Monday, March 29, 2010

Odin and the Runes, Part One

Who is Odin, the One-Eyed God?

He is the god of a thousand names, each one of which expresses a different aspect of his character.

Odin by Edward Burne-Jones (1883)

This multiplicity of names comes from the Nordic love of word play – of riddles, alliteration, puns and kennings. A kenning is a type of poetic circumlocution. The Icelandic poet Ulf Uggason wrote, "But the sharp-looking stiff land-rope stared over the gunwale at the country-bone-folk's tester and blew poison." This line only becomes intelligible when the reader understands the mythological references. The "land-rope" is the Midgard Serpent, the snake so large that it encircles the Earth. The "country-bone" is rock, its folk are the giants, and their tester is the god Thor. So the line could read, "But the sharp-looking Midgard Serpent stared over the gunwale at Thor and blew poison" – but that would be much too simple.

Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) published his Edda in 1220 to preserve understanding of his nation's poetry. With the complicated kennings they contained, they were completely incomprehensible unless the reader knew the myths and tales they referenced. Scholars are not sure what exactly the name Edda refers to. It can mean "great-grandmother" (as in, the one who tells old stories), Oddi (the part of southern Iceland where Snorri was raised), or derive from óđr (Old Norse for "poetry" or "inspiration").

Another major source for Norse mythology is the Poetic Edda, a collection of poetry that mostly comes from the Codex Regius ("Royal Manuscript"), a ninety-page manuscript dated between 1270 and 1280. Snorri probably had access to many of these texts from other (now lost) sources.

One of the major names for Odin is Allfather. In the beginning of time, according to the Scandinavian version of the mythology, there was only fire and ice. Niflheim ("Home of Mist") lay to the north and Muspell (from the Old High German muspilli – "doomsday") lay to the South. When these two elemental forces clashed, the world was created. There is an entire tale of the giant Ymir, the cow Audhumla, and others, but the name "Allfather" is related to the creation of the first man and woman by a trio of young gods: Odin, Vili ("will") and Vé ("sacred enclosure"). In some sources, they are known as Odin, Hönir, and Lodur. Odin's two companions are minor figures, and they only appear as travelling companions to the Allfather. Odin becomes the central god of the mythology in its Scandinavian version, and he is the father of both humans and gods.

Reverse of Nordendorf Fibula (circa 6th century)

In German, Odin's name was Wodan. The so-called Nordendorf Fibula is a small brooch dating to approximately the 6th century, discovered in Nordendorf, Germany in the 19th century. A runic inscription on its reverse reads Logaþore Wodan Wigiþonar. This is generally interpreted to name a trio of – Lodur, Odin, and Blessing-Thor.

The German for Odin's name derives from the Old High German verb watan, which survives in modern German as wüten ("to rave, to rage, to be furious"). The god is a personification of the terrifying might of nature's force and of the fierce passion that pervades the natural living world. He rides at the head of das Wütend Heer ("the furious host"), his very name present here in the adjectival form of wütend ("raging"). This collection of gods, goddesses, and (un)dead warriors was believed throughout the Germanic world to ride through the skies in the most violent and darkest northern storms, sweeping up human victims who dared to venture outside of their homes. Wodan / Odin is often portrayed in the vanguard of the host, accompanied by his loyal valkyries and followed by Thor with his mystic hammer.

As the Germanic tribes migrated northwards and westwards, their languages changed and divided. Wodan was known as Odin in Scandinavia and Woden in England. Along the way, the origin of the name seems to have been lost. By the time we get to the medieval Edda, Snorri felt confident in giving a euhemeristic account of the god's origin, placing him in an almost Biblical list of names that situates him as a human king descended from refugees of the Trojan war who came up into Scandinavia from Turkey. There are too many problems with this explanation of the god's origin to list, but the character – like so many Germanic gods – seems to have originally been a concept given corporeal form.


Zen Mermaid said...

As I am embarking upon studies in the meaning of the Runes. I had decided to see the relationship of the Runes to Norse mythology, and your site has provided interesting information. Seems to me that most "AllFather(s)" are seen as raging at one point or another!

Unknown said...

Hi, Great article. I'm wondering if Odin, et. al., could have been a great war-leader who was deified by ancestor worship? This would give credence to Snorri's ehuemeristic Aesir/Asia idea...

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