Odin Loses a Wager with his Wife

King Geirrod, the, er, unfortunate foil of the Allfather in the Eddic poem Grímnismál, was once a foster son of Odin, who for one year was taught the Allfather’s wisdom while a boy. His brother Agnar, two years younger, was fostered by Frigg during the same period. When the boys were sent back to their family, Geirrod exiled his brother and as Geirrod arrived in the boys’ home, he discovered that his father had died, making Geirrod the new king.

Carl Emil Doepler, "Frigg und ihre Dienerinnen", 1882.
Carl Emil Doepler, “Frigg und ihre Dienerinnen”, 1882.

Several years later, Odin and Frigg were sitting in Hliðskjálf scouting the nine realms when their gaze fell upon their former foster sons. Odin was impressed to see that while Frigg’s steward Agnar had made his life petty and domestic, living in a cave and raising children with a giantess, his own ward Geirrod was a famous king with great wealth and power.

Frigg was very unimpressed with Geirrod, seeing an unhappy miser who went so far as to break hospitality rules and torture his guests if they became a burden. She made a wager with Odin*, and sent him to Geirrod in disguise to test Odin’s confidence in his fosterling. Odin called himself Grimnir on this adventure, thus the name of the poem.

Frigg sent an attendant to warn Geirrod of a dangerous visitor, and of course when the disguised Odin arrived, Geirrod imprisoned Odin, and he was indeed tortured: he was held between two fires, for eight nights.

I’m only sharing the end of the poem here, it’s pretty long, so I don’t want to tax your patience. Feel free to read the whole thing here or here. Most of the poem is an extensive recitation of mythic lore, which is a common purpose of the Eddic poems. Here I want to show you the cool part, the transition from Odin sharing his knowledge with Geirrod’s son, to pointing out to Geirrod himself just who exactly he had been torturing these nine days.

44. The best of trees | must Yggdrasil be,
Skíðblaðnir best of boats;
Of all the gods | is Odin the greatest,
And Sleipnir the best of steeds;
Bifrost of bridges, | Bragi of skalds,
Hobrok of hawks, | and Garm of hounds.

45. To the race of the gods | my face have I raised,
And the wished-for aid have I waked;
For to all the gods | has the message gone
That sit in Ægir’s seats,
That drink within Ægir’s doors.

46. Grim is my name, | Gangleri am 1,
Herjan and Hjalmberi,
Thekk and Thrithi, | Thuth and Uth,
Helblindi and Hor;

47. Sath and Svipal | and Sanngetal,
Herteit and Hnikar,
Bileyg, Baleyg, | Bolverk, Fjolnir,
Grim and Grimnir, | Glapsvith, Fjolsvith.

48. Sithhott, Sithskegg, | Sigfather, Hnikuth,
Allfather, Valfather, | Atrith, Farmatyr:
A single name | have I never had
Since first among men I fared.

49. Grimnir they call me | in Geirröth’s hall,
With Asmund Jalk am I;
Kjalar I was | when I went in a sledge,
At the council Thror am I called,
As Vithur I fare to the fight;
Oski, Biflindi, | Jafnhor and Omi,
Gondlir and Harbarth midst gods.

50. I deceived the giant | Sokkmimir old
As Svithur and Svithrir of yore;
Of Mithvitnir’s son | the slayer I was
When the famed one found his doom.

51. Drunk art thou, Geirröth, | too much didst thou drink,
. . . . . . . . . .
Much hast thou lost, | for help no more
From me or my heroes thou hast.

52. Small heed didst thou take | to all that I told,
And false were the words of thy friends;
For now the sword | of my friend I see,
That waits all wet with blood.

53. Thy sword-pierced body | shall Ygg have soon,
For thy life is ended at last;
The maids are hostile; | now Odin behold!
Now come to me if thou canst!

54. Now am I Odin, | Ygg was I once,
Ere that did they call me Thund;
Vak and Skilfing, | Vofuth and Hroptatyr,
Gaut and Jalk midst the gods;
Ofnir and Svafnir, | and all, methinks,
Are names for none but me.

Lorenz Frohlich, "Agnar Gives Odin a Cool Drink," 1895.
Lorenz Frohlich, “Agnar Gives Odin a Cool Drink,” 1895.

That’s the end of Grimnismal. A brief prose section at the end of the poem goes on to explain that once Geirrod saw that his prisoner was Odin, he drew his sword and stood to face his accuser, but he dropped that sword and fell on it, not at all the man Odin had thought he would be, and so he very thoroughly lost his wager with Frigg. Geirrod’s son, named Agnar after Geirrod’s brother, became king and ruled well for many years.

I love how with each stanza, even each line of this section of the poem, you can imagine the face of someone who had wrongly imprisoned the leader of the gods reacting with increased certainty that they had made not only a fatal mistake, but one that would result in punishment in Nastrond, or possibly complete destruction of the body and soul.

It’s also worth pointing out that this poem is a less gnomic, more vivid portrayal of the values described in Hávamál, especially some of my favorite lines in 76-80 and descriptions of treatment of guests at 132-136, and 133 most especially:

133. Oft scarcely he knows | who sits in the house
What kind is the man who comes;
None so good is found | that faults he has not,
Nor so wicked that nought he is worth.

There are also lessons about the value of mothers and fathers, how some people can be rotten eggs from the start, and how there is much to be said for the value of the domestic life over the trappings of wealth and power. It’s a rich poem full of meanings far beyond the numerous nouns.

* The terms of the wager are never made clear – it seems sufficient for our purposes that Odin’s punishment for losing was getting tortured for 8 nights, and perhaps learning a lesson or two.

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