Some thoughts on the possible origin and development of the Norse god Odin


The Norse god Odin has always seemed to be something of an enigma to me.  He seems to have all these qualities about him that make him unique.  Some of these qualities include:

–  He has a body of myths about him typical of a god.   These are myths that you’d expect with a god, describing mystical behaviour and explanations of the world. 

–  There are many references to Odin as being a real king in Uppsala, Sweden.  These are all accounts of non Swedish people which may, as a result, depict a distorted or biased viewpoint, but it is spoken of multiple times, which may mean there’s “something” about it. 

–  Some of his myths and stories do not describe the normal acts of a god but acts that a man would perform.  For example, he is told as doing many shaman-like activities, which are not usually ascribed to a god, as it is an act of a man.  These are also seldom seen in a king.

–  Odin has almost too many traits.  Typically, gods entail a minimal amount of traits for which he becomes associated with.  From the accounts, Odin could be the god of ‘wisdom’, god of ‘poetry and song’, and god of ‘war’, god of ‘those fallen in battle’, god of ‘prisoners’, god of ‘sacrifice’, god of ‘death’, etc.  He is also known as the All-father, the father of all the gods.  Which is he?  Not many times do you have a god with so many capabilities. 

This has made me wonder alot about him, his origins, and meaning.  Was he a real king?  Was he a real man?  Is he a reference to what someone had done?  Is he a compilation of different gods and/or people?  Or is he just a god?

Some of what we know – the ‘Uppsala cult’

Naturally, we don’t have enough information to say for certain.  This means that all we can do is speculate.  The area we’re concerned with is Uppsala, Sweden, where the kings of Sweden had their seat.  It’s here that we are missing information.  There is very little accounts of what went on there, its beliefs, or the customs in this area.  What we do have is very scanty and minimal.  

Let me first say that it seems that there was a very Odin based religion/kingship in Uppsala, Sweden.  This appears to be different than the Odin found elsewhere in the Norse countries.  In fact, the Uppsala area seemed to have a lot of customs and beliefs that were found nowhere else.  Perhaps we could call it a very unique ‘Uppsala cult’ that went on there.  As I said above, the details of this cult have not been recorded, at least as far as I know.  This puts us in a position to look at the few accounts we have and compare them to known trends in mythology, religion, and society elsewhere in the world (under these conditions, it would be a miracle if anyone agrees on an explanation at all).

In other parts of the Norse lands Odin was a god and that’s all.  In Uppsala, it seems that Odin was more than that.  The claim is that he was a king there in Uppsala and he may even have a burial howe there somewhere.  But was he a king? 

A big source of this information is in Snorri Sturlusson’s book ‘The Ynglinga Saga’.  Here he is mentioned as a king coming from Asia.  Snorri tended to believe he came from Asia because he was part of the Asa folk or gods.  He equated ‘Asia’ with ‘Asa’ which, I believe, is in error.  I tend to believe that ‘Asa’ folk refers more the the Old Norse ‘Ass’, which refers to a pole or beam.  It as been associated with the ash tree (for which it has similar spelling).  These may show that it may refer to the ‘world tree’ (which has also been called ‘yggdrasil’), which plays a big role in Norse mythology.  Even the gods are said to hold court and meet at the base of this ash tree showing its strong association with the gods.  Because of this, ‘Asa’ folk is a fitting name for the gods in general, I think.  That seems a likely scenario.

Anyways, Snorri speaks of how he taught people magic and poetry. 

He also would change shapes and travel as if asleep.  This seems to be describing an actual act of a person, something like a shaman. 

Later, Snorri says, he was turned into a god as did several of the kings which followed Odin.  Other chroniclers have also commented on how the Swedes worshipped their kings as gods as well.  This suggests a close association between god and king in Uppsala that was not found elsewhere, hinting that this quality is a trait of this cult.  It’s interesting to note that the kings of Sweden still have their coronations at the Uppsala cathedral. 

Other sources mentioned how the kings of Uppsala did a lot of magic.  I get the impression that many other Norse kings, such as in Denmark, were skeptical of the Uppsala kings, and looked on them with great suspicion.  There are many tales of how the Uppsala kings tried to fool or deceive the Danish kings in particular (a good example is with Hrolf Kraki). 

Accounts also describe great sacrifices held at Uppsala.  Some chroniclers describe there were a multitude of animals or men hung from the trees at certain times.

There was a sacred grove of trees there.  They often hung their sacrifices on these trees.

There was also supposed to be a well near the main tree.  Here, they were supposed to of done their sacrifices.  It was said that men were drowned there.  This is unusual, as nowhere, at least as far as I have heard, has the Norse sacrificed by drowning.  This again shows that this area may of had its own unique customs.

Supposedly, there was a temple there, which had a gold chain all around it that could be seen for miles. 

(Pagan temple at Uppsala according to Olaus Magnus showing temple, the chain around roof, the tree, and the well with someone being sacrificed in it- 1555)

There are also many howes, or burial mounds there.  There are three large ones there today.  They were found to consist of ashes.  Who they were remains unknown. 

(The three large burial mounds at Uppsala, Sweden)

They also were known to burned peoples remains in this area.  Supposedly, there were thousands of burial howes about the area.

Accounts also seem to suggest that there was some sort of reverence given to cattle, with some being described as magical.  They were often led out before an army before a battle.  There are also references to how, when the cattle bellowed, the soldiers could not handle the noise.   

I should point out that many of these customs seem unique to Uppsala and did not seem to be seen in other Norse countries.  This is another reason why I think we may be dealing with a unique cult to this area.  Something like a unique cult would very possible have its own customs and beliefs. 

Speculation . . .

Being that we have scanty information, we can only speculate on his origins.  Because of the nature of speculation a number of possible scenarios could be put forth.  Some of these are:

–  Odin was a real man in Uppsala and did these things (be a king, a warrior, taught magic and singing, did shamanistic things, etc.).  He was later deified and worshipped as a god, just as Snorri stated. 

–  Snorri is devaluing the god Odin into a king because of his Christian outlook.  That is to say, it was his way of refusing the validity of the Norse gods.

–  Odin was a god but there was also a king named Odin at one time.  Snorri confused the two.  It’s interesting that Snorri states later that Odin or Aud was a common name at one time.

–  Perhaps there was an office, like a high priest, that may of been identified as representing the god Odin.  This may of led to the belief that Odin was an actual king or person living there.  Perhaps he even took the title of Odin?  There is a Norwegian saga which states that in a trial there were 12 people representing the 12 gods.  Each would take the name of the god they were supposed to represent.  It was believed that the god they represented spoke through them.  Is it possible that the ‘high priest’ was called Odin for similar reasons?

–  The office of king is to be half man, half divine.  Since there were kings in Uppsala, is it possible that one of their titles was ‘Odin’, as they represented his divinity?  This would be along the same lines as how many Roman Emperors were known as ‘Ceasar’, their originator.

–  Odin was described as a king because he was ‘king of the gods’.

–  Odin was an ‘Intermediary God’.  This is a scenario I will describe below.

Unfortunatley, the ‘Ynglinga Saga’ speaks little of the ‘Uppsala cult’ going on there.  It only describes various acts of the kings that followed Odin.  As near as I can tell, little is revealed there.

Odin as shaman – the ‘Intermediary God’?

Looking at the myths it appears Odin has qualities similar to a shaman.  It is unusual for a god to be portrayed in this fashion.  In the ‘Ynglinga saga’ he’s described as changing shapes and being able to travel even though he appears asleep – very similar to a shamanstic trance.  The great world tree is called Yggdrasil, which means ‘Odin’s horse’, meaning that he rides it.  This is a description that has even been used by shamans.  Even the name Odin may have origins with the Old Norse ‘Od’, which is comes from ‘vada’.  This means something like ‘to move through’ or ‘pass through’, which may be a reference to shamanistic journeying.  I’ve also heard it spoken of as meaning ‘frenzy’, which has also been used with shamanistic journeying.

No doubt his shamanistic qualities made him associated with knowledge and wisdom, for it is he that a lot of the mysteries of life is revealed.  As with shamans he consulted with the ‘spirits’ to find out truths about life. 

Odin is also associated with poetry and is credited with taking the ‘mead of poetry’ from the giants.  Snorri also speaks of him as a ‘song smith’.  Singing and poetry are also seen with shamans and can take great importance in their functions.  It is a major element in how they consulted the ‘spirits’ or got in a trance. 

Odin is also credited with the discovery of Runes, magical symbols that had deep mystical meanings.  In many ways, they are like little amulets and idols, representing some divine truth or entity.  They could be used for a number of different reasons:  protection, to give luck, change nature, healing, etc.  These functions were often seen with shamans who often used similar amulets, charms, etc.  Later, they would be used as an alphabet. 

Many of his stories tell of mythological-like happennings and events. These were done by a man like person, though, who had to do acts to achieve things.  In this way,  he seems similar to the Indian god Siva, who did man-like things and who practiced procedures to learn about life.  Generally, gods don’t do acts to achieve things as they normally have the traits innately.  In that respect Odin behaves like a man, like a ‘god-man’.  Odin had to hang himself to learn about the runes, sacrificed his eye to gain wisdom, etc. in the same way that Siva had to practice meditation and austerities to gain knowledge.  Odin is also similar to Siva in that he had ‘gained new sight’, so to speak.  Siva grew a new eye in his forehead.  Odin sacrificed one of his eyes to ‘see’ into the mysteries of life, basically.  Both developed a new ‘eye’ of sorts.

These facts could suggest that he represents an act a man performed, like a shaman, that was as if deified.  It appears to me that there have been situations where the office or position (such as a shaman) was as if turned into a person and deified.  This position must entail the person actively associating with the divine.  Because of this association they act performed becomes as if deified as a god.  As a result, it takes the representation of a person, who becomes godlike.  At first, he may be perceived as a ‘helping spirit’ but it can turn into a god if situations are right. 

And so it would seem that Odin and Siva became deified personifications of positions that men had held.  It refers more to a social position in a society than an actual person.  This gives the ‘god’ manlike qualites, as well as the behaviour, failings, and inabilities of a man.  Because of this he must, like a man, perform acts to achieve abilities.  Having to do such things is not common for most gods to do, as most gods are portrayed as having special superhuman abilities.  This phenemena is not new.  I call it the ‘Intermediary God’

If he was an ‘Intermediary God’ that would mean that there were very influential shamanistic like activities going on with the old Norse.  No doubt, this would be before recorded history which is why we know nothing of it.  What we are seeing, then, are the traces or remnants of it in the legends and stories, of something long gone, perhaps centuries before. 

Odin as king

The evidence shows that Odin is associated with the aristocracy or nobility who has, at their head, a king.  Because of this, he’s associated with kings.  As I said above, even the ‘Uppsala cult’ describes Odin as being a king, showing the great association he has with this social position. 

But a king, in early history, was considered as being half man, half god.  He was an intermediary between god and the people.  Only later did the king become a ‘government official’ as we generally view them nowadays.  In fact, a king was origianlly a person who took on religious functions as their primary duty. 

This ‘half god’ may of done shamanistic things as part of his office.  I’m unaware of that happening in the world though.  It seems that the ‘king’ and ‘shaman’ were separate roles that never blended together.  They both had close associations with the divine and sacred, but they seem were separate manifestations of this.  This, also, is part of the enigma of Odin for it seems that Odin is made up of two incompatable social positions – king and shaman. 

This would make me think that if Odin was originally an ‘Intermediary God’ then the king was something added later.  Why?  Because the ‘Intermediary God’ is something you’d see in a small tribal society.  The king starts to appear in larger societies, when there are enough people that they need a strong unity.  Perhaps this is why they are never seen together, because one is replaced by the other?  This would explain why Odin has the qualities of shaman, king, and god.  To me, with the little information we have, it seems very plausible.

This would suggest a transition something like ‘shaman-intermediary god-king’ in the early Norse.  The shaman became prominent and influential in society.  He became so prominent that his ‘office’ became as if deified into a god – the intermediary god.  Later, as the population grew, the people needed a king to bring unity.  When the king appeared the intermediary god, which was very dominant at the time, became the kings god.  Now, the king would represent the intermediary god.  In addition, the shaman would disappear with the arrival of the king.  The net result is that we now have Odin and the king as representative of this religion.

These transitions would manifest itself in the qualities of Odin who passed through these transitions.  As a result, he picked up and kept qualities from each stage of the transition:  shaman . . . intermediary god . . . king.

Recorded history, of course, begins when the king is well established and so thats where all the records begin giving the illusion that this is how everything started.

 But . . . this is all speculation.   We will never know for certain.

Odin as warrior

For whatever reason, Odin became associated with the king and was a god.  Later, because of the population growth there became conflicts between peoples and such.  This helped create a more warrior type of society.  It is only natural that the king would head this warrior society since he was the unifying element of a people.  Over time, it would only be natural that the kings ‘god’ – Odin – would became the god of this warrior class.  As such, he would become deeply associated with war.  This, though, was a result of historical circumstance, not because this is what Odin meant originally.  In other words,  history required Odin to be associated with war. 

Because the king became head of a warrior class it created an aristocracy or nobility.  As a result, the aristocracy or nobility became associated with these shamanistic-priest qualites and to ‘Odin’ and his traits.  Accordingly, Odin then displayed traits of noble virtue, reflecting the warrior class he was associated with.  For example, he punished people for treating visitors bad, and not being generous, and emulated bravery. 

Also, because of his association with the warrior class he would develop warrior traits.  For example, he is often called the God of Prisoners (no doubt, taken from war, where the prisoners may of prayed for his help) and the God of Cargo (most certainly he was prayed to so the Vikings would be able to get the cargo of the ships they were raiding), and other things.   These show that he became associated with the warlike things that were happening at the time. 

And, because of the Viking raids, he became associated with any act of aggression or conflict in general, because of his previous association with war.   This is why he’s associated with the Viking raids.  I do not feel he is a ‘war god’, though, as the references seem to show him only as ‘associated’ with war, and not a god of it.  It was something that seems to of been added onto his many traits.

‘Holy men’ replaced by the king-based social structure

I have always been mystified that Norse society had no real ‘holy men’ like shamans, defined priests or things like that.  By the time of the Christian conversion there was a complete lack of things like these which are generally found in tribal societies.  Again, the new king and his god, who represented the shamans abilities, may of taken a lot of the need for that away.  The focus went from individual shamans to the king, making the former redundant.  It’s difficult to say, but its possible.

By the time of the Christian conversion, it seemed that females often did the ‘magic’ mostly, mainly by doing spells, and predicting the future.  They often would get into a trance to predict the future.  This trance is what shamans usually did.  It’s almost like the females filled the gap the missing shamans left.  This seems common in primitive societies.  When the male shaman disappears the female takes on similar roles.  Usually, they do not entail any ‘journeying’, though.  They often entail magic, ceremony, and possibly trances, which is exactly what happened in Norse society.

It’s interesting that Snorri Sturluson writes in his ‘Ynglinga saga’ that Odin thought magic was “unmanly” and gave it to the females to do.  Other accounts in viking saga shows that ‘magic’ was frowned upon, in general, but some men did do it though.  This is odd in that many stories and accounts state that Odin did magic himself.  Again, another contradiction in all the roles Odin performs. 

Perhaps, once the shaman-king-warrior association was made in the warrior based society, the warrior qualites and ideals made shamanistic ‘magic’ something to frown upon?  Not only that, once the society went from a shamanistic tribal society to a king-based society the shamans role disappeared.  This is not new and has happened before.  Basically, the ‘magic’, trances, journeying, etc. of the shaman is replaced by duty, faith, loyalty, social organization, etc. to the king who is now the representative of divinity.  It seems to me that this happened in Norse society.  This accounts for the absence of the shamans, priests, and holy men.  The king became the ‘priest’, the holy man.  Accounts show that ‘under kings’ or Jarls also often did ‘priestly’ functions as well.  This shows that the ‘priests’ role was a matter of social hiearchy now, which shows the power of the social hierarchy of the king-based society.  It also shows that social structure, really, is religiously sanctioned and a part of the religion of the country.  This is common in king-based societies.  And because of its association with the king, who is associated with god, they also ‘inherited’ the divine qualities of the king. 

Of course, this is all speculation, but something to think about . . .


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

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