Who's Who in the Lore: Odin


2005 Ingeborg S. Nordn


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Modern Norwegian wood carving of Odin's face


Even non-pagans who know of the Norse gods have some vague notion of who Odin is: father and ruler of the other deities, a terrifying figure associated mostly with war and death. The typical Viking adventure movie has at least one fanatical berserker who is eager to die fighting and join Odin's chosen heroes in Valhalla. (Not every Norseman wanted or expected to enter Valhalla at death though; this article and others on my site should make that clear enough.)

Like most stereotypes about Norse pagan beliefs, the popular image of Odin has at least some basis in the lore:


        One of Odin's titles is indeed "All-Father"; but not all gods are his descendants or even related to him by blood. (The lore actually names two clans of deities--the sir and the Vanir--who fought each other in the beginning, but later became allies living together in Asgard.) It seems more likely that "All-Father" refers to Odin's role as a major creator-god: he and his two brothers are said to have created the present universe from the body of a primal giant they had killed. They also created humans from two trees they found washed up on a beach shortly afterward.


        Norse poetry emphasizes Odin's connection with rulership, war and death because of the poets' primary audience: noblemen who earned a living fighting and killing people.


        Valhalla is certainly one possible, desirable destination in the afterlife--but not the only one. Many people mistakenly equate Asgard, the whole world in which the gods live, with Valhalla (which is only one specific hall in Asgard). And the Valkyries certainly are female spirits who work for Odin; but the Wagnerian image of beautiful blondes wearing metal brassieres is all wrong. In the lore itself, Valkyries usually appear as terrifying hags who ride through the air on huge wolves to "rig" a battle as Odin desires, or who weave the guts of battle-slain men on their looms.


        Odin's association with magic and knowledge is better known to pagans than to other people. The lore contains many stories in which Odin goes out of his way to seek knowledge: sacrificing one eye for a drink from the Well of Wisdom, hanging from the World Tree to learn the meanings of the runes, drilling into a mountain and changing shape to access the mead of inspiration. (These last two stories also imply that Odin is strongly connected with language and inspired, poetic speech. Mead is a logical symbol for poetic talent, when you think about it: a drunk has fewer inhibitions about speaking his mind. )


In most stories, Odin is far from the benevolent, forthright god that most people from a Judeo-Christian background expect. His ultimate motives may be good: keeping Ragnarok, the destruction of the present universe, from occurring too soon. Yet he tends to use devious tactics along the way: traveling in disguise, making misleading promises, working magic when ordinary tricks fail. (I once described Odin to a friend in this way: "one-third politician, one-third temperamental artist, and one-third platoon sergeant"!)



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