Thoughts on the historical progression of the image of Odin . . . the creation of a “conglomeration god”

Here is a thought I had about Odin (as with everything involving prehistoric religion it is primarily speculation):

To me, it seems that Odin is a god whose image has progressed through history.  As a result of this, he has developed many different traits as a result of going through many phases in history.  This means that the image of Odin is actually a conglomeration of different aspects and conditions that have appeared throughout Norse history.  In this way, we could describe Odin as a “conglomeration god”.  That is to say, he is a conglomeration of the many conditions in history put together in one.  In this way, he as if become something like a repository of much of the cultures history.


It seems, to me, that the image of Odin changed primarily in response to the changing conditions of Norse society.  At this time, it seems that this progression of history describes a period of time of at least 700 years but could even be a thousand years or more.  The origin of Odin, of course, is shrouded in mystery.  But we know that the progression of Odin’s image ended with the coming of Christianity and the subsequent organization of society that followed.  This took place in about 1000 A.D. or thereabouts, depending on what area you’re looking at and even how you look at it.

One of the things the progression of the image of Odin shows is that Norse society did, in fact, change quite a bit from some time after the birth of Christ to about 1000 A.D.    It did not remain static but altered form, in some ways, somewhat rapidly, going from a hunting tribal society, with a sparse population of people, to an organized social hierarchical agricultural and warring society.

With the changing of society the image of Odin changed with it making it so that Odin altered to fit the social conditions.  In other words, there is a direct association between the conditions of society and the image of Odin.  This, more or less, makes Odin a direct representation of the society he represented.

I see the progression as follows:

The hunting tribal society

This society is primarily a hunting society.  It would be made up of small scattered groups of people.  They may even be nomadic.  In fact, its possible that the Norse began to inhabit northern Europe as part of these nomadic migrations.  It’s also very likely that they may have resembled the American Plains Indians.  As with many of these tribal societies, the shaman would most likely be a major influence . . . and there are many references that Odin may have shamanistic origins.

Phase 1) Odin’s origins.

The earliest origins of Odin are unknown.  We will probably never know this.  One of the reasons why is that, at this phase, his appearance would be totally different from what we know him today.  He would not have many of the traits that appeared later and which makes up the image of him as we know him today.  More than likely he had a different name, totally different worship, and functions.  At this phase, I see no evidence of what he could have appeared as at this time.  This is, no doubt, because there are no written accounts during this time.

There are hints, though, of what he might of been in the mythology.  The Norse mythology give Odin a quality where he is described almost as a generic ‘creator god’.  He’s spoken of as the “all father” for example.   This point of view is seen in the ‘Gylfiginning’ of the ‘Poetic Edda’.  In this image of Odin he is portrayed as a “god”, removed from humanity.  That is to say, he is the creator of the world.  It’s possible that, at this phase, he was viewed as a god of nature and a creator of nature.  As a result of this more impersonal perspective, his worship and rituals were probably more formal.  In other words, he did not develop the more personal qualities he would later develop.

In addition to being a creator god it appears that Odin was probably associated with hunting.  One hint of this is Odin’s association with a spear, which was probably used in hunting as it appears that the bow and arrow was something brought up later from southern Europe.  This may account for the reason why a spear was often used to pierce people on death in order to consecrate them to Odin.  In addition, later on the spear was thrown over an opposing army to consecrate the war dead to Odin.  The spear became a symbol, in effect, of the ‘bounty’ and ‘blessing’ of the nature creator god who supplies the peoples food.  This gives the spear great symbolic meaning and value.

Because of Odin’s association with hunting, he may of become associated with sacrifice at this phase.  In other words, sacrifice was associated with the killing of animals in hunting.  More than likely, they performed sacrifice to guarantee a good hunt or as a result of a good hunt.  If this were the case it would show that Odin was associated with sacrifice probably from the very beginning which may show that he can be described as a ‘sacrificial god’ or a god greatly associated with sacrifice.

I’m also inclined to think that, in this phase, the religion was a more generalized belief system primarily enforced by the elders of the tribe.  In other words, it was primarily a traditional belief system. It probably consisted of rituals and such.  There were no doubt shamans at this time, as there usually are in these societies, but their emphasis were probably with the ‘lesser gods and spirits’ at this time.  It appears, though, that the shaman would grow to have growing importance and make a lasting influence on the image of Odin in the next phase . . .

Phase 2) Odin as shaman or a shaman god. 

Many of the accounts of Odin describe him as being associated with shamanism.  In fact, he is so associated with themes seen in shamanism that it hardly escapes notice.  This leads me to feel that he is more than just reflecting shamanism but intimately bound with it.  Some of the reasons why include:

  • The word “Od”, which his name appears to originate from, seems to be associated with the word “frenzy” or “frantic”, suggesting shamanistic tendencies.  I speak of the shamanistic tendency of ‘journeying’ and trance which can be compared to a frenzy of sorts.
  • There are also accounts of Odin being able to separate from himself and travel around.  These are claims of shamans in their ‘journeying’.  In the ‘Ynglinga saga’ is states:  “Odin often changed himself;  at those times his body lay as though he were asleep or dead, and then he then became a bird or a beast, a fish or a dragon, and went in an instant to far-off lands on his own or other men’s errands”.  This sounds very much like shamanistic ‘journeying’.
  • Norse mythology describes a great world tree called ‘Yggdrasil’.  This means “Odin’s horse”.  It’s a well-known fact that, in many cultures, shamans often describe the idea of a world tree which they will often climb in their ‘journeying’.  Therefore, the idea of “Odin’s horse”, as something he “rides” may refer to this same theme.
  • Odin seems to often describe a more philosophical bent on existence and experience.  I’ve described some of this in my article called ” Thoughts on how Odin may be a representative of existence“.

Because of these things it appears to show that the Norse religion is taking on an active form, where it is believed people are actively participating with the gods and vice-versa.  I call this condition “active religion”, which I believe is a significant part of shamanism.  I have written an article about this, as well as shamanism, in an article called “Thoughts on defining shamanism: an ‘active belief system’“, if you’re interested.  It’s this quality, of being “active”, that may have made the god Odin, in this phase, more powerful than the god Odin from phase 1:  there was an active participation.

In this way, it appears as if shamanistic elements have begun to merge into the image of Odin as described in phase 1.  In fact, more than likely the shaman was already there in phase 1 but, it seems to me, that, at one point in Norse history, the shaman grew in influence and power bringing in a very ‘personal’ quality to Odin making him almost representative of the shaman.  I’ve often wondered why this happened.  I see several things that could have happened:

  1. There was a blending of “gods”:  the “god” from phase 1 and a shamanistic “god” that appeared.   With this, Odin took on two qualities, a ‘generic god’ and a ‘specific god’ used by the shamans.
  2. Its even possible that there was a blending of the “god” of phase 1 and a “powerful shaman”.  It wasn’t uncommon that some shamans were perceived as particularly powerful to the point that, even after death, people feared their power.  This may be the reason why Odin is often remembered as a real person (which is referred to by Snorri Sturluson).  This may hint at a truth but its difficult to say.   I’ve referred to a similar concept of this as an ‘intermediary god’.  I’ve written an article about it called “Thoughts on the ‘intermediary god’ and the gradations of god“.

Because of the new shamanistic element I wouldn’t be surprised if the name “Odin” began to be used during phase 2.  This would mean that it completely replaced the older name of phase 1 showing that this shamanistic related god was viewed as being more powerful.

I’m also inclined to think that, if the shamanistic element became more powerful than the god of phase 1, it would mean that the religion became more organized in the society, as well as more powerful, which is probably why the shamans became more powerful.  In other words, it was no longer just a generalized belief the elders enforced in the tribe as in phase 1.  It suggests a more organized, and powerful, religious structure has developed, probably headed by shamans or shaman-like people.

The agricultural tribal society

In this type of society the people become established, and implanted, to the land by agriculture.  As a result, the people became more stationary.  The emphasis of things changes from hunting to farming.  Because of this, the religion tends to become ‘passive’ and the ‘active’ element tends to start to wane (see my article above about ‘active religion’).  This causes a whole shift of mentality, emphasis, and importance of things.

Phase 3) Odin as god of magic, spells, divining, etc. 

In this phase, Odin probably would have become more ‘static’.  That is to say, he would become a more defined “god” with definite formal customs and worship.  The active association with him, as done by the shamans in phase 2, would be waning or would have disappeared.  More than likely, the shaman would begin to disappear and probably would have disappeared in this phase.  Because of this, the Odin religion would become more rigid and formal.  There would develop more ‘defined’ ways of associating with Odin.  Basically, the ways of ‘passive religion’, where the association with the god is formal and defined, would begin to take hold.  As a result, we’d see things like:

  • Specific rituals and worship.
  • Sacrifice as a ‘generic ritual’.
  • The use of songs, poems, and prayers.
  • The use of runes.
  • Magic.
  • Divining.

With the fall of the shamans these “duties” would of increasingly be associated with the general population probably.  They may have started to build temples and had specific places of worship as well.  We may see the coming of priests, even, at this phase.

One of the things that appeared to be developed during this phase is the use of runes.  Though many people seem to think that “runes are just runes” (that is to say, they were a thing unto themselves) the accounts seem to show that they were associated with and in conjunction with other things.  In a previous article (“Questioning the meaning of Norse “runes”“) I have questioned that runes were just magic symbols by themselves but were actually part of a greater process.

It appears that there was an association between these things (which are stated in the ‘Havamol’):

  • Runes as a symbol.
  • The use of sacrifice.  These are often referred to as “staining the runes” (that is to say, staining with blood).
  • The use of poetry, song, or spells.  It also mentions the use of “spells” (which is probably the same as song or poetry) which was associated with the runes that Odin “caught up”.

These, apparently, were used as a means to affect some quality (such as protection) or change (such as someone’s downfall).  It’s possible that this technique was developed by shamans as an ‘active association’ with the gods.  But, in this phase, they began to be used by the general population in a ‘passive’ way, meaning more rigid and formal rules.  This may have given runes its mechanical quality, which is what we see with them in the later Viking years, of just “carving a rune on something” for protection, etc. . . . the personal active quality of the shaman has disappeared.

With the fall of the active association (or shamanistic orientation) we begin to see the rise of ‘witches’, the ‘prophetess’, and such, as well as the extensive use of magic.  Though males did this, it appears that these things were primarily female.  It seems to me that there is a reason for this.  History shows that when the shamanistic orientation, disappear there is a tendency for females tend to come in to fill the gap created by its absence.  In so doing, it creates people such as witches, at least for a while.  This creates an ‘era of witches’, so to speak.  It seems that this is often a sign of a change from an ‘active religion’ to a ‘passive religion’.  This phase seems to suggest this scenario.  Typically, these people will take the function, or try to take the function, of the shaman of the former era but generally in a more formal ‘generic’ and ‘passive’ way.  Because of this, they do a “modified form of shaman” often consisting of things like trances, incantations, spells, magic, and such.  This is exactly what many of these females did in this era.  As a result, they are seen in the accounts at this time.

The established social hierarchical society

With this society there develops a strong social hierarchy.  Things like nobility and rank begin to appear and become very established.  There also develops a class-like system with the poor and rich.  There develops great social organization which leads, more and more, to a more ‘passive religion’.  This society seems to show that the agricultural society has become firmly established.  Because of this, the qualities of phase 3 would often grow in strength.  One of the reasons for this is that the society is now a growing society with more and more people in it.  As a result, there is a growing of things like:

  • Control and organization.
  • The ways and customs become established.
  • Things become more rigid and defined.
  • There develops a rebelliousness in people.
  • There develops social tensions and disputes.

This era seems to be right before the Viking era but I cannot say how much earlier.  I’m inclined to think it developed in the centuries following Christ’s birth.

Phase 4) Odin as a god of sacrifice.

With the growing society, the lack of ‘active religion’ (as well as shamans to perform it), and the increasing social tensions the Norse appeared to entrench themselves further into a specific form or manifestation of ‘passive religion’:  sacrifice.  They seemed to do a lot of sacrifice.  This seems common in Denmark and possibly in Sweden.  They not only sacrificed animals but men (and some women).  There is evidence, such as in Denmark, of many sacrifices that were held, such as those bodies found in the peat bogs.

This phase seemed to of just begun only to be eclipsed by the next phase . . .

The warring society

The growing population, and the discovery of the ease of gaining wealth on the sea’s through piracy, created a society that began to increasingly use war and violence.  This is the Viking era.

Phase 5) Odin as a god of war.

It appears that the sacrifice of the previous phase, and the coming of war and violence, quickly turned Odin into a god of war.  One thing that seems to of led to this is that war was considered a form of sacrifice.  As a result, the Vikings began to associate Odin with war and death (I’ve written an article about this called “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’“).

Because the accounts of Odin are primarily from the Viking era, he tends to be portrayed as predominately in the image of this last phase, as a god of war.  The earlier phases tend to be eclipsed by this later phase.  It appears to do this because of a number of factors such as:

  • It was something in peoples recent memories.
  • It was recorded.
  • It was dramatic.
  • There was something ‘defined’ to record (such as tales of Viking hero’s).

These qualities were all lacking in the former phase’s making them somewhat ‘forgotten’.  As a result, it has given an illusionary quality to the image of Odin, making him appear only as if here were in the later phase.

But the myths, in particular, describe other qualities of Odin that do not match this idea of a ‘god of war’, such as his association with creation and poetry.  What these tend to show are earlier phases of his development.  And so, what we see is a god that has many traits reflecting different aspects of the phases he has gone through . . . a ‘conglomeration god’.

(I have written of similar perspectives of this in an earlier article called “Some thoughts on the possible origin and development of the Norse god Odin“, if you’re interested).


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

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

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