|Silver figurine found at Lejre, Denmark (circa 900)|
In the Eddic poem Grímnismál ("Sayings of the Masked One" - another name for Odin), the god says, "Hugin and Munin fly every day / over the wide world; / I fear for Hugin that he will not come back, / yet I tremble more for Munin." Odin sits on Hlidskjalf, his high seat above the clouds, and sends his ravens out to bring him back news of happenings throughout the Nine Worlds of the Norse cosmogony.
We can read backwards from this mythic structure to see evidence of shamanistic practices in the early Germanic religion. Many cultures throughout the world have the concept that the wise man or religious leader can send out his spirit in the form of a chosen animal. This spirit animal can travel farther and gather more information than anyone in human form. The fear of the god for his ravens can be seen as fear that the shaman will not wake from his trance-state, and that his conscious mind will be lost and unable to return to everyday reality.
|Odin with wolves & ravens by Johannes Wiedewelt (circa 1780)|
|Werewolf (Egil's Saga Exhibition in Borgarnes, Iceland)|
Another of Odin's names is Allvíss ("all-wise"). Our modern English word "wizard" derives from "wize-ard" ("wise-one"). Odin is the original wizard and is the role model for Tolkien's Gandalf; "Gandalf" itself is a byname for Odin that translates to "wand-elf" or "staff-elf" - the mystical figure who wanders the roads with his walking-stick. One of the most central aspects of the god in the Norse conception is as a seeker after wisdom.
|Yggdrasil by Oluf Olufsen Bagge (1847)|
In one of the most famous passages from the Eddic poem Hávamál ("Sayings of the High One"), the god says, "I know that I hung on a windy tree / nine long nights / wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin, / myself to myself, / on that tree of which no man knows / from where its roots run. / / No bread did they give me nor drink from a horn, / downwards I peered; / I took up the runes, screaming I took them, / then I fell back from there." Before we examine his relationship to hanging, we should note his association with the spear.
|The Vanir War by Emil Doepler (1900)|
Like so many elements of ancient religious practice, these rituals survived into later ages, but their meanings were clouded and lost. In the medieval German epic of The Nibelungenlied, Folker the Burgundian makes a strange gesture: "With that, he lifted a sharp spear and hard from the ground, that a Hun had shot at him, and hurled it strongly across the courtyard, over the heads of the folk." There is no explanation given in the text, but, in light of the slaughter that ensues, this seems a vestigial act from a bygone era, its true meaning lost.