Symbols Traditionally Associated with Odin

(Republished post from 2015)

There are so many symbols associated with Odin, I could probably write a whole book exploring them alone. (And there are, I’m sure, some I’m not aware of, even after all of these years.) But for the purposes of this post, let’s take a look at some of the more common ones.

Valknut.svgThe Valknut: This is the symbol most closely–and most exclusively–associated with Him. In modern practice, the valknut (or “knot of the slain”) is worn by those who have been claimed by Odin. It signifies that our deaths belong to Him, and that we are willing to be sacrifices to Him at any time He chooses. There is a lot of debate in the polytheist community on the topic of animal sacrifice; Odin, however, was (and is) primarily a deity who received human sacrifice. Among the Germanic tribes that followed Him during the Migration Era, war captives were hanged upside down with their throats slit so that their blood could be drained into copper bowls, to be offered to Him. (Their weapons were broken and sunken into bogs.) During the Viking era at the Temple of Uppsala in Sweden, nine humans were sacrificed to Odin once every nine years (as Adam of Bremen records), hanged from trees in the sacred grove in an imitation of Odin’s own sacrifice of self to Self on the World Tree.

What does any of this have to do with the Valknut? Archaeologists have found it depicted on picture stones, the earliest from the 7th century CE, in Sweden and England, and on the Oseberg ship burial in Norway.  On these stones, it is typically surrounded by valkyrie-like figures, bears (underscoring Odin’s bear connectiononce again), warriors, and a figure carrying a spear and riding a horse, generally identified as Odin Himself.  On one stone, a burial is also depicted. From this evidence, it is generally accepted by scholars as a symbol of Odin, and the addition of warriors, valkyries and a burial make it a pretty safe guess that it was also associated somehow with sacrifice or death.

Beyond that, though, there are many different interpretations of the symbolism involved.  Hilda Ellis Davidson, for example, sees the valknut as symbolizing Odin’s power to bind and unbind: His ability, on the one hand, to tie battle fetters that blind and paralyze an enemy, or on the other hand to loosen the fetters tying the minds of His followers to ordinary reality through His gifts of battle frenzy, intoxication, and inspiration.  Since the Norwegian name for the symbol literally means “knot of the slain,” Rudolf Simek theorizes a connection with death rites–perhaps practices similar to those described by the Arab explorer Ibn Fadlan and dramatized in the movie The Thirteenth Warrior.  There is also a mention in Heimskringla (Snorri’s History of the Norse Kings) of sacrifices to Odin being “marked for Him with a spear,” although whether this meant the carving of a valknut into the flesh or simply a spear wound is not specified in the text.

Basically, the valknut is rather a dire symbol, and among modern Odin-worshipers the meaning is taken as “insert spear here”; in other words, the person who wears it is “marked for Odin.” Of course this makes it a protective symbol too, but more in the sense of Odin protecting those marked for Him because no one other than Him has the right to kill us.

[Edited to add: Given the current political climate of the US in 2017, I cannot advocate the public use or display of the valknut by Odin devotees of good conscience, due to the fact that it is heavily associated with white supremacy groups.]

Gungnir: Human sacrifices made to Odin from the Migration Era onward were made by hanging and/or stabbing the victim with a spear. There are two reasons for this: 1) Odin stabbed Himself with His own spear as He was hanging on Yggdrasil, allowing His divine blood to run into the Well of Wyrd, and 2) Odin’s personal weapon is the sacred spear Gungnir, with which He slays his chosen warriors in the “lore”; even today He often claims his followers and marks them as His by impaling them with this spear in a dream or vision. In other tales of the gods–such as the war between the Aesir and the Vanir–He also uses His spear to designate the losing side in a combat. By casting the spear over the heads of the enemy army with the words, “Odin has you all!” He (or one of his heroes or agents, acting on His behalf) claims them as His sacrifices and hallows all their deaths to His cause.

Draupnir: The contract between Odin and His chosen ones bears a similarity to that between the typical northern drighten or chieftain and his thanes. The chieftain traditionally gave gold oath rings (a symbol of faith) to his thanes to secure their loyalty (a practice which led to the standard use of the kenning “ring-giver” to describe kings in Teutonic poetry), and in return it was understood that a thane would remain loyal to his lord unto death. It was a severe mark of cowardice and disgrace if a thane’s lord were to perish in the field while he himself was left standing. And to desert his lord in his time of need would have been unthinkable; such an unworthy thane would be shunned and cast out by all, forevermore. It is in a similar mode that Odin gives His chosen ones His best gifts during life to bind them to Him so that they will stand with Him after their deaths. (As mentioned before, I don’t personally believe in Ragnarok–I think it was influenced by the Christian prophecies of the End of Days–but Odin does in fact collect people, and I’m sure He has His own reasons for this.) In token of this exchange of gifts in return for fealty, Odin’s golden arm ring, Draupnir, sheds nine rings identical to itself every nine days, symbolizing the fact that there is no limit to the number of people who can lay claim to His patronage and protection. (The number nine is in itself sacred to Him, due to the nine nights of His sacrifice on Yggdrasil, but it is also sacred within Norse paganism in general–there are nine worlds, Freyr waited nine nights for Gerda to become His bride, etc.)

triple_horn_of_odin_calendar_print

Odhroerir: Odhroerir means “stirrer of frenzy” and is the name generally assigned to the Mead of Poetry, as well as to one of the three vats that originally contained it (the other two being named Son and Bodn). I’m honestly not sure where or when this symbol originated. It seems to be a form of triskelion (three interlocking horns) and may have been carried over from the Celts, for whom this type of symbol was extremely common (and who had three sacred cauldrons of their own). As a symbol of the sacred mead, the three horns can be taken to mean the three draughts of mead Odin took or the three nights He spent with Gunnlod (both are according to Snorri’s version of the tale); it can also symbolize the three Wells–Urdarbrunnr, Mimisbrunnr, and Hvergelmir, the three Trees–Yggdrasil, Mimameidr and Laeradr, and/or the three planes of reality that contain the nine worlds–the upper world, the middle world, and the lower world.

Odin__s_Throne_by_BurningBrushGallery on DeviantArt
Odin’s Throne by BurningBrushGallery on DeviantArt

Hlidskjalf: Odin’s throne or seidhrjallr  (seidhr high seat) in Asgard from which He can look out upon all the worlds. According to Snorri Sturluson, Odin’s throne is located on the rooftop of His palace, Valaskjalf, which is roofed in silver. I see Hlidskjalf itself as located high on a rocky cliff face, far above the rest of Asgard, on a chilly precipice in the clouds around which ravens call and eagles soar. There is no icon readily associated with it, but it’s important to mention it as one of His attributes.

The Wells: Mimir’s Well (into which Odin sacrificed one of His eyes to gain mystical Sight, the ability to scry into Wyrd) and Wyrd’s Well (into which Odin’s blood flowed as He hung on the Tree) are also worth mentioning, as they are the sites of two of His three primary initiations (the other one being the acquisition of the Mead of Poetry).

Eye: As mentioned above, Odin sacrificed one of His eyes, plucking it out of His own head and placing it into Mimir’s Well in return for a drink of the water, which granted Him the ability to see into Wyrd. Which eye did He sacrifice? No one really knows for sure. But an eye can be used as a fitting talisman for Him, especially when seeking His assistance in oracular work.

Yggdrasil: This particular name for the World Tree means “steed of the Terrible One”–the “Terrible One” being yet another name for Odin. The great Tree is referred to as Odin’s “steed” because He hanged Himself from it for nine nights while seeking the runes, and the pain and blood of His shamanic ordeal carried Him out of His own world and into another, allowing Him to open the door of the Yawning Void (Ginnungagap) and seize the mysteries of creation (the runes). This association is why the depiction of a World Tree is an appropriate symbol for Odin in prayer beads or jewelry, especially when used for shamanic work.

Ravens: Odin sends His consciousness, via His two raven fetches, Huginn and Munnin (Thought and Memory), throughout the nine worlds every day, and they report back to Him on what they have seen. In Grimnismal, Odin voices His fear that Munnin, the raven called Memory,  will someday not return from her journey through the worlds–as memory can be a very fragile thing. Ravens are scavengers, and for this reason the Norse viewed them as “carrion birds” and harbingers of doom–fitting companions for Odin, who was similarly dreaded. Modern research has shown ravens to be highly intelligent and resourceful birds who often cooperate with wolves in the wild–the ravens alerting the wolves to the presence of a good meal and then dining on the leftovers.

Wolves: Two wolves are always at His side: Geri and Freki, both of whose names mean ravenous. Among other things, Odin is also a shapeshifter, and Wolf lies very close to His own nature. He feeds His two canine companions meat from His own hands, and they guard Him with fierce loyalty. (In my own doxa/UPG, Huginn and Munnin and Geri and Freki are both mated pairs, and have both produced offspring. However, this does not mean they are necessarily male/female pairings; it is entirely possible that they are able to also shift gender, at least temporarily, for the purpose of reproducing. For example, I know that Geri and Freki began as brothers; I also know that they have had pups together.)

Horses: Horses are closely associated with sacral kingship in Anglo-Saxon lore, and Woden was regarded as the ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon line of kings. His own horse, Sleipnir, is actually a god Himself, the son of Loki, although He always takes equine form as far as I know. (If He has a humanoid form, I have never seen it.) Scholars have speculated that Sleipnir was depicted as having eight legs because a coffin has eight legs as its pall bearers (four on each side) are carrying it to the grave. As neat as this interpretation sounds, I’m skeptical of it, as Odin’s preferred method of disposal for the remains of His devotees is cremation (traditionally, at least, as per Heimskringla; the Viking burial described by Ibn Fadlan is also via cremation, the reasoning being that fire transports the newly disembodied spirit to Asgard more rapidly).

Snakes: Although snakes are more commonly associated with Loki by most people, Odin does assume the form of a snake in one of His most famous tales; He becomes a snake in order to gain access to the caverns where Gunnlod guards the Mead of Poetry. There definitely seems to be a negative preconception of snakes within heathenry–probably because of their associations with Loki and His kin–and people in general either love snakes or hate them; many people seem to have a visceral disgust for them. However, snakes make both excellent animal allies and exemplary journey companions. Snakes are fast, they are silent, they are flexible (capable of changing direction or even retreating altogether at the speed of thought), and they have an excellent self-defense system (in the form of venom).  They can fit through very tight places, just as Bolverk did when—in Snorri’s version of the Mead myth—he slithered his way into Hnitbjorg, as well as conceal themselves, if need be, in similarly tight places.  They can tunnel underground, which is especially useful on journeys to the lower worlds (Helheim, Svartalfeim, Jotunheim).  They don’t need to eat as often as mammals or birds do, they can see in the infrared range (in other words, they can see body heat—a very useful ability for a predator), they can shed their skin and smell with their tongues, and they have heightened sensitivity—through their underbellies—to vibrations along the earth, and thus can feel prey, or a potential enemy, approaching long before they would be able to see or smell him.

Odin is accused (and often rightly) of moving secretly and silently, of using underhanded means to work His will, of striking swiftly and without pity, and certainly of being essentially cold-blooded (towards the pleas of followers who have betrayed Him)—all of which are serpentine qualities that are often labeled as “evil.”  On the other hand, however, the Anglo-Saxon charms cite His prowess with healing; he is renowned throughout the lore of all Germanic countries for His wisdom; as sacral King of the gods He holds their combined luck as well as that of Asgard—luck that, as Snorri reminds us in Ynglinga Saga, He will generously lend to his followers at times of need; He sacrificed himself on the World Tree only to rise up again, reborn and invested with the power of the runes; and He protects not only Asgard but also of Midgard, the world of men, with His hard-won knowledge and magic.  These are all qualities that were, in ancient times, recognized as serpentine as well.  So to my mind, at least, the snake is every bit as much an Odinic animal as the raven or the wolf. 

Bears: Two of Odin’s heiti (or by-names) refer to this ursine connection: Bjorn and Bruni, both of which mean “bear” and derive (like the word “bear” itself) from the Indo-European *beron, literally “the brown one.”  (The Greek word arktos names the bear more directly, but this word is believed by linguists to have been replaced with a euphemism in Northern Europe because of a taboo against speaking the name of this powerful, dangerous animal.) In addition to this linguistic evidence, some of the 7th century valknut picture stones found in Sweden and England depict the valknut, human sacrifice, and other Odinic motifs accompanied by bears, and the name of one of the most famously fearsome warrior corps associated with Him, the Berserkers, or “bear-shirts,” was so named because they cloaked themselves in bear fur as well as for their unyielding ferocity in battle.  If Odin relates to His people much as an Alpha Wolf relates to His pack (a description I feel is pretty apt), and if He communicates much as does a Raven and glides through the worlds very much like a Snake, then Bear is who He is when He is alone, seeking the mysteries; Bear is who He is as a shaman.

Eagles: These majestic birds are associated with Him less often than with, say, Zeus, but are still one of His attributes: He has at least one eagle-related heiti, and He took eagle form, according to Snorri, when fleeing from Suttung’s mountain fortress with the Mead of Poetry. Odin as an eagle is the remote Allfather, seated on His high seat looking over the worlds.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Ansuz: the rune of breath, wind, communication, speech, inspiration, and the loosening of fetters/inhibitions. As such, it is the rune most closely associated with Odin (although all the runes are His). It can be worn as a sign of dedication to Odin by those who are not quite ready for the Valknut, or who want an alternative symbol to call on Odin’s aspects as winner of the Mead of Poetry, granter of inspiration and writing skill, or god of storms and wind. Magickally, it can be used as an aid to study or a talisman for writers, or carried into a job interview to ensure eloquence.

2000px-Runic_letter_othalan.svg

 Othala: the rune representing our physical, cultural, and spiritual inheritance. It is the rune of lawful ownership, and thus can be used magickally to protect one’s home and property. It is also a rune of sovereignty (not just leadership, but also of responsibility), and thus of Odin as sacred King. It is an excellent charm for working with the ancestors.

Wunjo Arith Härger

Wunjo: represents joy, contentment, happiness, optimism, and a harmonious home life. It is the wish rune, and can be used in magick when working towards a special long-term goal, or as a charm for a tranquil home. It represents Odin as Oski, or Wishfather. It is also the rune of the ecstasy of shamanic trance and the union with the divine, whether in sacred marriage or in the oneness experienced by the mystic. Its dark side is the madness of the Wild Hunt.

Runic_letter_gebo

Gebo: the rune of gift-giving, energy exchange, and sacrifice. The rune poem for this rune reminds us how important it is to strike a balance between giving and receiving in order to maintain balance in relationships with both other humans and the gods. Magickally Gebo can be used to call in debts, traverse worlds, and use one’s resources appropriately. It is a wonderful rune for meditating on Odin’s sacrifice on the Tree.

rune_anglo_gar

Gar: this Anglo-Saxon rune symbolizes Odin’s spear, which is also synonymous with Yggdrasil (in the sense that it was the spear Odin hanged Himself from in His quest for the runes); some people see a representation of Yggdrasil in the form of the rune. It can be worn as a sign of Odin’s ownership of an individual.  (I have a Gar rune tattooed over my heart chakra on my chest, and a Valknut over the same chakra on my back; I like to call these the spear’s entrance and exit wounds.)

Is that the whole list? Probably not, but it gives a good introduction, I think, to the most prevalent and useful ones.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. aoibheall52 says:

    Ref the white supremacists, do you think that Odin will harvest them even though they aren’t oathed to him,because they bear the Valkut?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting question. I don’t know. I doubt they put that sort of thought or intent into their adoption of the symbol; a lot of them probably just think it’s cool and Germanic. On the other hand, I’d love to see Him harvest them and put them to work cleaning the toilets in Valhalla.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. aoibheall52 says:

        Imagine the shock! LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  2. draupadi says:

    Seriously, I think that the polluting taint that white supremacists put on religious symbols (the runes, the valknut, the swastika from my tradition) is beyond infuriating – they degrade the Gods as well as humans. I would not shed many tears over these people being unpleasantly surprised by the consequences when they pass over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, no tears shed here either, believe me!

      Liked by 1 person

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