Óðin is attested quite heavily through many early sources across Europe. He is claimed as the ancestor of many kingly lines and is thus mentioned in many ancient lineage records. More commonly known sources include Tacitus’s late 1st-century work Germania, Adam of Bremen’s Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum in the 11th century, the 12th century Bryggen inscriptions, the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, Heimskringla, and many of the existing sagas.
Óðin’s image can also be found on countless wooden and stone carvings, statues and crosses, tapestry fragments, armour and weapons, and decorative objects.
He is a god of wisdom and seeking wisdom, the god of battle, god of death, and also the leader of the Æsir. In later Christian texts, he is referred to as the king of the gods, though this is more a reflection of the time period – in older texts it’s attested that the power structure of the Æsir mirrored that of human clan communities, with a community spokesperson who was involved with most important decisions and plans, represented the community at local Þings, and who also presided over legal disputes as a adjudicator. This leader was elected by the community, and could easily be un-elected and replaced. Óðin held this position of honour amongst the gods. As such, he is included in most of the stories of the gods, in brief cameos or to further the plot.
Óðin is the husband of Frigga, and by her is the father of Baldr and Höðr. By the giantess Jörð, he is the father of sons Thor and Meili. By the giantess Gríðr, he is the father of Viðarr, and by the giantess Rindr, he is the father of Váli. He is sometimes listed as the father of the Bragi and Ullr, though the reference to Ullr is most likely a later invention. He is the father of many other deities and claimed as the ancestor of many royal mortal lineages as well.
He is the son of Borr and Bestla, and along with his brothers Vili and Vé (or sometimes Hœnir and Lóðurr) slew the first being, the giant Ýmir, and turned his body into all of the pieces of the Earth. Walking along the shores of this new world, he and his brothers stumbled upon some driftwood – a branch of ash and a branch of elm. These they fashioned into the first man (Ask) and the first woman (Embla) and set them loose. This doesn’t go so well for the fledgling humans, however. The brothers come upon them later, as noted in the Poetic Edda:
“Spirit they possessed not, sense they had not, blood nor motive powers, nor goodly colour. Spirit gave Óðin, sense gave Vili, blood gave Vé, and goodly colour.”
And thus the three brothers were not only the creators of the race of humans, but gifted to us consciousness and all of our senses. Under the protection of the Æsir, Miðgarðr became our home.
Óðin is famous for his constant pursuit of wisdom, and many of his stories revolve around the sacrifices he was willing to make to acquire knowledge, and his mastery of multiple subjects. Very early on in his mythologies, a detailed scene is played out, in which he raises a dead seeress and quizzes her about the future of the gods. After learning of the death of Baldr, the coming Ragnarök, and his own death at the jaws of Fenrir, he sets off on quests to find ways of stopping the end of the world. The lore says that he appears in the world as a wanderer, or sometimes as the wind itself.
He is portrayed as a one-eyed god because he traded his eye to the beheaded god Mímir for a drink from Mímisbrunnr, the well of wisdom. Óðin also hangs himself upside-down from a tree (it is generally agreed that the tree is Yggdrasil) denies himself food and drink, stabs himself with a spear, dies and resurrects to gain hidden knowledge – most notably the secrets of the Runes in this case. In other stories, Ullr takes the high seat of the Æsir while Óðin wanders the world for years at a time, seeking answers to his questions and bestowing gifts upon mortals.
In the Prose Edda, he disguises himself as three characters: High, Just As High, and Third. In answering the questions of a man named Gangleri (the king Gylfi, also in disguise to test the wisdom of the gods) we learn that Óðin has two raven servants, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) who fly out and around the world to gather information for him daily. He also has two wolf servants, Geri and Freki, to whom he gives all of his meals, preferring to sustain himself on red wine. Through other readings, we discover that Óðin’s horse is eight legged Sleipnir, the greatest of all horses, and the son of Loki.
In the Poetic Edda, a disguised Óðin seeks out the wisest of the giants, Vafþrúðnir for a contest of knowledge, to the death. The two seem well matched until Óðin asks Vafþrúðnir what Óðin whispered into the ear of his son, Baldr on his funeral pyre. At this point, the giant realizes that his guest is the wisest of the gods, and concedes he cannot answer the question, forfeiting his life. We are led to believe through all of these tales of Óðin’s pursuits, that he is indeed the wisest of all beings – and yet he still cannot prevent the fall of the Æsir and the coming Ragnarök.
Óðin has several halls within Ásgard, and his main hangout is Valaskjálf (Shelf of the Slain) which contains the tower holding Hliðskjálf, the high seat from which he can see everything happening in all the worlds. The other important hall is Valhöll (Hall of the Slain) which is the home of the Einherjar, Óðin’s chosen warriors for the battle at the end of the world, who are served mead by the valkyrja at night, and who practice fighting all day.
In Germanic and English folklore, he was believed to lead the Wild Hunt, a parade of dead souls he gathered along the way, haunting the rural countryside. The Wild Hunt were believed to ride out from ghostly realms on Halloween, bringing with them frost and winter winds. The god Ullr was also associated with the Hunt. The procession was greatly feared by Christians, and the tradition of jack-o-lanterns appeared, which were carved and set out as wards, that the Wild Hunt might pass by without recruiting those who dwelled within to their number.
Thoughts on Óðin
Óðin is a powerful and very active figure. He is famous among modern Heathens for “recruiting,” or reaching out to non-Heathens through dreams, meditations and visions, and inviting them into a spiritual relationship with him.
He is called the All-Father for good reason – not only because he pals around with mortals, gods, and jötunn alike, but because he is the creator of the human race, and a figure of Divine leadership amongst the Æsir. He embodies wisdom, strength in battle, and a DIY attitude … he’s got it all. He is the god who participants in existence with us: it’s suffering, it’s struggles and it’s pleasures and joys. Óðin is both a god of war and sex and the experience that accompanies being alive.
The All-Father isn’t afraid to go the distance for a worthy cause, and he never asks his children to do anything he wouldn’t do – which isn’t much. He’s even delved into seiðr in pursuit of wisdom, which is a traditional shamanic practice exclusive to women. He is also the master of galdr, or men’s magic, the directive use of will. Galdr includes all magic that is consciously directed. Today we might call it hypnotism, psychology, and all persuasive speech.
Óðin’s horse, Sleipnir, is likely a metaphor for the trance and meditation journeys that he took. Sleipnir represented shamanic practice, and he was even able to travel through Hel and back.
Working with Óðin is a harrowing experience for a lot of people, as he demands a lot in exchange for valuable insights. It’s often noted by followers that he will dominate them and push them to face uncomfortable truths about themselves and the way that they relate to the world. He is most definitely a “no, you do it” teacher, and if you’re not willing to put in all the work, then you’d best approach a gentler god first.
Óðin was widely worshiped throughout northern Europe, including within Celtic lands, as the Celts and Norse were in constant contact with each other through trading, raiding and inter-marriage. At the same time, the All-Father shares very distinct archetypal similarities and motifs with the Celtic god Lugh. The Romans saw Óðin as alternately Mercury, Hades, or both. As leader of the wild hunt, Óðin is one of the many faces behind the mask of Cernunnos, the “horned one” revered by many Wiccan traditions (other “horned ones” include Freyr and Ullr).
As the god of war, Óðin is depicted as shifty and even duplicitous at times with regards to men’s earthly fates. This speaks to the nature of war as a means to power, but one which is highly uncertain and ever-shifting. His devout warriors dressed as wolves and invoked their spirit in shamanic ceremonies and in preparing for battle. In doing so, they were believed to be impervious to pain, fear and were greatly feared on the battlefield. Stories of werewolves may owe their origin to a cult of Óðin.
Though we often see him portrayed as an old man in armour or his trademark dark blue cloak, it should be noted that Óðin can take many forms, and was kept youthful and in full health by Iðunn’s golden apples.
Signs and Symbols
Spears, ravens, all runes, poetry and writing. Hanged men and the valknut. The colours gold, royal and midnight blue. The wind and breath. Travelers, wizards (think Gandalf!) and shamans. Pirates and other one-eye imagery. The runes Odal and Óss. The numbers three and nine, and the day Wednesday. Red wine. Werewolves.
Óðinn, Woden, Wotan, Wodanaz, Wuotan, All-Father, Harbardr (‘grey-beard’) are some of the main ones, but there are sooooooooooo many – Over 170 recorded so far!