Odin, Woden, and Wodan: a Comparison

(Previously published post from 2015.)

Like many of His devotees, I mostly regard Odin, Woden, and Wodan as basically the same deity seen through different cultural lenses. However, the cultural lens DOES give each one a distinct “flavor”, so to speak, to the point where, if you wanted to, you could regard Them as being separate but closely related deities. Here’s a breakdown of the variations as I see them:

Odin: This is the form most people are used to dealing with. As Odin, He is King of Asgard, Lord of the Aesir, god of the hanged, the slain, and the runes, patron of salty Viking poet/warriors such as Egil Skalagrimson and Starkad.  We have more primary source material on who He is as Odin than on any of His other variations–vastly more. This is because Odin was the god of the Viking raiders and fierce, warlike Norse kings, but more importantly of the skalds who recorded the exploits of those raiders and kings–tales in which Odin often figured heavily. As Odin, He has a distinctly martial vibe; in fact, that could be said to be His primary coloring. He haunts battlefields so that His Valkyries can claim His share of the slain, with His ravens and wolves at His side to pick off the leftovers; His heroes cast spears over the heads of enemy armies as Odin Himself did when fighting the Vanir. And of course, though I don’t believe in it myself, there is the Ragnarok mythos.  This is an enormous part of the identity of Scandinavian Odin, thought by most mainstream heathens to be His raison d’etre: He must gather enough warriors for the final battle, and any other decisions He makes are merely a means to that end. Whether or not you buy Ragnarok as a Thing, Odin as a god of “the end justifies the means” fits most people’s perceptions of Him pretty solidly; He is largely experienced as harsh, fierce, savage, unrelenting–and often fickle.

Woden: This is probably his next-most familiar form–although there is an enormous gap between the numbers of people who experience Him as Odin (almost everyone) and those who get Woden (outside of Anglo-Saxon heathenry, relatively few). Since the British Isles converted to Christianity in 500 CE or so (versus 1,000 CE in Iceland), I think it’s fair to say Woden is an earlier form of the same god. Unfortunately, there is very little surviving lore that deals with Woden specifically, likely because most of it was destroyed by the Christians. However, we do have a few scraps of crucial information, including the inclusion of Woden’s name in the genealogies of the Anglo-Saxon kings, who claimed descent from Him. From this, we know He was considered a god of kingship in England just as in Scandinavia. (Some of these kings were actually named after Him, too; the prefix Os–the Anglo-Saxon form of the rune Ansuz, Odin’s rune–indicates His influence; as in the names Osric or Oswald, for example.) We also have a profusion of British place names connected with Him, which indicates that His importance in Anglo-Saxon England was possibly even greater than in Scandinavia. (His importance is further highlighted by the fact that converts to Christianity were required to abjure Him specifically, by name.) We know that He was connected (like Scandinavian Odin) with shamanic sacrifice and with the runes, largely because of post-Christian Anglo-Saxon poetry such as The Dream of the Rood, which describes the crucifixion in imagery oddly evocative of Odin’s ordeal on Yggdrasil.

We also have this:

A snake came crawling, it bit a man.
Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,
Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.
There apple brought this pass against poison,
That she nevermore would enter her house.
(from the Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in a 10th century manuscript)

And here we run into an important facet of Woden that seems to have become lost on His way to becoming Odin: that of the healer extraordinaire (an aspect that was even stronger in continental Wodan–more on that in a moment). Woden and Odin have much in common: They are both sacral kings and war strategists, and Woden–like Odin–is associated with ravens and wolves, wisdom and runes. But there is more of a “wandering wizard” vibe about Woden; He is more wounded king and wise mage than berserking warrior.  Possibly because Anglo-Saxon England (while its various kingdoms were still immersed in continual warfare) had a more settled agrarian society than Scandinavia, along with a less harsh climate, Anglo-Saxon Woden was able to be less harsh as well.  He is also linked to the Wild Hunt (which is also true in Scandinavian, but there it seems more of a holdover than one of His defining traits) and interestingly, the Anglo-Saxon word for “valkyrie” is synonymous with “witch”; Woden as god of witches became an enduring theme in the Isles, leading (I believe) to His identification with the Man in Black for many Traditional Witches.

Wodan: This is His second-least familiar form, the form He took on the continent during the early centuries of the common  era. Wodan was the god of the Germanic tribes as they migrated across Europe, fighting each other and the Romans as they went. There is VERY little surviving lore that relates to Wodan directly; much of it is, again, inferred from the Scandinavian sources. There are a few scraps of information from Roman historians such as Tacitus, who notes that the Germanic tribes worshiped “Mars and Mercury”; in the interpretatio Romana, these Roman gods equated to Tiw (Tyr) and Wodan, respectively. Other historians record the customs of various tribes that worshiped Him: war captives being sacrificed to Wodan by hanging, their blood then being drained into a copper bowl to be offered to Him, and massive sacrifices of enemy weapons, which were broken and then sunk into a bog for Him (I suspect some of the people who have been found in bogs with ropes around their necks were also Wodan sacrifices). We know that Wodan (like Woden) was worshiped in sacred groves, wherein sacrifices to Him were hanged (just as later occurred in Sweden at the great Temple of Uppsala); historians allude to these, but the strongest evidence is the fact that Anglo-Saxon laws later proscribed the tradition of making offerings in sacred groves.

Despite the bloodthirstiness (a trait that follows Him everywhere), on the continent Wodan’s identity as a healer was even more pronounced. For example, we have this:

Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,
and the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it.
and Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it.
and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:
Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,
so joint-sprain:
Bone to bone, blood to blood,
joints to joints, so may they be mended.
2nd Merseburg Charm, recorded in the 10th century

This juicy little fragment, by the way, is an example of galdor; this was an actual spell that would have been recited for healing purposes, with the magician using the example of Wodan as a means of linking his own abilities with the god’s far greater healing power.  As I mentioned in another post, in my own doxa/UPG Odin learned herbal spellcraft and galdor a long time before He learned the runes, so for me the emphasis on healing and incantation rather than runes in this poem highlights the fact that Wodan is an earlier version of the same deity. To me, He also feels more primal, more ancient, and in some ways even more fearsome, His leadership of the Wild Hunt taking Him only one step away from His origins as the storm giant Wodenaz (His least-known variation; basically, we know nothing other than His name–but since Odin was in fact born among the giants in Nifelheim, for me this fits).

Another point of interest is that, as mentioned in the poem, the name of Wodan’s wife is given as Frija, who seems to be an amalgam of both Frigga and Freyja. (Only later on, in Scandinavia, do we see these two emerge as separate and distinct goddesses.)

As time goes on I’m beginning to realize, more and more, that the god I am involved with has more in common with continental Wodan than with Scandinavian Odin. Again, I don’t believe They are necessarily two entirely separate gods, per se, but there is a very different feeling about Wodan; He is a different face. And more and more I am also coming to identify Him (as the Romans did) with Mercurius Rex (Mercury the King), a Gallic version of Mercury who is also known as Mercurius Hrano (Hrani being one of Odin’s recorded heiti). Mercurius Rex, from the research I’ve done thus far, seems to combine the most important aspects of Wodan (sacral kingship, liminality, healing, magic, and a psychopomp function) with an emphasis on trade and commerce which also comes through quite strongly in the version of Odin I personally experience.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Sigrid says:

    “Another point of interest is that, as mentioned in the poem, the name of Wodan’s wife is given as Frija, who seems to be an amalgam of both Frigga and Freyja.”

    Neither here nor there, but this fits the impressions Mercurius Rex would give me about Freya and Frigga, when He first started visiting.

    He would often show up with Rosmerta, but sometimes with Someone I wanted to associate with Frigga, except whenever I contemplated making a small shrine to get to know Her better, Mercurius Rex would act like … sure, it would be fine to use items and colors and things that Frigga prefers, that would do just fine, but how about I consider adding what Freya likes, too?

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    1. That’s interesting. Yes, at some point They seem to have been the same (or so one of the working theories goes, anyway), only to split into two separate later on. Which is one of the brain-breaking things about theology; the lines are seldom as clean as modern polytheists would like them to be.

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      1. Sigrid says:

        The lines are most definitely not that clean, I don’t think with hardly any of Them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think this is why I never really clicked with either Frigga or Freyja; I had Wodan, who isn’t really married to either of Them, but to Frija. Another interesting point is that another name for Rosmerta seems to be Rigani (great queen)–which is also one of the names by which the Morrigan-equivalent goddess of Gaul, Cathubodua, is sometimes known.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Sigrid says:

        Have you met Frija, out of nosy curiosity?

        That is super interesting about a Rosmerta – Cathubodua – Morrigan connection. It also makes the brain hurt. In fact, all of Them make the brain hurt, being all connected and shit. *twitch*

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m starting to wonder if the goddess I initially thought was the Morrigan might be Her, and might also be Rosmerta/Rigani. (Since my Wodan is also Mercuriux Rex.) I don’t do neat and clear-cut deities, apparently.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Sigrid says:

        Neither do I, so I feel you there. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sigrid says:

    I gave up on getting to know Her or Rosmerta when He started shuffling me off to other deities, so the shrine idea didn’t get too far along. I started feeling confused and frustrated about what He wanted me to learn.

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