God of the Week: Odin

God of the Week 11/30/09: Odin

Odin is the ancient Norse father god. He was depicted as wise (he gave one of this eyes to Mimir  in exchange for Wisdom) and all knowing (his two ravens, Thought and Memory, would daily fly the world and report back to him), but still compassionate toward man:

Odin’s supreme will was that treasure-house of bounty towards which, in one shape or the other, all mortal desires turned, and out of its abundance showers of mercy and streams of divine favour constantly poured down to refresh the weary race of men. All these blessings and mercies, nay, their very source itself, the ancient language bound up in a single word, which, however expressive it may still be, has lost much of the fulness of its meaning in its descent to these later times. This word was ‘Wish’, which originally meant the perfect ideal, the actual fruition of all joy and desire, and not, as now, the empty longing for the object of our desires.

-Sir George Webbe Dasent, Popular Tales from the Norse

In different tales, Odin has been depicted in many, apparently contradictory ways: as the supreme ruler god, as a war deity, as a mysterious wanderer, or as a subtle shape shifter. These different manifestations may have endeared him to a wider variety of followers.

In the Norse gods, then, we see the Norseman himself, sublimed and elevated beyond man’s nature, but bearing about with him all his bravery and endurance, all his dash and spirit of adventure, all his fortitude and resolution to struggle against a certainty of doom which, sooner or later, must overtake him on that dread day,

-Sir George Webbe Dasent, Popular Tales from the Norse

Much of Norse mythology has, most undoubtedly, been lost since it did not begin to be recorded until the 11th century and thereafter. By that point, the inaccuracy of oral tradition and the influx of the Christian religion into the area may have corrupted the original tales. So, whether Odin dates back to Proto-Germanic times, or is a later addition to the Norse pantheon is not known. But, in Adam of Bremen’s account of Norse mythology (1080AD), he attests that Thor, not Odin, is the mightiest of the gods. This does seem to infer that some sort of a change in the perceived power of Odin did occur after a Christian influence.

James Frazer see the tales of Odin as paralleling the common mythical motif of a king or god who dies only to be raised again, and theorizes that he may have been based on a larger than life real king:

Another indication of a similar tenure of the crown occurs in a curious legend of the deposition and banishment of Odin. Offended at his misdeeds, the other gods outlawed and exiled him, but set up in his place a substitute, Oller by name, a cunning wizard, to whom they accorded the symbols both of royalty and of godhead. The deputy bore the name of Odin, and reigned for nearly ten years, when he was driven from the throne, while the real Odin came to his own again. His discomfited rival retired to Sweden and was afterwards slain in an attempt to repair his shattered fortunes. As gods are often merely men who loom large through the mists of tradition, we may conjecture that this Norse legend preserves a confused reminiscence of ancient Swedish kings who reigned for nine or ten years together, then abdicated, delegating to others the privilege of dying for their country. The great festival which was held at Upsala every nine years may have been the occasion on which the king or his deputy was put to death. We know that human sacrifices formed part of the rites.

– Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough Chapter 24 The Killing of the Divine King, Part 3: Kings Killed at the End of a Fixed Term

Phyllis Siefker sees parallels between Odin and another popular figure: Santa Claus. While the name Santa Claus is most certainly a derivation of Sinterklaas, Dutch for  Saint Nicholas of Myra, the custom of placing shoes or stockings in front of the fireplace seems to stem from a Yule custom in which children would put straw in their boots for Odin’s horse. During the course of the night Odin would use his shape shifting ability to come down the chimney, take the straw and leave candy in it’s place.

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One Comment on “God of the Week: Odin”

  1. […] The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years, sees parallels between the Norse god Odin and Santa.  The Germanic winter festival of Yule had many traditions attached to it that we would […]

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