Óðin is attested heavily through many early sources across Europe. He is claimed as the ancestor of many kingly lines and is thus mentioned in ancient lineage records. More commonly known sources include Tacitus’s late 1st-century 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 sagas.
Óðin’s image can also be found on many archaeological finds: wooden and stone carvings, statues and crosses, tapestry fragments, armour and weapons, and decorative objects.
He is considered a god of wisdom, battle, death, magic and kinship, and considered popularly to be the leader of the Æsir. In later Christian texts, he is referred to as “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 clans, with a community spokesperson who was involved with important decisions, represented the community at local Þings (“things”) and who presided over legal disputes. This leader was elected by the community, and could easily be un-elected and replaced. Óðin held this position of honour among 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 Thor. By the giantess Gríðr, he is the father of Viðarr, and by the giantess Rindr, Váli. He is sometimes listed as the father of the Bragi and Ullr, though the reference to Ullr is likely a later invention.
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 the Earth. Walking along the shores of this new world, he and his brothers stumbled upon driftwood from the World Tree. These they fashioned into the first man, Ask and the first woman, Embla. 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.”
Thus the three brothers created human race and gifted us consciousness and all of our senses. Under the protection of the Æsir, Miðgarðr became our home.
Óðin is famous for his pursuit of wisdom, and many stories revolve around the sacrifices he makes to acquire knowledge and mastery. Early in his mythologies, a detailed scene is played out, in which he raises a dead seeress, and questions 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 how to stop, or at least stave off, 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 one-eyed 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 (generally agreed to be 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 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 ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) who fly over 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 (“vath-ruth-neer”) for a contest of knowledge to the death. The two seem 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 gods, and concedes he cannot answer, forfeiting his life. We are led to believe through these tales of Óðin’s pursuits, that he is indeed the wisest of beings – and yet he still cannot prevent the fall of the Æsir and the coming Ragnarök. Norse myth is rich with such dialectics and paradoxes.
Óðin has several halls within Ásgard, and his main is Valaskjálf (“Shelf of the Slain”) which contains the tower holding Hliðskjálf, the high seat from which he can see everything happening in all worlds. The other important hall is Valhöll (“Hall of the Slain”) which is 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. 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. This procession is celebrated in modern times in the forms of Krampus parades at Christmas time.
Thoughts on Óðin
Óðin is believed to be a powerful, 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 they mythic creator of the human race, and a figure of Divine leadership among the Æsir. He embodies wisdom, strength in battle, and the spirit of self-sufficiency. He is a god who participants in existence with us: suffering, struggling, pleasure and joy. Óðin is thought to be both a god of war and sex, of all that is exhilarating, and the experience that accompanies being alive.
In the lore, the All-Father isn’t afraid to go the distance, and he never asks his children to do anything he wouldn’t – 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. Galdr includes all magic that is consciously directed. Today we might call it hypnotism, psychology, and persuasive speech. Seiðr we might call intuition, dream interpretation, and oracular practice.
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 Helheim and back.
Working with Óðin is reported as an intense experience for a lot of people, as he demands exchange for insight. Modern Heathens who work with him have noted that he tends to have a domineering, pushy quality who is rewarding to work with, albeit demanding.
Óðin was widely worshiped throughout northern Europe, including Celtic lands, as the Celts and Norse were in constant contact. He shares archetypal similarities and motifs with Celtic god Lugh. The Romans saw Óðin as alternately Mercury, Hades, or both.
As a god of war, Óðin is depicted as 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 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 is said to have been kept youthful 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!