Wodan from The Religion of the Teutons, by P.D. Chantepie De La Saussaye,
trans. by Bert J. Vos, p. 221-234.
from The Religion of the Teutons,
by P.D. Chantepie De La Saussaye, trans. by Bert J. Vos, p. 221-234.
The name Wôdan (High German Woutan, Anglo-Saxon Wóden, Norse Ódhinn) is derived from the Indo-European root wâ (to blow) and there designates the wind god. While there is an intimate connection in the language and thought of various peoples between the notions wind and spirit, we must yet not think of Wodan as a spiritual deity; such a conception was entirely foreign to Teutonic paganism. Other etymologies that have been proposed, such as connect the name with the Old English wood and German wüten, or with the Old Norse òdhr (spirit) or with the Latin vates, are untenable.
The rendering of dies Mercurii by Wôdenesdæg, which we encounter from the third century onward, makes it certain that the Mercurius found in Tacitus and other Latin authors is to be identified with Wodan. The points of resemblance between the Teutonic and the Roman god are less obvious. They must be sought in either the attributes of the god or in special characteristics of his cult. It is furthermore to be remembered that the Romans had already assigned to the chief god of the Gauls the name Mercurius. It is hardly likely that the Romans of the period of the Empire were influenced by the consideration that both Wodan and Hermes-Mercurius were originally wind deities. A closer connection is established by the similarity in the nature of the two as gods of the dead, and by the symbols of the hat and staff, which were common to both. Yet Tacitus shows scarcely a trace of these connections. He associates the Teutonic Mercurius more especially with war. The identification of Wodan with Mercurius accordingly remains somewhat singular, and we can readily understand why, at a later age, Saxo should have taken exception to it, and in one instance even have used Mars to designate Odhin.
The express testimony of Tacitus, Paulus Diaconus, and others, as well as Odhin's place at the head of the Norse pantheon, were formerly regarded as sufficient to establish the position of Wodan as the chief god of all Teutons. This opinion has now gradually been abandoned by the majority of scholars. Müllenhoff, Weinhold, Mogk, and many others hold that Wodan was originally a god of the Istvæones, and that his worship was disseminated by the Rhine-Franconians, supplanting that of the old sky god Tiu.
We must ever bear in mind that among the ancient Teutons,-the German tribes of Tacitus and the peoples of the period of migrations,-there existed no pantheon in the sense of the later Norse Mythology. Tacitus merely remarks: "Of the gods they pay highest honors to Mercury." Paulus Diaconus observes that Mercury was worshipped by all Teutons, though this statement is open to inquiry.
The existence of the cult of Wodan in Upper Germany, among the Alemanni, Bavarians, and Suabians seem doubtful. His name is but rarely met with there, and even the day of the week, which elsewhere bears the name of Wodan, is there called Mittewoch. This does not, to be sure, prove absolutely that the god was not worshipped. Opposed to this latter assumption is the circumstance that the name Wodan is found in the runic inscription of the so-called Nordendorf Brooch, and in the Vita Columbani of the seventh century. The attempts that have been made to set aside these facts are unwarranted. Besides, here as elsewhere, an argumentum e silentio is not conclusive. We know little concerning the cult and gods of the Alemanni and Bavarians, that the entire absence or rare occurrence of the name of a god in the sources at our command by no means proves that the god in question was unknown to these tribes.
In Middle Germany, among the Chatti and the (Suabian) Hermunduri, Mercury (Wodan) was found alongside of Mars (Tiu), according to Tacitus, Annals, XIII, 57. We have already commented upon the occurrence of Wodan in the second Mersburg magic formula. In the Annals of Fulda, of the ninth century, Uotan as proper name is frequently found. Through the entire extent of Northern Germany Wodan survives in the name of the fourth week-day, and that his cult was not spread solely through Frankish influence would seem to follow from the occurrence of his name among the Frisians and Saxons. In the formula of abjuration he is one of the three chief gods. It is, however, at times difficult to determine where Wodan is original and where he has been introduced at a later period, as we have already seen in the case of the tribal saga of the Lombards. Among the Anglo-Saxon tribes who crossed to England, the cult of Wodan must have been very widespread, as is evidenced by the genealogical tables and by the numerous proper names. Concerning the gods of the ancient Danes, we are not in a position to form a definite opinion, as the data at hand are insufficient. What Saxo relates of Othinus represents, in the main, myths of later date, euhemeristically conceived, which are, moreover, not wholly Danish in origin. That Wodan-Odhin was not unknown among the Scandinavian group of peoples may be inferred from the designation "Geatas" as the name of a people, derived, like "Gaut" and probably also "Gapt," the progenitor of the East-Gothic Amali, from a cognomen of Odhin. And yet the Odhin of Norse literature was to a large extent introduced fom outside and developed artificially at the hands of the scaldic poets. Henry Petersen was the first to show conclusively that in Norway the worship of Thor was the national and general one. Thus, in Harbardhsljódh, Thor is represented as the god of the peasants, Odhin as the god of the nobles and poets. Odhin has accordingly been regarded as the Saxagodh (the Saxon-god), imported from Germany, the Franks, as in the case of the heroic saga, being instrumental in spreading his cult. Granting that this view is correct, it does not follow that the Morse conceptions and legends connected with Odhin are the result of arbitrary invention. They require critical scrutiny, but genuinely mythical features are not absent, although, as has already been pointed out, it is always extremely difficult to distinguished in the study of mythology the essential and fundamental from the external and artificial elements.
When we inquire into the nature of Wodan-Odhin, we find that it is not feasible to trace a single origin his numerous and greatly diversified functions and attributes. He is the god of the wind, of agriculture, of war, of poetry, the progenitor of many families, etc. Between some of these attributes it is indeed possible to point out a connection. Thus the wind god is also elsewhere the leader of the souls (psychopompos); tillage of the soil is in part dependent upon the wind; war may be compared with the tempest; some scholars have even suggested the characteristic variableness and changeableness of the wind as a factor. For all that, the exact transitions and combinations in thought and conception remain more or less obscure, and we shall therefore confine ourselves to a survey of the chief functions and the myths of the god.
Wodan, the wind god, is encountered in the popular belief of all parts of Germany as the leader of the Furious Host and the Wild Hunt. Historically we are unable to trace this conception to a date earlier than the twelfth century, unless we identify the feralis exercitus of the savage Harii with the host of Wodan. While the evidence is of a comparatively recent date, the conception itself is doubtless old and original, for, as Usener remarks, "the conception of a heavenly host which rushes through the sky at night is probably not foreign to any European nation." We recognize this same host in the Amazons, the Thyades, etc., at times represented as sweeping along through the air above, and then again associated with one or another deity, such as Artemis and Dionysos. Among Teutonic nations Wodan as hell-hunter (helljäger) commands Woutes her (Woute's host). The journey frequently begins and ends in a mountain, the so-called Wodan's mountains, or "hatmountains" (Hutberge), that foretell the weather, and are the abode of the god himself, or of elves and souls. The Wild Hunt is at times in pursuit of an animal, a boar, cow, deer, or again of a woman, the Windsbraut. When a storm is raging, the host draws near. The beginning of the winter, the ill-famed Twelve Nights, is more especially its chosen time. When the train approaches, people hide; in Suabia an admonisher (Ermahner) leads the way, who warns men to stand aside that no harm may befall them. While at times it presages fertility, it is usually a sign of calamity or war. The names used to designate the Furious Host, and particularly its commander, are many. While it is customary to recognize Wodan in this great helljäger, it is yet not correct to regard all these names simply as epithets or personifications of this divinity. Hackelberend, Herodes, Dietrich of Bern, Herzog Abel, Rübezahl, Ruprecht, the storm demon Wode, and others have all a separate, independent existence, although they are at times merged more or less completely with Wodan.
Popular tradition pictures Wodan as riding a dapple-gray horse, with a broad-brimmed hat and a wide cloak. The Scandinavian Odhin, similarly, rides on his steed Sleipnir or Yggdrasil, wears a soft hat, a long gray beard, and is one-eyed. He is also frequently represented as a wanderer. Numerous surnames bear reference to this: viator indefessus (indefatigable wayfarer) in Saxo, vídhförull (the far-traveller) in Snorri, gangrádhr and gangleri (wanderer), vegtamr (wanderer), svipall (he changeable one), váfudhr (the hovering one), ómi (the noisy one), hróptr (crier), and many others. Even later Norse literature testifies to the fact that Odhin rules wind and weather and shows his wrath in the tempest. The scalds have furnished him with a complete poetic outfit, of which it seems doubtful whether it demands or even admits a mythical interpretation. If so, his wolves Geri and Freki would be the hounds of the Wild Huntsman, his ravens Huginn and Muninn (thought and memory) the air in motion, his spear Gungnir lightning. But, as already stated, this interpretation is very uncertain.
If we may place reliance on German proverbs that make the fruitfulness of the field and orchard dependent not only on sun and rain, but also on the wind, then Wodan's character as god of agriculture and of the harvest is intimately connected with his nature as a wind god. In Meckleenburg, as in Sweden, the last ears of grain are left standing for Wodan's horse. In Bavaria too the horse and hounds of the god were fed, and as late as the previous century the harvest was called Waudlsmähe (Waudl's mowing). Opinions differ in how far observances in connection with the last sheaf, the Wodel-beer, and other customs at harvest time were originally connected with the worship of Wodan. It should be noted, however, that Wednesday, an unlucky day, as a rule, for other purposes, is regarded as lucky for sowing and planting.
Some Scholars hold that Wodan's character as god of the dead is even more original than that as god of the wind. The souls of the dead are represented as sweeping along with him through the air, or as dwelling in the mountain. It seems bold to regard both Wodan and the Æsir as chthonic deities, opposed to the Vanir as gods of light, - an opinion to which we shall recur in our discussion of the Vanir, - and still bolder to deduce from a single inscription, "Mercuri Channini," found in the valley of the Ahr, a god Henno, who is identified with the Mercurius-Wodan of Tacitus, and who is also to be recognized in the forest of Baduhenna, in the medieval exclamation iâ henne (by Henno, i.e. Wodan), in the Henneberg (mountain of the dead), in the Hünen (i.e. the dead), and in Freund Hein (i.e. death). It is in any case certain that both German popular tradition and Norse literature make Wodan-Odhin the god of the dead in general, and the fallen heroes in particular (Valfadhir, Valgautr); once he is also represented as the ferryman of the dead.
A curious combination, perhaps solely the handiwork of the scaldic poets, found at all events in a number of kenningar, makes Odhin the god of those hung (hangatýr), lord of the gallows (galga valdr), which latter is also called his steed.
His character as god of war is no doubt closely connected with that of god of the dead. The human sacrifices offered, according to the testimony of Tacitus, to Wodan by tribes of Western and Central Germany unquestionably were an homage to him as a god of war. Amomg the Anglo-Saxons and Lombards it is he who dispenses victory, and in the Scandinavian North princes bring sacrifices to him til siggrs (for victory), and, in a kenning, battle is designated as the storm or weather of Odhin. In many a combat he takes an active part; he teaches the Norse king the wedge-shaped battle array (svínfylking) and in the fight at Bravallir it is he who in disquise leads Harald to a glorious death on the field of battle. It has been maintained that those about to die a straw death intentionally wound themselves with a spear, that they may as warriors go to Odhin, and in the Ynglinga Saga (Heimskringla), Chapter 10, this is told of the god himself. All this, however, amounts to little more than literary fiction.
The Viking period saw the development in the North of the conception of Walhalla, the paradise of the heroes who had fallen in battle, the Einherjar, who there lead a life of continuous combat as well as of joyous feasting. This conception too does not owe its origin to the free fancy of the scalds, but has its roots in a popular belief common to all Teutonic nations. Walhalla is merely the Norse form of the abode of the spirits that go to Wodan-Odhin, corresponding to the mountains in which kings and emperors dwell in company with the god. There is clearly a connection between the Einherjar and the combatants of the Hjadhningavíg, who begin the struggle anew every night. The accounts of this unending combat and the abode of the dead have, however, been greatly elaborated and embellished in Norse poetry. Walhalla in Gladhsheimr, the home of joy, is the meeting place of heroes, who daily issue forth through the five hundred and forty gates to divert themselves in combat, and who return at night to drain the cup that is offered them by the Walkyries. An Eddic song gives the following description of this splendid abode:
to be known is,
to be known is,
A beautiful song of the tenth century, the Eiriksmál, tells how Odhin awakens joyfully in Walhalla, because a powerful prince is about to enter, to whom, since he stands in need of heroes in Walhalla, he has denied victory. With a thundering tumult, as though a company of a thousand were approaching, Eirikr and five other kings thereupon make their entry:
Bragi calls out: What is that thundering, as if a thousand men or some great host were tramping on - the walls and the benches are creaking withal - As if Baldr were coming back to the hall of Odhin?
Odhin answers: Surely thou speakest foolishly, good Bragi, although thou art very wise. It thunders for Eric the king, that is coming to the hall of Odhin. Sigmund and Sinfjötli, rise up in haste, and go forth to meet the prince! Bid him in if it be Eric, for it is he whom I look for.
Sigmund answers: Why lookest thou more for Eric the king to Odhin's hall than for other kings?
Odhin answers: Because he has reddened his brand and borne his bloody sword in many land.
Such is Wodan-Odhin as god of the dead. The souls of men ride with him through the air, or live in the mountain; the heroes that the Walkyries have brought him from the field of battle dwell in Walhalla. That he is also the progenitor of numerous royal families is probably closely connected with this same function: else- where the god of the dead is also the first ancestor. At any rate, the attributes that we have considered up to this point form a part of the common popular belief, of which traces are found among Teutonic tribes on every side. They must, therefore, have constituted an integral part of the life of the people, although we do not know with what rites or ceremonies they were associated.
While the Norse myths are in the main the creation of scaldic and Eddic poetry, they nevertheless contain a genuinely mythical kernel. In them Odhin has become the chief god, who is the dispenser of all good gifts:
He gives victory to some, and wealth to others, readiness of speech to many, and wisdom to the children of men. He gives fair wind to sailors, song to poets, and manly valor to many a hero.
The gifts of wisdom and poetry here mentioned we have not touched upon as yet. They are strongly emphasized in Norse mythology, and in Germany too we have already met Wodan as the god that pronounced the efficacious magic charm. In Scandinavia he is the god of the runes and of all magic arts, of which the Ynglinga Saga (Chapters 6 and 7) gives a circumstantial account. In knowledge and secret wisdom he excels the wisest giants (Vafthrúdhnismál), and he imparts these traits to young Agnar as a reward for having refreshed the stranger - no other than the god himself in disguise - whom the king had maltreated (Grímnismál). At times he enters the hall of kings as a guest (gestr blindi, i.e. blind guest), to whom he then propounds riddles, such as the well-known riddles set to king Heidhrek, or whose senses he confuses, as in the case of the remarkable visits to the two Christian kings Olaf, that have been preserved in five different versions.
On the finding of runes we possess a most curious fragment in Hávamál, 138 and 139:
wot that I hung,
loaf they cheered me not,
Concerning the meaning of these lines opinions greatly differ. Müllenhoff recognizes a profound myth in them: the finding of the Runes was brought about through the selfsacrifice of Odhin. Bugge regards them as patterned after Christ on the cross, but this does not commend itself. The lines are, however, to be viewed in the light of a poetic fabrication rather than of a genuine myth. Their real meaning is in any case no longer ascertainable.
Greater signficance is to be attached to Odhin's intercourse with Mimir, through which the god obtains wisdom which he values so highly that he gives his eye for it as a pledge. Mimir lives in the well at one of the roots of the world-tree, which he keeps fresh and strong by watering it. Odhin consults him continually. In the extreme need of the gods and of the world he speeks with mimir's head, the head that had been cut off by the Vanir but which Odhin had kept alive with magic charms, so that it might tell of hidden things. While Norse poetry has also embellished this narrative, it yet contains, beyound a doubt, genuine mythical material. German folklore preserves the memory of Mime in names of places; the heroic saga knows him as the wise teacher of wieland and Siegfried. The worship of water, and its oracular power, is met with on all sides, so that it is not surprising to find that the spirit of the well is the wise spirit. That this is also found elsewhere may be seen from Jastrow's Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, pp. 62 and 125, where it appears that among the Babylonians Ea, and possibly also Nabu, are divinities of the water as well as of wisdom. The pawning of Odhin's eye has been variously interpreted as symbolical of the disappearance of the sun in the water, or as representing the cosmic conception that water and sunshine together maintain the life of the world (Müllenhoff).
Entirely artificial is the scaldic myth of the poets' mead (ódhrærir). Odhin as Bölverkr (evil-worker) gains the favor of the giant's daughter Gunnlödh and thus obtains possession of the mead. At the conclusion of the peace between the Æsir and Vanir all spit into a jar. From this spittle Kvasir was made, who was so wise that he could answer every question asked him. The dwarfs Fjalar and Galar enticed Kvasir, killed him, and mixing his blood with honey made from it a drink that should make poets of all who partook of it. From the dwarfs this mead came into the hands of the giants, and thereupon Odhin got possession of it, under circumstances that are immaterial in this connection. The whole myth seems invented for the purpose of tracing the scaldic art to Odhin. There is not a single point of connection that invites comparison with the Indo-Persian sacrificial drink soma-haoma. Numerous kenningar allude to this story.
A number of other myths are told or referred to in Norse literature, many of them solely the work of scalds and mythographers. In these Odhin plays various rôles. He is the wise god, who joyfully each day, in company with Saga (Frigg?), quaffs in Sökkvabekr cool draughts from a golden vessel (Grímnismál, 7). The Eddic poems frequently allude to Odhin's amours, his metamorpfoses, and his adventurous journeys. Of his rôle in the world-drama, we shall have occasion to speak later on.
Twice Odhin is one of a triad with Hnir and Lodhurr (Loki): at the creation of man and at the killing of the otter, which they are then compelled to fill up with the fatal gold.
It is noteworthy that Norse poetry has also made Odhin into a god of the heaven and of the sun. His throne Hlidhskjalf certainly points to this, perhaps also the eye that is pawned with Mimir and the ring Draupnir that the dwarfs have made for him. Of this character as god of heaven there are also traces in German mythology, so, for example, in the tribal saga of the Lombards. According to Müllenhoff it was in this character that Wodan was given Frija as wife, of old the consort of Tiu.
Odhin bears many names in Norse poetry, some of which doubtless owe their origin to Christian influence. This latter is certainly the case with Alfadhie (Allfather), and the conceptions we meet of him as creator of the world and chief god. His brothers Vili and Ve appear to be mythical fabrications, but Vili is already known to the scald Thjodholf (ninth century), and both occur in Lokasenna, 26, where they possess themselvesof the person of Frigg. The story, interpreted in a euhemeristic spirit, is also found in Ynglingasaga, Chapter 3.
The many sides of Odhin's character that we have encountered have not been reduced among the ancient Teutons to a fixed form, or been placed in an ideal light by either poetry or the plastic arts. The literary remains that have come down to us, though numerous, are only fragmentary, and while they may suggest to us correct combinations, they may also tempt us to make others that are wholly arbitrary. A talented and learned writer has made Wodan-Odhin a spiritual type, the embodiment of Teutonic philosophy, poetry, and political wisdom. Ingenious though such a hypothesis may be, and however ably worked out, it is not of such a character as to throw light on the data at hand.