Some thoughts on the accounts of the Norse god Odin as a man

 

(Odin by George von Rosen, 1886)

There are only two people, as near as I can tell, who have spoken of Odin as a man.  Not only have they spoken about Odin as a man but both have given us much information about Odin, and Norse mythology, in general.  Without their works we would know very little about Odin or Norse mythology.  As a result, we are indebted to their writings.  But, due to a number of factors, their accounts are somewhat biased and twisted and do not give an altogether accurate picture of Odin and Norse mythology.  Because of this, we need to be cautious when reading their accounts.

The two authors I speak of are:

  1. The Icelander Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).  He is a historian and politician in Iceland.  He has given us the most information.  His accounts of Odin are found in the Ynglinga Saga and the Edda.  In the latter, Odin is spoken of in the Preface, the Gyfiginning, and the Skaldsaparmal.
  2. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (1150-1220).  He was probably a cleric to the Archbishop Absalon, who was very influential in the Christianizing of Denmark.  His accounts come from several books in his ‘Danish History’.

Both have given accounts of Odin as if he were a living man.  This has led to great speculation if Odin was, in fact, a man that was turned into a god.  I tend to believe otherwise, as I will describe below. 

Both authors were writing from two specific perspectives that greatly influenced their writing:

  • They were writing ‘history’, describing historical accounts (not mythology or the pagan religion).  As a result, they tended to write of things as if they were a historical event.  This includes the accounts of Odin and some mythological events.  When someone takes a mythology, or an account of a god, and writes it as it were a historical event it is called Euhemerism.  I think you will find both did this in the case of Odin.
  • Both were Christian writing from a Christian perspective.  This point of view tended to make them downplay, and even criticize and condemn, the pagan Norse religion and gods.   

These perspectives colored, influenced, and determined the direction of their writing.  It also affected each differently: 

  • Snorri Sturluson knew that he was writing about old pagan beliefs and mythology and gods.  As a result, he was more truthful about it, making his accounts more reliable.  But, we must remember, he was a Christian and did emphasize that they were describing ‘false’ gods.   Because of this, there are points where he no doubt distorted the accounts.  This is most apparent in the Ynglinga Saga and the preface to the Edda.  Here, Odin is spoken as if he were a man.  But in the Gylfaganning and Skaldsaparmal, of the Edda, Odin is spoken of as a god.  Because of this, Snorri Sturluson has inconsistencies in his accounts, as if describing two different people.  In general, the Edda was written as describing old Norse mythology, and is probably accurate (here Odin is a god, except in the preface which was written like a ‘warning’ that the old Norse gods were ‘false’).  The Ynglinga Saga was a historical account of the early kings of Sweden.  As a result, it was looked at from a historical perspective.  As a result, Odin became a ‘historical king’. 
  • Saxo Grammaticus, being a cleric, was very critical of the Norse religion and gods.  He even states this repetitively in the accounts.  As a result, his accounts of the Norse religion and Odin can’t be looked on too reliably.  He seemed reluctant to admit the Norse gods were real and that Odin was a man who pretended to be a god.  Because of this, his accounts generally described Odin as if he were a man pretending to be a god.

Its interesting that both Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus describe Odin as a living man and also as a god.  In fact, it’s not uncommon that they will bounce around between god and man as they progress in their stories.  As a result of this, we have two confusing biographies of Odin:  as a god, and as a man.

Between these two authors there are four accounts of Odin as a man: 

  1. The “Ynglinga Saga” by Snorri Sturluson.
  2. The preface to the “Edda” by Snorri Sturluson.
  3. A segment from Book One of the “Danish History by Saxo Grammaticus.
  4. A segment from Book Three of the “Danish History” by Saxo Grammaticus. 

Each account describes Odin a little differently and in different ways.  There are similarities and there are differences, as will be apparent below. 

Account No. 1 – THE “YNGLINGA SAGA” BY SNORRI STURLUSON

The world is divided into two parts.  They are divided by a river called Tanais, or Tanakvisl or Vanakvisl, as it was formerly called.  This river passed through Sweden the Great.  The land to the east of this river was called Asaland or Asaheim or Asia.  The chief town in this land is called Asagard or Asagarth.  The land to the west is called Europe.  A long time ago the land between the Vanaforks was called Vanaland or Vanaheim. 

It is in the town of Asagard, in Asaheim (or Asia), that a chief lived, called Odin.  In Asgard they did great sacrificing and there were twelve priests.   These priests were called diar or drottnar.  They had a number of functions: 

  • They did the sacrificing at the temple.
  • They made the judgements upon the people.
  • Everyone had to obey and serve them.  

Ve and Vili were the brothers of the chief Odin.  Frigga was the name of Odin’s wife.  When Odin was away, which he often was, his brothers ruled the land together.  In one instance, Odin was away for a long period of time that they thought he would not come back.  As a result, Ve and Vili both took Frigga as their wife and began to divide his goods and possessions between themselves.  Some time latter, though, Odin returned and took back Frigga as his wife. 

The chief Odin was a great warrior and travelled all over and gained many kingdoms.  He was very victorious wherever he went.  This made him very esteemed and praised so much so that everyone believed that he always won every fight and battle.  It was his custom to lay his hand on the head of his men and give them his blessing.  With this they believed that everything would go their way.  When his men were hard pressed or in a difficult position they believed that by just calling his name that they would get help from him, such is the trust and hope they placed in Odin.

Once, Odin went to war with the Vanes.  In this battle with the Vanes, Odin could not win, but neither did the Vanes.  They both withstood one another and could not defeat each other.  As a result of this, they decided to agree to peace and to give hostages in exchange.  The Vanes gave the Asaland people their greatest men: 

  • Niord the Wealthy.
  • Frey (Njord’s son).
  • Kvasir (who was the wisest of the Vanes). 

The people of Asaland gave as hostages to the Vanes:

  • Haenir (who is a great leader).
  • Mimir (the wisest of the Asaland people). 

When in Vanaheim Haenir was chosen to be a leader, and Mimir to advise him.  But whenever they were called to a meeting, and Mimir was not present to advise Haenir, all that Haenir would do is tell them to get counsel from others.  This made the Vanes very suspicious and bitter against the people of Asaland.  They felt as if they were short-changed.  As a result, they beheaded Mimir and sent his head back to Asaland.  Odin, with his magic, took Mimir’s head and smeared it with various herbs, preserving it.  He then quoted spells upon it so that it would tell him many hidden and unknown things. 

Odin made Niord and his son Frey into priests.  Niord had a daughter called Freya and she became a priestess there too.  Freya was the first to teach the people of Asaland wizadry which was used by the Vanes.  Niord’s wife, the mother of Frey and Freya, was his own sister.  This type of relationship was acceptable with the Vanes but was not permitted with the people of Asaland.   

Odin was supposed to have great lands near the Turks.  When the Roman Emperors were trying to conquer the world they dispersed many people and kings, who fled their lands.  During this time, Odin used his magic to see the future and learned that his descendents would live in the northern parts of the world.  As a result, he made his brothers Ve and Vili leaders of the people of Asaland and went off to the northern lands.  He took with him all  his priests and many of his people. 

Odin conquered many lands and had many sons who he set as leaders upon those lands.   His travels took him to Gardarik (Germany), then to Saxland.  He then travelled north to the sea and made a home in Odenso in Fyn, Denmark.

From Odenso he sent Gefion northeast over the sound to look for land.  She came to King Gylfi of Sweden.  He gave her ploughland.  Afterwords, she went to a giants home and had four sons with the giant, who she shaped like oxen.  She yoked them to the plough and ploughed land in Sweden which uplifted some of the land in Sweden and moved it to the east of Odenso creating what is now called Selund (Zealand, Denmark).  The land removed from Sweden became lake Loginn.  This new land, Selund, is where Gefion dwelt.  Odin’s son, Skjold, founder of Skjoldung dynasty in Denmark, took her to wife and they lived in Leidra (Leira, near Roskilde). 

Odin learned that there were great land in King Gylfi’s country, which is now Sweden.  When Odin came to his land King Gylfi would always lose to Odin.  King Gylfi felt that he could not compete with the people of Asaland and made an agreement with Odin and let them settle in his land. 

Odin, and his people, settled near Logrinn (Lake Malar) at Gamla-Sigtun (East side of Upsala Fjord near Sigtuna) and built a great temple there.  Odin conquered all the land about there.  He gave his priests dwelling places: 

  • Niord lived in Noatun.
  • Frey near Upsalla.
  • Heimdal by the Himenfell.
  • Thor in Thrudvang.
  • Balder in Bredabik. 

Odin did many things:

  • Odin taught the people sports and crafts that they used in Asa land.  Odin was the best at these and taught everyone for, as it says, “he knew most of them first”. 
  • He had such noble looks and fair-looking that it made everyone joyful. 
  • When he was with his army he looked terrible to his enemies. 
  • He was such a good talker that everyone would believe what he said.
  • He spoke everything in rhyme, which we now call skaldcraft.  He and his priests were called ‘songsmiths’ because they created the skaldic art form.
  • In battle, Odin could make his foes blind or deaf or terrified and their weapons turn into sticks. 
  • His own men would go without armor and would become mad like wolves or hounds, biting their shields.  His men would also became as strong as a bear or bull.  Neither fire or steel could harm them.  There were called the ‘berserker’s-gang’.
  • He was supposed to be able to change himself and appear in any form he wanted.  He would often lay as if asleep or dead.  He would then change into a bird or beast or any other creature and would be able to go off into far off lands for his own or others errands. 
  • With sacrificial words he slaked fire, stilled the sea, or turned winds any way he wished.
  • He had a ship called Skidbladnir.  He could go over great seas  on this ship.  But it was made in such a way that it could roll up like a table-cloth.
  • He also had Mimir’s head which told him many things from other worlds.
  • He woke up dead men from the earth and would sit underneath men who had been hung.  This is why he would be called the Lord of the Ghosts or the Hanged Men. 
  • He owned two ravens which he taught to talk.  They flew all over the world and told him many things that were going on.
  • He taught crafts with runes and songs that were called galdrar (enchantments).  Because of this the Asa people were called ‘galdra smiths’. 
  • Odin knew and practised seid (witchcraft) which told him mans fate and the future, how to bring people death, ill luck, or illness or he could take power and wisdom from someone and give it to someone else.  Unfortunately, in promoting seid much unmanliness was created so that men dealt it out without thought and shame.  As a result, the priestesses were taught this craft. 
  • Odin could also discover where any treasure was hidden
  • He knew songs that would open the earth and mountains to him and would bound any creatures within, such as trolls, which may try to harm him, so he could enter the earth and leave safely. 

He became so renowned that men sacrificed to him and his twelve chiefs and called them their gods, worshipping them long afterwords.  He  taught much of his ability to the priests and they became almost as wise as he. 

In the new lands Odin conquered he was supposed to of set the laws that were upheld by the Asa people, where he came from.   Part of these laws is that all the dead should be burned, along with all their possessions.  This way all men would come to Valhall with all their possessions with them.  They should then take the ashes out to the sea or bury them down in the earth.  For a famous man they should be a howe as a mark of remembrance.  For men in which there were some manliness they should erect a standing stone. 

Odin said that certain sacrifices must be performed:

  • Near Winter’s day (middle of October) the people should sacrifice for a good season. 
  • In the middle of winter they should sacrifice for a good crop. 
  • Near Summer day (middle of April) there should be a sacrifice for victory. 

It is said that all over Sweden everyone gave scot, or taxes, for each nose.  In so doing Odin would protect their land from war and do sacrifices for them for a good season. 

Odin died in his bed in Sweden.  As he approached death he had himself marked, or stabbed, with a spear point and dedicated himself all men who died through weapons.  Before he died he said that he would now journey to the Godheims and welcome all his friends.  It is said that Sweden is the land of the Manheims and Sweden the Great is the land of the Godheims.

Odin was burned after his death and they say his fire was very glorious.  At that time, they believed that the higher the fire went above, the higher place in Heaven the dead would attain.  They also believed the more that was burned with him, the richer he would be in Heaven. 

Niord of Noatum took over the rule of the Swedes after Odin’s death.

Account No. 2 – THE PREFACE TO THE “EDDA” BY SNORRI STURLUSON

 The world is divided into three parts:

  • Africa.  This is the area to the south and west up to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Europe or Enea.  This is the area to the west and north.
  • Asia.  This is the area to the north, the east, and south.  The middle of the world is found here.  Also, this is the area with the most beauty, splendour, and wealth.  Because of this mankind is better here.

In the middle of the world was built a city called Troy.  This is in the land of Turkey.  Twelve kingdoms were there and one high King.  In this city there were twelve languages.  The twelve rulers were better than any human in all the world.

One king was called Munon or Mennon.  His son was called Tror, who we call Thor.  He would later take control of Thrace, which we call Thrudheim.  He travelled all through the world and found a sibyl who we call Sif.  Thor married her.  Their male descendents are Loridi, Einridi, Vingethor, Vingenir, Moda, Magi, Sescef, Bedvig, Athra (who we call Annar), Itrmann, Heremod, Scialdum (who we call Skiold), Biaf (who we call Biar), Iat, Gudolf, Finn, Friallaf (who we call Fridleif), and Woden.  Odin is the name we use for Woden. 

Odin was a very remarkable person, known for his wisdom and abilities.  His wife is called Frigida, who we call Frigg.  Both Odin and his wife had the gift of prophecy.  It is through the gift of prophecy that Odin discovered that he would be remembered in the northern part of the world and honoured above all kings.  As a result, he left Turkey and left for the north, along with many people and possessions.  Wherever they went they were highly praised so that they sounded almost like gods.

They first journeyed directly to Saxony.  There they stayed for a while.  Odin had three sons in Saxony, who were put to rule over the area:

  • Veggdegg, who ruled East Saxony.
  • Beldegg (who we call Balder), who ruled Westphalia.
  • Siggi, who ruled over what is now France.  The Volsungs are descended from him.

Odin then went northward to a country called Reidgotaland (which is now called jutland) and conquered it.  In this land he set his son Skiold as ruler.  From him are descended the Skioldungs dynasty of Denmark. 

After this he went northward into Sweden where there was a king called Gylfi.  When the Aesir (what the people of Asia are called) arrived King Gylfi offered them as much power as they desired in his land. 

Wherever Odin and the Aesir went there was prosperity and peace, and everyone believed they were the cause of it because they were so unlike people in their beauty and wisdom.

Odin found the area pleasant to live in and settled in an area now called Sigtunir.  In this new land he set up rulers in the same pattern as was seen in Troy.  There were twelve chiefs to administer law, and he established a legal system as it was in Troy. 

Odin also had a son called Yngvi, who became king of Sweden.  From him the Ynglings are descended. 

After this, he travelled north even more til he confronted the sea.  He then set one of his son, Saemung (who all the rulers of Norway are descended), as ruler over this area, which is now called Norway. 

The Aesir had many marriages with the people and their family became quite extensive from Saxony all the way to the north.  In this area, also, their language spread, the language of the people of Asia, and became the mother tongue there.  Because of this, there are names for regions and places in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and England that come from the ancient language before the Aesir appeared.

Account No. 3 – BOOK ONE FROM THE “DANISH HISTORY” BY SAXO GRAMMATICUS

Odin was credited, the world over, as a god, which was false.  He spent his time in Uppsala. 

The kings of the north, wanting to worship him, created a statue of him, covered in gold.  It appears that they may have taken this statue to Byzantium which gave Odin great notoriety, which he enjoyed. 

Frigga, Odin’s wife, had an affair with one of her servents.  This man helped her to have smiths strip the gold from the statue, so that Frigga could beautify herself with it.  When Odin found out about this he had the smiths hung.  Odin then put the statue on a pedestal and, by his magic arts, was able to make the statue speak when a mortal touched it. 

Odin was so shamed by his wife’s infidelity, and the stripping of his statue, that he went into exile. 

While he was away a juggler named Mit-othin, who was famous for his juggling tricks, tried to feign to be a god.  He convinced everyone that they could pay holy observance with his name.  He said that the gods would never be appeased by sacrifices and prayers, but with a special drink offering. 

But when Odin returned Mit-othin fled to Finland.  While there he was attacked and slain by the people where he was placed in a burial mound.  When people approached the burial mound they would suddenly die.  This caused great problem for the people so they took the body out of the burial mound and beheaded it.  They then impaled a sharp stake through the breast.  Doing this, the people found relief. 

Frigga died and this brought back the greatness of Odin in people’s eyes, and wiped out his shame.  Odin then returned from exile and forced everyone who pretended to be gods to lay down their divinity and to leave the country. 

Account No. 4 – BOOK THREE FROM THE “DANISH HISTORY” BY SAXO GRAMMATICUS

Balder, Odin’s son, fell in love with Nanna and wished to wed her.  She refused Balder’s offer.  When Balder asked why she said that a mortal cannot wed a god.  She also stated that the gods often broke their pledges and that a marriage between two unequals would surely break.  There was also too much difference in their natures.  When Hother, King of Denmark, heard this he was insulted as he was in love with Nanna. 

Despite the fact that Balder was a god, Hother fought a number of battles against Balder.  He won the first battle, in which Odin and Thor were participants, but lost the next two.  He fought another battle with Balder and discovered the secret to Balder’s power:  a brew from snakes venom which were given to him by three maidens.  From them he was able to get a magic belt which gave victory to whoever wore it.  After Hother returned he met Balder on the road.  Hother attacked Balder and he died three days later.

After Balder was killed by Hother, Odin asked the prophets and diviners how he could achieve vengeance.  A Finn, named Rostioph (Hrossthiof), told Odin that he had to have another son by Rinda (Wrinda), who is the daughter of the King of the Ruthenians.  This son, it was fortold, would bring vengeance for Balder’s death.  

Odin then, by hiding his face and wearing a hat, so as not to be recognized, entered the service of the King of the Rutherians as a soldier.  He was soon made Captain and was given an army, achieving a great victory in battle.  For this, the King of the Rutherians accepted him as a friend, giving him gifts and honours. 

Shortly after, Odin routed an army by himself and returned.  Everyone was amazed at such a deed.  He secretly told the King of his desires for his daughter and the King allowed it.  But when Odin tried to kiss the maiden she cuffed him. 

The next year Odin dressed as a foreigner and went back to the King of the Rutherians.  No one recognized him as he was filthy and grime hid his features.  He called himself Roster (Hrosstheow).  He said he was skilled at smithcraft.  He did such great work at smithcraft that the King gave him much gold and was ordered to create ornaments for all the maidens.  He worked with special care on a bracelet and several rings who he gave to Rinda.  But when he tried to kiss her she cuffed him again.  She felt that he only wanted to gratify his lust.  Her father scolded her for treating Odin that way, and not marrying him.  She said that she loathed to wed an old man. 

Odin then went back again disguised as a soldier stating that he had great skill as a soldier.  He changed his shape, apparently, to look young so that he may look appealing to the maiden.  As he tried to kiss her again she repulsed him so hard that he fell and hit his chin upon the ground.  He then touched her with a bark which had spells written upon it.  She went into a frenzy.  This was Odin’s revenge for being denied by her. 

Then Odin went back disguised as a maiden.  He said his name was Wecha and that he was a physician.  With this, he was accepted into the Queens household and became a waiting maid to the princess. 

One day, she fell sick and asked Wecha for help.  He said that the illness required medication that would require her to be bound because of its bitter compounded drug.  Her father had her bound and told her to patiently submit to the physician.  With this, Odin saw her bound and had his way with her and she became with child. 

But the gods in Asgard saw what Odin was doing and was offended.  They decided to remove his power and forbid any worship or honour of Odin at home.  They then exiled Odin and put Oller (Wulder?) in his place.  They gave him the name of Odin.  He ruled Asgard for 10 years. 

The gods then felt that Odin had been exiled long enough and brought him back.  Some, though, did not want Odin back as he had disgraced all the gods by his foolery and by dressing as a woman.  But Odin was brought back and Oller went to Sweden.  Here, the Danes were supposed to of killed him.  Oller was a great wizard and was supposed to have a bone with magical spells upon it.  With this,  he was able to cross seas without a boat.

But Odin, being back, became great and honoured again and all the nations welcomed im again.  His son by Rinda (spelled ‘Rhlda’ in the text) was called Boe.  He wanted to go to war and do battle.  Odin tells him to keep in mind the slaying of his brother Balder.  He tells him that it would be better to do vengeance on the murderers of Balder than to defeat them in battle as warfare is most fitting when a holy occasion was furnished for waging it.

The story does not tell if Boe did next.  The accounts seem to end and seems incomplete.

Snorri Sturluson’s association of the story of Odin with history

Snorri Sturluson has made numerous associations between history and the story of Odin.  These include:

  • The people of Asia = Aesir.
  • Asgard = Troy.
  • Asaland = Godheim = Sweden the Great = Turkey = Asia.

Snorri seems to of tried to use similarity in names and places to make ‘automatic’ associations, such as Asia with Aesir.  I get the impression that he does this too easily and too freely, continually confusing people and places.  Making these associations, Snorri Sturluson seems to make Asaland, or the land of the gods, an actual place in Asia or Turkey.  He then made it out as if Odin, with the Aesir, travelled from this area to the Norse lands, making Odin’s story a historical even like the Trojan war.  This thought dominates both his story lines of Odin. 

It appears that this is an attempt at trying to downplay the Norse religion by making the gods out as men and turning it into a historical event.  By so doing, he discounts the Norse myths as a ‘lie’.  Once we realize this we can put the story in a better context.

Similarities between Snorri Sturluson’s stories of Odin

There are many similarities in both accounts of Odin in Snorri Sturluson’s stories:

  • Odin was a chief in Asia/Troy/Asgard.
  • There were twelve priests or chiefs.  These appear to be the twelve gods.
  • He foretold that he would live in the northern countries and this would inspire him to go north.
  • He went to Saxony, then Denmark, then into Sweden with the help of King Gylfi.  He would then stay near Sigtuni. 
  • Odin had great abilities and brought peace and prosperity. 
  • He performed various magical things.

Inconsistencies between Snorri Sturluson’s stories of Odin

There are also some inconsistencies between the two stories of Snorri Sturluson:

  • The world is divided up differently.  In the “Ynglinga Saga” it is in two parts.  In the “Edda” is in three parts. 
  • In the “Ynglina Saga” Odin is spoken of as being in Asgard in Asia.  In the “Edda” he is in Troy in Turkey.
  • It’s interesting that in the Preface to the “Edda” Snorri says that Odin is a descendent of Thor.  In the “Gylfiginning” Thor is specifically stated as a son of Odin.

In the accounts, Snorri seems to of changed the area where Odin originated as well as the description of the world.  This confusion is further proof, in my opinion, that Troy or Asia is really the mythological Asgard that Snorri tried to turn into an actual place.  He tried to equate it with actual historical places.  In so doing, he distorts the tale.

Similarities between Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus’ story of Odin

There is not a whole lot of similarity between the two stories.  There are a few similarities though:

  • Odin is described as being a man pretending he’s a god.
  • Odin has magical abilities.
  • He is described as reigning over Uppsala.
  • His wife was named similarly:  Frigga and Friggs.
  • The story of Odin’s wifes infidelity is described but in different ways. 
  • There is an account of Odin being able to make something speak (Mimir’s head and the gold statue).

Differences between Snorri Sturluson’s and Saxo Grammaticus’s stories of Odin

There is great difference between the two authors.  Except for a few similarities (as shown above) they describe totally different stories that seem totally unconnected.  The stories of Saxo Grammaticus has stories in it that are not mentioned anywhere else that I’m aware of.  Since Saxo’s accounts are very biased I’m inclined to think that they are heavily distorted versions of existing tales and cannot be looked at as accurate.  What the original tales are we may never know.  But there are some similarity to other stories and situations though:

  • The golden statue of Odin.  Interestingly, this story is similar to the story of Odin having to cover Otr with gold in The Volsunga Saga and “Edda”.
  • The reference to Mit-Othin.   It just so happens that “Othin” is another name for Odin.  This does not necessarily means it represents him, though. 
  • Odin’s going away or being exiled.  Snorri Sturluson makes mention of Odin leaving for things like conquest, but not exile.  Saxo Grammaticus speaks of him as being only in exile.  The myths of Odin tell many accounts of Odin going on journeys through the world.  In fact, Odin often travelled through the world of men and would often help them. 

Similarities between Saxo Grammaticus’ stories of Odin

There are similarities the stories described by Saxo Grammaticus.  They both have these similar themes:

  • Odin is a man who pretends to be a god.
  • Odin is disgraced in some way.
  • Odin is said to go in exile and comes back.
  • While he’s away someone takes his place.  In book 4 he even takes the name of Odin.

Saxo Grammaticus seems to mould his stories so that Odin is a man who pretends to be something he’s not and is a disgrace for it.  As a punishment he is exiled.  In short, Saxo’s accounts seem to be stories that are moulded into a degradation of the Norse pagan religion to me. 

Speculation of Odin as a man from the four accounts

These stories of Odin as a man sounds very plausible and real.  At first glance, they seem to be the descriptions of an actual person and could be.  But, this is also true for stories of fictional people and gods as well.   This is not enough to state that Odin was a real man though. 

There are many reasons why I doubt that Odin was a man.  These include:

  • There is an attempt to fit it into the current historical thinking.  Snorri Sturluson based much of his stories on the idea of Troy and Turkey.  This was not uncommon to do at the time.  As I said above, this is called Euhemerism and was often used by Christians to discredit and undermine pagan religions.  Saxo Grammaticus also did a similar thing.  By making Odin ‘common’ they discredited him and the pagan religion.
  • There is an attempt to discredit the Norse religion and gods by these Christian authors.  This is most apparent with Saxo Grammaticus, in particular, who seemed to almost ridicule Odin’s by making him appear to be someone who attempts at trying to make himself a god.  He also makes continual reference that the pagan gods are false.
  • There are too many other stories and accounts, from a multitude of sources, which describe Odin as a god.
  • Despite the fact they portrayed Odin as a man, both of these authors still described him as a god.
  • Both of these authors were Christian and so were non-believers in Odin.  As a result, they had no interest in promoting him as a god . . . it went against their religion.

All of these, in my opinion, make both authors accounts of Odin as a man questionable.  In fact, I feel that they show that Odin was never a man and is, in fact, a god and was always a god

But, whats interesting, is that they even tried to make the god Odin into a man.  Why would they do that?  Generally, a pagan god is spoken of as a ‘heathen god’, or an ‘evil spirit’, or even a delusion, but seldom as a man.  This point of view is unusual.  In many ways, this is whats perplexing:  why was he portrayed as a man, and by two authors who never knew each other (at least, as far as I’m aware)? 

First of all, because two guys, who apparently never met each other, were saying the same thing it suggests that the idea of making the Norse god Odin as a man was part of the missionary movement of the time.  They both lived at about the same period of time, which was full and alive with the Christian missionary movement.  The Christians, in that area at that time, may of already had a long-standing tradition of telling people that Odin was a man who pretended to be a king and a god.  This would have discredited Odin’s power in the minds of the people, making them more susceptible to Christian missionaries. 

We must also remember that both of these authors were living far from Uppsala, Sweden.  Snorri Sturluson was living in Iceland.  Saxo Grammaticus was living in Denmark.  As far as I know, neither one had ever been to Uppsala.  This means that it would have been easy for the Christian missionaries to say that Odin lived as a king and a god-pretender “over there in Uppsala”. 

Not only that, this was a period of time when there was great attempts at converting people to Christianity.  Saxo Grammaticus was called to write his account by Archbishop Absalon who was, at that time, in the process of converting the Danish.  The Swedish, though, were still pagan and were practicing their pagan religion.  As a result, we have a situation where the Christians were trying to convert a people – the Danish – who had pagan relations up north.  This means that the pagan gods were still ‘alive’ in the minds of the people, so to speak.  As a result, the Christians had to somehow ‘discredit’ the pagan gods.  One way they may of done this is by making Odin out as nothing but a common man, and a god-pretender.  By so doing, it would make the pagan gods appear to be false and a lie, helping the Christian missionary movement.   

If this were true it would suggest that the idea of Odin as a man may have been created by the Christian missionaries to help in their conversion of people to Christianity.

At this time, I know of no other account that suggests that this point of view was seen at this time.  But, we must also remember, that most of the accounts of the Christian missionaries at the time give little reference to how they converted the people, the arguments they used, and what they told the people about their pagan religion.  These elements, in large part, are silent.  This may actually mean that the accounts of Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus may be giving us a rare glimpse into one the arguments given during the Christian conversion at the time. 

Other remarks

I’ve heard it said that Odin was a god that may have been ‘transplanted’ into the Norse religion.  Snorri Sturluson describes, in both his accounts, how Odin travelled to the Northern lands.  This has been used as ‘proof’.  I disagree with this. 

  • First of all, I have shown that both authors have distorted Odin above, making him out as a man who travelled up from the south.
  • The Norse, at the time, were a sparsely populated group of people, almost like tribes similar to the American Indians.  They were separated by seas, great forests, and mountain ranges.  How could a foreign god become so prevalent within these sparsely populated and separated people? 
  • Odin figures prominently in the myths of the Norse.  He is associated with the creation of the world.  He is associated with the creation of many things associated with life, like poetry, magic, sacrifice, war, and burial.  For a god to have such an extensive role this god would had to have been within the culture for a long period of time. 

In my opinion, Odin is an inherently Norse god, which is very much a part of their culture and way of life.  I see no reason to think otherwise.

The accounts, by Snorri Sturluson, states that he set his sons to rule should probably not be looked at too seriously.  The Norse kings all considered themselves descended from Odin.  In that sense, any king is Odin’s “sons”.  It’s this misconception, probably, that made Snorri state this as if it were, in actuality, true and may have led him to believe that he travelled in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. 

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Copyright by Mike Michelsen

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

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