|artwork by Ashley Bryner|
Powers and Associations
Odin, like any deity, can and will influence whatever he chooses to but there are particular areas that he is especially associated with. I might not go so far as to say that he is the god of these things in the traditional sense2, but they are certainly things that he seems to have an especially keen interest in or knowledge of.
Poetry – Odin is known as the god of poets and poetry, although he is not the only one. It is Odin who possesses the mead of poetry, Odreorir, which gives inspiration, and Odin himself is known to inspire those who he chooses to. His direct inspiration is the sort that is rooted in the meaning of his name ‘frenzy’ and perhaps should best be understood in that context. He inspires through passion, both the obviously good sort that motivates the creation of epic writing and songs as well as the kind that drives warriors to rush headlong into battle.
Madness and Ecstasy – Odin is a God whose very name is rooted in the Old Norse word óðr ‘furious’ and Adam of Bremen said of him, “Woden id est furor” [Woden, that is madness] (Simek, 1993; translation Daimler, 2017). As with his aspect as a God of poets Odin’s power as God of madness is rooted in his ability to inspire, in this case inspiring fury and frenzy. We see this in particular in the way he inspirers the Berserkers to battle-frenzy where they feel no pain and fight relentlessly. Simek suggest that ecstasy may have played a vital role in Odin’s cults during the Heathen period (Simek, 1993). Kershaw posits that this madness was directly related to divine possession and ecstasy, and connects it to a type of inspiration (Kershaw, 2000).
Battle – Odin is a god of battle who can influence every aspect of battle from inspiring or stirring up wars, to encouraging warriors to fight to their utmost, to choosing who gains victory and who dies. Ynglinga Saga relates that Odin brought war to the world, and we are told that at the beginning of a fight a spear would be cast over the opposing army to dedicate it as a sacrifice to Odin (Simek, 1993). In a story in the Eddas where Freya obtains a magical necklace named Brisgingamen, Odin has Loki steal the necklace and will only return it if Freya causes two kings to go to war with each other (Crossley-Holland, 1981). Odin was also the one who could give or withhold victory depending on who he favored, and those who lost or were killed in battle were seen as having lost Odin’s favor. In the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, after King Hrolf and his men refuse a gift offered them by Odin in disguise and figure out it was in fact Odin offering it, one of the men comments, “I suspect that we have not behaved very wisely in rejecting what we should have accepted. We may have denied ourselves victory.” (Byock, 1998, p69). During wars sacrifices were made to Odin for victory, both by pouring out drink and offering blood (Tourville-Petre, 1964).
The Dead – Odin’s connection to the dead is a complex one. There is some suggestion that the main colors associated with him, particularly dark blue and blár, were colors of death that were symbolic of corpses (Gundarsson, 2006). His hall in Asgard was home to some of the dead, especially the heroic battle dead called Einherjar, and several of his by-names relate to the dead. Besides being associated with the battle dead though he was also connected to those who died by hanging, and some of his other names refer to this, making him a god of the gallows. Additionally we see him seeking out the dead, as will be discussed in the section on prophecy, in order to obtain information on future events, showing that he had the power and knowledge to call the dead forth from their burial mounds and communicate with them in Helhiem.
Magic – Odin is associated with several types of magic, most notably runic magic and seidhr, both of which we’ll discuss in greater depth in a later chapter. In the Havamal Odin discusses the various magical uses for runes that he knows and in Baldrs Draumar Odin is called the father of magic chants (Simek, 1993). We may also see an echo of his magical powers in his ability to shapeshift, as Odin is known to take multiple human disguises as well as the form of an eagle.
Wisdom – Odin as a God of wisdom could also be described as a God of cunning, because he is associated with both knowledge for its own sake and with the clever use of it. It should be kept in mind that his pursuit of wisdom is ruthless, to the point that he hangs on the World Tree without sustenance for nine days to find the runes and gives an eye for a drink from Mimir’s Well. Odin does not just passively collect this knowledge either but rather uses what he gains, such as the knowledge of runes for magic, and the information in prophecies to affect the future. And no matter how much he knows he continues to seek more knowledge, trying to see whatever it might be in creation that he does not know (Bauschatz, 1982).
Prophecy – Odin has strong connections to prophecy, both as a deity who sees the future himself and as a God who is known in the stories to seek out those who can see the future to tell him what will come to pass. From his throne, Hlidskjalf, it is said that he can see all things, and we know that to obtain the prophecy about Ragnarok he traveled to the boundary of Helheim to speak to a dead Seeress. The practice of prophecy itself in a modern context is one that is strongly associated with him.
2 By this I mean that people tend to understand Gods as ‘the God of X’ and then pigeonhole the deity into that role. However that approach doesn’t work especially well with the Norse pantheon (or several other pantheons for that matter) because they have a flexibility to them in what they can and will do. There is a great deal of cross-over between the different Gods, and overlap, in who is the God of what, so that we see Odin as a God who foresees the future but we see Frigga doing this as well. Odin is a God of warriors, especially berserkers, but Thor is also a God of warriors, although perhaps of a different sort. In this way there is no true specialization in the Norse pantheon, only those who favor certain perviews over others.
Bauschatz, P., (1982). The Well and the Tree
Byock, J., (1998) The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki
Gundarsson, K., (2006). Our Troth, volume 1
Kershaw, K., (2000). The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Mannerbunde
Simek, R., (1993). Dictionary of Nothern Mythology
Tourville-Petre, G., (1964) Myth and Religion of the North