Voices from the Viking Age
by Douglas "Dag" Rossman
This article is going to focus on Odin All-Father, arguably the most dominating—and complex—character in the great drama we call the Norse myths. Co-creator of the Nine Worlds that he was—and ruler of the Aesir gods that he is—Odin is, nevertheless, neither all-knowing, all-wise, nor all powerful. These were "shortcomings" he recognized, however, and which he attempted to overcome early in his career by undertaking a series of three hazardous quests.
Quest One: Odin on the World Tree—The first quest led Odin to have himself hung, spear-wounded, and deprived of all food and drink on the limbs of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights in order to learn the secrets of the runes. Those twenty-four mysterious, ancient letters contained the hidden knowledge of the universe (a subject we will cover in a future article). The All-Father described his Nordic "vision quest" at some length in the poem "Havamal" in the Poetic Edda. Because of this experience, Odin is sometimes called the "Hanged God" or "Lord of the Gallows." A carved representation of him in this aspect appears atop a vertical wooden beam in the belfry of the stave church in Heggenes, Vaidres (see illustration).
Quest Two: Odin at Mimir's Well—Realizing that knowledge without wisdom is not only less than satisfying but may even be dangerous, Odin traveled to Jötunheim to visit the Well of Wisdom, which was guarded by his maternal uncle, the giant Mimir. There—at the sacrifice of one of his eyes (for the ancient Norse recognized that achieving wisdom always comes with a high price)—the All-Father was granted a drink from the Well and, in so doing, he gained the inner vision (insight) and understanding that allowed him to make the best use of the knowledge he had gained from the runes.
Quest Three: Odin and the Mead of Poetry—Having drunk from Mimir's Well, the All-Father must have come to realize that his acquisition of knowledge and wisdom—while obviously benefiting him personally—did little for the society of which he was a part, over which he ruled, and for the well-being of which he bore primary responsibility. To achieve the maximum benefits, knowledge and wisdom must be shared - not hoarded like dragon's goldl To accomplish this one must develop the skill to communicate effectively with others. which was the focus of Odin's third great quest—his search for the Mead of Poetry. This tale is one of the longer Norse myths—far too long to relate here—but the interested reader can. find a modern retelliing in my book The Northern Path or in Kevin CrossIey-HoIland's The Norse Myths. Suffice it to.say, Odin was successful—after shape-shifting thrice (first into a snake, then into a giant, and later into an eagle)—in carrying the Mead back to Asgard, where he shared it with the other gods and a few humans. To this day, whoever tastes the Mead gains the gift of poetry and eloquent speech.
Odin came by the nickname All-Father honestly, for he literally sired most of the Aesir gods—his sons Thor, Balder, Bragi, Vali, Vidar, Heimdali, Hermod, Höd, and Tyr, as well as his daughters Hnoss and Gersimi, to name the ones we know - with an array of goddesses and giantesses. There may well have been others, including some with human mothers, for the All-Father seems to have had an insatiable appetite for attractive women. Unlike his Greek counterpart, Zeus, Odin is never said to have forced himself on an unwilling partner, and in "Havamal" he even inveighs against any male attempting to seduce another man's wife.
Another face of Odin is that of a god of war and of those warriors who die in combat. When beginning a battle, he would hurl his dwarf-made spear, Gungnir, over the heads of the opposing army thus causing fear and panic in their ranks. The All-Father was believed to choose who would live and who would die in any battle, thus when his favored warriors perished in combat, Odin was accused of betraying them. Such a conclusion—understandably repugnant to modern sensibilities—is overly simplistic and fails to consider Odin's perspective. Having learned from a seeress about the inevitability of a final catastrophic confrontation with the giants called Ragnarok, the All-Father must strive to muster the greatest army of warrior-dead he can assemble in Valhalla. There these heroes will fight each other all day (to maintain their "edge"), be healed of their wounds each evening, and carouse all night waited on by beautiful warrior-women, the Valkyries.
Thus, Odin's "acts of betrayal" actually resulted from his need to recruit the best warriors available ... if not voluntarily. This may have been of little comfort to Odin worshippers who anticipated that their loyalty to him guaranteed them victory every time they engaged in combat, but at least it should absolve the All-Father of the charge of treachery. His worshippers had simply chosen to follow a very demanding god!
Finally, I would be amiss if I failed to mention three of Odin's special animal helpers. Who can forget Sleipner, the great, eight-legged horse that carries him over land and sea, as well as through the sky? Or the ravens Hugin ("thought") and Munin ("memory") that go out each day to watch and listen, then report to the All-Father each evening. No wonder he is so well informed!
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Last updated: March 16, 2013
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