|Interesing books. Myths of the Norsemen - CHAPTER II: ODIN|
Page 4 of 12CHAPTER II: ODIN
The Father of Gods and Men
Odin, Wuotan, or Woden was the highest and holiest god of the
Northern races. He was the all-pervading spirit of the universe, the
personification of the air, the god of universal wisdom and victory,
and the leader and protector of princes and heroes. As all the gods
were supposed to be descended from him, he was surnamed Allfather,
and as eldest and chief among them he occupied the highest seat in
Asgard. Known by the name of Hlidskialf, this chair was not only an
exalted throne, but also a mighty watch-tower, from whence he could
overlook the whole world and see at a glance all that was happening
among gods, giants, elves, dwarfs, and men.
"From the hall of Heaven he rode away
To Lidskialf, and sate upon his throne,
The mount, from whence his eye surveys the world.
And far from Heaven he turned his shining orbs
To look on Midgard, and the earth, and men."
Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).
Odin's Personal Appearance
None but Odin and his wife and queen Frigga were privileged to use
this seat, and when they occupied it they generally gazed towards
the south and west, the goal of all the hopes and excursions of the
Northern nations. Odin was generally represented as a tall, vigorous
man, about fifty years of age, either with dark curling hair or with
a long grey beard and bald head. He was clad in a suit of grey, with
a blue hood, and his muscular body was enveloped in a wide blue mantle
flecked with grey--an emblem of the sky with its fleecy clouds. In his
hand Odin generally carried the infallible spear Gungnir, which was
so sacred that an oath sworn upon its point could never be broken,
and on his finger or arm he wore the marvellous ring, Draupnir, the
emblem of fruitfulness, precious beyond compare. When seated upon
his throne or armed for the fray, to mingle in which he would often
descend to earth, Odin wore his eagle helmet; but when he wandered
peacefully about the earth in human guise, to see what men were doing,
he generally donned a broad-brimmed hat, drawn low over his forehead
to conceal the fact that he possessed but one eye.
Two ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), perched upon his
shoulders as he sat upon his throne, and these he sent out into the
wide world every morning, anxiously watching for their return at
nightfall, when they whispered into his ears news of all they had
seen and heard. Thus he was kept well informed about everything that
was happening on earth.
"Hugin and Munin
Fly each day
Over the spacious earth.
I fear for Hugin
That he come not back,
Yet more anxious am I for Munin."
Norse Mythology (R. B. Anderson).
At his feet crouched two wolves or hunting hounds, Geri and Freki,
animals which were therefore considered sacred to him, and of good omen
if met by the way. Odin always fed these wolves with his own hands
from meat set before him. He required no food at all for himself,
and seldom tasted anything except the sacred mead.
"Geri and Freki
The war-wont sates,
The triumphant sire of hosts;
But on wine only
The famed in arms
Odin, ever lives."
Lay of Grimnir (Thorpe's tr.).
When seated in state upon his throne, Odin rested his feet upon a
footstool of gold, the work of the gods, all of whose furniture and
utensils were fashioned either of that precious metal or of silver.
Besides the magnificent hall Glads-heim, where stood the twelve seats
occupied by the gods when they met in council, and Valaskialf, where
his throne, Hlidskialf, was placed, Odin had a third palace in Asgard,
situated in the midst of the marvellous grove Glasir, whose shimmering
leaves were of red gold.
This palace, called Valhalla (the hall of the chosen slain), had five
hundred and forty doors, wide enough to allow the passage of eight
hundred warriors abreast, and above the principal gate were a boar's
head and an eagle whose piercing glance penetrated to the far corners
of the world. The walls of this marvellous building were fashioned
of glittering spears, so highly polished that they illuminated the
hall. The roof was of golden shields, and the benches were decorated
with fine armour, the god's gifts to his guests. Here long tables
afforded ample accommodation for the Einheriar, warriors fallen in
battle, who were specially favoured by Odin.
"Easily to be known is,
By those who to Odin come,
The mansion by its aspect.
Its roof with spears is laid,
Its hall with shields is decked,
With corselets are its benches strewed."
Lay of Grimnir (Thorpe's tr.).
The ancient Northern nations, who deemed warfare the most honourable
of occupations, and considered courage the greatest virtue, worshipped
Odin principally as god of battle and victory. They believed that
whenever a fight was impending he sent out his special attendants,
the shield-, battle-, or wish-maidens, called Valkyrs (choosers of the
slain), who selected from the dead warriors one-half of their number,
whom they bore on their fleet steeds over the quivering rainbow bridge,
Bifrцst, into Valhalla. Welcomed by Odin's sons, Hermod and Bragi,
the heroes were conducted to the foot of Odin's throne, where they
received the praise due to their valour. When some special favourite
of the god was thus brought into Asgard, Valfather (father of the
slain), as Odin was called when he presided over the warriors, would
sometimes rise from his throne and in person bid him welcome at the
great entrance gate.
The Feast of the Heroes
Besides the glory of such distinction, and the enjoyment of Odin's
beloved presence day after day, other more material pleasures awaited
the warriors in Valhalla. Generous entertainment was provided for
them at the long tables, where the beautiful white-armed virgins,
the Valkyrs, having laid aside their armour and clad themselves in
pure white robes, waited upon them with assiduous attention. These
maidens, nine in number according to some authorities, brought
the heroes great horns full of delicious mead, and set before them
huge portions of boar's flesh, upon which they feasted heartily. The
usual Northern drink was beer or ale, but our ancestors fancied this
beverage too coarse for the heavenly sphere. They therefore imagined
that Valfather kept his table liberally supplied with mead or hydromel,
which was daily furnished in great abundance by his she-goat Heidrun,
who continually browsed on the tender leaves and twigs on Lerad,
Yggdrasil's topmost branch.
"Rash war and perilous battle, their delight;
And immature, and red with glorious wounds,
Unpeaceful death their choice: deriving thence
A right to feast and drain immortal bowls,
In Odin's hall; whose blazing roof resounds
The genial uproar of those shades who fall
In desperate fight, or by some brave attempt."
Liberty (James Thomson).
The meat upon which the Einheriar feasted was the flesh of the divine
boar Sжhrimnir, a marvellous beast, daily slain by the cook Andhrimnir,
and boiled in the great cauldron Eldhrimnir; but although Odin's
guests had true Northern appetites and gorged themselves to the full,
there was always plenty of meat for all.
'Tis the best of flesh;
But few know
What the einherjes eat."
Lay of Grimnir (Anderson's version).
Moreover, the supply was exhaustless, for the boar always came to
life again before the time of the next meal. This miraculous renewal
of supplies in the larder was not the only wonderful occurrence in
Valhalla, for it is related that the warriors, after having eaten and
drunk to satiety, always called for their weapons, armed themselves,
and rode out into the great courtyard, where they fought against one
another, repeating the feats of arms for which they were famed on
earth, and recklessly dealing terrible wounds, which, however, were
miraculously and completely healed as soon as the dinner horn sounded.
"All the chosen guests of Odin
Daily ply the trade of war;
From the fields of festal fight
Swift they ride in gleaming arms,
And gaily, at the board of gods,
Quaff the cup of sparkling ale
And eat Sжhrimni's vaunted flesh."
Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).
Whole and happy at the sound of the horn, and bearing one another
no grudge for cruel thrusts given and received, the Einheriar would
ride gaily back to Valhalla to renew their feasts in Odin's beloved
presence, while the white-armed Valkyrs, with flying hair, glided
gracefully about, constantly filling their horns or their favourite
drinking vessels, the skulls of their enemies, while the scalds sang
of war and of stirring Viking forays.
"And all day long they there are hack'd and hewn
'Mid dust, and groans, and limbs lopped off, and blood;
But all at night return to Odin's hall
Woundless and fresh: such lot is theirs in heaven."
Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).
Fighting and feasting thus, the heroes were said to spend their days
in perfect bliss, while Odin delighted in their strength and number,
which, however, he foresaw would not avail to prevent his downfall
when the day of the last battle should dawn.
As such pleasures were the highest a Northern warrior's fancy could
paint, it was very natural that all fighting men should love Odin, and
early in life should dedicate themselves to his service. They vowed
to die arms in hand, if possible, and even wounded themselves with
their own spears when death drew near, if they had been unfortunate
enough to escape death on the battlefield and were threatened with
"straw death," as they called decease from old age or sickness.
"To Odin then true-fast
Carves he fair runics,--
Death-runes cut deep on his arm and his breast."
Viking Tales of the North (R. B. Anderson).
In reward for this devotion Odin watched with special care over his
favourites, giving them gifts, a magic sword, a spear, or a horse,
and making them invincible until their last hour had come, when he
himself appeared to claim or destroy the gift he had bestowed, and
the Valkyrs bore the heroes to Valhalla.
"He gave to Hermod
A helm and corselet,
And from him Sigmund
A sword received."
Lay of Hyndla (Thorpe's tr.).
When Odin took an active part in war, he generally rode his
eight-footed grey steed, Sleipnir, and bore a white shield. His
glittering spear flung over the heads of the combatants was the signal
for the fray to commence, and he would dash into the midst of the
ranks shouting his warcry: "Odin has you all!"
"And Odin donned
His dazzling corslet and his helm of gold,
And led the way on Sleipnir."
Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).
At times he used his magic bow, from which he would shoot ten arrows at
once, every one invariably bringing down a foe. Odin was also supposed
to inspire his favourite warriors with the renowned "Berserker rage"
(bare sark or shirt), which enabled them, although naked, weaponless,
and sore beset, to perform unheard-of feats of valour and strength,
and move about as with charmed lives.
As Odin's characteristics, like the all-pervading elements, were
multitudinous, so also were his names, of which he had no less than
two hundred, almost all descriptive of some phase of his activities. He
was considered the ancient god of seamen and of the wind.
Norsemen hearts we bend to thee!
Steer our barks, all-potent Woden,
O'er the surging Baltic Sea."
The Wild Hunt
Odin, as wind-god, was pictured as rushing through mid-air on his
eight-footed steed, from which originated the oldest Northern riddle,
which runs as follows: "Who are the two who ride to the Thing? Three
eyes have they together, ten feet, and one tail: and thus they travel
through the lands." And as the souls of the dead were supposed to be
wafted away on the wings of the storm, Odin was worshipped as the
leader of all disembodied spirits. In this character he was most
generally known as the Wild Huntsman, and when people heard the
rush and roar of the wind they cried aloud in superstitious fear,
fancying they heard and saw him ride past with his train, all mounted
on snorting steeds, and accompanied by baying hounds. And the passing
of the Wild Hunt, known as Woden's Hunt, the Raging Host, Gabriel's
Hounds, or Asgardreia, was also considered a presage of such misfortune
as pestilence or war.
"The Rhine flows bright; but its waves ere long
Must hear a voice of war,
And a clash of spears our hills among,
And a trumpet from afar;
And the brave on a bloody turf must lie,
For the Huntsman hath gone by!"
The Wild Huntsman (Mrs. Hemans).
It was further thought that if any were so sacrilegious as to join
in the wild halloo in mockery, they would be immediately snatched up
and whirled away with the vanishing host, while those who joined in
the halloo with implicit good faith would be rewarded by the sudden
gift of a horse's leg, hurled at them from above, which, if carefully
kept until the morrow, would be changed into a lump of gold.
Even after the introduction of Christianity the ignorant Northern
folk still dreaded the on-coming storm, declaring that it was the
Wild Hunt sweeping across the sky.
"And ofttimes will start,
For overhead are sweeping Gabriel's hounds,
Doomed with their impious lord the flying hart
To chase forever on aлreal grounds."
Sometimes it left behind a small black dog, which, cowering and
whining upon a neighbouring hearth, had to be kept for a whole year and
carefully tended unless it could be exorcised or frightened away. The
usual recipe, the same as for the riddance of changelings, was to brew
beer in egg-shells, and this performance was supposed so to startle
the spectral dog that he would fly with his tail between his legs,
exclaiming that, although as old as the Behmer, or Bohemian forest,
he had never before beheld such an uncanny sight.
"I am as old
As the Behmer wold,
And have in my life
Such a brewing not seen."
Old Saying (Thorpe's tr.)
The object of this phantom hunt varied greatly, and was either a
visonary boar or wild horse, white-breasted maidens who were caught
and borne away bound only once in seven years, or the wood nymphs,
called Moss Maidens, who were thought to represent the autumn leaves
torn from the trees and whirled away by the wintry gale.
In the middle ages, when the belief in the old heathen deities
was partly forgotten, the leader of the Wild Hunt was no longer
Odin, but Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa, King Arthur, or some
Sabbath-breaker, like the Squire of Rodenstein or Hans von Hackelberg,
who, in punishment for his sins, was condemned to hunt for ever
through the realms of air.
As the winds blew fiercest in autumn and winter, Odin was supposed to
prefer hunting during that season, especially during the time between
Christmas and Twelfth-night, and the peasants were always careful to
leave the last sheaf or measure of grain out in the fields to serve
as food for his horse.
This hunt was of course known by various names in the different
countries of Northern Europe; but as the tales told about it are
all alike, they evidently originated in the same old heathen belief,
and to this day ignorant people of the North fancy that the baying
of a hound on a stormy night is an infallible presage of death.
"Still, still shall last the dreadful chase,
Till time itself shall have an end;
By day, they scour earth's cavern'd space,
At midnight's witching hour, ascend.
"This is the horn, and hound, and horse
That oft the lated peasant hears;
Appall'd, he signs the frequent cross,
When the wild din invades his ears.
"The wakeful priest oft drops a tear
For human pride, for human woe,
When, at his midnight mass, he hears
The infernal cry of 'Holla, ho!'"
Sir Walter Scott.
The Wild Hunt, or Raging Host of Germany, was called Herlathing
in England, from the mythical king Herla, its supposed leader; in
Northern France it bore the name of Mesnйe d'Hellequin, from Hel,
goddess of death; and in the middle ages it was known as Cain's Hunt
or Herod's Hunt, these latter names being given because the leaders
were supposed to be unable to find rest on account of the iniquitous
murders of Abel, of John the Baptist, and of the Holy Innocents.
In Central France the Wild Huntsman, whom we have already seen in
other countries as Odin, Charlemagne, Barbarossa, Rodenstein, von
Hackelberg, King Arthur, Hel, one of the Swedish kings, Gabriel,
Cain, or Herod, is also called the Great Huntsman of Fontainebleau
(le Grand Veneur de Fontainebleau), and people declare that on the
eve of Henry IV.'s murder, and also just before the outbreak of the
great French Revolution, his shouts were distinctly heard as he swept
across the sky.
It was generally believed among the Northern nations that the soul
escaped from the body in the shape of a mouse, which crept out of
a corpse's mouth and ran away, and it was also said to creep in and
out of the mouths of people in a trance. While the soul was absent,
no effort or remedy could recall the patient to life; but as soon as
it had come back animation returned.
The Pied Piper
As Odin was the leader of all disembodied spirits, he was identified in
the middle ages with the Pied Piper of Hamelin. According to mediжval
legends, Hamelin was so infested by rats that life became unbearable,
and a large reward was offered to any who would rid the town of these
rodents. A piper, in parti-coloured garments, offered to undertake
the commission, and the terms being accepted, he commenced to play
through the streets in such wise that, one and all, the rats were
beguiled out of their holes until they formed a vast procession. There
was that in the strains which compelled them to follow, until at last
the river Weser was reached, and all were drowned in its tide.
"And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
You heard as if an army muttered;
And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats,
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,
Families by tens and dozens,
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives--
Followed the Piper for their lives.
From street to street he piped advancing,
And step for step they followed dancing,
Until they came to the river Weser,
Wherein all plunged and perished!"
As the rats were all dead, and there was no chance of their returning
to plague them, the people of Hamelin refused to pay the reward, and
they bade the piper do his worst. He took them at their word, and a
few moments later the weird strains of the magic flute again arose,
and this time it was the children who swarmed out of the houses and
merrily followed the piper.
"There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling;
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farmyard when barley is scattering,
Out came all the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter."
The burghers were powerless to prevent the tragedy, and as they
stood spellbound the piper led the children out of the town to the
Koppelberg, a hill on the confines of the town, which miraculously
opened to receive the procession, and only closed again when the last
child had passed out of sight. This legend probably originated the
adage "to pay the piper." The children were never seen in Hamelin
again, and in commemoration of this public calamity all official
decrees have since been dated so many years after the Pied Piper's
"They made a decree that lawyers never
Should think their records dated duly
If, after the day of the month and year,
These words did not as well appear,
'And so long after what happened here
On the Twenty-second of July,
Thirteen hundred and seventy-six:'
And the better in memory to fix
The place of the children's last retreat,
They called it the Pied Piper Street--
Where any one playing on pipe or tabor
Was sure for the future to lose his labour."
In this myth Odin is the piper, the shrill tones of the flute are
emblematic of the whistling wind, the rats represent the souls of
the dead, which cheerfully follow him, and the hollow mountain into
which he leads the children is typical of the grave.
Another German legend which owes its existence to this belief is
the story of Bishop Hatto, the miserly prelate, who, annoyed by the
clamours of the poor during a time of famine, had them burned alive
in a deserted barn, like the rats whom he declared they resembled,
rather than give them some of the precious grain which he had laid
up for himself.
"'I' faith, 'tis an excellent bonfire!' quoth he,
'And the country is greatly obliged to me
For ridding it in these times forlorn
Of rats that only consume the corn.'"
Soon after this terrible crime had been accomplished the bishop's
retainers reported the approach of a vast swarm of rats. These, it
appears, were the souls of the murdered peasants, which had assumed the
forms of the rats to which the bishop had likened them. His efforts
to escape were vain, and the rats pursued him even into the middle
of the Rhine, to a stone tower in which he took refuge from their
fangs. They swam to the tower, gnawed their way through the stone
walls, and, pouring in on all sides at once, they found the bishop
and devoured him alive.
"And in at the windows, and in at the door,
And through the walls, helter-skelter they pour,
And down from the ceiling, and up through the floor,
From the right and the left, from behind and before,
From within and without, from above and below,
And all at once to the Bishop they go.
They have whetted their teeth against the stones;
And now they pick the Bishop's bones;
They gnaw'd the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgment on him!"
The red glow of the sunset above the Rat Tower near Bingen on the
Rhine is supposed to be the reflection of the hell fire in which the
wicked bishop is slowly roasting in punishment for his heinous crime.
In some parts of Germany Odin was considered to be identical with
the Saxon god Irmin, whose statue, the Irminsul, near Paderborn, was
destroyed by Charlemagne in 772. Irmin was said to possess a ponderous
brazen chariot, in which he rode across the sky along the path which
we know as the Milky Way, but which the ancient Germans designated
as Irmin's Way. This chariot, whose rumbling sound occasionally
became perceptible to mortal ears as thunder, never left the sky,
where it can still be seen in the constellation of the Great Bear,
which is also known in the North as Odin's, or Charles's, Wain.
"The Wain, who wheels on high
His circling course, and on Orion waits;
Sole star that never bathes in the Ocean wave."
Homer's Iliad (Derby's tr.).
To obtain the great wisdom for which he is so famous, Odin, in the
morn of time, visited Mimir's (Memor, memory) spring, "the fountain
of all wit and wisdom," in whose liquid depths even the future was
clearly mirrored, and besought the old man who guarded it to let him
have a draught. But Mimir, who well knew the value of such a favour
(for his spring was considered the source or headwater of memory),
refused the boon unless Odin would consent to give one of his eyes
The god did not hesitate, so highly did he prize the draught, but
immediately plucked out one of his eyes, which Mimir kept in pledge,
sinking it deep down into his fountain, where it shone with mild
lustre, leaving Odin with but one eye, which is considered emblematic
of the sun.
"Through our whole lives we strive towards the sun;
That burning forehead is the eye of Odin.
His second eye, the moon, shines not so bright;
It has he placed in pledge in Mimer's fountain,
That he may fetch the healing waters thence,
Each morning, for the strengthening of this eye."
Oehlenschlдger (Howitt's tr.).
Drinking deeply of Mimir's fount, Odin gained the knowledge he
coveted, and he never regretted the sacrifice he had made, but as
further memorial of that day broke off a branch of the sacred tree
Yggdrasil, which overshadowed the spring, and fashioned from it his
beloved spear Gungnir.
"A dauntless god
Drew for drink to its gleam,
Where he left in endless
Payment the light of an eye.
From the world-ash
Ere Wotan went he broke a bough;
For a spear the staff
He split with strength from the stem."
Dusk of the Gods, Wagner (Forman's tr.).
But although Odin was now all-wise, he was sad and oppressed, for
he had gained an insight into futurity, and had become aware of the
transitory nature of all things, and even of the fate of the gods,
who were doomed to pass away. This knowledge so affected his spirits
that he ever after wore a melancholy and contemplative expression.
To test the value of the wisdom he had thus obtained, Odin went to
visit the most learned of all the giants, Vafthrudnir, and entered
with him into a contest of wit, in which the stake was nothing less
than the loser's head.
"Odin rose with speed, and went
To contend in runic lore
With the wise and crafty Jute.
To Vafthrudni's royal hall
Came the mighty king of spells."
Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).
Odin and Vafthrudnir
On this occasion Odin had disguised himself as a Wanderer, by Frigga's
advice, and when asked his name declared it was Gangrad. The contest of
wit immediately began, Vafthrudnir questioning his guest concerning
the horses which carried Day and Night across the sky, the river
Ifing separating Jцtun-heim from Asgard, and also about Vigrid,
the field where the last battle was to be fought.
All these questions were minutely answered by Odin, who, when
Vafthrudnir had ended, began the interrogatory in his turn, and
received equally explicit answers about the origin of heaven and
earth, the creation of the gods, their quarrel with the Vanas, the
occupations of the heroes in Valhalla, the offices of the Norns, and
the rulers who were to replace the Жsir when they had all perished
with the world they had created. But when, in conclusion, Odin bent
near the giant and softly inquired what words Allfather whispered
to his dead son Balder as he lay upon his funeral pyre, Vafthrudnir
suddenly recognised his divine visitor. Starting back in dismay, he
declared that no one but Odin himself could answer that question,
and that it was now quite plain to him that he had madly striven
in a contest of wisdom and wit with the king of the gods, and fully
deserved the penalty of failure, the loss of his head.
"Not the man of mortal race
Knows the words which thou hast spoken
To thy son in days of yore.
I hear the coming tread of death;
He soon shall raze the runic lore,
And knowledge of the rise of gods,
From his ill-fated soul who strove
With Odin's self the strife of wit,
Wisest of the wise that breathe:
Our stake was life, and thou hast won."
Vafthrudni's-mal (W. Taylor's tr.).
As is the case with so many of the Northern myths, which are often
fragmentary and obscure, this one ends here, and none of the scalds
informs us whether Odin really slew his rival, nor what was the answer
to his last question; but mythologists have hazarded the suggestion
that the word whispered by Odin in Balder's ear, to console him for
his untimely death, must have been "resurrection."
Invention of Runes
Besides being god of wisdom, Odin was god and inventor of runes,
the earliest alphabet used by Northern nations, which characters,
signifying mystery, were at first used for divination, although in
later times they served for inscriptions and records. Just as wisdom
could only be obtained at the cost of sacrifice, Odin himself relates
that he hung nine days and nights from the sacred tree Yggdrasil,
gazing down into the immeasurable depths of Nifl-heim, plunged in deep
thought, and self-wounded with his spear, ere he won the knowledge
"I know that I hung
On a wind-rocked tree
Nine whole nights,
With a spear wounded,
And to Odin offered
Myself to myself;
On that tree
Of which no one knows
From what root it springs."
Odin's Rune-Song (Thorpe's tr.).
When he had fully mastered this knowledge, Odin cut magic runes upon
his spear Gungnir, upon the teeth of his horse Sleipnir, upon the
claws of the bear, and upon countless other animate and inanimate
things. And because he had thus hung over the abyss for such a long
space of time, he was ever after considered the patron divinity of
all who were condemned to be hanged or who perished by the noose.
After obtaining the gift of wisdom and runes, which gave him power over
all things, Odin also coveted the gift of eloquence and poetry, which
he acquired in a manner which we shall relate in a subsequent chapter.
Geirrod and Agnar
Odin, as has already been stated, took great interest in the affairs
of mortals, and, we are told, was specially fond of watching King
Hrauding's handsome little sons, Geirrod and Agnar, when they were
about eight and ten years of age respectively. One day these little
lads went fishing, and a storm suddenly arose which blew their boat
far out to sea, where it finally stranded upon an island, upon which
dwelt a seeming old couple, who in reality were Odin and Frigga in
disguise. They had assumed these forms in order to indulge a sudden
passion for the close society of their protйgйs. The lads were warmly
welcomed and kindly treated, Odin choosing Geirrod as his favourite,
and teaching him the use of arms, while Frigga petted and made much
of little Agnar. The boys tarried on the island with their kind
protectors during the long, cold winter season; but when spring came,
and the skies were blue, and the sea calm, they embarked in a boat
which Odin provided, and set out for their native shore. Favoured by
gentle breezes, they were soon wafted thither; but as the boat neared
the strand Geirrod quickly sprang out and pushed it far back into the
water, bidding his brother sail away into the evil spirit's power. At
that self-same moment the wind veered, and Agnar was indeed carried
away, while his brother hastened to his father's palace with a lying
tale as to what had happened to his brother. He was joyfully received
as one from the dead, and in due time he succeeded his father upon
Years passed by, during which the attention of Odin had been claimed by
other high considerations, when one day, while the divine couple were
seated on the throne Hlidskialf, Odin suddenly remembered the winter's
sojourn on the desert island, and he bade his wife notice how powerful
his pupil had become, and taunted her because her favourite Agnar had
married a giantess and had remained poor and of no consequence. Frigga
quietly replied that it was better to be poor than hardhearted,
and accused Geirrod of lack of hospitality--one of the most heinous
crimes in the eyes of a Northman. She even went so far as to declare
that in spite of all his wealth he often ill-treated his guests.
When Odin heard this accusation he declared that he would prove the
falsity of the charge by assuming the guise of a Wanderer and testing
Geirrod's generosity. Wrapped in his cloud-hued raiment, with slouch
hat and pilgrim staff,--
"Wanderer calls me the world,
Far have I carried my feet,
On the back of the earth
I have boundlessly been,"--
Wagner (Forman's tr.).
Odin immediately set out by a roundabout way, while Frigga, to outwit
him, immediately despatched a swift messenger to warn Geirrod to
beware of a man in wide mantle and broad-brimmed hat, as he was a
wicked enchanter who would work him ill.
When, therefore, Odin presented himself before the king's palace
he was dragged into Geirrod's presence and questioned roughly. He
gave his name as Grimnir, but refused to tell whence he came or what
he wanted, so as this reticence confirmed the suspicion suggested
to the mind of Geirrod, he allowed his love of cruelty full play,
and commanded that the stranger should be bound between two fires,
in such wise that the flames played around him without quite touching
him, and he remained thus eight days and nights, in obstinate silence,
without food. Now Agnar had returned secretly to his brother's palace,
where he occupied a menial position, and one night when all was still,
in pity for the suffering of the unfortunate captive, he conveyed to
his lips a horn of ale. But for this Odin would have had nothing to
drink--the most serious of all trials to the god.
At the end of the eighth day, while Geirrod, seated upon his throne,
was gloating over his prisoner's sufferings, Odin began to sing--softly
at first, then louder and louder, until the hall re-echoed with his
triumphant notes--a prophecy that the king, who had so long enjoyed
the god's favour, would soon perish by his own sword.
"The fallen by the sword
Ygg shall now have;
Thy life is now run out:
Wroth with thee are the Dнsir:
Odin thou now shalt see:
Draw near to me if thou canst."
Sжmund's Edda (Thorpe's tr.).
As the last notes died away the chains dropped from his hands, the
flames flickered and went out, and Odin stood in the midst of the hall,
no longer in human form, but in all the power and beauty of a god.
On hearing the ominous prophecy Geirrod hastily drew his sword,
intending to slay the insolent singer; but when he beheld the sudden
transformation he started in dismay, tripped, fell upon the sharp
blade, and perished as Odin had just foretold. Turning to Agnar, who,
according to some accounts, was the king's son, and not his brother,
for these old stories are often strangely confused, Odin bade him
ascend the throne in reward for his humanity, and, further to repay
him for the timely draught of ale, he promised to bless him with all
manner of prosperity.
On another occasion Odin wandered to earth, and was absent so
long that the gods began to think that they would not see him in
Asgard again. This encouraged his brothers Vili and Ve, who by some
mythologists are considered as other personifications of himself,
to usurp his power and his throne, and even, we are told, to espouse
his wife Frigga.
"Be thou silent, Frigg!
Thou art Fiцrgyn's daughter
And ever hast been fond of men,
Since Ve and Vili, it is said,
Thou, Vidrir's wife, didst
Both to thy bosom take."
Sжmund's Edda (Thorpe's tr.).
But upon Odin's return the usurpers vanished for ever; and in
commemoration of the disappearance of the false Odin, who had ruled
seven months and had brought nothing but unhappiness to the world,
and of the return of the benevolent deity, the heathen Northmen
formerly celebrated yearly festivals, which were long continued
as May Day rejoicings. Until very lately there was always, on that
day, a grand procession in Sweden, known as the May Ride, in which a
flower-decked May king (Odin) pelted with blossoms the fur-enveloped
Winter (his supplanter), until he put him to ignominious flight. In
England also the first of May was celebrated as a festive occasion,
in which May-pole dances, May queens, Maid Marian, and Jack in the
Green played prominent parts.
As personification of heaven, Odin, of course, was the lover and spouse
of the earth, and as to them the earth bore a threefold aspect, the
Northmen depicted him as a polygamist, and allotted to him several
wives. The first among these was Jцrd (Erda), the primitive earth,
daughter of Night or of the giantess Fiorgyn. She bore him his
famous son Thor, the god of thunder. The second and principal wife
was Frigga, a personification of the civilised world. She gave him
Balder, the gentle god of spring, Hermod, and, according to some
authorities, Tyr. The third wife was Rinda, a personification of the
hard and frozen earth, who reluctantly yields to his warm embrace,
but finally gives birth to Vali, the emblem of vegetation.
Odin is also said to have married Saga or Laga, the goddess of history
(hence our verb "to say"), and to have daily visited her in the crystal
hall of Sokvabek, beneath a cool, ever-flowing river, to drink its
waters and listen to her songs about olden times and vanished races.
"Sokvabek hight the fourth dwelling;
Over it flow the cool billows;
Glad drink there Odin and Saga
Every day from golden cups."
Norse Mythology (R. B. Anderson).
His other wives were Grid, the mother of Vidar; Gunlod, the mother
of Bragi; Skadi; and the nine giantesses who simultaneously bore
Heimdall--all of whom play more or less important parts in the various
myths of the North.
The Historical Odin
Besides this ancient Odin, there was a more modern, semi-historical
personage of the same name, to whom all the virtues, powers, and
adventures of his predecessor have been attributed. He was the
chief of the Жsir, inhabitants of Asia Minor, who, sore pressed by
the Romans, and threatened with destruction or slavery, left their
native land about 70 B.C., and migrated into Europe. This Odin is
said to have conquered Russia, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden,
leaving a son on the throne of each conquered country. He also built
the town of Odensц. He was welcomed in Sweden by Gylfi, the king,
who gave him a share of the realm, and allowed him to found the city
of Sigtuna, where he built a temple and introduced a new system of
worship. Tradition further relates that as his end drew near, this
mythical Odin assembled his followers, publicly cut himself nine
times in the breast with his spear,--a ceremony called "carving Geir
odds,"--and told them he was about to return to his native land Asgard,
his old home, where he would await their coming, to share with him
a life of feasting, drinking, and fighting.
According to another account, Gylfi, having heard of the power
of the Жsir, the inhabitants of Asgard, and wishing to ascertain
whether these reports were true, journeyed to the south. In due time
he came to Odin's palace, where he was expected, and where he was
deluded by the vision of Har, Iafn-har, and Thridi, three divinities,
enthroned one above the other. The gatekeeper, Gangler, answered all
his questions, and gave him a long explanation of Northern mythology,
which is recorded in the Younger Edda, and then, having finished his
instructions, suddenly vanished with the palace amid a deafening noise.
According to other very ancient poems, Odin's sons, Weldegg, Beldegg,
Sigi, Skiold, Sжming, and Yngvi, became kings of East Saxony, West
Saxony, Franconia, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and from them are
descended the Saxons, Hengist and Horsa, and the royal families of the
Northern lands. Still another version relates that Odin and Frigga had
seven sons, who founded the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy. In the course of
time this mysterious king was confounded with the Odin whose worship
he introduced, and all his deeds were attributed to the god.
Odin was worshipped in numerous temples, but especially in the
great fane at Upsala, where the most solemn festivals were held,
and where sacrifices were offered. The victim was generally a horse,
but in times of pressing need human offerings were made, even the
king being once offered up to avert a famine.
"Upsal's temple, where the North
Saw Valhal's halls fair imag'd here on earth."
Viking Tales of the North (R. B. Anderson).
The first toast at every festival here was drunk in his honour, and,
besides the first of May, one day in every week was held sacred to
him, and, from his Saxon name, Woden, was called Woden's day, whence
the English word "Wednesday" has been derived. It was customary for
the people to assemble at his shrine on festive occasions, to hear
the songs of the scalds, who were rewarded for their minstrelsy by
the gift of golden bracelets or armlets, which curled up at the ends
and were called "Odin's serpents."
There are but few remains of ancient Northern art now extant, and
although rude statues of Odin were once quite common they have all
disappeared, as they were made of wood--a perishable substance, which
in the hands of the missionaries, and especially of Olaf the Saint,
the Northern iconoclast, was soon reduced to ashes.
"There in the Temple, carved in wood,
The image of great Odin stood."
Saga of King Olaf (Longfellow).
Odin himself is supposed to have given his people a code of laws
whereby to govern their conduct, in a poem called Hбvamбl, or the
High Song, which forms part of the Edda. In this lay he taught
the fallibility of man, the necessity for courage, temperance,
independence, and truthfulness, respect for old age, hospitality,
charity, and contentment, and gave instructions for the burial of
"At home let a man be cheerful,
And toward a guest liberal;
Of wise conduct he should be,
Of good memory and ready speech;
If much knowledge he desires,
He must often talk on what is good."
Hбvamбl (Thorpe's tr.).