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The Cult of Othin

By: H.M. Chadwick






It has been customary in recent years to trace various features in the Othin-mythology to Christian sources. Some of the theories put forward on this subject appear at first sight more or less plausible. Practically however the whole question rests on the interpretation of Hávamál 138 f. If the explanation of this passage adopted by Munch and Bugge be accepted, many of the other theories may deserve consideration; if on the other hand this explanation be rejected, few will probably attach much importance to the rest. The passage runs as follows :—138 "I know that I hung full nine nights on the gallows tree (or "windy tree ") wounded by the javelin and given to Othin, myself to myself; on that tree, of which no one knows from whose roots it proceeds." 139. "They cheered me (or "assuaged my hunger and thirst") neither with bread nor drink; I looked down and took up runes, took them up crying; from thence I fell again." (1) According to Bugge's theory the Norse vikings became acquainted with Christian doctrines in their expeditious among the Western Islands during the ninth century. These doctrines, though at first totally foreign to the ideas of the Northern religion, yet became in course of time assimilated and transferred to Othin. I am not prepared altogether to deny the possibility of such a transference of religious ideas. Whether such particulars as the story of Leucius and Carinus (Bugge, Studier, p. 334 ff.) could be thus orally acquired seems to me more doubtful. Yet it is not absolutely impossible that some Northern bard should have had access to written texts. These details however are scarcely material to the main point.

According to Golther (Mythologie, p. 350), who in the main follows Bugge, there are two decisive points which establish the Christian origin of the story recounted in Háv. 138f. These are [1] that the god sacrificed himself; [2] that the gallows-tree, which was used for this purpose, became thereby emblematic of the world. These two points require separate treatment. It will be convenient to begin with the latter.

The identity of the world-tree with the tree on which Othin hung is inferred from the following facts: 1. The world-tree is called Yggdrasill (or Askr Yggdrasils), which is supposed to mean "Othin's horse"; 2. There is an unmistakable correspondence between the closing words of Háv. 138:

á ţeim meiđi,
er mangi veit,
hvers hann af rótum renn.

nýsta ek niđr
nam ek upp rúnar,
oepandi nam,
fell ek aptr ţađan.

On the interpretation of vindga meiđi (138, 2) and seldu (139, 1) see Bugge, Studier, pp. 292 f., 345 n. 3; Magnússon, Odin's Horse, pp. 18 footnote and 27 ff "on that tree of which no one knows, from whose roots it proceeds," and Fiölsvinnsmál 19, 20:

hvat ţat barr heitir,
er breiđask um
lönd öll limar?

Míma-meiđr hanu heitir,
enn ţat mangi veit,
af hverium rőtum renn.

"What is that tree (2) called, whose branches spread over all lands?" 20. "It is called 'Mima' -- tree, but no one knows from what roots it proceeds."

The hypothesis that Yggdrasill means 'Othin's horse,' in the sense of 'the horse (i.e. gallows) ridden by Othin,' does not seem to me to be satisfactorily established. In the first place the use of a compound instead of a dependent genitive in such a case is at least curious. Yggr is indeed a frequent name of Othin, but originally it would seem to have been merely an epithet. Though the word never occurs except as a name of Othin, is it not possible that in the compound its original sense may have been preserved—perhaps 'horse of terror' or something of the kind? Secondly, even if it be granted that Yggdrasill must mean 'Othin's horse' in the sense of 'gallows,' it does not necessarily follow that it denotes the gallows on which Othin himself hung. It might equally well denote the gallows on which Othin's victims were hanged.

Again, though there can scarcely be any doubt that some relationship exists between Háv. 138, 7—9 and Fiölsv. 20, the nature of this relationship is not so clear. It is unlikely that the somewhat awkward hvers hann af rótum renn of Hávamál should be taken from the simpler af hverium rótum renn of Fiölsvinnsmál. It is possible, however, that 138 is not the original passage in which these words occurred. The strophe is too long by three lines for the lióđaháttr metre, and it is hardly unreasonable to suggest that these three lines may be a later addition from some other (lost) poem. The motive for the interpolation would be the desire to explain vindga meiđi in 1. 2. (3)

It is at least remarkable that, in all the passages which deal with the world-tree, there is not a single reference to its having served as Othin's gallows. Yet, according to Golther (pp. 350, 529 f.), it was precisely through this that the idea of a world-tree arose. Bugge also, while allowing that the people of the North may in very early times have conceived of a great, marvellous and holy tree, which did not belong to this earth, yet goes on to state (p. 527) that the subsequent development of this idea was due to Christian influences, and that the holy tree only obtained its full significance as 'worldtree' from its association with the Cross.

By far the most important parallel to the world tree seems to me to be furnished by the description of the Upsala tree in Schol. 134 to Adam of Bremen: props templum est arbor maxima late ramos extendens, aestate et hyeme semper uirens: cuius illa generis sit nemo scit. There is not an expression in this account which does not apply in some measure also to the world-tree. With late ramos extendens may be compared Fiölsv. 19: es breiđask urn lönd öll limar; with aestate et hyeme temper uirens may be compared Völ. R. 18: stendr ś yfir groenn Urđar brunni, 'it (i.e. the ash) stands ever green over the well of Urđr (Fate).' Again, though Bugge expresses some doubt on the point, there is at least a striking similarity between the expression cuius illa generis sit nemo scit and Fiölsv. 20: en ţat mangi veit af hverium rótum renn. Possibly the scholiast here may have misunderstood his information.

Again, the first words of the scholion: prope templum est arbor maxima etc. may be compared with Grimnismál 25:

Heiđrún beitir geit,
er stendr höllo á Heriaföđrs
ok bítr at Lćrađs limom etc.

"There is a goat called Heiđrun which stands on Heriaföđr's (Othin's) hall and bites from the branches of Lćrađr" – and 26:

Eikţyrnir heitir hiörtr,
er stendr á höllo Heriaföđrs,
ok bítr a! Lćrađs limom etc.

"There is a hart called Eikţyrnir" etc. It is clear from these passages that the tree Lćrađr stood close to the hall (Valhöll). According to the usual view, which is accepted by Bugge (p. 483; cf. also Golther, p. 529), Lćrađr is either identical with Yggdrasill, or denotes the upper branches of the same. The description of the tree (or grove) Glasir in Skaldskaparmál 36 may also be compared:

Glasir stendr
međ gullnu laufi
firir Sigtýs sölum.

"Glasir stands with golden foliage in front of Sigtýr's (Othin's) halls." It is uncertain whether Glasir is identical with Yggdrasill or not. Again, with the expression arbor maxima may be compared Völ. R. 18: Mr bađmr heilagr.

Lastly, in the same scholion, immediately after the description of the tree, occurs the following sentence: ibi etiam eat fona ubi sacrificia paganorum solent exerceri et homo uiuus immergi, etc. Though tbe relative positions of the tree and the spring are not indicated, it might reasonably be inferred from the passage that they were not far apart. Here, therefore, again may be compared the words of Völ. R. 18:

(Yggdrasill) stendr ś yfir groenu Urđar brunni.

Bugge (p. 502) seems to me to have greatly underrated the importance of this scholion in its bearing upon the world tree. He says there is no definite reference to the idea of a world-tree in the scholion, though (following Nyerup) he admits that the Upsala tree might possibly be a copy of the world-tree. On the other hand Mannhardt (Baumkultus, p. 57, foot-note) adduces a parallel from the account of Bishop Otto's journey to Stettin, A. D. 1124 (M. G. XII. 794): erat praeterea ibi quercus ingens et frondosa, et fons subter eam amoenissimus, quam plebs simplex numinis alicuius inhabitatione sacram existimans mayna ueneratione colebat. When the bishop wished to destroy the oak, the inhabitants succeeded in dissuading him saying: saluare illam potius quam saluari ab illa se uells. This passage shows that similar tree-sanctuaries were known on the continent. (4) It is impossible therefore to withstand Mannhardt's conclusion that 'Nyerup's Hypothese ist umzukehren.' This conclusion is further supported by the fact that the property assigned to the worldtree (Mimameiđr) in Fiölav. 22:

út af hans aldni
skal á eld bera
fyr killisiúkar konur.

"Some of its fruit is to be taken out and burnt for the sake of women who are in travail" (5) is identical with that popularly assigned to the 'Vĺrdträd' (cf. Mannhardt, p. 56). So also the position occupied by the Vĺrdträd in close proximity to the family house corresponds not only to that of the Upsala tree beside the temple, but also to that of Lćrađr (and Olasir) beside Valhöll. Even Bugge (p. 499) admits that these holy ashes have influenced the doctrine of Yggdrasill. But I fail to see what elements in the conception of Yggdrasill could not have been developed out of the Vĺrdträd. Just as Valhöll, the warrior-paradise, is a copy of an earthly court, so Yggdrasill may be copied from the Vĺrdträd which stood beside the court. Yggdrasill is by no means consistently represented as including all things; besides the passage quoted above (p. 76) from Skáldskaparmšl, mention may also be made of Grimn. 29, which represents the gods as coming to exercise justice under the ash Yggdrasill---a picture which may very well be drawn. from real life. There are indeed only two poetic passages in which the ash Yggdrasill is definitely represented as a 'world-tree,' namely Fiölsv. 19 (cf. p. 74) and Grimn. 31. In the latter case it is stated that Hel, the Hrímţursar and the human race dwell under the three roots of the tree. In all other passages Yggdrasill may be interpreted as a heavenly Vĺrdträd. It is true that much is obscure in the representation of Yggdrasill, e.g. the use of the words miötviđr in Völ. R. 2 and miötuđr in Fiölsv. 20 (and Völ. B. 46 §). Yet I can see no great difficulty involved in the transition from the conception of Yggdrasill as a tree whose life is bound up with the fate of the world to its conception as an all-comprehending world-tree. The association of Yggdrasill with the fate of the world comes naturally enough from its character as the Vĺrdträd of the gods. The different stages in the growth of the conception may briefly be indicated as follows: [1] Each community has a (material) Vĺrdträd, the life of which is bound up with the fate of the community; the tree at Upsala would seem to have been the Vĺrdträd of the Swedish nation (though originally it was no doubt the Vĺrdträd of the local community). [2] When Valhöll became depicted after the likeness of a human community, it had necessarily to be provided with a Vĺrdträd of its own. [3] When the conceptions of Valhöll and Asgarđr became confused and a complex theological system resulted; and when at the same time speculation began to pass beyond the ideas of family and tribe, and to take the whole human race into account, there arose the idea of 'the world,' a community embracing all beings, human, divine and demonic. This community was then provided with its Vĺrdträd, Yggdrasill, the life of which was bound up with the fate of the world. The properties of the heavenly immaterial Yggdrasill seem to have been transferred thereto from its earthly material prototype. This applies not merely to its size, its position and its medicinal properties, but also to the uncertainty felt as to its origin, at least if the words cuius illa generis sit nemo scit have anything to do with mangi veit af hverium rótum renn. These words need not denote the immaterial character of the tree, but rather may mean simply that the seed from which it sprang was unknown. Therefore, though in Fiölsvinnsmál the expression af hverium rótum renn is applied to the heavenly Yggdraaill, this need not be the case with the parallel hvers hann af rótum renn in Hávamál. These words may be nothing more than a poetical circumlocution for Vĺrdträd. So also with regard to the name Yggdrasill, it has been shown (p. 74) that, even if this means 'Othin's horse,' it does not necessarily imply that it was the horse (i.e. gallows) which Othin himself rode; it might also denote the gallows on which Othin's victims were made to ride. There is indeed no explicit statement to the effect that Othin's victims were hanged on the Vĺrdträd but there is nothing improbable in the idea. Adam of Bremen (IV. 27) states in his account of the Upsala sacrifice: corpora (i.e. of the victims) autem suspenduntur in lucum qui proximus est templo is enim lucus tam sacer est gentilibus ut singulae arbores eius ex morte uel tabo immolatorum divinae credantur. What relation the 'tree' in Schol. 134 bears to the 'grove' in the text is not clear, but there is nothing improbable in supposing that it formed part thereof. Hence I can not see that there is any valid reason for disbelieving that the name Yggdrasill may have been applied to the earthly Vĺrdträd, and transferred together with the conception of the tree to its heavenly copy. It is perhaps worth calling to mind that the name Sleipnir is used for a gallows in Ynglingatál (Yngl. s. 28).

It is assumed both by Bugge (p. 297 ff.) and Golther (p. 350) that the sacrifice was a selfsacrifice on the part of Othin. Yet this is not stated in the text. The words gefinn Óđni sialfr sialfum mér can, so far as I can see, mean nothing more than 'given to Othin myself to myself," i.e. Othin is both the person sacrificed and the person to whom the sacrifice is offered. There is no indication that Othin was also the sacrificer or that the sacrifice was voluntary on the part of the victim. The words of the Shetland song quoted by Bugge (p. 309), whatever may be its value, practically exclude such an interpretation; and they derive a certain amount of support from the opening lines of Háv. 139. The statement of Bugge and Golther, so far as it has any foundation at all, must be an inference from Ynglinga s. 10, where the dying Othin is represented as having himself marked with the point of a javelin (lét hann marka sik geirsoddi; of. p. 13 f.). It is of course by no means certain that the events related in the two passages (Háv. 138 and Yngl. 10) are the same. If their identity be not admitted, Bugge's (and Golther's) assumption must be rejected as baseless. The identification is however ingenious, and on the whole I am rather inclined to think it may be right. The chief difficulty is that there is no reference to hanging in Ynglinga s. 10. But in the following chapter Niörđr also is represented as having himself marked with a javelin before his death (cf. p. 14). Niörđr is identical with Saxo's Hadingus who commits suicide by hanging himself (I. p. 60; see agove, pp. 17, 35). The acceptance of this indentification does not of course involve the adoption of Bugge's theory. A far more probable explanation of the myth is that it arose out of the desire to explain the ritual of sacrifice. Othin is above all a god of the dead, and his abode is the 'hall of the slain'; but how far the ancients in heathen times conceived of his having lived upon the earth, is not clear. So soon as this belief had arisen, and with it the idea that he passed to Valhöll by death, the conditions for the conception of the gallows-myth were at hand. Possibly also a misunderstanding of the term 'Othin's horse' (Yggdrasill, Sleipnir), as a name of the gallows-tree, may have contributed to this end. The objection urged by Golther (p. 350; cf. also Bugge, p. 304) against the view here put forward, namely that Othin would not be represented as choosing the form of death which was suffered by prisoners of war, is unfounded. This method of death was sacrificial, and though in later times the victims were no doubt usually prisoners, slaves or criminals, this appears not to have been the case in the earlier stages of the religion (cf. p. 27 f.). It is sufficient here to refer to the case of Hadingus---Niörđr.

The bearing of the story related in Gautreks s. 7 (p. 3 f.) on Háv. 138 is obvious. The nature of the connection between the two passages ought to be equally clear, namely that we have in both cases a picture of the ordinary ritual of sacrifice to Othin. I can not see the slightest ground for supposing with Bugge (p. 315) that the story in Gautreks saga has been influenced by the myth of Othin's hanging. That it should be based on the passage in Hávamál is incredible.

Lastly some reference must be made to the interpretation of Háv. 141. According to Bugge and Golther the idea of Othin's increased vitality in this verse is consequent on his death in str. 139. Golther (p. 349) goes so far as to regard str. 140 as an interpolation, and Bugge (p. 353, n. 3) seems inclined to think it has got out of its right place. But I can see no obvious reason why str. 140 should have been inserted here, if this was not its original place. Again, I can not see why str. 141 should have any reference to str. 139. The natural interpretation is to take str. 138, 139 together as an episode complete in itself, and str. 140, 141 as another episode, Othin's increased vitality being represented as due to his acquisition of Óđrerir. The key-words to the whole passage seem to me to be the almost synonymous rún and lióđ. These serve to connect the two episodes, and at the same time to link them on both to what goes before (str. 137 and the preceding strophes) and to what follows. There seems to me to be no need for any change in the order of the strophes.


1. veit ek at ek hekk
vindga meiđi á,
nćtr allar níu,
geiri undađr
ok gefinn Óđni,
siálfr siálfum mér;
á ţeim meiđi
er mangi veit
hvers hann af rótum renn.
viđ hleifi mik seldu
né viđ hornigi,

2. barr in reality denotes 'spine of a fir' etc. If the text is right, the post can not have known the meaning of the word.

3. Magnússon (Odin's Horse, p.22) retains II. 7—9 and regards II. 4—6 as interpolated (geiri undađr ok | gefinn Óđni, | sialfr sialfum mér). But I do not see what could have given rise to such a curious interpolation.

4. They seem to have been especially important among the Lithuanians and Prussians, cf. Aeneas Sylvius, Hist. do Europa, XXVI. S. Grunau, Preussische Chronik, Tract. 2, Cap. V. § 2; Tract. 3, Cap. I. § 2. It is noteworthy that the sacred oak of the Prussians, like the tree at Upsala, was stets grün, winter und sommer.

5. Killisiúkar is an emendation suggested by Bugge. The MSS. have kelisiúkar ('hysterical,' according to Vigfusson). It is perhaps worth notice that among the ancient Prussians, according to Lucas David I. 137 f. (quoted by Voigt, Geschichte Preussens I. 583), the embers of the sacred fire of oak-wood were credited with medicinal properties.

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