Norse mythology is arguably the richest and most vibrant collection of tales from a single culture that mankind has inherited from its progenitors. Their tales, where heroes with names like Odin and Thor live, love and fight have entertained and enthralled us for centuries.
Characters in Norse myths are generally aligned in the traditional good guy – bad guy battle lines that are so common elsewhere, but there is a peculiar dichotomy and depth to their being which we do not find elsewhere.
Odin, Allfather and chief of the gods is the perfect example.
Odin, the Allfather
Odin has also been known by the names Othinn, Wotan and Woden by the Germanic tribes who worshipped him. The weekday of Wednesday (Woden’s day) is named for him.
As in the Greek and Roman myths – where his equal is found in the gods Zeus and Jupiter (Jove) respectively – Odin ruled over the gods in their heavenly home, the Norse version of which is called Asgard.
Within Asgard is Odin’s seat of power, the throne room called Hlidskjálf. From his high seat, Odin watches over the worlds of gods and men.
He is the god of war and of death, and warriors slain in battle find eternal welcome at the immense hall overseen by Odin, the famous Valhalla (Hall of the Slain Warriors). However, he is also the god of poetry and knowledge, creating a well-rounded personality driven by a wonderful mix of interests.
His wife is the beautiful Vanir goddess Frigg, depicted with long, blonde hair. She is the deity after whom the weekday, Friday, is named. Through her, Odin is the father of Thor, Baldur, Hodr and Vali. He is also the adoptive father of the giant, Loki.
Odin may be the ruler of the godly realm but he is neither the literal father of all the gods nor all-powerful.
This absence of omnipotence lends itself to a dichotomous character that is at once both leader and the led. It makes Norse myths that much more relatable to the average person and broadens the appeal they hold immensely.
Proof of that is the popularity of the Norse sagas today, and the enthusiasm with which Hollywood has embraced them to create one blockbuster after another.
A God is Born, and then Creates
The Creation myth of the Norse people speaks of a time when there was nothing but a void between fire and ice. The two moved towards each other and the hissing and melting of the ice created the first being, a giant named Ymir. The entire race of giants was born from Ymir’s sweat.
A cow named Audhumbla emerged from the ice and Ymir sustained himself at her teat. The cow started to lick the salty ice. On the first day, hair emerged from the it; on the second, the head of Buri who would be the first Aesir god, was freed; and on the third day, Buri himself stepped out of the ice.
Buri’s son, Bor married a giantess named Bestla. Their half god-half giant offspring were Odin, Vili and Ve.
Odin slew Ymir with the help of his brothers. From Ymir’s body, our world was built. Odin fashioned the oceans from his blood, the soil from his flesh and muscles, the plants from his hair, the clouds from his brains and his bones became the mountains of the world.
As they walked along the shoreline one day, the three brothers saw two trees, an ash (Ask) and an elm (Embla). From the first, they created the first man and from the other, the first woman.
Odin breathed into the couple the breath of Life and gave them souls. Vili gave them the ability to think, understand and move. Ve then blessed them with the five senses. Ask and Embla became the progenitors of the human race who live on the earthy plane, which is called Midgard in the Norse tales.
Odin, Leader and Follower
Depicted most often as an older man, yet powerfully built, the feature that intrigues and baffles most observers is the absence of one of his eyes. It seems incongruent that the mighty being who leads the race of gods cannot heal himself of what we would presume to be a small feat for an individual of his standing.
However, a reading of the story behind the loss of that eye is a wonderful introduction to the world of textured tales that the Norsemen of old have left for us.
They tell of how Odin, in his quest for wisdom, was required to undergo an excruciating ordeal. He impaled himself upon his spear and hung from Yggdrasil, the Norse Tree of Life from which the nine worlds of existence sprout.
After nine deals of agonizing penance, he was asked to make one more sacrifice – give his eye in return for the wisdom of the ages. Odin acquiesced, trading the orb for the virtually infinite knowledge of the Universe through a drink from the Well of Wisdom.
To those wondering why he would not use that knowledge to heal himself, the answer is that restoring the eye would remove the element of sacrifice from Odin’s act, which would render moot the entire transaction. Such is the satisfying logic of these tales.
The God, His Vestments and His Companions
The Norsemen were a feared warrior race, known for their intimidating size and immense strength. Depictions of their gods followed this pattern and Odin is no exception.
He is also shown always with his weapon of choice, a magical spear called Gungnir, in his hands. Once thrown, Gungnir never missed its mark.
Legend has it that the spear was created specifically for Odin and presented to him as a gift by the sons of the dwarf Ivaldi. They were the same dwarfs that crafted the magical gold ring that the Aesir king wears on his finger, from which eight new gold rings emerge every night.
Two ravens are Odin’s perpetual companions, one riding on each shoulder. They travel the world and bring news back to Odin so he is aware of goings-on in all the worlds under his power. Another animal he is often depicted with is the wolf.
Odin and the Valknut
There is an ancient symbol found on several Norse monuments and unearthed relics that is closely associated with Odin: the Valknut. This intriguing symbol consists of three triangles, drawn either in the Borromean style of three interlocking shapes, or as a unicursal where a single line completes all three.
The name ‘Valknut’ comprises of two root words, ‘valr’ and ‘knut’. The first means ‘slain warrior’ and is the source of the English word ‘valor’. The second means ‘knot’. Thus, the Valknut was the symbol of brave warriors slain in battle and, as he was god of both death and battle, they were the prime concern of Odin.
Some pictorial depictions of the Valknut that have been discovered show the shape hovering above scenes where dead warriors are being either interred in burial mounds or risen from them by a figure wielding a spear. Ravens and wolves also appear in these illustrations.
That evidence in its entirety seems to indicate strongly that it is Odin who is portrayed. However, there is still some confusion about the link between Odin and the Valknut because not a single contemporary record that describes or speaks directly of the shape and its use has yet been found.
The association with slain warriors and death sometimes tempts people to refer to the Valknut as a symbol of a ‘cult of the dead’. In truth, that is a very shallow interpretation that trivializes the true magnitude and depth of its meaning.
To understand it better, a reading of the events foretold by the Norse sagas is necessary. They speak of an end time called Ragnarok or ‘Twilight of the Gods’.
This is the final battle between the forces of good represented by the gods and the forces of evil, most notably Loki, the giant Midgard serpent, Jormungandr, and the giant wolf, Fenrir (where both the latter are Loki’s offspring).
Odin will lead the gods and will be assisted in this great battle by all the departed warriors residing in Valhalla. Therefore, the Valknut is more accurately a symbol of the bravery and sacrifice of young men who fell in combat, and an acknowledgement of their eternal dedication to fight for what is right.
Odin – From Birth of the World to its End
Odin created the world and all the people in it; he will also be there when his creation is destroyed. This will happen at the culmination of the predicted cataclysm to come, Ragnarok.
The story of the end of the world and the Twilight of the Gods is told in the last of the Norse sagas.
Loki, adopted giant son of Odin was a powerful warrior said to be fair of face but also with a wily tongue. Baldur was the Odin’s son by Frigg. He was the Norse god of Light, Goodness and all positive things, loved and revered by both gods and men. Loki was resentful of Baldur’s popularity and plotted to kill him.
Both Baldur and Frigg had premonitions of his death and this prompted Frigg to travel the world to ask everyone and everything to not harm Baldur. However, she neglected to ask the unassuming mistletoe, which she thought too small to be of any harm or consequence.
The gods then amused themselves by throwing all manner of projectiles, rocks and arrows at Baldur, all of which would bounce harmlessly away from him. This only enraged Loki further. He went to Frigg in disguise and asked her if there was any object that the protective charm did not bind.
Frigg unsuspectingly revealed the story of the mistletoe to Loki, who then hurried away to fashion an arrow from it. He then gave the arrow to Baldur’s blind brother, Hodr and guided his hand to throw the missile at Baldur.
It pierced Baldur’s heart and killed him instantly.
Loki tried to escape but Odin pursued and captured him. The gods chained The Trickster to the ground in an underground cave outside Asgard, where a goddess placed above his head a venomous snake that drips poison from its fangs.
Loki’s wife, Sigyn, abandoned Asgard to be by his side, and holds a cup above his head to catch the poison. However, she has to empty the cup periodically and it is said that the ground shakes from earthquakes when Loki roars in agony as the venom falls on his face.
All this will end when Loki breaks free. He will trigger Ragnarok.
Together with the Midgard serpent, Jormungandr and the giant wolf, Fenrir, his two horrendous offspring from the giantess, Angrboda, and assisted by the giants, Loki will lead an epic battle against Odin and the gods of Asgard.
Thor, Odin’s first son and the mightiest of Norse warriors, will kill Jormungandr but will walk just nine steps before succumbing to his wounds and the serpent’s poison. Odin will battle Fenrir and kill it.
Odin, too will die from his wounds.
The worlds will end, save for a man and a woman. They will be transported to a new plane of existence where the Aesir brothers, Hodr and Baldur, will be reunited and rule over the mortals.
There are not many tales of Supreme Beings which end with their death, nor speak of sacrifices they make in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. In this regard, the Norse tales of Odin’s trials and tribulations are a marvelous repository of stories that are thought-provoking as much as they are inspiring and entertaining.
He is a towering figure who represents the pursuit of good, self-improvement, and strength and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. The Norsemen would have seen him as the archetypical warrior leader, rallying his troops from the front, but their storytellers tempered his personality with wisdom that is an essential trait in any leader.
Odin in Popular Culture
The interest in Odin has seen a resurgence of late as another generation learns the tales of this great Norse god thanks in part to the emergence of more and more TV and cinema productions depicting him like Vikings of History Channel, American Gods of Starz Network (Mr. Wednesday/Wotan)and Marvel’s Avengers.
That being said, these are productions of popular culture so the portrayal of Odin is more or less different than the one in Norse mythology. So, it is best to not take everything on TV or movie screens literally and read more on him if you really would like to know about Odin, the Allfather.