One of the central questions I’ve been trying to understand through the process of writing this blog is – why Thor? There were many gods and goddesses of the pre-Christian Germanic pantheon, and yet Thor shines through as possibly the most important of these gods. From the central position of Mjölnir as a religious object and as a personal source of protection, inclusion, and defiance, to the prominence of Thor in memorials and the few remaining accounts of shrines and temples, we have good reason to believe that for many years and over many miles, Thor occupied the place of honor in the hearts of his peoples.
His chief competition, at least as far as historical records can indicate, would seem to be Odin, with some prominence also attached to Freyr and Freyja/Frigga. In literature Odin is described as chief of the gods. But rarely does the historical record indicate a cult for Odin so prominent as that for Thor, and his popularity seems to have waxed around the time of Tacitus’s visits to Germania in the first century CE but waned by the late Viking period. How can we account for a god being the “chief”, the “Allfather”, the spring of life for gods and men alike, and yet have him slip from prominence in favor of a god many see as a mindless brute?
It’s time to start exploring that discrepancy explicitly; the work began by distinguishing the manner in which Thor and Odin are both war gods of the Norse people. This week we’ll continue with an exploration of how Odin’s search for wisdom indicates both the fundamental importance of sacrifice to the pre-Christian Germanic heathen worldview, and try to begin to understand exactly what kind of wisdom Odin was hoping for.
As one of the best-known of the gods of the pre-Christian Germanic pantheon, you probably know a great deal of Odin that you learned prior to encountering this blog for the first time, possibly his portrayal by Anthony Hopkins in Marvel’s Thor films or an association with Gandalf the Grey of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, or any number of roles large or small in a wide variety of pieces of art and culture.
There are a few things most prominent in any description. Odin has only one eye, which he sacrificed for wisdom (not in battle, as Marvel would have you believe). He is wandering the nine realms for more knowledge of magic, death, and the cosmos, and so he is often displayed in a gray traveling cloak with a large wide-brimmed hat with a walking staff. He is the Allfather, the literal parent of many gods but the source from which all the gods derive their life as Odin and his brothers forged the cosmos from the remains of a giant of unimaginable proportion. He is associated with the ravens Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory), has a spear, Gungnir, a steed, Sleipnir, and a ring, Draupnir. He is married to Frigg and father of Thor, blood brother to Loki.
Odin may be best understood as a god of wisdom and inspiration. But while Odin dedicates much of his life to wisdom, including his function as god of war and patron of the sovereign class, two stories in particular underline what wisdom meant to Odin, two sacrifices he made to learn of the nature of the cosmos and of the future yet to come.
The first story may be the more important of the two, because it most likely contributes to the second and to all other stories of Odin and the gods. Here comes the beginning of wisdom, from Havamal:
139. I ween that I hung | on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, | and offered I was
To Odin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none | may ever know
What root beneath it runs.
140. None made me happy | with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, | shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell.
141. Nine mighty songs | I got from the son
Of Bolthorn, Bestla’s father;
And a drink I got | of the goodly mead
Poured out from Othrörir.
142. Then began I to thrive, | and wisdom to get,
I grew and well I was;
Each word led me on | to another word,
Each deed to another deed.
143. Runes shalt thou find, | and fateful signs,
That the king of singers colored,
And the mighty gods have made;
Full strong the signs, | full mighty the signs
That the ruler of gods doth write.
The first two stanzas here (#139 & 140) may be most important: Odin tells the tale of how he sacrificed himself, to himself, on the world tree Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights he was hanged on that tree and pierced by a spear. At the end of the ordeal, learning something from this deathly experience that he could not in life, he was able to claim knowledge of the runes – the Norse writing system which is associated with magic – and return to the lands of the living. Once he had healed, he was able to comprehend the secrets he had learned and began to share them, that the world might be better for his sacrifice.
But this was not enough.
Similarly early in mythological time, though it’s difficult to tell whether this was before or after the Vanir War after which Mimir became a disembodied head, Odin undertook another sacrifice for wisdom.
We’ll piece this story together from a couple of tales, but keep in mind that I’m skeptical that there ever was a coherent narrative of the Germanic mythology, so discrepancies from one story to another could have been telling, or could have simply been a poet or singer simply misremembering something which ended up getting written down differently when it made its way to the 13th century scholars who recorded this history.
From Gylfaginning of Snorri’s Prose Edda we learn that “under that root [of Yggdrasil] which turns toward the Rime-Giants is Mímir’s Well, wherein wisdom and understanding are stored; and he is called Mímir, who keeps the well. He is full of ancient lore, since he drinks of the well from the Gjallar-Horn.”
This tale explicitly references the poem Völuspa, where the seeress says to Odin,
28. Alone I sat | when the Old One sought me,
The terror of gods, | and gazed in mine eyes:
“What hast thou to ask? | why comest thou hither?
Othin, I know | where thine eye is hidden.”
29. I know where Othin’s | eye is hidden,
Deep in the wide-famed | well of Mimir;
Mead from the pledge | of Othin each morn
Does Mimir drink: | would you know yet more?
So here Odin has sacrificed an eye to Mimir so that he might gain the depths of wisdom from the well that his friend maintains – again, whether Mimir is fully corporeal here is unclear, but surely he is at least granted some guardianship over the wisdom derived from Yggdrasil. And here we might take a moment to recall how such wisdom might come to be in that well. As we discussed when examining the role of the Norns in birth, life, and death, the Well of Urd, which may be this very same well, is the source of water for Yggdrasil – whether Mimmirsbruddr is the same well can be debated, but that they serve the same function is difficult to dispute as it is described directly in reference to one of the tree’s roots. As with the well of the Norns, the water is taken into Yggdrasil and nourishes it, spreads out through the tree, drops down as dew and sap onto the nine worlds of the cosmos, and filters down through the ground back to the well under the tree. An immense amount of knowledge can be gained from this well if you accept this water as a metaphor for the life cycle of every living thing in all of creation. Odin deemed this knowledge worth the pledge of his eye; it seems, in fact, that may have been a bargain.
Two of the fundamental stories we’re granted of the origins of Odin are built on tales of sacrifice – Odin literally sacrifices himself, a hanging on the gallows-tree, and he sacrifices an eye as well. What meaning is there here?
While Odin was sacrificing himself for knowledge of shamanic magic (and we can imagine Odin entering a shamanic, altered consciousness state as his hanging on the tree wore on the full nine days), the metaphor here was most likely best understood in the Germanic practice of human sacrifice. We have multiple explicit records of this practice, but perhaps the one most relevant here is that of the sacrifices at Gamla Uppsala described by Adam of Bremen. Here there were human sacrifices that included hanging from trees. We can see from the tale that Odin went into this fully aware of what he was doing – this was a voluntary sacrifice, and so, too, would the human sacrifices in religious ceremony need to be voluntary (it is worth pointing out, though, that the actual men in most sacrificial offerings were criminals; consent was likely considered part of living in the community). Sacrifices associated with Odin were most associated with victory in war, which could include things like Viking-style raids, or perhaps more peaceful victory in non-violent trade.
Odin’s sacrifice of his eye is less obviously related to religious ritual, and yet it still speaks of the personal sacrifice necessary to achieve great ends. Given the association of the eyes with perception, and perception’s function in shamanic ritual, we can likely understand this form of sacrifice as being related both to the relationship between Odin and magic, and between Odin and inspiration, i.e., the mead of poetry. By seeking a higher state of consciousness, or an altered perception, perhaps by imbibing upon the mead of poetry, we can gain the necessary inspiration to produce works of art or design buildings or boats or weapons or any number of things, and in so doing, achieve just as Odin has in his constant search for new, better knowledge about how to achieve his own ends. So in the end, the metaphor is both about sacrificing part of ourselves, our time, our perception, or our normal state of being, to achieve something greater than ourselves. Perhaps not the eternal dominance of the Aesir over nature while avoiding a Ragnarök, as is Odin’s goal, but major works in the context of humanity, goals that are human-scaled and just as noble.
But one final note of interest: these stories aren’t told as random vignettes that show up out of nowhere. The tale in Völuspa where we learn of Odin sacrificing his eye to Mimir’s Well is one of the stories we learn from Odin’s conversation with a seeress, who he is interrogating for still more knowledge of the cosmos. The tale in Gylfaginning is of a king trying to make more sense of magic and the history of his ancestors. And Havamal is basically Odin recounting his own biography with ethical and other advice, describing how to live as a good man in the times of the pre-Christian Germanic pagans. There are two points here. First, Odin’s quest for knowledge was continuing even as these stories were being related to us! There are other stories of resurrecting the dead and arcane magic that I haven’t covered here. And of course, these stories are contextualized and re-contextualized just within a couple of poems presented here, altering their meaning and reassigning details over and over. My interpretation today might change with further evidence, either from learning more from scholarship or from new material learned from further archaeology, anthropology, or literary analysis. Your own interpretation matters, too.
But perhaps we can begin to get a dimly-lit picture of why Odin was not as highly favored as Thor from this aspect of Odin’s worship. The requirement of human sacrifice, however voluntary or conscious, is surely difficult. Adam of Bremen tells us the sacrifices at Uppsala took place every nine years, but surely a sacrifice that only takes place every decade is not nearly so effective as one that takes place every spring? This was probably an increasingly difficult pill to swallow, especially in the face of coming Christianity, which claimed the necessity of only one human sacrifice, which occurred hundreds of years prior.
And with Odin’s emphasis on changing states of consciousness, seeking wisdom and inspiration at the loss of parts of the self, constantly helping the leaders of the community more than the community itself or the common people within it – again, it’s easy to see how Thor might have stood out as a popular alternative even in the face of Odin’s role as “chief”, “Allfather”, and even as the animating force of life itself. It was simply easier to worship Thor, and the benefits he brought were more immediate, in terms of protection from other communities and the increasingly sinister-seeming religion from the South.
But perhaps there’s a great deal more to the story than this; we have much left to learn about Odin and his relationship to and with Thor.