Wyrd Words: Faces of Odin – Soldier, Scholar, Skald, and Skeptic

Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

Our community is fond of supporting a kind of romanticized “warrior ethos,” and sometimes we can get so wrapped up in those ideals that we lose sight of the gods’ other attributes. So many people worship “Thor the warrior” that often “Thor the farmer” is overlooked. I’m not saying that a “warrior ethos” is bad, as most of the Aesir and the Vanir ARE warriors; but that’s not ALL they are. Tyr may be a god of war, but he is also a god of justice. Thor may be the Jötunn-Slayer, but he is also responsible for bringing rain to the fields so the crops can grow.

Perhaps the most interesting example is the Allfather himself to which the simple, one-dimensional title of “War God” is not only an inadequate descriptor, it’s a disservice to the depth of his personality. Óðinn is such a complex and multifaceted deity that it’s difficult to grant him a single, all encompassing title. This is evidenced by the fact that it would probably be faster to write a list of all the things Óðinn’s NOT called than to make a comprehensive list of all his names! So who exactly IS Óðinn?

 photo 140416131740-odin-ruler-of-asgard-story-top_zps8cfd77f2.jpg

Part of what gives the Allfather such depth and character is all of the apparent contradictions he seems to embody. One aspect of Óðinn is the Soldier: the commander of the forces of Asgard, the god of war who is willing to march at the head of his army into a battle that he knows will be his last. This is the aspect of Óðinn that constantly tries to teach us the value of honor and the importance of duty and who sings songs of glory unending in the halls of Valhalla. If the depth of the Allfather ended here, “God of War” might be an apt title. Óðinn the Soldier is a icon of strength, discipline, and masculine virility right out of the Iron Age.

What, then, of Óðinn the Skald? Just when we think we’ve got a handle on this warrior archetype, we are introduced to an entirely different side: the pensive poet, who plays games with men’s lives and schemes in dark corners. Where the Soldier was a paragon of twelfth-century masculinity, championing ideals of honest contest and honorable combat, the Poet is a more feminine figure of guile and wit, relying on clever games and sorcery to achieve his goals. This more feminine side of Óðinn is also practitioner of Seiðr (often seen as “Women’s Magic”). These two characters seem not only inconsistent, but completely inimical. These people don’t just sound different, they sound like they would probably LOATHE each other. Yet Óðinn embodies both of these figures equally.

Another aspect of the Allfather is that of the Scholar. This is the wandering wise man that, throughout the Eddas, pursues an unending quest for new knowledge. We hear his voice in the verses of the Hávamál that tell us to “Ask well and answer rightly,” and in the many stanzas on wisdom and exploration. The Scholar tells us to go out into the world, meet new people, and learn what they have to say. He is open to new ideas, with a passion for the pursuit of wisdom that borders on optimistic idealism.

Then, sometimes in the space of a single verse, he can change his nature to that of the Skeptic: the jaded cynic who watches everything with a critical eye and warns us to always be prepared. The mantra of the Skeptic is: “Watch carefully, and be ready for anything.” Among the names of the Allfather are Báleygr and Bileygr. He is called the shifty-eyed, the wavering eye, the flaming eye, the flashing eye: all kennings for one who is suspicious of everything. Where the Scholar seeks to know what others have to say, the Skeptic (a ruthless pragmatist) wonders what their motives are for saying it.

Óðinn as a God of Questions

The common element between the Scholar and the Skeptic is their shared verve for asking good questions. In fact, that seems to be a core virtue of Óðinn’s diverse and multidimensional personality. He forces us to question our stereotypes by breaking the mold. He forces us to question social conventions by routinely violating them. He keeps us on our toes, constantly trying to guess what role he’ll choose to play next. His stories show us the value of observing and understanding the world around us and learning to evaluate that information for ourselves.

When someone asks me if I worship “Óðinn the War God”, I tell them that I revere “Óðinn the Scientist.” I follow a god of Reason, Knowledge, Exploration, and Critical Thinking. I believe that the true wisdom of Óðinn is in knowing how to ask a question.

 photo odinprayer_zpscdfaa535.png

Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

About Alyxander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer is a student of Anthropology at ASU, focused on analyzing and building religious communities. He is a devoted Heathen, and married to a Rabbi in training. Interest in Pagan interfaith relations lead him to join the committee for the formation of the Pagan Chapter at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, where he hopes to utilize his training in community building and cultural exchange. The majority of his work can be located at http://www.heathenhof.com/

  • Rachael Strange

    If you realize the god of war is not just starting them but avoiding them and when forced to fight them win them then you can truely see that awesomeness of his wisdom. Being called the God Of War means he has the Gift Of Decision Of War when to, when not to, how to not to, and how to win and when to lose. All in all War is the ultimate judgement. Life Death Right Wrong Law and Chaos all wraped in one.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      True! I wouldn’t have thought to phrase it that way, but I agree. :)

  • Sarah Sadie

    Very interesting…I have read interpretations of Odin’s primary gifts as frenzy (in battle or anger–the berserker’s god), inspiration, spirit, wisdom…”breath,” I suppose. That makes sense to me… I’m a little unclear about the overlap between his role and Tyr’s.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      The relationship between Odin and Tyr is kind of strange. At one point in history Tyr was the head of the pantheon, and was the predominant “god of war”. Later on, Odin became more popular and replaced Tyr as the Chief of the Aesir, at which point he was also given “god of war” as a part of his portfolio. Since this wasn’t really planned out, but rather a natural process of social change, the transition happened in a slow, piecemeal kind of way that didn’t leave things very clear cut. By the 1300′s (the end of the Viking Age) anthropologists believe that Thor may have been starting to undergo the same process. If the religion had lasted a couple of hundred years longer (uninterrupted), Thor might be the Allfather instead of Odin.

      • Sarah Sadie

        …And just now I was reading another writer who says Thor may have been a more ancient “All Father” than Odin. So much may also be due to regional variation–not only across centuries, but across geographies. Is it any wonder if now in the 21st century trying to piece it together we occasionally differ in interpretation?

        • Alyxander M Folmer

          Really? I’ve never heard that. The information on Tyr is pretty well established. I’ll have to look up the stuff on Thor. It might be, as you said, a regional thing. Interesting :)

          • Sarah Sadie

            Paxson, Taking Up the Runes…chapter on Thurisaz. re-reading it, she says Thor was a major deity and “his worship may be older than Odin’s” — not exactly what I said above, I was misremembering (is that a word?).

            • http://northernrunesradio.com Daniel

              Yes, back thousands of years ago, we find that many of the earliest European migrants called themselves the children of the Thunder god “Indra”–the name from the Rig-Veda

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    I really like your essay. I think our Heathen gods are very complicated, and it’s a gross oversimplification to call any of them “The God of…” when they’ve all got multiple aspects. Also, the lore is so patchy in some areas that we surely are missing important stories that would shed light on their less obvious aspects.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      And then we have figures like Skadi, who is listed among the gods, but never given a specific domain. We have to try and guess based on their story.

  • Kaz

    Great piece an well written. It makes it easy to understand as well.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Thanks :)

  • Pingback: Faces of Odin – Soldier, Scholar, Skald, and Skeptic « WiccanWeb