its description of Valhöll, Grímnismál 20 tells us that "glorious Host-Father, used to battle, sates Geri and Freki; but weapon-famous Óðinn lives on wine alone". In Norse or Anglo-Saxon poetry, "to sate wolves" is a usual phrase for killing men, but here the image is of a great drighten feeding the hounds in his hall - a double image which shows us Wodan as the bright ruler in God-Home and as the dark ruler of the corpse-strewn battlefield. The wolf shows the fiercest side of Wodan's battle-might. His warriors were berserks and shape-shifters, often called úlfheðnar (wolf-coats) from their use of wolfskins to bring on this wod. The best-known image of such a warrior is from one of the Torslunda helm-plate matrices (Sweden, ca. 700), which shows a man in a wolfskin holding a spear before a one-eyed weapon-dancer who wears a helmet horned with bird-heads. Similar figures also appear on the sword-sheath plate from Gutenstein and in one of the graves from Kungsängen (Sweden, ca. 800).
As well as ravens and wolves, Wodan also has the gray eight-legged horse named Sleipnir ("slipper"), whom he rides through the worlds. This horse is shown on the Gotlandic picture-stones Ardre VIII and Alskog Tjängvide I. There has been much talk over the meaning of Sleipnir's legs. The simplest reason given is that the eight legs shown on the picture-stones could have merely been meant to show the horse's speed, and only later taken as a specific peculiarity of Óðinn's mount. However, in Myth and Religion of the North, Turville-Petre tells us that 'Apparitions portending death often appear mounted on greys...(and) misshapen horses with varying numbers of legs have been widely reported as portents of evil' (p. 57). H.R. Ellis-Davidson suggests that there may be a relationship between eight-legged Sleipnir and the funeral bier borne by four pallbearers; she also refers to an Asian shamanka (female shaman) and her eight-legged horse (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, pp. 142-43). Sleipnir's eight legs could also be seen as mirroring the eight worlds ringed around the Middle-Garth.
Wodan himself appears as a serpent and an eagle, taking both shapes in his quest for the mead of poetry; two of his heiti (by-names), Ófnir and Sváfnir, are also listed as names of the wyrms who gnaw at the roots of the World-Tree.
In elder days, Wodan was particularly worshipped with human sacrifices; though he was not the only deity to whom men's lives were given, he was by far the most usual one. This, of course, can no longer be done. However, there was another manner of "human sacrifice": the dedication of one's own life to Wodan, so that the one thus dedicated was known to be fey (feigr) - death-doomed and willing alike to live or die for the god. This was best spoken by Sigmundr the Völsung after Óðinn had appeared to break the sword which the god had given him long ago. When Sigmundr's wife Hjördís found him wounded on the field, she asked if he could be helped, and he replied, "Many live when there is little hope, but my luck (heill) has turned from me, so that I will not let myself be healed. Óðinn does not wish me to brandish sword again, now that it is broken. I have had my battles while he willed it." The emblem called the walknot , made of three overlapping triangles, is strongly associated with Wodanic sacrifice and/or death in battle; at least, this is the context in which it appears on the Gotlandic picture stones. Though there is still some academic debate about what this sign might have meant in elder times, heathens now take it that the walknot is the token of those who are thus given to Wodan and should be worn only by those who are willing to fall at his choice. The Old Norse reconstructed form *valknútr - "knot of the slain" - is based on the modern Norwegian name valknut for the embroidered or woven pattern.
Wodan has two brothers with whom he made the worlds, called either Vili and Vé (Prose Edda) or Hoenir and Lóðurr ("Völuspá"). Hoenir appears as Wodan's brother in other myths, for instance as one of the hostages given to the Vanir; Lóðurr is often interpreted as Loki, as a couple of myths have Óðinn, Hoenir, and Loki wandering through the worlds together. "Vili" and "Vé" mean "Will" and "Holiness"; they are often seen as hypostases of Óðinn himself. De Vries points out that in the traditional Germanic genealogies the youngest generation has three alliterating names, and that therefore the Óðinn-Vili-Vé triad must go back at least to Primitive Norse, before the loss of the initial W- in front of o and the change of w to v which is one of the marks of the transition from Primitive Norse to Old Norse (Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte II, p. 281).
Holy places given to Wodan in elder days include mountains, fields, lakes, streams, at least one bog, and groves. He himself is often seen as a god of the wind, particularly the stormwind, but has watery aspects as well: according to the story of Sinfjötli's death, it is he who steers the ship of the dead over the dark waters, and Hárbarðsljóð also shows him as a ferryman.
Stones which have been associated with this god in modern times are meteorites and lapis lazuli. Because the ash-tree was used for spear-shafts, it is thought to be a tree of Wodan; the yew is also seen as his tree because of its close ties to both magic (especially runic magic) and death. Nineteenth-century references speak of the fly agaric mushroom as springing from the froth dropping from Sleipnir's mouth, but this is likeliest to be a product of Germanic romanticism. It is also highly unlikely that the fly agaric (or any other psychoactive substance) was used in bringing on berserkergang, though this mushroom does have a long history in shamanic use (Note: fly agarics are poisonous unless properly prepared - do not try this at home). The European mandrake (not to be confused with the American mandrake or May-Apple) has also been found to work well with Wodan, as do hawthorn and mugwort.
The drink most associated with Wodan is mead, because of the clear tie to the mead of skaldcraft. The Grímnismál reference to "wine" may be meant to show Wodan's status, as wine was a rare drink imported to Scandinavia from southerly lands; in an article in Skalk, Christine Fell suggests that the word could have been used for any sort of fermented fruit drink. Especially in poetic usage, it could also have referred to alcoholic beverages in general. It has also been found in modern times that akavit is a good drink for calling on Wodan.
Freya Aswynn, Elder
Stephan Grundy (summarized by Kveldúlfr Gundarsson from Grundy's Ph.D. thesis-in-progress: The Cult of Óðinn: God of Death?)
Kveldúlfr Hagan Gundarsson, Warder of the Lore
Diana Paxson, Elder
and all the folk of Trothline who took part in the "Óðinn's Eyes" discussion