Friday, September 9, 2016

Odin - The God Of Jarls

Viking Gods
Odin or a warrior of Odin. Note the two ravens.

There is something enduring about the image of Odin: cloaked, one-eyed, wearing a hood or a wide brimmed hat, his ravens on his shoulders, wolves by his side as he brandishes Gungnir, his great spear. Or the image of him hanging from the great world tree,  a spear thrust into his side, without food or water, hanging for nine nights until grasping the runes and tumbling back into the world. 

Odin has the jarls,   who fall in battle
but Thor has the race of thralls

(Hárbardsljód - poetic Edda)

Possibly starting life as a god of the dead, through the centuries he was elevated to the exalted status if god of kings, All-father (Alfödr), king of the battle-slain (Valföthr). His character is mysterious and multi-faceted; reflected in the multitude of  appellations bestowed upon him; names such as Hnikarr (he who incites battle) - each reflecting in part Odin's personality. The highest of the Norse gods is not easily categorised into 'good' or 'bad'  - for he is wily, tricky and often has heroes slain, to join the ranks of his great army, the einherjar, who wait in Valhalla until the final battle against the great wolf, Fenris

Five hundred doors and four tens

I think there are at Valhalla :
eight hundred warriors
go out each door,
when they go to fight the wolf.

(The Edda)

It is often his Valkyries who gather the battle-slain. See the earlier post on them HERE. In relation to battle Odin was also associated with the Berserkers -  wild men who wore the pelts of wolves to gain ferocity in battle. Of these warriors it is reported: 

"“... his own men went into battle without coats of mail and acted like mad dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were as strong as bears or bulls. They killed people and neither fire nor iron affected them. This is called berserker rage!”


See my post on The Wolf HERE.

Biting their Shields - Berserkers feature amongst the Lewis Chessmen.

Odin has a thirst for knowledge. He sacrificed an eye so that he could sip from Mimir's well and partake of the knowledge found there. And he performed the shamanistic ritual mentioned above; a self-sacrifice to receive knowledge of the sacred runes. His ravens, Huginn and Muinn (their names mean thought and memory),  scout through the lands, bringing their master news and information. Yet such knowledge  comes at a price, for despite Odin's clairvoyant and prophetic powers he cannot halt Ragnorak, the twilight of the gods (when he will face Fenris). He foresees it, but is powerless to halt the death of his son, Baldr.

Etymologically the root of Odin's name (ódr) means furor, rage, fury and is related to violent poetic/prophetic inspiration. He was a sorcerer, possessing various magical items, and should his great spear pass above the heads of your army, then it was surely doomed. For it was also Odin who caused men to freeze in battle, netted as they were in his invisible fetters. From Häsaeti (The High Seat) in Asgard Odin watches the nine worlds. Beside him sits Frigg, his wife and he possesses two great wolves, Geri and Freki.

Cult of Woden
Spears feature a lot in Odin worship. Are these two performing a rite associated with the god? Their ceremonial helms portray Odin's ravens. 

volk knot
Human sacrifice was performed to honour Odin. Note the spear and ravens - all symbols linked strongly to Odin. 

The Valknut features on a number of Gotland stones, usually in relation to figures identified with Odin. However its precise symbolism is speculation. Some say it represents three realms being part of one (similar in ways to the triskele). It is obvious that it reflects some sort of trinity, and the knot on the Stora Stone (see pic) consists of three interlocked triangles. The way the symbol is placed in this instance (above the sacrifice) might indicate that the doomed is meant for Odin, and the symbol is therefore a symbolic representation of the god. A customer told me recently the knot symbolised the nine-worlds over which Odin was lord. 

Norse Odin
Odin riding Slepnir, notice the Valkyrie to the left.

Evidently Odin possesses many shamanistic qualities, the ritual hanging, shapeshifting, his spirit guides, his gazing into the worlds. He travels to the realm of the dead to visit his slain son, Baldr, on his eight-legged steed, Slepnir -  indicative of a shaman's spirit journey to save lost souls. Even the notion of Odin hanging on the world tree is deeply significant. Many cultures in which shamanism still exists today  parallel  this imagery. It is something I will deal with in a separate post. 

This, in itself, is indicative that Odin's origins lie in the distant past and though he was later elevated to god of Jarls, and head of the Scandinavian pantheon, his roots lay in the early shamanistic practices* of the Indo-European  peoples. Again this is reflected in comparisons with Vedic mythology and Indo-Iranian sources which point to a migratory spread of such concepts, which obviously altered over time as different cultures developed. For example the Langobards had a myth connected to how they changed their name from the Winnili, and this story involved a deity called Godan, itself a form of Woden, itself a form of Odin - here we see the development of the god across Germanic Europe (and many ancient tribes traced their lineage to Odin/Woden).  It is also worthy to note that the Celtic God Lug shares quite a number of similarities with Odin too. 

What I find fascinating about Odin is that despite his otherworldly apparels and such, there is something earthy and human about him. Like many of the Norse pantheon he is no picture-book of perfection, rather a mirror of ourselves, or an aspect of ourselves. Despite his wily ways, his trickery (measured by his honour) there is an honesty to the figure. A truth that is very human, fallible and illogical - just like us!

Before you go have a look at my wee carving of Odin HERE (long sold).

Odin and Fenris
Odin on the Kirk Andreas cross slab from the Isle Of Man.
Odin is consumed by Fenris. 

*Shamanistic practices - I use this word for want of better. Shamanism denotes animistic belief systems involving the spirit world. World-wide there are many similarities, pointing to the great antiquity of shamanism. Again this is a topic of great interest for another moment in time. 

Georges Dumèzil  - Gods Of The Ancient Northmen
HR Ellis Davidson - The Lost Beliefs Of Northern Europe
John Lindow - Norse Mythology
John Stanley Martin - Godan to Woden  
Piers Vitebsk - The Shaman

further reading:
This website has a vast amount of reference and information on Norse myths:
Norse Mythology For Smart People 


  1. I was reading last week an interpretation of "The Poetic Eddas"by a 19th century enthusiast,Rasmus Bjorn Anderson (1846-1936).Self taught but of Norwegian descent,he brought a particular "end of the century" american flavour to the "Poetic eddas",one might argue a palatable interpretation of the myths in a rather protestant way.For instance:The difference between the Ases and the Vanes.Cut a long story short for the sake of 19 century morals;Freya was an air headed slut and Baldr was the ultimate Jesus Christ (sacrificed for being too naÏve or too bright by LOke...),Odin translated as a primeval god whose only fate was to perish with his world (even though he foresaw it) so that his more obscure offspring might replace the Ases as gods of light and enlightenment .Your man practically rejoices when the all -father is bitten in half,and Thor is covered in slimy goo by the great serpent Jormungand,and dies...In an almost full blown modernist point of view,a Lincolnesque humanism,he gives"Ragnarok" a post scriptum worthy of the worst televangical preacher based on his "interpretation" that "the old gods" were a failure from the beginning (and as modern as he wished to sound);"not unlike the tribal negro and (native american) gods,doomed to fail for they played a part in the (i quote):Lessening of mankind.And there you go.You can't beat Protestant doctrine.Even though Baldr is in Hel;for he died a dishonourable death,he shall return to mankind as THE bearer of light etc,etc.Christic?Beside a complete dismissal of Odin on the great tree (the writer tries to make analogies with the christ but fails...) to the point when he makes Sudr a force of cleansing nature in a corrupted universe full of "idolaters" (catholics and non-protestants).Fair enough,Sudr was a mighty cleansing force of corrupt gods,but what he intended to leave behind was not a reborn universe of pure unsullied thought and actions,but just nothing.Chaos.Néant.From the revenge of the sons and daughters of LOke for not being given their rightful place of worship in the hearts of Dwarves,elves,Humans all over the 9 worlds,Sudr just destroyed the old ways to pave the way for the Christian God.Beware friends of "Interpretations",for they still abound today in their baseless forms,and since the "Eddas" were mostly re-interpreted in the "Romantic" 19th century,we're standing far away from the shores of Snorri Sturluson when,obviously fascinated by his ancestors legacy,he chose to transcript this beautiful,abstract,epic,philosophical and deeply humbling verses.
    Beware of that romantic feeling that obscures the most elemental vision.

    1. Hallo Fenris - I love the imagery and appreciate the effort you took to reply. I just finished a future post about Val Camonica but the gist is exactly what you say about interpretations -they are coloured by the fashion of the times... and I'm sure mine are too to a certain extent... but I'm not out to save souls... rather sell some stones.