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The Cult of Othin

By: H.M. Chadwick





The following essay is an attempt to answer certain questions in regard to the character of one of the ancient Germanic cults. References to mythology have been as far as possible avoided except in Note III. In this case a reference to the Yggdrasill myth seemed to be necessitated by Bugge's Studier over de nordiske Gude- og Helte-sagns Oprindelse, for the theory propounded by Bugge affects the whole character of the Northern cult. The myth is clearly connected with the rite of tree-hanging which formed an important though possible not an original feature in the cult.

Some apology is perhaps needed for the extensive use which I have made of the collection of sagas published in Rafn's Fornaldar Sögur. While admitting the lateness of the sagas themselves, I believe that much of the material which they contain is considerably older. At all events the more important of the stories here quoted occur also in Saxo or other early authorities.

In conclusion I have to express my obligations to several friends for valuable information and for assistance kindly given to me in various ways.

H.M. Chadwick

Cambridge April, 1899



Chapter I: The cult of Othin in the North

Chapter II: Traces of the cult of Woden on the Continent and in Britain

Chapter III: The introduction of the cult into the North

Note I: The name of the god

Note II: The story of Starkađr

Note III: The interpretation of Hávamál 138 f.


Few of the ancient Germanic cults exercised a more important influence on the character and fortunes of the race than that of Woden. Yet in spite of this fact, not only the origin but even the character of the cult is shrouded in much obscurity. This is due partly to the scantiness of the evidence in England and on the Continent, partly to the fact that in the North, where the materials are much more plentiful, it is by no means unlikely that cults of essentially different character became confused even before the end of heathen times. In one respect a fairly satisfactory conclusion seems to have been reached in recent years; Petersen's work "Om Nordboernes gudekyrkelse og gudetro i hedenold" (1876) has rendered it probable that the cult of Woden (Othin) was not native in the North. Another conclusion which has found general acceptance, namely, that the cult was never practiced by the tribes of Upper Germany, seems to me less certain, as it is based entirely on negative evidence.

The myths connected with Othin have been frequently discussed, but sufficient attention has hardly been paid to the cult itself and the rites with which it was associated. In the following pages an attempt will be made to examine this subject with a view to obtaining answers to the following questions: 1. What were the characteristics of the cult in the North? 2. Is this cult approximately identical with that of the ancient (continental) Germans, or has it undergone substantial modifications in the North? 3. When was the cult introduced into the North?

In regard to the origin of the cult, it seems to me that we are not yet in a position to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion. I am not convinced that "Woden is the deified Wode" and that the cult is an outgrowth of the belief known as "das wütende Heer." On the contrary I suspect that its origin is rather to be sought outside the Germanic area, probably either among the Gauls or among the races inhabiting the basin of the Danube. Another difficult question closely bound up with the preceding is the relationship between Woden-Othin and the Germanic "Mars" (O.H.G Zio, O.E. T§, Tiw-, O.N. Tvr), a deity who, to judge from his name (originally Tiwaz, "god"), must once have occupied a peculiar position in the Germanic theology. It is possible that the Northern Othin, perhaps even the Wodhenaz-Mercurius of the first century, may have had some of the attributes of this (probably older) deity transferred to him. Of the god Tiwaz however but little is known, though he has been the subject of much unprofitable speculation. For the present I prefer to avoid discussing this question.


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