Thoughts on how the Norse god Odin’s association with sacrifice, and historical circumstance, turned him into a ‘war god’ and a ‘god of the dead’

(Odin from an eighteenth century Icelandic manuscript)

I often hear the Norse god Odin described as a ‘war god’, as if all he was about was victory, killing, and such.  I’ve also heard him spoken of as a ‘god of the dead’, as he is often associated with death.  I have always disagreed with these.  It seems that this is only part of the story, that there is more to it.  I do feel that, during the Viking era, he became very much associated with war and death but I have always had doubts that this is what he truly represented.  I’ve always felt there was a story here that was not being said.

There are many reasons why I feel there’s more to Odin than war and death:

  • Some of the tales of Odin describe him as a ‘creator god’ who created existence, civilization, and other things. 
  • He’s described as an ‘overseer’ of the world, who watches over the world.
  • Odin is described as doing things other than war and death, displaying many other traits and abilities.  These include wisdom, knowledge, the creation of poetry and song, the discovery of runes, magic, and so on. 
  • He’s associated with kings and royalty – authority in the society.
  • People prayed to him for many things other than war and death. 
  • Many accounts describe Odin as travelling amongst the world of men, oftentimes to help them.
  • Also, people do not normally worship a ‘war god’ or ‘god of the dead’ as their main god.

All these seem to describe that he was something more than a ‘war god’ and a ‘god of the dead’.  But, why then is he associated with war and death?  Below are some of my thoughts on the matter.

Odin’s association with sacrifice

If we look at the accounts, one thing that we  see associated with Odin is the idea of sacrifice.  There was great sacrifice to Odin.  The accounts describe a continual reference to sacrificing to Odin.  These were done for a multitude of reasons, in a multitude of ways, and there were many things that were sacrificed. 

The many things sacrifice to Odin include:

  • Animals.  Cattle, horses, and dogs seem to be common.
  • Men.  Hanging or strangulation was commonly seen.  Drowning was seen in Uppsala, Sweden.  Burning the remains of a deceased person, along with their belongings, seems to of been another form of sacrifice.
  • Warriors fallen in battle.  These warriors were said to go to a special hall called Valhalla after they died in battle.
  • Warriors of the opposing army that were killed.
  • People ‘sacrificed’ or ‘dedicated’ themselves to Odin by being pierced with a spear in the abdomen. 
  • In the Havamol it even states that Odin “sacrificed himself to himself” and discovered the mystery of runes.

There was great sacrifices in Sweden where it was practiced to such an extreme that it seems to of even appalled the Danes.  In Sweden the main area for these sacrifices was called Uppsala (the “upper hall”), where the kings hall was located.  The accounts seem to continually mention how the Swedish kings, in particular, were ‘great sacrificers’.

In the King Gautreks Saga there is an example of a sacrifice of a king.  This account shows a common form of sacrifice to Odin:  a piercing in the abdomen with a spear then hanging.  In the saga it describes how they had no wind to sail.  As a result, they used divination and determined that Odin wanted a sacrifice.  They drew lots which favored King Vikar.  They drew lots a number of times and it always landed on King Vikar.  But, because he was a king they did not want to sacrifice him so they staged a ‘mock sacrifice’.  The spear was to be a reed and the rope was the intestines of a goat they had killed.  This way, they would do the sacrifice but he would not get hurt.  When they performed the sacrifice, though, the reed was mysteriously changed into a spear and the intestines turned into rope killing King Vikar . . . Odin got his sacrifice.   

Theres even an account of a king offering his sons as an offering to Odin.  In the Ynglinga Saga it describes the story of King On or Ane who sacrificed nine of his sons to Odin, so that he would live a long time. 

The accounts seems to suggest that everything sacrificed was “given” to Odin.  In other words, since sacrifice is a ‘deliberate death’ this would mean that any ‘deliberate death’  – sacrifice – was something that Odin ‘possessed’ in the ‘otherworld’.  As a result, any person deliberately seeking death would be ‘possessed’ by Odin.  Being that he was the ‘main god’, this is the place one wanted to be and this is what was sought by people (like going to heaven).  This made many forms of ‘deliberate deaths’ appealing to the people.  There seems to of been a number of ways of this ‘deliberate death’:

  • The deliberate killing of animals – sacrifice.
  • The deliberate killing of men – in sacrifice or war.
  • Dying in battle.  
  • Being pierced by a spear, on ones deathbed, so as to be ‘dedicated to Odin’.
  • Deliberately killing oneself – suicide.  In King Gautreks saga is mentioned an account of a family who would jump over a cliff to kill themselves.  In so doing, they mentioned that they would be accepted by Odin.  There is also mention of how he wanted a favored slave to come with him over the cliff so that he, too, would be accepted by Odin.  It’s possible that this suicide was perceived as a ‘deliberate death’ – a sacrifice – that would mean they would be accepted by Odin.

Sacrifice was given to Odin for a number of reasons which include:

  • Good sailing weather.
  • Live longer.
  • Victory.
  • To be accepted by Odin after death.
  • Good crops.
  • Good seasons.

There appears that there were two locations where Odin’s sacrifice was done ritually and at certain set times of the year:

  1. Uppsala, Sweden.
  2. Lejre, Denmark.

This fact, alone, shows that sacrifice was very much associated with Odin and played a big part in his worship.   Every nine years each location was supposed to of held great sacrifices of men and animals.  Unfortunately, we do not know too much about these sacrifices or, exactly, what they were for.  Adam of Bremen mentions that in Uppsala the sacrifices were so extensive that there would be men and animals hanging from many of the trees. 

Odin’s association with war

The Viking accounts describe many associations of Odin with war.  These seem to revolve around several themes:

  1. For victory.  This could be by sacrificing for victory or by receiving help from Odin for victory (this may even entail his appearance).
  2. Offering the dead to Odin.  This could be the ‘dedication’ of the opposing army to Odin or that one will go to Valhalla if one dies in battle.  Often, they would throw a spear over the opposing force to ‘dedicate’ them to Odin.  It also was not uncommon for them to offer the prisoners taken up in war as a sacrifice to Odin.

In either case, the theme of sacrifice is there, either in sacrificing for victory or giving the opposing armies dead to Odin or in the fact that one will be received by Odin when one loses.  The theme of death . . . sacrifice . . . is there.  This fact, to me, makes it appear that war was considered a form of sacrifice to Odin – either the offering of the opposing army or oneself in battle.  It was one of the many forms of sacrifice that he accepted.  If this is the case, then it would mean that Odin is not a ‘war god’ but a ‘sacrificial god’ with war being a form of sacrifice. This made it so that any war became associated with Odin, as it was a sacrifice for him, for it gave him his sacrificial victims.  

When the Viking era came, with the increase in wars and conflicts that it brought about, it was only natural that Odin would grow in prominence and powerWith Odin, and his association with sacrifice, war and killing seemed to become more ‘accepted’.   It also no doubt gave the warriors something to believe in, inspiring them to carry out war and in killing and in being killed.  This would mean that something like an ‘Odin inspired warrior culture’ developed.  This would have glorified war, killing, and dying, and instilled these values in the people as a ‘social value’.  When this happens, people seek out the ‘social value’ and try to emulate it.  In this case, it is war, killing, and dying.  These attitudes may of set the stage for the killing and terror that would become so prominent in the Viking era.  This ‘warrior culture’ may of been one of the reasons why the Vikings were so fierce and deadly.  For, with this belief, it justified the actions of the Vikings.  It also gave us a body of literature and stories, during this time, that mentions Odin’s involvement in these actions which gives us the illusion that Odin was a ‘war god’. 

Odin’s association with royalty

Another element that made Odin associated with war is that he was associated with royalty.  Many Norse kings claimed descent from Odin.  This is no doubt because Odin was the ‘main god’ and it is through him that they gained their power and justification.  This created a very strong association between the kings and Odin. 

Not only that, the king took on the role of something similar to a ‘priest’ at this time.  The king was perceived as something like an intermediary between the gods and the people.  He was, in a sense, a representative of the gods.  As a result, many kings were considered Divine and Holy by the people.  This would associate the king with Odin, their primary god.

It’s also possible that the association between king and Odin was especially strong because the king may have performed the ‘official sacrifices’ for the country.  Because the king was the ‘sacrificer’, and the ‘sacrificial god’ was Odin, it established a close bond between king and Odin.  As a result of this, it made the King-Odin association very strong, as well as the connection with sacrifice. 

In addition, the accounts, even before the Viking era, seems to show that much of the activities and affairs of kings were one of war and conflict between other neighboring kings.  There are numerous accounts of disputes and conflicts that went on between kings.  Because of this prevalence, it made war associated with kings and influenced much of their identity.  But, because the king is associated with Odin, it may of set this association:  king-Odin-war.  In effect, because the king was associated with war, so Odin was associated with war, as he was the ‘kings god’.  No doubt it was to Odin that the king prayed and sacrificed for victory in battle.  In fact, we know that there were great sacrifices to Odin for victory, often even before battles.  This prevalence for sacrificing for victory suggests the importance Odin had for the Norse kings and their conflicts and of the importance of war.

Odin’s association with death

There is continual references to Odin and death.  This is not so surprising, as he is associated with various forms of sacrifice, which is nothing but the deliberate killing of something, causing death. 

Odin’s association with sacrifice (and forms of death) suggests that he was a god associated with the ‘border’ of the sacred and the worldly.  This makes Odin somewhat unique as many gods are “only in the sacred realm”.  With Odin there is continual references to how he was something like an ‘intermediary’ between the sacred and the worldly.  In some sense, Odin was like a ‘doorway’ to the sacred.  He did more than ‘bless’ the people with something.  Odin helped them actively oftentimes.  He would appear in the midst of humanity and help someone, he was in the poetry, he was said to be seen in the battles, and so on.  He was a god-in-the-sacred and god-in-the-wordly.  He stood between the sacred and the worldly.

It’s for this reason that it’s not surprising that he is associated with death as death is often associated with the sacred and the ‘otherworld’.  This is because, in death, a ‘door’ is opened to the sacred and our ‘souls’ pass through it.  In death we pass from the worldly to the sacred.  Sacrifice is really nothing but a ‘deliberate opening of the door to the sacred’, which is why it’s so prevalent in human society all over the world.  By offering sacrifice it is generally perceived that we receive some form of ‘blessing’, or other quality, from the sacred as a result of the ‘door’ being opened. There are many forms of the sacred one can receive when this door is opened.  Some of these include the following:

  • The receiving of blessings.
  • The gaining of profit.
  • The receiving of help.
  • The use of magic and spells.
  • Divination to know the gods will.
  • The discovery and use of wisdom.
  • The discovery and use of poetry.
  • Concerns of where we go after death.

Odin is associated with all these.  It’s almost as if Odin is the ‘medium’, so to speak, with the ‘otherworld’, or the world of the sacred.  Through him these things are attained.  In some respects, it seems to suggest that Odin was the ‘fount of the sacred’.  This was the power of Odin, not in being a ‘god of the dead’.  If he were a ‘god of the dead’ he would be continually associated with the dead and would almost continually reside in the ‘land of the dead’.  Both of these he does not do.

It’s interesting that Odin’s association with death is such that, in the Ynglinga saga, he is supposed to of prescribed how funerals were to be performed, how people were to be buried, and how their possessions are to be handled after their death.  In many ways, this is just a continuation of the subject that revolves around the ‘door’ to the sacred that death brings. 

On how changing circumstance created different perceptions of Odin through the years

All these seems to show that the image of Odin has progressed and changed through the years, changing with the circumstances of the times and that he was much more than a ‘war god’ or ‘god of the dead’.  In effect, the changing times, and his association with sacrifice, is what made Odin appear to be a ‘war god’ and a ‘god of the dead’. 

Almost all the accounts of Odin were during the Viking era, or just before that, which was a time of great war, raiding, and death.  It’s really no wonder that the war and death element of Odin would be so prominent during this time.  But much of the mythology, which no doubt predates this war and death period, suggests that Odin may have been associated with other things, like wisdom, magic, and poetry.  If this were the case, then it would say that the historical circumstances turned Odin into something like a ‘war god’ and a ‘god of the dead’.  The historical situation took some of the qualities of Odin and emphasized them, neglecting other qualities he had, and changed his image, his importance, and his function.  Slowly, due to war and the Viking raids, the sacrificial aspects of Odin were used to ‘complement’ the violence, to justify war, to ease the thought of death, to guarantee victory, and so on.  In other words, the image of the god Odin was probably a different figure after the Viking era than before it.  Being that we do not have many accounts of before the Viking era we cannot say for sure what Odin was like before the Viking era.

My guess is that he was a ‘creator and sustainer god’ that people sacrificed to, originally in a ceremony or feast.  These sacrifices would have been performed by the king, as intermediary between god and the people.  Most likely, these sacrifices would have been done for good crops or good hunts.  As the population grew, though, the tensions between people grew so much that there became conflict.  As a result, people were killed, perhaps in single combat or small skirmishes originally.  Being a death, they associated these with Odin as a sacrifice.  In fact, its possible that the real reason for the wars were originally as a sacrifice.  This is not new in the world.  War-as-sacrifice is seen a lot in many primitive societies.  Often, these are done to guarantee good crops and plentiful hunting.  This could very well have been the case with the early Norse.  But, the conflicts grew and grew in size, and turned into wars involving many people.  As this happened the association between Odin, war, and sacrifice continued.  Because the wars became so prevalent, particularly during the Viking era, Odin would become associated with war and death in general.  This gave him the semblance of a ‘god of war’ or a ‘god of death’.


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Religion and religious stuff, Vikings - Odin, Thor, the Norse, and such and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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