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The Cult of Othin

By: H.M. Chadwick






The original meaning of the words * * Wöðanaz (0. Sax. Wõdan, O.H.G. wuotan) and * Wöðenaz (O. E. Wöden, O.N. Óðinn) is much disputed. Some take the word to be related to Sk. vata- 'wind,' and consequently regard Woden as having been originally a god of wind and storm. This etymology is improbable as Golther (Mythologie, p. 293, footnote) has shown; vata- represents in all probability an Idg. *ueto- and is closely related to Let. uentus. Golther (Mythologie, p. 292 if.) holds that Woden is a deified development of Wode, the leader of the ghostly army (das wütende Heer) which is supposed to dash through the air on stormy nights. Kluge (Wb. p. 412 b; ff. Bradke, Dyâus Asura, p. X, footnote) while admitting a relationship between Woden and das wütende Heer, connects the former with Lat. uates, 0. Ir. faith, and hence concludes that the god had originally a bardic character. Golther's hypothesis is especially favoured by Adam of Bremen's expression 'Wodan, id est furor' (IV. 26; of. O. E. wodendream =furor animi, Gloss.), and by the fact that in Sweden 'das wütende Heer' is known as 'Odens jagt.' Yet one must surely reckon with the possibility that this superstition may have received its name from later association with the Woden-mythology. Golther also overstates the case against the connection of Wöden with Lat. uates etc., when be protests that this assumes for the cult in its initial stages, a character which it can have attained only in its latest and highest development. When the cult first makes its appearance, namely in the first century, Woden is rendered by Mercurius, an identification which would be inexplicable, unless the higher side of the god's character was already to some extent developed. Golther's objection is based on the assumption that the cult was native among the Germans. If on the other hand the cult was introduced from abroad, the god may very well have been associated from the beginning with all those attributes by which he was characterized in later times.

If the word wõden is related to uates, it does not necessarily follow that the god had originally a bardic character. Among the Gauls the 'uates' were distinct from the 'bardi,' of. Strabo, IV. 4, 4:—" The bards are minstrels and poets, but the uates are offerers of sacrifices and interpreters of nature." (1) Diodorus (v. 31) renders uates by manteij.. It can scarcely be denied that the 'uates,' who seems to have combined the offices of soothsayer and sacrificial priest, bears a certain resemblance to Othin (Woden); for the latter is distinguished above all else by his skill in sorcery. It is perhaps worth mention that Othin appears as Uggerus (i.e. Yggr) uates in Saxo, V. p. 238. On the whole therefore Kluge's explanation seems to me the most probable. The word * wöðanaz--* wöðenaz seems to be participial in form and may originally have denoted 'inspired.' It is likely enough that the word is related both to O. E. wöd (= rabidus uel insanus, Gloss.) and to O. E. woþ (=facundia, Gloss.). (2)


1. bardoi men umnhtao kai poihtai ouateij de leropoioi kai wusiologoi.

2. cf. Kluge, l.c.; Kaufmann, Mythologie, p. 42f.

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