Monday, March 29, 2010

Odin and the Runes, Part Two

One name that Odin is known by is Hrafnáss ("raven-god"). He is often described and depicted as being attended by two ravens as magical familiars. They are known as Hugin and Munin ("thought" and "memory").

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.

Ravens are an obvious choice for a war god, as they could be seen on the bloody battlefields of the North, flying to and fro to feast on the corpses of the dead. They are often seen in pairs, as they are one of the avian species that tend to mate for life. Given all this, the Christian notion of the all-seeing God – as in the traditional gospel hymn "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" – can be seen prefigured in that Germanic notion that "his (one) eye is in the raven."

Odin with wolves and ravens by Johannes Wiedewelt (circa 1780)

Odin is also attended by two wolves, Geri and Freki (both names meaning "greedy"). Like ravens, they are creatures that haunt battlefields and feast upon the slain. They may also be symbolic of a wolf-cult of Odin. The poems and sagas of the North are full of tales of werewolves, and these are generally understood to be berserkers ("bear-shirts" – i.e., wearing animal skins, perhaps meaning taking the form of an animal). These warriors were consumed with a battle-frenzy that made them act like wild animals º– a frenzy that was thought to be brought on by Odin, the Raging God.

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, the World Tree of Norse cosmology, reflects yet another name of Odin, deriving from the most well-known of his adventures in search of arcane knowledge. Ygg ("terrible") is one of the god's names, and Yggdrasil is generally taken to mean "Ygg's horse." This refers to the story of Odin's self-hanging in order to gain secret widsom; he "rode" the tree.

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.

In the Eddic poem Völuspá ("Prophecy of the Seeress"), the beginning of the first war in the world is signaled with the ritualized throwing of a spear: "Odin shot a spear, hurled it over the host." As in the mythic tales, it was in life. Germanic warriors of pagan times were known to begin a battle by throwing a spear over the heads of their enemies to symbolically sacrifice them to Odin.

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.


Josh said...

I was more under the impression that the name Gandalf was mentioned in the context of the list of the first dwarves in the Voluspo, rather than being another of the many aspects of Odin.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

You are correct about "Gandalf" being a dwarf name in the original mythology. Tolkien, of course, knew this. In his "Guide to the Names in the Lord of the Rings," he explained that "Gandalf" is the name given to the wizard by the dwarves and does indeed translate as "wand-elf."

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