|Odin & the Prophetess by Emil Doepler (1900)|
In another Eddic poem, Baldrs draumar (“Balder’s Dreams”), Odin rides down into the world of the dead, again raising a deceased prophetess in his effort to gain knowledge of the end-times. It is from this poem that the name Vegtam originates; Odin is “way-tame” – accustomed to travelling the roads, the Wanderer of Wagner’s Ring and Gandalf the Grey of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. According to the Edda of Snorri, Odin also sends his son (or possibly his servant) Hermód on a journey into Hel, the land of the dead, loaning him his mystical eight-legged horse Sleipnir so that he can travel there to seek the release of Baldur, the murdered god of light.
Odin is also known as Gizurr (“riddler”), since he not only questions the dead, but also engages in wisdom contests with giants and the god Thor, who himself has a battle of wits with a dwarf. In the Eddic poem Vafþrúðnismál (“Vafthrudnir’s Sayings”), the eponymous giant tells Odin, “Wise you are, guest, come to the giant’s bench, / and we will speak together in the seat; / we shall wager our heads in the hall, guest, on our wisdom.” The giant loses the contest when he is unable to answer Odin’s final question.
In Harbardsljód (“The Song of Grey-Beard”), Odin matches wits with Thor in a flyting – a verbal battle that occurs often in the Germanic literature of this period. Their pairing is analogous to that of the World’s Finest in DC Comics, the pairing of Batman and Superman. One is brilliant and devious, the other is really just kind of strong. This poem is clearly written from the perspective of a poet in service to a societal group of lords and warriors dedicated to Odin, as opposed to the farmer class that usually elevated Thor to the central position.
|Odin's "ecstatic wisdom peformance" by Emil Doepler (1900)|
Two paired names for Wotan, Haptaguđ and Haptsœnir (“Fetter-god” and “Fetter-loosener”) seem at first contradictory, but actually together form an important aspect of the Norse conception of the god. In Hávamál, Odin describes more of his runic abilities: “I know a third one which is very useful to me, / which fetters my enemy; / the edges of my foes I can blunt, / neither weapon nor club will bite for them. / / I know a fourth one if men put / chains upon my limbs; / I can chant so that I can walk away, / fetters spring from my feet, / and bonds from my hands.” Odin is able to “bind” the minds of his enemies. This is a metaphorical construct for the war-terror that grips soldiers on the field of battle, the same paralyzing fear that was described by boxers who faced Mike Tyson in the ring. As the god of war, Wotan can bind the minds of his enemies so that they are incapable of fighting.
As the god of poetic inspiration (more on this later), he can “unbind” the minds of poets so that they can create freely. Through his gift of mead and other alcoholic beverages, he can also unbind the mind so that one is unencumbered by the fetters of conscious thought. These two senses of fetter – positive and negative – are united in the god, and are reflected in Tacitus’s description of the religious practices of the Germanic Semnones, a subset of the Suebi tribe. They would ritualistically bind themselves with cords before entering a sacred grove for their rites – a practice that brings together imagery of both Wotan’s binding powers and his relationship to the World Tree. In this context, it is noteworthy that Adam of Bremen's description of the pagan temple at Uppsala states that "a golden chain encircles that temple and hangs over the gables of the building." Given the Odinnic sacrifices that occurred at the temple, it is possible that this chain was symbolic of the god's binding powers.
|Hammars Stone in Sweden (8th century)|
|Odin captures Mead of Poetry by Emil Doepler (1900)|
Odin is also known as Skollvaldr (“treachery ruler”). He is undependable; he’s on your side until he’s not. This is understandable when we view him as many of his followers did – as a god of war. The unpredictability of the god reflects the uncertainty of life in a violent age. He protects those whom he destines to succeed in battle, and they survive war and strife. Then, one day, and for no apparent reason, he switches sides and his hero falls. Where a modern Christian may ask, “Why does God do bad things to good people?” an ancient pagan may have merely shrugged and said, “We can’t predict or understand what the powers do.” I say “powers” because that is how they were conceived. A truer translation from the Old Norse “Ragnarök” than “Twilight of the Gods” is “Doom of the Powers.” Snorri seems to have confused Ragnarök (“the doom of the powers”) with Ragnarøkkr (“the twilight of the gods”). What a difference a vowel makes.