Odin in Norse Mythology: Origin Story, Meaning and Symbols
In Norse mythology, Odin was revered as the All-Father god and the Raven God. In addition to being the god of wisdom and poetry, Odin was primarily in charge of death, royalty, sorcery, knowledge, and war. Son of Bor and Bestla (Jotunn, the giantess), Odin simply had more attributes and epithets than any other deity in Norse mythology. He fathered numerous children including Thor (god of thunder), Höðr, Baldr (god of light), Víðarr (god of strength), and Váli.
Although he possessed vast amounts of knowledge and wisdom, Odin was never satisfied. According to Norse myths, he went to the ends of the cosmos, as well as going through several tribulations, in search of more knowledge.
In the comprehensive article below, worldhistoryedu.com offers interesting perspectives on the origin story, meaning and symbols of Odin, the one-eyed Norse god.
Birth Story and Family
Odin’s grandfather was Búri, the first god to emerge out of the ice. From Búri, Odin’s parents – Borr and Bestla – came forth. They, in turn, gave birth to Odin and his two siblings, Vili and Vé.
After he teamed up with his brothers to create the earth and the first humans, Odin reigned over Aesir (Æsir), the Nordic gods and goddesses. The gods made Asgard their home.
For his wife, Odin took Frigg, the goddess of marriage, motherhood, family and fertility. With Frigg, Odin fathered Balder, Hod, and Hermod (god of speed). He also fathered several other children outside of marriage, most notably his eldest son Thor, the god of thunder.
How Odin created the world
Odin and his siblings trapped Ymir, the giant, and killed him. They then formed the earth with Ymir’s flesh. From Ymir’s blood the seas of the earth were born. The brothers then used Ymir’s skull to create the sky, and finally, from his bones the mountains emerged.
With the earth all set, Odin and his brothers went ahead to create the first human beings – Ask and Embla – using two trees.
Meaning and Epithets
Odin’s name in Old Norse is Óðinn. This can be interpreted as “Master of Ecstasy”. In some accounts, his name means “fury” or “rage”. This meaning of his comes from his fierce and completely terrifying demeanor in battles. As a result of this, he was worshiped as a war deity.
Legend has it that only the fiercest and bravest warriors and mortals could come into his presence. Although he was extremely wise and close to all-knowing, Odin often times towed a path of irrationality and sheer brute force.
On the flip side of things, Odin, in some way, inspires in his believers feelings of aspirations. The Germanic tribes believed that Odin was the force that made their lives worth living.
Odin’s never-ending pursuit of wisdom
The contradictory meaning of Odin is quite typical of polytheistic religions, where the deities are giving human-like flaws. And like greed in the case of humans, Odin went to grave lengths to get more and more wisdom. Often times, those quests made him act in an extremely irrational manner.
Yggdrasil – the world tree
Some Norse myths state that Odin once put himself close to death in order to tap into the boundless knowledge of Yggdrasil – the world tree that stood at the center of the cosmos. Lustful for the knowledge possessed by tree, Odin hanged himself to tree for nine day and nights.
To show his unrelenting commitment, he even pierced himself in the side with a spear while hanged on the tree. He went through those ordeals so that he could learn the runic alphabet – an ancient and magical Germanic alphabet that contained the hidden secrets of the cosmos. Only the worthiest of people in the universe understood those letters. While hanged on Yggdrasil, he explicitly forbade anyone from coming to his aid. After nine days and nights, and having learnt the runes, Odin grew close to infinitely wise. This myth explains why Odin was in some cases described as the god of the hanged.
Odin versus Vafþrúðnir, the wisest of the giants
Odin entered into a contest with the wisest of the giants, Vafþrúðnir in order to determine who was wiser or more knowledgeable. The stakes were high, i.e. the loser was to lose his head. In the end, Odin outsmarted Vafþrúðnir, proving to the Nine Realms that he was indeed the wisest of beings.
How Odin Lost his Eye
Odin’s physical attributes are some of the reasons why he is such a beloved god in Norse mythology. He is commonly depicted with one eye. But have you ever wondered why the All-Father god in Norse mythology has only one eye?
According to the myth, Odin’s relentless thirst for knowledge and wisdom led him to plucking his right eye in exchange of a sip of drink from the Well of Urd (also known as Mimir’s Well). The well is believed to have contained unfathomable amount of knowledge and insights into the secrets of the cosmos. One sip from the Well of Urd bestowed on the drinker those gifts. Hence Odin sacrificed his right eye in order to acquire knowledge.
Why was Odin obsessed with the acquisition of wisdom?
The most likely reason for the one-eyed god’s unquenchable thirst for wisdom stems from Ragnarok. Nordic tribes held the belief that the universe went through a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Ragnarok symbolized the end of the cycle of time. It was considered the doom of the gods, a time when the Norse gods, including Odin, will be consumed by chaos.
After the destruction, the universe will then spring back to life with new crop of gods, beings and mortals. Odin therefore sought wisdom in order to fully understand the impending demise of the gods.
Attributes and symbols
The All-Father was usually depicted as an old and tall man with a long beard. He is shown with one eye wearing a grey or black cloak and a large hat.
Odin’s symbols are ravens and wolves. According to Norse myths, the All-Father usually had two ravens perched on his neck wherever he went. The names of the ravens were Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory/mind). It was believed that Odin’s ravens flew out every morning into the world and brought back news about the world. The ravens, who by the way could understand and speak a host of languages, sought of acted as spies. Odin’s ravens also served as his advisers.
In addition to the ravens, Odin has two vicious wolves – Geri and Freki – always by his side. For his mode of transportation, the Norse god of wisdom often rode atop Sleipnir – the eight legged horse whose beauty was unmatched in all the nine realms.
The Triple Horn of Odin is arguably the commonest symbol of Odin. The horn was what Odin drank wine from.
Odin’s choice of weapon was his favorite spear, the mighty Gungir. Legend has it that it was forged and gifted to him by the dwarfs – the same dwarfs who forged Thor’s famous hammer, Mjöllnir (“lightning”). In addition to his spear, Odin had a magical ring called Draupnir. Every night, the ring multiplied and formed eight new rings.
Such was the power in Odin’s spear that the when he wielded it the ground trembled and his enemies were blown asunder.
After painstakingly securing knowledge of the runes, Odin’s power and wisdom became unmatched, perhaps in the entire cosmos. The myth has it that Odin received 18 additional powers after he drank from the Well of Udr. Some of those powers include, healing abilities, ability to bind enemies, ability to quench fires, spells against maleficent spirits and magic, ability to bring the dead back to life, and a host more.
Odin stole the Mead of Poetry, which granted him the ability to be well vexed in poems. The mead allowed him to speak in poems. He could also grant people the ability to compose poems.
He is a powerful sorcerer and a master of necromancy and other forms of magic. Odin’s skills in necromancy come as no surprise, considering the fact that he is the god of the dead. Odin is believed to have the power to speak to the dead and even bring them back to life in some cases. The reason why he associated with ravens is because ravens (similar to crows) feast on the dead after a battle.
Valhalla – Odin’s Hall
The Vikings and Germanic tribes had a belief that Odin’s battle maidens – the Valkyries – guided the bravest and worthiest of fallen warriors in battles to Valhalla, Odin’s Hall.
The hall was none like anything on earth; it was truly magnificent, beyond the comprehension of the wisest of mortal men.
Odin, along with his fellow gods, and the dead warriors (einherjar) feast and make merry in Valhalla. Seated at the high table, Odin is believed to survive on only wine. He never ate. All his food was given to his two wolves.
Worship and Association
Odin’s worship primarily peaked during the 8th and 9th century AD. He was worshiped for a plethora of reasons, many of which are contradictory in nature. For example, he was often the preferred patron god of royalty, prestige, honor and nobility. However, he was also known for his somewhat trickery and shape shifting abilities, more or less like his adopted brother, Loki (the god of trickery and deceit).
In some accounts of Norse myths, Odin has been described as a deity who was not fond of values such as justice and respect for law. He is known for his wandering acts and behaving in ways outside of convention. This made him the patron god of outlaws and wanderers.
Another very important function of Odin came in the form of the counsel he gave to warriors before battles. This earned him the title Warrior God. Odin was the one who determined the victors of a battle.
In some myths, he has been described as a serial womanizer. This feature of his can be seen in other pantheons across different societies, where the chief god or deity engages in several affairs with goddesses and mortals. Notable mentions can be made of Zeus (in ancient Greek pantheon), Jupiter (in the ancient Roman pantheon) and Amun-Ra (in Egyptian mythology).
Other interesting myths about Odin
- The well of of Urd was guarded by Mimir; hence its other name, “Mimir’s Well”. Mimir (“The Remember”) was the wisest of beings in the cosmos. Sadly he died during the Aesir-Vanir War and his head was decapitated. Odin took Mimir’s head and performed some magic trick, bringing the head back to life. Odin would then use Mimir’s head to counsel him.
- The myth has it that during the days of Ragnarok, the einherjar (dead warriors in Valhalla) will fight side by side with Odin against the wolf Fenrir. Both Odin and his brave warriors are fated to die during the battle.
- The word “Wednesday” in the English language was derived from Odin’s name. The Old English word was Wōdnesdæg, “Wōden’s day”, which translated into Wōdan in Old Saxon.
- Of all the gods and goddesses in Asgard, only Odin’s wife Frigg can sit on his throne, Hliðskjálf. Anyone that sat on the throne was given the ability to peer into the Nine Realms.
- Norse mythology states that several magical beings, including the Norns, can be found at the endless depths of the Well of Urd. The Norns were knowers of people’s fate and the events of Ragnarok. The Norns have unmatched wisdom, making them one of the wisest of beings in the cosmos. Lust on their wisdom, Odin willfully sacrificed his eye to drink of the waters of the well.
- According to a story from Saxo Grammaticus – a 12th century Danish historian – Odin’s deviant behavior and trickery once caused him to be banished from Asgard by the other gods.
- According to Grímnismál, King Geirroðr once captured Odin and tortured him into revealing his vast knowledge of the cosmos to the king.
- After every battle on earth, Odin and his Valkyries (“choosers of the fallen”) perused the battle field and selected the bravest of warriors. They sent the souls of those warriors to Valhalla. Legend has it that the remaining half of the warriors makes their way into the abode of Freya, the goddess of love and beauty.
- During the Viking Age, sacrifices were made to Odin in times of wars and bloody feuds. However, in times of famine, sacrifices were primarily given to Thor. As for issues pertaining to marriage and family, the Vikings offered sacrifices to Freyr or Frigg.
- It is believed that Odin loved sacrifices. He was a strong admirer of mortals and gods that sacrificed everything for a worthy and noble cause. He himself had to sacrifice one of his eyes in the pursuit of greater knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, it is believed that Odin bestowed enormous blessings upon people that offered him a good sacrifice, sometimes favoring human sacrifice.
- The world tree (Yggdrasil) that Odin hanged himself on had roots that went all the way down to the Well of Urd.