Poet, wise man, grey-cloaked wanderer, one-eyed, wizard, warrior, king… when I decided to do Odin as my next “Divine Profiles” article, I was overwhelmed. For as much as the Lady is a complex, larger-than-life being, the Allfather has so very many names and stories attached to him that I was afraid that I couldn’t do him justice. So following will be a very condensed version of what I know about him (and it still won’t be everything, as I edit this I keep thinking of things to add but it’s already long enough). Read it knowing that for each word I print here about him, there are a thousand out there in books or elsewhere on the Internet.
I do not think that there is another among the Gods who has quite so much written about him in the Lore. In the Younger Edda, also known as the Prose Edda, among the list of attributions of various Gods and powers their relationship with Odin is almost always mentioned as a one of their important descriptors. He is listed as one of the first beings, the son of Borr (who was the son of Buri, a being licked from the primal ice by the great cow Audhulma) and of Bestla, a giantess and the daughter of Bolthorn. Two younger brothers of his are mentioned, Ville and Ve, although their names are rarely seen again in the lore.
Odin, Vili and Ve destroyed the giant Ymir, the mightiest of giants and a terrible primal being, and of his body crafted Midgard, making of his bones the mountains, his flesh the earth, his blood the waves, and his brains the clouds. While he is seen as a god of kings and civilization in his later incarnations, he is one of the primal beings and world-creators in Norse mythology as well.
Not only is he a creator of the world, but also one of the creators of humankind. Three Gods (Odin, Hoenir, and Lodhurr) discovered the the first two humans, weak and powerless beings (and possibly trees, depending on the interpretation). Hoenir gave them “Good sense”, and Lodhurr gave them “good color and heat” (possibly vigor), while Odin gave them “Ond” which has been translated to mean “breath”, “spirit”, or “soul”. The Allfather breathed the very spirit into humankind, and as such is seen as one of its founders and fathers.
Odin also brought inspiration to humankind. As part of the peace treaty between the Aesir and the Vanir, the Gods created a powerful being, Kvasir, who was said to be the wisest among them. Later on Kvasir was killed and his blood turned into mead by a pair of dwarves, and any who drank of this mead would become a poet or a scholar. The mead ended up in the hands of the giant Suttung, who gave it to his daughter Gunnlod for safekeeping.
Odin came to Suttung’s brother in disguise as a wandering laborer and offered his work in exchange for a draught of the mead. He was refused, but came upon another plan – he drilled his way into the mountain where Gunnlod kept the mead, sneaking in in the form of a snake, and seduced her. He spent three nights with her, and after stole the mead, flying away in the form of an eagle with the cauldron in his claws. Most of it he saved to give out to those he deemed worthy, but some of it was sprinkled across the earth where any of humankind could stumble upon it and access it.
Knowledge and wisdom are important to him, as we see from this story and others. Odin gave his eye to Mimir, the guardian of the well of knowledge, in exchange for a draught from the same wel, which allowed him to know all things to come. In one of his most famous stories he committed another act of great self-sacrifice, impaling himself with his own spear on the very World Tree for nine days and nights to obtain knowledge of the runes, which he took up from the depths, howling as he did so. He is shown as a being willing to go to any ends necessary to obtain wisdom, but he is also one who will share that wisdom with humankind.
The Allfather is known for his wisdom, but he’s also known for his magic. He is an accomplished shapeshifter, the one who originally took up the runes and knows their usage most intimately, and in two places in the Eddas has lists of spells or powers that are attributed to him. He and Freyja are the most accomplished in our myths wherein it concerns the magical arts.
He is also a king. Odhinn is the lord of the Aesir, the tribe of Gods that is spoken of the most in the lore. The other Gods look to him for guidance, wisdom, and protection. He uses a combination of courage, wisdom, foresight, magic, and strength to guide the people of Asgard to safety and victory. He is referenced as well as a giver of gold, an important quality in a ruler in Northern Europe; as a good king shared his gold with the worthy.
Odhinn has many sons (although I’ve found no references yet to daughters.). The two best-known ones are Thor, the Thunderer, Friend of Man and Baldr the Beautiful, the nigh-immortal being whose untimely death nearly all beings in creation mourned. Odhinn’s wife is Frigga, a powerful seereess herself who has an entire cadre of Goddesses who answer to her. Odin is known to have two ravens, Hugin and Munin or “Thought” and “Memory” that fly far through the worlds to find information to him and return to their seats on his shoulders to whisper it in his ears. He has two wolves, Geri and Freki, to whom he gives his meat to as he lives on wine or mead alone. He rides upon Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse gifted to him by Loki.
A discussion of Odhinn would not be complete without bringing up Havamal (though arguably it would be hard for a discussion about him to ever truly be complete). Part of the collection of poems referred to as the Poetic Edda, Havamal is the “Song of the Most High”. It is a collection of aphorisms, warnings, and pieces of advice from the Allfather, with some story and background information as well. While not all may agree with all of the advice presented within it serves as an important view into the mindset of the Odhinn and the folk of his times.
It ends with a discussion of magic and the runes. The 139th and 140th stanzas still chill me and make my blood sing to hear as they speak of what may be his greatest sacrifice, his offering of himself to himself to gain the knowledge of the runes,
“And I know that I hung on that windy tree
All nights of nine.
Pierced by my spear and offered to Odhinn,
myself to myself given.
On that windy tree that none may know
where rise its roots.
No loaf (was provided) for my feasting, nor (drink for) my horn.
I looked to the depths.
I took up the runes.
Howling, I took them up.
I fell back from there.”
Heiti or Bynames
There is no figure in Norse mythology that has as many names as Odhinn (he has over 100, and possibly as many as 300). Some of them are more commonly used, like “Allfather” or “One Eyed”, but many are obscure and have different translations – which is not inappropriate for a shapeshifter and God cloaked in mysteries. “A single name I have never had since first among men I fared!” he boasts in the poem Grimnismal, after which he goes on to list many of the names he has been called.
His name is said to come from the Old Norse word “Odr” which means “Mad” or “Furious”. He has a reputation of wildness and cunning, and was the patron of the berserkers, the elite warriors of the Scandinavian cultures that fought while under the sway of battle-madness.
Some of the names of his that have always intrigued me include:
- Grimnir – “The Hooded/Masked One”
- Yggr – “Terrible”
- Vak – “Vigilant” or “Awake”
- Svafnir – “Sleep bringer” – I often couple it with Vak.
- Vegtam – “Way tamer” as in pathfinder or wanderer.
- Valfather – “Father of the Slain”
I don’t have nearly the same depth of personal experience with the All Father as I do with the Lady, but he’s been in my life before. I’ve felt his hand at some major turning points in my life. When I first picked up the Choose Your Own Adventure Book, Trumpet of Terror, that started my fascination with Norse mythology at the age of five, I fancied that I felt him watching me through the pages. When I started to learn about the runes as a teenager, I felt what could only be described as his subtle attentions turning briefly towards me. When a dear friend was on her way out of this world and I refused to see it, a pair of black corvids came and sat and stared at me from atop a nearby building, heads hunched down between shoulders – they wouldn’t go away or even move, no matter how I screamed or waved my arms mere feet below them, no matter how I cried and begged, the message was clear, and it wasn’t until I accepted it that they flew away. He has shown up at the crossroads of my life, watching and perhaps occasionally influencing me in small ways that changed the course of things for me.
Because of this I thought to devote myself to him, but I never felt a connection. “Get away from me kid, yer bothering me.” was the general feeling that I got, between personal gnosis and divination. I was sad about this until my associations with Freyja became clear to me, and I finally understood.
For a God who appears in so many guises and with so many motivations it’s understandable that many people have had varied experiences with him. There are those I know who fear him and wish to avoid him. Many I have spoken to about him have had difficult and challenging experiences with him (while you would hope that a challenging experience with a God would be embraced, sometimes people are simply not in the right place in their life to rise to it). There are others, though, who feel differently.
Sitting around a campfire one night with other Heathen-type folks, the topic of Odin came up and many lurid and uncomfortable stories were shared. Rodney Cox (founder of the Order of the Raven and Falcon, a group dedicated to Norse magic in ADF) asked, “He’s always been like a kindly father who gives me gifts, doesn’t anyone else see him that way?” No one responded directly, but the long-faced looks given told the tale. My friend James Hodur (who I frequently refer to in my writing with the affectionate byname of “Jim the Odinsman”) has had similar experiences with the All Father. I remember inviting him to a Blot for Odhinn back on 9/9/09, before he had approached Heathenry at all, and during the Blot he asked the All Father to give him wisdom and open the secrets of the universe to him. My eyes grew wide and I bit my tongue, thinking, “Oh boy, this is going to get rough!” – and it didn’t. Years later Jim is an accomplished runester and happily devoted to Odhinn, having only had positive experiences with the Rune God (Runatyr).
I’ve had other folks tell me of how his wisdom is used in planning for the long game – he will do anything to try and avert or counteract the effects of Ragnarok, and everything he does is a carefully calculated play to balance things in the favor of the Gods and mankind in this inevitable conflict. The Nick Cave song, “Red Right Hand” always brings him to mind, “He’s a ghost, he’s a God, he’s a man, he’s a guru… You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan, designed and directed by his red right hand.”
Odhinn Allfather is different things to different people, which is only appropriate for a God of many faces and names, a master of Mysteries and a seeker of truth and wisdom.
As always, I’ll recommend that you go to the lore: The Eddas. Both the Poetic and Prose Eddas are filled with references to him; I’d be surprised if there was a song among them that doesn’t reference him in any way. Griminismal “The Song of the Hooded One” and “Havamal” are two important sources of insight into his complex character. He bookends the universe in Norse mythology as he is the one who calls up the spirit of the dead Volva (seeress) in Voluspa (placed at the beginning of the Poetic Eddas) who tells of both the beginning of the world and its end.
When I originally wrote the article, I had bemoaned the fact that there was no equivalent to “Freyja, Lady, Vanadis” or “Frey: God of the World” for Odhinn. People have come forward and offered suggestions since then: “The One-Eyed God” by Kris Krenshaw, “The Battle-God of the Vikings” by Hilda Ellis Davidson, and “Cult of Odhinn: God of Death?” by Stephan Grundy. I haven’t read any of these, but I’d like to pass those recommendations on.
As with my advice regarding the Lady, approach him. Offer him mead (or if you listen to my friends, coffee will work as well). Write him a poem and make the words clever, wise and good. Take up the runes and learn about them, he is the Rune-Finder and knows them more intimately than any other being. Reach out to him as the Father of All, the seeker of wisdom, the One Who Awakens. He will guide you to what he wants you to know about him. No life that is touched by him remains unchanged.