A Basic Intro to Odin

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(Originally written in 2005, previously published in 2015)

The earliest form of Odin’s name is the Proto-Germanic*Wodanaz (in Old Norse word-initial *w- was dropped before rounded vowels), which Adam of Bremen, writing in the 11th century, helpfully tells us means “fury.” Used as an adjective, the Old Norse word odr means”mad, frantic, furious, violent,” and is cognate with Old English wod, meaning “voice/noise.” As a noun, it means “mind, wit, soul, sense” and “song, poetry,” and is cognate with Old English wōþ. In compounds, óð- means “fiercely, energetic.” Both Old Norse words stem from the Proto-Germanic *wōþuz, which has cogates in the Proto-Celtic *wātus, “mantic poetry” (continued in Irish fáith, “poet”) and the Latin vates, “prophet, seer.” The –in or –an suffix added to His name is possibly connected to the Proto-Germanic *-na, which expresses lordship.

I believe that from the earliest times, Odin’s power was recognized in the storm winds—especially the fierce storms of winter, when His wolves can be heard howling amidst the shrieking of the winds. Wind is an agent of change, like the God Himself: it clears the air of contaminants; changes weather patterns, driving the clouds that bring rain or snow to the land; scatters seeds, helping plants to germinate. On a mental and spiritual level, wind drives out stale ideas and habits that impede growth, allowing fresh ideas to germinate. On a social level, this power can signify the migration of peoples and transmission of cultures (Odin was the chief God of the Migration Era, a time during which the Germanic peoples spread across Europe) or, in more modern times, sweeping social reform and cultural trends. Like the wind, Odin’s power transmits and transforms. It can also be a destructive, violent power, like that of tornadoes and hurricanes that lay waste to all in their path; but it is my belief that this more destructive side of His power is unleashed when conditions are so out of balance that only violent change can set them right again. Recognition of the destructive power at Odin’s command led to His being honored from the Migration Era onward as a God of war and especially of the terror that can be used to disarm an enemy in order to achieve victory. It also led to His early association, I believe, with the restless dead, who were feared from the Stone Age onward. This association with the restless dead led to Odin’s status, among many of the Germanic peoples, as leader of the Wild Hunt that rides the winter storm winds, leaving both destruction and the seeds of new life in its wake.

As God of the winds that drive rain and help scatter seeds, bringing life to the earth, I believe Odin was also very early recognized as the giver of breath that brings life to the body and the God who takes that breath away when life is finished. This breath is literally inspiration (a word that also means “the drawing of air into the lungs”); it is the force that activates and enlivens the gifts of form, voice and feeling given to us according to the lore by Odin’s brothers Hoenir and Lodhur (or Villi and Ve). Just as wind is the agent that transmits and transforms in the outer world, breath performs the same function in the inner world of our bodies, filling our blood with nutrients, helping our cells continually renew themselves, energizing our muscles, and empowering our voices. Breath is the animating force that brings life and movement to living things; without it, life cannot continue. Naturally, the God who gives that breath also has the power to take it away; and thus, Odin’s status as God of the dead was also probably established very early on.

As it empowers voice, breath is also the source, or at the very least the vehicle of all that our voices can produce—speech, poetry, song—and I believe the association of both with Odin (the God who gives and takes away breath) led to an early awareness in Northern culture of the relationship between the dead and poetry. In Viking times it was believed that one could obtain the gift of poetry or the power of prophecy (both of which were also closely linked) by sitting on the grave mound of a poet; I believe this awareness of poetry, prophecy and wisdom as gifts stemming from the realm of the dead, and warded by the dead, was a very early one in Germanic thought. As God of the dead, Odin was also recognized as keeper of these gifts, able to bestow them on humans at His will. As the force that energizes and renews the brain, breath is the battery on which mental activity of all sorts runs, but control of the breath (a discipline which the suffix of Odin’s name indicates He is master of) is especially connected with the special mental states which produce the ecstatic trance of the poet, seer, and mage, and the furious mental activity that generates creativity as well as battle rage.

In the natural world, I recognize Odin’s workings most clearly in the gusts of wind that precede a rainstorm, riffling the tree branches as if with a giant hand and making the birds scatter as they frantically seek cover. The sharp tang of ozone fills the air, a scent that for me has very strong associations with Him, and the entire landscape seems to brace itself for the coming of the storm. In summer, these storms can reach hurricane force; in winter, they can bring icy winds and driving snow as the Wild Hunt rages through the skies. Always, they bring change; sometimes it is destructive and unwanted change from a human point of view, but it is always needed, on some level, to correct an imbalance. Odin is a God of violent extremes, but always—when seen from a wide enough perspective—these extremes serve the purpose of maintaining a larger equilibrium.

In the human/social worlds, I see Odin’s workings in everything involving communication: language, writing, art, music and song, poetry, movies, education, politics, the Internet. As He is the God of speech, every time we speak (especially if we speak wisely, choosing our words well) we honor Him (knowingly or not). As the God of poetry and Storyteller Extraordinaire, every story told engagingly and well pays Him homage. (This includes artwork, as stories can also be told without words.) As the restless Seeker of wisdom, every effort to learn something, or to teach it to others, is an act of tribute to Him. As the Wanderer, Odin has influence over all forms of travel (both physical and astral) and can provide aid to travelers. As God of the dead, psychopomp, and necromancer, He can show us how to communicate with the dead, obtain information and guidance from them, and help guide them to their after-death destinations. As God of the runes, Odin can help teach us all facets of their lore and uses, and as giver of breath, He can teach us to use breath in every way imaginable, from achieving and enhancing trance states to learning to sing. As the keeper of the Mead of Inspiration, Odin is also God of inebriation, and like all of His other gifts this one can easily be taken to undesirable extremes; imbibing alcohol can lead to a loosening of inhibitions that makes it easier to write poetry or achieve a trance state, but if taken too far it can have destructive or even tragic consequences. As a God of death, Odin is also a God of healing, although prayers to Him for this purpose may result in a faster death for the patient if that is the only possible or desirable outcome.

In the worlds of the Gods, Odin’s role has always been ambiguous and riddled with paradox. He is the King of Asgard who maintains the social order, but He is also the outcast (sometimes voluntarily in the surviving lore, other times not) who ventures forth into the outworlds disguised as a ragged Wanderer, to gather wisdom to further His own goals, stir up trouble among giants and men, and collect kernels of arcane lore to bring back to Asgard with Him. He precipitates the conflict between the Aesir and the Vanir through His treatment of Gullveig, yet He is the one who afterwards is most responsible for maintaining the careful balance that preserves the alliance between the two tribes of Gods. Simultaneously, He exists at the very center of the established order, at its edges, and outside of it altogether. He is the shaman of the Gods, traveling beyond the borders of Their garth, and even beyond the borders of death (from which Balder and other Gods who die cannot and do not return) to bring back wisdom and secrets (such as the runes) They could not have otherwise obtained. And yet often His actions or tactics are called into question by the Gods Themselves (as in Lokasenna, when Loki accuses Him of often awarding victory to the less worthy of two combatants in battle, or in Vafrudismal, when Frigga would rather He not challenge the giant Vafrudnir to a contest of lore) because They do not understand what He understands, see what He sees, or share the inner frenzy that drives Him.

He is driven most of all by need: the need to acquire more heroes to ward Asgard and Midgard (I do not believe in Ragnorok, by the way, but I think Odin has other reasons of His own for “collecting people” in this way), more wisdom to add to His own stores of it and that of the Gods, more might with which to defend the worlds that are in His keeping. From the heights of His throne on Hlidskjalf He sees and understands all that takes place in the worlds of Gods, men, and giants, yet He realizes that what He is seeing represents only the surface of things, and, dissatisfied with this, gives up part of His vision in the outer world to obtain the ability to see into the inner worlds of pattern, possibility and the yet-to-manifest. Still not satisfied, He risks His life and honor to win the Mead of Inspiration—elixir of poetic genius and ecstasy, and symbol of the compact between the Aesir and the Vanir–from the giants. Dissatisfied even with this, He gives His own godly life as a sacrifice to win passage to the land of the dead and obtain the keys to the forces of life and death, creation and destruction in the cosmos (the runes) and returns to share these keys with the Gods and with all races.

Again and again, He subjects Himself to pain and torture (as He does during His visit to King Geirrod) to win wisdom, knowledge, lore, advantage. He is arguably the most complicated of the Gods, misunderstood by the Gods Themselves just as He is often misunderstood by men, yet for all His contradictions He is the quintessential leader, the one who will do anything, dare anything for the sake of His family and people, even at the cost of the enmity of those dearest to Him. He is the raging storm to all of those around Him, but from His own vantage point He is the point of absolute calm and total control at its center, from which all can be seen with perfect clarity.

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