You can watch the video about this subject in here: [The Cult of Odin]
I will divide this short essay into three parts. First I’ll talk about Odin historically, his introduction in the old societies and the meaning of his name. Then, some of Odin’s aspects as a god of war, nobility and shamanism, focusing on certain characteristics. And finally, on the third part, I will talk about the Cult of Odin. I think the last part is the one you will like the most. So much blood and sacrifices.
Odin is one of the most complex deities of the Norse pantheon, perhaps because his cult was spread throughout so many different social and religious realities that this deity ended up being introduced in every pre-Christian religious cult of Scandinavia, and absorbed the functions of other gods.
But first things first:
Odin is the ruler of the tribe of gods called the Aesir. He is a god that often goes into journeys, wandering throughout the nine cosmic worlds seeking for knowledge, in a relentless selfinterested pursuit for wisdom. And because he is a god so committed to obtain wisdom, he doesn’t care how he obtains it, so he is often depicted as a god with no regards for values, justice, law, fairness, respect and even the safety and well-being of others. If he has to ruin lives or even kill for wisdom, he will do it.
He is a god associated with war and death. A god associated with nobility, poetry, wisdom, spellcraft, sorcery, magic in general and much like Loki, Odin is also a master of disguise and trickery and shapeshifting.
He’s a god associated with so much stuff and often things that contradict themselves and have no connection, that we often wonder how is it possible for one single deity to embody all of the qualities and fields of expertise, I’ve just mentioned, all at once? Well, he was a god worshipped for many centuries all over Scandinavia and Continental Europe, mostly central Europe. So it’s normal that this deity took the “job” of other local deities when he was introduced into local cults. And to better understand this, let’s take a look at what his name means.
Wodan is the elder form of the name of this deity, associated with several shamanic functions. He is associated with the dead and those who are slain (especially in battle). He appears as a wild rider at the head of an otherworldly pursuit, the leader of the Wild Hunt, and also a god associated with storms and strong winds. The name Wodan comes from Old High German wuot, insane.
From wods, angry, obsessed.
Old English wod, raving. Wod also means sound, voice, poetry, and odr – poetry.
And in modern German, Wut, meaning anger, rage, fury, wrath.
So the concept of his older name is associated with madness, obsession, and ecstatic frenzy. But the name Wodan has other variations, such as Wode, Wotan, Woide, Wods, Wuotes and so on, apparently all linked to either shamanic trance or the brain condition necessary to enter in a trance state, through madness, insanity.
Now, the Germanic Wodan is not like the Norse Odin, the chief of the gods. The continental god leads the wild hunt, a horrific, ghostly cavalcade of spirits, elves, some deities and the dead.
Wodan is a god of rage and ecstasy, a god who made warriors enter in a state of madness while in battle, turning his chosen warriors into wolves or bears, and us such he became the favourite and most important god among many war-like tribes. These tribes invaded Scandinavia. As conquerors, they installed their order and their god became the chief deity, king of the gods, and the father of all. And just like this, Odin was introduced into Scandinavia and a new god was born there. Odin.
Now, before Odin, Fricco, or Freyr, was one of the most popular and highly worshipped deities in Scandinavia, especially in Sweden. He was the chief god of the old Swedes before invading tribes introduced the cult of Wodan. In the process, Woden lost the W and became Odin, while Freyr lost much of his importance and became a minor farmers’ god while the nobility worshipped and sacrificed to Odin.
In Scandinavia we see Odin with many names, many titles, such as Hertýr, god of the army, Valgautr, god of the battle-slain, Hrafnagud, ravengod, Grimnir, masked one, Báleygr, flame eye, and so on. A variety of names meaning completely different things and others which we still don’t know the meaning. It’s a long, long list. Which shows us that many independent local gods were integrated in the cult of Odin.
Odin remained with many of his old continental characteristics, along with new characteristics from Scandinavia and through time he still remained so important in the Scandinavian societies that even during medieval times he continued to be associated with other things. According to the social reality of each period in history, he became associated with more stuff. For instance, in continental Europe he was associated with the dead and spirits, but to the Germanic tribes there was no concept of a warrior-heaven.
A place in the after-life solely for warriors is a concept that few European cultures had, only some Celt-Iberian tribes and the Erulians had this concept. Valhalla was something new introduced in this cult. To the Germanic tribes there was no need to have a heroic death in the battlefield.
Another example, in Iceland during medieval times Odin became associated with magic, spell work, sorcery, even Seidr. We must not forget that in the old Scandinavian pagan societies, seidr was seen as the province of women and it was not honourable not even manly for a men to practice Seidr, men who practice seidr were considered effeminate and it was an insult, they were called Ergi, unmanly, effeminate. But all of a sudden Odin becomes associated with such practices, a male god, he gains prominent effeminate qualities that would have brought unspeakable shame to any ancient Norse warrior. Well, in medieval Iceland this was no longer a social problem, and since Christianity didn’t let people practice magic, people needed a patron god of magic, and thus Odin being the most famous deity of the old gods, he also became associated with sorcery, witchcraft.
So, recapitulating, the mainland Woden was an important deity, but not a patriarchal chief of the gods such as the Scandinavian Odin. He changed from a storm god, Wode, to a god of ecstasy and rage, Wodan, to a god of rulers and warriors, Odin. And kept on changing, and I dare say that he will change again to assume a form that fits in our time and our present realities.
After this introduction, let’s take a look at some of Odin’s fields of expertise, and I’ll try to be brief on that.
As a god of war, he encourages the process of war, he inspires people to do war. He needs people to do war because that’s how he obtains warriors for his personal army. Dying gloriously in battle is the only way to go to Odin in the literal sources. However, he isn’t a god that concerns himself with every warrior. Only those who he deems to be worthy, he will help and bestow his blessings to them, mainly legendary heroes, people that stand out and become really good at killing and in the arts of war. But he also maintains a close connection with shamanic-warriors, such as berserkers. Warriors who combine fighting techniques with spiritual practices, achieving a state of ecstasy, but focused solely on the cult of Odin, which also includes working with animal totems, mainly bears and wolves, which are the animals associated with Odin, and as I’ve told you, the remnants of the continental characteristic of this deity. As a god of war, he isn’t like Týr, concerned with the war itself, the reasons behind a conflict, or even the rules, honour and the deeds involved. In terms of war, Odin is concerned with the chaotic battle-frenzy, the very force, essence, state of mind, achieved through the madness of battle, through violent acts, uncontrollable rage and fury bringing out the beast in us.
As a god associated with sovereignty and nobility, he is the divine archetype of a ruler. As I’ve told you before, since he was the main god of the invading Germanic tribes, he became the god associated with power. This is an interesting aspect, because when Christianity came along, the first to be converted were the rulers, chieftains, kings and emperors, the high power of the society, while the people from rural areas, the countryside, practically forgotten by such high powers, continued to be pagans. This is exactly what happened in ancient Scandinavia. The high powers adopted Odin as the main god, chief of all the gods, the “Alfather”, while in rural areas people maintained their older gods, such as Freyr which became associated with agriculture because of that. So even in the ancient pagan societies, pagans adopted another sort of paganism while in the countryside people remained more pagan than the pagans.
The Norse society, much like many ancient societies, was socially and politically divided into three groups. Rulers, warriors and farmers. So the gods were also divided into these three groups. And Odin being the god of nobility, obviously he was set on the top of this hierarchical society. So he became the king of the gods. Odin in Scandinavia became linked to the nobility, and as such he became the legendary founder of numerous royal lines, and the Scandinavians tried to pass this into their mythologies, introducing Odin as the creator of the first humans, along with his two brothers, or these three characters being three different aspects of the same deity.
As a god associated with wisdom and shamanism, it’s quite interesting:
The wisdom aspect is one of the things that differentiates him from being the all-powerful-god. You see, many people nowadays see Odin almost as the only god that matters. Many people in Asatru practice Odinism, focusing only on this god almost to the point of turning Polytheism into a monotheistic religion. But what happens in a monotheistic religion is that the only existing god is the all-knowing and all-powerful, while Odin show us that he himself has limitations. That’s the beauty of Polytheism, the gods much like us, in their own individuality have limits, and that’s why Odin is always seeking for knowledge, to overcome his limitations on every field, obsessed with obtaining wisdom because he is restless when a problem comes along and he has no power. He sets out in a relentless and ruthless quest for more wisdom, more knowledge, more power, and whoever stands in his way, he immediately takes them out of the game. And well, most of the knowledge he gains is usually of a magical sort.
And of course, as you know, he sacrificed an eye for wisdom and at a certain point he sacrificed himself, hanging on a tree and stabbing himself with his own spear. To achieve the knowledge of the runes. An old reminder of ancient shamanic practices and techniques of inducing an altered state of consciousness through a violent ordeal, through a near-death experience.
In terms of shamanism, along with the goddess Freyja, he’s one of the two greatest practitioners of shamanism amongst the gods. He learns this art from Freyja herself, which reminds us of the social stigma of only women were allowed to practice seidr, a form of shamanism, in the ancient Scandinavian societies. And in many accounts we have hints of Odin’s shamanic journeys, especially when he uses his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. An eight-legged horse is a typical symbol of northern Eurasian shamanism.
Also, when we deal with shamanism, almost every time we will come across shamans who are accompanied with familiar spirits, not just animals and land spirits, but other beings. Odin is always closely associated with wolves and ravens, animals who are his companions all the time, and also other spiritual entities associated with him, such as Valkyries. And as I’ve said before, I’ve already talked about shamanic-warriors, which was the type of shamanism socially acceptable for men in Germanic societies.
As a god of Poetry, in the Ynglinga Saga for instance, Odin is celebrated as the inventor of poetry (skaldskapr), and also experienced in Galdr or Galdar, spells, incantations, and of course, and also, the master of runes.
Odin is a master of poems and he grants this gift to others he deems to be worthy. And the story of how he became a master of speech, and mind that this is closely associated with Galdr, the power to persuade through words of incantation, well, the story his quite interesting because he obtained the mead of poetry, and in old Norse the name of this mead was Odroerir, closely associated with the word Odr, which not only is one of Odin’s names but also the very word connected to ecstasy, fury, inspiration. This Mead of Poetry might be an old reference to an Intoxicating drink which helped to alter the state of consciousness, to achieve ecstasy, inspiration and obtain knowledge.
In terms of being a god associated with the dead, he is a divine figure who guides those who have just died and go to the underworld. And this aspect might be older than his aspect of being a god of war. As I’ve told you, Valhalla was a later concept, and unknown in continental Europe, which was later introduced, meant to motivate warriors into suicidal fighting rages.
Odin continued to be associated with the dead even during medieval and modern periods in Scandinavian history, quite possibly an old characteristic of this god because he was already associated with death and the dead before his cult was introduced in Scandinavia. And we also have notes of him communicating with the dead, raising the dead, so he seems to have been a powerful necromancer.
Now let’s talk about the cult of Odin or the perception we have of it in archaeological findings and the study of the written sources.
The cult of Odin in the north involved sacrifices, mostly in times of war, and the victims were always humans, either volunteers or prisoners. This doesn’t mean that animals weren’t also sacrificed, they were, but humans were always sacrificed to Odin while animals were sacrificed occasionally or were mostly used as sacrifices to other deities. However, I must add, the number of examples we have of human sacrifices to Odin, are small. I mean, there are a lot of examples but they seem small compared to the span of time during which Odin was considered the major deity. But anyway, in all the examples we have of sacrifices to Odin they are always human sacrifices. Let me give you at least 4 examples:
King Vikar, in order to win against a neighbouring enemy, a priest of Odin was sent out into the forest to seek the answer from Odin. Through divination and in a vision, Odin tells the priest that he requires a man out of their company in exchange for his blessing to ensure victory. Odin choses King Vikar himself and instructs how he is to be sent to him. Hanged and stabbed. King Vikar was Hanged and stabbed and thus he was given to Odin. This sacrificed ensured King Vikar’s army victory, although he wasn’t around to celebrate it.
Aun, King of Sweden, sacrificed one of his 10 sons every few years. He lived long indeed because out of those 10 he sacrificed 9.
During the reign of Ólafr Trételgi, there was a famine and people attributed that to the lack of sacrifice made by Olafr. They burnt him in his house and offered the sacrifice to Odin so they could have plenty. Sure enough, the famine was over.
King Haraldr was also a king plagued with a famine during his reign. Through divination it was found that the gamine could be stopped by the sacrifice of the noblest youth in the land. The son of a noble was required, Angantýr son of Heidrekr. Now this one is interesting, because Angantýr is very similar to Hangatýr, which is one of Odin’s names, meaning God of the Hanged. Anyway, Heidrekr refused to give away that son, so he gave his other son Halfdan and to compensate the fact of not giving the one Odin required, he also gave all the host in Halfdan’s commend, as a sacrifice. The temples were covered with the blood of the ones who were sacrificed.
As you can see by these four example, it always involved the sacrificed of humans and from the nobility, since Odin was worshipped by the nobility, being a god associated with this social class. Also, Odin didn’t want a nobody to be sacrificed to him, he chose those from nobility which he required, and indeed in archaeological findings and in the comprehension we have of the ancient Scandinavian beliefs, we see that only warriors who died in battle and nobles, were allowed to go into Valhalla.
In addition to sacrifices of this sort, there were 3 great annual sacrifices in ancient Scandinavia.
At the approach of winter, a sacrifice for plenty. At midwinter, for increase of the crops. And at the beginning of summer, a sacrifice for victory, sigrblot. Quite possibly these 3 sacrifices were made to the three major gods of Scandinavia at that time. The sacrifice from plenty was to the god Freyr, the sacrifice for increase of the crops to Thor, and the sacrifice for victory to Odin, because of the constant references to him as the god of victory and sacrifices and vows were made to Odin for victory in times of war.
There were also sacrifices in great scale every nine years at Uppsala, at which sacrifices of men and various animals were offered. These sacrifices took place about the spring equinox, coinciding with the annual sacrifice for victory. Both men and animals were hanged in the grove close to the temple. Of the animals hanged, most were not edible ones, such as dogs, horses and hawks. Nine male animals hanged with humans. Of course, speaking of edible animals, in Scandinavia horse meat was also consumed, but it’s quite different. Edible animals were sacrificed to Freyr, while Odin required nobler animals, animals that were used by nobility and were to be taken with the sacrificed people into Valhalla, to serve them there, hence, dogs for hunting, horses to ride, and hawks for hunting but also as animals linked to activities performed by the nobility.
Several cases of hanging occur in the cycle of stories involving criminals. It was customary to sacrifice prisoners to Odin on the battlefield. The sacrifices at Uppsala were sacred, so most likely the sacrificed ones were of noble birth and no criminals, neither prisoners nor slaves were sacrificed there. But in a battlefield, or any other place when victory was needed, criminals were sacrificed to Odin.
You might be asking if hanged people were really just sacrifices for Odin. Maybe it was for other deities?
There are no other evidences of hanging people and offering them to other gods. Hanged people were to Odin and Odin alone. For instance, there were human sacrifices to Thor, but these appear to have been put to death by being felled with a club. Yes . . . beat them to death with a club.
Odin is constantly being associated with the gallows, as we can see by some of his names. Galga Framr, burden of the gallows, galga gramr, galga valda, Hanga Drottinn, Hangatýr, Hanga gud, Lord or god or the gallows of the hanged.
It is possible that the slain victims to offer as a sacrifice to Odin were not criminals and or slaves. Because when sacrificing to Odin, people would automatically go to Valhalla and to go there they needed goods and animals of valour. Thats why nobility was chosen. But of course, once in a while criminals would be sacrificed but on another context, and slaves were often sacrificed with their masters. Sacrificing slaves separately was most certainly as offers to Thor, because it is to Thor’s Hall that slaves will go, to be servants in his hall.
Also, there are references of criminals being sacrificed alongside wolves, and not dogs. Dogs had a purpose, they were useful and were used in the afterlife by the nobility. So hanging wolves was with criminals was a way to socially show that those hanged there were not nobles, and the people hanged couldn’t use those animals in the afterlife, and also wolves instead of dogs were sacrificed with criminals in order to disgrace the victims on their arrival into the other side, maybe so Odin might now that those cannot enter Valhalla.
The sacrifices of Odin often involved hanging but there was also stabbing, although both at the same time was not common, or, stabbing and hanging at the same time was the ritual in important sacrifices to Odin. But few are the accounts of both at the same time. Although stabbing as a sacrifice to Odin was a reality, especially with a javelin, and we have many references in the myths, such as Odin’s weapon which a lot of people refer to as a spear, but it was a javelin. Odin throws his javelin over the army who is going to perish, Odin stabs himself with his javelin, and there are references of dying people and others with perfectly good health, being marked with a javelin, as a mark to be sent to the gods. So hanging might have come later.
Marking the victims with a javelin might have been a form of dedicating the victim to Odin before the sacrifice, which was hanging. Both at the same time might have been the ordinary ceremony of sacrifice.
In terms of funeral rites, and I promise I’ll be brief because this video is already too long and I’m afraid I’m losing your interest. Well, for instance in the Ynglinga Saga we have references of funeral rites dedicated to Odin, or how they should be conducted in order to send the dead to Odin.
Burning the dead in a pyre along with their earthly positions, to take them into Valhalla, and also what the deceased during life buried in the earth, mostly treasures, which could also be included as earthly goods to be taken into the other side. The items thrown into the pyre included weapons, jewellery, animals and occasionally servants. The animals also included those owned
by the deceased. There are accounts of horses being taken into the burial mound and sacrificed there and placed in the burial mound.
Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m speaking about burial mounds because after the deceased was cremated, the ashes were either thrown into the sea or buried down in the earth, and a mound was to be raised as a memorial to noblemen, and people who achieved any distinction during life, a Bautasten should be raised, a reference to a Scandinavian menhir which probably gave birth to the rune-stones in memory of people who during life achieved something great.